Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Representing Rebellion: The Ending of Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Castration of Saturn (1)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Representing Rebellion: The Ending of Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Castration of Saturn (1)

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Previous scholars of the Knight's Tale have expressed some difficulty when pagan Theseus, at the end, strangely attributes authority for the resolution of the dramatic conflict among Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye to the "First Mover," Jupiter, who is equivocal with the One God (2987). Further, in terms of the narrative order it appears that the first and fourth petitions to the gods -- of Palamon to Venus, goddess of love, and of Venus to her father, Saturn -- have been displaced by the second and third petitions, of Arcite to Mars, god of war, and of Emelye to Diana, the moon (and by what might be termed the fifth, of Theseus to Jupiter at the end). Why should planetary god Mars (higher than Venus but lower in the cosmic hierarchy than Saturn) triumph over more powerful planetary god Saturn? And what does Chaucer mean by this strange slippage, this displacement of Saturn by Jupiter at the end, with the sixth planetary god triumphing over the higher, seventh, planetary god?

In one classical myth found at the beginning of Ovid's Metamorphoses, popular in the Middle Ages through its use in the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose of Jean de Meun, Saturn is displaced by his son Jupiter when he is castrated and sent into exile, which leads to a disorder in the world that cannot be undone by the power and efficacy of Venus (love). If Jupiter succeeds Saturn to the throne, which leads disastrously to a time of misfortune and civil disorder and the subversion of authority, how then can Theseus in the Knight's Tale imagine that Jupiter operates as an agent of stability and eternity in his role as the "Prince"? Why has Chaucer omitted the significant fact (or metaphor) of Saturn's castration both in "The Former Age" and in the Knights Tale?

The castration and imprisonment of Saturn, I would argue, are key to understanding the Knight's Tale, explained by the elision of his power within the text when his son Jupiter, through the agency of Theseus, takes the credit for Saturn's decisive judgment about the superiority of Love to War. If we read the slippage by invoking the various traditions Ovidian, mythographic, and astrological -- that explain this myth, the Knight 's Tale can be read as a much darker story, the story of Chaucer's teller, the Knight himself, who identifies with Duke Theseus as an exponent of aristocracy and privilege. This identification is both personal and political, in that the Knight's nostalgia for the type of order argued by Theseus sentimentalizes and thereby justifies the political situation at the time of Chaucer's writing, a dark time in which Jupiter's lechery, doubleness, and treason substitute for the Golden Age of Saturn. I would argue that Saturn in the tale is in fact associated with disorder and suffering, but th e disorder and suffering of the rabble, not the serenity of royalty or the powerful. Chaucer uses the structure of the myth of Saturn's castration as an analogue for the oppression of the Commons by means of royal and parliamentary actions preceding and following the Peasants' Revolt.

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Previous scholars of the Knight's Tale have expressed some difficulty when Theseus, at the end, strangely attributes authority for the resolution of the dramatic conflict to the First Mover, Jupiter, who seems equivocal to the One God. "The First Mover" is a catalyst that medieval Christian poets and classical stoic and Christian philosophers have conventionally identified with "Jupiter" as a name for God, equivocal with Jove, from the time of the stoics through late medieval Christianity. In a passage indebted to Boethius (2) and added to Chaucer's source in Boccaccio's Teseida, Jupiter is equated by Theseus with "The Firste Moevere of the cause above,! Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love" (2987-8), identified as a "Prince" (2994) both "stable" and "eteme" (3004) -- in other words, the celestial principle and Oneness beyond the translunary spheres of the planets. …

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