Chaucer's Double Telling of the Knight's Tale
Among literary deathbed scenes, the pathos of Arcite's passing in Chaucer's Knight's Tale ranks with that of Falstaff, Little Nell, and Marguerite. But while Falstaff babbles of green fields (Henry V, II. 3), Arcite delivers a formal lamentation in which he mourns the unhappy lot of man and commends Emily, his bride-to-be, to his cousin, friend, and rival, Palamon. The latter is associated with all the chivalric virtues: 'That is to seyen, trouthe, honour, knyghtede, I Wysdom, humblesse, estaat, and heigh kynrede, I Fredom, and al that longeth to that art' (11. 2789-91),1 although from what we've seen of Palamon's conduct to this point, these lines sound more like Falstaffs delirium than an accurate assessment of knighthood in general, and Palamon's in particular. Arcite's eloquent valediction is not the only occasion in the Knight's Tale where discrepancies arise between ritual (whether verbal, like Arcite's lament, or staged, like the tournament of Book IV) and 'reality'. Set within the framework of chivalric romance, that narrative form in which the noble hero is characteristically successful in his quest, loved by his lady, and in command of his destiny, the Knight's Tale upends such comfortable audience expectations in a world controlled by spiteful deities, baleful fortune, and arbitrarily minded despots, where the best man does not get the girl, the bride dedicates herself to the goddess of virginity on her nuptial eve, and the wedding feast becomes the funeral meats. Although it is a story of love and war, told by a knight, fitting the Knight's Tale into the mould of medieval romance is a square peg into round hole exercise. Its source, Boccaccio's Teseida, calls itself an epic but owes much to popular Italian romance. If Chaucer really intended, as is sometimes suggested, to turn the twelvebook epic into a chivalric romance, he made a botched job of it; but if his purpose was to make the frequently banal conventions and optimistic outlook of that genre play an ironic counterpoint to the tale's bleak picture of the human condition, the result is a tour de force.