In the list of scholarly problems it presents, The Squire’s Tale ranks among the highest in The Canterbury Tales. Being incomplete and coming to a halt on a baffling note-was it in fact evolving into a tale of incest?-the tale has undergone the most remarkable shift in critic acceptance of any of Chaucer’s works.
This tale of oriental wonder, with its strong base in magic, excited the admiration of Chaucer’s contemporaries and inspired Spenser’s imitative speculation and Milton’s famous desire that the old poet be summoned up to finish his task. It retained for the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries its Gothic fascination, being ranked with the very best of Chaucer’s work. In the second half of the twentieth century, it has been seen from a number of provocative perspectives. Is it a parody of the long Eastern romance? Is it a satire on the values of an aristocracy whose time is past? Is it a rhetorical joke on Chaucer’s part, extending the character of the young Squire into an earnest and somewhat naïve competition with his father, the Knight? The concerns of contemporary scholarship reveal as much about the critical temper of the time as about the work itself.
On its own merits The Squire’s Tale compels our attention as an example of Chaucer’s wide-ranging and sometimes inscrutable genius. It provides us with an exotic literary type not otherwise represented in the Tales. It reverberates, in its discussion of ’gentilesse’ with other such discussions in Chaucer’s poetry; it demonstrates, in its use of the love-vision and the complaint, the experimental ways in which Chaucer handles the conventions of French poetry. Perhaps most fascinating is the range of Chaucer’s mind revealed by the casual uses of the science of his time: its knowledge of meteorology, optics, glass and metal work, astrology, and astronomy. The tale offers yet one more example of Chaucer’s genius at work, speaking to us in a voice that is at once suggestive, provocative, and mystifying as always.