Chaucer Opens His Poem

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a satire written about the corruption of the citizens, specifically the clergy, during fourteenth-century England. Chaucer opens his poem with a General Prologue, in which he introduces thirty pilgrims, including Chaucer the Pilgrim, who represent every social class, except royalty and serfs, and their pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. Before they depart from the Tabard Inn, the Host of the Inn, Harry Bailly, proposes a tale-telling contest to prevent bordom on a journey that will take several weeks.

The rules for the contest are simple: Each pilgrim must tell two tales on the way to the shrine and two tales on the return for a total of four tales. Whoever tells the most entertaining and moral tale will win the prize of a meal at the Tabard Inn courtesy of the other pilgrims when they return. Bailly’s tale-telling contest helps develop Chaucer’s use of frame narrative. The outer frame of the story is the pilgrimage to Canterbury while the inner frame is the pilgrims’ tales. The Canterbury Tales was intended to have had 120 individual tales within one overarching story, but Chaucer died before he could finish, completing only twenty-two tales and two fragmented tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is still studied today because of his uncanny ability to match tale to teller, a quality which is demonstrated in the first to tell a tale, the Knight.

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The first pilgrim Chaucer introduces in the General Prologue is the noble and strong Knight, one of the few characters Chaucer does not satirize because The Knight is often called one of the ?ideal’ pilgrims (Calabrese 2). In his description of the Knight, Chaucer describes the fifteen mortal battles [in which] he had been (GP 4), which Chaucer dwells upon at length . . . before relating a single detail of his appearance (Martin 54). Chaucer purposefully focuses on the Knight’s achievements, rather than his physical appearance, because the Knight’s actions and achievements enable the reader to develop a picture in his or her mind of the Knight’s true appearance without being told.

Chaucer mentions only He wore a fustian tunic stained and dark / With smudges where his armour left mark; / Just home from service, he had joined our ranks (GP 5). This short descriptor highlights the Knight’s dedication and strong faith because he joins the pilgrimage directly from a battle. The Knight’s character is described in much detail, exemplifying Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy (4). The Knight’s noble qualities are described in order to demonstrate that the way in which the Knight’s portrait contrasts to those of the other pilgrims is in its focus on moral attributes rather than on physical appearance (Rossignol 198). The Knight’s noble personality is representative of the nobility of his profession as a knight.

During the fourteenth century, knights were depicted as mounted warriors, covered in armor, wielding their swords and lances. However, being a knight required many years of dedication and training, not only in warrior skills but also in nobility skills. The process of becoming a knight started when a young boy reached the age of about seven, when he became a page. The page then gained more skill and became a squire, who, when he reached the age of twenty-one, was dubbed a knight by a royal or a high ranking knight. During training, he learned to fight properly, be noble and just, which included Christian values.

However, not anybody could become a knight; a candidate for knighthood had to possess monetary means because being a knight came with its expenses. A knight had to pay for armor, weapons, and servants, all costing valuable money, but one of the greatest expenses was good war horses [that] could cost over ??100 (Calabrese 7). The high cost meant only a noble could be a knight; therefore, Chaucer’s knight must be in the nobility. A main aspect of knighthood was religion. During the fourteenth century, many of the knights fought in the Crusades against the Muslims for control over the Holy Lands. Many knights believed they were soldiers of Christ (8) who stopped at nothing to achieve their goal of spreading Christianity. Others used the Crusades as an outlet of violence and left a trail of destruction. Chaucer’s Knight, who participated in many Crusades, is believed to have had good intentions which lead readers to believe the Crusading spirit was still alive (10). Based on the importance of knights in medieval society, readers can infer that the Knight is a chivalrous, well-respected, wealthy noble, who fought in many Crusades, aspects that will be represented in the Knight’s Tale.

As the first pilgrim to tell a tale, the Knight opens the contest with a chivalric romance about two Greek princes, Arcite and Palamon, and their quest for the love of the fair and beautiful Emily. Tales of adventuring knights, love and courtly manners made chivalric romance popular among the aristocracy in fourteenth-century England. The themes of nobility, love, suffering, valor and courtesy (Rossignol 201) were common themes in the literature and the lives of the upper class. The Knight, inspired by the tales he heard, uses his influence to demonstrate to the other pilgrims how to live by the chivalric code of honor (203). As Knight is inspired by tales of chivilaric romance, Chaucer is inspired by Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze d’Emelia.

The Teseida by the Italian writer Boccaccio was written about 1340, approximately fifty years before Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. The two poems consist of the same characters, themes, and main plots points. The original poem of Palamon and Arcite included about 10,000 lines, causing Chaucer to make the changes and [reduce] the immense length of the Teseida to roughly a quarter of its size (Salter 155). Chaucer rewrote Boccaccio’s poem not only to shorten it but also to create changes in order to reflect medieval life. Chaucer made Arcite and Palamon imitate knightly figures, dress in medieval clothing, and compete in the medieval activities such as tournaments, all of which were not present during Ancient Greece. Even the language that Arcite and Palamon use is realistically depicting the virile, masculine medieval world in which [the Knight] lived (Stevens 134). By having Arcite and Palamon represent noble, fierce and strong knights, the reflection of the Knight’s character is able to shine through them.

The different depictions of battle, whether between the Athenians and the Thebans or Palamon and Arcite, reflect the Crusades in which the Knight participated. His fierceness in battle is shown through comparing the Greek princes to animal. Chaucer describes Palamon as a lion fighting-mad with rage, / Arcite a cruel tiger (KnT 47). The battles throughout the poem not only showcase the Knight in battle but also reveal to the readers the Knight’s opinion on war. The Knight has experienced many of the joys, as well the horrific devastation war can bring. Michael A. Calabrese states that The Knight’s Tale is a reflection of the Knight’s Crusades because the poem suggests that battle and violence sometimes bring success, . . . but sometimes violence brings disaster (12). Arcite and Palamon show the Knight’s noblity in action, but they unveil his character as a well-rounded chivalrous person. Palamon is made to represent the purer motives, (Stevens 154) while Arcite represents the worldly man of action (154).

A knight in medieval society needs to represent the noble and passionate values of Palamon while also having the determined and just values of Arcite. By having both of their personalities, Chaucer creates the idealistic knight. Chaucer not only changes Boccaccio’s work to reflect the knight in medieval life but also adds Boethius’ philosophical ideas from Consolation of Philosophy in order to create more philosophical themes in The Knight’s Tale (Salter 159).

As Chaucer began to translate Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy into Middle English, he realized that with a few small changes, he would be able to apply Boethius’ ideas to the theme of suffering in The Knight’s Tale. However, as Salter notes, even the smallest change is full of significance (158). This small change is shown through Chaucer’s emphasis on the causes and effect of human suffering, a theme not prominent in Teseida. Both Arcite and Palamon experience suffering and pain when they are imprisoned and not able to express their love to Emily. A new depth to suffering is explored after Arcite is freed from prison but banned from staying in Athens and seeing his dear Emily. He becomes so distraught that There never was a man so woe-begone, / Nor is, nor shall be while the the world goes on (Chaucer, KnT 39). Arcite cannot imagine suffering becoming worse, but it does so after Arcite dies and Palamon and Emily must learn to live with his death although Passing all in weeping, Emily / was the most sorrowful of the company (80).

The sorrow they feel only strengthens, but at his speech at the end of the poem, Duke Theseus puts into words the underlying theme of suffering. He states, ?For every man will parish, king and page, / / For all must die and there is none comes back’ (84). Suffering and death are all around the heroes, who cannot escape it, but he also states, ?that after grief there should be bliss’ (85). Theseus’ words relate directly to the Boethian philosophy that change (including death) is a necessary feature of universe, and that the two people who are left behind should stop mourning over what they cannot change and make the best of what is left to them (Rossignol 203). Emily and Palamon follow this advice, and The Knight’s Tale concludes with the couple married. The theme of suffering is present in the Knight’s life through the countless battles he fought through. However, the Knight cannot dwell on the misery and destruction of the past; he must accept them and continue his life trying to find new joys. Chaucer also uses Boethius’ philosophies with the use of religion.

The Boethian idea that the course of one’s life is determined by fate is another prominent theme, but Chaucer easily incorporates it with his use of the pagan gods of Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war. When Arcite and Palamon are preparing for the tournament to win Emily’s love, they pray at the temples of Mars and Venus, respectively. As their prayers are heard, Immediately an uproar was begun / Over this granted boon in Heaven above (Chaucer, KnT 68), between Venus, sponsored by forces quite as deadly as those appropriate to Mars (Salter 175) and Mars, who operates without pain for humanity (175). The dispute is resolved when Saturn decides Venus will win. The decision of the gods has a fatal effect on Arcite as Venus is responsible for sending an infernal fury to cause Arcita’s horse to throw him (176). Arcite’s winning of the tournament has no effect on his fate because the will of the gods trumps the actions of the characters. This ruthlessness of divine determination (177) is included not merely to feature the theme of fate but also to create a Christian theme in The Knight’s Tale.

Christianity was very important to medieval knights, so elements of Christianity are prevalent in The Knight’s Tale. The critic Carl Curtis believes that the Tale highlights the faults in pagan gods because although Arcite is an honest and just man; the rivalry between the gods, not his own actions, is the cause of his downfall. The Tale is meant to show that noble people, deserve better gods (par. 28), with the better gods being the Christian God.

Although Christianity did not exist during the time of the ancient Greeks, readers can infer Chaucer was referring to the Christian God by the use of Biblical references throughout the Tale. One of the earliest examples of a Biblical analogy occurs when Palamon and Arcite first see Emily from their prison cell as Arcite declares, ?The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead’ (Chaucer, KnT 33). The scene has uncanny resemblance to the scene when David first sees Bathsheba in the the Second Book of Samuel in the Bible. Both David and Arcite look down from on high at a women below them whose beauty fully captivates them and yet who is completely ignorant of their gaze (Curtis par. 4). Their love for the woman they desire leads to both of their downfalls.

Chaucer makes another Biblical reference when he has Saturn say, I slew Samson when he shook the pillar (KnT 69). The mentioning of Samson from the Book of Judges in the Bible suggests that the pagan gods have control over fate, but Chaucer included the Biblical reference to have the readers ponder their own religion and their own merciful and loving Christian God compared to the pagan gods’ often violent and controlling outbreaks. References to Biblical text coincide with the Knight as the speaker of the Tale. The Knight is a devout Christian, so any tale the Knight tells will predictably include a religious aspect. Chaucer is able to represent many aspects of the Knight’s character through the use of chivalric and romantic elements throughout The Knight’s Tale.

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