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

WHO ARE THE GODS?

Fortune, as we have seen, plays a large part in the tale. The gods act as agents of that fortune at the same time that they represent the order of God. ("Jupiter" is named as the First Mover, God, since after all this is supposed to be pre-Christian Greece.)

How, you might ask, can it be a poem about God's plan if there are pagan gods running the show? Chaucer gets out of this potentially sticky problem brilliantly by subtly changing the gods to their respective planets. They still talk and act like gods, but the influence they exert is in the form of astrological influences, which many in Chaucer's audience would accept. It's not Saturn the cruel god who topples Arcite from his horse, it's the influence of Saturn an evil planet. The gods/planets also embody abstract ideals, Venus representing both good and bad love, Diana showing cruel as well as proper chastity.

SOCIAL ORDER

An ordered society represented by ceremony and ritual is crucial to a smoothly running world. Theseus also shows this by conquering the Amazon society, run by women, and Creon, who is not ruled by reason. Another symbol of the importance of society is the stress on "compaignye," which is the opposite of death where man is alone, as Arcite bewails in his dying speech. The marriage ending shows the ultimate victory of the social world over the solitary one.


VOWS

Arcite and Palamon break their vow of kinship and knighthood; they vow faithfulness to the gods of their choice; they vow undying love for Emelye. These promises made and broken show the conflict of ideals and the difficulty of keeping them, because of fortune's turns and humanity's nature. The only one who's different is Theseus, who changes his mind only when he tempers his vows with mercy. You must look at the two knights' vows and determine which ones are the most important to keep.

FORTUNE

The wheel of fortune image was very familiar to Chaucer's audience. The wheel of fortune spins, making paupers kings, and vice versa, but behind it is the stable, unchanging providence of God, which we can't see or understand. So there are two levels of understanding, one in which men blame fortune for their ever-changing lives, and a higher order where destiny is decreed. Arcite lives on the lower level and believes fortune rules everything, while Palamon accepts that whatever is ordained will happen. Table of Contents


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