“The Knight’s Tale” is part of a collection entitled “The Canterbury Tales.” It is the first of many tales presented by Chaucer in this collection.
The setting of the story is ancient Greece long before the days of Themistocles or Pericles. Even the sack of Troy is a more recent occurrence. Our story takes place in the legendary dawn of Greek history, when Theseus ruled in Athens.
In spite of its setting in ancient Greece, the story reflects customs prevalent during the fourteenth century, the time when Chaucer lived. For example, the knights engage in jousts, and Theseus is called a duke instead of a king.
There are strange anachronisms in the tale. However, Chaucer knew what he was doing. The anachronisms are deliberate – at least some of them. For example, on a wall of a temple dedicated to Mars, there are paintings depicting the deaths of Julius Caesar, Nero, and Mark Anthony, “al be that thilke tyme they were unborn.” So Chaucer knew that these three figures lived much later than the era in which Theseus is supposed to have lived.
As the tale begins, Theseus is returning to Athens after his victory over the Amazons. With him are his Amazon wife Hippolyta and her sister Emily. Some noble women meet him and ask for help. One of them, the wife of King Capaneus, explains that their husbands lost their lives in a battle at Thebes. Creon, the king of Thebes, has piled their bodies in a heap and refuses to allow anyone to perform funeral rites for them.
Theseus sends his wife and sister-in-law to Athens. He himself immediately leads his army to Thebes. He defeats and kills Creon.
Among the wounded are Arcite and Palamon. They are cousins and members of the royal house of Thebes. Theseus takes them to Athens and consigns them to perpetual imprisonment in the tower.
When the two prisoners happen to see Emily walking in the garden, they both fall in love with her and become bitter rivals, even though there is little chance that either will marry her, since they are languishing in prison.
Eventually Arcite is released at the request of Pirithous, a friend of both Arcite and the duke. However, the release is conditional. Arcite is supposed to stay away from the lands that belong to Theseus. If he fails to observe this condition, he will be executed.
After the release, each of the two cousins thinks that his rival enjoys the happier fate. Arcite is jealous because his banishment prevents him from seeing Emily while Palamon can occasionally catch sight of Emily in the garden when he looks out of the tower window. Palamon evidently does not know about Arcite’s banishment, so he is jealous because he thinks that Arcite is free to court Emily.
Arcite’s grief eventually alters his appearance to such an extent that he thinks that the duke will never be able to recognize him when he sees him. So he puts on clothes such as a laborer might wear and goes to Athens. He pretends that his name is Philostrate and gets a job as page of Emily’s chamber. As time passes, his reputation grows to such an extent that Theseus makes him his own squire.
After suffering imprisonment for seven years, Palamon escapes. He hides in a grove. By chance, Arcite rides to the same grove to make a garland of some of the leaves that grow there.
Not knowing that Palamon is listening, he talks to himself at length. From his soliloquy, Palamon learns what has happened to his cousin since his release from prison.
Palamon then emerges from his hiding place. After some altercation, they agree to battle one another the following day. Arcite will bring enough armor for both of them. Palamon may choose whichever he thinks is best. Arcite will also bring food and bedding for Palamon, who has to keep hiding in the grove.
As the two cousins are fighting the next day, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emily, who are hunting, happen to come to the place where the two cousins are fighting. Theseus separates the combatants and demands an explanation.
Palamon reveals to Theseus his identity and the identity of his cousin. He acknowledges that they both are his mortal enemies and deserve to be slain. He says that he loves Emily and is content to die in her sight. Theseus replies that he will indeed slay them.
Hippolyta and Emily begin to weep, as do all the ladies who attended them. They ask the duke to show mercy. Theseus relents.
Theseus makes the following suggestion. Palamon and Arcite may go where they wish. Each of them is to gather a following of 100 knights and return after 50 weeks have elapsed. The two parties will then fight a battle. The winner will marry Emily. Both cousins happily agree to the duke’s suggestion.
While the cousins are gathering knights, Theseus prepares a large amphitheater where the battle is to take place. He also builds three temples: one for Venus, one for Mars, and one for Diana. Chaucer describes the adornments of these temples at length.
At the appointed time, the cousins return with their knights. The principal knight of Palamon is Ligurge, the great king of Thrace. The principal knight of Arcite is Emetrius, the king of India.
On Sunday night, Palamon goes to the temple of Venus to offer sacrifice. In a prayer to the goddess, he says that he is only interested in Emily. He does not care whether he wins or loses the battle, as long as Emily becomes his wife. The statue of Venus somehow indicates that the request is granted.
During the same night, Emily goes to the temple of Diana. She says that she would rather serve Diana by remaining unmarried. However, if it is heaven’s will that she marry, she asks that she be given to the one who loves her the most. She also asks that the two cousins may be reconciled to one another. In reply, Diana appears in person. She tells Emily that she is to marry one of the two cousins, but she does not say which one.
Arcite offers his sacrifice to Mars. He asks for victory in the coming battle. The statue of Mars agrees to give him the victory.
This causes a vigorous argument between Venus and Mars. Jupiter tries unsuccessfully to intervene. Saturn calms Venus by assuring her that Emily will marry Palamon, even though Mars gives the victory to Arcite.
The battle takes place two days later. In order to minimize the bloodshed, Theseus decides to change the rules. A key point is the erection of two stakes, one for each party. Whenever a knight is defeated, he is not to be killed, but he is to be taken to the appropriate stake, where he will remain for the duration of the battle. As soon as either Arcite or Palamon is killed or taken to a stake, the battle is over.
The two parties fight for a long time. Theseus sometimes calls an intermission so that they can rest. The battle ends when Emetrius gives Palamon a severe wound. In spite of this, he does not surrender, but twenty knights drag him to the stake.
Venus starts to cry, but Saturn comforts her. He points out that Mars has already got all that he wanted, and he hints that something further will happen that will ease the pain that Venus is feeling.
Arcite, now betrothed to Emily as the result of his victory, takes off his helmet and rides his horse while looking up at Emily. At the request of Saturn, Pluto disturbs the ground from below, causing the horse of Arcite to swerve suddenly. Arcite is thrown to the ground, seriously injured.
Everyone is filled with grief, especially Emily and Palamon. All efforts to heal him fail. Before dying, Arcite tells Emily to remember Palamon if she ever marries. After burial rites are completed, Palamon returns to Thebes.
When the years of mourning come to an end, Theseus asks Palamon to come to Athens. When he arrives, he makes a long speech to Emily showing why she should marry Palamon. He then turns to Palamon and says: “I trowe ther nedeth litel sermoning to make yow assente to this thing.” In other words, Theseus believes that he does not have to persuade Palamon to agree to his proposal.
Emily and Palamon get married and love one another tenderly as long as they live.
“The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer; Edited, introduced, and translated by Peter Beidler