Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale


The Knight’s Tale

the knight's tale


Chaucers’s The Knight’s Tale is a story about two brave knights, Palamon and Arcite, competing for love, honour, and fate.


Key Facts


Title: The Knight’s Tale

Authorship: written by Chaucer; first and longest tale of ‘The Canterbury Tales’

Structure: Written in rhyming couplets in Middle English; composed in 2,250 lines

Genre: Medieval Romance

Setting: Ancient Greece

Major source: Boccaccio’s Teseida, which followed the same characters and some of the same events.

Themes: Courtly love and chivalry, it also explores the complexities of love, fate, and honour.

Characters:

  • Theseus: Duke of Athens, represents noble leadership.
  • Palamon and Arcite: Knights and cousins, central to the love triangle.
  • Emily: Lady whose beauty drives the knights’ devotion.

Originally, Geoffrey Chaucer didn’t craft the “Knight’s Tale” specifically for “The Canterbury Tales.” He later adjusted it to suit the character of the Knight within the collection.


About the Narrator


The Knight’s tale is narrated by the Knight who is a person of highest social standing amongst the pilgrims. He is characterized by his deep love for chivalry, faithfulness, honour, and courtesy, embodying the ideals of knighthood. Chaucer portrays the Knight as a “verray, parfit gentil knyght,” (a true perfect gentle knight) that suggests an idealized and sincere description. In the General prologue, it is mentioned that he had engaged in around fifteen crusades that shows his commitment to religious and military endeavours. He also fought in various countries (including Alexandria, Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Granada, Lyeys, Attalia, and the Levant) and even supported one pagan leader against another, demonstrating a breadth of experience.

Despite his valour, the Knight is characterized by prudence and meekness. Chaucer called him ‘as meek as a maiden’. Although his horses are of good quality, the Knight’s attire is not extravagant. He wears a jerkin of coarse cloth stained with rust from his coat of mail. It emphasizes his practicality over ostentation. Having just returned from travels, he embarks on a pilgrimage that showcase his sense of devotion and spiritual commitment. He is joined on his pilgrimage by his 20-year-old son, the Squire, emphasizing family ties and the passing of the Knightly tradition.


Historical Context


The medieval period, spanning roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, was characterized by feudalism, chivalry, and a strong influence of the Catholic Church. It was an era of hierarchical societal structures, where the king or monarch held supreme authority, followed by nobles, knights, clergy, and peasants. This social hierarchy often dictated one’s role and status in society.


Summary


Part 1 

Once upon a time, there was a powerful Duke named Theseus. He won many battles and returned home to Athens with a big celebration. On his way home, he met a group of sad ladies dressed in black. They were crying because their husbands had died in a war, and a mean king named Creon wouldn’t let them honour their husbands properly.

Duke Theseus felt sorry for them and promised to help. He went to fight Creon, the bad king of Thebes. After a fierce battle, Theseus defeated Creon, freeing the city. He also gave the wives the bodies of their husbands for proper rituals.

Among the captives were two knights, Palamon and Arcite, from Thebes. Instead of killing them, Duke Theseus decided to keep them in prison forever. As the years passed, Palamon and Arcite lived in the prison tower.

One day, Palamon saw a beautiful lady named Emelye in the garden from his high chamber. She was the sister in law of the Duke Theseus. Palamon fell in love with her and prayed Venus for help. When Arcite heard about it, he also saw Emelye and fell in love instantly. After the confession of Arcite, a disagreement arises between them, with Palamon accusing Arcite of breaking their oath as sworn brothers. Arcite claims he loved Emelye first and argues that love is a stronger force than any human law. He said, “A man must necessarily love, despite his intentions. He cannot escape it, even if it costs him his life. Whether she be a maiden, widow, or a wife. And it’s unlikely for your entire life to be in her favor; it won’t last forever.” Despite their love for Emily, they are both destined to remain in prison, and there’s no way to escape. Their friendship turns into a rivalry as they grapple with their emotions and the challenges of their situation.

Then, a friend of Theseus and Arcite named Duke Perotheus visited Athens. At his request, Theseus decides to release Arcite from prison but imposes a condition – he must leave Athens, and if ever found within its realm, he will face death. Arcite agreed and left, leaving Palamon behind.

Arcite, though free, was sad because he couldn’t stay in Athens and pursue his love for Emily. Palamon, still in prison, felt hopeless, knowing that Arcite was now free and could be a rival for Emelye’s affection. At the end of the part I, the narrator asked a rhetorical question related to the condition of Knights—“Which is in the worse case, Palamon or Arcite? The one may see his lady daily, but must dwell ever in prison. The other may ride or walk where he wishes, but shall never see his lady more.”

Part 2 

Some time later, in a dream, winged Mercury, the messenger to the gods, appears to the lovesick and weakened Arcite. The god urges him to return to Athens, and Arcite, realizing that he could enter the city in disguise, decides to do so. He takes on the identity of Philostrate and secures a job as a page in Emelye’s chamber. This brings him close to his beloved, but the distance between them still torments his heart.

Wandering in the woods one spring day, Arcite weaves garlands of leaves and reflects on the conflict in his heart — torn between his desire to return to Thebes and his yearning to be near Emelye. Meanwhile, on the very day Palamon escapes from seven years of imprisonment, he hears Arcite’s song and monologue while sneaking through the woods. The two friends confront each other, both claiming the right to Emelye.

Arcite proposes a solution – a duel the next day to settle their dispute. They meet in a field, brutally engaging in a fierce battle. Out on a hunt, Theseus discovers the two warriors ruthlessly fighting. Palamon reveals their identities and their shared love for Emelye, pleading for the duke to justly decide their fate.

As Theseus is about to respond by ending their lives, the women of his court, especially his queen and Emelye, intervene. They plead for mercy, and the duke consents. Instead of death, Theseus decides to hold a tournament fifty weeks from that day. Palamon and Arcite will be pitted against each other, each with a hundred of the finest men they can gather. The winner will be awarded Emelye’s hand, setting the stage for a dramatic and decisive contest.

Part 3

Theseus gets ready for the big tournament by building a huge stadium. He also sets up three temples at the entrance—one for Venus, the goddess of love; one for Mars, the god of war; and one for Diana, the goddess of chastity. The Knight describes each temple in detail. As the tournament day approaches, people gather, and both Palamon and Arcite arrive with impressive armies.

On the Sunday before the tournament, Palamon goes to the temple of Venus. In the quiet night, he talks to the goddess about his love for Emelye and asks for her help in winning the battle for love. The statue of Venus gives an enigmatic sign, which Palamon sees as a positive response, making him leave feeling confident.

At the same time, Emelye goes to the temple of Diana. Wanting to stay a virgin all her life, she asks Diana to stop the upcoming marriage. However, an image of Diana appears and tells her that she must marry one of the Thebans. Emelye, obedient, goes back to her chamber.

Arcite heads to the temple of Mars, asking the god of war for victory in the battle. He, too, gets a positive sign—the temple doors clang, and he hears the statue of Mars whispering, “Victory!” Like Palamon, Arcite leaves the temple with high hopes for the next day.

The scene then shifts to the gods. Saturn, Venus’s father, cryptically assures her that despite Mars helping Arcite, Palamon will ultimately win his lady’s heart.

Part 4

After lots of feasting, people gather in the stadium for the big tournament. The armies look evenly matched as they enter. Theseus, the Duke, sets the rules, and the fierce battle with swords and maces begins. Palamon fights bravely, but Arcite seizes an opportunity and claims victory, putting a sword to Palamon’s throat. Emelye is happy, and Theseus declares Arcite the winner. However, Venus is upset that her knight lost until Saturn assures her that it’s not over.

Following Saturn’s request, the ground shakes as Arcite rides toward Theseus. Unfortunately, his horse throws him, causing a severe chest injury. Despite efforts from physicians, Arcite cannot be healed. On his deathbed, Arcite expresses his love to Emelye and advises her to remember Palamon, a worthy knight, if she chooses to marry someone else.

The entire city mourns Arcite’s death, and Emelye, Theseus, and Palamon are inconsolable. Theseus’s father, Egeus, consoles him, reminding that everyone must live and die, and life’s journey includes both joy and sorrow. Years pass, and the mourners start healing, except for Emelye and Palamon, who continue to grieve in black.

During a parliament at Athens, Theseus scolds them for grieving too much, emphasizing that death is a part of life according to God’s plan. He asks them to stop mourning, and suggests that his wife’s sister should marry Palamon. They agree, and over time, Emelye and Palamon follow Theseus’s advice, enjoying a long, loving, and happy marriage.

 


Themes


Chivalry and Honour 

In “The Knight’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer explores the theme of chivalry and honour within the context of the two knights, Palamon and Arcite, and their pursuit of Princess Emily. He also presents chivalry through the character of the Duke Theseus who embodies justice and reason. But Chaucer also unveils the deceptive facade of chivalry and honour through the actions of these characters. At one side the knights uphold honour through compassion and heroism on the battlefield. When Palamon and Arcite were in woods, weak Palamon is spared by Arcite who promises to return the next day with armor so they can have a fair battle for Emily’s love. This shows that Arcite, being a noble knight, chooses mercy over immediate combat.

While on the other side their rivalry over Princess Emily takes a childish turn as Palamon asserts, “I loved her first, and told you [Arcite] of my woe” (1146). This “I saw it first” mentality reflects a juvenile attitude, contradicting the honourable conduct expected of knights.

 

Love and Romance

The theme of love is central to the tale, particularly the romantic entanglements between Palamon, Arcite, and Emily. Both knights are so deeply in love that they are willing to break their oath of sworn brotherhood and, in Arcite’s case, risk death to win their beloved. For them, love is the most important thing, even more important than being moral, honourable, or following chivalry, as Arcite asserts when Palamon accuses him of betrayal:

Love is a greater law, aye by my pan,

Than man has ever given to earthly man.”

This quote implies that the power of love surpasses any authority or law established by human beings.

 

Fate and Destiny

The theme of fate and destiny plays a significant role in shaping the lives of the characters and driving the narrative forward. Whether it’s Theseus locking up the knights or Palamon and Arcite unexpectedly getting free, everything seems to be guided by fate. The knights end up competing for Emily’s love, but no matter what they do, fate still decides the outcome. Arcite wins the contest, but then he dies. Thus, Chaucer shows that fate is unstoppable. It’s like everyone has a path already set for them, and they can’t change it no matter what they do.

 

Friendship and Rivalry

The initial bond of friendship between Palamon and Arcite transforms into a bitter rivalry over their shared love for Emily. They compete in a jousting tournament arranged by Theseus for Emily’s hand. Their rivalry escalates as they both strive to prove themselves worthy of her love. Arcite ultimately dies in battle, but before his death, he makes Palamon promise to marry Emily. This unexpected twist leaves Palamon devastated, as he not only mourns the loss of his friend but also regrets the rivalry that had come between them.

 

Divine Intervention

The theme of divine intervention is prominent throughout “The Knight’s Tale,” as the characters often attribute their fates and fortunes to the influence of gods and goddesses. One example of divine intervention is seen when Palamon and Arcite pray to different gods for help in winning Emily’s love. Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, while Arcite prays to Mars, the god of war. Their prayers reflect their belief that the outcome of their endeavours is ultimately determined by the favour of the gods. Additionally, the characters frequently invoke the names of gods and goddesses in their speech and actions, demonstrating their belief in divine guidance and protection.

 


If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.

 

 

 


©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]

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3 Responses

  1. Rahul kumar says:

    I opened lots of site for theme but I didn’t get it.

    • admin says:

      Hey Rahul, the themes of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ have been added. You can check it now. We hope you find it helpful.

  2. Rahul kumar says:

    Ma’am please add theme from this topic

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