The Knight is the first person to be described in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” and naturally, the Knight is also the first person to present his tale to the group, in the hopes of winning the prized meal at the Tabard Inn.
First, a note about our story-teller, the Knight. Chaucer describes him in the “General Prologue” as a “worthy man” who loves “chivalrie” and “trouthe” and “honour” “fredom” and “curtesie.” He has been on many crusades. In fact, he has only just arrived late to the pilgrimage from one of his many voyages, and his mail coat is sullied from battle. He is a “verray parfit” (“perfect”) and “gentil knight.” The Knight, in a more meaningful way, is an honor-worshiping, pain-loving antiquarian. He wears a coarse cloth tunic, stained from the rust of his coat of mail. His son, a squire, rides alongside him.
(The beginning of “The Knight’s Tale” from the famous Ellesmere manuscript)
True to his nature, the form of “The Knight’s Tale” is orderly and noble. It is told in perfect iambic pentameter, with a sing-song couplet rhyming pattern. The tale is told in four parts as a chivalric romance of courtly love, a story that is rife with allusion to classical mythology. This is unusual. Why does the Knight feature the Pagan gods so prominently in his tale, when he is such a fierce defender of Christendom? Notably, the narrator of “The Knight’s Tale” appears not even to be the Knight. It is told in the first-person tense by someone who gives certain descriptions that indicate he was a direct witness to the story. Thus, the tale is diluted by several layers of narrative. It is told by an anonymous person (likely an ancient Greek shepherd who is explicitly not a “theologian”). The story is then recounted by the Knight, and finally documented by Chaucer.
The tale is unique in being a classical re-working of a medieval chivalrous romance within the context of antiquity.
The time period is Spring, or more specifically the month of May (recall, the pilgrimage to Canterbury takes place in the lush Spring weather of April, as we learn in the “General Prologue”). We experience the blossoming month of May across several different years in “The Knight’s Tale.” In doing so, the knight is pointing toward the future: what follows after April. The season also indicates the light-hearted tone of comedy or perhaps irony throughout the poem: on the underside of suffering is joy.
At any rate, The Knight’s Tale opens with a Latin subscript by Statius from his Roman epic the Thebaid (the text is even amusingly referenced at 2294) in reference to the mythical ancient king of Athens, Theseus, and his conquest of Thebes. Perhaps the Knight sees a certain degree of Theseus’s patriotic triumphs in himself. He spends minimal time discussing the broader story of Theseus (he recognizes that he has a ‘larger field to plow,’ and that his ‘oxen in his plow are weak.’ He wants to allow others the chance to compete for the prized meal at the Tabard Inn).
We encounter Theseus as he is returning home after successfully conquering the Scythians (the ancient lands containing the Amazons, ruled by Hippolyta, Queen of Amazonia). Before Theseus can reach Athens, he sees a group of women weeping alongside the road. They are dressed in black because they have not been able to retrieve the bodies of their husbands from fighting in Thebes (one is the widow of the late king Capaneus, invader of Thebes). In a fit of romantic passion, Theseus immediately goes to war with Thebes. First, he sends his prizes from Scythia back to Athens: Queen Hippolyta (now Theseus’s bride) and her young sister, Emily. In glorious battle, Theseus slays Creon and conquers Thebes. As the mists of war finally rise, two royal Theban cousins are found lying on the battlefield together, near death. They are captured and locked in a tower back in Athens. Theseus returns the bodies back to the grieving Athenian women, as is customary.
Now, the scene has been set: two cousins, Palomon and Arcite, are imprisoned. They live in anguish day after day, until one Spring morning in May (the season that “priketh every gentil herte”) when they see fair Emily, dressed up to observe the beautiful morning. She sings and gathers flowers to place in a garland for her hair. Consider Chaucer’s depiction of Palomon and Arcite’s as they first see Emily -what graceful command of the English language!
“This passeth yeer by yeer and day by day,
Til it fil ones in morwe (morning) of May
That Emelye, that fairer was to sene
Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene
And fressher than the May with floures newe,
For with the rose colour stroof hire hewe.
I noot which was the fyner of hem two!
Er it were day, as was hir wone to do,
She was arisen and al redy dight (dressed up).
For May wol have no solgardie anyght.
The sesoun priketh every gentil herte
And maketh hym out of his slep to sterte
And seith, ‘Arys and do thyn observaunce!” (1033-1045)
First, Palomon cries out in agony at the sight of Emily. He falls down praying to Venus, asking for mercy and the possibility of escape. Arcite sees Emily and then also remarks, in pain, at her beauty. Arcite does not invoke the gods. Palomon, in anger, claims the right of first-love: he had seen Emily first therefore he deserves her. However, Arcite accuses Palomon of merely loving Emily from a distance, like a divinity (Venus incarnate). Palomon doesn’t love Emily, only the image or idea of her. Arcite claims there is no law for love: it is each man for himself.
Let us pause for a moment. This theme of love and justice is central to the Canterbury Tales. Who has the natural right to court fair Emily? Neither Palomon nor Arcite know Emily, yet both are stung by capricious eros -Palomon claims the right of first-love, while Arcite accuses Palomon of loving nothing more than her image (this brings to mind the absurd obsessiveness Vladimir Nabokov explores in Lolita). Love is cruel: two men cannot love the same person. Eros has a certain natural desire for possessiveness.
The idea of Fortune, and its great wheel, is also featured prominently in the tale. Our lead characters, Palomon and Arcite, have differing opinions on Fortune. Palomon sees himself as a lowly slave to the whims of the gods, while Arcite believes men can change their own Fortune. However, the true character worthy of consideration is Theseus, the great politician and master tactician of the tale. He quite clearly views Fortune in the same way Arcite does: as malleable.
Eventually, as years pass, time heals the wounds of war. Old battle wounds and victories at Thebes are no longer remembered quite so bitterly. Theseus’s friend, Perotheus, visits him. Perotheus grows to love the companionship of Arcite and eventually he frees Arcite from prison, only under the condition that Arcite never return to Attica (Perotheus is a friend of Theseus and had even accompanied him on the famous voyage to the underworld). Thus both Arcite and Palomon are permanently separated from love by law.
The Knight asks us in a demande d’amour: Who has it worse? Arcite is freed from prison, but prevented on pain of death from seeing his love, while Palomon is imprisoned but able to look upon his love.
Upon returning to Thebes, Arcite grows pale and sickly with his love for Emily, even to the point of mania. In fact, he is no longer recognizable as the same man. He imagines Mercury appearing to him, commanding him to go to Athens for Emily. He assumes the countenance of a poor laborer and ventures to Athens, breaking the law. He becomes “Philostrate,” and he serves as a page in the chamber of Emily, however his noble character brings him great fame so his reputation affords him a nobler rank in Theseus’s court. Chaucer describes Arcite as “sly” (perhaps not unlike Homer’s Odysseus who also dons the garb of a lowly herder as he returns home to Ithaca).
Meanwhile, Palomon has suffered seven years imprisoned in the tower, until one day he devises a plan. He slips a sleeping potion to the jailer and Palomon escapes from his prison. He hides in a nearby grove, and then flees to Thebes. He hopes to rouse his friends in Thebes to bring war on Theseus in Athens. He will either live or die for Emily. Meanwhile, Arcite is blissfully unaware of how near his troubles are. Take note of how Chaucer sets the scene for Arcite (now disguised as “Philostrate”):
“The bisy larke, messager (messenger) of day,
Salueth in hir song the morwe gray,
And firy Phebus riseth up so bright
That al the orient laugheth of the light,
And with his stremes dryeth in the greves (groves)
The silver dropes (drops) hangynge on the leves.
And Arcita, that in the court roial
With Theseus is principal squier,
Is risen and looketh on the myrie day.
And for to doon his observaunce to May,
Remembrynge on the poynt of his desir,
He on a courser, startlynge as the fir,
Is riden into the feeldes hym to pleye,
Out of the court, were it a myle or tweye.”
This section is a parallel to our initial glimpse of Emily. In both passages, Emily and Arcite respectively (disguised as “Philostrate” or “philostratus” meaning ‘lover of the army’) greet a lush May morning by making a garland. Arcite goes wandering into a thicket, sighing at his station in life. It just so happens he has stumbled upon the thicket where Palomon is hiding. Finally facing one another, they decide to battle one another at dawn.
When the sun rises, they exchange armor (as is customary) and fight ferociously against one another, however Theseus suddenly arrives with his hunting party. Palomon (not Arcite) gives a full confession and asks for death. However, all the ladies begin sobbing and pity takes control of Theseus, or perhaps saner Reason prevails – Theseus sees an opportunity to heal his conflicts with Thebes. Pity is a lowly state that may be quickly transformed into joy. He proposes a game: both men will depart for fifty weeks and then return with one hundred knights to battle one another (thus causing something akin to a civil war in Thebes) with the end result being the hand of Emily. Either option is a victory for Theseus, as Athens will now be connected to Thebes and Scythia, and Theseus will appear to be the impartial judge of the battle while growing the kingdom of Athens. Chaucer notes how Thebes, especially, is thankful for Theseus and his graciousness in sparing Palomon and Arcite’s lives.
Time passes, and a huge theatre is constructed for the game: with a statue of Venus, goddess of love at one end, and Mars, god of war at the other. Love and War meet together on the battlfield. There is also a chapel dedicated to Diana, the huntress and goddess of chastity. Chaucer offers long passages detailing the artwork for the game.
Now, both men arrive with their impressive armies in Athens. At daybreak, Palomon goes to the temple of Venus where he prays a sad little prayer for pity from the god of love. Emily prays in the temple of Diana. She says she does not wish to be a wife or a mother, but rather a huntress like Diana. She prays that Palomon and Arcite will find peace from their pangs of love for her. However, Diana appears to her and says Emily will be married to one of the men. Lastly, Arcite prays before Mars for pity upon his pain. However, he also prays for strength and victory – ‘mine be the labor, and yours be the glory!’ Ever the politician, Arcite makes a vow to Mars to honor his temple with an eternal fire if he should win the day.
Palomon prays for pity (he prays to Venus), Emily prays for freedom (she prays to Diana), and Arcite makes a divine promise (he prays to Mars). Theseus assumes the lordly role of Saturn.
The cousins go into battle against one another. Shortly after the battle has begun, Palomon is wounded by one of Arcite’s men by chance, and Theseus calls an end to the battle. However, suddenly Pluto (at the request of Saturn) sends a huge earthquake through the earth that knocks Arcite off his horse, crushing him so that he very near death. In great tragedy, with his dying words, Arcite praises Palomon and requests “mercy” from Emily for Palomon. Like Hector of Troy, all the people weep at the death of Arcite.
With a grave face, Theseus delivers an Aristotelian-influenced eulogy for Arcite, in which he reflects on the “Prime Mover” who has allotted a certain number of days for all people, and that we are all merely parts of a greater whole. All things and all people have a time to depart. None may escape it: and to know this is wisdom. A man who dies in his ‘excellence and flower’ is one who dies with honor. We profit nothing from wailing over poor Arcite, who dies with the utmost honor. Instead, Theseus advises the group to ‘make of two sorrows one perfect joy that is everlasting.’ Of one of those sorrows, he advises a marriage between Palomon and Emily. Thus the play ends in joy, as Theseus is the joyful and heroic leader. He has united the vast lands of Attica and beyond while bringing new love into his family.
The Knight’s conception of marriage is classical. Two men fall in love with the same woman, they battle, and by chance (or rather Fortune) one man wins her hand. Emily, on the other hand, does not desire to wed either of these men. She prefers live like Diana, the huntress, but the Knight does not value her wishes. For him, the outcome of war is final, marriage is the ultimate prize in battle. The Knight suggests a happy and just marriage can be attained when two men fight for the object of their love. His tale is a defense of the lover for his beloved. It should be noted that the happy marriage of Palomon and Emily is dependent upon Theseus’s political savvy. The world of the “Knight’s Tale” is filled with Chaos and Fortune, two primary elements from Hesiod’s Theogony -Arcite gains his freedom from prison by Fortune, and he returns to Theseus’s court by Fortune, but, in the end, he loses the battle only by random misfortune, or Chaos. The events of the story exist beyond good and evil. However a world of both Chaos and Fortune requires a skilled tactician, a politician capable of discernment, and Theseus successfully fulfills this potential. He is a true puppet-master, capable of turning ‘two sorrows into one perfect joy’ for the benefit of his kingdom. Remarkably, by the end of the tale, the happy man, and his marriage, coincides perfectly with the happy and just city. Somehow, the natural tension between the city and man is removed. But we know the natural tension between city and man cannot be removed, thus there is an element of irony in this tale. The “Knight’s Tale” is the story of a conqueror who is given the object of his affection, by pure Fortune and mastery of the situation by Theseus. The tale is optimistic, perhaps even ironic, but certainly susceptible to requital (as we will see in the “Miller’s Tale”). Can a just and happy marriage be the result of such a distant infatuation -the lover for his beloved? Can the natural tension between the city and man be erased? Later, we will witness a defense of the beloved, as well, when the pilgrims each respond to one another in the exploration of a true, just, and happy marriage.
[A final note about the “Knight’s Tale” Shakespeare (and John Fletcher) based the 1613 play Two Noble Kinsmen upon Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” which in turn draws its influence from Bocaccio’s Decameron. John Dryden famously translated the tale into his 1700 book, Fables, Ancient and Modern.]
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than that in any other modern edition.