Printer Friendly

Biblical analogy and secondary allegory in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale.

For a number of years, at least two major strains of interpretation of The Knight's Tale have had this much in common, that they have viewed the tale as capturing a world fully pagan. Their analyses with respect to this reading have led to two broad conclusions: either that Chaucer's intention in the tale is to condemn paganism by showing its deficiencies (implicit in Theseus's closing speech), or, apart from any condemnatory purpose, that he wishes to present for philosophical consideration an alternative ethical system to the dominant Christian ethos. (1) There is good sense in both of these readings: the setting of the tale is ancient Athens, a world, as Brenda Deen Schildgen has said, where Christians "were nowhere to be found" (12); moreover, both Egeus's and Theseus's philosophies stated near the conclusion, though not entirely antithetical to Christian thinking, present identifiable antique views of life, offered by the characters formulating them, as prescriptions for proper living. Scholars of the former school of thought who see the tale as a critique of these philosophies generally have contended that Chaucer suggests a Christian solution by implication only, chiefly by pointing outside the tale itself to more overtly Christian tales--even to the last of The Canterbury Tales, The Parson's Tale (Brooks and Fowler 142).

What I argue in this essay is that readers of the tale have rather surprisingly overlooked a series of imbedded biblical allegories--perhaps analogies would be the better word--that constitute an implied internal critique of the pre-Christian world Chaucer constructs in the poem. The Athenians and Thebans in the poem obviously are ignorant of these analogies, but the Christian audience and certainly Chaucer himself are not. These analogies serve as a reminder even within the antique environment of the tale of the greater, truer world toward which the larger pilgrimage of The Canterbury Tales itself points. My goal is to highlight the analogies and establish as I go their importance to what I call the allegory of love, compared to the more prominent, though not necessarily the more important, allegory of the poem, namely, the allegory of rule or order.

The first of these biblical analogies appears in the prima pars in the famous "Maying" scene where first Palamon and then Arcite see Emelye for the first time. Of Palamon's initial "A!" we learn:
 And so bifel, by aventure or cas,
 That thurgh a wyndow, thikke of many a barre
 Of iren greet and square as any sparre,
 He cast his eye upon Emelya,
 And therwithal he bleynte and cride, "A!"
 As though he stongen were unto the herte. (KT 1074-1079) (2)

Soon after, Arcite also sees Emelye, and the great and thoroughly silly debate over who saw what and who saw first begins.

Yet the silliness is complicated by Chaucer's first biblical analogy, here a clear correspondence to the David and Bathsheba episode in 2 Sam. 11:2, translated by Wycliffe as follows:
 While these thingis weren doon, it befelde, that Dauid
 roos in a dai fro his bed after mydday, and walkide in
 the soler of the kyngis hows; and he siy a womman
 waischynge hir silf euen ayens on hir soler; sotheli
 the womman was ful fair. (3)

The similarity of the passages is obvious enough. David and the Theban cousins look down from on high at a woman below them whose beauty fully captivates them and yet who is completely ignorant of their gaze. The event in both cases is entirely fortuitous. Admittedly, differences exist in time of day and the activities of the women. Still, the similarities are remarkable, and it is hard to believe that a man as fully conversant with the Bible as Chaucer would have missed the analogy.

The incident in the poem may seem to support D. W. Robertson's assertion of the allegory of order over concupiscence, specifically, of Athenian proper rule over Theban concupiscence (265-66). And Robertson is not alone. Jesus Lopez-Pelaez Casellas has labeled this incident "passion-driven" and "a danger to the social order enforced by Theseus" (96). In the biblical incident, David's lust for Bathsheba led him into a passionate, unlawful liaison with her that spelled disaster for him--a famous example of the passions overcoming righteousness and reason. But, oddly, one notable medieval commentator, William of Auvergne, interpreted the biblical story very curiously as an allegory of the love of Christ for his Church (Robertson 313, fn. 58). (4) Applying Williams method to The Knight's Tale, it is possible to see the disorderly loves of Palamon and Arcite as an allegory of the highest of all loves. Of course, one cannot prove that Chaucer knew of Williams comments; but even if he did not, one can still find in Chaucer's narrative an allegorical reading of Palamon and Arcite's love similar to William's reading of David's--but not to the exclusion of the more traditional interpretation of the Thebans' concupiscence. In other words, Chaucer layers the text with two allegories, not one, the first concerning order and the second concerning love. The source of human knowledge of the second allegory of love, Christian revelation, is not something so remote from the world of The Knight's Tale as readers might think. It is behind everyday events in the tale in the form of analogies, of which this analogy to David is only the first, which Chaucer laces throughout the narrative at strategic moments to achieve his purpose. (5)

To fully show what this means, I wish to attend further to the actions of Arcite in the aftermath of his release from prison. (Indeed, Chaucer himself lays the greater stress on Arcite in this part, leaving Palamon behind in the prison cell.) This examination requires an apparent digression. The Knight tells his audience of the arrival of Perotheus in Athens and his friendship with Theseus, of how Theseus's love for his friend was so great that
 as olde bookes sayn,
 That whan that oon was deed, soothly to telle,
 His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle--But
 of that storie list me nat to write. (1198-1201)

There are two reasons for our interest in this turn in the narrative. One is that it strongly contrasts Theseus's enmity toward the Thebans to a legendary example of his love for Perotheus (Frost 294). The other is that it once more introduces the recurring problem within the narrative itself with the Knight's familiar "But of that storie list me nat to write." It would be easy to ignore the statement because, after all, any elaboration of the legend would impede the narrative just as the Knight suggests. But the importance of the passage is highlighted by the fact that the lines were not borrowed from Boccaccio but chosen by Chaucer (Wise qtd. in Frost 295). Chaucer's inclusion of the section and the Knight's refusal to dwell on it falls into a pattern that has already been introduced and repeated in the tale and leads the reader to inquire of its meaning.

The story of Theseus's descent into the underworld was, according to Douglas Brooks and Alastair Fowler, "an ancient exemplum of felix concordia" (136). However, Chaucer's immediate source seems to have been the Roman de la rose (Lorris and de Meun, 38.124-127.8085-8088; Skeat qtd. by Benson in The Riverside Chaucer 831 in note to lines 1191-1208).

It is difficult at this point in the tale to see how the reference can pose any complications to our understanding. But it does; for, in sum, it deals with Theseus's reaction to death. The Theseus who travels to "helle" to seek his old friend (in sequence of events, I think, some years after the time of the tale) is the same man who will counsel Palamon and Emelye to put aside their "wilfulnesse (3057) and accept (the famous "vertu of necessitee" [3042]) the finality of death.

Thus he states his ideal of the proper attitude toward death; but, like so many ideals in the tale, it is one he cannot live up to in his deeds. His love of Perotheus, as the myth tells us, causes him to set the "vertu of necessitee" aside in favor of love, making him, by his own strictures, willful. All of which is to say that Theseus, like Palamon and Arcite, is subject to an economy of love as much as he is to one of order and justice.

It seems curious that Chaucer places the Perotheus passage where he does. But in a section in which the Knight labors to establish, as he sees them, the terms of the obvious allegory of order in the tale, Chaucer is qualifying those very terms with the secondary allegory of love.

After Perotheus has presented his petition to the duke for the release of Arcite, Theseus sets the Theban free with the warning that he never set foot in Athens again on pain of death. Because freedom is what both cousins craved at one time, Arcite should be overjoyed. Of course, he is not, for reasons we know all too well, which Arcite expresses in a lengthy speech. In this lament, he assesses his own condition as a kind of eternal (1225) "helle" (1226), all because he no longer hopes to enjoy the "grace" (1232) of Emelye, his "blisse" (1230), which he adds he could never "deserve" (1232). The words Chaucer puts in his mouth are the language of courtly love, but they are also suggestive of fundamental Christian doctrines, a point I'll expand on later. Next he will weigh Palamon's circumstances in the same scale he has used for his own:
 "O deere cosyn Palamon," quod he,
 "Thyn is the victorie of this aventure,
 Ful blisfully in prison maistow dure--In
 prison? certes nay, but in paradys!
 Wel hath Fortune yturned thee the dys,
 That hast the sighte of hire, and I th'absence." (1234-1239)

Arcite's major point is that the world turns around Emelye; without her, his situation may be summed up in his lament "Farwel my lif, my lust, and my gladnesse!" (1250). Just as Arcite's love for Emelye transformed freedom into "helle," it has made Palamon's prison into "paradys." He will not endure this condition patiently as he advised Palamon in his opening speech; he will hate and mourn it. Kolve has written at length on the image of the prison / garden in this part of the tale as a picture of the world as a whole; men can look out through the bars of the cell and see a lovely garden before them with all the things that would ensure their felicity, but they cannot reach them (Kolve 89-96). (6) Here Arcite has left the literal prison in Athens, but he has not left the prison of the world. Allegorically, the good he seeks must finally elude him as it must all men in the pagan world that Chaucer presents; Emelye is human and as subject to death as Arcite himself. In this manner, Arcite's predicament is but a metaphor for the problem of the classical world at large: how can a man be blissful in the presence of ultimate doom? How--unless the soul rise to a higher sphere where joy becomes real and permanent? To Arcite, strange as it may seem, Emelye is that sphere.

Compounding the problem of the world and man's place in it is Arcite's illogical mind. No matter how acutely he analyzes the state of the world, he does not realize how comprehensive the bars of the prison are and how wide the net of Fortune. He imagines that in a world where desires cannot be relied on to yield the happiness they are imagined to, there is still one certainty, that Emelye will make him happy and be his "wele" (1272). We can see how ridiculous the assumption is. After all, he literally does not know the lady. Why should he dream that she would ensure his well-being any more than another woman ("We witen nat what thing we preyen heere" [1260])? We know, as Chaucer's Knight will later assert, that "wommen, as to speken in comune, / Thei folwen alle the favor of Fortune" (2681-2682)--which does not speak well of Emelye's ability to bring Arcite happiness. But even if she were to delight him all the days of his life, Arcite's time in this world would come to the same end of all men and with it his happiness. Far from being the fixed point in a universe of flux he imagines, she is as unstable as the rest of the world, as subject to the whims of Fortune as anyone else.

Yet, though Arcite is unquestionably mistaken about Emelye, his thoughts about her and about the world lead to two important discoveries, one concerning him, the other concerning the allegorical structure. First, Arcite's grasp of the operation of Fortune and the difficulty of divining the future success of any project is considerably better than Theseus's. The duke has a tendency to ignore Fortune in the first part of the tale and, in the middle portion, to act as if he can subject it to his control. This understanding will prove a catastrophic miscalculation. Second, and for our present purposes very important, Arcite, in establishing Emelye as the one fixed point in the world, maintains, in effect, the existence of an economy of love. With respect to the literal object of his affections, he is undoubtedly mistaken (because Emelye cannot assure the stability he thinks), and, in terms of the allegory of order, his morality is impure. In these aspects he is the same allegorical figure of the concupiscent man that Robertson identifies--all of which Chaucer affirms. But, simultaneously, his love and devotion to the lady and his conviction that, in effect, she is the center of all suggest, in the Christian context of the second allegory of love and the overall context of The Canterbury Tales, an economy more sublime. This is where the biblical analogies again become operative.

Let us compare Arcite's attitude, expressed in his earlier use of words such as "grace" "blisse," 'helle," and "eternally" (1225-1232), to the attitude in a prayer of St. Anselm's to the one God whom he understood as the one fixed point in the universe, the absolute telos of existence:
 Whom shall I ask? Who will tell men of my beloved?
 'for I am sick from love'.
 'The joy of my heart fails me';
 my laughter 'is turned to mourning'...
 'My soul thirsts for you, my flesh longs after you;
 my soul thirsts for God, the fountain of life;
 'when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?'
 My consoler, for whom I wait, when will you come?
 O that I might see the joy that I desire;
 that I might be satisfied with the appearing of
 your glory for which I hunger;
 that I might be satisfied with the riches of your house
 for which I sigh ... (97-98)

Thus runs a medieval prayer--explicitly drawn from the simultaneously spiritual and erotic Song of Songs--of the true lover and the true beloved, namely, of the Christian (which Arcite most assuredly is not) and Christ Himself; but the Theban lord is like the true lover. For both Arcite and Anselm, to be separated from the beloved is a living death (Arcite's "I nam but deed" [1274]), a state of mourning (Anselm's "my laughter 'is turned to mourning'"). It is "helle"--figuratively for Arcite, literally for Anselm--just as the opposite condition is "paradys" Throughout each of these passages, love is central to each man's vision. St. Augustine and Dante would say no less. (7)

What all of this suggests is that Arcite's kind of imagination, one fixed upon love, is quite different from Theseus's vision of the noble life. Allowing for its place in the allegory of order, Arcite's love is not good because of its earthly object and effects; it is, therefore, placed within a hierarchy that will leave it decidedly inferior to the Thesean ideal. But, for all the virtues of Theseus's vision, when his understanding emerges in all its imperfection, The Knight's Tale will implicitly ask the question of what completes Theseus's noble but deficient plan. In the scheme of The Canterbury Tales, the explicit answer does not come until the end of the Parson's sermon (Brooks and Fowler 142; Penninger 404-05). (8) But it is implicit in The Knight's Tale itself, first, in the allegorically suggested image of God's order and rule that Theseus's life imperfectly represents; second, in the Christian economy of love allegorically pictured in the lives and loves of Palamon and Arcite; and, third, in the biblical analogies themselves.

Whether we call it Christian love or pagan lust, the allegorical suggestion of the need for love in Arcite, as well as Palamon, becomes more noticeable in the pars secunda. It will dominate the action from Arcite's departure from and return to Athens, and it will never cease to be ambiguous. As with Emelye's "Maying" episode in the prima pars, the allegory is underscored by a biblical analogy.

This second analogy occurs well into the part, after Arcite has made his way to Athens and begun his career as "Philostrate." This business constitutes one of Arcite's illogical choices, for it is far from what either Palamon or the reader would have expected him to do. Catherine Rock's comments on Arcite's unchivalrous behavior are not out of place here. As she points out regarding the earlier dispute in the prison, "Arcite the warrior becomes Arcite the lover" (421). She goes on to remark,
 Once in Thebes, Arcite sickens and fades away because of
 lovesickness (I 1355-79), rather than (as Palamon thought
 he would do) raise an army to fight Theseus and so win
 Emelye (I 1285-90). The question becomes, then, whom does
 Arcite serve? His allegiance must be to Thebes; he is,
 after all, a member of the royal house of that city. ...
 Additionally, he owes allegiance to Palamon. (421; italics mine)

The question of whom Arcite serves and what he has rejected is the heart of the problem. For Rock, the Theban's great sin, reaching its apogee during this period in Thebes, resides in his failure to uphold the code of chivalry, which would require his loyalty to both Thebes and Palamon. But Arcite has discovered a love that diminishes these loyalties out of all reckoning. Like a Dante who has seen Beatrice or an Augustine who has converted, old allegiances are either reordered or evaporate in the presence of the beloved. Certainly, Arcite is not an early Christian in Rome facing the choice between Christ and Caesar, but his predicament involving Emelye and Thebes is much the same. And, of course, Arcite chooses the beloved. To be sure, his choice mirrors Robertson's allegory of the concupiscent imagination, at the same time suggesting in its sharp focus on the beloved and its renunciation of the world, the upward movement of the spirit to Christ. The Middle Ages knew both allegories well, though it rarely saw them combined as skillfully as Chaucer does here. (9) In The Knight's Tale both allegories are necessary because each highlights attributes of the true order of the world, right rule and true love. (10)

This combining of allegories in the lives of Palamon and more particularly Arcite--revelatory of Chaucer's method and intention--reaches its height in Arcite's soliloquy in the grove. Here again Chaucer uses a biblical analogy. Ostensibly, the Theban is making his observance to May, Venus, and, by extension, Emelye. Finally, he swoons and complains at great length. His initial cry of "Alias" (1542) finds its subject in his pedigree, for he is of the line of Cadmus, now brought "to confusioun" (1542). Worse still, he serves Thebes's and his "mortal enemy" (1550) Theseus, obliging him to renounce his very name and labor as the worthless "Philostrate" (1555). Thus Arcite reflects on both his birthright, an exalted one, and the circumstances he is now in that have obliged him to renounce all. This leads him to the second half of the complaint, which is of especial interest:
 Allas, thou felle Mars! Alias, luno!
 Thus hath youre ire oure lynage al fordo,
 Save oonly me and wrecched Palamoun,
 That Theseus martireth in prisoun.
 And over al this, to sleen me outrely
 Love hath his firy dart so brennyngly
 Ystiked thurgh my trewe, careful herte
 That shapen was my deeth erst than nay sherte.
 Ye sleen me with youre eyen, Emelye!
 Ye been the cause wherfore that I dye.
 Of al the remenant of myn oother care
 Ne sette I nat the montance of a tare,
 So that I koude doon aught to youre plesaunce. (1559-1571)

On the surface, this speech is typical of the melancholic lover. Melancholy, anger, remorse--all are manifest in Arcite's condition. What is, however, so very important in the speech is that Arcite's words demonstrate that he knows the meaning of his actions since his release from prison. He is aware that he is doing his country no good, that he has, in effect, deserted it and, as Catherine Rock reminds us, turned his back on the code of chivalry. He recognizes that Juno plagues Thebes, that its condition is wholly miserable (1542-1544; Otto 96). (11) Yet rather than remain there, Arcite is in the service of its greatest enemy (an "up-so-doun" condition, to be sure). Nor is that all. His estimation of the worth of his former station is surprisingly high. Even though he has relinquished the honors of his old life, he sees them for what they are, or, more to the point, for what they would be to a Theban. Yet, granting their nobility in the chivalric order, Arcite serves his "mortal enemy" and does so, to some extent, blithely, because that office enables him to see Emelye. Honor is nothing compared to serving her (1570). In this way he asserts his opinion that the love of Emelye is greater than the city and greater than any vocation, an extension of his belief in love as a law higher than "positif lawe" (1167).

Allegorically, traditional loyalties to king and country are confounded in Arcite's speech. In addition, he treats family ties as negligible. From the standpoint of tradition (and the terms of the literal action of the tale), these actions are base and traitorous, the false deeds of a man who knows no law or loyalty. Yet, of course, Arcite is not really without law because he has acknowledged love's higher prerogative. The new law of love changes men as it alters their conceptions of ends and means. In this instance, Arcite's understanding of his purpose has shifted radically. Emelye is his goal: everything else is a means to her, even things that Arcite considered worthy in times before.

Without question, Arcite stands within the allegory of order as a concupiscent man. But what is improper for a lover of Emelye is, to Christian eyes, not at all improper for a lover of Christ. And we cannot deny that the extravagance of the one love recalls the righteousness of the other. Just as loving Emelye reorganizes Arcite's psyche and morals, so does loving Christ for the Christian. Indeed, in this passage, Chaucer offers his second major imbedded biblical analogy. It is no accident that Arcite's words testify to a revolution in thought and action reminiscent of that experienced by St. Paul--and in similar language. The Apostle says:
 For we ben circumcisioun, which bi spirit seruen to God,
 and glorien in Crist Jhesu, and ban not trist in the fleisch,
 thouy Y haue trust, yhe, in the fleisch. If ony othere man
 is seyn to triste in the fleisch, Y more, that was circumcidid
 in the eiytthe dai, of the kyn of Israel, of the lynage of
 Beniamyn, an Ebrew of Ebrewis, bi the lawe a Farisee, bi
 loue pursuynge the chirche of God, bi riytwisnesse that is
 in the lawe lyuynge with out playnt. But whiche thingis weren
 to me wynnyngis, Y haue demed these apeyryngis for Crist.
 Netheles Y gesse alle thingis to be peirement for the cleer
 science of Jhesu Crist my Lord. For whom Y made alle thingis
 peyrement, and Y deme as drit, that Y wynne Crist, and
 that Y be foundun in hym, not hauynge my riytwisnesse that is of
 the lawe, but that that is of the feith of Crist Jhesu.
 (Phil. 3:3-9)

St. Paul's is the true Christian reorganization of the psyche, and Arcite's is only a dim picture of it. Yet it is appropriate typologically to place these examples side by side. (After all, it is in the Old Testament that the pursuit of wisdom is compared and contrasted to the desire of a young man for a woman; Bernard interprets The Song of Songs as a love song of Christ and his bride, the Church. And we have seen the example of William of Auvergne's similar interpretation of David and Bathsheba.) Paul rejects the honors the world covets--true honors in the eyes of a Hebrew of the Hebrews--as "drit" (or dung) and, hence, rejects the wisdom of the world itself to pursue a new wisdom in Christ. Similarly, Arcite eschews his former place ("Of al the remenant of myn oother care / Ne sette I nat the montance of a tare") to gain a greater good, even as the poorest laborer, of seeing Emelye.

For our purposes here, the speech sums up the complex allegorical figure of Arcite (and, perhaps to a lesser degree, of Palamon), his folly and his wisdom. On the one hand, he represents what no one should wish to be, the concupiscent man, and, on the other, suggests everything to which one should aspire, as indicated in the analogy to St. Paul. The analogy must, of course, remain a complete mystery to Arcite; he knows no more about it than any other pagan. Nevertheless, Chaucer places it before his audience as a kind of commentary on the passage, a gloss of a possibility implicit in Arcite's new vision that corresponds, first, to the special revelation yet to come and, second, to the order implicit in the world through natural revelation.

If up to this juncture I have neglected Palamon in favor of Arcite, it is because Chaucer does too. Simply put--and contrary to the famous formula proposed by Hoxie Neale Fairchild in 1927--Arcite is the more contemplative cousin, Palamon the more active in this part of the poem. Once he is out of prison, Palamon performs according to his nature: he acts in a very direct manner, but as a man who, like Arcite, has experienced a radical reorganization of the psyche. I can agree with the late Professor Barbara Tovey who reads Palamon in the prima pars as a "restless complainer" exhibiting a pessimism about the goodness of the pagan gods that is absent from Arcite's speeches in the same section (249). However, regarding Emelye, Palamon speeds toward his goal with a determination as remarkable as Arcite's. She is the object of his love that the "gods" never could be. Although his words are few (as we might expect of the active man) and lack the biblical analogies of Arcite's speeches, his steady progress toward winning Emelye indicates a devotion as significant as his cousin's. In this manner, the second allegory finds its appropriate echo in the dispositions of both Thebans.

Although Chaucer does not offer in Palamon's words the strong biblical language that we find in Arcite's speeches (however, note his use of "grace" in line 1592), he has not finished with his telling use of biblical analogy. A third analogy, this time in relation to Emelye, appears in the pars tercia. To call it an analogy is perhaps inappropriate, for the passage is a direct borrowing from the book of Revelation.

The temple of Diana fits well into the Thesean scheme as the political corrective of the passions. Since Venus and Mars serve as symbols of the war against chastity, she is set against them. There is, of course, another side of her influence; in her capacity as the goddess of "hunting and of shamefast chastitee" (2055), she can easily be the image of a sterile "Femenye." Indeed, Emelye, who places herself under Diana's protection, sees herself not as a chaste maid awaiting marriage, but as one who will never and ought never to marry. Yet Diana has also been placed in her degree: it is Theseus's plan that she will move Emelye to marriage, as, in fact, she does.

The figures on the walls of Diana's temple display literal metamorphoses. If these are the wages of chastity, it is not a very attractive virtue; but, then, we must not forget the two sides of chastity. Callisto ("Calistopee," 2056) was ravished by Jove and banished from the company of Diana through no fault of her own. In another image, Daphne's ("Dane," 2062) desire to preserve her chastity turns her into a tree. The most notable of the myths here, the tale of Acteon ("Atteon," 2065-2068), is especially interesting. For in Ovid, Acteon was changed into a hart by the hand of Diana and killed by his own hounds, an example of the cruel and violent vanquishing of the passions that the hart hunt suggests and Theseus now repudiates (Metamorphoses II, 401-530; I, 548; III, 138).

The statue of Diana is curious in many of its features:
 This goddesse on an hert ful hye seet,
 With smale houndes al aboute hir feet,
 And undernethe hir feet she hadde a moone--Wexynge
 it was and sholde wanye sonne.
 In gaude grene hir statue clothed was,
 With bowe in honed, and arwes in a cas.
 Hir eyen caste she ful lowe adoun,
 Ther Pluto hath his derke regioun.
 A womman in travaillynge was hir biforn;
 But for hir child so longe was unborn,
 Ful pitously Lucyna gan she calle,
 And seyde, "Help, for thou mayst best of alle!" (2075-2086)

The references to the waxing and waning of the moon and to the woman in labor are somewhat cryptic. Unless one takes the dual nature of Diana into account, they make no sense. Lucina ("Lucyna"), the goddess of childbirth, is a title given both luno and Diana (Robinson 678; note to line 2085). This aspect of Diana or Lucina would be a comfort to the woman "travaillynge"; but, of course, she must wax first. Diana the chaste huntress may soon wane in favor of Lucina, as the moon signifies. So, however fixed her nature may be at a given phase of the moon, she will change as it does. This aspect of mutability ties in directly with Emelye's resolve to remain chaste (a resolve that cannot last), as well as with the later statement, "For wommen, as to speken in comune, / Thei folwen alle the favor of Fortune" (2681-2682).

The verses dedicated to describing Diana / Lucina have another meaning--again, a biblical one that the tale's ancient Athenian artisans could not have known. The "womman travaillynge" appears in the Bible in Rev. 12:1-2 (or, in Wycliffe's translation, (11:)19, 12:1-2):
 And the temple of God in heuene was openyd, and the arke of his
 testament was seyn in his temple; and leityngis weren maad, and
 voices, and thondris, and 'erthe mouyng, and greet hail.
 And a greet signe apperide in heuene; a womman clothid with the
 sunne, and the moone vndur hir feet, and in the heed of hir a
 coroun of twelue sterris.

 And sche hadde in wombe, and sche crieth, trauelynge of child,
 and is turrnentid, that sche bere child. (italics mine)

What this reference means in The Knight's Tale is not immediately clear. But it might be there to recall Rom. 1:20, to assert the existence of sacramental images in the world that all men, heathen and Christians alike, ought to recognize, which would alter not only the perceptions of most men about the constitution of existence; such images properly understood might radically change Theseus's plan and especially his concluding philosophy. In a poem given to the investigation of the tragic shortcomings of classical antiquity, such a reference would be appropriate, as it also suggests a new world about to be born. And in Emelye's case, as with Palamon's and Arcite's, Chaucer has dropped clues to his intention by means of a series of allegorical or, more specifically, analogical hints that are biblical in nature, underscoring the poet's intention.

One of the great themes of The Knight's Tale is the importance of imagination and reason in the attempt to found the good and abiding city or vision of life. The tale ultimately shows its listeners how the natural world undermines human ideals as produced in the imaginative and reasonable faculties. The best of men and women--charitable, noble and philosophic--want the true and lasting good; but the world, which seems to offer that good, finally denies it. Nature and Fortune mock one and all, and the only thing left for the philosophic person to do is resign oneself to what Schildgen has labeled "the ineluctable caprice of fortune" (24).

Yet humans want to have both a city and a cosmos where good things happen; they want the happy ending. But in the world of The Knight's Tale, no happy ending of the kind the Knight devises is possible; a "gladsom tale" it is not. The gods are not going to ensure it, and certainly the cosmos is not. A. J. Minnis has accurately said that the trouble with the world of the tale is that the people in it, quite noble people, deserve better gods than they get (141). Needless to say, these are pagan gods. What Theseus, Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye need is the God the Knight invokes in the final line. The "faire compaignye" (3108) the narrator refers to may be his audience, and the valedictory line merely conventional. But I rather think it refers to the "faire compaignye" of the tale as well. For Chaucer, the revelation of Christ shows a cosmos Theseus's eyes cannot see and that alone could lend substance to Theseus's ideal, marrying both the world of order with the world of love (Burlin 141). Moreover, such knowledge takes one beyond the sphere of the "Firste Moevere" (2987) to the seat of the God who simply is.

This revelation, contrary to what many scholars have asserted, is not conspicuous in its absence but buried in the text of The Knight's Tale; indeed, orthodox medieval theology would have contended as a matter of strict dogma (via the doctrine of natural theology set forth in Rom. 1:1920) that this should be so. Without God, neither the world nor Theseus can have what they want. That may be why The Canterbury Tales begins with this tale and ends with The Parson's Tale (Brooks and Fowler 142). A poem about pilgrimage (the great medieval image of the journey through the world to God) would quite reasonably begin with the rejection of the best the unenlightened Greek world has to offer, in a tale that shows man's attempt to build a lasting order on the basis of his reasonable but deficient faculties. At the same time, that first tale might also begin by showing how humans ignore crucial signs of their place in the true order of things that are before their eyes all the time but that they are is too blind to see--all of which Chaucer stresses through his use of covert biblical analogy.


St. Anselm. The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973.

Brooks, Douglas, and Alastair Fowler. "The Meaning of Chaucer's Knight's Tale." Medium Aevum, 39 (1970): 123-146.

Burlin, Robert B. Chaucerian Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UR 1977.

Casellas, Jesus Lopez-Pelaez. "New Chivalric Ideology and The Knight's Tale" Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature. Eds. Ana Maria Hornero and Maria Pilar Navarro. Zaragoza: Institucion "Fernando el Catolico" (C.S.I.C.) Excma. Diputacion de Zaragoza, 2000.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. "Active Arcite, Contemplative Palamon." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 26 (1927): 285-93.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1964.

Frost, William. "An Interpretation of Chaucer's Knight's Tale." Review of English Studies 25 (1949): 289-304.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Aprocryphal books in the earliest English versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers: Edited by the Rev. Josiah Forshall, ER.S. etc. Late Fellow of Exeter College, and Sir Frederic Madden, K.H. F.R.S. etc. Keeper of the MSS. in the British Museum. Oxlord, Oxford UP, 1850.

Kolve, V. A. Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1984.

Lorris, Guillaume de, and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Trans. Harry W Robbins. Ed. Charles W. Dunn. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962.

Minnis, A. J. Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity. Chaucer Studies 8. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Nolan, Barbara. Chaucer and the Tradition of the Roman Antique (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Otto, Walter E The Homeric Gods. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Frank Justus Miller. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann, 1921.

Penninger, Elaine F. "Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Theme of Appearance and Reality in The Canterbury Tales" South Atlantic Quarterly 63 (1964): 398-405.

Rand, E. K. The Founders of the Middle Ages. 1928. New York: Dover, 1957.

Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.

Robinson, E N., ed. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Rock, Catherine A. "Forsworn and Fordone: Arcite as Oath-Breaker in the Knight's Tale." The Chaucer Review 40:4 (2006): 416-32.

Schildgen, Brenda Deen. Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2001.

Tovey, Barbara. "Chaucer's Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Sub)ected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales." Interpretation, A Journal of Political Philosophy 31:3 (Summer 2004): 235-99.

Westlund, Joseph. "The Knight's Tale as an Impetus for Pilgrimage." Philological Quarterly 43 (1964): 526-37.

Zhang, John Z. "Medieval Visual Arts and The Barred Window in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale." English Language Notes 28:3 (1991): 10-17.


(1) V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: the First Five Canterbury Tales, and Joseph Westlund, "The Knight's Tale as an Impetus for Pilgrimage;' fall into the former school of interpretation; Barbara Nolan, Chaucer and the Tradition of the Roman Antique, and Brenda Deen Schildgen, Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and ]ews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, fall into the second. Schildgen comments on the non-Christian tales, including The Knight's Tale: "The stories that probe alternative social and moral convictions provide the opportunity for the idea of 'discourse ethics" the principle postulate of which is that only discursive norms may claim to be valid that could meet with the consent of all affected in their role as participants in a practical discourse" (12).

(2) All quotes from the works of Chaucer come from The Riverside Chaucer edited by Larry D. Benson.

(3) All biblical quotations in this essay come from the earliest English versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers, edited by Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden.

(4) William of Auvergne, De Legibus, Opera (Venice, 1591), 46-47, quoted in Robertson, 313 (n. 58), where Robertson notes: "For example, in discussing the story of David and Bathsheba, he [William] says that when David's rather shocking love for Bathsheba is said to be a sign of the love of Christ for the Church, many are offended. He advises using a simile instead in such instances: 'Just as David loved Bathsheba, so also etc.'" An opposite reading of the same biblical passage, and more in keeping with the literal story of a man falling into the morass of concupiscence, comes from Robert Holcot's commentary on the Book of Wisdom (Minnis 86).

(5) Angus Fletcher notes the accumulation of allegorical segments around the Thebans' basic and simple figures, complicating and revealing "discrete characteristics" to use Fletcher's phrase (35), that seem to have no connection with them as we see them on the primary allegorical level. In the same way, we might well see an analogical prefiguration of Christian virtues and a Christian world in the poem through the employment of these biblical analogies.

(6) john Z. Zhang argues, not unlike Robertson, that "[t]he prison window is ... a symbol of carnal senses" (11)--a very interesting point given the strange paradox of Arcite's simultaneous lowering of Emelye to the carnal ("love as to a creature") and then at his release the near spiritualizing of her by making her the object of a kind of holy and purely visual devotion.

(7) E. K. Rand's chapter VIII "St. Augustine and Dante" is particularly edifying on the idea of ascent.

(8) In their respective articles, Brooks and Fowler and Elaine Penninger suggest that The Parson's Tale is the answer to the problems of the classical world of The Knight's Tale.

(9) One might consider the medieval readings of the Song of Songs as exhibiting a tendency toward this kind of allegory.

(10) D. W. Robertson regularly cites Rom. 1:20 as a cardinal part of the foundation of medieval poetics; it is odd that he recognizes only half of its application in The Knight's Tale, seeing only the allegory cupiditas, not the allegory caritas.

(11) Otto discusses the common belief that Juno was associated with marriage; to the extent that Arcite is an enemy of chastity, he might sense the wrath of Juno.

Carl C. Curtis III

Liberty University
COPYRIGHT 2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Curtis, Carl C., III
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Wild writing: holy stigmata and the aesthetics of "sacred pain" in Ron Hansen's Mariette in ecstasy.
Next Article:Love's Humbling.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters