The Knight's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, you'll get to know Chaucer's Knight. His romantic adventure relays a story about the Greek hero Theseus. You'll explore the themes of chivalry and honor and look at morals concerning reason and justice.

A Romantic Epic

If you're a fan of Heath Ledger, you might be familiar with his 2001 adventure flick A Knight's Tale. Loosely based on Chaucer's tale of the same name, the movie casts Paul Bettany as the narrator and Ledger as an underdog squire-turned-knight. The movie sets the tale in Medieval England where Arthurian-era knights battle in tournaments to win the favor of the female onlookers.

Well, Chaucer's tale is quite different. The Knight's Tale is the first and longest of all The Canterbury Tales. The Knight narrates this tale of love and war, but it's no autobiography. The tale casts Greek hero Theseus in the main role. Theseus is best known for slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth on the Mediterranean island of Crete. With the many references and interferences from the Gods, including Mercury, Juno, Mars, Venus, and Diana, this romantic epic resembles a Greek legend.

Statue depicting Theseus and the Minotaur
theseus

In four parts, The Knight's Tale relays Medieval views on chivalry, honor, reason, and justice. Characters include Theseus, a hero and nobleman of Athens, his sister the beautiful Emelye, the exotic Amazonian princess Hippolyta, and two enemy warriors Palamon and Arcite from Thebes.

While The Knight's Tale is populated with the Gods and heroes of ancient Greece, Chaucer also drew inspiration from Medieval Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio's epic poem Il Teseida. Boccaccio wrote Il Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia, or The Theseid, Concerning the Nuptials of Emily in the 1340s, approxmately 40 years before Chaucer sat down to write. Both tell pretty much the same story. But in contrast, Chaucer's succinct tale comes in at just over 2,000 lines of poetry. Boccaccio's poem goes on for nearly 10,000 lines.

What Does the Knight Represent?

Even before we hear The Knight's Tale, readers already have a sense of what the Knight is like from Chaucer's description in the Prologue. Even though the tale is not autobiographical, the Knight relays his views on proper conduct and moral order. From his narration, literary scholars and historians believe we can be able to learn facts about the Knight's social class and nobility.

The Knight in the Canterbury Tales
knight

Chivalry

The knight emphasizes the importance of chivalry and honor. The narrator casts epic hero Theseus to represent the just medieval chivalric code, the code of conduct that all knights vowed to follow and every citizen revered. These rules included demonstrating courage, honor, courtesy, devotion, strength and charity. The chivalric code was tightly knit with medieval values of honor and noble stature, morals related to gender roles, and the importance of social order.

For example, when Theseus happens upon Palamon and Arcite engaged in a duel, the chivalrous knight puts a stop to the aggression. Their low behavior contradicts the knights code of honor and indicates that these two warriors have broken their vow. Theseus commands the men to present themselves at a tournament, an honorable scene fit for a knight.

tournament

Proper Gender Roles

People say chivalry is dead, but men still open doors for ladies. The Knight's code of chivalry ties in with the proper roles for men and women in Medieval society.

Chaucer paints a picture of medieval gender roles though the use of imagery. Instead of describing the character directly, authors use imagery to associate a character with some other identifiable picture. The qualities of one thing, then, reflect back on the character. For example, by associating femininity with the purity of nature and the gentleness of a flower, Chaucer indicates that women are fragile creatures who need to be honored, respected, and protected. In one scene of courtship, the Knight describes a meeting between Arcite and Emelye.

That Emelye, a fairer sight to see
Than lilies on a stalk of green could be,
And fresher than the flowers May discloses--
Her hue strove with the color of the roses

In addition, the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta symbolizes the proper roles of men and women. Men are supposed to be rational, strong, and just. Women need a man's protection, guidance, wisdom, and compassion. Men must rule over women to contrast the feminine emotions with masculine reason.

Both women in this story are treated like possessions. Neither has any control over the choice of whom they will marry.

Reason & Justice

As the Duke of Athens, Theseus has the authority and the responsibility to maintain a well-ordered society. This theme is represented in several ways.

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