Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Knight’s Tale - Part 1


Once upon a time there lived a duke Theseus who was the lord and governor of Athens. He was the mightiest conqueror in his day and had subdued many wealthy kingdoms. With his military genius and bravery he had conquered Scythia, the realm of the Amazons. He married Scythia’s queen Hippolyta and brought her and her younger sister Emelye home to his country with great pomp and splendor. The Knight merely touches over the lengthy details of Theseus’ siege and the difficulties encountered on his voyage home since it would be unfair to the other pilgrims who should also have their turn to tell their tales. The Knight then continues with his tale. On his triumphant return voyage, Theseus encounters a company of ladies dressed in black who are lamenting loudly. The ladies told Theseus that each of them had once been a duchess or a queen but is now destitute. They tell him that the old Creon had killed their husbands at the siege of Thebes and had maliciously defiled their dead bodies by giving them to the dogs to eat. They appeal to the duke for help. The good duke, enraged by this tale of woe swore upon his honor to take revenge from Creon. He immediately set off towards Thebes with his army and ordered Hippolyta to proceed to Athens with her sister Emelye. Theseus chose a battlefield and killed Creon in a fair combat. He then conquered Thebes and restored the bones of their dead husbands to the ladies.

After the battle got over the soldiers began to pillage the pile of slaughtered men. Among the heap of corpses they found two young knights named Arcite and Palamon who had been badly wounded. They claimed to be of royal blood and swore that they were brothers since they had been born to two sisters. The looters brought them before Theseus who refused to accept any ransom for their release and ordered to imprison them in Athens. Theseus then returns to Athens and lives in happiness while Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned in a tower and lead a miserable existence.

After several years, one fresh May morning beautiful Emelye happened to wander about the garden gathering flowers to weave a garland. The garden was adjoining the great tower in which Arcite and Palamon were imprisoned. Palamon who was cursing his fate happened to see Emily through a window and gave a startled cry of anguish. The alarmed Arcite questions him about this behavior. Palamon replies that he had cried out in anguish because of the unearthly beauty of the lady wandering in the garden. Arcite’s curiosity was piqued and he too looked out of the window. Emily’s beauty struck him to the quick and he declared that he would die unless he saw her everyday. These words angered Palamon who accused Arcite of being a traitor to declare love for a lady whom he chose first. Arcite disdainfully replied that while Palamon’s love was nothing more than a religious feeling while his was real love, the love of a human being. Despite the fact that they are kin and sworn brothers they decide that everything is fair in love and war. They concur that each one shall fight for himself for love. Their friendship soon paled into a bitter and long strife.

It so happened that one day a duke named Perotheus, who was a friend of both Theseus and Arcite, arrived in Athens on a friendly visit. He requested Theseus to free Arcite on certain terms and conditions. It was decided that Arcite would be freed but he shall have to leave Athens forever. If he were ever found in Athens he would be beheaded.

Arcite is very sad at this turn of events and laments that it is his fate to permanently dwell in hell. When he was imprisoned he could at least catch a glimpse of his beloved Emily but now he is condemned never to see her again. He thinks that Palamon is luckier since he is still imprisoned and can enjoy Emily’s presence. In the meanwhile when Palamon realizes that Arcite has been released, he goes wild with grief. He thinks that Arcite can raise an army in Thebes and attack Athens and capture Emelye. The Knight now pauses and asks the reader to make the impossible decision about who is in a worse condition, Arcite or Palamon.

The Knight’s Tale - Part 2


Arcite returned to Thebes and spent all his days lamenting his separation from Emelye. He didn’t eat, drink or sleep. Thus he grew as thin as a stick and his complexion became pale and sallow. This melancholic state of affairs continued for almost 2 years. One night while sleeping he saw the vision of Mercury which exhorted him to go to Athens. Arcite resolved to go back to Athens and to his fair Emily irrespective of the consequences. Upon looking into a mirror he realized that his appearance had undergone such a drastic change that he might remain unnoticed in Athens. He immediately disguised himself as a poor laborer and set off for Athens. Arriving at Athens he assumed the name of Philostrate and offered his services at the court and was assigned as a chamber page to Emily. As the years passed by he soon became popular in the whole court and rapidly rose in rank to become a chamber squire and a trusted confidante of Theseus. He spent nearly 3 years in this manner.

In the meanwhile worry and distress wore out Palamon who was still imprisoned for seven years. One May night Palamon broke out of his prison with the help of his friend who had drugged the jailer. Palamon fled from the city and decided to hide in the woods by daylight and to return home to Thebes by night, to raise an army and win Emelye as his bride. As luck would have it Arcite who had become the chief squire happened to arrive in the same woods where Palamon was taking refuge. Not knowing that Palamon was hiding in a thicket nearby Arcite began to muse upon the sad events of his life. Palamon, having heard Arcite’s tale, was filled with rage and confronted him by calling him a foul traitor. Arcite then challenged Palamon to a duel to decide who was to win Emelye. The next morning Arcite arrived with food and armaments sufficient for both of them. The duel began and they fought furiously against each other. It so happened that Theseus, who loved to go on hunts, arrived along with Hippolyta and Emelye at the very spot where Arcite and Palamon were fighting. Theseus ordered them to stop fighting at once. When Palamon revealed their true identities and the cause of the duel, Theseus condemned them to a death sentence. However Queen Hippolyta and Emelye begged Theseus to have some mercy on them. The tears of the women had the desired effect on Theseus who resolved to free both Arcite and Palamon provided they swore never to harm Athens. Theseus also proposed a scheme to solve the matter of love for Emily. He said that Arcite and Palamon should return within a year with an army of 100 knights each, to fight a joust for winning Emily. Palamon and Arcite were overjoyed by Theseus’s generous gesture and returned to Thebes happily.

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