David Aers


Imagination, Order and Ideology: The Knight's Tale


. . . Till one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart, who not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth,
Hunting (and men not beasts shall be his game)
With war and hostile snare such as refuse
Subjection to his empire tyrannous:
A mighty hunter thence he shall be styled
Before the Lord, as in despite of heaven,
Or from heaven claiming second sovereignty;
And from rebellion shall derive his name,
Though of rebellion others he accuse.
Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk XII, ll. 24- 37

  When Charles Muscatine argued that the heart of the Knight's Tale was an assertion of aesthetic, cosmic and metaphysical order, and that Theseus represents the underlying `principle of order' to which Chaucer was committed, he offered what has proved to be an extremely influential interpretation. Theseus has been represented time and again as the figure who understands `man's proper life in submission to the perfect harmony of the universe', the authoritative bearer of Chaucer's own `philosophical insight'.1 Against what has become an orthodox position some alternative readings have been developed, most outstandingly by Elizabeth Salter and R. Neuse, the scholars on whose very different work this chapter builds. I wish to argue that the Knight's Tale involves a most illuminating scrutiny of the versions of order, styles of und the word `pride'. Chaucer, as Jill Mann's study of the General Prologue demonstrated, was sharply aware of conflicting grounds of evaluation in his own culture, with their linguistic manifestations, and here he makes use of one such conflict over `pride' -- traditional moral and religious teaching attacked pride, recommending humility and abasement of self within a social structure where pride and self-display was an intrinsic part of aristocratic status, power and daily life.3 This ambivalence introduces us to the problems Chaucer will raise around Theseus as does the ruler's own response to the widowed ladies whose lamentations welcome him home (ll. 896 ff,). Henry Webb rightly noted the `hints of selfish motives' and thoughts of `his own honour and popularity' and Chaucer makes the duke's self- centredness rather pronounced (`myn', `my', `myn honour' (ll. 905-8)) , while his motives in attacking Creon are inextricably bound up with his public military fame (Il. 960- 6) - hardly unusual traits in rulers.4

But it is the next image associated with Theseus which will prove particularly important as the poem unfolds its full range of significance. As he rides off, he displays his banner:

The rede statue of Mars, with spere and targe,
So shyneth in his white baner large,
That alle the feeldes glyteren up and doun;
And by his baner born is his penoun
Of gold ful riche in which ther was ybete
The Mynotaur, which that he slough in Crete.
Thus rit this duc, thus rit this conquerour,
And in his hoost of chivalrie the flour. . . .
(Knight, ll. 975- 82)
Chaucer thus joins Theseus and Mars emblematically at the poem's opening. The language in which he does this represents heraldic and emblematic modes, so appropriate to unexamined assertions of power in the way they preclude attention to the real human motives

Page 176

and consequences of the activity celebrated, offering a glamour which, as Elizabeth Salter observed, is a comfort and a protection.5 Whereas some readers have succumbed to this form, Chaucer did not. He chose to de-sublimate this emblem by drawing out its human implications in very different literary modes. These disclose the meaning of commitment to Mars and encourage reflection on the kind of order which legitimates and glorifies such commitment. The process can be seen in Chaucer's description of the conqueror's actions after his victory over Thebes, and, most decisively, in `the temple of myghty Mars the rede', the figure whom Theseus elected to follow and celebrated on his banner.

The `order' Theseus imposes on Thebes has no constructive elements at all, for he `rente adoun bothe wall and sparre and rafter', and whereas in his source the duke has the plain searched so that the wounded could be given medical help and all the dead properly buried, Chaucer eliminated this action from Theseus' conduct. Instead, he introduced an entirely new passage:

And dide with al the contree as hym lest.
To ransake in the taas of bodyes dede,
Hem for to strepe of harneys and of wede,
The pilours diden bisynesse and cure
After the bataille and disconfiture
(Knight, ll. 1004- 8)
The reality of militarism and the attitudes it sponsors among human beings is concisely evoked. People are reduced to dead bodies, piled up and ransacked for profit, in a passage where Chaucer may well have been putting his own direct experience of war and its motives to use. The impression I get from this addition to Boccaccio is that Chaucer's imagination had great sympathy with the growing criticism of war (the lust for conquest and its economic foundations) among late medieval writers, an impression the poem's evolution confirms.6 In the present episode the `pilours' tear two royal Thebans from the heap of bodies and take them to Theseus (ll. 1009 ff.). The `worthy' duke's reaction to the gravely wounded men is revealing, for he `ful soone' sent them to prison in Athens, refusing to accept any ransom for these two prisoners (ll. 1022- 4). Webb's assertion that the conqueror was denying his prisoners a customary right is correct, and it was one Chaucer himself had cause to thank when he recalled his own capture and

Page 177

ransom in 1359-60). We have no reason to believe that the poet would have disagreed with Honoré Bonet when he stated that a victor who refused reasonable ransom is a `tyrant', as Palamon judges Theseus to be (l. 1111).7 Webb also noted that Chaucer altered Boccaccio's description of the imprisonment imposed on the young men. Whereas his source has the duke keep them at ease in his palace, Chaucer has them confined in a `grete tour, that was so thikke and stroong', in fact `the chief dongeoun' where they even have `fettres' placed on their legs (ll. 1030-2, 1056-8, 1279). If Theseus represents `the principle of order' in this culture, then Chaucer is leading us to see that we should never celebrate abstractions such as `order' but inquire about the kind of order and its specific human content.8

The poet's own inquiry into the order of those who celebrate Mars is perhaps most concentrated as he takes us into the temple of Mars.9 The imagery introducing the passage conveys the utter sterility of the way of life chosen by whose who admire the god (ll. 1975-94), and this moves into one of the poem's central disclosures about the commitments of those whose order is founded in the pursuit of Mars, a pursuit shared by Theseus, Arcite and many in Chaucer's own world:

The smylere with the knyf under the cloke
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;
The open werre, with woundes al bibledde;
Contek, with blody knyf and sharp menace. . . .
The colde deeth, with mouth gapyng upright. . . .
The careyne in the busk, with throte ycorve;
A thousand slayn, and nat of qualm ystorve;
The tiraunt with the pray by force yraft;
The toun destroyed, ther was no thyng laft,
(ll. 1999- 2003, 2008, 2013-6)
In Theseus' war, his destruction of Thebes, his pillagers rummaging through heaps of dead and dying people, or in Arcite and Palamon trying to resolve their frustrations by violence, we have already encountered the effects of devotion to `force'. As Chaucer now evoked some details of human misery and loss produced by militarism and violence, so he negated the aestheticization of legalized and organized violence, whether in

Page 178

courtly literature, aristocratic banners, emblems, pageants, or the ceremonies where the glorified soldier displays himself `in his mooste pride'. While the passage points towards the ghastly physical consequences of `force', it yokes together sorts of violence habitually separated. This stresses the connections between those valued or glorified in aristocratic culture and those officially condemned. Even the most obviously purposeless and meaningless horror is connected with the followers of Mars:
The hunte strangled with the wilde beres;
The sowe freten the children right in the cradel;
(ll. 2018-19)
We are made aware of the links between the predatory `tiraunt' and the `pykepurs' or `smylere with the knyf under the cloke'; between the towns and livelihood destroyed with thousands killed on glorified battlefields and the secret murders, the sow eating the child in the cradle. Chaucer's `insistent probing of misery' is a probing of abstractions such as `law' and `order' to reveal the continuities between official, legal violence and illegal, between the celebration of Mars and the most grisly particulars of human destructiveness. 10 The poet's imagination suggests that certain traditional distinctions concerning modes of violence are the product of the highly partial official ideology sponsored by militaristic conquerors and their followers, and his own poetry undermines them. Our interest in Theseus, the great conqueror, makes us appreciate the relevance of another image in the temple:
Saugh I Conquest sittynge in greet honour,
With the sharpe swerd over his heed. . . .
(Knight, ll.2028-9)
We should remember this when later Theseus presents himself, `Arrayed right as he were a god in trone' (l.2529).

The final passage in the temple alludes to Theseus' banner. There the `rede statue of Mars' shone in glory, and here we see it in a fuller perspective which is undoubtedly disturbing:

A wolfe ther stood biforn hym at his feet
With eyen rede, and of a man he eet. . . .
(Knight, ll.2047-8)

Page 179

The dispassionate manner of the description is part of the meaning. It captures the contempt of humanity central to those committed to the values of Mars and `his glorie' (l. 2050). Chaucer makes it clear that in a culture where Mars is valued, as he is by Theseus, there will not be much encouragement of creative human love, let alone a `faire cheyne of love' binding all elements and events (cf. ll. 2987-93). We must emphasize that this is not to say such cultures lack `order' or that Theseus is not the 'principle' of that order: only, that what matters is the nature of the order in question. And Chaucer's poetry has become rather specific about the one realized in the Knight's Tale.

It is typical of this order that the deity who provides the solution to the celestial conflicts is Saturn, Chaucer expanding the slightest hint in Boccaccio who has no wish to dwell on discord among the gods and nothing to say about how it was solved.11 The new material Chaucer introduced is an essential component in our understanding of his own assessment of Theseus' final speech as well as of the values held by those at the commanding heights of this universe (ll.2438-78). We must note the absolute impotence of Jupiter in the dispute, his anxious ineffectuality lacking in vision, providential foreknowledge or power (l. 2442). The `principle of order', to use Muscatine's phrase again, is Saturn, quite unmentioned by Boccaccio. It is Saturn's intervention which brings `order' out of strife and is thus vital in illuminating the specific order created and scrutinized in the poem. Chaucer shows that Saturn's knowledge is based on `olde experience', the `wysdom and usage' of the old pragmatist quite uncritical of the Martian world, celebrating violence and human wretchedness which he has `power' to manipulate into one version of order:

Myn is the drenchyng in the see so wan;
Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
Myn is the stranglyng and hangyng by the throte,
The murmure and the cherles rebellyng,
The groynynge, and the pryvee empoysonyng;
I do vengeance and pleyn correccioun,
Whil I dwelle in the signe of the leoun.
Myn is the ruyne of the hye halles,
The fallynge of the toures and of the walles
Upon the mynour or the carpenter. . . .

Page 180

The derke tresons, and the castes olde;
My lookyng is the fader of pestilence.
Now weep namoore. . . .
(Knight, ll.2456- 70)
This order is reflected in a poetic mode Chaucer used for the followers of Mars. The fragmentized details of violence are accumulated in a way which thoroughly undermines any claims about benign harmonies and unity favoured by all theodicies, whether traditional religious ones or their secularized development. The version of order is as alien to any creative love as to the higher forms of reason and reflexivity. Elizabeth Salter, commenting on the decisive positioning of this addition to Boccaccio, writes that it `sums up, in relentless detail, what we may have long suspected -- that the "remedie" for strife will not depend upon any weighing of just dispensation, but only upon the supreme craft and executive power of one god over another'.12 Saturn's repeated `weep namoore' after his recitation and the description of himself as `the fader of pestilence' drives home the absence of love and care towards humans in this world-order. Only participants with a comfortingly dishonest refusal to contemplate the revealed powers and practices, or those with ulterior and pragmatic motives, could talk about the fair chain of love shining through the mere appearances of disharmony, evil and suffering in this order. Chaucer follows Saturn's crucial intervention with Theseus arraying himself publicly `as he were a god in trone' (l. 2529), thus inviting us to acknowledge continuities between this earthly ruler and Saturn, between this godly conqueror and the temple of Mars with `Conquest sittynge in greet honour'.

Even an apparently un-Martian act of Theseus from his godly throne turns out to be thoroughly contradictory and finally ambivalent. He suddenly decides to modify `his firste purpos' and that the tournament should be limited to the lance, sword and mace (ll. 2537- 60). This modification cannot be taken as a rejection of his former life since he determines to continue with the tournament he has planned and the decision to settle the question of whom Emily should marry by sheer violence - rather than by consulting the oracles, drawing lots, detailed inquiry into the knights, or by letting Emily do what she wants and reject them both, preventing the violence altogether. Furthermore, he rules that each knight

Page 181

should ride a course `with a sharpe ygrounde spere', then fight on foot, exhorting them, `gooth forth, and ley on faste!/ With long swerd and with maces fightethe youre fille' (ll. 2549, 2558-9). This they do and Chaucer describes the fighting at length and in detail: the helmets are hacked to pieces, blood flows in red streams, bones are smashed by the maces Theseus allowed, men fight like `crueel' tigers, lions mad with hunger for blood (ll. 2601- 35). It would be quite implausible to claim that Chaucer's imagination and moral intelligence were unable to grasp the double-think involved in Theseus' organization of such violence (when originally the matter had been a conflict between two young knights for a woman who wanted neither of them), and his public protestation that he did not wish to shed upper-class blood (l. 2539). The fact that the moral status of tournaments was at least a controversial topic in the period offers further support for the conviction that Chaucer wished to exhibit the contradiction between gestures of compassion and militaristic commitments in knights and rulers like Theseus showing how these very gestures are embedded in a form of life which undermines and inverts them, a contradiction plainly visible in our world.13

Before going on to analyse the poem's conclusion we need to look briefly at the ruler's attitudes to love, for these could possibly reveal alternative orientations to those observed so far, more fitting prefaces to his final talk about `the faire chene of love'.14 It is not chance that, alongside his Martian banner, Chaucer gave the duke a pennon recalling his heroic adventure in Crete (ll. 978-80). From the poet's treatment of Theseus when he separates Palamon and Arcite it seems we should recall the past he himself alludes to. After stating that he need not torture the knights to extract information but can kill them directly, `by myghty Mars the rede' of course (ll. 1746- 7), he is placated by the weeping ladies trying to kiss his feet (an incident Chaucer invented for his own Theseus not one found in Boccaccio) and his gradual exercise of a `resoun' which has often been admired by modern scholars.15 Yet it is a version of reason and love that merits closer scrutiny than it usually receives. First of all it sanctions the kind of anarchic egotism in love which Arcite had expressed earlier in his argument with Palamon over who should have Emily: `in his resoun . . . he thoghte wel that every man/ Wol helpe hymself in love' (ll. 1766-8). Arcite had seen `love' as an irresistible and impersonal urge which took precedence over

Page 182

all, appealing to `olde clerkes' to support the proverb `who shal yeve a lovere any lawe? ` (ll. 1163-86). But he uses this old saying in exactly the way Pandarus does, not in the way the `olde clerkes' like Boethius had done. Whereas the latter had expounded the supersession of what is taken as lawless love in a neoplatonic framework exhorting the ascent of the soul to some heavenly fatherland, Arcite does nothing of the sort any more than does Palamon or their new lord Theseus.16 Far from encouraging the young knights to reflect on the different forms of love, and to imagine different forms of life to their present one, his mockery of their `hoote fare' never posits alternatives to their outlook and concludes with some impenitent reminiscing on his own past which he sees mirrored in the young knights (ll. 1785- 818). He recalls that he too was once `a servant' in love, like them, and `syn I knowe of loves peyne/ . . . As he that hath ben caught ofte in his laas', he will forgive them (ll. 1813-18). This allusion links with his pennon celebrating the adventure in Crete, and judging from Chaucer's own accounts of it he would have been most sharply aware of the self-indulgent and comically uncritical attitude of Theseus For in both the House of Fame and the Legend of Good Women (LGW) Chaucer presents Theseus as a man who exhibits `the grete untrouthe of love' (LGW, l. 1890), making the expedition to Crete a story of the duke's callous egotism, faithless manipulation and abandonment of a woman (his wife) on an island inhabited only by wild beasts.17 The sympathy Theseus displays to the young knights is thus understandable -- as Arcite said, `at the kynges court, my Brother,/ Ech man for hymself' (ll. 1181-2). Similarly he delights the young men by deciding to escalate the violence and treat Emily purely as an object deserved by the strongest in the sports of Mars.18 Here it is clear that his versions of `resoun' and 'love' lack any concern with moral or metaphysical issues. This lack is part of the order he represents and Chaucer's exposure of it is an important contribution in establishing the contexts in which we are to understand the final moments of the poem and the duke's closing speech.

The tournament ordained by Theseus culminates in the grisly `myracle' performed by the poem's gods, an eloquent image of the divine and earthly order informing this world. Saturn organizes `a furie infernal' to inflict a fatal injury on Arcite in an episode central to the total meaning of the poem (ll. 2684 ff.). Anyone who

Page 183

compares Chaucer's source will be struck by his introduction of `clinical detail' and a sharply particularized focus on the body, quite alien to the Italian text (ll. 2743- 56).19 As in the temple of Mars, or Saturn's self-revelation, Chaucer uses art against the traditional aestheticization of violence, challenging literary traditions which celebrate aggression and militarism (a task Milton still found relevant in the seventeenth century -- Paradise Lost, Bk IX, ll. 5- 47). The poet attends to Arcite's painfully swelling body, the clotted blood, the collapse of essential muscles, along with the medical attempts to counteract the `venym and corrupcioun' from blood-letting and vomiting to `downward laxatif'. In doing so, he makes us concentrate on experience readily dissolved into comforting generalities about the benevolent order of the whole; his text resists the absorption of individual identity and the particulars of misery into those grandly abstract patterns of consolation favoured by many Christian versions of theodicy as well as in certain of their secular successors.20 This resistance will be remembered when we find the tournament's organizer asserting his own brand of theodicy at the poem's close, for Chaucer has made the idea and function of theodicy a topic for reflection.21

Arcite's response is far less elaborate and ritualized than in Boccaccio's poem. He expresses his misery and the failure of his projects without any concern for his past military and knightly values, and without any comforting thoughts about an after life in Elysium:22

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, withouen any compaignye.
Fare wel, my sweete foo, myn Emelye!
And softe taak me in youre armes tweye
(Knight's Tale, ll. 2777-81)
This is a most admirably honest response to his discovery that the whole framework provided for his life by his aristocratic culture and its order, guided by Theseus is groundless. The dying knight acknowledges that the patterns of chivalry and the culture's deities have failed to offer any account of human existence and its possibilities which even begin to seem adequate. Worse still, we realize that the knight's pursuits, encouraged and later reaffirmed

Page 184

by Theseus have actually diverted him from grappling with the key questions he now asks.

It is worth remembering that earlier Chaucer had in fact shown both Arcite and Palamon attempting to reflect on their adverse experience and what it might convey about the grounds of their world. Arcite, for instance, had meditated on the `purveiaunce of God', the ignorance of the human will, including his own, and like many thinkers in Chaucer's own century (if not like Boethius and neoplatonic cum stoic metaphysicians) had stressed the contingency of the created world (ll. 1251-74).23 Similarly, despite his confusions and rage, Palamon had shown some desire for philosophical reflection which his culture and the plans of the duke had not nurtured. His earlier complaint in prison had made theodicy a topic for scrutiny;

O crueel goddes that governe
This world with byndyng of youre word eterne, . . .
What is mankynde moore unto you holde
Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?
For slayn is man right as another beest, . . .
What governance is in this prescience,
That gilteless tormenteth innocence?
(Knight's Tale, ll. 1303-4, 1307-9, 1313-14)
Chaucer does not give Palamon the responses to these probings which Boethius received from his philosophy, but this is certainly not to encourage readers' unexamined assumption that Boethius' philosophy gave satisfactory answers to all the controversial issues raised in the Consolation of Philosophy. As Elizabeth Salter showed, the narrative actually validates Palamon's ideas about the `crueel goddes' and their order. Nevertheless, he does modestly confess his perplexity with theological and metaphysical problems that troubled Langland, Chaucer and many others in the fourteenth century, and suspends judgment: `The answere of this lete I to dyvynys' (l. 1323). Metaphysicians, divines of any kind or creed, seem conspicuously absent in Theseus' culture and we hear no more of their existence.24

Instead, the young knights become re-integrated in the active aristocratic and courtly life guided by Theseus, that very earthly god (l. 2529). Not surprisingly they stop all philosophical reflection and settle for the unexamined worship of the culture's gods. It is

Page 185

only at his death that Arcite re-opens the major questions -- `What is this world? what asketh man to have?' As I pointed out, he then rejects the framework given him by his culture, but he goes further than this to ignore the problems about the gods and their order which had puzzled him and Palamon. Quite unlike Boccaccio's knight, Arcite now feels no need for metaphysical construction or the comforts of theodicy. His attention is on our world and human relationships. He affirms incarnate human love and friendship even as he fully experiences and acknowledges the miserable precariousness of individual life. Against the `colde grave' he sets 'love', a thoroughly embodied one, asking Emily, `softe taak me in youre armes tweye'.25 From this moving and self-consciously fragile affirmation, the dying man makes a request to Emily which is astonishingly magnanimous. Having confessed his `strif and rancour' with Palamon, he praises his kinsman and begs her, `if that evere ye shul ben a wyf,/ Forget nat Palamon, the gentil man' (ll. 2783-98). The selfless generosity transcends the values we have seen him and others pursuing. It is an impressive manifestation of human love, a glimmer of the human potential distorted and perverted by the culture over which Theseus presides, one where the appropriate metaphysical beings are the vicious deities ordered by Saturn. This glimmer is one of the lights Chaucer asks us to use in furthering our scrutiny of Theseus and his order.

When Arcite dies, Chaucer makes one of his most famous changes to the Teseidu. The opening three stanzas of Boccaccio's eleventh book describe the ascent of Arcita's soul, his vision of cosmic order and the delightful music of the spheres, together with his new contempt for all human beings. The very idea of such a vision in the universe of Theseus and Saturn is bizarre, and Chaucer decided to delete it and substitute the following lines:

His spirit chaunged hous and wente ther,
As I cam nevere, I kan nat tellen wher.
Therfore I stynte, I nam no divinistre;
Of soules fynde I nat in this registre,
Ne me ne list thilke opinions to telle
Of hem, though that they writen wher they dwelle.
Arcite is coold, ther Mars his soule gye!
(Knight's Tale, ll. 2809-15)

Page 186

This constitutes a refusal to offer any consoling theodicy or comforting metaphysical sentiments which would have lacked foundation within the poem. Because of its integrity to the poem's movements we should respect this judgment and ensure we do not impose religious consolations which the text has pushed aside.26 Chaucer completes the passage by referring us back to the emphasis of his own work, commending the knight's soul to Mars, rather than the Mercury of the Teseida. He plainly has no wish for us to evade the centrality of Mars and his order in the Knight's Tale.

In this he is unlike Theseus and the retired ruler, Egeus. Whereas in death Arcite had uttered questions the poem takes seriously, and revealed human potentials all too rare in the universe he inhabited, the old man now indulges in a series of generalizations designed to remove any discomfort spectators may feel at what has happened (ll.2837-52). He observes that men are mortal:

`Right as ther dyed nevere man,' quod he,
`That he ne lyvede in erthe in some degree,
Right so there lyvede never man, `he seyde,
`In al this world, that some tyme he ne deyde.
(Knight's Tale, ll.2843-6)
To utter such platitudes so portentously, especially in the present context, exemplifies marked intellectual and emotional debility. Everything in the poem invites us to reflect critically on a wide range of substantial issues (including Theseus's version of order, and problems concerning theodicies) and to test out generalizations against particulars. The poet is the last person to have missed how Egeus evades the topics and the experiences realized for imaginative exploration in the tale. All distinctions about the different forms of life and death are dissolved into the old man's commonplace abstractions. Nor are the next lines more impressive, for all their plangent solemnity:
This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro
Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.
(Knight's Tale, ll. 2847-9)
In the claim that our world is nothing but a thoroughfare full of woe for everyone passing through it, Chaucer nicely displays a

Page 187

conventional piece of pseudo-religious cant. For Egeus is a privileged, comfortably-placed old man, with a long life behind him as a ruler, and he inhabits a court in which we see the traditional courtly enjoyments of hunting, feasting, singing, lovetalk, jousting, dancing and `blisful', `rich' and `healthy' marriage, not to speak of the pursuit of fame and profits through war. The speaker evaporates the vital and massive differences between lives such as those led by Theseus and those subjected to the miseries the poem has also represented.27 His statement is also, ironically, thoroughly imprecise in the religious dimension at which it gestures: pilgrims passing `to and fro' actually conveys nothing about the kind of pilgrimage (something readers of the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman will be especially aware of), nor the crucial issue of its direction and final cause. Nothing in Chaucer's poem encourages us to settle for such language and the complacent superficiality it bears. Even the final line of the old man's oration is an unnecessarily inadequate response to the contexts, `Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore'. Showing us Arcite calling for Emily, generous towards Palamon, and thinking about the marriage of his kinsman, duly to take place in courtly festivities, the poet makes it obvious that Egeus conveniently forgets how death is as much the end of every worldly joy as of worldly `soore'. It is also clear that the line begs all the metaphysical problems raised by other figures, the poem's deities and the death of Arcite. Chaucer wryly observes that Egeus said, `muchel moore/ To this effect', and leaves us grateful that he chose not to report any more of this `wise' discourse (ll. 2850-2). In the face of the issues the poem has raised, the experiences it has mediated, only the least reflective of people would be consoled by such trite and imprecise comments. That Theseus is consoled by his father's words is significant, but can hardly be a surprise at this stage of the poem.

The final movement in the Knight's Tale includes the long speech Theseus makes in parliament concerning order, love, wisdom and the perfect joy he intends to create by marrying Emily to Palamon (ll. 2967-3093). This speech has been much admired as a piece of profound Boethian wisdom which Chaucer himself presented uncritically to clarify the `principle of order' informing poem, society and cosmos.28 It is not impossible that the Theseus we have followed could have undergone a philosophic and religious conversion at the conclusion of the narrative, but if we pay close

Page 188

attention to both the context and the particulars of his speech, I believe we will have to concede that no such event occurred. The first point to make about the speech is that it takes place in parliament as a move in a pragmatic political plan. R. Neuse depicted the situation well when he wrote of Theseus' organization that `his watchword is: politics as usual. Hence his philosophical reflections are enlisted rhetorically in the service of his marriage plans for Palamon and Emily.'29 The cause of parliament is, `To have with certein countrees alliaunce,/ And have fully of Thebans obeisaunce' and it is explicitly in the service of this political, dominating and self-centred order that Theseus sent for Palamon and Emily (ll. 2970-80). This is Chaucer's special emphasis for it has no basis in his source and demanded preparatory changes earlier in the narrative -- in Boccaccio the duke promised the dying Arcita to let Palemone have Emilia, and there is no political or imperialistic motivation whatsoever (Teseida, X, ll. 16-35; XII, 3-19). Chaucer's Theseus, however, is now in one of those public situations he dominates with such conviction (ll. 298l-6; compare ll. 2528-32).

Like other rulers through the ages, Theseus sets about presenting his order in a solemn setting and with a language which exalts, sanctifies and seemingly depersonalizes his thoroughly material and partial ambitions. He now eschews those indulgent reminiscences about his service of what he called `love', and with a `sad visage' and a carefully weighted sigh he begins to deliver his `wille'. Chaucer selected the word 'wille' (l. 2986) carefully for, instead of suggesting that the ensuing utterance will be a philosophic meditation or dialogue, it carries the sense of a predetermined decision, the expression of a ruler's personal command. The setting is part of a brilliant dramatization of the possible connections between political rule and metaphysical ideas in orders such as that of Theseus.

The first half of the duke's address involves a patchwork of abstractions from different parts of the Consolation of Philosophy.30 He starts with the assertion that his world is bound together by `the faire cheyne of love' in an order which unambiguously and unproblematically demonstrates the existence of a stable and eternal `Firste Moevere' (ll. 2987 ff.). The 'experience' he asserts, is enough to prove such assertions:

Page 189

Thanne may men by this ordre wel discerne
That thilke Moevere stable is and eterne.
(Knight's Tale, ll. 3003-4)
Rather than trying to maintain the existence of a real but hidden structure to the phenomenal world, one which may be grasped by philosophic and religious reflection, he claims that the metaphysical order he gestures towards can be proved by immediate and unstructured experience (ll. 3000-4). There is certainly no reason to attribute such a naive view to Chaucer and, as Elizabeth Salter has noted, the poem itself has foregrounded the empirical difficulties that would have to be met in constructing any metaphysical claims about a benevolently ordered world:31
It gradually emerges that the speech will be in the nature of a substitution, a statement which will attempt to transcend the difficulties, rather than analyse and solve them. . . . Why speak of the exercise of divine love in the design of this drama, when the narrative has so openly exposed no more than the exercise of divine power and resourcefulness?
Before answering this question through analysis of the function such claims serve, we need to be clear that the `difficulties' Elizabeth Salter points out are by no means the only ones undermining the duke's new-found role as thinker.

When we look at the `experience' the duke now feels is proof of the presence of divine love and its benevolent ordering of our world, the result is to strengthen our sense that he is not given to examining such matters with any scrupulousness. Theseus offers the inevitable death of all generated things `in this wretched world' as the experiential proof of a stable and eternal first mover who binds all in a chain of love (ll. 2994-3004). He finds this argument so impressive that he later spends more lines stressing the same commonplaces, still assuming that this picture is unambiguous evidence of the first mover's `wise purveiaunce' (ll. 3011-40). One hardly needs to be familiar with fourteenth-century criticism of traditional metaphysical proofs of God's existence to notice the incoherence of this particular version of the argument from design, vulnerable enough in any form and place let alone in the contexts established by the Knight's Tale.32 From a `wretched world' in which all is subject to decay and death the last thing one can simply

Page 190

read off is the existence of a loving, omnipotent and eternal first mover. A more plausible speculation about the design and designing agency might go along lines such as the following: the order revealed by `experience' mediated through the text, suggests a world made by a crippled or apprentice deity whose work has always been the scorn of more competent ones; or, perhaps, it was made by conflicting and competing deities of limited but often malevolent powers, deities such as those in the heavenly dispute (ll. 2438- 78); or, joining some manichean and gnostic traditions, the world we experience was the product of a fallen and evil principle; or, if there was a superior deity, who was not malevolent, then he was quite unconcerned with this `wretched' order that had evolved among lesser gods and humans. Yet, although Theseus has no equivalent to the Christian doctrine of the Fall, to square the existence of an omnipotent and loving God with the evils of `this wretched world', he does not even consider such possible lines of speculation. Instead he asserts an argument from design which is not only inept in itself but made obviously so by the contexts in which Chaucer has placed it.

The speech reveals further inadequacies in areas important to the poem. The treatment of love is one of these. Theseus assumes that an act which consists solely of binding down natural elements in fixed places and establishing a maximum to the length of life, deserves to be called `love' (ll. 2987-93). This is a reductive and thoroughly negative handling of the notion which, in Neuse's words, `assumes the scientific neutrality of gravitational force'.33 This is not the product of chance, for in reducing `love' to an impersonal controlling force exercised over subordinate elements, Theseus displays a most appropriate image of the way he regards both love and order in all spheres of existence. Its reductive dehumanization is a travesty of the poem in the Consolation of Philosophy used in the passage, and Chaucer shows how the ruler's metaphysics illustrates far more about himself and his own version of order than about the hidden structures of the world metaphysics had traditionally sought to disclose.34 As a ruler who likes to pose as `a god in trone', Theseus doubtless has an especially high valuation of fiied and certain boundaries in the social world he rules (unless it is in his interest to change them), and he projects this valuation into his impoverished picture of love and order. Its negativity reflects the idealization of sheer power over others in

Page 191

some vaguely apprehended design where the act of control is spiritualized with the name `love'. It may also be relevant to wonder whether the perverse but revealing version of love encountered here may not also be partly due to Theseus' own thoroughly ungenerous experience of `love' in the past he alluded to earlier in the poem. This would be quite in keeping with Chaucer's sharp awareness of how personal prejudices and stances are often projected into a metaphysical plane and reified as objective and autonomous entities.

The grounds of his outlook emerge plainly as his parliamentary address moves to its practical end:

Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it wee1 that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
And whoso grucceth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that al may gye.
(Knight's Tale, ll. 3041-6)
Here R. Neuse commented that the speech has not led `to a spiritual vision, but merely to the tyrant's plea, "To maken vertu of necessitee" '.35 This is a sound observation, and I think we should also draw particular attention to the allusion Theseus makes to rebellion against the first mover. The duke simply assumes that the existing social order and its practices, under his governance, are fully sanctioned by a transcendent God who seems to be envisaged as other than the gods the poem has exhibited. Any protest about anything is branded as folly and any attempt to challenge this order presented as rebellion, not just against Theseus but against the supreme deity.36 Although much of the misery the poet has displayed is based in specific human practices and choices encouraged by the culture over which Theseus presides, the duke never thinks of differentiating between `that we may nat eschue' and what we could eschew with a change in outlook and practice. In his lack of reflexivity about his own discourse and order he never wonders whether a supreme deity might not share all his own values, and might not admire the forms of love and worship of Mars he and his followers relish. These are traits characteristic of rulers who wish to sacralize their own government, imagining themselves as gods on thrones (l. 2529) and their order as beyond

Page 192

discussion or criticism. The sacralization is unequivocally thisworldly and it is part of the ruler's contempt for genuine metaphysical inquiry and reflexivity. He will use any portion of any system of ideas which seem to bolster up his own exercise of power, an eclecticism hardly unknown in our own day.

This enables him to move easily to a set of values which have much to do with aristocratic culture but little to do with the Boethian language he has just been applying:

And certeinly a man hath moost honour
To dyen in his excellence and flour,
When he is siker of his goode name;
Thanne hath he doon his freend, ne hym no shame.
And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,
Whan with honour up yolden is his breeth, . . .
Thanne is it best, as for a worthy fame,
To dyen whan that he is best of name.
(Knight's Tale, ll. 3047-52; ll. 3055-6)
The criteria here are the antithesis of those cultivated by neoplatonizing metaphysicians such as the author of the Consolation of Philosophy,37 and although it may be unprincipled opportunism it does exhibit the real values he lives by and represents significant ideology in the culture of the court. The key terms are `worthy fame', `good name' and `honour' all taken in the senses determined by very earthly aristocratic groups. He applies them to Arcite and in their light unequivocally calls him good -- `good Arcite, of chivalric the flour' (l. 3059), recognizing him as a fellow-worshipper of Mars. Nothing could be further from the duke's imagination than that there may be other forms of worth, honour and human `excellence' than these. He has never begun to think seriously about the questions raised by Arcite, and he transforms the knight's miserable death into a glorious fulfilment of the best possibilities of human existence, even asserting that his friends should celebrate the `duetee and honour' of such an ending. Theseus' criteria of worth, with his total lack of reflexivity, were not Chaucer's although they do represent major tendencies in western civilization.

Theseus moves towards the festivities of the state-marriage he has planned and with a comically opportunistic eclecticism he brings together aristocratic `chivalric', a neoplatonic cliché about

Page 193

our life being nothing but a `foule prisoun', more emphasis on Arcite's welfare' in death, courtly merriment and talk about the `parfait joye lastynge evermo' which will now be produced by the marriage he has decreed (ll. 3057-72). Those who have followed the poet's depiction of Arcite's painful and questioning death without any other-worldly consolation, or even the sense of a meaningful pattern to his life and projects, will recognize the duke's talk about his `welfare' (and about Jupiter's benevolent `grace' in this case) as nonsense. But Chaucer shows just what kind of significant nonsense it is. He places Theseus' statement in contexts which bring out its dismissal of the particulars of suffering and perplexity, and in doing this he exemplifies the desensitizing of individual conscience and imaginative sympathy which can be so marked an aspect of theodicies in both their religious and secular forms. His own art encourages us to see just what is involved in Theseus' style of thought and arouses us to a critical response to his language, his ideas and the order he governs.

The final part of the ruler's speech is addressed to Emily:

`Suster,' quod he, `this is my fulle assent,
With al th'avys heere of my parlement,
That gentil Palamon, youre owene knyght,
That serveth yow with wille herte, and myght,
And ever hath doon syn ye first hym knewe,
That ye shul of youre grace upon hym rewe,
And taken hym for housbonde and for lord.
Lene me youre hond, for this is oure accord.
Lat se now of youre wommanly pitee.
He is a kynges brother sone, pardee;
(Knight's Tale, ll. 3075-84)
Part of the comedy here comes from issues Chaucer also raised in his treatment of love, sex and marriage in works discussed earlier (chapters 5 and 6) - the woman, honoured with male service, from her own knight, is commanded to give her grace (a free gift!) and womanly pity which will result in Palamon taking her, as her lord. Theseus utters these conventional phrases without allowing Emily to discuss the matter or even break into his monologue. His values, underpinning the courtly language of service and grace, come across clearly in the last line quoted, where the grounds of 'grace' in this culture seem to be social status. This recalls his initial

Page 194

assessment of `worth' in terms of 'roial lynage and richesse' (ll. 1829-32), and while this is a realistic enough example of aristocratic motives it again hardly has much to do with neoplatonic and Boethian ideas about love he had tried to exploit in his parliamentary address. His attitudes to `the bond/ That highte matrimoigne or mariage' are plainly part of the same culture as his discourse about the `cheyne of love' we have just examined, discourse grounded in the service of an order he himself, unlike his creator, would never bring into reflexive attention. Our response to the very brief statement that Palamon and Emily lived happily ever after (ll. 3097-107) is deeply affected by these considerations and the total context in which it occurs. Its cursoriness and conventionality point towards its evasion of the wide range of problems evoked by a poem which is anything but a romance centred on `Palamon and Emelye'. Quite as much as the Franklin's Tale (discussed in chapter 6) this text resists any conventional closure. True, the poet gives it one, and thus allows an audience steeped in romance to feel relieved and consoled, latching on to the few brief assertions about the future of Palamon and Emily, feeling reassured at the role of official secular authority in the marital union, and abandoning the disturbing meditations stimulated by the complete work. But there is no cause for readers more deeply concerned with the particulars of Chaucer's art and imagination to respond in this way. Quite the opposite in fact, for their attention to the poem will rather make them suspect that Chaucer was also thinking about the implications of traditionally consoling closures in romances, that while writing one down, to satisfy conventional expectations, he simultaneously invited the reader to grasp its distorting limitations and move beyond this particular form of closure. Having done soi he exposes the poem to the reactions of both `gentils' and class-conscious miller within his fiction, developing a literary form which will constantly resist attempts at closure of any kind.38

Far from being a text which exalts Theseus, his practices or his ideas, Chaucer's poem encourages our imagination and intellect to penetrate and supersede the forms of language and life represented by the duke and his order, one which has many continuities with major tendencies in the culture Chaucer inhabited and of which we are heirs. He inserted abstractions which had become reified (like `order', 'necessitee', 'love') in poetic processes which persuade us

Page 195

to explore their particular roles in actual human relations, desublimating them in ways which encourage critical discriminations unknown to Theseus. Chaucer's work is an outstanding poetic inquiry into problems of order in cultural and metaphysical dimensions, one which includes especial attention to the uses of metaphysical language by those in power, the transformations of metaphysics into an ideology of unreflexive secular domination.


From David Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the creative imagination, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980 [PR311.A33]. Reprinted here with permission.