The Knight's Tale

"Knight's Tale" redirects here. For the 2001 film, see A Knight's Tale.
The first page of Knight's Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript

"The Knight's Tale" (Middle English: The Knightes Tale) is the first tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

The story introduces various typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas. The story is written in iambic pentameter end-rhymed couplets.

Sources and composition

The epic poem Teseida (full title Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia, or "The Theseid, Concerning the Nuptials of Emily")[1] by Giovanni Boccaccio is the source of the tale, although Chaucer makes many significant diversions from that poem. The Teseida has 9,896 lines in twelve books, while "The Knight's Tale" has only 2,250 lines—though it is still one of the longer poems in the Tales.[2] Most of the epic characteristics of the Teseida are removed, and instead the poem conforms primarily to the genre of romance; there are no epic invocations; the fighting and mythological references are severely reduced; Theseus' conquests, the assault on Thebes, and the epic catalogue of heroes fighting for Palamon and Arcite are all severely compressed.[2]

The tale is considered a chivalric romance, yet it is markedly different from either the English or French traditions of such tales.[3] For instance, there is the inclusion of philosophical themes—mainly of the kind contained in the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius—astrological references and an epic context.[4][5]

The following tale by the Miller also involves the conflict between two men over a woman. It is a direct antithesis to the Knight's, with none of the nobility or heritage of classical mythology, but is instead rollicking, bawdy, comedic, and designed to annoy the Knight.


Cousins and knights Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned by Theseus, duke of Athens, after being found unconscious following his battle against Creon. Their cell is in the tower of Theseus's castle, with a window which overlooks his palace garden. The imprisoned Palamon wakes early one morning in May and catches sight of Princess Emily (Emelye), the sister of Theseus's wife Hippolyta, down in the courtyard picking flowers for a garland. He instantly falls in love with her; he bemoans his condition and wakes Arcite who then sees Emily. He falls in love with her as well, claiming that, because Palamon couldn't tell whether Emily was a mortal or a goddess, Arcite alone has the right to woo her.

The competition brought about by this love causes them to fight one another. After some years, Arcite is released from prison through the good offices of Theseus's friend Pirithoos, amending Arcite's sentence to exile. Arcite secretly returns to Athens in disguise and enters service in Emily's household to get close to her. Palamon eventually escapes by drugging the jailer and, while hiding in a grove, overhears Arcite singing about love and fortune.

They begin to duel with each other over who should get Emily, but are thwarted by the arrival of Theseus, who sentences them both to gather 100 men apiece and to fight a mass judicial tournament, the winner of which is to marry Emily. The forces assemble. Palamon prays to Venus to make Emily his wife; Emily prays to Diana to remain unmarried, or else to marry the one who truly loves her; and Arcite prays to Mars for victory. Theseus lays down rules for the tournament so that, if any man becomes seriously injured, he must be dragged out of the battle.

Both Palamon and Arcite fight valiantly, but Palamon is wounded by a sword thrust from one of Arcite's men and is unhorsed. Theseus declares the fight to be over and Arcite thus wins the battle. But before he can claim Emily as his prize, Saturn intervenes, and Arcite is mortally injured by his horse, which throws him off and then falls on him. Dying, Arcite tells Emily that she should marry Palamon, because he would make a good husband for her. Palamon marries Emily, and thus all three prayers are fulfilled.

The First Mover

The First Mover or the Firste Moevere is a speech delivered by Theseus, spanning lines 2129-2216, bringing the poem's narrative to its close.


The First Mover appears near the end of the poem, after the protagonists Arcite and Palamon have finished their duel for Emily's hand; Arcite is slain, and Theseus speaks to console Emily and Palamon as they grieve for Arcite.


Theseus begins with a reference to the First Mover, the primum movens, or unmoved mover of Aristotelian philosophy creating the “Great Chain of Love”, the kyndely enclyning, or natural inclination, that holds the universe together in Medieval cosmology. He describes the inevitability of death for all things at their proper time, using the destruction of an oak tree, a stone, and a river as examples, and listing all the classes of medieval society as universally subject to death. He then shifts to a discussion of the proper way to respond to this inevitability of death. Theseus maintains that, since every man must die when his time comes, that it is best to die with a good name and reputation, on good terms with his friends, and having died with honour. Theseus's comfort to Emily and Palamon is that Arcite died in just such a manner, having acquitted himself well in a feat of arms.

Scholarly Interpretation

It is generally acknowledged among scholars that the First Mover speech draws on the philosophy of Boethius.[6][7][8] The purpose of the speech, however, has been interpreted in several different ways. Some scholars maintain that the speech, with its Boethian elements, is not only representative of Boethian philosophy, but of Chaucer's own beliefs, and a reconciliation of Boethian and Christian philosophy, though this is disputed.[7] The speech has also been interpreted as a parody of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy,[6][7] as a narrative device simply conveying an idea from the Character of Theseus to the characters of Palamon and Emily, as a transition from a tragic character death to a happy ending, as a council of how and when to die properly, and even as an expression of disappointment in not only the events of the tournament, but in the divine order he describes.[9]


Richard Edwardes's 1566 play Palamon and Arcite is based on it, but the text of the play is lost.[10] Another version of the story was performed in 1594, but this is only known from a reference in Philip Henslowe's diary. The Two Noble Kinsmen, a 1613 play co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is based on the tale.

John Dryden translated this story to a more modern language in the style of his time. Dryden's book is entitled Palamon and Arcite and is longer than the original text due to Dryden's own poetic touches.

In Alan Plater's 1975 TV series Trinity Tales the story is transformed into a competition between two young men for the attentions of a barmaid.

The story is one of the tales that inspired the 2001 movie A Knight's Tale, in which Chaucer himself is one of the principal characters.

Adapted for the BBC's Canterbury Tales in 2003, Palamon and Arcite were changed to Paul (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ace (John Simm), and the story moved to a modern prison setting where the two men battle for the attentions of a prison teacher named Emily (Keeley Hawes).

See also


  1. Burrow, J. A. (2004). "The Canterbury Tales I: romance". In Piero Boitani. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer (Second ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  2. 1 2 Finlayson 1992, p. 128.
  3. Finlayson 1992, p. 127–8.
  4. Benson, L. D. "The Knight's Tale (general note)". Harvard University.
  5. Finlayson, p. 129.
  6. 1 2 Di Paolo, Jean, Haverford College, February 8, 1999
  7. 1 2 3 The "Knight's Tale": The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and Philosophy. John Finlayson. The Chaucer Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1992), pp. 126-149 Published by: Penn State University Press
  8. The Relationship of Theseus' Boethian Speech to the Remainder of "The Knight's Tale". Joseph L. Mammola. Notre Dame English Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter, 1965/1966), pp. 7-15. Published by: The University of Notre Dame
  9. The Education of Theseus in the Knight's Tale, Murtaugh, Daniel, , Florida Atlantic University
  10. Leicester Bradner Albert S. Cook, The Life and Poems of Richard Edwards, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 1927, p.76


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