Title: Chaucer's Knight and hisTale: The Shortest Straw

Chaucer claims to place the Knight's Tale just after the General Prologue by chance, the drawing of lots. The Knight draws the short straw, and all are glad for it. The appropriateness of his lengthy tale to follow is clear on some levels, and barely perceptible on others. I intend to launch my investigation of the Knight's Tale with a scrutinization of these three statements, and perhaps we shall find an interesting conclusion in this, albeit a disputable one.

The honorable Host, Harry Bailey, begins this famous day of pilgrimage by calling everyone together to draw lots, "He which that hath the shorteste shal beginne." (838) He calls the Knight to draw first, presumably as a gesture of respect, as he refers to the Knight as master and lord. Harry continues to speak for a short moment, as we have the visual image of the Knight stepping up to claim his straw. The host continues to call up two more pilgrims, but quickly decides that everyone might as well draw in a free-for-all. And surprise! The Knight finds himself holding the short cut. Is it possible that Harry managed to give the Knight the short straw intentionally? "Now draweth cut," says he, "for that is myn accord" (840). A close eye may suggest some punning going on in that line: Now draw the cut (short) straw, for it is my wish. The words "cord" and "accord" were both used in Middle English, so we may be able to find some double meaning there as well. If indeed Harry wishes to give the Knight the "cord," there are several interesting cases to think on: a) the cord is simply the short straw, b) the cord is the hangman's rope, or c) the cord is a unit of wood cut for fuel. The hangman's rope would make for subtle sarcasm, but the cord of wood is an even more intriguing metaphor - as it is passed off to the Knight, it becomes his firewood which he must light in order to shine. If his tale gets away from him, then the once harmless stick will become the fire that consumes his knightly image and respect. However Harry meant it, the Knight decides that "welcome be the cut" (856), and he dives into his tale.

"The soothe is this, the cut fil to the Knight; / Of which ful blithe and glad was every wight," (848). Certainly, it is most reasonable that the first to tell a tale be the Knight, since in the company's eyes he is the most respectable figure of social degree. He ought to be capable of telling a terrific tale, since he's been to war against the very edges of the known world, having seen and done things beyond the imagination of the common folk. Whether the Knight had simply told the tale at the host's request, or whether he was secretly given the lot is of no consequence to the position the tale assumes (what's done is done). It does matter to the rest of the pilgrims though, for certainly someone would have spoken up in protest had the Knight been given outward preferential treatment - probably the Miller. Harry Bailey must surely hope that the Knight tells a tale of action, war, conspiracy, love...all the things that would keep the travellers' interest and enthusiasm. Does the Knight's Tale fulfill this expectation? Perhaps, but in a rather strange way.

After the lengthy attention a reader must pay to each singular character in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, he is propelled in the direction of concentrating on characterization. A reader attempting to focus on perceivable characters will become frustrated, with no physical descriptions in the entire tale except those describing the foreign Kings, Lygurge and Emetrius. It is also difficult to rely on moral characterizations between Palamon and Arcite when attempting to sympathize with one - both men seem to equally deserve the hand of Emily. The Knight's Tale contains winning, losing, battles, bloodshed, love, and chivalry. The structure of his tale, however, overpowers much of the activity that would truly excite the listening pilgrims.

A structure of mathematical and reoccurent orderliness pervades throughout the Knight's Tale. A pair of Knights, equal in worthiness, vy for Emily, who will be forsaken by her goddess. All three are of noble birth, under the impartial rule of Theseus, the epitome of heavenly rulership. Mirroring the microcosm of man is the macrocosm of the gods: Mars and Venus, both prayed to for the hand of Emily, result in her abandonment by Diana. All three are gods, ruled impartially by Saturn, who is the epitome of earthly torment. In part one, The "compaignye of ladyes, tweye and tweye, / Eech after oother," (40-1) cry uncontrollably in their unhappiness, yet they manage to stand in orderly rows. Palamon and Arcite are found "ligging by and by" (153), instead of strewn all about from the battle, and born of sisters, no less. Emily's hair is not loose and flowing, but braided, metrically described as "a yerde long" (192), and she is seen walking up and down just as Palamon is "roming to and fro" (213). Both men react instantly to Emily, one in love with her as much as the other and claiming to have loved her first. Upon Arcite's release from Theseus' prison, they speak nearly the same lines:

"O dere cosin Palamon," quod he,
"Thyn is the victorye of this aventure:" (376-7)

"Allas," quod he, "Arcita, cosin myn,
Of al oure strif, God woot, the fruit is thyn." (424-5)

In part two, both men break the laws of Theseus; banished Arcite lives in Athens, and Palamon breaks out of the prison. They are described as fierce cats when they begin to fight, and are so equally skilled that neither can defeat the other. Why so much organization? Is the tale really about bloody battles for courtly love? It doesn't seem so. Theseus' proposal for a great tournament and the following preparation turns the rivalry between the two knights from a deadly match to a sporting event. Even during the actual fight, no one is to be killed - only captured. The descriptions become more and more grandiose, overwhelming the reader with the pageantry of the court and nearly drowning out the plot and its singular characters.

The ever-present layer of orderliness that the Knight imposes on the entire tale cues the reader towards the real subject that is on his mind: the pomp of chivalry. Chivalry is a concept that was an intrinsic part of knighthood. It represented the ideal behavior of a noble warrior who protected the cause of Christianity from infidels. The Knight is attempting to demonstrate the richness that knighthood and chivalry add to life - and is quite successful. To listen to the tale aloud is to hear a richly reverberant song of beauty and complementary structure. The few lines which he blusters out an apology for his ineptness to describe something (such as 600-602, "Who could ryme in Englissh proprely / His martyrdom? Forsoothe, it am nought I.") only accentuates his best attempts in part three to recreate the shrines for us. John Matthews Manly states in his essay A Knight Ther Was an impending problem with knighthood, however:

"When Chaucer painted this portrait, the figure
which served him as model and the ideals which
it embodied were already doomed. Gunpowder
and cannon had come to take away the occupation
and the prestige of the knight..."

Surely, many people struggled with the idea of losing such a rich ideal as knighthood, which brought with it such glory. Manly explains, "The triumphs of cannon and commerce seemed only the miserable petty triumphs of the vulgar, the common, the undignified." If Chaucer was aware of this eventual decline of knighthood, we can only guess. The two figures of Palamon and Arcite represent the two sides of the Knight: the desperate lover and the stoic fighter. When he ends his tale with the death of Arcite, the fighter, he is unwittingly summing up the eventual fate of chivalry. The fighter is no longer needed, though the noble lover is still desired.

So, has the Knight kindled the flame from his cord brightly enough? Or has he fallen into the hangman's noose? The Miller seems to think the latter of him, demanding to "quite the Knightes tale." It seems to have impressed the "gentils" more than the rest, for perhaps they have a more discriminating ear. In any case, all agree it is a tale worth remembering. This seems like an understatement - this tale would be difficult to forget given the richness of its detail and the visual images it provokes. Chaucer is challenging the reader and the listener in the transition between the General Prologue and the Knight's Tale by stepping to a new level of style, from characterization to meticulous order and detail. We are forced to change modes of thought in order to comprehend the Knight's motivation for telling this tale (beyond the free meal). His drawing of the short straw seems rather suspicious, and it should clue readers to look a bit deeper at why the Knight tells his tale first. Is the host secretly trying to preserve the social order by giving the Knight the cut and asking the Monk to speak afterwards? Or is he merely hoping for a thrilling war story from a well-traveled knight? The likelihood that Chaucer put the tale first by chance is as likely as Arcite dying by an uncontrolled event. My impression of the tale's positioning is the effect of a wake-up call...readers, be aware! Order is the effect of chivalry, for even the bitter fight between Palamon and Arcite could be delayed in good will for the sake of chivalry. When chivalry is gone, so goes courtesy, and all order is lost. If the end of the Knight's Tale does indeed fortell the end of the fighting knight, who brings the order of Christianity to chaotic pagans, then we can see its immediate effects on the Miller, who cares not a bit for courtesy or order but only reckless lust. Hence, the Miller follows with a tale that Palamon could have appreciated, had he not known the ways of chivalry, but only those of lechery.

Copyright 1996, Kaye Anfield