"The Tale of Sir Thopas" (also referred to as "Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas", the protagonist's name is also written as Sir Topas or Sir Topaz in some Modern English translations) is a short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tale's narrator is a fictional version of Geoffrey Chaucer himself. The story is intentionally left unfinished and is deliberately badly written. Chaucer appears to be using a form of self-deprecating humor by giving himself the worst story in The Canterbury Tales and presenting himself as the quietest and most reluctant of the group of storytellers.
The story can be considered a mock-heroic poem. It parodies tales of chivalry and adventure, such as those from Arthurian legend and Chaucer's own "The Knight's Tale". "The Tale of Sir Thopas" is written in a very simple verse structure, not used anywhere else in The Canterbury Tales, which helps to give the impression that it is a form of low-quality literature.
After having listened to "The Prioress's Tale", all of the Canterbury pilgrims are left feeling in a serious mood. Harry Bailly, the innkeeper who is the leader of the party, wants to hear a cheerful story to lighten the mood. He turns to Chaucer, who until that point has said nothing and has kept staring at the ground, asking him to tell a happy tale. Chaucer replies that he only knows one story, a rhyme which he learned long ago. Harry Bailly asks to hear it.
In Flanders there lives a brave knight called Sir Thopas. He is a handsome man with pale skin and red lips. His beard and hair are very long and blond. Many women have fallen in love with him but he has always remained chaste. Sir Thopas is very skilled at hunting, archery and wrestling.
One day, Sir Thopas goes into a forest to hunt. Feeling tired, he stops to sleep on the grass. He dreams that he is destined to marry an elf queen. Upon awaking, Sir Thopas decides that is a good idea and sets off for distant Fairyland to win the hand of an elf queen.
After he arrives in Fairyland, a three-headed giant named Sir Oliphaunt challenges Sir Thopas to a fight. Sir Thopas replies that he will fight the giant tomorrow, after he has had time to prepare. Sir Thopas rides away. The giant throws stones at him as he leaves, although none of them hit him. In town, Sir Thopas enjoys a feast of food and wine, before putting on his armor and readying his weapons.
Chaucer goes on to say that Sir Thopas is the greatest knight in the world, that he always shuns a comfortable bed by sleeping outside and that he usually drinks nothing but spring water.
At this point, Harry Bailly interrupts Chaucer. He tells him not to continue because his story and the verse structure which he uses to tell it are both terrible.
- In Chaucer's time, Flanders was more strongly associated with merchants than with brave knights. The setting is an indication that something is wrong with this tale of chivalry.
- In Chaucer's time, the word "topaz" was used to refer to any piece of quartz that was yellowish in color. Consequently, it was a very common gemstone. The protagonist's name emphasizes the cheapness of the tale.
- "Oliphaunt" was the Middle English word for elephant.
- Original Middle English text of "The Tale of Sir Thopas" on Wikisource.
- Middle English text of "The Tale of Sir Thopas" with a parallel Modern English translation on the SparkNotes website.
- Middle English text of "The Tale of Sir Thopas" with an interlinear Modern English translation on the Harvard University website.