Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Politics of Distinction

By Wadiak, Walter | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Politics of Distinction


Wadiak, Walter, Philological Quarterly


TELL US" commands the Host of the Canterbury Tales, "sore murie thing of aventures" (15). (1) Harry Bailey's words to the Clerk constitute a warning: "don't get too fancy; keep it simple. To make sure that the Clerk gets the message, Harry elaborates:

   "Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
   Keep hem in stoor til so be ye endite
   Heigh style, as whan men to kynges write.
   Speketh so pleyn at this tyme, we yow preye,
   That we may understonde what ye seye.
      (16-20)

The Host's request for "pleyn" speech as opposed to "heigh style" encodes adventure as an aspect of the popular as opposed to the elite, the "murie" and solacing as opposed to the sententious. Harry's demand for "a murie thing of aventures" is a demand for narrative as enjoyment rather than as a site for self-conscious rhetorical display. Here as elsewhere in the Tales, Harry personifies the demands of the literary marketplace and points to the ways in which such demands come into conflict with authorial desire. While seeming to comply with those demands--remarking coyly to the Host that "I am under youre yerde" (22)--the Clerk tellingly glances at "Frauncys Petrak, the lauriat poete" (31) as the source for his tale, registering in the process exactly the kind of elite affiliation with "rethorike sweete" (32) that the Host has forbidden. Petrarch, as the figure who has "enlumyned al Ytaile of poetrie" (33), becomes the model for the Clerk's own literary ambitions, even as he seems to abandon those ambitions in the interest of telling a "pleyn" tale. (2)

As others have remarked, we can see in the Clerk's response to the Host a reflection of Chaucer's complex negotiations with the idea of literary value. (3) But the Host's words also point to a feature of Chaucer's writing that has hitherto gone unnoticed: the key role of adventure in Chaucer's career long attempt to forge an identity as an author. The demand for adventure, characteristic of medieval as it still is of modern audiences, was associated with romance in particular as the most popular secular form of literature in the Middle Ages. This article explores Chaucer's engagement with romance by looking at his treatment of adventure--both the word and the idea--in the Knight's Tale. I argue that Chaucer makes a number of changes to the story upon which he drew for the tale and that the collective effect of these changes is to distance the story from popular English romances. I will suggest that Chaucer's conspicuous rejection of popular adventure stories in the Knight's Tale--as elsewhere in his poetic output--serves as an important basis for his self-conscious claim to cultural distinction as a writer. Before moving to the Knight's Tale itself, however, I begin with a brief discussion of the "romances of adventure" to which I think Chaucer is responding in his tale. Seeing how adventure works in these popular texts is vital to recognizing what Chaucer does with the conventions of the adventure story in his own writing.

ADVENTURE AND THE THREAT OF POPULARITY

While by no means synonymous with romance, "adventure" has often been said to name what is most characteristic about the genre, indicating "the arbitrary, the random, and the unmotivated that divide the experience of romance from the clear necessities of epic struggle." (4) In Morton W. Bloomfield's influential formulation, adventure represents "the opening out to the unexpected, the encounter with the unknown." (5) The Latin adventura originally meant simply "that which happens to a person," suggesting a kinship with the random and unexpected that persists to this day in our notion of a "venture" as something uncertain. (6) Medieval writers of romance clearly prized this quality of adventure as a distinctive quality of the genre, and the term aventure appears with great frequency throughout the earliest romances.

Yet I want to suggest that adventure also names the threatening possibility of romance's cultural debasement, and not just for medieval authors.

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