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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Knight's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "Knight's Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, each of the different tales which comprise the larger work are told by a separate pilgrim to pass the time during a long trek to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket. The first tale is told by a Knight recently returned from the Crusades. Because the Knight is presented as a traditional, old-fashioned sort of fellow, it should come as no surprise that he tells a tale of courtly love.

What is courtly love? This term refers to a phenomenon of the late middle ages when women were accorded an almost religious status, and the act of seeking a woman's favor took on the flavor of a religious quest. Ironically, however, while women seem to be central to the story, in fact they do absolutely nothing. The point of these stories was to show how women for men represented a metaphor for the man's relationship with the divine, and consequently in these works women function as completely static works of art.

These works of art also bear a cookie-cutter similarity to one another. Women in courtly-love tales were always blonde, with large eyes, smooth skin, a small mouth, and small high breasts. Just as there was little allowance made for the individual characteristics of real live women, there was very little deviation in the codes of behavior allowed within the framework of a courtly love relationship. The man is expected to see the woman from afar and be smitten by her beauty. He makes some type of approach and is initially rebuffed. He persists, eventually overcoming her fears, and she accepts tokens of his esteem; often she gives him something in return which he wears into battle as a talisman (battle is an integral part of proving one's worth to the lady). Generally after the battle, she accepts his love and a sexual relationship ensues.

This is precisely what happens in the "Knight's Tale." Two male cousins, Arcite and Palamon, are imprisoned in a tower. Looking out of their barred window, they see the beautiful sister-in-law of their captor walking in the garden. They learn that the beautiful young woman is named Emelye, and both fall in love with her. Arcite is released from prison on the grounds that he should leave the country forever, but instead he gets a job at court so he can be near Emelye. Palamon, however, escapes and challenges Arcite for Emelye's love. Emelye prays to the goddess Diana that both young men might give up this silly idea because she does not want either of them to die for love of her. 

The king intervenes to turn this private duel into a formal tournament, and the reader hopes these rash young men will reach a peaceful solution. But that is not to be. Arcite prays to Mars that he might win the joust; Palamon prays to Venus that he might win Emelye. Both prayers are, ironically, answered; Arcite, declared the winner, is thrown from his horse and mortally injured. Before he dies, Arcite cedes his beloved to Palamon, who marries Emelye and lives happily ever after. 

Note that the woman in this story -- Emelye -- is not accorded any power or authority at all. The convention of the courtly romance prohibits its audience from seeing women as women, but merely as symbols of the traditional conception of femininity; any action of women in this story actually occurs as the action of men reflected back to them through the mirror of womanhood. 

For example, Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emelye after spying her from afar. They seem to perceive Emelye's mere existence as an act of aggression upon themselves; as Arcite says, "Ye sleen me with your eyen, Emelye!" (You slay me with your eyes, Emily!) But in fact, Emelye has done nothing to seduce either cousin; when Palamon and Arcite first fall in love with her, she is not even aware that they exist. In addition, through the courting process, Emelye seems to favor Arcite, but when Palamon emerges the survivor, the Knight offers no indication that Emelye does not accept Palamon with good grace.

The "Knight's Tale" reflects the courtly love tradition's idea of what the male's relationship to the female should be. This tradition saw women as objects to be revered and love as a game to be mastered, another arena for conquest just like war. The courtly love genre reflected in this story did not see women as free agents, or indeed, as agents at all.

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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