This celebrated portrait of Chaucer occurs in the manuscript at the beginning of the Melibee (with Sir Thopas apparently taken as a kind of prologue to the prose tale). The obvious lack of proportion between the figure of Chaucer and the horse may be due to the use of a tracing of some earlier model. One might compare this portrait to the next earliest, that in Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes click here) and to the Harvard Portrait, which is much later (Click here). See Derek Pearsall, Chaucer, for a discussion of all the early portraits of Chaucer.
Harry Bailey asks the demure Chaucer to tell a tale, expecting some dainty thing. Instead, Chaucer launches into the crude accents of the popular minstrel romance:Sir Thopas is a delightful send-up of the popular English romances. Hardly a line is without its parallel in surviving romances (see the notes in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 917-923, for details).
[Sir Thopas, born in Flanders, is a doughty knight whom all the maidens love, though he is chaste and no lecher. He rides out one day; he is in love with an elf-queen whom he has seen in a dream. He rides off to find her and encounters Sir Olifaunt, a giant, who tells him to ride off, since the elf-queen is nearby. Thopas says he will get his armor and fight the next day. In the second Fit Thopas is armed; in the Third Fitt he rides off on his adventure, "Til on a day --"]
The Host can stand this no longer and orders Chaucer to tell something else. He agrees and tells the prose Tale of Melibee.
For samples of the genre see The English Romance.
Chaucer's parody of the English popular romances is an affectionate one; he could have written the work only after a long and close acquaintance with the genre. Older critics assumed that Chaucer intended to write a popular romance. The Tale of Gamelyn appears in some manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, and it was believed that Chaucer intended to adapt it for the Knight's Yeoman. There is no basis for this belief, but the tale is worth looking at as a vigorous example of the Popular Romance:
The Tale of Gamelyn.
One way of understanding what Chaucer is doing in Sir Thopas is to compare it with another parodic work, The Tournament of Tottenham, a fifteenth-century production, in which a set of crude villagers take part in a tournament for the hand of a young maiden. The humor here is at the expense of the villagers rather that the genre of romance and the customs of the nobility:
The Tournament of Tottenham.
Chaucer leaves the Tale of Sir Thopas unfinished, like the Squire's Tale (another romance, though of a quite different stylistic register). He turns then to the Melibee, and a greater contrast can hardly be imagined. Perhaps that is part of the function of Sir Thopas.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on Sir Thopas (including studies of both Thopas and Melibee) click here.