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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Knight’s Tale
Once upon a time there lived a duke Theseus who was the lord and governor of Athens. He was the mightiest conqueror in his day and had subdued many wealthy kingdoms. With his military genius and bravery he had conquered Scythia, the realm of the Amazons. He married Scythia’s queen Hippolyta and brought her and her younger sister Emelye home to his country with great pomp and splendor. The Knight merely touches over the lengthy details of Theseus’ siege and the difficulties encountered on his voyage home since it would be unfair to the other pilgrims who should also have their turn to tell their tales. The Knight then continues with his tale. On his triumphant return voyage, Theseus encounters a company of ladies dressed in black who are lamenting loudly. The ladies told Theseus that each of them had once been a duchess or a queen but is now destitute. They tell him that the old Creon had killed their husbands at the siege of Thebes and had maliciously defiled their dead bodies by giving them to the dogs to eat. They appeal to the duke for help. The good duke, enraged by this tale of woe swore upon his honor to take revenge from Creon. He immediately set off towards Thebes with his army and ordered Hippolyta to proceed to Athens with her sister Emelye. Theseus chose a battlefield and killed Creon in a fair combat. He then conquered Thebes and restored the bones of their dead husbands to the ladies.
After the battle got over the soldiers began to pillage the pile of slaughtered men. Among the heap of corpses they found two young knights named Arcite and Palamon who had been badly wounded. They claimed to be of royal blood and swore that they were brothers since they had been born to two sisters. The looters brought them before Theseus who refused to accept any ransom for their release and ordered to imprison them in Athens. Theseus then returns to Athens and lives in happiness while Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned in a tower and lead a miserable existence.
After several years, one fresh May morning beautiful Emelye happened to wander about the garden gathering flowers to weave a garland. The garden was adjoining the great tower in which Arcite and Palamon were imprisoned. Palamon who was cursing his fate happened to see Emily through a window and gave a startled cry of anguish. The alarmed Arcite questions him about this behavior. Palamon replies that he had cried out in anguish because of the unearthly beauty of the lady wandering in the garden. Arcite’s curiosity was piqued and he too looked out of the window. Emily’s beauty struck him to the quick and he declared that he would die unless he saw her everyday. These words angered Palamon who accused Arcite of being a traitor to declare love for a lady whom he chose first. Arcite disdainfully replied that while Palamon’s love was nothing more than a religious feeling while his was real love, the love of a human being. Despite the fact that they are kin and sworn brothers they decide that everything is fair in love and war. They concur that each one shall fight for himself for love. Their friendship soon paled into a bitter and long strife.
It so happened that one day a duke named Perotheus, who was a friend of both Theseus and Arcite, arrived in Athens on a friendly visit. He requested Theseus to free Arcite on certain terms and conditions. It was decided that Arcite would be freed but he shall have to leave Athens forever. If he were ever found in Athens he would be beheaded.
Arcite is very sad at this turn of events and laments that it is his fate to permanently dwell in hell. When he was imprisoned he could at least catch a glimpse of his beloved Emily but now he is condemned never to see her again. He thinks that Palamon is luckier since he is still imprisoned and can enjoy Emily’s presence. In the meanwhile when Palamon realizes that Arcite has been released, he goes wild with grief. He thinks that Arcite can raise an army in Thebes and attack Athens and capture Emelye. The Knight now pauses and asks the reader to make the impossible decision about who is in a worse condition, Arcite or Palamon.