And therwithal on knees doun he fil, And seyde, ‘Venus, if it be thy wil Yow in this gardyn thus to transfigure Bifore me, sorweful, wrecche creature, Out of this prison helpe that we may scapen. And if so be my destynee be shapen By eterne word to dyen in prisoun, Of oure lynage have som compassioun, That is so lowe ybroght by tirannye.’
Medieval literature was obsessed with the idea of courtly love. In this idealized relationship, described in the Knight’s Tale, a knight was utterly devoted to a woman from afar, sacrificing everything for her but never consummating the relationship. The story possesses passion but manages to reflect religious values and detail the woman’s virginity. The Knight, a symbol of chivalry, begins his tale with what seems to be an ideal example of courtly love: men who are in love with a woman from afar and can never have her.
To me, that am thy cosyn, and thy brother Ysworn ful depe, and ech of us til oother, That nevere, for to dyen in the peyne, Til that deeth departe shal us tweyne, Neither of us in love to hyndre oother, Ne in noon oother cas, my leeve brother[.]
Loyalty, especially among knights, represents another value of Medieval chivalry. The Knight’s Tale contains nearly a perfect setup for an ideal Medieval romance. The main elements of the story revolve around the unstoppable conflict between the values of courtly love and of brotherly loyalty. Chaucer’s Knight seems to be the perfect vessel for a traditional story of the time.
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan, Than may be yeve of any erthely man[.]
As the Knight’s Tale goes on, the characters in his story begin falling short of the code of chivalry. In fact, they behave quite passionately, obeying not the rules of court but the laws of love. The men betray each other, fight, and actively chase after the ultimate prize: Emelye. In addition, the men quite often curse their situation and god, an act most unseemly for a brave and virtuous knight who normally suffers through any indignation or pain with grace and honor.
Suffiseth heere ensamples oon or two, And though I koude rekene a thousand mo.
These lines come in the middle of several lengthy descriptions of the statues in the stadium Theseus built for the knights’ tournament. The descriptions come right before the high point in the story, interrupting the action with lots of irrelevant details. Throughout the story, the Knight offers several asides, all the while telling his audience that he’s trying to keep his tale short. Ironically, the tale would be much shorter if the Knight didn’t keep interrupting in order to say so. Chaucer may have been satirizing Medieval stories that were often long-winded and included what he may have considered far too many arty details.
And Juppiter so wys my soule gye. To speken of a servant proprely, With alle circumstances trewely — That is to seyn, trouthe, honour, knyghthede, Wysdom, humblesse, estaat, and heigh kynrede, Fredom, and al that longeth to that art —[.]
The Knight’s Tale ends with one cousin winning the tournament but dying and the other marrying Emelye. No one has to lose face, and everyone’s prayers are answered. Arcite gives a brief speech before dying, reinforcing the ideas of chivalry but couched in the language of Classical pagan gods. The Knight’s Tale straddles the line between traditional, proper Medieval stories and rougher, more passionate stories to come. The Knight himself seems to represent chivalry, but a more human, less stuffy version than found in Medieval literature.