Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE KNIGHT’S TALE
For the story of Theseus, see Boccaccio’s Teseida and Statius’ Thebiad (and in an indirect way, Euripides’ The Suppliant Women); for the philosophical base, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480? – 524? c.e.) was a Roman philosopher and statesman, a consol, member of the Roman Senate, under Theodric the Great. But he was exiled and while in prison questioned his situation before being executed. He decided on a course of contemptus mundi — contempt of the world. One wants to avoid desiring “false felicities” since matters of this world are controlled by the goddess Fortuna and her wheel. Perfect felicity is one’s true home (in God, although Boethius tries to do all this without religion). The prison theme resonates in Chaucer’s story, as does a bit of the questioning, as when Arcite knows something’s wrong and gets no answers. The pilgrims themselves are wandering in search of something — a symbol of their true home and destination?
But, what do you say is the Knight’s own worldview or philosophy of the cosmos? Can you detect a personality with his own concerns choosing this story and controlling its narration?
In The Legend of Good Women (F: 420) appears a reference to “Palamon and Arcite of Thebes,” so there seems to have been a version of the tale two (?) years before the General Prologue, perhaps revised to fit the Canterbury Tales context. The Boethian philosophical concern is similar to that in the Troilus, presumably from the mid-1380s.
This is a “chivalric romance of philosophical complexion.” It’s got the intrusion of the gods and the funeral pyre from the epic, but fin’amor too. The “romance” isn’t a romance because it includes romance: it’s a romance because it’s written in romance. That is, the genre got its start among the Roman legions stationed for long whiles where they grew to speak “romanice” — a vulgar debased form of the language versus classical Latin. “Romanice” = roman-like. Hence, anything written in romanice = romance. This is a new genre in the Middle Ages (with magic, enchantment, females). For more, see my separate page on Medieval Romance.
The Knight’s Tale is a bastardization of a “Rome the Great” romance.
Tale and Teller:
The perennial Chaucerian studies question is: how does the tale fit the teller. Beneath the surface, what concerns are expressed; what worries each pilgrim narrator? It’s an early form of psychology and we’re invited to engage in psychoanalytic criticism.
A chivalric tale is not necessarily identical with a courtly tale, and the General Prologue assigns the courtly side to the Squire. This instead is a much darker tale, with very slow progression and movement. Arcite deteriorates one or two years (1381), works in service of the household one or two years (1426), serves as squire of the chamber for three years (1446), and one year passes before the tournament (1850). Concurrently, Palamon spends seven years in prison (1452).
The Knight seems concerned with meaning and order. There are noticeable attempts to make sense, to make methodical what, despite these ideals, seems to be ruled by chance and passions. Theseus as the Knight’s spokesperson has a sequence of codes for coping with life and speaks from authority and wisdom. But underneath all this is a fear of anarchy and bestiality in the story, volcanic passions and disorder underneath the stately veneer of the controlled narrative style. The repeated phrases “to and for” and “up and doun” signal a pointlessness, or else a pent-up energy. Perhaps the Knight is a “soldier of fortune” in the philosophical sense. The medieval world inherits the long-standing notion in western culture that the ages register a degeneration (golden, silver, bronze, iron, clay) as we’re grow increasingly distant from the First Mover’s initial move that set it all in motion.
At the end of the 14th century one finds cynicism towards chivalry and courtly love. Perhaps the Knight is hesitant to speak in front of the pilgrims and his self-consciousness explains his false starts and editorial qualifications. Despite private enthusiasm for a story such as this one, public responsibility makes him feel caught in the gaze. Why is the tale so damned long? Because he keeps talking. Is he afraid to stop and let the other pilgrims speak afterwards? Is he hanging onto this ordered vision with force and authority to retard the inevitable process of deterioration which is always a present threat?
The Knight as narrator is uptight. He can’t give in, but must constantly catch himself and control matters. He self-consciously interjects extraneous narrative controlling mechanisms: “And ther I lefte, I wol ayeyn begynne. / This duc, of whom I make mencioun…” (892-893); “But shortly for to telle is myn entente” (1000); “If that I hadde leyser for to seye” (1188); etc. And Lord! the occupatio (the rhetorical gimmick of creating the illusion of speed by listing all the material you’re not going to talk about)! Check out this long passage (2197-2205), followed by “Of al this make I now no mencioun, / But al th’effect; that thynketh me the beste. / Now cometh the point, and herkneth if yow leste” (2206-2208).
He must always objectify and maintain a detached distance, so he’s always out of touch. He gives a cold, clinical description of Arcite’s dying condition (2745-2760); he’s dismissive about the topic of the afterlife (2810); he has Egeus rattle off platitudes passing for wisdom (2843ff); he seems inappropriately enthusiastic about the funeral games vs. the funeral (2961ff).
The tournament itself is a bizarre strategy for the love suit: sports?! We get:
- pre-game prognostications (2513ff)
- rules, including possible consignment to a penalty booth (2551)
- a count of the men on field — no cheating (2595)
- nifty sports talk (the old-style alliteration) (2605ff)
- the occasional time-out (2621)
- a marginalization of women (Emelye finally has no say literally)
- and self-congratulation (that no one died … yet) (2700ff), with a blindness to the pointless destruction
- male bonding (2733)
- a sense of pointlessness registering in the dispersal (2740).
[By the way, what’s with May 3rd (1462-1463)? It’s specified also in Troilus and Criseyde and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.]
The theme of amicitia — idealized male friendship — being tested became popular in the early Elizabethan period, unless the 17th Earl of Oxford was entirely responsible for the play Palamon and Arcite, presented before the Queen at the University of Oxford ceremonies in 1566 when Edward de Vere graduated. A play on the same subject was playing some years later, long before the quarto edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen emerged in 1634 — probably a revised and updated “old piece of Shakespeare juvenilia or perhaps a surviving torso of an update that de Vere attempted late in life” (Farina 55). This theme of amicitia appears in Damon and Pithias (another suspected adolescent de Vere effort from the 1560s), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and perhaps with the Hamlet/Horatio friendship.