Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Strength and Skill

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Strength and Skill

Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
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.

This passage at the very start of "The Knight's Tale" establishes the rules of its world. One of those rules is that military skill – the ability to conquer another person in battle – is rewarded with marriage to a desirable and wealthy woman. This rule will hold fast at the end of the tale as well, but will be complicated by the intervention of Fate.

[He] swoor his ooth, as he was trewe knyght,
He wolde doon so ferforthly his myght
Upon the tiraunt Creon hem to wreke,
That all the peple of Grece sholde speke
How Creon was of Theseus yserved,
As he that hadde his deeth ful wel deserved.

Here Theseus demonstrates one of the possible uses of military strength, which is the ability to avenge wrongs and uphold the rules of his society. It's an example of might making right, something in which Theseus wholly believes. His defeat of Creon will not only avenge the lamenting womens' loss, but will also shame Creon before everyone, so that people will know not to break the rules in the same way Creon did.

He fil in office with a chamberleyn,
The which that dwellynge was with Emelye,
For he was wys and koude soone espye
Of every servant which that serveth here.
Wel koude he hewen wode, and water bere,
For he was yong and myghty for the nones,
And therto he was strong and big of bones
To doon that any wight kan hym devyse.

Arcite's success as a servant at Theseus's court is dependent not only upon the strength with which he chops wood and hauls water, but also upon the a certain instinct he has that enables him to figure out which servants are the most powerful. This enables him to get in with one who works in Emily's household so that he can secure a position there.

'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
And if so be that thou my lady wynne,
And sle me in this wode ther I am inne,
Thow mayst wel have my lady as for me.'
(750-754, 759-761)

Here Palamon and Arcite demonstrate another use for physical power and skill: to determine the winner in a dispute. Arcite proposes a secret duel in which one of the two fighters will die. Willingness to win a woman in such a duel, to "darreyne hir by bataille," makes one a worthy knight. This system of resolving disputes between knights is part of the chivalric code.

[…] '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.'

Theseus promises to give Emily to the knight whose company manages to slay his opponent or take him prisoner, implying that the winner will be dependent upon the "myght" of the knight's army. But then he refers to the winner as one "to whom that Fortune yeveth so fair a grace," implying that the outcome is outside of everyones' hands. Which is it?

And right so ferden they with Palamon,
With hym ther wenten knyghtes many on.
Som wol ben armed in an haubergeoun,
In a bristplate, and in a light gypoun,
And som wol have a paire plates large,
And som wol have a Pruce sheeld, or a targe,
Som wol ben armed on hir legges weel,
And have an ax, and somme a mace of steel.

This passage details the battle-dress of the company that rides to joust with Palamon. It's interesting that the knights are not all dressed uniformly, since, as we later learn, they are all part of the same army. This individuality of battle-gear suggests that all the knights are individually responsible for arming themselves. This situation goes along with what we know about feudalism: individual knights pledged allegiance to a lord, but were responsible for maintaining themselves.

Ther maistow seen comyng with Palamoun,
Lygurge hym-self, the grete kyng of Trace.
Blak was his berd, and manly was his face.
Hise lymes grete, hise brawnes harde and stronge,
Hise shuldres brode, hise armes rounde and longe;
An hundred lordes hadde he in his route,
Armed ful wel, with hertes stierne and stoute.
(1270-1273, 1277-1278, 1295-1296)

This passage talks about the strength of the companies that ride with Palamon and Arcite. Both knights have allied themselves with a powerful, famous lord. The passages emphasize the fearsome appearance of the lords, which reflects upon the fearsomeness of the company of 100 he brings with him.

With Arcita, in stories as men fynde,
The grete Emetreus, the kyng of Inde.
Upon a steede bay, trapped in steel,
Covered in clooth of gold dyapred weel,
Cam ridynge lyk the god of armes, Mars.

Arcite has enlisted the help of Emetreus, king of India, for the joust. Like Lycurgus he is fearsome looking and battle-ready, "ridynge lyk the god of armes, Mars." In contrast to the portrayal of Lycurgus, however, this portrait emphasizes not only the strength, but also the riches, of the mighty king.

'And wel I woot, er she me mercy heete,
I moot with strengthe wynne hir in thep lace.
And, wel I woot, withouten help or grace
Of thee, ne may my strengthe noght availle.
Thanne help me lord, tomorwe, in my bataille.'

In his prayer to Mars, Arcite clarifies his view of the relationship between individual strength and skill and success in battle. He will bring his strength to the battle, he says, but in order to win it, he needs a little bit of luck, which he hopes Mars will supply.

Somme seyden thus, somme seyde 'it shal be so';
Somme helden with hym with the blake berd,
Somme with the balled, somme with the thikke-herd,
Somme seyde he looked grymme, and wolde fighte,
'He hath a sparth of twenty pound of wighte.'
Thus was the halle ful of divynynge,
Longe after that the sonne gan to sprynge.

In this passage, the people at Theseus's court try to predict the outcome of tomorrow's joust judging by the physical appearance of the knights who have gathered for the battle. Just as Theseus did when he ordained the joust, though, the narrator in the end declares the outcome of it to be in the hands of fate.  He says the hall was full of "divynynge," implying that the people's attempts to predict the winner are just like a fortuneteller's efforts to divine the future.

Ther nas no tygre in the vale of Galgopheye
Whan that hir whelp is stole, whan it is lite,
So crueel on the hunte, as is Arcite
For jelous herte upon this Palamon;
Ne in Belmarye ther nys so fel leon
That hunted is, or for his hunger wood,
Ne of his praye desireth so the blood,
As Palamon to sleen his foo Arcite.

This passage compares the battle-lust of Palamon and Arcite to the wrath of a tiger whose cub has been stolen, or a hunted lion that is crazy with hunger. Despite Theseus's attempt to turn Palamon and Arcite's anger with one another into a "civilized" joust, this passage betrays just how much animal anger and violence still lurks within the two men.

For soothly ther was no disconfiture.
For fallyng nys nat but an aventure –
Ne to be lad by force unto the stake
Unyolden, and with twenty knyghtes take,
O person allone, withouten mo,
And haryed forth by arme, foot, and too,
And eke his steede dryven forth with staves,
With footmen, bothe yemen and eek knaves,
It nas aretted hym no vileynye,
Ther may no man clepen it cowardye.

Here the narrator is parroting what the people at Theseus's court say about the losing team. Everyone tries to comfort them, and Palamon.  They're reminded that it's no dishonor to be taken to the stake when harried by twenty knights, or to fall from one's horse in the course of the joust – all of this is just par for the course. The narrator is trying to make the point that no one thinks less of Palamon because of his loss, and nor should we, the reader. He is just as good a fighter as ever.