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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Sergeant at Law’s Tale
When Alla returned from his Scottish expedition, he was consumed with grief at the loss of his wife and child. Upon questioning the constable and the messenger Alla soon discovered Donegild’s evil hand in the plot and killed his mother.
Constance had to sail for more than five years and endure many hardships before her ship touched land. In the meanwhile, the Roman emperor heard about the massacre of the Christians in Syria and the tragic fate that befell his daughter. He dispatched a senator with an army to Syria to exact revenge. The Roman soldiers killed the Syrians and then victoriously set sail for Rome. On the return voyage the senator came upon Constance’s boat and brought her back to Rome. Constance had lost her memory and didn’t recognize Rome as her homeland and lived with the senator and his wife.
Alla decided to go to Rome to do penance for the bad luck that had befallen his beloved Constance. The news of Alla’s pilgrimage spread throughout Rome and the senator went to receive him. Alla invited the for dinner. Constance’s son, Maurice, accompanied the senator to the banquet. Alla was struck by the child’s resemblance to Constance. Alla then went to see Constance and explained his innocence and the role played by his evil mother in distorting the messages.
There followed a joyous reunion and Constance requested Alla to invite her father, the Roman Emperor, to dinner without revealing anything about her. Soon Constance was reunited with her father. Alla then returned with Constance to Northumberland and lived happily. But earthly joys are transient and Alla died after one year. The widowed Constance returned to Rome and lived with her father. Her son Maurice later became the Emperor of Rome.
The story of Constance is also told by John Gower in ‘Confessio Amantis’ (Lover’s Confession) and is the basis of the verse romance ‘Emare’ but Chaucer’s immediate source was the Anglo-Norman chronicle of 1355 by Nicholas Trivet. Chaucer compressed Trivet’s story a great deal and has added philosophical musings to adapt it to the character of the learned Sergeant at Law.
The Sergeant at Law’s Prologue is a close translation of Pope Innocent III’s pamphlet titled "On Despising the World". The Prologue has little thematic connection with the tale that follows. This has led commentators to suggest that Chaucer perhaps intended the Prologue to function as the tale and only later added the tragic tale of Constance.
The Sergeant at Law declares in the Prologue that he will speak in prose but proceeds to deliver a story in verse form.
The plot of the Sergeant at Law’s Tale revolves around the central character of Constance who is the epitome of perfection and goodness. She embodies the highest Christian virtues and ideals of conduct. She is exceptionally beautiful, patient, humble, generous, optimistic and retains faith in the goodness of God during all her ordeals. She is the daughter of the Roman Emperor. She is married twice to a pagan ruler, converts both her husbands to Christianity, is treacherously betrayed both the times by a vengeful mother-in-law, and is set adrift on the stormy seas both the times. The plot does seem fantastically incredible but Chaucer makes no attempt to explain Constance’s good fortune. Chaucer simply accepts Constance’s survival as a miracle of the merciful God.
The focus of the tale is upon the goodness and perfection of Constance. Every incident serves to highlight her fortitude and faith in God. The reader feels compassion for her miseries and is happy when she is finally reunited with her second husband, King Alla. The plot is cumbersome and superfluous. The essence of the tale lies in magnifying Constance’s virtuous character.
The Epilogue of the Sergeant at Law’s Tale
The host congratulates the Sergeant at Law for narrating such an excellent Tale and requests the Parson to tell another handsome Tale. But the Parson checks the host for swearing in the name of God. Fearing that they will now hear a sermon, the Sea captain declares that they need to hear a merry Tale, one devoid of philosophy and the jargon of law.