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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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STORY LINE

We learn a lot about the Knight's Tale from the very fact that the Knight is chosen to tell the first tale. "Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas" (whether by accident, luck, or chance), the Knight chooses the straw. But it only seems to be random: it's proper that the Knight begin first according to the class structure. So things may appear to be luck when actually there's a plan behind it all.

The Knight will not describe Theseus' feats, he says; then he proceeds to tell us all the things he won't tell us about.

NOTE:

This is a device the Knight uses often, which provides humor and is Chaucer's sly way of getting in description that is not strictly relevant.

We get a vivid picture of his strength and his love of "much glory and great solemnity" (pomp). In fact, his first words show he's annoyed that his homecoming is marred by women in black crying and upsetting the order of things.

The first mention of fortune comes from an old woman who says each of the widows was royalty before her husband died at Thebes, but now they are wretches, "Thanked be Fortune and hir false wheel" (line 67). She adds that fortune doesn't let anyone remain secure.

Theseus won't stand for this injustice, and he dashes off to avenge these women. It is women who throughout the tale will spur him to action and provide the just ruler with compassion. Here, he's protective as he pities their plight.

After he has won the battle, Theseus returns to do "greet honor" to the women, as is orderly and proper. The burial of the Athenian soldiers is a ritual that helps man order himself in the universe.

Arcite and Palamon, although of noble birth, are stuck in a tower until the end of their days. But again, fortune turns just when you'd think things couldn't get any worse. Palamon, "by aventure or cas" (another reference to accident or luck), sees Emelye walking in the garden. She is fresh as nature herself but also sings as "hevenly" as an angel (line 197). Palamon, looking at her, can't tell whether she's a woman or a goddess. But if the two cousins are prisoners, she is bound, too, by the garden walls, within which she "romed up and doun" (line 211). This is Chaucer's way of showing that fortune circles everyone.


When Palamon cries out as though pierced through the heart, Arcite ironically lectures him on accepting what can't be changed.

For God's love, endure in patience Our prison, for there's no choice; Fortune has given us this adversity. (lines 226-228)

Saturn (the planet that rules chaos), says Arcite, must have given them this misfortune. This is a rational attitude regarding fortune, but it quickly changes when Arcite sees Emelye and falls in love with her himself. Suddenly he is willing to forego his oldest bond of knighthood-his bond with Palamon-for the sake of a lady he has not even met. They start to quarrel, and Palamon accuses Arcite of breaking their sworn oath. Like a child, Palamon claims that Emelye is his because he saw her first.

Arcite notes that there's a difference in each one's love: Palamon loves her in "holinesse," not even knowing whether she's a woman; while Arcite loves her as a fellow "creature" (lines 300-301), that is, as a woman. It may be that Arcite is right, but he uses the argument to prove that "all's fair in love," which justifies breaking his vow. Does it? We'll have to see which vow-love or blood-is the more lasting.

When Arcite's fortune changes through the love of Perotheus and the mercy of Theseus, he's unable to see that it's really God's "purveyaunce" (providence) (line 394) that's setting him free. Instead, he can see only as far as the physical things of nature, and moans that not "erthe, water, fyr, ne air/Ne creature" (lines 388-389) can help him. (He also uses a classical image of man being "drunk," meaning that his brain is muddled by seeing only lower things and not spiritual heights. But Arcite cannot see that he is doing exactly that.) Palamon's prison, he complains, is really Paradise, and fortune has thrown him good dice (line 380).

Meanwhile Palamon is saying the same things about Arcite. While Arcite wonders why people can't just accept God's will and fortune (which he himself can't), Palamon asks what "governaunce" (justice or reason) there is in God's foreknowledge (line 455). Each knight refuses to accept his fate and is torn between what he wants and what he has, between passion and duty. One is in prison and can see his lady; one is exiled and cut off from his beloved. Which of them, the Knight asks us with a sly grin, is the worse off?

Arcite, pale and ill from love, has a dream in which Mercury, messenger of the gods, tells him,

To Attenes shaltou wende [go], Ther is thee shapen of thy wo an ende [there the end of your woe is arranged]. (lines 533-534)

Believing this means he will win Emelye, he risks death by returning to Athens. What he doesn't know is that his "ende" means his death. (In Christian imagery, Mercury often stands for the Devil.)

Fortune takes over from the time that Arcite, "al alone," returns to Athens in disguise.

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