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The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale


by Geoffrey Chaucer

Analysis: Plot Analysis

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation

In a battle with Thebes, Theseus, lord of Athens, captures two sworn-brother knights, Palamon and Arcite. He imprisons them in a tower near his garden, where his sister-in-law Emily decides to walk one May day.

The stage is set for the conflict that's yet to come. Two brave, young knights imprisoned in a tower with nothing to do but gaze at whatever happens to walk through the nearby garden? Young, beautiful damsel frolicking through the flowers one May day? Sounds like a conflict waiting to happen.


Palamon and Arcite both fall in love with Emily. Oh, and they happen to have sworn an oath to support one another in everything.

Palamon and Arcite are both in love with Emily. The Greeks don't practice polyandry (the marriage of two or more men to one woman) so, sorry guys, only one of you can have her. Adding even more to the conflict is the fact that these two knights have sworn an oath of brotherhood that requires them to further one another's interests in everything. They're in conflict not only with one another, then, but also within themselves, as their oath of brotherhood competes with their hopeless love for Emily.


Chancing upon Arcite and Palamon fighting a duel, Theseus decrees that the two must fight a joust in order to decide who gets Emily.

Arcite and Palamon never quite agree to disagree about who gets Emily, but they think the rivalry's a moot point given the fact that they're both going to be in prison forever. Then Arcite gets free and Palamon escapes, which complicates things a bit. When they decide to fight a duel, we think, this is it, now they're going to settle things. Instead, Theseus arrives on the scene. Turns out he wants Palamon and Arcite to settle things fairly and publicly, which really complicates things. Now they've got to wait a year and fight a joust to figure out who gets Emily.


Palamon and Arcite's teams of knights begin their joust.

After a year, Palamon and Arcite (and we, the readers) are finally going to figure out who gets to marry Emily. This is what the whole story's been leading up to.


Palamon and Arcite's teams fight the joust.

Lots of heroism ensues. Some people tumble from their horses. Here a man is wounded, there one is captured. All the while, we're on the edge of our seats, wondering: who is going to win? That's the question of the moment, until finally…


Arcite's forces capture Palamon, ending the joust in Arcite's favor. During his victory ride, though, Arcite tumbles from his horse and gets hurt really badly.

Here we have the outcome of the battle, coupled with an event that complicates it somewhat. Arcite can't very well marry Emily when he's on his deathbed, can he? However, given that Arcite will either recover and marry Emily, or die, paving the way for Palamon to do so, we're sensing that this story is heading toward its conclusion.


Arcite dies. Theseus asks Palamon to marry Emily, which he happily does.

It's kind of a strange conclusion: the winner of the joust dies, meaning that the guy who came in second wins the prize. It's too bad Arcite dies, but Theseus argues that we should actually be happy for him, since he died in the prime of his life with his good reputation still intact. Everybody's happy.

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