Chaucer's Knight's Tale, Part 3
It is generally accepted among Chaucerian scholars that, while there is some question of the order in which Chaucer meant the other tales within The Canterbury Tales to appear, The Knight’s Tale is indisputably first. As knights were still generally respected and admired in Chaucer’s time, this would seem the natural choice of character to not only lead the procession on their pilgrimage, but to also lead off the telling of the tales meant to serve as a diversion for the pilgrims while on their journey.
The description of the knight within the General Prologue confirms his militaristic background and firmly establishes him as a Christian soldier, equally at home fighting in any part of the world perceived to be barbaric, pagan, or otherwise non-conforming to the beliefs of Christianity. It is interesting to note, then, that his chosen tale begins with and revolves around the actions of Theseus, who can be seen as a parallel of the knight himself in the role of warrior or soldier, but also as a personification of the pagan beliefs that the knight is described as having fought against. Just as the General Prologue includes a listing of the many battles fought by the knight in the description of his person, so does the knight begin his tale by telling of the many battles fought and won by Theseus. In doing so, he attributes to Theseus a characteristic that Chaucer has previously bestowed on the knight himself, namely that of “chivalrye” (45 and 865)
Rather than offer further insight into the character of each pilgrim beyond the General Prologue, Chaucer allows the tales to further define the characters that tell them. Thus, the knight’s tale is not only of the battles and conquests attributed to Theseus, but also one of romance and courtly love, possibly mirroring the knight’s own views of love and romance as a character of courtly status within the group of pilgrims.
Some of the richest symbolism offered in The Knight’s Tale can be found in part three, in which is described the “noble theatre” (1885) built by Theseus for the arranged confrontation between Arcite and Palamon, to include the temples to the gods included within the structure, and the events leading up to the confrontation. The interconnectedness of Chaucer’s symbolism can be seen throughout the tales, with this particular section of The Knight’s Tale containing the majority of its allegory and symbolism. Within the first few lines of part three, it is already clear that this is no ordinary arena or gathering place for such a sporting event as Theseus intends to wage there:
“That swich a noble theatre as it was,
I dar well seyn that in this world ther nas.
The circuit a myle was aboute,
Walled of stoon, and diched al withoute.
Round was the shap, in manere of compas,” (1885-1889)
Describing the structure as being a mile in circumference immediately conveys the impression of the exaggerated and the fantastic, and further sets the stage, so to speak, for what is to come. In addition, the round shape conveys an image of a microcosm that is representative of the macrocosm of Earth and in turn, the cosmos and the universe. The presence of the temples to Venus, Mars, and Diana further enhances the parallels between this coliseum-like arena and the heavens. In addition, Theseus, in his role as ruler of Athens and builder of the theatre, becomes linked symbolically with Jupiter, ruler of the heavens and of the gods depicted in the temples within the theatre.
Just as Jupiter is the god that rules expansiveness, so the theatre built by Theseus is described in larger-than-life terms. In addition, just as Jupiter is the overall ruler of the other gods, so is Theseus ruler over Athens, and over Palamon, Arcite and Emelye. In taking the parallel still further, Theseus has sovereignty over the theatre and the temples within it, while Jupiter rules over the gods of those temples.
The placement of the temples to Venus, Mars, and Diana furthers the parallel of the theatre as representative of the heavens, to include not only the positions of the planets but also the astrological signs that are represented by each planet and the characteristics of both the planets and the signs they are associated with. The temple to Venus is placed on the east side of the arena, a position appropriate for the planet commonly referred to as the “morning star,” while Mars is at the opposite point in the west, furthering the binary opposition as seen throughout The Knight’s Tale. As Venus and Mars represent the opposite realms of love and war, respectively, so are their temples placed on opposite sides of the arena.
The allegory can be carried further with the consideration that, as planets, Mars and Venus are considered rulers of opposite astrological signs as well, in that Mars is the ruler of the sign Aries and Venus is the ruler of its binary opposite, Libra. In this sense, however, the compass points of the two temples are in opposition to the cusps on a zodiac wheel that are ruled by their respective signs, as Aries is the natural sign considered to be associated with the eastern cusp and the rising sun, and Libra is in its natural position on the opposite side, associated with the western cusp and the setting sun.
Meanwhile the temple to Diana is placed at the northern point, equidistant to both Mars and Venus. As Diana is associated with the moon, a planet that is highly transitory in comparison to each of the other two, she can be seen as vacillating between the two extremes of love and war, depending upon which of her traits is being considered. Diana, as the goddess of chastity, can be seen as associated with pure and unadulterated love, the closest association presented by Chaucer of the courtly love ideal. However, Diana is also called the huntress and can be fierce when called upon to avenge herself against any that she sees as violating her chastity and purity.
In consideration of the versatility of Diana, and in turn, of the fickleness associated with the moon in astrological terms, she vacillates between the forces ruled by Venus and Mars and is thus placed an equal distance from each of them, but also in the slightly superior position to the north. In addition, from an astrological viewpoint, the moon is considered to be the ruler of the sign of Cancer, the sign that is equidistant on the zodiac wheel between Aries and Libra, and in its natural home at the northern cusp.
Descriptions given of the interior of each of the temples also offer personifications of many of the traits that are attributed to not only the gods in question, but also the planets and their respective astrological signs. For example, the temple of Venus is described as follows:
“The broken slepes and the sykes colde,
the sacred teres and the waymentinge,
the fyry strokes of the desiringe
that loves servaunts in this lyf enduren;” (1920-1923)
“Plesaunce and Hope, Desyr, Foolhardiness,
Beautee and Youthe, Bauderie, Richesse,
Charmes and Force, Lesinges, Flaterye,
Dispense, Bisynesse, and Jalousye,” (1925-1928)
All of these traits as personified on the walls of the temple of Venus are of course associated with the goddess herself, but they also describe the traits that are generally associated with the astrological sign of Libra and, to a lesser extent, to the sign of Taurus, also ruled by Venus in the absence of what is believed to be its true ruler. Within the temple is seen the dichotomy of her divine influence. She rules over the sensual pleasures as well as the higher forms of love, but she is also shown to influence the lamenting of the unrequited love and the lost love.
In her role as ruler of Libra, Venus also provides a taste for those material pleasures that are associated with love and romance, providing the typical Libran with a love of the finer things in life, so to speak. Finally, the description of the goddess as naked and floating in the sea is an image that Chaucer has chosen to use in at least one other epic poem, that being House of Fame. The descriptions are almost identical:
“The statue of Venus, glorious for to see,
Was naked fletinge in the large see,
And fro the navele doun all covered was
With wawes grene, and brighte as any glas.” (CT 1955-1958)
“Hyt was of Venus redely,
The temple; for in portreyture,
I sawgh anoon-ryght hir figure
Naked fletynge in a see” (HF 130-133)
This would indicate that perhaps this view was a popular one for the time period in which Chaucer wrote.
Within the temple of Mars, the description provided is markedly opposite that of the temple of Venus, as is intended in order to further the opposition that Chaucer has built so heavily into this tale. The depictions of the ravages of war as shown within the temple of Mars are designed to create revulsion and horror rather than tender thoughts of love, won or lost. Yet, it is not only ravages of war that the knight describes as seeing in the temple of Mars, but also death of various causes and forms. Indeed, Mars seems to have much in common with Saturn, who later describes himself as the cause of similar deaths among mortal men. The descriptions of this temple include the following:
“The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;
the shepne brenning with the blake smoke;
the treson of the mording in the bedde;” (1999-2001)
These listings could easily be imagined as also being at home in any temple dedicated to Saturn, given that he claims sovereignty over much the same treachery and deceit as is attributed to Mars as the smile while hiding a knife under a cloak, murder while the victim sleeps, and burning buildings:
“Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte;
the murmure and the cherles rebelling,
the groyninge and the pryvee empoisoning.” (2458-2460)
Once again, however, opposites are thrown into relief in the discussion of Saturn in which he most resembles Mars but shows blatant favoritism to Venus.
In describing the temple of Diana, the depictions here are of neither love nor war, but rather hint at the emotions that can lead to and result from either. In her anger, Diana is described as having transformed those who displeased her into animals or trees, allowing some to live in their new form and suffering others to die, as is the case of Attheon, turned into a hart and then devoured by his own hounds. Diana seems at once to be aware of the emotions that govern both love and war, but at the same time, she remains aloof and above them, also seen in the symbolic placement of her temple to the north of the other two.
With regard to the entourage returning to Athens with Palamon and Arcite, there are no distinct descriptions of either Palamon or Arcite, but rather only their traveling companions. As either suitor is considered equally worthy of Emelye’s love, Chaucer deliberately does not provide distinguishing characteristics for either, but rather gives the impression that they are not only equal but nearly as identical in person as they are in their love for Emelye.
The two kings who chose to accompany the suitors, however, are seen to be opposites of each other and closely paralleling the choice of each suitor of god/goddess to appeal to for a favorable outcome to their conflict. Ligurge of Trace travels with Palamon, and is described as:
“Ful hye upon a char of gold stood he,
with foure white boles in the trays.” (2138-2139)
“A wrethe of gold arm-greet, of huge wighte,
Upon his heed, set ful of stones brighte,
Of fyne rubies and of dynamaunts.
Aboute his char ther wenten white alaunts,” (2145-2148)
The repetition of the colors of white and red correspond with Palamon’s romantic entreaty to Venus, the goddess of love, as white and red are the established colors of romance and passion. While red is also the color associated with Mars, Ligurge has a preponderance of white in that his chariot is pulled by white bulls and his hounds are white. In this instance, white can be seen not only as a symbol for romance, but also as indicative of the purity and higher form of the courtly love being depicted in the suitors.
While both Palamon and Arcite share the same pure desire toward Emelye, only Palamon prays to the goddess Venus to grant him his desire in the form of Emelye and her love in return for his. In addition, as Venus rules over Taurus as well as Libra in the signs of the zodiac, the fact that Ligurge has bulls pulling his chariot may be indicative of Palamon’s affinity with Venus over the other deities represented, as a bull is the sign for Taurus as well.
Accompanying Arcite is Emetreus, described thus:
“Cam ryding lyk the god of armes, Mars.” (2159)
Further references to the coloring in his clothing and even skin tone show a majority of red:
“A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede as fyr sparklinge.” (2163-2164)
“His nose was height, his eyen bright citryn,
His lippes rounde, his colour was sangwyn;” (2167-2168)
Although citryn is here described as lemon-colored by the text notes, the actual mineral citrine is orange in color and can often have a reddish, fiery look to it. Just as his riding is likened to Mars, so is Emetreus symbolic in accompanying Arcite as the suitor who chooses to pray to Mars for victory on the battlefield that day rather than specifically for the love of Emelye, as does Palamon. This makes Saturn’s job that much easier in that he is able to grant both of their literal prayers each without compromising the other.
Chaucer’s use of binary opposites and parallels can be found throughout The Knight’s Tale. From Theseus and Jupiter, Venus and Mars, to the tale itself as contrasted with the assumed beliefs of the knight as not only a Christian but a Christian soldier of his time, the symbolism is varied and open to various interpretations, of which this is only one.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue. Ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York and London: Norton & Company, 2005.