ENGL 252: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales II: the Knight's Tale (KT)

Genre, Date, Sources

The Knight's Tale is a romance, but note that it was written in English, not French.  By the late 14th-century, the term "romance" no longer means "a narrative in the French vernacular"; it refers to a particular genre, a story which typically has a long-ago-and-far-away setting, aristocratic characters, plots involving both love and warfare, and a happy ending.  Romances frequently draw on the conventions of courtly love, depicting lovers who suffer from Ovidian lovesickness and express their feelings in flowery speeches.  A common plot line is the winning of a bride by a brave knight through deeds of chivalric prowess. 

The Knight's Tale was originally written ca. 1384-5 as an independent work, before Chaucer began work on the Canterbury Tales collection. (In the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, written ca. 1385, he refers to this poem as Palamon and Arcite.) Its primary source is a 14th-century Italian poem by Boccaccio called Il Teseida (the "Story of Theseus"), but Chaucer also drew on other sources, most notably, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (a 5th-century Latin philosophical work which Chaucer had previously translated into English); the Thebaid (a Latin work about Thebes written by Statius in the first century); and the Romance of Thebes (a mid-twelfth-century French "translatio" of the Thebaid written, like the Romance of Eneas, by an unknown poet for the Anglo-Norman court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine).  The specific sources Chaucer drew on are less important than the general principle that in writing the Knight's Tale, Chaucer was fully and self-consciously engaged in the ongoing poetic process known as Translatio, borrowing elements from various classical (Latin) and vernacular (Italian and French) models and using them to craft his own "beautifully ordered composition" (to borrow the phrase used by Chrétien de Troyes).

The Knight's Tale as Translatio Romance

The classical setting of the Knight's Tale (which takes place in ancient Greece when Theseus is "duke" of Athens) further associates Chaucer's poem with the "romances of antiquity" adapted from Latin sources in the mid-twelfth-century (e.g. works such as the Romance of Eneas and the Romance of Thebes, a source for both Chaucer for Boccaccio).  This resemblance is not surprising, since in many ways, Chaucer's struggle to establish the literary legitimacy of his mother tongue, English, recalls the efforts of the writers of 12th-century romance to establish the literary legitimacy of their mother tongue, French.  By the time Chaucer was born in the mid-fourteenth century, French (like Italian) was already firmly established as a recognized literary language.  But the same was not yet true of English. It wasn't until the second half of the fourteenth century that, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, English replaced French as the first language of the court (but note that aristocrats were still typically fluent in both languages). Chaucer is therefore part of the first generation of court poets whose literary entertainments were written primarily in English (rather than in French or in Latin).  This circumstance helps to explain his preoccupation throughout the Canterbury Tales with establishing and demonstrating the literary authority, legitimacy and effectiveness of English as a language of literature.

Like the 12th-century French poets who preceded him, Chaucer had begun his literary apprenticeship by translating into his mother tongue literary works by the authors (auctores) who were recognized as "authoritative"; unlike the 12th-century poets, for Chaucer, these auctores included writers working in the French and Italian vernaculars as well as in Latin.  His surviving translations into English include parts of the French Romance of the Rose; of Boethius's Latin Consolation of Philosophy; and adaptations of two Italian works by Boccaccio:  the Knight's Tale, based on Il Teseida; and Troilus and Cressida, based on Il Filostrato.  (Additionally, it is thought that Boccaccio's frame narrative the Decameron provided him with the idea if not a direct source for the Canterbury Tales.)  The Knight's Tale, with its mixture of classical and vernacular sources and its classical setting, showcases Chaucer's abilitiy to imitate the French translatio "romances of antiquity" of the mid-twelfth-century and demonstrates his respect not only for classical authors who wrote in Latin, but for the vernacular poets whose works established the literary legitimacy of both French and Italian.  The fact that he gives his own "translatio" romance pride of place within the Canterbury Tales collection, both by positioning it first (after the General Prologue) and by giving it to the Knight, the highest born aristocrat on the Pilgrimage, indicates the prestige with which he regarded the "romances of antiquity" and the notion of translatio

The Love Triangle

There's a lot going on in the Knight's Tale.  Don't worry about the details of the battles or the philosophical digressions.  We are interested primarily in the story of the love triangle between Emily, Palamon and Arcita (sometimes spelled "Arcite").  Pay attention to the characterization of these three characters.  To what extent are Palamon and Arcita similar?  How and when do they begin to differ?  Pay careful attention to the three temples and the three prayers in part three.  How do they add to our understanding of the three main characters?  Consider also the treatment of love, especially with regards to power relations between the sexes, underlying attitudes towards sex and sexuality, and the attitude toward and depiction of women.  To what extent does the Knight's Tale resemble other medieval romances we have read or learned about? (e.g. the Romance of Tristan, the Knight of the Cart, Cligés, or the Romance of Eneas).  And again, how does it differ?

Part one introduces Palamon and Arcita, two cousins of the royal house of Thebes, who have been imprisoned by "Duke" Theseus of Athens after the Greeks win a war against Thebes.  The two cousins have sworn eternal friendship and loyalty to each other, but this friendship dissolves into jealous rivalry when first Palamon and then Arcita fall in love with the same woman.  One day from their prison tower, they spot Theseus's sister-in-law, Emily, picking flowers in the garden below.  Each falls passionately in love with her, at first sight, from afar, without ever having spoken to her, touched her or even being in the same room with her. They express their feelings in flowery speeches and suffer all the pangs of conventional Ovidian lovesickness. But while their passion is strong enough to turn the best of friends into mortal foes, it seems to have little to do with physical desire. The beautiful Emily is far-off and ethereal, and the two men's passion for a woman they have never even spoken to seems curiously abstract -- more about the idea of love than attached to any physical reality. At the end of part one, Arcita is ransomed and returns to Thebes, leaving Palamon alone as Theseus's prisoner.  The narrator invites the lovers in his audience to consider which of the two is worse off, Arcita (who has freedom but is far from the lady he loves) or Palamon (who is imprisoned but can see his lady every day; KT p. 39). 

Part two recounts how Arcita, unable to bear life far from Emily, secretly returns to Greece and, calling himself Philostrate, serves as a courtier in Emily's household, where he becomes a great favorite of Theseus.  Seven years go by, after which Palamon escapes from prison.  By chance he encounters Arcita and overhears his cousin declare his passion for Emily.  The jealous rivals battle fiercely over which of the two has the right to love Emily -- whom Palamon has never actually met, and to whom Arcita has never been more than a servant.  They are discovered by Theseus, who condemns them both to death when it is revealed that Palamon is his escaped Theban prisoner and that "Philostrate" is actually the ransomed Theban prince Arcita (who had been exiled from Greece on pain of death).  But when the court ladies plead for mercy, Theseus agrees to pardon the Theban princes.  In the spirit of reconciliation, he declares a tournament between the rivals, the victor of which will have the right to marry Emily. 

Part three consists primarily of the preparations for the tournament.  It includes long descriptive passages that initially seem gratuitous (since they do little to advance the plot) but in fact prove to be highly significant.  We learn that the amphitheater where the tournament will take place incorporates three temples. To the East (a direction associated with the sunrise and symbolic new beginnings) is a temple dedicated to Venus, the Goddess of Love; to the West (associated with the sunset and symbolic endings) is a temple to Mars, God of War; and to the North (associated with the coldness and sterility of winter) is the temple of Diana, Goddess of Chastity.  The morning before the battle, each member of the love triangle prays in one of the temples; both the deity worshipped and the suppliant's specific prayer suggest what is most important to the character in question.  For the first time, we are able to draw meaningful distinctions between Palamon and Arcita, who up until this point have been more or less indistinguishable from each other.  Palamon prays at the altar of Venus, the Goddess of Love, begging her to grant him "possession of Emily" (KT p. 63). His prayer reveals him to be a man of the emotions whose first priority is love, not chivalric prowess.  By contrast, Arcita is a man of action who values chivalric prowess over love, as is revealed by his prayer to Mars, the God of War, "Give me victory, I ask no more" (KT p. 68).   Finally, Emily's prayer to Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, reveals her lack of interest in either man:  she begs to be allowed to remain "a virgin all [her] life" (KT p. 65).  If that is not possible, however, she asks the Goddess to ensure that she be given to "him that shall desire me most" (KT p. 65) -- a clear preference for the man of emotion over the man of action.

Part four reveals how these seemingly incompatible prayers are reconciled.  In the tournament, Arcita defeats Palamon, achieving the victory he had prayed Mars for. As a result, Theseus declares that "the Theban prince Arcita is the man / and shall have Emily, won by Fortune's grace" (KT p. 74).  But before the marriage can take place, Arcita falls from his horse and is mortally wounded.  On his deathbed, the cousins are reconciled and Arcita tells Emily that if she ever marries, it should be to Palamon.  The tender-hearted Emily mourns Arcita's death for seven years, after which Theseus gives her in marriage to Palamon (again ignoring her wishes) -- thereby fulfilling both Palamon's and Emily's prayers the morning of the tournament.  Palamon lost the battle, but ultimately wins Emily -- his only desire.  For her part, Emily is not allowed to remain a virgin, but she does get her second request, to be given to "him that most desires me" -- Palamon, whose worship of Venus rather than Mars implies that he does indeed love her more than did Arcita, whose first priority was victory in battle.  The Knight's Tale ends with the marriage of Palamon and Emily, fulfilling the romance convention of the "happy ending" -- although Emily's behavior in part four seems oddly out of character with her eloquently stated distaste for marriage in part three.

This discrepancy invites the reader to consider more carefully the depiction of male-female power relations in the work.  It is significant that Emily is the younger sister of Hippolyta, the Amazon queen whom Theseus defeated in battle and took as his (presumably unwilling) bride.  As Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta called the shots in a female-centered society from which men were largely excluded.  But as the wife of the "Duke" of Athens, she loses that autonomy and power to Theseus, who as victorious general and as husband/brother-in-law exerts absolute authority over both Hippolyta and Emily.  The fact that neither Hippolyta nor Emily has the right to refuse an undesired marriage is significant.  And the fact that Hippolyta and Theseus were literally at war prior to their marriage subtly establishes two themes that will be important in our other Chaucer readings (and indeed, in our readings throughout the rest of the quarter):  the metaphorical "battle of the sexes" and the marital power struggles that occur between husbands and wives.  Emily's distaste for marriage was apparently of no importance to Theseus or to either of her suitors.  Her lack of autonomy and the men's utter disregard for her wishes provides a subtle thematic link between the Knight's Tale and our next two Chaucer readings, the Miller's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2013

Click here for Study Questions for the General Prologue

Click here for Study Questions for the Miller's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

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