Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Competition

By Geoffrey Chaucer


Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.

This passage at the very beginning of "The Knight's Tale" foreshadows the rest of it by portraying marriage to a woman as part of the prize to be won in a competition. Theseus marries Hippolyta after a battle, just as later Palamon and Arcite will decide who "wins" Emily by fighting a joust.

And certes, if it nere to long to heere,
I wold have toold yow fully the manere
How wonnen was the regne of Femenye
By Theseus, and by his chivalrye,
And of the grete bataille for the nones
Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones,
And how asseged was Ypolita
The faire hardy queene of Scithia.

Theseus conquers Scithia by winning a battle with the Amazons, mythical women warriors. Hippolyta ("Ypolita") was the queen of these, but after being conquered by Theseus, she is relegated to the more "proper" womanly role of wife.  This shows that the competition here isn't just between two nations; it's between two ways of life, with the male-dominated Greek way winning out.

But shortly for to speken of this thyng,
With Creon, which that was of Thebes kyng,
He faught, and slough hym manly as a knyght
In pleyn bataille, and putte the folk to flyght;
And by assaut he wan the citee after,
And rente adoun bothe walle, and sparre, and rafter.

In every competition, there's always a loser.  Here, it's the Thebans who are put "to flyght," their city torn down "bothe walle, and sparre, and rafter." In fact, this passage portrays the siege of Thebes matter-of-factly, as if it's just something Theseus must do in order to be considered the winner.

Neither of us in love to hyndre other,
Ne in noon oother cas, my leeve brother,
But that thou sholdest trewely forthren me
In every cas, as I shal forthren thee, --
This was thyn ooth, and myn also certeyn.

Palamon and Arcite have sworn not to "hyndre," or stand in one another's way, in love. In every "cas," by which Palamon probably means dispute, the two are to help one another out. Instead, they find themselves in competition for the same woman, a situation that puts them in direct conflict with their oath. Thus their competition is not only with each other, but between their love for Emily and their oath to one another.

'O deere cosyn Palamon,' quod he,
'Thyn is the victorie of this aventure.'

Arcite declares Palamon the victor in their battle because he "gets" to remain in prison, and therefore, in sight of Emily. By calling Palamon's position a "victorie," Arcite reveals that he explicitly thinks of his dispute with Palamon as a competition, with Emily as its prize.

'Allas,' quod he, 'Arcite, cosyn myn!
Of al oure strif, God woot, the fruyt is thyn.'

Palamon calls the competition with Arcite over Emily "strif," or hard labor, the fruit of which is Emily. Arcite calls it an "aventure," or adventure-filled happening, with Emily as its prize. In both cases, the knights depict it in physical terms. The implication is that they will use their bodies to determine the winner of the competition.

'But for as muche thou art a worthy knyght,
And wilnest to darreyne hire by bataille,
Have heer my trouthe; tomorwe I wol nat faille
Withoute wityng of any oother wight
That heere I wol be founden as a knyght,
And brygen harneys right ynough for thee,
And ches the beste, and leef the worste for me.
And mete and drynke this nyght wol I brynge
Ynough for thee, and clothes for thy beddynge;
And if so be that thou my lady wynne,
And sle me in this wode ther I am inne,
thow mayst wel have thy lady as for me.'

Here Arcite proposes that he and Palamon duel to determine who "wins" Emily. As a good, chivalrous knight, it's important to Arcite that the competition be absolutely fair.  For this reason, he offers to bring Palamon not only weapons, but also provisions and bedding so that he can strengthen himself with as good a meal and night's sleep as Arcite can have. As Theseus later points out, the irony of this is that the "prize," Emily, knows nothing about their plan.

Everich of you shal brynge an hundred knyghtes
Armed for lystes up at alle rightes,
Al redy to darreyne hire by bataille.

Theseus proposes, as Arcite did, that he and Palamon settle their dispute by fighting. Unlike Arcite's propsed duel, however, this fight will take place in public, in the sight of everyone and, most importantly, in the sight of Theseus, who will be its judge.

Upon my trouthe, and as I am a knyght,
That wheither of yow bothe that hath myght,
This is to seyn, that wheither he, or thow
May with his hundred, as I spak of now,
Sleen his contrarie, or out of lystes dryve,
Thanne shal I yeve Emelya to wyve
To whom that Fortune yeveth so fair a grace.

Another important difference betweeen the duel Arcite proposed and the joust Theseus now orders is that the outcome of the battle will depend upon more than Palamon and Arcite's skill at swordplay. In theory, it will also depend upon their ability to marshal a strong, skillfull company of men and to lead it. You can see how, from Theseus's perspective, this joust is a better way for him to choose a potential ally than an individual fight between Palamon and Arcite. It tests not only their skills as leaders, but also the quality of military power they can marshal in a limited timeframe.

'And, wel I woot, er she me mercy heete,
I moot with strengthe wynne hir in the place.
And, wel I woot, withouten help or grace
Of thee, ne may my strengthe noght availle.
Thanne help me, lord, tomorwe in my bataille
For thilke fyr that whilom brente thee,
As wel as thilke fyr now brenneth me!
And do that I tomorwe have victorie,
Myn be the travaille and thyn be the glorie!'

Arcite asks Mars, the god of war, to help him win the battle between himself and Palamon. He appeals to Mars by trying to show how they're connected: his lovesickness burns him just as the sacrificial fire now burns Mars. Before it can end, Arcite must "wynne [Emily] in the place." But if he does, he promises to link himself and Mars further by making sure that his victory feeds Mars's glory.

And right anon swich strif ther is bigonne
For thilke grauntyng, in the hevene above
Bitwixe Venus, the Goddesse of Love,
and Mars the stierne God armypotente,
That Jupiter was bisy it to stente.

This passage shows how the competition between Palamon and Arcite begins to echo even in heaven. Venus, to whom Palamon has prayed for Emily's love, is at odds with Mars, to whom Arcite has prayed for victory. The strife in the heavens creates problems for Jupiter who, like Theseus on earth, is responsible for keeping order in his kingdom.

The stronge kyng Emetreus gan hente
This Palamoun, as he faught with Arcite,
And made his swerd depe in his flessh to byte.
And by the force of twenty is he take
Unyolden, and ydrawen unto the stake.

This passage emphasizes Palamon's bravery and skill by telling how it takes twenty men to capture him and how, even after his capture, he is "unyolden," or unyielding. Nevertheless, Palamon's capture means that he has lost the joust, and Emily.

And whan that Theseus hadde seyn this sighte
Unto the folk that foghten thus echon
He cryde, 'Hoo! namoore, for it is doon.
I wol be trewe juge, and no partie;
Arcite of Thebes shal have Emelie,
That by his fortune hath hir faire ywonne!'

Theseus emphasizes here that he is an impartial judge, "no partie," and is careful to declare the winner of the competition publically to everyone. These concerns, for a public and impartially-refereed competition, were the ones that prompted him to decree the joust in the first place.