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ELH 68.2 (2001) 287-313



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Flying Sources: Classical Authority in Chaucer's Squire's Tale

Craig A. Berry


Flying horses have a distinguished literary history. At least since Plato's "team of winged steeds and their winged charioteer" in the Phaedrus and the ancient myths of Pegasus and Phaethon, horses with wings have figured the human imagination and the unruly power of the individual will. 1 To these themes the marvelous steeds of medieval romance (and their heirs in such Renaissance narratives as those of Ariosto and Cervantes) add technical mastery and the human penchant for deceiving and controlling other people with the help of sophisticated machinery. 2 And a mechanical horse as the focal point of deception in turn evokes the best-known earth-bound horse of antiquity: that Greek war machine that the people of Troy are tricked into bringing inside their city. The brass steed that forms the centerpiece of the romance marvels in the Squire's Tale--the only flying horse to figure prominently in any Chaucerian text--resonates deeply with this network of traditions, yet critics have usually shown more interest in identifying the horse's immediate literary and historical sources than in exploring its figurative power. The search for sources has gone hand in hand with a tendency to account for the tale as a text whose materials and inspiration are mediated by Continental romance but ultimately lie in the alien East. As Kathryn Lynch helpfully sums up, the tale "has long been viewed as the locus classicus of Chaucer's Orientalism." 3 My purpose here is to situate the figure of the brass steed as the locus alter of Chaucer's classicism, which is to say that in this most Eastern of his texts, the poet augments his own homespun literary authority by engaging ancient Western models.

Along with the pilgrim Chaucer, the Squire is a member of the Canterbury fellowship who also happens to be a practicing poet, and since his father the Knight tells the first of the Canterbury Tales and has the highest rank of any pilgrim, it is natural that the Squire's Tale should reveal the self-conscious intersection of literary imitation and inherited authority. As Seth Lerer suggests, the tale offers "a way of conceiving literary history as genealogical, that is, as a relationship between father [End Page 287] and son analogous to the Knight's fatherhood of the Squire." 4 The Squire's predicament of being called upon to show off his poetic gifts in the presence of his strong and serious father stands as a figure for Chaucer's self-inflicted predicament of asserting an authority worthy of his classical models via an often whimsical and self-effacing literary persona. Both Chaucer and his Squire tend to accommodate this problem by protesting their inadequacy, and in fact this is how the Squire begins his tale. A foreign knight arrives at the birthday feast of the Tartar King Cambyuskan to present magical gifts from the "kyng of Arabe and of Inde." 5 The gifts include a mirror, a ring, a sword, and the flying "steede of bras" (5.81), which the knight dramatically rides into Cambyuskan's palace as the king and his guests are seated at table. The Squire claims that he is unable to describe the marvelous matter before him while simultaneously revealing a keen sensitivity to the rhetorical skill of the foreign knight. As the Squire introduces the knight's speech he protests:

Accordant to his wordes was his cheere,
As techeth art of speche hem that it leere.
Al be that I kan nat sowne his stile,
Ne kan nat clymben over so heigh a style.

(5.105-6)

The Squire has already claimed inability to describe the beauty of Cambyuskan's daughter Canacee, noting, "Myn Englissh eek is insufficient" (5.37), and the heavy-handed pun on "style" seems to prove his point: surely the paragon of eloquence whose speech the Squire reports would not succumb to such an infelicity. 6 We know from the General Prologue that the Squire...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 287-313
Launched on MUSE
2001-06-01
Open Access
No
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