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The Knight's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer

by John Welford 12 days ago in book review

This is the first Canterbury Tale

The knight is one of only three Canterbury pilgrims (the others being the parson and the ploughman) whom Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) treats without a hint of irony in his General Prologue. Indeed, these three characters are more like nostalgic idealizations of people whom Chaucer greatly admired, but they are figures of a bygone age, much to the writer’s regret.

In the case of the knight, this admiration is no great surprise, because Chaucer himself was in royal service for most of his life, although his duties were more to do with diplomacy (perhaps even espionage) than fighting. However, he would have mixed with and known the knightly class at first hand, and had no reason to disparage the men who defended the monarchy of which he himself was such a devoted servant.

The medieval knight developed into the gentleman, and it is no accident that the word “courteous” has the same root as “courtly”, and that the royal court was peopled by knights who maintained, for example, the tradition of “courtly love” by which women were admired from afar and received tokens of love and pledges to defend their honour, even if they gave no sign of returning the affection.

There is no prologue to the Knight’s Tale, unless one counts the last few lines of the General Prologue. These state that the host decides who shall tell the first tale by the drawing of lots, and the knight literally draws the short straw. This meets with general approbation, and so the knight begins his tale.

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Knight’s Tale

The tale is, as might be expected, a chivalric romance, although it should more accurately be seen as a mixture of medieval romance and classical epic. The knight himself states that he is telling a classical tale, but Chaucer’s source was the Italian poet Boccaccio, whom he follows very closely although far more concisely. Despite this contraction, Chaucer also added fresh material, so only about a third of the tale can be regarded as a direct translation of Boccaccio’s version. The tale was not originally written by Chaucer as a Canterbury Tale, but adapted from an earlier work of his and given the knight’s “voice” in its new context.

Part One

The pilgrims certainly get their money’s worth with the opening tale, which runs to four parts and some 2,250 lines. The scene is set in Ancient Greece, with Theseus, having defeated the Scythians, returning to Athens with his new queen, Hippolyta, and her sister Emily, when they are met by the widows of knights slain and dishonoured by Creon of Thebes, against whom Theseus swears vengeance. Sending Hippolyta and Emily on to Athens, he immediately sets off towards Thebes.

Defeating and slaying Creon takes little effort on the part of Theseus, and the bodies of the Athenians dishonoured by Creon are given proper funeral rites, but two badly wounded Thebean knights are also discovered and brought to Theseus. These are Arcite and Palamon, who are two young cousins. Theseus orders that they be taken to Athens and imprisoned there.

Time passes, the two knights recover from their injuries, but are locked up in a tower from which they have no hope of release. One May morning, Palamon sees the lady Emily walking in the garden beneath the tower and immediately falls in love with her, as does Arcite when he in turn sees Emily. However, Palamon claims that Emily is his, because he saw her first. Arcite will have none of it, claiming that his love is more worthy than Palamon’s. Of course, this is all nonsense, because neither of them has any hope of actually meeting the lady in question. However, within the rules of courtly love, love at such a distance is every bit as valid as that of “real” lovers, and is indeed more honourable.

The story takes a fresh turn when Arcite is ransomed by an old friend, who was also a friend of Theseus. However, the condition of the ransom is that he must leave Athens, the penalty for returning being death. He is therefore, despite being free, further removed from Emily than is Palamon, who can still see her from his prison window.

Meanwhile, Palamon also bewails his fate, for he is still imprisoned while Arcite is free. In Palamon’s eyes, Arcite is in a position to raise an army with which to defeat Theseus and claim Emily for his own, although this is not something that had occurred to Arcite. The teller then poses a question to his hearers, as he concludes the first part of the tale, namely which of the two is in the worse position?

Part Two

Part Two opens with Arcite, back in Thebes, pining away for “a year or two” when he has a dream in which Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, tells him to go back to Athens, because everything will turn out for the best if he does. On the strength of this dream, Arcite does so, reckoning that his wretched appearance, caused by his failure to look after himself properly, will render him unrecognizable in Athens. He also adopts a further disguise, as a poor labourer. He is therefore able to get a job in Emily’s household, under a false name, for another “year or two”.

Arcite does his job so well that he is promoted, and eventually becomes squire to Theseus. He is able to become prosperous, especially as his income from Thebes is also smuggled to him, although he takes care to spend it “honestly and slyly”. Another three years pass.

Meanwhile, Palamon has been imprisoned for seven years. He manages to escape, with the help of a friend, and plans to return to Thebes to raise an army, as he had expected Arcite to do. However, on the first night he lies low in a wood, to which, coincidentally, Arcite rides out the next morning. Palamon overhears him bemoaning aloud that Emily is as far from him as ever, which prompts Palamon to break his cover and confront his long-separated cousin.

The two now declare themselves to be mortal foes and vow to fight to the death for the hand of Emily. Palamon, having just escaped from prison, has no weapon or armour, but Arcite promises to return the next day with “harness” for Palamon so that they can fight on equal terms. Knightly honour prompts both of them to settle their differences in the prescribed manner. Arcite even promises to allow Palamon the choice of weapons – “leave the worst for me” – and to bring him food, drink and bedding for the night before the duel.

The following morning, Arcite keeps his promise and the fight begins, on equal terms. However, they are interrupted by Theseus, who is out hunting, accompanied by Hippolyta and Emily and the whole court. The cousins admit that they are the banished Arcite and escaped prisoner Palamon, and that they deserve to die, but are spared when the women present plead their cause, as they are fighting over a matter concerning love.

Theseus considers their plea and agrees that love is such a powerful thing that it can excuse almost anything done in its name. He pardons the cousins, on condition that they cease their conflict for the time being. However, he commands them to return to Athens in a year’s time, each with a hundred knights, to fight a pitched battle with Emily as the prize to the winner. Everybody seems pleased with this decision, although it might be pointed out that this is the first time that Emily has had the slightest inkling that she has been the cause of so much bother, and her wishes on the matter are never sought.

Part Three

The third part of The Knight’s Tale opens with details of the vast amphitheatre that Theseus builds in which the battle between the armies of Arcite and Palamon for the hand of Emily is to be held. This is a circular arena, “a mile about”, surrounded by terraced stands and with marble entrance ways, plus temples to Mars, Venus and Diana. These are described in detail, and at such length that the tale takes a back seat.

Palamon and Arcite arrive, each with their company of knights, and there are long descriptions of each. After a feast hosted by Theseus, the two rivals go to pray at the temples built near the amphitheatre. Palamon prays to Venus, pleading that she will look with favour on him, whose cause is love; Arcite prays to Mars, the god of war; and both of them receive signs that they will be triumphant.

However, in between these two prayers, Emily herself offers a prayer, at the temple of Diana, the goddess of chastity. This is the first time that we have heard Emily speak, and her prayer is that she may retain her virginity, as she has no wish to be the wife of anyone. However, if she has to go through with this, can she at least be given to the one who will love her the more truly? Diana herself appears to Emily, and tells her that she cannot have her first wish.

The scene now changes to the realm of the gods, where Venus and Mars argue over which of them shall prevail. Saturn intervenes, to state that Venus, and thereby Palamon, shall be the winner, which rather spoils the story for anyone wondering how it will turn out in the end.

Part Four

Part Four begins with preparations for the battle, including the stipulations of Theseus that he hopes will avoid a bloodbath, basically by restricting the types of weapon that may be used and setting certain rules of engagement by which defeated warriors are captured rather than killed. Should either Arcite or Palamon die or be captured, then the battle will be ended at that point.

Eventually, battle commences, and quite a lot of blood does indeed flow, despite the precautions of Theseus. Palamon is captured and Theseus declares that Arcite has won. However, this does not please Venus and Saturn, who causes Arcite to be thrown from his horse as he goes to claim Emily as his prize, and he is seriously injured.

With the battle done, the armies are patched up and sent home – with no fatalities. However, things do not go so well for Arcite, and it becomes clear that he is dying. Before he dies, he says farewell to Emily and declares that Palamon will be a good husband to her.

The lamentations and funeral rites for Arcite are then described at some length, with the pyre being built at the site where the two knights first fought.

More years pass, and Theseus summons Palamon and Emily to his court, where he, in effect, preaches a sermon on the mutability of life. Chaucer tends to confuse pagan and Christian theology at this point, referring to “Jupiter” in one line and “God” in another. However, the end result is that he gives his blessing to the union of Emily and Palamon, and they both live happily ever after.

Assessing the Knight’s Tale

So what can we make of this, the first of the Canterbury Tales? To the modern reader an air of unreality hangs over it, mainly because the convention of courtly love is so foreign to us. Indeed, even in Chaucer’s time it was something that belonged to the past. However, to his contemporary audience, Chaucer’s story would not have sounded as ridiculous as it might sound to us.

Even so, there are problems with it as a narrative. As mentioned earlier, Chaucer cut back on Boccaccio’s version but made additions of his own. The pace of the story is greatly helped by the omission of Boccaccio’s lengthy description of the defeat of Creon’s Thebes by Theseus, for example. But the pace is also slowed by the hundreds of lines devoted to the descriptions of the temples and Theseus’s sermon, which owed nothing to Boccaccio. As listeners, we feel cheated at being made to wait so long for the story to develop in the third and fourth parts.

There are other flaws, including the almost total lack of characterization – it is hard to picture Arcite and Palamon as individuals distinct from each other, for example. The treatment of Emily as a character also leaves us cold. Her desires are barely touched upon, and when they are, they are ignored by the goddess to whom she turns for help. There is far less sympathy shown for her plight than there is, for example, for “patient Griselda” in the later Clerk’s Tale. Chaucer was in general quite sympathetic towards the female characters in his tales, but not here.

All in all, the Knight’s Tale offers a reasonable start as the opening tale, although there are better things to come.

book review
John Welford
John Welford
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John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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