Friday, February 03, 2017

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" (circa 1390 A.D.): What Emily Wants

An enduring story from The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" (circa 1390 A.D.) serves as a wild, surreal mash-up of the Greco-Roman world with "the Medieval Times" (as the buffoonish current American president would say), and Christianity, filtered through The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).  Chaucer (circa 1343-1400) -- the latter's junior by thirty years -- lifted the basics for "The Knight's Tale" straight from Boccaccio, but added his own little jots and tittles. I really enjoy his nutty mash-up style.
As in a dream state, "The Knight's Tale" is set in an ancient Greece that is also ancient Rome and Medieval England with a touch of Medieval France and Italy thrown in for good measure. The Gods and Goddesses pulling the immediate levers are the Roman ones, with a "Prime Mover" hovering somewhere above them, Divine Providence.

Arcite and Palamon, dim-witted Theban knights, cousins, are captured unscathed on a battlefield by Athenians, and are then imprisoned. From their cell they can see Emily (aka Emelye), the king's niece by marriage. (The name Emily, it's worth noting, is popular in the 21st century, but originates with the Romans as Aemilia.) 

Arcite and Palamon are smitten, "wounded" by a dart of love fired into them, one each, by the God of Love -- Cupid and Eros, son of Venus and Aphrodite. They must be with Emily or die!

One thing leads to another, and eventually they agree to fight for her, each with a band of a hundred warriors!

This is where "The Knight's Tale" becomes especially interesting. Each of the three invested characters next petitions a God or Goddess for their desired outcome. Palamon bargains with Venus (Aphrodite) and Arcite with Mars (Ares) for Emily's heart and hand in marriage.
But what does Emily want? Neither one of these men! And so she goes to the shrine of Diana (Artemis), bargaining with the Goddess to remain an independent woman in exchange for her ever-lasting devotion to the Huntress:  

She 'would be neither mistress, nor wife. . . 
And only ask to walk the woodlands wild,
And not to be a wife or be with child,
Nor would I know the company of man.
O help me, Goddess, for none other can.
By the three Forms that ever dwell in thee,
And as for Palamon who longs for me
And for Arcite's passion, I implore
This favor of thy grace and nothing more;
Set them in amity and let them be
At peace, and turn their hearts away from me.
Let all their violent loves and hot desires,
Their ceaseless torments and consuming fires,
Be quenched, or turned towards another place.'

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill (London: Cresset Press, 1992), page 47.

And so today, 21st century people bargain with a favored deity or saint, "If you let me get this job, I'll be kinder to strangers," "If my flight lands safely, I'll donate to charity . . ." &c. &c.

But what of "The Knight's Tale?" Will Emily win her heart's desire, will Palamon or Arcite? And is there rhyme or reason for it, or whims of Fate? This is why we read on -- to find out. Tarry forth!

Today's Rune: Joy.  


Charles Gramlich said...

I used to bargain all the time. I try to avoid it now because I never keep up my end.

t said...

Touching poem.

Danny Tagalog said...

Great post which resonates on multiple levels. And you've put Chaucher back on my Soon-to-Ream list. God, I've missed reading your blog and others in this section of the blogosphere! Which god/dess would Erik bargain with, I wonder?

Erik Donald France said...

Cheers, y'all ~ ! Danny, good question. Probably situational . . .