Enjoying "The Knight's Tale", by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Enjoying "The Knight's Tale", by Geoffrey Chaucer
by Ed Friedlander, M.D.

Warning: "The Knight's Tale" is not a children's story. It presents a terrible vision of the world. "The Knight's Tale" has shocked readers from Chaucer's time to ours.

The knight has always practiced "truth, honor, generousness, and courtesy". He has been a successful fighter and served with distinction in many campaigns. He is wise, modest, and polite to everyone. By chance or design, he draws the lot to tell the first story, and does so graciously. Later in the book, he emerges as the voice of reason, common goodness, and common sense, and is accepted by the rest of the pilgrims as their moral authority.

The Story

Theseus, king of Athens, marries Hippolyta, an Amazon lady he has defeated in battle. The king of neighboring Thebes (Creon) is a tyrant who impiously forbade the burial of enemy dead. Theseus marches on Thebes and defeats the tyrant. After the battle, he condemns two prisoners of war, Arcite (arr-KEE-tay) and Palamon to life in prison for no evident reason. I think perhaps this is for the sake of the plot.

In prison, Arcite and Palamon both fall in love with Emily, Hippolyta's sister -- they never meet her, but simply look at her from their prison cell. Arcite is eventually released and returns in disguise to court Emily. Then Palamon escapes from the prison.

The two men meet by accident in the woods. They are fighting viciously when Theseus finds them. He decides to let them fight it out for Emily's hand in a public spectacle.

To prepare for the fight, Theseus builds an amphitheater with shrines to Mars (god of war), Venus (goddess of romantic love), and Diana (goddess of hunting, the moon, and the single life). Arcite prays to Mars, asking to win the battle. Palamon prays to Venus, asking to marry Emily. Each man is given a premonition that his wish will be granted. Emily prays to Diana, asking not to be forced to marry either man.

The god Saturn tells the other gods that he has a plan by which both Mars and Venus (and as the story goes, Diana as well) can grant the prayers of their supplicants.

Arcite wins the battle, but then his horse throws him and his chest is crushed. Dying, he wishes Palamon to wed Emily.

Theseus says that in a world of blind luck ("Fortune") and much sadness, we should try to find happiness and to love each other when we can. Palamon and Emily are married and live out their days in complete married happiness.

The Issues

The story comes from a tale by Boccaccio, and it includes philosophical musings on fortune, the power of the stars (astrology) and predestination in general, etc., etc. Medievalists talk about what category of work "The Knight's Tale" represents. You can find plenty of this in the links.

There will be more of this here when the site is complete.

The Gods

But there is something more to "The Knight's Tale." Did you notice?

Here is what is represented in the Temple of Venus, Goddess of Love.

  • sleeplessness, sighs, sad songs, and everything else that happens to those who "suffer love"

  • allegorical figures including lasciviousness (sex for its own sake), largesse (wasting your money looking for sex), philtres (have you heard of today's "date rape pill"?), force (rape itself), falsehood, flattery, extravagance, intrigue, and jealousy (with a gold crown, and a cuckoo, symbol of adultery), and idleness (as a teacher, I've seen how grades often plummet when a student enters into a "relationship")

  • Narcissus gave up his life from falling in love with his own reflection; this was a punishment inflicted by Venus for his refusing to gratify a woman who loved him;

  • Solomon's wives led him away from God's service

  • Circe turned men into pigs

  • In the Aenead, Turnus's sexual jealousy leads to his nation's ruin in war, and his own death and damnation

  • Ask your classics professor about Croesus. It's in keeping with Chaucer's theme that rich king Croesus once called himself perhaps the most fortunate person alive -- andsoon after his son was killed in a wreck, his wife commited suicide, and he was (perhaps) burned alive.

  • These and thousands of other people are depicted as captured in Venus's noose, crying out for help in vain. (Been there, done that -- Ed.)

Here is what is represented in the Temple of Mars, God of War:

  • A forest without people or animals, with the ground quaking and rumbling, as in a post-nuclear holocaust scenario

  • Fake friends with concealed weapons, murder of people who are asleep

  • A suicide "with all his heart's blood matted in his hair"

  • A nail driven into a person's forehead for torture and execution (this was used both by the Viet Cong and by Ferdinand Marcos, and surely others)

  • Allegorical figures of mental illness, armed uprisings, and others

  • Dead bodies, their throats cut, in the undergrowth

  • A warlord-tyrant looting and raping

  • A flattened city, ships on fire crashing into each other

  • An unlucky hunter being killed by bears

  • "A sow munching a baby in its cradle" (!)

  • A road fatality (yesterday's cart-operator might be killed just as today's driver)

  • Julius Caesar's murder, Mark Antony's suicide, and so forth, with a comment that this is predestined in the stars

  • Finally the allegorical figure of Mars himself, eating a man

Here is what is depicted in the temple of Diana

  • Several characters from mythology who were killed by Diana for no good reason. Actaeon merely had the bad luck to see her using the toilet. She turned him into a deer and he was eaten by his own dogs.

  • A woman crying out for help in childbirth, which was often fatal in ancient and medieval times.

  • The statue of Diana shows her other roles as goddess of hunting, goddess of the moon, and goddess of black magic and of the dismal underworld (as Hecate).

Here is how old Saturn, earth-god, eldest and most powerful of the gods, describes his portfolio:

  • drownings

  • prisoners in dungeons

  • both the neck and the noose that strangles it

  • serf uprisings (these were always lose-lose situations)

  • secret hatreds and secret poisonings

  • buildings collapsing and killing people

  • fatal disease, and the sensation of cold that goes with the approach of death

Do you see a pattern? I thought you would.

What the Knight Could Not Say Openly

To discern the knight's intent in telling the story, we need to do as we usually would, and look for material in the text which does not really further the plot or please the readers. The knight reveals his own mind twice. First, there are the scenes of unmitigated horror in the three temples. Second, there is the passage at the death of Arcite:

His spirit changes its house and went away
Where I came never -- where I cannot say,
And so am silent. I am no divine
Souls are not mentioned in this tale of mine.
I offer no opinion. I can tell
You nothing, though some have written where they dwell.

It is Theseus who built the temples, showing the terrible things in the world. Theseus ends the story with his own philosophical musings, beginning at line 2987. The creator (Theseus speaks in non-Christian classical language) bound the things that make up the world in "the fair chain of love." Theseus speaks of "this wretched world below", where everything must die, and even the stones on which we walk will end. He is not speaking from reading or doctrine, but from life experience. Theseus perhaps did not coin the phrase, "Make a virtue of necessity", (which appears here), but urges people to "take well what we may not escape", without complaining, and to try to maintain one's good reputation. Especially, when one has the opportunity to be happy, take it. He urges Emily and Palamon to marry (and make of two sorrows, one joy). Here is my paraphrase:

When the Creator made "the fair chain of love", the created world, it was a great work, well-intended, and He must have His reasons. He established order for the physical world. And in this "wretched world below", everything has a time when it must die, even though mishaps may make death happen sooner. We all know this from observation. It must be that the Creator is perfect, but what has descended downward in nature is corruptible, and endures only by one thing succeeding another. This applies to the oak trees and even the stones, the rivers and towns. And of course all people must die. We must think that all things return to the Creator. So "make a virtue of necessity", don't complain about being mortal, and try to live bravely. Arcite died in his prime, with a good reputation, rather than eventually becoming a has-been in this "foul prison" we call life. Let us find what happiness that we can. Emily, would you consider making Palamon and yourself happy? He loves you. And Palamon, I know you want this... will you take Emily's hand?"

The knight has travelled around his world, and seen a great deal. For Chaucer's knight, the universe (even though a remote God seems to have created it) is not friendly to human beings. It seems to be at best indifferent, and at worst actively hostile. Everything dies. We must try to live good lives, and do what we can to be happy.

We enjoy more freedom of, and from, religion than Chaucer's pilgrims did. In Theseus's famous "fair chain of love" speech, the king offers the Boethian hope that there is some benevolent plan behind the horror and unfairness of the universe. Yet still, the best we can do is to try to live a good life. Today's secular humanists talk openly about humankind standing alone in a godless universe. For such people, the challenge is to live wisely and well, to do good, and to love one another. Some keep up some form of religious observance out of deference to the feelings of their neighbors.

I do not know whether the knight is speaking for Chaucer, but I am confident that Chaucer painted him from real life. Chaucer admired and cited Boethius elsewhere, so you'll need to decide this for yourself. People often notice that Chaucer's pilgrims present a cross-section of his countryfolk. The knight is struggling to live a good life although (or perhaps because) he no longer believes in the comforts of conventional religion.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "The Knight's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/kttale.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathlogy Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

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