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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS

The major characters in the General Prologue are the very people who soon will be telling their stories with other characters in them. So keep in mind that Chaucer's description of each character tells us something about the character's personality, but that we'll also learn something more about the character based on the story he or she tells. (After our picture of the Miller, for example, we're not surprised that he tells a dirty story.) We get further hints from the prologues to each person's story.

Chaucer tells us much about each pilgrim, not only by telling us what they do for a living, but also through description of their clothes, attitudes, even their bodies. His medieval audience would compare Chaucer's descriptions against the social stereotypes they knew already about each person's profession or "station." Chaucer's list of attributes often parodies the standards set for a given rank, turning some descriptions into great comedy.

THE KNIGHT

The Knight is everything an archetypal medieval knight should be: "worthy" (distinguished), and loving chivalry, truth, honor, "freedom" (selflessness), and courtesy. There's no irony here. He is "ever honored" for his bravery. He's quite literally been through the wars; his tunic is still stained by his chain-mail armor because he's heading on his pilgrimage straight from his latest Crusade. He's "gentil" (well bred), "verray" (true), in short, "parfit" (perfect). Chaucer uses all the conventional descriptions because the Knight is what every knight should be, but usually isn't.

We hear more about the Knight's 15 "mortal battles" than about his appearance, since his actions are more important than his looks. (All we know besides his tunic is that he is not gaudily dressed and has "good" horses.) His actions are more important to his audience (who, like us, are excited by news of foreign wars and travel) and also to his own code of knightly behavior. Keep this in mind during his Tale, which deals with two other worthy knights whose behavior dictates who will win or lose the lady they both love.


THE SQUIRE

The Squire is a young man of about 20, not yet as mature as his father. He is a "lover" and "lusty bachelor," which meant a young man aspiring to knighthood. His hair is curled as though it had been set-telling us he is more concerned than his father about appearances-and he places importance on fighting for his lady's honor, not, like his father, for abstract ideals or God. Squires were apprenticed to knights before they could become knights (even King Arthur was one), which is why this Squire is "courteous, humble," and carves meat at his father's table. He can sing and dance, joust, and write songs and poems-all important social accomplishments for a young man of his rank. He wears stylish but daring clothing-a short gown (equivalent in shock value to a mini-skirt)- which would not be viewed kindly by priests warning against stylish clothing.

It's been said that Chaucer didn't like the Squire because of the young man's emphasis on vanity and pretty things, but the description, even the curls, is the standard romance convention for young heroes. (Don't forget, the Squire also is very agile and "of great strength.") And the last couplet tells that he's courteous and well bred. True to his nature, his tale tells of Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's court, and the magical gifts he bestows in a foreign land. The tale may have gone on to speak of the Squire's other main interest, love, but we'll never know because Chaucer left it unfinished. (He does mention the love of a falcon for her lost mate, though.) We get another view of the Squire's good breeding in a compliment from the Franklin, who wishes his own son were more Squire-like.

NOTE:

The Squire is intentionally compared to the description of spring at the beginning of the Prologue. His clothes are embroidered like a meadow, "al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and rede," and he is "fresh as is the month of May." Like the birds sleeping with open eyes, he sleeps "namore than dooth a nightingale" because of his high spirits and energy. He is of nature, rather than of the "higher" orders of reason and thought like the Knight, but there's hope. After all, he's still young.

THE YEOMAN

The Knight's servant (or assistant) is dressed in green, has bright peacock- feather arrows in his belt, and a "mighty bow" in his hand, so Chaucer guesses he's a forester and hunter when not attending the Knight. He also wears a medal of St. Christopher, patron saint of foresters, around his neck. He's obviously proud of his abilities since he takes care not to let his arrow feathers droop.

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