The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | The Knight's Tale | Summary

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Summary

Part I


Theseus, Duke of Athens, was a mighty conqueror, even triumphing over the Amazons and taking the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, as his wife. The story begins as he is returning home from this conquest. As he nears Athens, he comes upon a large crowd of grieving women. Taken aback, he asks them what is wrong. They tell him their husbands have been killed by the forces of King Creon, who will not even let them retrieve the bodies of the dead.

Theseus is angered and swears to kill Creon. He leaves immediately to carry out his oath, sending Hippolyta and her sister Emily into Athens. Theseus and his forces then ride to Thebes, where he kills Creon, captures the city, and returns the remains of the slain men to their wives. He also takes as his prisoners two knights of Thebes: Arcita and Palamon. The two knights live as prisoners for years. One morning Palamon sees Emily through the bars of his window and falls instantly in love. Then Arcita looks out, and he, too, falls instantly in love. They argue about who saw her first.

Arcita is later released from prison and exiled. Because he loves Emily, this seems like a fate worse than prison. He thinks that Palamon, still in prison, is better off. Palamon, meanwhile, envies Arcita's freedom.

Part II

Back in Thebes Arcita continues to pine away for Emily. One night he has a dream of the god Mercury, who tells him to go to Athens. He dresses like a poor worker and goes to Athens, where he serves under the name Philostrate in Emily's household. Over the years he becomes one of Theseus's most valued men.

Meanwhile, Palamon has spent seven years in prison. One May night he is able to escape. Arcita decides to go for a ride in the woods, and it happens to be the same woods where Palamon is hiding. When Palamon finally recognizes Arcita, he bursts out of hiding enraged and challenges Arcita to a duel.

The next day Arcita and Palamon are in the midst of their duel when Theseus (providentially) gets a sudden urge to go hunting. With Hippolyta and Emily, he rides out into the woods and comes upon the men. Theseus breaks up their fight, and Palamon reveals who he is and the fact that Philostrate is really Arcita. Theseus decides to kill both of them, but the women in the hunting party beg Theseus to have mercy. Theseus agrees and proposes that, in a year's time, they each bring 100 knights and battle for Emily's hand in marriage.

Part III

Duke Theseus spends a large amount of money preparing for the tournament. He builds a large stadium with tiered rows for spectators. At the east gate, he builds a large temple devoted to Venus; at the west gate, he constructs a temple dedicated to Mars; and, at the north gate, he raises a temple dedicated to Diana.

When all is ready, Arcita and Palamon arrive with their knights. To prepare for the contest, Palamon goes to the temple devoted to Venus and prays that the goddess will allow him to win. Palamon receives a sign that Venus has heard his prayer. Emily goes to the temple of Diana and prays that she may remain a virgin rather than a wife. Diana tells her that she must be married to one of the men. Arcita goes to the temple of Mars and prays for victory. He, too, receives a sign that he will win.

The god Saturn, knowing that both men have been promised Emily, must work out a plan to solve this problem.

Part IV

Before the contest everyone is busy getting ready. Some are placing bets. Theseus declares that knives, crossbows, poleaxes, and several other weapons are not allowed. He also forbids killing an injured man and sets other restrictions.

The contest lasts until evening, when at last Palamon is wounded and unhorsed. Theseus declares Arcita the winner. Venus is angry that Palamon did not win, but Saturn reassures her that "it will be your turn soon." As Arcita rides toward Emily, his horse suddenly throws him from its back. His injury proves to be fatal, and he dies. Theseus, believing that "after grief there should be bliss," tells Emily and Palamon to marry. They do and live in contentment and "love unbroken."


Analysis

The Knight's Tale is considered a romance—a story about noble characters in distant lands or times, with themes of love and chivalry. Typically romances end with a marriage. In most ways this tale fulfills these criteria. The characters are idealized: Theseus is described as noble and manly, Emily is beautiful and gentle, the knights are eager to fight for victory and glory. The tale does end with a marriage, although the ironic twist of Emily's engagement to two men is typical of Chaucer's sense of humor.

The theme of love, sex, and fellowship plays an important part in this tale. The nature of love is explored throughout the story. The two knights fall instantly in love (or lust) with Emily when they see her. Love trumps any other friendships, rules, or courtesies; as Arcita says, in love "each for himself alone, there is no other." Love also makes men into fools: After the two knights are found fighting over Emily, Theseus points out that they could have both lived as free men if not for the "height of folly" that is love. Later the knights who come to fight alongside Arcita and Palamon are said to be those with a "taste for chivalry" and who "loved the ladies and had strength to fight." Clearly love is seen as a force that can motivate men to do nearly anything.

The love triangle that drives the plot of this story—two men in love with the same beautiful woman—is a plot device used in several of the tales. It helps to advance the theme of rivalry, which is inherent in the friendly competition of the storytelling competition but also appears in various forms in several tales. Emily—beautiful, chaste, and passive—is typical of similar women in other tales.

The tension of a changing social class structure is developed in this tale. As in several other tales, rising and falling in the hierarchy of the estates is credited to forces beyond human ones, such as Fortune or Providence:

  • The grieving woman in Part I explains that the women all used to be the wives of high-ranking nobles but have been brought low by "Fortune and her treacherous wheel/That suffers no estate on earth to feel/Secure."
  • Emily is to move from the virgin estate to the wife estate due to choices made by the gods.
  • Arcita blames Fortune for his exile and subsequently lives as a servant in Emily's house, moving from noble knight to a lower class: "Time was Arcita was my name by right;/Now I'm called Philostrate, not worth a mite!"
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