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knight's tale

13 october 2023

Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" has always been a difficult one for readers to get a handle on. One of the longest Canterbury Tales, with pride of place as first in the collection, the "Knight's Tale" seems to be a straightforward exercise in heroic romance. But it also seems impossible to take that way. For one thing, Chaucer was a master of snark, and practically every other Canterbury Tale, comic or serious, is laced through with edgy, ironic overtones that become inseparable from his rhyming-couplet style. (The only really grave Tale, the Parson's, is in prose.)

For another thing: was there ever a serious heroic romance, in the Middle Ages? It seems to me – not like I'm any kind of expert – but it seems to me, as a casual general reader of these old narratives, that chivalric romances leaned toward self-conscious humor to begin with. Marie de France's lais are shot through with irony. Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, though mysterious and fraught, is something of a farce. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has its grim humor, and then it's not long before we get to Orlando Furioso and later Don Quixote, where the genre consumes itself in self-parody.

Though maybe that's just because we moderns pick out the snarkier side of the past to interest ourselves in. There are of course more serious Arthurian tales, as in Malory; there's Tristan and Isolde. But in Chaucer's work, it can be hard to find the poet settling down for any length of time without a smirk on his face.

And then the telling of "Knight's Tale" is so jaunty. Our heroes are two noble kinsmen named Arcite and Palamon. They are Thebans, taken captive by Duke Theseus of Athens. While locked in a tower, they spot Emelye, sister to Theseus' wife Hippolyta. The two captives fall in love with Emelye and out of friendship with each other.

Arcite is freed; Palamon escapes; they gravitate toward each other in the middle of the woods and commence whacking each other in the head. Theseus interrupts them and suggests that they hold a tournament instead. After much elaborate but rather static preparation, they clash in the lists. Arcite appears to prevail, but at that point "Out of the ground a furie infernal sterte" (line 2684), and Arcite falls off his horse to his death. "Shrighte Emelye, and howleth Palamon" (line 2817) but in time they get over it and marry.

I learned as an undergraduate, and again in graduate school, that the story of "Knight's Tale" comes from Boccaccio's narrative poem Teseida. Have I bothered to read Teseida in the 45 years since I learned that? Of course not. I remember scholarly attention being directed toward how Chaucer adapted Boccaccio; there are several footnotes on adaptation in John Fisher's edition. I suppose that by going back to this source, one could see how much fun Chaucer poked at it. But let's assume that I am going to die ignorant of anything about Boccaccio's Teseida, and try to work from internal evidence.

I was also taught in graduate school that Chaucer was a dogmatic Augustinian Christian, and that any secular story that placed value on love, or arms, or honor, or anything except faith, hope, and charity was inherently silly to 14th-century English people. So a Christian poet like Chaucer, in retelling such stories, was doubtless making fun of them and scorning their romantic content. Boccaccio must have been doing the same thing. In this worldview, there was an awful lot of effort devoted to telling stories that their authors were holding up to solemn ridicule.

This now seems obviously wrong to me, but the critical procedures I imbibed have surely warped my mind permanently when it comes to Chaucer. And yet I still think that "Knight's Tale" is silly, if now for more secular reasons. At times it displays what we might now call inappropriate affect. When the knights finally tilt at one another in the climactic tournament (lines 2605ff.), Chaucer – without breaking his rhyming or metrical pattern – overlays an alliterative pattern:

Ther shyveren shaftes upon sheeldes thikke …
Up spryngen speres twenty fote on highte …
Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede …
It's not that alliterative verse is ridiculous per se. Sir Gawain alliterates, as do more solemn works like Piers Plowman, Cleanness, and Patience. It's the laying of alliteration suddenly on top of the rhyme scheme, landing like a ton of bricks. I find it silly. Maybe Chaucer's original audience found it noble. It's hard to say.

But Emelye at her bath can hardly be meant seriously.

This Emelye, with herte debonaire,
Hir body wash with water of a welle.
But hou she dide hir ryte I dar nat telle,
But it be anything in general,
And yet it were a game to heeren al.
Homer may nod, but he doesn't break off in the middle of Andromache worrying about Hector to smirk about how she looks naked.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Knight's Tale." In The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. John H. Fisher. New York: Holt, 1977. 25-56. PR 1851 .F5