Chaucer’s View of Knightly Nobility
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” written apart from but included in his unfinished anthology The Canterbury Tales, is considered one of his greatest works. It could be at once a number of things: a dark meditation on providence, a parody of the Chivalric stories that happened to be gaining in popularity at the time of its publication, or a work perhaps heavily influenced by Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Chaucer could be called many things, but a writer with simple intent he clearly was not. If one draws from Chaucer’s other Tales as well as analyses of his works, one may conclude that the poet had insight into his generation and surroundings and often made a point of weaving social commentary and critique into his stories. With “Knight’s Tale,” the author turns his skeptical eye toward valued sentiments of the time — not only in popular Chivalric literature, but in the everyday culture that Chaucer was a part of. He observed the social institutions and pointed out their weaknesses for all to see. This commentary notably occurs in Chaucer’s depictions of chivalry, providence, and, through the fascinating character of Emelye, of women. By tackling all of these subjects with a sense of irony, Chaucer takes idealized, chivalric romance down from its pedestal and, to a certain extent, mocks its foolish structure.
Using the style and wit that he became known for, Chaucer digs first and foremost into the nature of “Chivalric” writings and ideals. He lays it on thick, so to speak, and by overemphasizing what was considered chivalrous behavior, he exposes the undignified side of what was called “chivalry.” In short, he satirizes and perhaps at times parodies the concept of what it means to be a knight. This satirical tactic of extremes and irony (that is, to explain traits that are “bad” or “stupid” by definition and link said traits to titles of high respect or acclaim) is more heavily and scathingly applied to the Church and representations of the clergy in other Canterbury tales, but that does not mean that Chivalric ideals escape the critic’s pen. He sees with clarity what is unheroic in the knightly displays of heroism and writes with purpose to bring them to his reader’s attention.
In the “Knight’s Tale,” the two main characters, Palamon and Arcite, do violent battle, which results (somewhat indirectly) in death. The battle is not only tragic, but senseless: it is fought for the love of a woman with whom neither is terribly familiar. Neither has spoken with her by the time of their duel, nor does she want their attentions, but one of them dies for “her sake” nonetheless. As Arcite dies, he cites Emelye as his reason for death: “Mercy, Emelye” (verse 2808). Perhaps, then, Emelye serves only as a symbol of something to die for in order to allow Arcite to feel chivalrous — though clearly there is nothing dignified or brave in a pointless death.
As silly as the dueling friends-turned-rivals appear, the character that manifests the most mordant of Chaucer’s satire is Theseus, the prince and supposedly the most “noble” character. Theseus, the “model ruler” in every way (Woods, p. 281), spouts platitudes in a manner endorsing Arcite’s death and his broken friendship with Palamon, and his words are revered as wisdom. “Right as there died never man,” quoth he, “that he ne liv’d in earth in some degree.” His words apparently provide comfort for his audience. The reader may quickly surmise that Theseus is saying nothing of value; his words are obviously simple and contrived. However, because his position is considered noble, his words have weight and “cure” the situation (by stating, more or less, that people tend to die sooner or later, everyone’s spirits are lifted in the wake of Arcite’s tragic death). More interesting than his reaction to the death, however, is his response when he comes across Palamon and Arcite as they begin to fight. At first he stops them, but when he learns of their problem, rather than advising them against destroying one another, he instead insists that they destroy one another properly. After all, Chaucer seems to say, there is protocol for a chivalrous death. And so, at Theseus’s behest, the dueling pair summons one hundred knights each to fight with them, including a pair of kings, and the duel becomes a war. Of course, Chaucer seems to be sarcastically saying, because this is the way that things are done, this is the way they must be.
Another character of sorts that sets the tone for the entire tale is the narrator, the Knight himself, who seems very much in love with his ideals and seems to think that his story is an excellent example of his courtly values — or at least this may be surmised by his enthusiasm for the story, which he begins with “myrie cheeres” in line 859 of the general prologue. We may also assume that the Knight is in agreement with Theseus’s clich?s — indeed, in agreement with every attitude of the rather pompous Theseus — for he describes the princely character with reverence, basking in his “wysdom and his chivalrie” as described in verse 865 (Robertson, p. 438). He also describes scenes of chivalric honor, so far as he judges it, in great detail, as seen in the recounting of Arcite’s funeral arrangements. The Knight discloses that:
<BLOCKQUOTE>And of the same suyte he cladde arcite; / Upon his hondes hadde he gloves white, / Eek on his heed a coroune of laurer grene, / And in his hond a swerd ful bright and kene. / He leyde hym, bare the visage, on the beere; / Therwith he weep that pitee was to heere. (Verses 2873-2878)</BLOCKQUOTE>
These elaborations go on for some time. Again, the Knight appears to be glamorizing a senseless death by declaring it “honourable.” He speaks of the weeping and wailing found amongst the attendees of the funeral, the grandeur of the clothes in which Arcite’s corpse was dressed, and even a list of the different types of tree bark used for his funeral pyre (though the narrator modestly says he will not go into full description, he mentions 21 different types of trees that were put to use in verses 2921-2923). Although the contrast between the knight’s flowery descriptions and the rather bleak facts of Arcite and Palamon’s story seems more obvious today than it might have seemed in Chaucer’s day when tales of knights and honor held more prominence, surely the irony in this biting commentary was not lost on the medieval readership.
Despite his subtle (or not-so-subtle) remarks on chivalry, the most prominent theme of all in the “Knight’s Tale,” appearing even in the general prologue, is the concept of providence. Destiny and fate — or doom in the case of Arcite — are, as the Knight describes them, part of the Chivalric life. And so they are, at least in the case of this knight. In the general prologue, as the pilgrims are embarking on their journey, they decide to cast lots to see who gets to tell a tale first. As it is described, the cut fell to the Knight:
<BLOCKQUOTE>Of which ful blithe and glad was every wyght, / And telle he moste his tale, as was resoun, / By foreward and by composicioun, / As ye han herd; what nedeth wordes mo? / And whan this goode man saugh that it was so, / As he that wys was and obedient / To kepe his foreward by his free assent, / He seyde, syn I shal bigynne the game, / What, welcome be the cut, a goddes name! (Verses 846-854)</BLOCKQUOTE>
And with that, the theme of the knight’s story is already laid out — providence, it would seem, is a welcome part of the knight’s life, and of the “chivalrous life” more generally by implication. The Knight states that he’s happy to comply with the choice of fortune, and we are to assume that he probably is usually of this mind. Like a member of the clergy, the noble Knight belongs to “Godde,” and therefore it stands to reason that he must have a destiny. Chaucer pokes fun at this from the get-go, however. The Knight boisterously says he’ll comply with the cut, but had the company decided not to cast lots to determine the order of storytellers for their pilgrimage and chosen instead to go by class order or rank, the highest-ranking personage would have told the first tale. That person would of course have been the Knight. By saying more or less that providence has chosen him, the Knight seems to be saying that he has been the first choice of fate. Perhaps he implies that even though he travels amongst those of a lower stature than himself, he has been singled out and honored by God to commence with the tale-telling, as though his tale were somehow superior. However, the Knight fails to take into account that if the pilgrims had chosen in an orderly fashion (perhaps just what they were trying to avoid), then he would have been in the same position through no divine intervention at all.
With that mildly amusing set-up, Chaucer the writer sets to work on constructing a world of principles according to our now-familiar Knight, and it is not surprising that in this world providence is king. The main characters — Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye — seem to have little to no say in their own lives and how they unfold. They claim to be at the mercy of the gods and their politics or whims. When they are not at the beck and call of the gods, their fate lies in the hands of the prince, who also happens to be an avid fan and preacher of providence and its mysterious ways.
These mysterious ways are, as aforementioned, under the charge of the gods and goddesses — in this case, Diana, Venus, and Mars. Emelye prays to Diana to allow her a life of maidenhood (chastity, of which Diana is the goddess), and if not that, then for her to be wed to the one who loves her best. Palamon asks Venus to award him Emelye’s love. Arcite begs Mars for victory in his battle for Emelye. After the prayers of their worshippers, all of the gods show signs of affirmation to their subjects, and indeed, they do grant them what they asked for. Arcite is granted victory, though he dies. Palamon is granted Emelye’s hand, though he wins her only by default. Emelye is wed to the one who loves her best — though again by default, as there’s only one left. All of these poor characters are just pawns in a larger game, and they seem to know it and acknowledge their powerlessness as they come humbled before their gods.
Again, this theme is reemphasized by the speech from the platitude-spouting Theseus, fount of knowledge that he is, at least insofar as the Knight is concerned. Indeed, the prince continually insists, in his wisdom, that all things eventually die:
<BLOCKQUOTE>Loo the ook, that hath so long a norisshynge / From tyme that it first bigynneth to sprynge, / And hath so long a lif, as we may see, / Yet at the laste wasted is the tree. (Verses 3017-3020)</BLOCKQUOTE>
Here he makes an example of an oak tree that lives long but is eventually cut down. Once again he ties life to providence, and he also makes a case for the idea that not only are all who live destined to die, but that humans are as disposable as trees in that their destiny is left up to higher powers. We cannot change the stars — luckily, for some of us, providence has set aside lives of chivalry.
For those not leading the life of a knight — women, for example — Chaucer offers a rather unsatisfying future. Once more he challenges the constraints and standards of his time and of contemporary literature through the vehicle of Emelye, a rather ineffective but definitely individual character amongst a world of men. In this world, Emelye clearly has no say in what she would like; in that she is even more like the aforementioned “ook tree.” Not only is her life’s purpose subject to the god’s fancy, but also to the fancy of Theseus, or whomever “wins” her in battle. She must be compliant, and she is. On the other hand, she is unusual because she does have her own desires — and they happen to be non-romantic. In any other story, Emelye would be merely an object to be earned, but in Chaucer’s world, she is a woman with her own interests, which happen to be the opposite of her suitors’.
Chaucer takes Emelye into ironic territory: rather than creating a woman trapped in a tower who must be saved, he describes a woman going about her normal life as Arcite and Palamon suffer in their tower of a jail, and even after their escape when their suffering becomes internal (Woods, 1991, p. 298). She is a woman who does not swoon for either of the men who fight for her hand, nor does she want to be fought for. In fact, she begs Theseus not to do harm to Arcite or Palamon, and once the two men decide to do battle, she prays for peace between them.
Later, the fight that is fought for her does not excite but rather troubles her. With this characterization, is Chaucer perhaps commenting on the foolishness of Chivalric passion that has no basis? In any sane world, it may be argued, Emelye’s romantic disinterest in her suitors should have put the final stop to a foolish duel for her that should never have begun. Lives could have been spared — but no, Emelye’s voice does not count, even when she prays to Diana in verse 2236-2237:
<BLOCKQUOTE>Emforth my myght, thy trewe servant be, / And holden werre alwey with chastitee.</BLOCKQUOTE>
Here, committing a “crucial act of will” (Woods, p. 278) she pleads for a life of chastity and service, preferring to keep herself from being a wife or lover to anyone — and yet she is still pursued. This element adds even more tragedy to Arcite’s rather ridiculous speech at his death, in which he speaks of Emelye as his wife, someone he is dying for — when in reality she wanted nothing to do with him at all. But then again, as Theseus would say, everyone dies sooner or later, so perhaps it just doesn’t matter.
And that may very well have been Chaucer’s point as he set to paper this rather dark tale of unnecessary death and foolishness. By exploring the ironies in the social constructions of chivalry, the senselessness in the over-obsession with providence, and the unfair and potentially foolish view of women in popular literature (and culture in general), he brings to the reader’s attention the need for the destruction of complacency. In this tale, the subtext condemns trust in social order and institutions that depend on tradition and ideals. Such institutions may become destructive due to their rigid nature — that is to say, the concepts of chivalry are nice, but only when and where applicable. War for no reason save for obsession with a figment of imagination seen from a prison window or fascination with one’s own glory is by no means noble or wise. It is, in fact, both tragic and darkly humorous at the same time. And yet, perhaps this is what Chaucer saw happening in his society.
Chaucer , Geoffrey, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.
Woods, William F. “‘My Sweete Foo’: Emelye’s Role in The Knight’s Tale.” Studies in Philology 88.3 (1991): 276-306. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
Robertson, D. W., Jr. “The Probable Date and Purpose of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.” Studies in Philology 84.4 (1987): 418-439. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
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