During this university term, I have been reading a selection of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and I thought it might be nice to share a few summaries of them. Please bear in mind, though: I’m only scratching the surface of these tales; there are so many complex themes going on, particularly connecting the different stories, and it would be wrong to judge any of them through a simple summary.
The Canterbury Tales is quite a long narrative that takes place during a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Lots of different members of society unite on this journey, their different beliefs, social classes, and professions no longer separating them, and the idea is that each of them will tell a tale (generally with a moral) to the other pilgrims.
“The Knight’s Tale”, told, obviously, by the knight, is generally placed in manuscripts near the start of The Canterbury Tales, if not at the very beginning; it is the opening, after the general prologue, of a pretty extensive collection of moral tales.
After a great battle, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, has conquered the Amazons, women renowned for their fighting prowess and bravery, and is bringing back home with him Ypolita, the queen of the Amazons whom he has married, and her younger sister, Emily. Before he can return to Athens, however, he comes across two wounded Thebans, Palamon and Arcite. As Thebes and Athens were not exactly at peace during this time, Theseus decides to take them both back with him as prisoners.
Sometime later, Palamon and Arcite are in their cell, musing over their friendship, when they glimpse Emily wandering in the garden outside. All it takes is a few fleeting glances at her, and both of the Thebans fall in love. Their friendship soon disintegrates as they realise that they are each other’s competition, and instead argue over Emily. Whilst they do this, however, they seem to forget the fact that, regardless of whom deserves her more, the pair are still locked in a cell.
However, not long after this, Perotheus, a friend of Theseus, asks for Arcite’s release, and, although it is granted, Arcite is banished from Athens. As soon as Arcite leaves, he realises the problem: he is still in love with Emily, and so he returns to Athens in disguise and takes service in Theseus’ household.
Meanwhile, Palamon manages a daring escape from his cell and is hiding in a wood when he encounters Arcite, as he performs an errand for the duke. The two former friends begin to battle one another, each worried about the competition they have for Emily’s hand in marriage. They continue to fight until Theseus, out on a hunt with Ypolita and Emily, breaks them apart. Realising who they are, he intends to have them killed right there on the spot, but the women plead for their lives, causing Theseus to spare them. Instead, hearing their stories, he arranges a tournament that will decide Emily’s suitor.
A whole year later, this tournament takes place. Palamon prays to the goddess Venus to grant him Emily’s hand, whilst Arcite prays to Mars, the god of war. Up on Mount Olympus, Venus and Mars begin to argue with one another, until Saturn finds a solution to suit them both. Whilst Palamon prayed that he would be married to Emily, Arcite only prayed that he would win the tournament.
So, back in the world of the mortals, Arcite is crowned the victor of the tournament, but, as he rides about the arena on his horse, a fury, sent by the gods, appears in front of him and causes his horse to rear suddenly. Palamon falls and is mortally wounded, leaving, years later, Palamon free to wed Emily. Their marriage thus ends the tale and the knight stops talking.
There’s a lot going on in “The Knight’s Tale”, but I only want to touch on a few themes, namely: competition, order, and the objectified woman.
When it comes to competition, there’s a lot to say about the relationship between Palamon and Arcite. In truth, the men don’t spot Emily at the same time: Palamon sees her, falls in love with her, and then wakes Arcite so that he can see her, too. It is only then that the competition arises, as both proclaim the love for the same woman.
An article published in 1985 by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick analyses such competitive relationships, by suggesting that the relationship between two rivals of a woman are just as strong as those are between the rivals and the lady, herself. In other words, Palamon and Arcite’s relationship is just as important as their love for Emily, as it is the competition that drives them on and keeps them interested in their pursuit.
From this view, it can be argued that Arcite may have only fallen in love with Emily because she was already made into a desirable object through Palamon’s affections for her; if the latter had never announced his love, it may have been that Arcite never experienced any feelings for her, at all. Equally, it is interesting that Palamon is desperate to show his friend his new love-interest; using Sedgwick’s logic, it may be that he wanted competition for his love, in order to make Emily more desirable, and therefore a more worthy wife.
Regardless of the Thebans’ motivations, it is the competition between them that destroys their initial friendship and becomes a destructive force that results in their separation, as well as the death of Arcite.
“The Knight’s Tale” is written in quite an elevated style, Chaucer’s intricate metre reflecting the Athenian setting with the duke in charge and his conquests surrounding him. He is the centre of order, breaking apart Palamon and Arcite’s fight, and generally dictating the narrative.
However, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Theseus isn’t really the centre of order, at all. In the end, it is not Theseus who dictates what happens in the tournament, but the gods, themselves. They are shown to choose Arcite to die, a choice that quickly results in his death. In this way, they hold a power over mortal lives that, although it is mimicked by Theseus, can never be contained by a human being.
The Objectified Woman
The Amazonian women are often used as examples in feminist philosophy; these were a fearless group of women who used men only for the purposes of procreation. If they gave birth to a boy, they would send the child away as an infant, in the vague idea of them reuniting with their fathers, but, in reality, they were really just rejecting them. Theseus parades Ypolita and Emily as his conquests, forcing Ypolita to marry him and thus taming her wild, Amazonian identity. Here’s a short little insight into the narrative of “The Knight’s Tale”:
And how asseged was Ypolita,
The faire, hardy queene of Scithia (Chacuer I.881-882).
This great queen has become an obstacle to be “asseged”, a term that roughly translates to the modern English word, “besieged”. She is conquered, just as her empire was, tamed by marriage, which is the fate that also awaits Emily.
There’s a short scene in the tale where Emily prays to the gods that she will not have to marry either Palamon or Arcite. She states that she doesn’t want to marry, particularly these two, squabbling prisoners. Yet Emily’s wishes go completely ignored by the narrative; she is an object of desire, and her opinions do not count for very much at all. What is interesting, however, is that Chaucer ends the tale by suggesting that Palamon and Emily lived happily together.
Emily didn’t want to marry, yet in the end, she is happy, a contrast that can only be explained by the lack of importance that women held during this period. For all intensive purposes, other than Emily’s actual emotional state, she would have been happy, as she would have been fulfilling her purpose as a dutiful wife.
It’s easy to shake off such scenes and suggest that Chaucer is blatantly just as misogynistic as the rest of his society, but I will leave you with this one question: if Chaucer believed that the opinions of women didn’t matter, then why would he include the scene where Emily states her desperation to avoid marriage? Why would he even consider her opinion, if all he thought, was that she was an object for men to desire?
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 3-328.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men. 1985.