Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” is the first actual tale in the unfinished Canterbury Tales, a sequence of stories told by different members of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages. It is a structured, formal, 2,249-line poem told in four parts, which follows immediately after the “General Prologue”—an introductory poem describing each of the pilgrims.
Essentially, it is the story of a love triangle. Two Theban warriors, the cousins Palamon and Arcite, are thrown into prison by their captor, the Greek king Theseus. There, first Palamon, then Arcite, espy the king’s sister-in-law Emily and are immediately smitten with love. After a period of time, Arcite is released from Theseus’s prison through the intervention of a friend, and Palamon escapes. By chance they find each other and arrange to fight for Emily. Theseus discovers them, however, and decrees that a trial by arms in fifty weeks’ time will settle the matter.
On the day of battle, Emily prays to Diana that she might remain a maid, but that, if that cannot be, then the man who loves her most might win her; Arcite vows service to Mars if he might prove victorious; Palamon begs Venus that he might win his beloved. Diana appears to Emily, saying it is decreed she must be wed, but both men receive signs that their prayers will be answered. While there is some consternation in Olympus over this seeming irreconcilable set of promises, Saturn assures everyone that no deity’s word will be broken. Arcite indeed wins, but at the moment of his triumph, his horse shies, throwing him down in what turns out to be a mortal injury. After a period of mourning, Theseus hands Emily to Palamon, and they live a life of bliss.