The Virtue of Magnanimity in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”

“The Knight’s Tale” introduces four knightly figures who epitomize the ideals of their moral code. The narrator, one of the pilgrims traveling on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, and introduced by Chaucer as “a worthy man,/ Who from the very moment he first began/ To ride, searching adventure, held chivalry/ In his heart, and honor and truth, and courtesy / And grace,” wins the honor of narrating the first tale as the merry company engage in their storytelling contest to pass the time to and from their journey to Canterbury rather than “To ride in utter silence, dumb as a stone.” In his tale the Knight presents three other noble men who also embody the virtues of gallant knights who live and fight with honor.

Duke Theseus, returning home to Athens from a victorious war against Scythia, the land of the Amazons, encounters a number of weeping women lamenting the loss of their husbands who die at Thebes and bewail the cruelty of Creon who not only forbids burial of the dead “But sends out hounds to eat the bodies, turning/ Law and decency all upside down.” Like the chivalric knight who serves and defends women, Theseus is moved by the pleas of the morning widows, for, according to the medieval proverb Chaucer frequently quotes, “Pity runs quickly in gentle hearts.” Changing his destination from Athens to Thebes, Theseus, even while recently married to Hippolyta, goes to Thebes to seek justice for the cause of the women, slaying Creon, destroying the walls of the city, and bringing the widows their husbands’ bones for honorable burial. In his chivalry to defend the suffering women and honor their just cause, Theseus fearlessly goes to war again and demonstrates the fortitude of the honorable knight in battle who fights for a moral cause, not for vainglory or revenge.

In the aftermath of his victory at Thebes, Theseus sees two young wounded soldiers among a mound of corpses, members of Theseus’ army whom he spares rather than kills. Instead of exacting revenge upon the enemy, “Theseus sent them/ To Athens, to be locked in prison and kept there forever.” The moral code of a knight demands mercy as well as justice, and his sense of honor extends to the humane treatment of enemies as well his chivalrous treatment of women. A magnanimous man, then, never stoops to petty vengeance or lets small-minded meanness conquered his large soul and noble mind. The true knight, though as bold and brave as the Knight who narrates the story who has returned with blood-stained garments from the Crusades and “fought in fifteen deadly campaigns,” remains ever the gracious man, not the barbarian or the brutal soldier whose triumph means plunder, slaughter, and retaliation. Chaucer thus praises this large mind and large soul of the honorable knight in describing the narrator of this tale: “Never in all his life had he been churlish/ Or mean to any creature on earth—a true/ A graceful, perfectly noble knight.”

The two imprisoned enemies who are cousins and friends, Palamon and Arcite, also illustrate the ideals of knighthood as they uphold their oaths and remain true to their promises regardless of the vicissitudes of Fortune. As they suffer the miserable lot of their imprisonment with no prospects for freedom, the two cousins both behold from the window the sight of Theseus’s beautiful sister-in-law Emily and feel the pang of love at first sight. Palamon wonders, “Is she a woman or goddess?” Arcite proclaims that he would rather die than live without the love of Emily: “…unless/ She graces me with her lovely glance … I am as good as dead.” From being devoted cousins and true friends the young knights become rivals in love, a contest that tests their knightly character to the utmost. Both Palamon and Arcite had sworn to assist each other in love and in every other aspect of their lives, and now Arcite acts as Palamon’s enemy rather than his friend. Palamon complains that Arcite cannot love Emily because Palamon loved her first. Arcite would degrade his knighthood and lose his honor: “No Arcite, you liar, you cannot love her…. Or else renounce your honor, as a true man would.” Each cousin accuses the other of falsehood and treachery, the mark of false knighthood.

Though noble knights, bonded cousins, and true friends Palamon and Arcite appear to disregard the moral ideal of “truth” and flout their vow of loyalty that distinguishes a knight’s words and promises when they compete for the love of Emily. Despite their unresolved argument about who loves Emily more and deserves her hand in marriage, the young knights find an opportunity to settle the issue. After Arcite is released from prison on condition of a death sentence if he returns to Athens and Palamon escapes from prison with the threat of punishment if discovered, both knights fearlessly return to woo Emily, risking death for love. By accident the two cousins meet in a grove and resume their quarrel, Palamon accusing Arcite of betrayal: “Arcite, you traitor, you liar, you slave/Of evil” and swearing that they must fight to the death to determine the lover of Emily: “And either you or I will have to die/ To keep you from loving my Emily.” Arcite, however, refuses to fight his rival in the present circumstances because of his sense of honor. Arcite, riding and carrying weapons, sees that Palamon is not equipped for battle in fair competition. He proposes that they meet again in the grove the next day in fair combat with both knights having the same advantage and identical weapons. A true knight, Arcite will not stoop to win the hand of Emily by taking advantage of the weakness of his opponent and wants a just, honorable test of arms. A large-souled man never seeks victory by dastardly deeds.

On the day of the contest Theseus, enjoying the sport of hunting on a beautiful May day with his wife Hippolta and sister-in-law Emily, accidentally finds the two knights in combat with flashing swords and intervenes, only to discover that he has found the two cousins who have both violated the law and are subject to punishment. Again Palamon and Arcite pass the test of knighthood when, questioned by Theseus “But tell who on earth you are,” they reveal their identity as an escaped prisoner who broke the law and as a released prisoner who violated the terms of his freedom. They speak the truth and do not resort to the small-minded trickery of lies to escape punishment or death. The noble Theseus, who earlier magnanimously spared the lives of his enemies and showed mercy to the suffering victims of war, now enforces justice: “You both must die, there are no questions/ To ask, no need for torture to pry out the truth.” As Theseus hears the reason for the cousins’ battle and learns of their love for Emily as the cause of their rivalry, the queen and Emily begin to weep and plead for mercy to temper justice, crying “For pity quickly stirs in gentle hearts.” All three knights, then, manifest their large hearts and souls—Palamon and Arcite chivalrously willing to fight and die for love, Arcite refusing to gain victory by dishonorable means, the two cousins rejecting any form of deception to lie about their identities, and Theseus courteously pleasing the wishes of the weeping women who plead the cause of love and mercifully forgiving the young knights for their violations.

Instead of a private battle in the grove Theseus proposes the public event of a tournament before the entire city as the just, honorable way of ending the conflict. In another display of largeness of mind Thesseus practices the virtue of magnificence, the generosity of spending large sums of money for worthy causes and splendid high occasions. He undertakes lavish expenses to construct an amphitheater, a marble gate, and altars to the gods of Venus, Mars, and Diana. He uses the best, choicest materials and hires the most skilled craftsmen to provide elegance and the splendor of beauty. The equipment and arms also display gems and jewels of great value, “Beautifully embroidered helmets, and steel/ Armor on their heads and horses, as bright as their shields….” He hosts and houses thousands of spectators with overflowing hospitality and entertains them with music, arts, and lavish displays. The liberality of Theseus expresses the large-heartedness of the magnanimous man who expends wealth for great causes like marriage.

In the tournament between the two cousins, Arcite wins the joust and earns the hand of Emily in a fair contest. After his courageous victory with his formidable foe, however, Arcite falls from his horse that stumbles and hurls him head foremost in a fatal accident. Though Arcite defeats his rival in war, he loses the love of Emily as the fickle wheel of Fortune suddenly precipitates his fall from high to low. Always true to the vows and ideals of knighthood, Arcite’s final words to his beloved capture the essence of magnanimity when he advises Emily to requite the love of Palamon, a rival deserving of her love and the paragon of chivalry: “no man so worthy to share your heart/ Than Palamon, my beloved cousin.” Arcite lives, fights, dies, and sacrifices like a noble knight, a man generous to friend and foe with the large heart that offers his bride to his dearest friend, the large soul that cherishes truth and love above self-interest and deceit, and the large mind that forgives and forgets small grievances and quarrels in the name of honor.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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