Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale


A collection of eight critical essays on Chaucer's "Knight's Tale", arranged chronologically in order of their original publication.

Told through an odd mixture of anticlimactic summaries and overly detailed descriptions, Chaucer's Knight's Tale is a narrative of Palamon and Arcite and their struggle against one another and Fate to win the hand of Emilye in marriage. The arbitrariness of their fates, one blissful and one ironically tragic, calls into question the whole idea of divine justice. The Knight's Tale is a complex dialectic between chaos and control, in which disorder is continually being repressed in favor of the restoration of surface order. This is appropriate for the Knight, who in many ways is a figure of order throughout the Canterbury Tales and who utilizes a structured narrative method to tell an unruly tale. The Knight's Tale remains one of Chaucer's most powerful and enigmatic works, an unmatched combination of medieval romance and Menippean satire


Chaucer is one of those great writers who defeat almost all criticism, an attribute he shares with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Tolstoy. There are writers of similar magnitude—Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, Proust—who provoke inspired commentary (amidst much more that is humdrum), but Chaucer, like his few peers, has such mimetic force that the critic is disarmed and so is left either with nothing or with everything still to do. Much criticism devoted to Chaucer is merely historical, or even theological, as though Chaucer ought to be read as a supreme version of medieval Christianity. But I myself am not a Chaucer scholar, and so I write this introduction and edit this volume only as a general critic of literature and as a common reader of Chaucer.

Together with Shakespeare and a handful of the greater novelists in English, Chaucer carries the language further into unthinkable triumphs of the representation of reality than ought to be possible. The Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, like Hamlet and Falstaff, call into question nearly every mode of criticism that is now fashionable. What sense does it make to speak of the Pardoner or the Wife of Bath as being only a structure of tropes, or to say that any tale they tell has suspended its referential aspect almost entirely? The most Chaucerian and best of all Chaucer critics, E. Talbot Donaldson, remarks of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

The extraordinary quality of the portraits is their vitality,
the illusion that each gives the reader that the character
being described is not a fiction but a person, so that it
seems as if the poet has not created but merely recorded.

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