The Knight’s Tale
The Knight begins his tale with the story of Theseus, a prince, who married Hippolyta, the queen of Scythia, and brought her and her sister, Emelye, back to Athens with him after conquering her kingdom of Amazons. When Theseus returned home victorious, he became aware of a company of women clad in black who knelt at the side of the highway, shrieking. The oldest of the women asked Theseus for pity. She told him that she was once the wife of King Cappaneus who was destroyed at Thebes, and that all of the other women lost their husbands. Creon, the lord of the town, had simply tossed the dead bodies of the soldiers in a single pile and refused to burn or bury them.
Theseus swore vengeance upon Creon, and immediately ordered his armies toward Thebes. Theseus vanquished Creon, and when the soldiers were disposing of the bodies they found two young knights, Arcite and Palamon, two royal cousins, not quite dead. Theseus ordered that they be imprisoned in Athens for life. They passed their time imprisoned in a tower in Athens until they saw Emelye in a nearby garden. Both fell immediately in love with her. Palamon compared her to Venus, and prayed escape from the prison; similarly, Arcite claimed that he would rather be dead than not have Emelye. The two fight over her, each calling the other a traitor.
This happened on a day in which Pirithous, a prince and childhood friend of Theseus, had come to Athens. Pirithous had known Arcite at Thebes, and at his request, Theseus set Arcite free on the promise that Arcite would never again be seen in Theseus' kingdom. He now had his freedom, but not the ability to pursue Emelye, and lamented the cruelty of fate. Palamon, however, envied Arcite, since he did now have the option of raising an army against Theseus to conquer Athens. The Knight asks which of the nobles has it worse: Arcite, who has his freedom but not access to Emelye, or Palamon, who can see Emelye but remains a prisoner?
Two years passed. After spending two years in Thebes, one night Arcite dreamt that he saw the god Mercury standing before him, bidding him to be free of hope and care, and telling him to go to Athens to relieve his grief. Arcite decided to disguise himself, return to Athens and pass unknown.
Arriving at the court, Arcite offered his services, and took a post with Emelye's steward under the name of Philostratus. Arcite worked as a page in Emelye's house and was so well loved that Theseus soon made him squire of his chamber. Meanwhile Palamon had lived for seven years in his dungeon, before, eventually, he escaped from the tower and fled the city, with the intention of disguising himself and making toward Thebes. That morning Arcite went horseback riding. In the area outside of the city, he dismounted and began to speak to himself, lamenting life without Emelye. Palamon, overhearing, leapt out and revealed himself to Arcite. Since neither had weapons, they made a vow to meet in the same place tomorrow and fight to the death over Emelye.
They returned the next day armed for battle. At the same time, and in the same place, Theseus, Hippolyta and Emelye were out hunting, and, reaching the area where Arcite and Palamon were fighting, Theseus stopped the battle. Palamon told Theseus that Arcite is the man who was banished (and that he has returned, disguised as Philostratus), while he himself is the escaped prisoner. He also told Theseus that both men love Emelye. Theseus ordered the death of both, but the queen and Emelye took pity on the two men, and begged Theseus for mercy. Considering how much they loved Emelye to risk death by not escaping to Thebes, Theseus asked them to swear that they will never make war against any realm of his. Theseus then decided that the two will wage war on each other, each with one hundred knights, in order to decide whom Emelye will marry.
Theseus commissioned the building of a stadium a mile in circumference for the duel between Arcite and Palamon. This stadium was opulent, featuring carvings and portraits as well as temples honoring Mars, Diana and Venus. When the day of the duel approached, Palamon brought Lycurgus, the king of Thrace, to fight with him, while Arcite brought Emetreus, the king of India.
The night before the duel, Palamon prayed to Venus to solace his pains of love, asking Venus (goddess of love) to let Arcite murder him if Arcite will be the one to marry Emelye. The statue of Venus shook, an omen that the goddess was listening. Emelye prayed at the shrine to Diana, the goddess of chastity. She prayed that she could remain a maiden all her life and not be a man's lover nor wife. She prayed, moreover, for peace and friendship between Arcite and Palamon. But if it was to be her destiny to marry one against her will, she asked to have the one who wants her most. The statue of Diana shed tears of blood, another omen. Then Diana herself appeared to Emelye and told her that she will marry one of the two. Arcite prayed to Mars. He prayed for victory in battle, and the statue of Mars whispered the word “victory” to him, the third omen. Mars and Venus thus waged war upon one another, but aged Saturn found a means to satisfy both of them. He told Venus that Palamon would have his lady, but Mars would help his servant.
Theseus set the rules of the battle between the two opposing factions. He ordered that, during the war between the two sides, nobody would suffer a mortal blow. If an opponent was overcome, he was to leave the battle. The people raised their voices in exultation. The two armies were equal in prowess, age and nobility, and Arcite pursued Palamon viciously, and Palamon returned with equal severity. But Emetreus seized Palamon and pierced him with his sword. In the attempt to rescue Palamon, King Lycurgus was struck down, and then Emetreus himself was wounded. Theseus declared that Arcite had won. Venus was disappointed at the outcome, but Saturn told her that Mars was now appeased and she would receive a similar appeasement. Suddenly, as Arcite was proclaimed victorious, there was an earthquake sent by Pluto that frightened Arcite's horse, which swerved and fell, throwing off Arcite and mortally wounding him. Before he died, Arcite tells Emelye that she could have no more worthy husband than Palamon. His last word before he died was her name. Theseus, in a very long speech referred to as the “First Mover” speech, then ordered Emelye to marry Palamon after a funeral ceremony honoring Arcite: and the Knight’s story finishes on a happy note.
It is very likely that the Knight’s Tale was written before the Canterbury Tales as a whole project was planned, and so it has the unusual status of being both a part of the tales as a whole, but also a separate work of literature in its own right (though the text has been adapted into the Tales – lines 875-92). It is a very free adaptation of a story by an Italian writer, Boccaccio, whom it seems clear Chaucer very much admired. Chaucer – as he regularly does – hugely compresses the story into the Tale, and adds material heavily influenced by his philosophical hero Boethius (including Theseus’ “First Mover” speech).
The Tale is undoubtedly a romance as Chaucer presents it, supposedly a true history of many hundreds of years ago told by an authoritative, high-status figure (in this case the Knight). Yet Chaucer never merely adopts a literary tradition without commenting on it, and the oddities of the Tale often lie in the way it over-stresses the traditional things expected of a romance of its genre.
For example, the question of status (raised at the end of the General Prologue when the Host – perhaps duplicitously – has the Knight picked as the first teller) and rank is immediately raised by the progression of the tale. The Knight begins not with the main characters of the tale, Arcite and Palamon, but instead, he begins at the apex of society, describing the exploits of Theseus of Athens, working downward until he reaches the less distinguished Theban soldiers.
Moreover, the tale is deeply improbable in all sorts of ways, and the situation and the moral questions it poses seem more important than the qualities of the individual characters. Characters, in fact, exist only to be moved by the events of the story: to be imprisoned and set free whenever the plot demands, or to fall in love at first sight when it is dramatically convenient. Even the characters acknowledge their lack of free will within the story. The two knights pray to Venus for a literal deus ex machine, for they are unable to control their own fate. The Knight's Tale very openly acknowledges the role of fate through the gods: Palamon leaves his fate to theology, blaming his fate on Venus, Juno and Saturn.
Arcite and Palamon as characters, then, without any real autonomy and speaking only formal, elegant laments, are virtually indistinguishable from each another. There is no information on which a reader may base an opinion on their respective virtues. Emelye is equally something of a cardboard-cutout, rather than a fully rounded character (compare her, for example, with the garrulous, fully-individualised Wife of Bath). The Knight describes her as a typical fairy-tale maiden though there is an interesting inversion of the usual formula in that her suitors, not her, are the ones imprisoned in a tower. She even first appears in a garden, a pastoral symbol that balances both purity and fertility.
Emelye proves a problematic character in the scheme of the story. Arcite and Palamon are prepared to fight to the death for her love, despite the fact that neither have had any significant contact with her, nor have any idea whether she would love either man. Yet Theseus accepts this code of conduct and offers the queen's sister as a prize for the two men, whom he previously had imprisoned and had threatened with death only moments before.
The Knight's Tale adheres to traditional values of chivalric, knightly honor in which there are strict codes of behavior which one must follow. This code of chivalry is not necessarily polite and decent, and Chaucer is always keen to draw attention to how unheroic such behavior seems. Within the morality of the tale, for example, Theseus' sudden decision to ransack Thebes to right a wrong is perfectly acceptable as punishment for a transgression against the honor of the dead soldiers; modern and medieval readers alike might feel somewhat differently. Finding them fighting, Theseus condemns condemns Arcite's and Palamon's actions not because they were fighting, but because they did not do so under the proper rules of a duel.
One interpretation of the tale might therefore see Chaucer as almost parodying – showing the ridiculousness of – such masculine, chivalric codes. Or is Chaucer rather parodying the genre – romance – in which such actions are endorsed? Immediately, in this first tale, the looming question of tone hangs over the tale. Where does the Knight’s voice stop and Chaucer’s begin? If there is parody involved in this tale, is it supposed to sit in Chaucer’s mouth, or in the Knight’s? The dramatic nature of the tales themselves make it extremely difficult to pin them down to a single, univocal interpretation.
Emelye is also the first of a series of interesting portrayals of females in the Tales. Emelye is, almost, a stereotype of a female character: though, significantly, her will is laid out as entirely separate to her actions. She does not wish to marry either of the knights, preferring a life of chastity to marriage. However, she acknowledges her role as a pawn in the situation, and accepts the destiny proscribed to her by the goddess Diana and the mortal king Theseus (even at the end, married off by Theseus, she receives the husband she explicitly does not desire).
The Knight, like the genre of the romance itself, has a tendency toward lush description, elaborate phrasing, and within his tale, things keep becoming displays of wealth and power. Each of the final events in the story is punctuated by great pageantry. Take, for example, the transformation of the simple duel between Arcite and Palamon into a gala event requiring the construction of a massive coliseum for two armies to wage war on one another, even bringing in the kings of two foreign nations. Other books tell the Knight’s story “more playn” (1464), according to the tale, and we can quite believe it. Yet it is precisely the dressed-up chivalry of the Knight’s tale that makes it very difficult to discern precisely what answer it is proposing to its key question: “What is this world? What asketh men to have?” (2777).