Knighthood and Chivalry: Heroism, Love, and Honor in "Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Fourteenth century literature was characteristically based on medieval period, wherein the dominance of Christianity is evident in Western society during that time. Influenced by the image of a knight, who serves as a warrior and man of noble birth, literary works during this period centered on the virtues taught to be important by the Church: love, honor, and chivalry. These are the characteristics that every heroic knight should have: respect for other people and the self, respect for love, and protecting those people who are unable to protect themselves from harm.
These are the traits that readers see in the images of the 'knights' depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Belonging to the 14th century Western literary period, these works have illustrated how knights are characterized by different people in different situations. In "The Knight's Tale," Chaucer illustrates the stereotype of knights who are both brave and chivalrous; "The Tale of Sir Thopas" presents a comical version of a man who has all the qualities of a good knight, yet, was not able to have for himself a wife; and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" talks about the temptation and difficulties that Sir Gawain encounters as he pursues a journey to battle against the Green Knight.
All of these literary works portray a different kind of knight, although it is evident that they have the same belief that they, as knights, should remain respectful, loving, and brave for other people, most especially the women. The texts that follow discuss how the view of knighthood becomes evident in the three literary
Works Cited in terms of the level of respect, love, and courage that the knight has shown in the story. This paper posits that, the image of a brave and chivalrous knight dominated the view of knighthood, perpetuated and tolerated by a society that is characteristically patriarchal or male-dominated.
The first reading is based on the Knight's Tale from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." This tale introduces to the readers the characters of Arcita and Palamon, who became prisoners in Athens under the rule of Theseus, lord and governor of Athens. The story centers on how the two knights fell in love with Emily, sister of Queen Hippolyta, and upon their freedom from bondage to Theseus, they sought ways in order to be close to Emily, and eventually win her heart and marry one of them.
In this tale, chivalry is illustrated at its most ideal form: both Arcita and Palamon demonstrate great courage and love for Emily. It is also notable that the deities or the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology played a major role in determining the fate of the two knights as they battle against each other to fight for Emily's (and Theseus') approval for marriage. Thus, in "The Knight's Tale," two major themes emerge, which are the stereotypical portrayal of knighthood chivalry in the character of Arcita and Palamon, and the interplay between mortals (humans) and deities as the ultimate determinant of the fate of the two knights.
In the first theme, effective characterization of Arcita and Palamon show the stereotypes of knights readers have encountered on literary works that focus on knighthood and chivalry. Chaucer describes the knights as equal in terms of chivalry, thus portraying each knight as competent for the other: "Two young knights lying together, side by side, Bearing one crest, wrought richly, of their pride... Not fully quick, nor fully dead they were, But by their coats of arms and by their gear The heralds readily could tell, withal, That they were of the Theban blood royal, And that they had been of two sisters born." In this passage, readers witness how nobility ultimately determines whether a man should become a knight or not. In this case, both Arcita and Palamon are members of the nobility, thereby giving them the privilege of becoming a knight.
Despite the almost equal treatment that Chaucer gives them, Arcita and Palamon have also differences in their view of what love and how a woman like Emily must be regarded and won (as the knight's wife). Palamon, having seen Emily first in the garden from their (Arcita's and Palamon's) prison cell, exclaimed his love for the young woman upon seeing her. He declares, "The beauty of the lady that I see There in that garden, pacing to and fro, Is cause of all my crying and my woe. I know not if she's woman or goddess; But Venus she is verily, I guess." Arcita responded to Palamon's declaration with equal intensity, upon realizing that he has a competition for Emily's love and affection: "For par amour I loved her first, you know... Yours is a worship as of holiness, While mine is love, as of a mortal maid; Wherefore I told you of it, unafraid... Love is a greater law, aye by my pan, Than man has ever given to earthly man. And therefore statute law and such decrees Are broken daily and in all degrees."
These passages delivered from both Arcita and Palamon's point-of-view shows how, despite their equal love for Emily, the knights have different viewpoints concerning love and how to achieve it. Palamon perceives love at its purest sense, and he even goes so far as to declare himself as romantic by comparing Emily to that of the goddess Venus in terms of beauty and grace. Arcita, on the other hand, is illustrated as a knight accustomed to fair competition; he regards Palamon immediately as a competitor for Emily's love, and cites "love as a greater law," where he warns Palamon that, despite their being brothers in knighthood and nobility, Arcita would spare him no chance to have Emily as his wife. Readers are now able to see that Palamon is a romantic driven by his emotions, while Arcita is a practical man driven by his rational thinking.
The second theme, which centers on the religiosity of the knights, is another aspect that shows how, despite their good qualities and competitiveness, Arcita and Palamon are still subject to the whims of gods and goddesses -- that is, their victory over their fight for Emily's love is determined by Fate. Arcita subsisted the help of Mars during his fight against Palamon, while Palamon called for Venus's help. The choice of deity reflects the character of each knight: Palamon, the romantic, sought Venus's help, while Arcita, the rational knight, asked for help from Mars, the god of war: " Over the eastern gate, and high above, For worship of Queen Venus, god of love, He built an altar and an oratory; And westward, being mindful of the glory Of Mars, he straightway builded such another As cost a deal of gold and many a bother."
Arcita and Palamon's characters in "The Knight's Tale" provides the image of the stereotypical knight, whose bravery is often demonstrated through battles wherein both knights fight for a loved-one; in the tale's case, Emily. It is also evident that while the knights have qualities that shall make them competent as warriors, it is also inculcated in their minds that divine intervention and fate ultimately determines the victory of the knights. Thus, chivalry and belief in religion and deity are the important views of knighthood expressed in "The Knight's Tale."
An altogether different portrayal of knighthood is illustrated in "The Tale of Sir Thopas," wherein Sir Thopas have the ideal qualities of a knight, yet, he failed to acquire for himself a wife for whom he shall show and demonstrate his love. Unlike Arcita and Palamon, Sir Thopas expressed his dislike for mortal women, illustrating how his chivalrous nature made him think that he was too good for mortal women. Thus, in this tale, Chaucer lets his character, Sir Thopas, pursue an elf-queen: "O holy Mary, ben'cite! What ails my heart that love in me Should bind me now so sore? For dreamed I all last night, pardie, An elf-queen shall my darling be, And sleep beneath my gore. "An elf-queen will I love, ywis, For in this world no woman is Worthy to be my make In town; All other women I forsake, And to an elf-queen I'll betake Myself, by dale and down"
Indeed, Sir Thopas' character deviates from the common notion that society has concerning knights and knighthood. Despite the challenge that he faced when he tried to pursue the elf-queen in the person of the giant, Sir Thopas, towards the end of the tale, seemed to have lost interest in pursuing the elf-queen. The tale tells the readers nothing about what happened to his preparations for a battle against the giant, nor the fate of his love for the elf-queen. In Sir Thopas' character, readers can see that he does not have the resolution to persevere for the sake of love and honor; he is simply content with his life…