Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” is full of phrases or passages that seem especially significant to the larger meaning of the work. Many of them appear, in fact, in the very opening lines of the tale, including the following:
- At one point, the Knight refers to the “wysdom and . . . chivalrie” of Theseus (865) – two traits valued and displayed by the Knight himself, and traits arguably also endorsed by Chaucer as important and admiral values.
- Later, Theseus is addressed as a
"Lord, to whom Fortune hath yiven [that is, given]
Such phrasing would have reminded medieval readers that life sometimes presents us with good fortune and sometimes with bad fortune. We have little control over the kind of fortune we encounter; all we can really hope to control is the way we react to whatever kind of fortune we face.
- Shortly thereafter, a woman ("The eldeste lady of hem alle") refers to
“Fortune and hire false wheel,
That noon estaat assureth to be weel.” (925-26)
These words allude to the common medieval idea of the wheel of fortune, turned by the goddess Fortuna. The “wheel of fortune” was a common symbol in the Middle Ages of the mutability and unpredictability of life.
- The woman just mentioned soon beseeches Theseus for assistance, saying, “Now help us, lord, sith it is in thy might” (930). This statement would have reminded medieval readers of the hierarchical nature of the universe. Theseus, as a ruler, enjoys powers that he was expected to use worthily on behalf of others.
- Theseus, after hearing the woman’s plea, is described as both “gentil” (that is, gentle) and as possessing a “herte pitous” (that is, a piteous or compassionate heart [952-53]). Such qualities were prized in a medieval ruler, and indeed the Knight himself (as the “General Prologue” makes clear) possesses many of the same qualities he attributes to Theseus.
- A few lines later, Creon, another ruler, is described as a “tiraunt” (961) – in other words, exactly the opposite kind of ruler as Theseus. In the Middle Ages, tyrants were considered rulers who were motivated by selfishness and pride and who put their own personal interests before those of their people.
- Later, when Palamon sees Emelye and becomes afflicted with desire for her, his cousin, Arcite, realizing that Palamon is in pain but not yet knowing the source, urges him “For Goddes love, taak al in pacience” (1084). This is an important line, not only because it helps introduce the theme of love into a poem that is largely about love, but also because it reminds us that in the Middle Ages true love (as opposed to mere selfish desire) was associated with love of God and love from God. This, in fact, is the very first reference to “love” in the poem, and medieval readers would have known that godly love was the ideal form of love against which all other kinds of “love” were supposed to be measured.
- Palamon, trying to explain to his cousin the true source of his pain, says,
“I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye [that is, eye]
Into myn herte . . .” (1096-97)
This statement is important, because medieval readers would have known that it was common during this period to claim that selfish desire entered the heart, the seat of emotions, through the eye. In fact, Cupid, the god of selfish desire, was often thought to shoot his arrows of lust metaphorically into the eye (symbol of the senses) and thus affect the heart (symbol of emotion).