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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

The Prologue to the Tale of Melibeus

Here the Host Interrupts Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topas

The host interrupts Chaucer and commands him to stop his "arrant drivel" and his doggerel rhyming. He tells Chaucer that he is merely wasting their time with his silly rhymes and asks him to tell a tale in prose and one that is amusing. Chaucer agrees to tell a little thing in prose. He asserts that this tale is an edifying moral story and that he has included oft-quoted proverbs to strengthen its effect. He entreats the pilgrims to let him complete narrating his entertaining tale.


Notes

This is the first tale told by Chaucer. The Host interrupts it after 246 lines because of its illiterate rhyming. It is a composition of traditional verse romance in six line stanzas divided into feets of uneven length.

The protagonist of the tale Sir Topas is a parody of the romantic aspects of Knighthood. It is clear that his attainments, attire, and weapons are not worthy of a stately dignified Knight. To top it all, his quest is for a mysterious elf queen. This parody makes the traditional verse romance seem absurd and vitiated. Even the Host realizes its absurdity and begs Chaucer to stop his arrant driveling. Chaucer ironically protests that these are his best rhymes. However it is clear that the stanzas are mocking traditional cliches and Chaucer’s aim was to ridicule the innumerable tales extolling a Knight’s quest for a beautiful and virtuous maiden. Chaucer mocks the genteel traits of Knighthood and exposes the escapism involved in such mindless entertainment.


Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee

Summary

The main subject of this story is whether one should avenge violence with more violence. A rich young man named Melibee and his wife named Dame Prudence had a daughter called Sophie. It so happened that when Melibee was away from home, three of his enemies entered his house and beat up his wife and grievously injured his daughter. When Melibee returned home his wife told him to abandon all thoughts of revenge. She advised him to consult his friends and relatives and then decide on the course of action. Melibee followed his wife’s advice and a great argument was engendered. While some favored revenge, others advised Melibee to act with caution. Dame Prudence herself advised Melibee to have patience and not to act in haste. However Melibee refused to court danger by following female advice. He also did not wish to appear effeminate and a weakling because if he acted on her advice it would seem that he had given up his authority to her. At this Dame Prudence undertook a great defense of the excellence of advice given by women and quoted numerous authorities in her support. Finally Melibee surrendered and agreed to follow her advice. Dame Prudence persuaded Melibee to be reconciled with his enemies.

Ultimately when his enemies were brought before him, Melibee wished to impose a fine upon them. However Dame Prudence dismissed this idea. Finally Melibee forgave his enemies completely after rebuking them. The reader does not learn anything about Melibee’s daughter Sophia.

Notes

The Tale of Melibee is a prose allegory. It is a close translation of ‘Le Livre de Melibe et de Dame Prudence’ ascribed to Renaud de Louens, which is itself based on Albertinius of Brescia’s ‘Liber Consolationis et Consilii’. The allegorical meaning of the tale is quite absurd. The name of the central character, Melibee, means a man who drinks honey, i.e. the honey of riches and worldly honor and glory. Thus Melibee is drunk with worldly glory and has forgotten God. His enemies ---the world, the flesh, and the devil --- attack him and his wisdom (daughter Sophie) is injured. Since the reader does not learn anything about Sophie’s condition this symbolizes Melibee’s fall. However at the end the enemies are presented as real enemies and Dame Prudence mediates on their behalf. She advises Melibee to exercise restraint. Melibee must necessarily become reconciled with his enemies. However the reconciliation implies resignation and trust in God’s mercy and grace. These two planes of meaning are inconsistent with each other and hence absurd.


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