The Knight's Tale
"The Knight's Tale" (Middle English: The Knightes Tale) is the first tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The story introduces various typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas. The story is written in iambic pentameter end-rhymed couplets.
Cousins Arcite and Palamon are captured and imprisoned by Theseus, duke of Athens following his battle against Creon. Their cell is in the tower of Theseus's castle which overlooks his palace garden. In prison Palamon wakes early one morning in May, to see Emily (Emelye) in the courtyard. He instantly falls in love with her; his moan is heard by Arcite, who then too wakes to see Emily, and falls in love with her as well.
The competition brought about by this love causes them to hate each other. After some years, Arcite is released from prison through the good offices of Theseus's friend Pirithoos, and then returns to Athens in disguise and enters service in Emily's household. Palamon eventually escapes by drugging the jailer and while hiding in a grove overhears Arcite singing about love and fortune.
They begin to duel with each other over who should get Emily, but are thwarted by the arrival of Theseus, who sentences them to gather 100 men apiece and to fight a mass judicial tournament, the winner of which is to marry Emily. The forces assemble; Palamon prays to Venus to make Emily his wife; Emily prays to Diana to stay unmarried and that if that should prove impossible that she marry the one who really loves her; and Arcite prays to Mars for victory. Theseus lays down rules for the tournament so that if any man becomes seriously injured, he must be dragged out of the battle and is no longer in combat. Because of this, the story seems to claim at the end that there were almost no deaths on either side. Although both Palamon and Arcite fight valiantly, Palamon is wounded by a sword thrust from one of Arcite's men, and is unhorsed. Theseus declares the fight to be over. Arcite wins the battle, but following an intervention by Saturn, is wounded by his horse throwing him off and then falling on him before he can claim Emily as his prize. As he dies, he tells Emily that she should marry Palamon, because he would make a good husband for her, and so Palamon marries Emily. Therefore all prayers were fulfilled by the gods for those who asked for their assistance.
Sources and composition
The epic poem Teseida (full title Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia, or "The Theseid, Concerning the Nuptials of Emily") by Giovanni Boccaccio is the source of the tale, although Chaucer makes many significant diversions from that poem. Whereas the Teseida has 9896 lines in twelve books, "The Knight's Tale" has only 2250 lines, though it is still one of the longer poems in the Tales. Most of the epic characteristics of the Teseida are removed, and instead the poem conforms primarily to the genre of romance; there are no epic invocations; the fighting and mythological references are severely reduced; Theseus' conquests, the assault on Thebes and the epic catalogue of heroes fighting for Palamon and Arcite are all severely compressed.
Although the tale is considered a chivalric romance, it is markedly different from either the English or French traditions of such tales. For instance, there is the inclusion of philosophical themes—mainly of the kind contained in the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius—astrological references and an epic context.
The following tale, by the Miller, also involves the conflict between two men over a woman. It is a direct antithesis to the Knight's with none of the nobility or heritage of classical mythology, but is instead rollicking, bawdy, comedic and designed to annoy the Knight.
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Richard Edwardes's 1566 play Palamon and Arcite is based on it, but the text of the play is lost. Another version of the story was performed in 1594, but this is only known from a reference in Philip Henslowe's diary. The Two Noble Kinsmen, a 1613 play co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is based on the tale.
John Dryden translated this story to a more modern language in the style of his time. Dryden's book is entitled Palamon and Arcite and is longer than the original text due to Dryden's own poetic touches.
The story is one of the tales that inspired the 2001 movie A Knight's Tale, in which Chaucer himself is one of the principal characters.
- Burrow, J. A. (2004). "The Canterbury Tales I: romance". In Piero Boitani. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer (Second ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
- Finlayson 1992, p. 128.
- Finlayson 1992, p. 127–8.
- Benson, L. D. "The Knight's Tale (general note)". Harvard University.
- Finlayson, p. 129.
- Leicester Bradner Albert S. Cook, The Life and Poems of Richard Edwards, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 1927, p.76
- Larry D. Benson, ed. (2008). The Riverside Chaucer (Third ed.). Oxford UP. ISBN 978-0-19-955209-2.
- Finlayson, John (1992). "The "Knight's Tale": The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and Philosophy". The Chaucer Review 27 (1): 126149. (subscription required)
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- Read "The Knight's Tale" with interlinear translation
- Modern Translation of the Knight's Tale and Other Resources at eChaucer
- Detailed summary from the materials for Harvard University's Chaucer classes in the Core Program, the English Department, and the Division of Continuing Education.