The Canterbury Tales
The Knight’s Tale, Parts 1–2
From the beginning through Theseus’s decision to hold the tournament Fragment 1, lines 859–1880
Summary: Part 1
Long ago in Ancient Greece, a great conqueror and duke named Theseus ruled the city of Athens. One day, four women kneel in front of Theseus’s horse and weep, halting his passage into the city. The eldest woman informs him that they are grieving the loss of their husbands, who were killed at the siege of the city of Thebes. Creon, the lord of Thebes, has dishonored them by refusing to bury or cremate their bodies. Enraged at the ladies’ plight, Theseus marches on Thebes, which he easily conquers. After returning the bones of their husbands to the four women for the funeral rites, Theseus discovers two wounded enemy soldiers lying on the battlefield, nearing death. Rather than kill them, he mercifully heals the Theban soldiers’ injuries, but condemns them to a life of imprisonment in an Athenian tower.
The prisoners, named Palamon and Arcite, are cousins and sworn brothers. Both live in the prison tower for several years. One spring morning, Palamon awakes early, looks out the window, and sees fair-haired Emelye, Theseus’s sister-in-law. She is making flower garlands, “To doon honour to May” (1047). He falls in love and moans with heartache. His cry awakens Arcite, who comes to investigate the matter. As Arcite peers out the window, he too falls in love with the beautiful flower-clad maiden. They argue over her, but eventually realize the futility of such a struggle when neither can ever leave the prison.
One day, a duke named Perotheus, friend both to Theseus and Arcite, petitions for Arcite’s freedom. Theseus agrees, on the condition that Arcite be banished permanently from Athens on pain of death. Arcite returns to Thebes, miserable and jealous of Palamon, who can still see Emelye every day from the tower. But Palamon, too, grows more sorrowful than ever; he believes that Arcite will lay siege to Athens and take Emelye by force. The knight poses the question to the listeners, rhetorically: who is worse off, Arcite or Palamon?
Summary: Part 2
Some time later, winged Mercury, messenger to the gods, appears to Arcite in a dream and urges him to return to Athens. By this time, Arcite has grown gaunt and frail from lovesickness. He realizes that he could enter the city disguised and not be recognized. He does so and takes on a job as a page in Emelye’s chamber under the pseudonym Philostrate. This puts him close to Emelye but not close enough. Wandering in the woods one spring day, he fashions garlands of leaves and laments the conflict in his heart—his desire to return to Thebes and his need to be near his beloved. As it -happens, Palamon has escaped from seven years of imprisonment that very day and hears Arcite’s song and monologue while -sneaking through the woods. They confront each other, each claiming the right to Emelye. Arcite challenges his old friend to a duel the next day. They meet in a field and bludgeon each other ruthlessly.
Theseus, out on a hunt, finds these two warriors brutally hacking away at each other. Palamon reveals their identities and love for Emelye. He implores the duke to justly decide their fate, suggesting that they both deserve to die. Theseus is about to respond by killing them, but the women of his court—especially his queen and Emelye—intervene, pleading for Palamon and Arcite’s lives. The duke consents and decides instead to hold a tournament fifty weeks from that day. The two men will be pitted against one another, each with a hundred of the finest men he can gather. The winner will be awarded Emelye’s hand.
The Knight’s Tale is a romance that encapsulates the themes, motifs, and ideals of courtly love: love is like an illness that can change the lover’s physical appearance, the lover risks death to win favor with his lady, and he is inspired to utter eloquent poetic complaints. The lovers go without sleep because they are tormented by their love, and for many years they pine away hopelessly for an unattainable woman. The tale is set in mythological Greece, but Chaucer’s primary source for it is Boccaccio’s Teseida, an Italian poem written about thirty years before The Canterbury Tales. As was typical of medieval and Renaissance romances, ancient Greece is imagined as quite similar to feudal Europe, with knights and dukes instead of heroes, and various other medieval features.
Some critics have suggested that the Knight’s Tale is an allegory, in which each character represents an abstract idea or theme. For example, Arcite and Palamon might represent the active and the contemplative life, respectively. But it is difficult to convincingly interpret the tale based on a distinction between the two lovers, or to find a moral based on their different actions. Palamon and Arcite are quite similar, and neither one seems to have the stronger claim on Emelye.
The main theme of the tale is the instability of human life—joy and suffering are never far apart from one another, and nobody is safe from disaster. Moreover, when one person’s fortunes are up, another person’s are down. This theme is expressed by the pattern of the narrative, in which descriptions of good fortune are quickly followed by disasters, and characters are subject to dramatic reversals of fortune. When the supplicating widows interrupt Theseus’s victory procession home to Athens, he senses that their grief is somehow connected to his joy and asks them if they grieve out of envy. But one of the widows formulates the connection differently, pointing out that they are on opposite sides of Fortune’s “false wheel” (925).
Soon, the widows’ husbands’ remains are returned to them, and Theseus once again emerges victorious. But as soon as the widows are raised up by Fortune’s wheel, Palamon and Arcite are discovered cast down, close to death, and Theseus imprisons them for life. But, no sooner are Palamon’s and Arcite’s fortunes dashed down than Emelye appears in the garden outside their prison as a symbol of spring and renewed life. When Arcite wins his freedom, each of the friends thinks that his condition is worse than the other’s.
Good fortune and bad fortune seem connected to one another in a pattern, suggesting that some kind of cosmic or moral order underlies the apparently random mishaps and disasters of the narrative. There are other such repeated elements in the story. The widows who supplicate for their husbands’ remains at the story’s opening are mirrored by Emelye and Theseus’s queen, who supplicate Theseus to spare Palamon and Arcite’s lives. Palamon’s appeal to Theseus to rightly judge their quarrel echoes the knight’s appeal to the listeners to decide who is more miserable. Additionally, when Arcite wanders in the woods, singing and fashioning garlands, he echoes Palamon’s first vision of Emelye through the tower window, when he saw her making garlands. Both acts take place in the month of May.
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