"The Knight's Tale" (Middle English: "The Knightes Tale") is the first and the longest of the stories in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. In common with most of the tales in the collection, it is written in verse. The stories are all purportedly told by a set of travelers as a way to pass the time during their pilgrimage. As befits its narrator, "The Knight's Tale" is a story of chivalry, courtly love and battles.
The story takes place in ancient Greece. Palamon and Arcite, two cousins from Thebes, have been captured and imprisoned by Duke Theseus of Athens. From their prison cell, they both see Emily, the Duke's sister-in-law, fall in love with her and immediately begin fighting over her. Several years later, Arcite having been released from prison and Palamon having escaped, the two meet again in Athens and agree to fight a duel over Emily. The duel is interrupted by Duke Theseus who arranges for a tournament to be held between Palamon and Arcite, each accompanied by a hundred knights one year later. Emily will be married to the winner of the tournament. Before the tournament, Palamon prays to Venus that he may marry Emily and Arcite prays to Mars that he may have victory in the tournament. Venus and Mars both agree to grant their requests. This causes a dispute between the two deities, until the god Saturn steps in and says that he will ensure that Arcite has his glory but that Palamon marries Emily.
Modern readers may be surprised to notice that Emily herself has no say in the matter at all.
"The Knight's Tale" served as the inspiration for the plays The Two Noble Kinsmen (believed to have been co-written by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare) and Palamon and Arcite by Richard Edwardes. The movie A Knight's Tale (in which Chaucer appears as a character) contains some references to The Canterbury Tales but has little connection to "The Knight's Tale" itself.
The next tale in the collection is "The Miller's Tale", a bawdy comic tale which is very different from "The Knight's Tale" in both style and subject matter.
Having conquered Scythia, the land of the Amazons, Duke Theseus of Athens takes their ruler Queen Hippolyta as his wife. Hippolyta joins Theseus in Athens, accompanied by her sister Emily.
Before his wedding celebrations, Theseus notices a group of wailing women dressed in black. The women explain that they are crying because they were once queens and nobles who have been reduced to a piteous state after their husbands were killed and refused burial by the cruel King Creon of Thebes. Theseus decides at once to make war on Thebes and conquers the city.
On the battlefield, two seriously wounded cousins, Palamon and Arcite are found. They are taken to Athens and imprisoned in a tall tower, Theseus insisting that he will not release them for any price.
One morning in May, Palamon sees Emily in the neighboring garden from the window of the tower. He immediately falls in love with her, thinking that she is so beautiful that she may be an incarnation of the goddess Venus. Arcite also sees Emily and immediately falls in love with her too. Palamon is angry, saying that he fell in love with Emily first and that Arcite, as a relative and fellow knight, should help him to win Emily's love. Arcite counters that he was the first one to love Emily as a woman, Palamon having mistaken her for a goddess. The two immediately begin to argue over who has the right to Emily's love and continue to do so for the rest of their imprisonment.
Perotheus, one of Theseus' oldest and dearest friends, comes to visit him. Perotheus is also a friend of Arcite and persuades Theseus to free the man. Theseus agrees to allow Arcite to go free on the condition that he not return to Athens or any land ruled by Theseus. Arcite is miserable in his freedom because he is deprived of the sight of Emily. He envies Palamon who, although in prison, is able to see the woman whom they both love. Palamon, for his part, is jealous of Arcite, thinking that he could raise an army, conquer Athens and take Emily as his wife.
The Knight ends the first part of his tale by asking his listeners which of the two characters they think is in the better situation, the free Arcite who cannot see Emily or the imprisoned Palamon who can.
Being deprived of the sight of Emily, Arcite is utterly miserable and neither eats nor sleeps. His appearance and his voice both change considerably as a result. One night, the god Mercury comes to Arcite in a dream and tells him to go back to Athens in pursuit of happiness. Arcite arrives at Theseus' palace and finds work as a laborer. He keeps his true identity a secret and adopts the name Philostrate. He works hard and gets promoted, becoming a page to Emily and eventually an attendant to Theseus himself. Theseus, unaware that Philostrate is really his banished enemy Arcite, rewards his servant with gold and Arcite becomes wealthy again.
One May night in the seventh year of his imprisonment, Palamon is able to drug his jailer and escape. He makes his way to a grove and hides there. The following morning, Arcite arrives in the grove. Palamon overhears him complaining that he has to call himself Philostrate and has to serve his enemy Theseus. Palamon appears and, although he has no weapon with him, tells Arcite that he is ready to fight him for Emily's love. Arcite replies that he will provide Palamon with arms and armor, and also with food and bedding for the night, if Palamon will agree to fight him in the same grove the following day. Palamon agrees.
The following morning, Palamon and Arcite begin to fight each other but they are interrupted when Theseus arrives with a hunting party. Theseus asks them who they are. Palamon replies that they are Theseus' enemies and former prisoners from Thebes and that the one who calls himself Philostrate is really Arcite. Palamon further adds that they are fighting to win the right to marry Emily but that Theseus has the right to kill them both. At first, Theseus is ready to put the two men to death but Emily, Hippolyta and the other women who accompany them urge Theseus to have mercy on the two men who are fighting for love. Theseus agrees. He declares that the two men should return to Athens in one year's time, each accompanied by one hundred knights, to fight a tournament. The tournament will end when one of the two men is either killed or taken prisoner. The winner will marry Emily. Theseus adds that he will have the stadium for the tournament built in the very same grove. Palamon and Arcite return to Thebes and prepare for the tournament.
Theseus has a huge and magnificent arena for the tournament built in the grove. There are three temples in the arena, a temple to Venus the goddess of love at the east gate, a temple to Mars the god of war at the west gate and a temple to Diana the virgin goddess of the hunt in the stadium's northern wall. All three temples are exquisitely decorated, each containing a large statue of the deity and with paintings on the walls depicting the deities' attributes and powers. The temple to Mars even has paintings on the wall showing the deaths of the Roman rulers Julius Caesar, Nero and Antoninus. The Knight explains that, although those three men had not yet been born at the time in which his tale takes place, their stories were already written in the stars.
Neither Palamon nor Arcite have any difficulty in finding one hundred knights to join them in the fight to win a woman's love. Many nobles choose to fight on both sides. King Lycurgus of Thrace agrees to fight for Palamon and King Emetrius the Great of India is amongst those ready to fight for Arcite.
Before the tournament, Palamon prays in the temple of Venus. He tells the goddess that he is not interested in glory but simply wants to marry Emily. He asks that, if his desire cannot be granted, Arcite kill him by spearing him through the heart. After some delay, the statue of Venus shakes, which Palamon takes as a sign that his prayers have been answered.
Emily prays in the temple of Diana. She tells the goddess that she does not want to marry anybody but wants to remain a virgin all of her life instead. She asks the goddess to make Palamon and Arcite stop fighting over her. Diana appears to Emily in a vision. The goddess tells Emily that she will marry one of the two men but she does not yet know which of them will be her husband.
Arcite prays in the temple of Mars and asks to emerge victorious from the tournament. The fires in the temple burn brightly and Arcite hears the word "victory" before he leaves.
The fact that both Venus and Mars have agreed to grant the prayers of their followers causes a fight between the two deities which their father Jupiter cannot stop. Their grandfather, the powerful god Saturn, intervenes. He says that Palamon will marry Emily but Mars will lead Arcite to glory.
On the morning of the tournament, there is much excitement in Athens. Many people of all social classes have come to see it. Before the tournament begins, a herald announces that Theseus has changed the rules and ordered that nobody be killed during the fight. The spectators are delighted to hear the news and praise Theseus for his mercy.
Arcite and his knights enter from the west under a red banner of Mars. Palamon and his knights enter from the east under a white banner of Venus. Although nobody is killed during the tournament, the fighting is extremely fierce and several knights are badly wounded. Palamon and Arcite repeatedly clash and they are both knocked off their horses twice. Eventually, Palamon is taken prisoner by Arcite's knights. Theseus declares that the tournament is over and that Arcite is the winner.
Saturn causes a demon to appear which frightens Arcite's horse. Arcite falls to the ground, hits his head and the bones in his chest are crushed. He is immediately taken to Theseus' palace but doctors are unable to help him. Before he dies, Arcite asks Palamon and Emily to come to him. He tells Emily that Palamon is a good man and that she should marry him. Theseus gives Arcite a magnificent funeral. He is cremated on an enormous pyre in the same grove where he and Palamon first fought.
Several years later, Theseus summons Emily and Palamon, who are both still in mourning for Arcite. Theseus tells them that all things on Earth will eventually disappear and that all people will die. Telling them that they should be happy while they are alive, Theseus urges Palamon and Emily to marry. The two are wed and live out the rest of their lives in perfect happiness.
- Original Middle English text of "The Knight's Tale" on Wikisource.
- Modern English translation on the Florida State University website.
- Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV of "The Knights Tale" in the original Middle English with a parallel Modern English translation on the SparkNotes website.