Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Knight's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was  a duc that highte Theseus.
Opening to The Knight's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I love "The Knight's Tale."  It's a big, overblown, ridiculous, romantic, idealized story that no modern reader would ever believe.  But I love it.

The main story concerns two young men, cousins and sworn blood-brothers.  Defeated in battle they are imprisoned by Theseus, Duke of Athens.  While in prison they see a beautiful woman through the bars of their cell and both fall in love with her.  Though she sees neither of them, the two live for the moments when they can watch her pass by.

One cousin is later released from prison on the condition that he never set foot in Theseus's kingdom ever again on pain of death.  Who is the better off? asks the Knight.  The man who can see the woman he loves though he is in prison? Or the man who can roam all the world never to see his love again?

I love that kind of stuff. 

There's some wonderful poetry in "The Knight's Tale."  Like this bit from one of the cousin's dying speech:

What is the world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Farewell, my swete foo, myn Emelye.

My very poor translation into Modern English

What is the world? What asks man to have?
Now with his love, now in his cold grave,
Alone, without any company.
Farewell, my sweet foe, my Emily.

"My sweet foe, my Emily."  Who could resist dying words like that?  Not this reader. 

Of course, the Yale professor I'm studying Chaucer with this summer finds more in "The Knight's Tale" than a simple, straightforward love story.  And there is more.  Much more. 

The Canterbury Tales features 24 tales and 24 tellers, and it's impossible to separate the teller from the tale.  It would be a mistake to do so.  With that in mind, our Yale professor began the class on "The Knight's Tale" with this question: How does what the knight wants his tale to mean compare with what we think it means?  The knight wants to show his audience that the world is a place ruled by order, and that that order is basically a benign one.  Our professors reads "The Knight's Tale" as a treatise on good government--the knight presents Theseus of Athens as the ideal of a good ruler.  A good ruler listens to advice, is empathetic and tempers anger with reason.  He seeks to control people's behavior to produce order.  But even the Knight cannot keep the real world from breaking into his story, and in the end the reader must see that destiny is more capricious than orderly and that following love can lead one to sorrow.  By the end of his tale we see that those in positions of power, while they may be good people, fall victim to a system larger and more powerful than they.  While they should feel powerful, they feel only the burden of power.

A perfect tale for a knight, a worthy man...a verray, parfit, gentil knyght, to tell.

Full Disclosure:  I found the picture of "The Knight's Tale" at the University of Arizona website here.  The opening lines are translated as "Once, as old stories tell  us/There was a Duke that was called Theseus."  The closing lines come from the description of the knight in the prologue and roughly translate as "A worthy man....a true, perfect, noble knight."  The more thoughtful ideas presented in the last two paragraphs above are those of our Yale professor. 


Jim Randolph said...

I really enjoyed Chaucer in college. I know you're not a big SF reader, but Dan Simmons has an interesting riff on Chaucer in his book Hyperion (well, two books).

Trisha said...

I love the Canterbury Tales and taught five or six of them a semester in my Ancient and Medieval Lit course. The Knight's Tale always made the list. Love the review!

ds said...

I can't resist dying words like those, either. Curse you, you make me want to read--really read Chaucer again (as opposed to the all-but-skimming done in college). Thanks for sharing your prof's thoughts, too. Wonderful post. Sigh...

C.B. James said...

Jim, I've seen Hyperion and thought about giving it a go. I think maybe next year. It's a testament to Chaucer that genre fiction has been so influeced by Canterbury Tales.

Trisha, We've just finished with The Miller's Tale today. Another marvelous one.

ds, I think it's worth the effort. I might make a good read-a-long, too. I bet there are many people who would love an organized reading of it.

Carin B. said...

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are the best science fiction books I've read to date. They are amazing. I hope you will be able to pick them up next year. I can't speak highly enough of them! Endymion is also quite good and The Rise of Endymion is good, but gets a little verbose at times. Still, the entire series...I am still wowed all these months later!

Becky said...

I actually teach this tale to my AP Literature students. Do you know what they say, right off the bat. "Whoa! That chick doesn't even know these guys & doesn't want to be with either one. What's up with the girl not getting a say in this?!?" Yes, from their limited teen perspective, all they could consider was who was hooking up with whom! :)