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.
“The Knight’s Tale” is a story within a story. On one level, the whole of TheCanterbury Tales is the story of the thirty-two pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury, entertaining each other by telling stories. At this level, each tale serves to amplify and confirm the characterization of the teller given in the “General Prologue.” In the very mixed company of pilgrims, the Knight is one of the few not treated satirically or ironically. He is, in fact, “a parfit gentil knyght,” and his tale substantiates this.
By luck of the draw, the Knight becomes the first pilgrim to fulfill host Harry Bailly’s request that each member of the company enliven the journey to Canterbury by storytelling. This was a fortunate chance for the others: The Knight understands his social obligation and is happy to comply. He reaches back to classical times for his courtly tale, which Chaucer adapted from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974). Immediately this bespeaks his sophistication and sets a certain tone and standard. The matter itself, with its artful conundrum, is suitable entertainment for his audience—unlike some of the ruder, coarser tales told by other pilgrims—and is applauded roundly at its conclusion. Set in ancient Greece, it speaks of high matters: the Roman gods, Theseus’s court, the knightly world of honor and chivalry. By flattering the taste of the audience, it reveals the courtliness of the teller. The selection and narration show the Knight to be a confident, experienced, and indeed elegant member of society, one entirely at ease in his role of first storyteller.
On this level, Chaucer’s hand in shaping The Canterbury Tales is evident. It is no accident, although it is presented as such, that the Knight is the first pilgrim to tell a tale. He was...
(This entire section contains 654 words.)
also, by design, the first one introduced in the “General Prologue.” His prominence elevates the entire work; by leading off with his star player, Chaucer positions his poem in a way which would have been very different if the short straw had fallen to the drunken Miller or the sleazy Pardoner.
On a second level, “The Knight’s Tale” has a literary life of its own. Written in pentameter, using rhyming couplets, it is basically a warning to watch what one asks for. It pivots around the seeming paradox that both Palamon and Arcite have been promised by different gods that they will emerge victorious as the suitor for Emily. The puzzle is solved by the simple solution that each man gets his exact wish. Arcite’s mistake is that he asks for a secondary goal—military victory—which he deems will win him his primary desire, Emily. Palamon is intent on winning his lady, and addresses his prayers to the goddess of love. Arcite gets his victory but does not live to enjoy his prize; Palamon gets the girl. In a delicate irony, it is Arcite himself who articulates the confusion that is the lot of humankind, “We witen nat what thing we preyen heere.”
“The Knight’s Tale” is a leisurely one, which uses some of the conventions of the epic. Descriptions are lavish and are given to matters that may seem tangential to the main story. Readers are treated to the circumstances of Theseus’s marriage, the splendid oratories built for the deities, and the noble retainers who fight with Palamon and Arcite. To the Knight, all of this is integral to the telling; he even interjects that people would think it a “necligence” if he omitted it. Likewise, the action is diffuse, shifting from one character to another. The focus is first on Palamon in prison, then Arcite in Thebes, then Emily, then Theseus. Yet the tale is never divorced from its teller; the Knight speaks frequently in his own voice, thus keeping the framing story of the Canterbury pilgrimage at the forefront.