Literature’s ability to combine intense analysis alongside escapist humor is often a solid indicator of timeless literature; this principle holds true even for a poem written in the fourteenth century. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer provides a thought-provoking satire on Medieval life planted within a cast of lively and often laughable characters, all while presenting its readers with an interesting story structure to explore. The work opens with Chaucer, a witty narrator, musing about the tendency of people to make pilgrimages at a certain time of year; the story then introduces its readers to thirty such people, one of them Chaucer himself, preparing to embark on such a pilgrimage to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, England. This array of characters includes individuals from all of the various classes of Medieval society, aside from serfs and members of the monarchy, a feature which provides Chaucer with several points of view from which to examine the social structure of his time. Once the pilgrims have met one another at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, an area near London from which they will begin their journey, the Inn’s Host, Harry Bailly, challenges each to share two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way home in order to pass time during the pilgrimage. The person who can tell a tale that is both morally superior to and more engaging than those of the other pilgrims will be awarded a free dinner upon arrival back at the Inn—at the expense of the twenty-nine “losing” tale-tellers, of course. In theory, these tales, this inner frame of Chaucer’s frame narrative, would have numbered 120, four for each pilgrim, if Chaucer had been able to finish his work. Unfortunately, Chaucer’s death has left readers and historians alike with only twenty-two full tales and two tale fragments. Nevertheless, these snippets of Chaucer’s ultimate goal provide readers with an enlightening view inside the minds of many of the pilgrims, relating their flaws and merits by the stories they tell. In fact, one of Chaucer’s greatest abilities as an author is connecting the theme of each tale seamlessly to the personality of the character relaying it. A particularly interesting pilgrim who showcases this ability of his creator is the Knight, a nobleman whose Tale is as long and complex as his own personality and history in battle.
Chaucer decides to introduce the Knight before any other character. As scholar Rosalyn Rossignol notes, this order may be due to the Knight’s distinguished status. “[H]is position is determined by social rank: He is the highest-ranking layman in the group” (58). Chaucer does, indeed, seem to have great respect for the Knight, but in the case of an author so unafraid of poking fun at even nobles, these sentiments are likely due less to the Knight’s social class and more to his character. The Knight is said to “[have] followed chivalry, / Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy” (Chaucer, GP 4), but unlike the majority of the other pilgrims, his praises are not of satirical nature: Chaucer genuinely declares the Knight’s soul to be pure. An explanation for this choice can be found in the poem’s subsequent lines, in which Chaucer notes that the Knight
had done nobly in his sovereign’s war
And ridden into battle, no man more,
As well in Christian as in heathen places,
And ever honoured for his noble graces. (4)
and continues for several more lines to describe some of the many battles in which the Knight had partaken. “The fact that all of the campaigns in which he has participated belong to the series of holy wars known as the Crusades enhances the nobility of his profession. Ostensibly, crusaders were not merely fighting for land and power but for the conversion of heathen lands and people to Christianity” (Rossignol 59). The Knight is not only holy in these deeds but also holy in nature, being “modest as a maid” (Chaucer, GP 5) and “not gaily dressed” (5), unlike some of the other characters, who enjoy flaunting their wealth and position. The lack of a physical description further paints a picture of humility; in the words of Rossignol, the Knight presents “a kind of paragon against which the virtues and failings of the other pilgrims may be measured” (59). The Knight’s refusal to display his status pompously is further impressive when one considers the prestige of knights in general during Chaucer’s time.
Knights as a military class began to appear shortly after the decline of the Roman Empire as Medieval Germanic kingdoms incorporated the tactics their ancestors had learned in the Roman army. They were commonly of higher class as Don Nardo explains in Medieval Knights and Chivalry: “Typically, a wealthy, respected former military commander became a powerful local lord” (15), so knights were expected to follow a code of chivalry that dictated behavior both on and off the battlefield. Chaucer’s Knight abides by these principles and thus follows social normalities, yet he also blatantly disregards common social behavior by maintaining a lowly appearance and kind demeanor. His respect is given not to worldly things, but to a higher power, as is further exemplified indirectly by his Tale.
The Knight’s Tale is a chivalric romance that follows Palamon and Arcite, two knights whose placement in Ancient Greece may confuse a modern reader familiar with the fact that knighthood was a convention of the Middle Ages. Nardo, however, explains this choice of setting as natural for a man of Chaucer’s time: “Scholars of that era knew a bit about ancient Greece and Rome. . . . In the eyes of those scholars, the famous Roman military general Julius Caesar had been a knight” (11). Other aspects of the Tale come into focus when the teller himself is considered: According to Robert W. Hanning in “The Canterbury Tales,” “Chaucer establishes the Knight’s professional perspective” (71). For example, the description of the grounds on which Palamon and Arcite will fight for Emily, their shared love, was likely influenced by the Knight’s knowledge of medieval tournaments. Originally intended to be “mock battles” (Nardo 49), these events soon became associated with deadliness: “[E]very now and then a knight carrying a grudge issued a challenge to a personal enemy for a real fight” (55). The Knight’s inclusion of details such as the intricacies of tournament-fighting suggest that he himself has been in the position of Palamon and Arcite.
More central to the Tale than these simple assertions of experience, however, is the fact that the Tale itself, like the person from whom it comes, is an enigma. Exactly as the Knight, in the words of Michael A. Calabrese, is identified by “an irony underlined by the stories of brutality behind his many Crusading Battles” (11) yet still maintains a holy image, the Tale finds its main conflict in the opposition of themes. Many would claim that the Knight “raises the problem of an apparently unjust and disorderly universe” (Neuse): Almost all of the events of the Tale are determined by the will of the gods, from Diana’s rejection of Emily’s request for chastity to Arcite’s sudden death at the hands of Saturn. Even the tournament grounds are decorated with elaborate shrines, and the sky above reflects a significant positioning of celestial bodies; in an analysis of the date on which the battle is occuring, Douglas Brooks and Alastair Fowler state, “The sitting of all the domiciles or temples to Mars, Venus, and Diana … is in accordance with an actual state of the heavens” () and continue even further in their research to contest that Saturn and Mars alongside Sol are connected to the personalities of Palamon and Arcite, respectively. Nevertheless, according to Richard Neuse, “[C]haracter-differentiation has been deliberately underplayed so that the question of justice in the world must be confronted: when two equally deserving men strive for the same goal, why should one succeed while the other is killed?” This question in itself may be a sign of the Knight’s belief in a governing force that cannot be explained; in fact, the Knight even claims that he himself is not fit to tell a Tale, which Hanning compares to the theme of insecurity in the Tale as an instance of “the amateur who sets out to tell a story without fully controlling it” (69). The argument that such a governing force as the Knight implies, however, is purely divine, is called into question by various critics.
In the research of Neusse, the gods function partly as symbols for “men’s wills or appetites writ large” Such a contention, if true, would signify that the human characters of the Knight’s Tale do have some control over what occurs to them; after all, both Palamon and Arcite obtain their wishes of marrying Emily and winning the tournament. Perhaps the most influential proponent of this theory, however, is the role of Theseus, the Duke of Athens. As stated by Hanning, Theseus attempts to “enclose and control the love-inspired martial energy of Palamon and Arcite” (69) by ordering the tournament grounds and the temples. Perhaps the inclusion of the Duke is symbolic of the Knight’s admiration of authority; he would have, indeed, served a superior if he had partaken in European feudalism. Hanning continues, however, to assert that even this view of the Tale is faulty: “Theseus, acting as a patron for the Theban princes, calls the lists into being, but the last word belongs to Saturn, who undertakes to use Theseus’ creation to assert his own patronage over the celestial counterparts of Palamon and Arcite” (71). Exactly as the position of knighthood in Europe was controlled by the monarchy only to descend into behaviors of mere pillaging and killing and exactly as tournaments degenerated into dangerous events governed by human whim, so the illusion of peace is broken by the ultimate position of the gods, regardless of the wishes of those they affect. Perhaps the former reading of the Tale, therefore, is more valid, though not certain.
Walter Wadiak gives an enlightening tool with which to understand the message of the Tale when he says, “The Latin adventura originally meant simply ‘that which happens to a person,’ suggesting a kinship with the random and unexpected” The Knight’s Tale’s classification of an adventure story, he argues, allows for an appreciation of the way in which Chaucer upholds the definition of the genre. However, Wadiak proceeds, “the Knight’s own biography looks so much more like a conventional roman d’adventure than the tale that he ends up telling” This “contrast between teller and tale” (Wadiak) can be interpreted, though, as yet another act of humility on the part of the Knight: The Knight wishes to attribute his successes to a divine source, characteristically consistent with his dedication to the Crusades. Even though he, like the knights in his Tale, seems to have contributed to his own success, he is overall too humble a character to claim glory.
Very little reaction emanates from the other pilgrims to the Knight’s Tale; Chaucer’s description of the story-telling’s aftermath suffices at
Not one among the pilgrims, young or old,
But said it was indeed a noble story
Worthy to be remembered for its glory,
And it especially pleased the gentlefolk. (86)
The fact that the “gentlefolk” are most contented by the Tale is indicative of the Tale’s theme; the pilgrims of the lower classes would not be comforted to know, of course, that their sufferings were due to the actions of a force beyond their own reasoning. One would hope, however, that the Knight’s goal is not harming peasants by his reflections but uplifting what he sees as divine pervasion of all life.