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Despite its glorified accounts of the chivalrous lives of gentlemen, the Knight’s Tale proves to be more than a tragically romantic saga with a happy ending. For beneath this guise lies an exploration into the trifling world of the day’s aristocratic class. Here, where physical substance is superseded by appearance, reality gives way to disillusioned canon and emotion is sacrificed for honor. Nave idealism emerges as the dominant characteristic of the seemingly flawless knight and we, as the reader, are asked to discern the effect of this fanciful quality on the story as a whole.
To further investigate this argument one basic premise must be established as the groundwork: Theseus is the character with whom the knight most closely associates himself. Upholding “trouthe and honour” in their conquests of battle and noble rule, both epitomize the sacred rite of “chivalrie”. In the Knight’s Tale, nearly all the attributes with which he is praised in the Prologue are directly used in correlation with the duke. Thus, the language and actions of Theseus throughout the story can be superimposed onto the knight. These connections, along with the selective narration of the knight, allow the reader to observe the essence of their gallantry and the disparities that exist in this lifestyle. Undoubtedly Chaucer intended this to be a biting attack on the aristocracy, which to so many seemed impeccable.
Generalized and idyllic, the voice of the narrator offers the first clue into the puzzle of the knight. With well-chosen words, he tiptoes through the plot, careful never to pass any judgement on the characters and their actions. His high language all but excludes physical description, relying on the casting of people into types (i.e. the fair maiden, the young princes, the worthy duke). In perhaps the most stunning lack of significant detail, his blazon on Emily recounts only the color and length of her hair and uses cliches to portray her:
That Emelye, that fairer was to sene
Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene,
And fresher than the May with floures newe
For with the rose colour stroof hire hewe,
I noot which was the fyner of the two (ll 1035-1039)
And the vacancy of any real emotion (save that of love and grief, which are here more action than feeling) lends an air of superficiality to the story. For even Emily and Palamon, in the resolving conclusion, are reactionless, serving as mere instruments for the advancement of the plot. The only passionate portraits depicted are those of the theater/arena and the funeral pyre inanimate objects whose symbolic importance seemingly takes precedence over the players involved. All these qualities united together paint the picture of a man out of touch with reality, direly in need of truth.
This noble style remains far from eminent at times and gives another important insight into his character. The continuity of his speech is often interrupted with lapses of proverbial wisdom, abrupt scene changes, and the inability to see humor in his phrasing. His affinity towards the trite stalls his exalted discourse on numerous occasions, most ostensibly on the prisoner’s longing for home:
We faren as he that dronke is as a mous.
A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous,
But he noot which the righte wey is thider,
And to a dronke man the wey is slider. (ll 1261-1264)
So too his impulsive transitions from Theseus to the cousins and vice versa inhibit the ability of the reader to enter the flow with which the majority of his commentary permits. And the unconscious humor that he often stumbles upon, especially in the repetition of queynte (ll 2333-2336) while Emily prays for her virginity to be spared, lend to the notion that his ideal blocks his vision of what is going on. As he regresses from chivalric tone to these lapses, the reader must be aware of the errors as they naturally occur. For these glimpses show us a man who falls from his loft, only to climb back up without noticing the stumble.
If not as important as the knight’s diction (than more so), the idealistic conduct of Theseus sheds new light onto the ambivalent nature of knighthood. In action he visibly displays the disparities that exist in the knight’s diction. From his self-centered glorification of his own pride to his contradictory handling of situations, the duke comes off as anything but enviable. His attachment with Mars and insistence upon order in a perfectly chaotic world ultimately prove that his noble intentions are blinded to the happenings of genuine reality. If any doubts remain about his loftiness, they are eliminated once and for all by these ideals.
As the knight begins his tale, the contradictions in character are thrust into the forefront. For upon returning from his victorious crusade, Theseus is greeted by the most unbearably painful lamentations that human ears have ever heard. Rather than responding to the distraught women with a voice of concern, he sneers at them with disgusted arrogance:
What folk been ye, that at myn homcomynge
Pertuben so my feste with criynge
Quod Theseus. Have ye so greet envye
Of myn honour, that thus compleyne and crye (ll 904-908)
But perhaps more revealing to the understanding of knighthood is the blind judgement with which Theseus follows this initial gesture. As he tramples on Thebes, he recreates the same atrocity that he was avenging:
Hath Creon slayn and wonne Thebes thus,
Still in that feeld he took al nyght his reste,
And dide with al the contree as hym leste.
To ransake in the taas of bodyes dede,
Hem for to strepe of harneys and of wede,
The pilours diden bisynesse and cure
After the bataille and disconfiture. (ll 1002-1008)
These lines mirror those of the widows in their wailing of their deceased (ll 940-947). In the eyes of Theseus this vindication is in keeping with the precepts of chivalry, for it is done in retribution and more importantly, he is victorious.
Another breach in the Theseus philosophy is his coalition with the god of war, Mars (ll 975-979). By innocently presenting the duke with a statue of the deity as he rides into battle, the knight unwittingly sets up the reader for a scene where the naivete of their crusade shouts out to all, save those involved. For in the great theater, where the omnipotent Mars is illustriously illustrated, the harsh reality of his force is broken down into its basic elements:
The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;
The open werre, with woundes al bibledde (ll1999-2002)
“Drede”, “Compleint, Outhees, and fiers Outrage” govern the mural that is the essence of Mars (ll 1998, 2012). Neither Theseus nor the knight is capable of comprehending this heinous scene; to them it elegantly portrays the “redoutynge of Mars and of his glorie” (l 2050). Here, the reader must question the stark blindness of these “great” men who are worthy enough to govern the lands, yet are so oblivious to reality that they praise exactly what they condemn. What gives them the divine providence to sit on such an eminent perch?
So far, the chivalrous ideal has proven to be its own worst enemy. In their struggle to protect all sacred and honorable, an enwrapping effect has distorted their vision of reality–causing truth to mesh with false pretenses. And in the most poignant case against their ideals, Chaucer proclaims utter futility on their case, for Theseus relentlessly pounds order into a world that is ruled by turmoil. The knight resonates “Fortune” and “Destinee” throughout the entire course, yet he and the duke cannot see that the world is ruled by “aventure”. All attempts by Theseus to construct a semblance of method turn bitterly frivolous. In Thebes, his rule is marked with heaps of body and destruction. His lifetime imprisonment of the cousins results in both their escapes. And in his grand scheme to decide the consort of Emily, where none shall be mortally wounded, “jelous strokes on hir helmes byte/ Out runneth blood on bothe hir sides rede” (ll 2634-35). Ultimately, the winner, Arcite, pays the final price in Theseus perfectly constructed event. The true winner that emerges is chaos.
When all hope of a reversal of the duke’s idealistic nature is seemingly lost, Chaucer bestows a redemptive chance to Theseus in the form of his final speech. But this, as is the case with all his undertakings, is overridden with his lofty motives and ignorant view of the world. By decreeing that, “What maketh this but Juppiter, the kyng/ That is prince and cause of alle thyng” (ll 3035-36), Theseus exhibits his strict compliance to order despite the powerful rulings of Saturn. The ensuing “happy ending” suddenly becomes another fateful step towards mishap, for the marriage of Palamon and Emily is not for love, but rather a decree in the name of allegiance.
Perhaps the best way to conclude is through Chaucer’s depiction of the knight in the Prologue:
He nevere yet no vileyne ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gypon
Al bismotered with his habergeon,
For he was late ycome from his viage,
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