A Bluffer's Guide To Great Books: The Knight's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Knight's Tale - illuminated manuscript & exemplary knight
A Canterbury Tale
This is perhaps the oddest of the Canterbury Tales.
Written in the established courtly style, exemplifying its literary and social conventions, it is often treated as just that - an exemplar. It is however, undermined as it were from without and is thereby cast in an ironic light.
This 'without' is nevertheless contained within the Tales itself; the Prologue to be exact, where portraits are drawn of the various narrators, the Knight being the first.
On the surface he is depicted as 'a verray, parfit gentil knyght', but his history as recounted in his prologue rather undermines this picture.
As recent scholarship shows, the Knight, rather than being a man of honour, was a mercenary involved in some of the bloodiest and least heroic battles of the age (something a contemporary audience would have recognised).
Moreover (although not as damning), he is nowhere near as shiny as we might expect a mythically pure and noble knight to be:
Of fustian he wered a gypon
Al bismotered with his habergeon ...
In other words, he wore dirty clothes.
Before we go on to examine how this 'tongue-in-cheek' portrait reflects upon the tale itself, she should learn about the basic plot ...
Palamon & Arcite, Emelye and the Joust
Retelling an Ancient Greek story (originality was frowned upon in Chaucer's time), but in Medieval dress, the Knight tells of Theseus's victory over the Amazons (a warrior tribe of women) and what ensues on his ride home to Athens.
Peripherally Involved in the aftermath of the Siege of Thebes, he captures two knights (Palamon & Arcite) and takes them back to Athens where they both fall in love with another of Theseus's conquests - the lovely Emelye, sister of his Amazonian queen.
The two knights (whos having espied Emelye from their prison cells) escape and fight each other (very violently) over the hand of Emelye.
Recaptured, Theseus decides that the two suitors should fight it out in an orderly combat - a joust in other words, with all its splendid trappings.
Arcite wins, but the gods intervene and Arcite is thrown from his horse and dies.
After a suitably long period of mourning, Theseus marries Palamon and Emelye, and all ends happily ever after.
So, this splendid tale, ancient (and therefore unoriginal and more-or-less thoroughly un-Christian), featuring various medieval rhetorical devices and 'courtly' traditions, is ironic, eh?
The firmest evidence for taking it this way is the discontinuity between the Tale and the Knight that tells it, who is a dirty, unprincipled warrior.
Does this suggest that we read the rest of the text in light of this? Is our narrator all-too 'unreliable'? We may as well, and by doing so Chaucer's courtly romance is turned on its head and reveals itself as a closet critique of the culture of the times.
Not only is the narrator far from the courtly ideal, in many respects so are Arcite & Palamon, who fight
... as two Boars whom Love to Battel draws
With rising Bristles and with froathy Jaws 205
Their adverse Breasts with Tusks oblique they wound;
With Grunts and Groans the Forest rings around.
Certainly their animalistic agression (there are more examples) is institutionalised and tempered at the tournament, but how far may we believe in the courtly solution to the problem?
Indeed, Chaos intrudes on even the courtly rite when Saturn tilts the tables unhorsing Arcite and killing him in the process. The court and it's ritual are not robust enough to fully integrate passion and process.
- Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Medieval Political Theory | Reviews in His
, ‘It seems to me that the problem with this entire discussion is that no-one has tried to define irony’.
Whichever way you read it, this is one of the pinnacles of English Literary achievement, and one moreover that has kept generation after generation entertained, intrigued and edified! Enjoy!