General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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According to the General Prologue, what is the key characteristic of one character and what does Chaucer think about that character in The Canterbury Tales? General PrologueMe thinketh it acordaunt to resoun,To telle yow al the condiciounOf ech of hem, so as it semed me,And whiche they weren, and of what degree;And eek in what array that they were inne:And at a knight than wol I first biginne (Narrator)

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Of course Chaucer and the pilgrim narrator are not synonymous as one is the author and the other the author's character. Yet Chaucer scholars do agree that the narrator speaks for Chaucer in this work so it may be possible to identify what "Chaucer thinks" by examining what the pilgrim narrator says.

The most illustrious character described by the pilgrim narrator in the General Prologue, and of great interest to many, is the Knight. His Tale is also one of the more engaging ones in many people's opinions as it is the story of two young knight's imprisonment and fight for the love of the "Duke of Athenes ... brid's sister Emelye."

The General Prologue describes the pilgrim Knight in the most admirable terms. Unlike most of the pilgrims, the narrator imputes no faults or negative qualities to the knight. There is not even an ironic suggestion of corruption or villainy in the narrator pilgrim's description (unless the ironic negative is embedded the accounts of his battles in the Crusades; these would represent negative allusions that seem lost to us now). The Knight (as far as we can tell) is genuinely admired for his dedication to the Chivalric Code of knights, his Christian beliefs and devotion, his prowess over his foes in battle, and his meek wisdom.

Unless the Code of Chivalry is understood, some of these qualities seem contradictory. A nobleman knight must be first in courage in battle and first in humble kindness and meek wisdom. The highest manhood then, in Chaucer's time, combined the strongest qualities with the gentlest qualities and mercies. His tale of Arcita, Palamon and Emelye demonstrates the need for this combination of might with meekness.

The best we can tell at this removed date about Chaucer's opinion of the Knight--without knowledge of negative allusion to the Crusades in general or to the Crusade's specific battles, like Alisaundre, Lettow, Gernade, Belmarye, and Satalye, to list a few Chaucer names--is that Chaucer, like the pilgrim narrator, heaped the Knight with praise and admiration thus adding to the honor he already accumulated in battle.

The Knight is thus (as far as we can tell) seen by Chaucer and set up by the narrator as a standard of behavior to all readers and as the standard by which the other characters are measured, even the Wife of Bath, who is often admired as a spunky, comedic character but who, when compared to the Knight, is found to be very wanting in anything but material success, which Chaucer would thus seem to rank in a lower place to the noble qualities of the Knight. In short, it seems that what Chaucer thinks about the Knight is that England would be a better place if both men and women had the qualities that the Knight has.

That fro the tyme that he first bigan -- 45
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
And ever honoured for his worthinesse. -- 50
And evermore he hadde a sovereyn prys. -- 67
And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
And of his port as meke as is a mayde.
He was a verray parfit gentil knight. -- 72

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