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  • Apollo's Chariot and the Christian Subtext of The Franklin's Tale
  • B. S. Lee


Each of the fragments 4, 5, and 6 in the Ellesmere order of The Canterbury Tales contains two tales in which Christian values are contrasted with pagan ones. Christian submission in The Clerk's Tale is opposed to pagan hedonism in the Merchant's, magic to providence in the Squire's and Franklin's, and Roman justice to divine judgment in the Physician's and Pardoner's. Since the Squire's and Franklin's tales both have secular tellers and a pagan setting, it is not immediately obvious that they can be contrasted as secular and religious tales; nevertheless, it is the Christian basis of The Franklin's Tale that I wish to demonstrate in this essay. Indeed, the whole fifth fragment, it seems to me, develops as a considered progress from pagan ethics to Christian morality.

In consequence, The Franklin's Tale is best understood not on its own but as a response to The Squire's Tale.1 Whereas The Squire's Tale is pagan, incomplete, and magical, the Franklin's sequel (and I use the word advisedly) is not merely complete in itself but a completion of the unity called fragment 5; it repudiates magic by treating it as mere illusion, and it contains a Christian subtext in its ostensibly pagan setting. Further, whereas the characters in The Squire's Tale are stereotypes—the feasting Oriental King, the courteous knight, the dawn-celebrating princess, and the lovelorn courtier diminished to falcon form—those that the Franklin portrays undergo a testing experience that demonstrates the folly of their preconceived ideas. Their understanding of the ideal of gentillesse changes and develops, and the tale reaches closure at the end of a linear narrative.2 The Squire's Tale, on the other hand, offers stasis but no story, subjects but no psychology, situations but no resolutions.3 [End Page 47]

In what follows I argue, first, that the uncompleted part 3 of The Squire's Tale provides an intentional link between the two contrasting tales. Apollo whirls up, and The Squire's Tale breaks off. Another squire, Aurelius, prays to Apollo in vain and eventually mounts an ordinary live horse, not a magical automaton like the Squire's brazen horse, in order to meet not a real magician but an illusionist. By now Apollo, or the Sun, has declined into Capricorn at the end of the year, and the Christmas season, signaling the Incarnation of Christ, has come, even in a pagan world. The apparently extraneous "Christmas miniature" allows the reader to interpret the chivalric virtues of courtesy and trouthe in a deeper religious sense than might normally be expected in a secular romance.


After his impossibly ambitious list of plot proposals, the Squire launches part 3 with a grand rhetorical flourish: "Appollo whirleth up his char so high/Til that the god Mercurius hous the slye—" (ll. 671–72).4 But that is all there is of it. Is the aposiopesis an intentional trope of the Squire's, or did he suffer a catastrophic failure of imagination?5 In his discussion of the way Chaucerian irony works, as an interchange between text and reader, Howell Chickering refers to "the open-endedness of Chaucer's text, his habit of laying before us a do-it-yourself kit for assembling meanings."6 Part 3 is so open-ended that it invites us to participate in the assembly of absent meanings.

This invitation to speculate, or rather, to make interpretive decisions from incompletely presented facts, is doubtless related to Chaucer's own involvement in the pleadings of cases remanded to him, as justice of the peace for Kent, from manorial courts. Pointing out the complexity of the Franklin's concluding question, Who was most "fre"? Mary Flowers Braswell observes that "Chaucer not only invites but actually insists that his audience become pleaders, that they both articulate and argue a response to the facts he has presented."7 He insists, too, that they seek some resolution—and where better than in The Franklin's Tale that follows?—of the problems posed by the Squire's inconclusive...


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