Sir Robin and Sir Thopas, or Why I love Chaucer

Tomorrow is the last class of the term for my British Literature Survey class, informally known as Beowulf to Milton. I love teaching this class, and I confess that I do tend to spend a lot more time over the course of the semester on the earlier literature, Chaucer in particular, and we tend to give poor old Milton short shrift.

As a round-off to the semester, I tell the class we are going to do a refresher of the first part of the course (that is, the medieval part), and I act all serious and stuff, and then, when they come to class, I show them Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, I am the kind of professor who enjoys perpetrating lame pleasantries on my students.

This isn’t quite as gratuitous as it might seem, because I am quite possibly the only person who teaches The Tale of Sir Thopas in a survey class. Sir Thopas is universally derided as a bad poem; it is even derided within the Canterbury Tales as a bad poem, and it tends to get dismissed as unworthy of inclusion on University syllabi. Except by me, and by the incomparable Terry Jones, who is one Chaucer scholar who gets the joke. Which is why I show Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Tale of Sir Robin (which comes up about halfway into the clip above) is lifted absolutely straight from The Tale of Sir Thopas, and of course, it is quite funny even if you don’t know that. Students who read Sir Thopas and enjoyed it are rewarded with that special glow you feel when you get an in-joke.

So why do I insist on teaching this bad poem? Well, because it really isn’t bad, or rather, it is bad on purpose, so bad that it is good, which is quite a different category. Chaucer the master poet writes clunky rhythm in this poem, and all sorts of dreadful jokes because it is a multilayered parody of knightly romance poetry, and even better, it is a poem inside a larger work which makes fun of the dude who is writing a larger work, and all his pretensions about writing in multiple voices. Chaucer is the only writer I know who manages to laugh at himself and make it truly funny; other writers who try always tend to have a more or less obvious tone of “but really, we both know I’m great, hur hur” tone about them.

Literary scholars don’t seem to like this much, but then I think they probably aren’t huge fans of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, either.

Earlier this month, Chaucer issued a challenge to his readers to celebrate his works. If you want to hear my Gaudete to Geoffrey, click the link.

Sir Thopas, Fitt 1

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