Page 1

King 1

Kevin King Dr. Tom Hanks English 4314 23 Nov 2010 The Squire’s Tale: A Sinful Climax As with any good climax, it helps to have an introduction. (I’m speaking of thematic climaxes of course) For an introduction of Chaucer, Helen Cooper said it best. “In the Canterbury Tales [Chaucer] wrote some of the finest stories ever produced, in poetry of a quality unmatched in that golden age of the late fourteenth century. It is necessary to stress those two very obvious facts – that the Canterbury Tales is a series of stories, and that they are brilliantly written.” 1 Probably fittingly, Chaucer’s brilliance is the very thing that makes interpreting him difficult. The Squire’s Tale may be the greatest example of this. If not for Chaucer’s brilliance, it would be easy to claim, as John W. Clark did, that the Squire’s Tale was left unfinished because the author ran out of the time and health needed to complete it.2 It would be easy to claim, as Carol F. Heffernan did, that Chaucer only “tried his hand at interlaced romance [and] very quickly discovered interlace was not his forte,” thus leaving it abandoned.3 But, as Cooper noted, Chaucer was brilliant. To dismiss the Squire’s narrative is to dismiss Chaucer’s brilliance. We must give benefit of the doubt to Chaucer’s intent of giving each tale meaning and purpose to the Canterbury Tales as a whole. That brings me to my goal. I hope to prove that it was never the intention of Chaucer to finish the Squire’s Tale. I will attempt to prove this through three primary focuses. Firstly, I will examine occurrences within the Tales,

King 2

such as The Man of Law’s mention of Canacee and the Knight’s excessively lengthy tale, that hint the Squire’s Tale was not supposed to be finished. Secondly, I will briefly explore the commonly excepted meaning behind unfinished tales in the Tales. Finally, I will give my unique perspective of the Squire’s Tale, showing its function to the entirety of the Canterbury Tales. I as positive as anyone can be about Chaucer, that he intended for the Squire’s story of Canacee to not be finished. Perhaps my greatest proof comes from the Man of Law’s Prologue. After speaking about the large number of love stories that Chaucer has told, The Man of Law points out a couple that Chaucer won’t write about. They both involve incest. Obviously, the one that interests me is the Man of Law’s mention of Canacee, the Squire’s eventual heroine. “But certeinly no word ne writeth he (Chaucer) / Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee, / That loved hir owene brother synfully” (MLT 77-79).4 This awareness of Chaucer implies that the Man of Law has insight to the Canterbury Tale’s author. In a strange way, the Man of Law is actually foreshadowing the Squire’s Tale. To an observant reader of the Squire’s Tale, it serves as warning that Chaucer will “nevere write, in none of his sermouns, / Of swiche unkynde abhomynaciouns” (MLT 87-88). 5 Sure enough, the Franklin halts the tale only one couplet after the Squire’s revelation, that Cambalo will fight to win his sister, Canace. Chaucer, true to the Man of Law’s word, avoids telling an incestuous story.

Chaucer’s next hint that the Squire’s story will be cut short comes in the first tale. Actually the hint is the entire Knight’s Tale. The fact that the Knight is the Squire’s father absolutely begs for comparisons between the two. The Knight gives a near perfect account of a medieval love story. It is complete with courtly love aspects, chivalry, and honor. The story centers on an ideal woman of the time. Emelye barely speaks at all. When she does, it is only to pray that she’ll remain “a mayden al [her] lyf,” a very respectable request (KnT 1447).6 She even has the forethought to make a second prayer if the first isn’t possible. Moreover, her next is just as

King 3 understandable, “sende me hym that moost desireth me” (KnT 1467). 7 She is beautiful, quiet, pure, and reasonable, everything a man would have wanted. Listening to such a noble story, the other pilgrims seem to overlook the Knight’s gratuitous story length. But overlooking does not imply not noticing. Coming in at 2250 lines, the only tale that even comes close to the length of the Knight’s Tale is the last narrative of the Parson. We know by the Friar’s comment in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, “this is a long preamble of a tale,” that the pilgrims are aware of appropriate length, and also, that some characters are willing to actively go over that length. Even if it is not commented on, the Knight’s Tale, being over twice as long as the average poem is probably longer than appropriate, something to keep in mind as our focus falls on the Squire. Surely, the Host has the Knight’s Tale in mind when he says, “Squier come neer, if it your wille be, and say somewhat of love” (SqT 1-2).8 The Host must be thinking that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. He expects the Squire to give a story similar to his father’s, a pleasant ideal love story. But, the

young Squire is not like his father. He is still young and a little foolhardy. Although he is following in his father’s footsteps, he is still inexperienced. So, he probably overcompensates for this with his flamboyant appearance. As John Hill has suggested, even his nightingale sleeping schedule is likely more filled by hot nights of “longing and hope than of experience with women. The Host probably expects otherwise.”9 The Squire actually does make the attempt to match his father’s tale. “The Knight and the Squire tell stories of the same genre, even if their romances differ in setting, style, and textual status.”10 But, by trying to live up to his father’s narrative, the Squire oversteps his experience. When trying to describe Canacee’s beauty, he says “It lyth nat in my tonge nyn my konnyng” (SqT 35).11 Perhaps it is the unknown that attracts him to this story. His narrative

King 4

furthers this theory. He appears only interested only in the superficial, the unknown, and the exotic. It is this lack of knowledge that betrays him as a storyteller. In the first part of his story “what he wants to do, and does, is linger over the magical objects the stranger knight brings to court, as well as whatever battles the magical objects will somehow figure in.” 12 The Squire then devotes his second part to Canacee. Yet, where the Knight spoke to the pilgrims of the quiet and virtuous Emelye, the Squire presents the incestuous Canacee, who not only speaks, but even does so with a bird. (I don’t mean to undermine the bird. It has interesting symbolism, but it is also still kind of funny.) Clearly, as Hill has suggested, this is not what any of the pilgrims could have expected. With the Squire tediously finishing the second part to this strange and distasteful tale, he has already chalked up over 650 lines. I doubt it is a coincidence that the Squire chooses this moment to outline the remainder of a tale that would rival his father’s, at least in length. Charles Duncan may have said it best about this moment. “That the Squire must be stopped becomes painfully clear.”13

As I’ve said, the pilgrims are aware of length and appropriateness. And, although the Knight’s tale was inappropriately long, he was forgiven based on the appropriateness of his tale. The Squire’s tale, on the other hand, was clearly going in an inappropriate direction. As such, the Squire’s grace in story length was not extended nearly as far. In fact, it is actually shortened to such average length that it actually becomes interesting, especially when one considers his proposed story length and that of his father’s. Even including the comments by the Franklin at the end, the Squire’s Tale is shorter than eleven other tales. This places Squire’s Tale just before the middle of the Canterbury Tales, not just chronologically in the journey, but also in length. This repeated middle placement is significant. So, I’ll come back to it.

King 5

The last evidence that I would like to consider as proof of Chaucer’s purposeful incompletion of Squire’s Tale is the history Chaucer already has in the Tales. The Cook, Chaucer, and Monk all have unending tales as well. Did Chaucer fall too ill to finish? I would hope not, for academic sake and his own. Instead like the Squire, I believe Chaucer intended to leave the tale unfinished from the beginning. Its ending almost follows the pattern of the Squire’s. The Cook’s Tale is allowed to go on just long enough for the reader to get an idea of where it is going. Then, it is dropped as soon as the reader understands it will likely be disturbing, not entertaining. The Cook’s Tale ends abruptly following the couplet that presents the reader with Perkin’s prostitute wife (CkT 4421-4422).14 The Squire makes it one couplet further after his fateful reveal. But the idea is the same; these stories were going down very immoral and unpleasant roads. So Chaucer, as the creator of the framework, cuts them out of existence. The next two stories that are interrupted have a different yet similar pattern. Chaucer’s story of Sir Thopas and the Monk’s Tale are both, like the Squire’s, stopped by a pilgrim. They both are interrupted by people who say that they are unpleasant, just like the Cook’s and Squire’s stories probably would have been. The Knight tells the Monk that his stories “anoyeth al this compaignye”15 (NPT 2789); the Host tells Chaucer the pilgrim that he is “wery of thy (Chaucer’s) verray lewednesse” (Th 2111).16 The only major difference in these tales is that they were not really immoral, merely unpleasant to the pilgrims. Their problem is that they’re just going in circles; they have no destination, no purpose. But the point to remember is that Chaucer does have a history of interrupting tales, often to point out the direction they were going, or lack thereof.

King 6

I hope it can now be granted that there is an intention to leave some tales unfinished, especially the Squire’s. The question now becomes, does this have any meaning for the rest of the Canterbury Tales? If so, what is it? Since we are talking about Chaucer, the answer must be yes (one would hope). As for what the meaning is, since we are talking about Chaucer, it is hard to show with absolute certainty. So, to set a foundation, I’d like to begin with one of the more accepted theories about Chaucer’s intentional interruptions before furthering it with my own theory. From the beginning of the Tales, the host set down his plan for tales. The idea was that each pilgrim, in some degree of order in social rank, would tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two back. However, this planned order is destroyed by the second tale, when the Miller forces his

tale in front of the Monk’s so that he may “quite” the Knight (MilT 3118-3127).17 Katharine Gittes explained the purpose of such disorganization. “Disrupted expectations of order and symmetry in the Canterbury Tales put to rest any notion that the scope of the work is… predictably contained.”18 The Squire’s Tale is important the same way as the Miller’s story. The Miller disrupted the order of telling tales; the Squire causes the failing of the symmetrical, two there and two back, structure of the stories. After nearly going off on a Knightly length tale, the Host understands that he simply won’t have time for his ordered plan. “By the time of the link between the Squire’s and Franklin’s tales the Host himself has revised his scheme to ‘a tale or two’ from each pilgrim.”19 Moreover, “in the case of the Squire, a frame narrative is unfinished.”20 The Chaucer uses the Squire’s Tale as a microcosm of the Tales as a whole. Chaucer the Squire’s Tale unfinished is a serious hint that the macrocosm of the Canterbury Tales will also be unfinished. Once you begin thinking in macrocosms and microcosms, the

King 7

symbolism of the Canterbury Tales as a pilgrimage becomes evident. “The interruptions in the plan as set down in the General Prologue and the failure of the pilgrims [to achieve their goals] change the work from a closed one to an open-ended one.”21 These failed goals include the small scale, of not finishing a tale, to large scale, like not reaching Canterbury, to the largest scale, like not reaching salvation. This “open-endedness” is representative of the human pilgrimage which is also “imperfect” and “ongoing,”22 and not everyone will reach their desired end. I am a subscriber to this idea. But, I think that as significant as this makes the Squire’s Tale, the tale is still more important. As I’ve already said Squire’s Tale is placed just a little before the middle of this spiritual journey. It is open-ended. But thanks to the Man of Law, who has “reference beyond what can be understood by a character in the Canterbury Tales,”23 we understand its sinful nature. Therefore, the Squire’s Tale is representative of the moment of choice for the pilgrims. Much like the tales before it, it seems harmless. But the Squire’s Tale has unspeakable sin under the surface. With the Man of Law’s understanding also lying outside of the Tales, I cannot help but think that the Man of Law’ Prologue is placed specifically to give us a degree of insight to Chaucer. And when we combine the Man of Law’s distaste for Canacee and incest in general, his assumption that Chaucer feels the same, and a fact that Chaucer never narrated a story of incest24, we can make a strong assumption about Chaucer. With all the sinful activities that he depicts in the Canterbury Tales, he probably felt incest was the most disgusting, most unnatural, and maybe the most sinful. Yet, at the same time, Chaucer comes very close to

King 8

breaking his standard of omitting incest stories. He goes so far as to make the result of the Squire’s Tale unquestionable. So why would he give so much information about a tale that he doesn’t want to tell? I believe Chaucer makes the plot of his unwritten tale clear because he expected some of his readers to already be familiar with it. In a footnote, Riverside Chaucer states that Canacee was the “heroine of a tale of incest told by Gower.” 25 Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, wrote the story of Canacee in English. So, I would imagine that the two would have shared much the same English audience. If this were the case, Chaucer would not have needed a lot of detail for his readers to remember the story. Furthermore, since the Man of Law had already set the story apart as so sinful it won’t be told by Chaucer, Chaucer’s readers would have instantly remembered that sin was the reason it was suddenly interrupted. This realization becomes paramount when we remember that the Squire’s father was the noble Knight. With the tales constantly responding to each other, it stands to reason that the tales of a father and son should be compared in every way. The Knight’s story is first of all the Tales. It is also very close to the ideal; it is concerned with love, order, and God. It has a deeper meaning which the Squire’s Tale would lack even if it were finished. Cooper even says, “it is precisely because the Knight is an ideal that the imperfection of some of the later characters tells so strongly… The Knight, whom one might expect to be portrayed as the well to do secular country gentleman, is in fact an ascetic who has devoted his life to the service of Christianity.”26 But, surprisingly, Cooper doesn’t extend this imperfection to the Knight’s own son. Some comparisons are more noticeable than others. In contrast to the grungy clothes of

King 9

the Knight, the Squire is dressed brightly. In contrast to the Knight’s gentlemanly character, the Squire is flamboyant, promiscuous, and possibly perverse. Knight’s heroin is compared to a Goddess that two male characters worship. Squire’s heroin is so sinful that Chaucer refuses to finish her story. It is for this reason that I will make my proposition. I believe that just as the Knight began the Tales with his ideal tale, about half way though, it is the Squire who subtly sets the new course in which they are headed. It is the only tale that has already been labeled within the Canterbury Tales as sinful and not to be told. Yet, the Squire, in his youth, opens up the can of worms. The Squire was about to break Nature’s Law of love (See: Parliament of Fowles) with the very worst kind of lust, the only kind Chaucer is clearly disturbed by. In a sense, the Franklin saves Chaucer from having to repeat Gower’s story of Canacee. However, the Franklin is not able to save the readers of Gower from seeing the imagery. Also, the Franklin, though he tries, cannot prevent direction that the Pilgrims are taking their tales. The humorous stop being told, and following the tale of Canacee, the Tales take a serious turn toward real sin and real evil, covering many, if not all, of the seven deadly sins. As testament to this, probably the most shocking and disturbing parts of the Canterbury Tales come just after the Squire’s Tale. For me, the most awful imagery of the Tales comes from the Physician’s Tale, which is just the second tale after the Squire’s. In it, Virginius, a Knight, decapitates his daughter, Virginia, to preserve her purity. He then presents the head to the corrupt judge who would have had her (PhyT 254-256).27 Only three tales later comes the Prioress’ Tale, and another horrifying image of a seven year old boy’s throat being slit, before he is cast into a pit of human

King 10

excrement (PrT 571-573).28 The unpleasant imagery here refocuses the reader on what these tales are about, sin. The tales have become more serious. And the surprising thing is, the Squire’s Tale has more upsetting imagery than both, the Physician’s and Prioress’. As I’ve said, Chaucer’s outline of the Squire’s Tale insures the reader cannot mistake who and what the tale is about. Also, most of Chaucer’s audience would have been familiar with Gower’s tale. This familiarity, when coupled with Gower’s story of Canacee, and the “unforgettable image” of Canacee’s child “innocently and pleasurably bathing in his mother’s warm blood,”29 gives a gruesome image that Chaucer wouldn’t need to expand on for it to be felt. Therefore the Squire has sent the pilgrims’ tales in a downward path. The deadly sin of lust, depicted in the most depraved way, incest, sets up the second act of the pilgrimage. It is the Squire’s Tale that gives way to the climax of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. It is through the Squire’s Tale that we begin to see the big problems that every pilgrim faces. The deadly sins take shape in the stories and actually cause death. The Canacee falls to an unnatural lust. The Virginia dies from her father’s pride and the judge’s envy. The Pardoner’s greed and gluttony take shape in his tales, when his characters actually find Death. And he Prioress shows wrath as she promotes evil getting what it deserves (PrT 632).30 The deadly sins are throughout the tales, but it is in the stories after the Squire’s Tale that they really make their deadly power known.

Works Cited

King 11

Abrisco, Alan S. "’It Lyth Nat in My Tonge’: Occupatio and Otherness in the ‘Squire's Tale.’” The Chaucer Review 38.3 (2004): 205-228. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Berry, Craig A. “Flying Sources: Classical Authority in Chaucer's ‘Squire's Tale.’” ELH 68.2 (Summer, 2001): 287-313. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Bullon-Fernandez, Maria. Confining the Daughter: Gower's "Tale of Canace and Machaire" and the Politics of the Body. Essays in Medieval Studies. 11 (1994): 75-82. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <>. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Clark, John W. “Does the Franklin Interrupt the Squire?” The Chaucer Review 7.2 (Fall, 1972): pp 160-161. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Cooper, Helen. The Structure of the Canterbury Tales. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Duncan, Charles F. “Straw for Youre Gentilesse: The Gentle Franklin's Interruption of the Squire.” The Chaucer Review 5.2 (Fall, 1970): 161-164. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Fyler, John M. Chaucer and Ovid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Gittes, Katharine S. Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

King 12

Heffernan, Carol F. The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Hill, John M. Chaucerian Belief: The Poetics of Reverence and Delight. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. Kordecki, Lesley. “Chaucer's ‘Squire's Tale’: Animal Discourse, Women, and Subjectivity.” The Chaucer Review 36.3 (2002): 277-297. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Scala, Elizabeth. Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

King 13


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

19 20





25 26 27 28 29


Cooper, The Structure of the Canterbury Tales, p.1. Clark, “Does the Franklin Interrupt the Squire?” p. 160-162. Heffernan, The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance, p. 75. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 88. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 88. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 45. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 45. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 169. Hill, Chaucerian Belief: The Poetics of Reverence and Delight, p. 77. Scala, Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England, p. 101. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 169. Hill, Chaucerian Belief: The Poetics of Reverence and Delight, p. 80. Duncan, “Straw for Youre Gentilesse: The Gentle Franklin's Interruption of the Squire,”p. 161. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 86. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 252. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 216. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 66-67. Gittes, Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition, p. 110. Cooper, The Structure of the Canterbury Tales, 51). Gittes, Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition, p. 111. Gittes, Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition, p. 110. Gittes, Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition, p. 110. Scala, Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England, p. 74. Scala, Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England, p. 82. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 88. Cooper, The Structure of the Canterbury Tales, p.78. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 193. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 211. Bullon-Fernandez, Confining the Daughter: Gower's "Tale of Canace and Machaire" and the Politics of the Body, p. 78. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 211.

The Squire’s Tale: A Sinful Climax  

The Squire's Tale may be the most underappreciated story in the Canterbury Tales. I hoped to do justice to Chaucer by studying the Squire an...

The Squire’s Tale: A Sinful Climax  

The Squire's Tale may be the most underappreciated story in the Canterbury Tales. I hoped to do justice to Chaucer by studying the Squire an...