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The Knight's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The first tale in Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'' comes from the knight, and examines honor and loyalty, traits one would normally associate with knights. This tale shows how strong a passion love creates and what men will do for it.

War and Capture

The knight begins his tale with Theseus, the duke of Athens. He walks home with his wife, Hippolyta, and her sister Emily. He notices a group of women wailing by the side of the road. They tell him that Creon, the king of Thebes, will not let them bury their husbands and sons. Theseus goes to war against Creon, defeats him, and the women are then able to claim the bodies of their loved ones. Among the bodies, they find two still living, Palamon and Arcita.

The two men are knights in the Theban army. Although wounded and near death, Theseus imprisons them as enemies of Athens. After several years of imprisonment, Palamon happens to see through his prison window a young woman, Emily. He immediately falls in love with her. He tells his cousin Arcita about her, who also falls in love with her. Although they are knights and cousins, and should not argue over a girl, love makes them competitive. They fight for her hand in marriage. One of them gets an unexpected advantage.

Release and Escape

Arcita is known to Duke Perotheus, who also happens to be very good friends with Duke Theseus. Perotheus convinces Theseus to release Arcita from prison. Rather than rejoice over his freedom, Arcita laments the fact that he will never see Emily again, and that it would be better for him to remain imprisoned. Palamon, on the other hand, believes Arcita to be fortunate to be free, since he is stuck in prison. This thought doesn't last long as he realizes that Arcita has an opportunity to make Emily his wife.

Arcita returns to Thebes, and agonizes over the love he feels for Emily. This agony begins to affect his health. The god Mercury pays Arcita a visit and tells him to go to Athens. Arcita does, dressing as a person who would perform menial labor, and gains employment working for Emily's court, all while using a fake name and identity. His hard work is noticed, and he is promoted to working directly for Emily. During this time, Palamon breaks out of prison, and hides in the woods near the prison.

While in hiding, he overhears Arcita talk about how close he has gotten to Emily and how he still loves her. He jumps from his hiding, and they come to blows. This fight comes to the notice of Theseus, who breaks it up. Palamon reveals Arcita's deception and admits his escape from prison. Although Theseus condemns them both to death, the queen and her entourage convince him to find an alternate solution. Theseus tells Arcita and Palamon to meet there in a year with 100 knights for a final battle, with the winner gaining Emily's hand in marriage.

Battle for Princess Emily

At the appointed time, they come together for the right to marry Emily. Whoever is wounded and captured, loses. The night before the battle, Palamon prays to Venus and wants 'the sole possession of/Emily'. Emily goes to Diana and prays to remain chaste and unmarried. Arcita prays to Mars and asks for victory. The battle includes the gods as Venus and Mars argue over who shall win. Jupiter, their grandfather, intervenes and promises Venus to do what he can to ensure Palamon marries Emily.

The battle is fierce. Palamon receives a wound and eventually falls. Theseus stops the battle and claims Arcita the victor. As Arcita takes a victory lap on his horse, a Fury from the underworld comes forth and spooks the horse. It throws Arcita to the ground where he lies mortally wounded. He is taken to the house, where he calls Emily and tells her that there is no better man for her to marry than Palamon. Arcita passes, and it isn't until 'the passage of some years,/Ended at length the mourning and the tears'.

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