Chaucer left portions of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ unfinished. Northeastern London professor thinks she knows why

An illustration featured in Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales.'
The Merchant, facsimile detail from ‘The Canterbury Tales’, by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1342-1400) (vellum) Photo by Art Images via Getty Images

LONDON—When Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he left behind one of the seminal works in English literature, “The Canterbury Tales.”

He also left behind a mystery. In several versions of “The Canterbury Tales,” there are blank pages inserted at the end of one of its fragments, “The Squire’s Tale.” There, the narrative abruptly cuts off, leaving an unfinished story with little potential for resolution. 

Chaucer scholars have debated these empty pages for centuries, with many disregarding the tale as an unfinished failure. But Northeastern University London professor Rebecca Newby disagrees in an article in The Chaucer Review

Using a new reading of the text, Newby argues that actually, Chaucer didn’t think of the tale as a failure at all. What’s more, she says, the reason Chaucer didn’t finish “The Squire’s Tale” is part of what makes it so fascinating.

“The Squire’s Tale” is unusual in many respects, says Newby. It begins with a celebration: The king, Cambyuskan, hosts an elaborate feast when a strange knight enters the scene offering the king a series of gifts. One of them, a ring which allows the wearer to communicate with animals, he gives to Cambyuskan’s daughter, Canace (or Canacee). Canace then uses the ring to speak to a female falcon who is heartbroken, having been abandoned by her lover

"This fair king's daughter, Canacee,

That on her finger bore the strange ring,

Through which she well understood everything

That any fowl may in his language say,

And could answer him in his language in return,

Has understood what this falcon said,

And well nigh for the pity she almost died."

Following their conversation, the narrator promises to continue the tale with further adventures, but never does. 

This cessation isn’t the only aspect of the tale that makes it unconventional, Newby says. In the standard romance narrative, a knight may go on a grand quest and defeat a foe. But here, a woman (Canace) goes on her own adventure, and speaks with another female character.

“That is very unusual. Usually in the romance genre, you have women speaking, but often they’re speaking to themselves,” she says. “It’s just two women having a chat, and that’s unusual.”

In a similar vein, the female lead in the story is normally rescued by a male character, and is married at the end. Here, “It’s so significant that there’s no man that comes whisking her away,” Newby says. A male voice doesn’t appear to “balance” out the female voices, and to take over the narrative, and the woman is still single when the story “ends.”

The tale subverts other standard elements of the romance genre as well. In “The Squire’s Tale,” humans and animals speak to each other as equals, something that defies tropes of animals acting as sidekicks for major characters. Strangely, here Chaucer “Ascribe[s] a starring role to a bird,” Newby says.

Far from considering the work a failure, Newby sees these components of the tale as evidence that Chaucer was experimenting with common romance tropes, and defying them. “He was searching for a new mode of romance writing,” she says.

But Chaucer’s experimentation is also the reason he never would have finished “The Squire’s Tale,” she says. The tale, in short, is random, and the problems with the narrative were unfixable. “There is barely a semblance of cause and effect,” she says, let alone the potential for narrative closure. Instead, the tale is about starting out, not creating a conflict that will be resolved. 

In fact, Newby thinks Chaucer never would have finished the tale, “even if he had another decade.” 

“There are just too many missing pieces,” she says.

But it was an important tale to Chaucer. Actually, Newby says, there is evidence that he wanted to make sure it was included in the full text. “He knew he wasn’t going to finish it,” Newby says. “But he wanted the Squire’s Tale to be included in the tales in some shape or form.” 

This was necessary since works of literature were more fluid then than we think of them now. While there are two manuscripts that are considered the most “official” versions of “The Canterbury Tales,” they were in a constant state of revision during their time, Newby says.

“It seems that Chaucer was arranging and rearranging them up until his death,” she says. In a world before the printing press was invented, scribes working for Chaucer wrote, rewrote, and rearranged the text. Newby speculates that these scribes left the blank pages “in hopes that one day someone would find the missing part” of “The Squire’s Tale.”

Chaucer wanted to make sure “The Squire’s Tale” wasn’t thrown out in the reshuffling. So he added an insurance policy: A passage at the beginning of “The Franklin’s Tale,” which follows “The Squire’s Tale,” links the two together:

"In faith, Squire, thou hast well acquitted thyself.

And nobly. I praise well thy intelligence,"

Said the Franklin, "considering thy youth,

With such feeling thou speakest, sir, I praise thee!"

Chaucer’s subversion of the genre and the linkage with “The Franklin’s Tale” indicate that it’s a mistake to consider the tale “abandoned” or a “failure,” Newby says. Rather, it is an experimental piece that was meant to challenge readers with a new kind of story. In this way, she compares Chaucer to George RR Martin, whose “Game of Thrones” series is unlikely to reach a finished state.

Chaucer was also paving the way for future writers to defy the romance genre’s conventions in the same way he did, Newby argues; this gives the blank pages a new significance. He was successful in this regard: The tale was “hugely adapted” in its time, Newby says, and was even included in Spencer’s “The Faerie Queen.” Other writers took inspiration from Chaucer’s ideas, she says, and it wasn’t until later in literary history that the tale fell out of favor with critics. 

What’s more, Newby believes Chaucer was making a critical statement of his own. 

“He wanted these incomplete texts to be included because they are saying something about the romance genre,” she says. “They’re saying something about how one as a poet can push genres in an experimental and positive way, in a way that moves ideas and artistic production forward.”

In short, “he was playing around; he was being playful.”