Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

One of the things the Knight talks about is philosophy, and philosophical reflections abound in the poem. After Arcite is released from prison but banished from Greece, the Knight poses the question, which lover has it worse? The imprisoned Palamon, who can daily see Emily, or the freed Arcite, separated from his beloved? Later he reminds the company, “The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn” rules over all that befalls humankind. All the principal characters have philosophical moments, when they reflect on fate, destiny, and love. It is, possibly, these observations which initially recommended this story to the Knight—or he may be the one who has infused them into it. In the Knight’s telling, Theseus considers the omnipotence of the Prime Mover in a way very reminiscent of the Knight’s own musings. At another point in the poem Theseus has recourse to the old proverb that it is wisdom to make a virtue of necessity.

It is part of the multilayered complexity of The Canterbury Tales that the real voice behind these reflections is impossible to determine: Perhaps Theseus is the original speaker; perhaps the Knight attributes his own thoughts to the Athenian king; perhaps Chaucer uses them both to articulate his own perspective. Chaucer himself is not even a stable entity, as he has created a clownish counterpart to himself, Chaucer the pilgrim, who is a member of the company on the pilgrimage and who also speaks with his own distinct voice.

The most prominent theme of this tale is the recognition that it is the lot of humankind to be unable to recognize the true circumstances of one’s own position. When Arcite finds out that he is to be released from captivity through the intercession of his friend Perotheus, he laments the day he met his friend, since freedom now means severance from Emily. His prison, once a torment, is now a paradise. He wonders why people complain of the “purveiaunce of God, or of Fortune,” which frequently blesses them with a better situation than they themselves could devise. A man might wish for riches, he thinks, and those same riches might be the cause of his murder.

Closely connected with this is the role destiny plays in human affairs. Inasmuch as mortals cannot recognize the value of the fortunes meted out to them, likewise they cannot alter the fate decreed for them. Diana informs Emily that she must marry Arcite or Palamon; her prayer that she might remain unwed will not be granted, since it is predetermined otherwise. This omnipotence is called by various names, “purveiaunce of God,” “Fortune,” “Firste Moevere.” Its workings may be a mystery to mortal men and women, and they might be powerless against it, yet in the realm of “The Knight’s Tale” it is their ultimate safeguard.

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