Chaucer FYI - 2 The Knight's Tale

In the first FYI section that I wrote, there was a brief discussion of "sentence and solace" that I wanted to continue here, using The Knight's Tale as an example.

Sentence and Solace fluctuate in The Canterbury Tales, and ironically enough this first tale is the best example of the two ideas balanced in one story - in a sense, progress toward the original goal of the tale-telling contest stops here. The Knight's Tale has a complex presentation of the "high" theme of love, pays close attention to honor and fealty, is cautious with the subject of class and is respectful to those of "hye lynage" while managing to capture the interest and empathy of "low" readers and listeners (for the most part.) No other tale in the whole collection makes such an attempt to be both meaningful and enjoyable; the tale of Custace is more a recounting of sorrows and a vehicle for judgment than a balanced story, Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas is entirely solace while his Tale of Mellibee is entirely sentence. While the two are juxtaposed and almost exactly central to the tales, they are not balanced together though they help the balance of the collection as a whole.

The text of The Knight's Tale may seem bone dry and unpleasant to us (as well as to at least one pilgrim - the Miller) but its solace is drawn from the romantic tradition - that is to say, from tales in the Roman style. So many people today think that "romance" stories are about busty women falling for emotionally closed-off bad boys, but in an older sense romantic works relied on an interplay of conventions which told a story in a specific (somewhat archaic) style. Romances were stories that involved a grand tradition - such as the documentation (and fictionalization) of a famous character, Alexander the Great for example. They were adventure stories which described the more-than-human feats of their characters, epic quests to conquer foreign lands and kill strange beasts, and in Europe in the late medieval and early renaissance periods they developed into chivalric adventures glorifying the honor and chivalry of the main character as he followed his quest to win his lady's hand. This is the sort of quest that we can clearly see in Arcite and Palamon's pursuit of Emily. They stray from some of the romantic conventions, occasionally in major ways; Arcite certainly isn't acting chivalrous when he lies about his identity for several years, and neither is Palamon when he drugs his jailer to escape from prison. But overall the tale adheres to and occasionally mockingly exaggerates romantic conventions. This duplicity, complimenting the style by using it well while at the same time satirizing it, is another example of Chaucer balancing the tale's sentence and solace; even to a contemporary audience the Knight would have occasionally sounded pompous and outdated, but in spite of that his story remains compelling. In this way Chaucer achieves a greater balance between meaning and pleasure because the story, while pleasurable to hear of its own merit, is occasionally made more enjoyable from the viewpoint of the frame story where the reading audience can laugh along with the other pilgrims at the antiquated audacity of the Knight.

One of the reasons the Knight sounds so outmoded is because he himself was an example of a dying system. With the peasant uprisings in England that happened in Chaucer's time, plague killing half of the working class population, and kings being corrupted and corrupting the country the Knight's fixation on division of degree seems desperate and a bit ridiculous. Over and over again in his tale you hear of people given gifts according to their degree, in line according to their degree, seated according to their degree and generally behaving appropriately for their degree. The Knight, in telling this particular tale, is acting according to his degree however he is doing at a time when degree is beginning to mean less and less.

For modern audiences, this is sometimes confusing, but let's put it this way: "degree" or "estate," depending on context, means class. In Chaucer's time, there were arguably four estates: the nobles, the clergy, the peasants and the emerging merchant class. The three (or four) estate system was beginning to break down as peasants gained more political power in the 1300s and were able to demand higher wages and act as free men rather than as serfs tied to the land. The Knight's constant emphasis on degree and estate may have something to do with the fact that he is the only character in The Canterbury Tales who stands on the highest rung of a teetering ladder. Even in his own party he has a free Yeoman who doesn't fit into the three estate system, and outside of his little group he's surrounded by a Merchant, Miller, Reeve, Dyer, Haberdasher, Tapestry-Maker, Clerk, the Wife of Bath and Chaucer the Pilgrim - none of whom neatly fit into any of the three estates, to say nothing of the pseudo-religious professions which were polluting the estate of the clergy.

However it is partially thanks to the Knight's obsession with proper old forms and acting according to his degree that one of the most interesting aspects of The Canterbury Tales as a collection first comes to light.

The tale-tellers themselves are often far more interesting than their stories since their personalities, petty disagreements, political infighting, imagined offenses, and desire to shock the other tale-tellers often lends a greater meaning to many of the different tales.

The Knight is not reacting to anything other than his drawn lot as well as his lot in life when he tells the tale of Arcite and Palamon, but the Miller is most assuredly reacting to the high style and stuffiness of the Knight, as well as possibly some contempt of the Reeve, when he tells his tale. The Reeve in turn tells a tale that is reactionary to the Miller's Tale, and so on throughout the collection. The interplay between tale-tellers is particularly virulent when it comes to The Summoner's Tale and The Friar's Tale, but we'll get there when we get there - it's a long slide downhill from here.

Which brings me to my final point in this FYI - at this point in The Canterbury Tales, we are on a descent. In many ways, the Knight's Tale is the apex of the Canterbury Tales. It is full of noble ideals, told in a compelling manner, not reactionary, and occasionally wholly removed from the idea of a common contest. Ann W. Astell has an interesting perspective on The Canterbury Tales that sees the stories as a progression inward from the uppermost heavens (ruled by Saturn according to the knowledge of Chaucer's time - and it is Saturn who rules the Knight's Tale) down to earth and back again, which is detailed in her book "Chaucer and the Universe of Learning." Astell's theory supports the idea of descent both according to the heavens and to the morality of the tales. When we hit the Cook's Tale we will have temporarily hit rock bottom, but that's a story for another day. Don't worry, we'll move back up again, then much farther down than rock bottom, and finally reach a few more peaks and valleys; but for now we are on a descent, sliding morally away from the Knight and his estates. Good riddance, I say, because descent is more amusing than a noble hike up hill, so with that we close the book on our Knight, for the moment, and we'll see you again in the FYI after the Miller's Tale.

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