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The Knight’s Tale and its Critics: Chaucer’s Response to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
At the heart of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales lies the Challenge, the thing which draws out the innermost being of each of the characters, revealing a piece of their souls to their fellow pilgrims and sparking the wide-ranging debate and conversation which makes up the whole narrative. For these tales are not written in a void, a collection of stories short and long collected together with a hastily-constructed connecting framework. Rather, each tale is a response to those which have come before.
Character tropes from previous stories are twisted and adapted from story-teller to story-teller, the hero of one becoming the villain or fool of the next. All of these reactionary tales, however, require one initial tale to set them off, to wind them up and send them all careening in mass confusion against one another. That is the first tale, the Knight’s Tale.
The standard of this tale-telling contest is “tales of best sentence and moost solaas” (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 798). For ‘sentence’ here, think of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when speaking of Shakespeare’s Polonius from Hamlet: “full of high sentance but a bit obtuse.” ‘Sentiment’ or ‘noble thought’ or perhaps even ‘moral’ might be the best modern rendering, though a bit boring as far as translations go. For “moost solaas” we easily render this into “most solace” as in “most consolation”—consolation for the weary Christian pilgrim journeying through this “thurghfare [thoroughfare] ful of wo” (2847), consolation which several of the characters later reveal to be in most need of. The Wife of Bath, for instance, in her Prologue and Tale famously makes quite clear her need for consolation in light of her failed marriages. In this consideration of “solaas” as well, we ought to think of one of the most influential works on medieval literature: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Chaucer himself was quite enamored with this mighty pillar of Western literature, composing several of his own works directly in the shadow of its influence, even translating it himself into his own common English. The two other major works which Chaucer composed at this time were his Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale, both of which “the influence of Boethius pervades…enriching them with a philosophical gravity and a consciousness of antique thought hitherto unknown in English letters” (Stephen Barney, “Troilus and Criseyde” in The Riverside Chaucer 471).
The Consolation of Philosophy brings to bear the conflict between the philosophic ideal and the bitter hardships of life, the rash turnings of Fortune’s Wheel, and the question of fate and the influence of the stars. Chaucer transmutes these themes from the final words of a man on Death Row into two tales of high romance and ‘chivalrie’ where the stars of wrath (Mars) and love (Venus) wreak havoc on the mortal plane. It is worthy to note as well that what became the Knight’s Tale was composed before the rest of the Tales were conceived. Quite literally then, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a deliberate response to his poetic ‘Boethian period’, a continuation of the conversation which Boethius began when he composed his Consolation. Where first Chaucer had faithfully trusted in Boethius and followed his philosophy with his Knight’s Tale, now in the rest of his Canterbury Tales he begins to question, to pick and choose and elaborate, to allow the voices of his fellow Englishman to have a turn responding to these noble and high sentiments, informed by their own personal experiences. Ideals of ‘chivalrie’ and courtly love and fate and destiny are all well and good for a Knight, but what do they mean to a Miller? Or a Cook?
The Knyght himself is indeed a worthy candidate to tell this first Boethian story against which all the others form. An old campaigner of Eastern Europe and the Levant, he is a veteran Crusader, the highest and noblest role in life a layman could have. “A worthy man, / that fro the tyme that he first bigan / to riden out, he loved chivalrie, / trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. / Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre, / and therto hadde he riden, no man ferre” (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 43-8). Skilled in ‘batailles’ though he was, Chaucer notes “though that he were worthy, he was wys…he nevere yet [let] no vileynye ne [be] sayde / In al his lyf unto no maner wight. / He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght” (68-72).
Skill in battle does not necessarily beget wisdom or the philosophic attitude necessary to tell a Boethian romance, but there is a certain nobleness in his battles for Christendom and his campaigns far abroad, a kind of experience gained which, combined with his inclination towards the knightly virtues of truth, honor, freedom, chivalry, and courtesy, Chaucer hints is the true source of the Knight’s education and philosophic sentiments. It is these experiences too, as well as his aristocratic station, which gain him the initial respect and admiration of all the pilgrims, even from the lowest, for when “the cut fil [lot fell] to the Knyght…ful blithe and glad was every wyghte [man]” (845-6).
The high sentiments, the monologues on the will of fate and the stars, and the happily ever after of the tale—“For now is Palamon in alle wele, / Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele, / And Emelye hym loveth so tendrely, / And he hire serveth so gentilly, / that nevere was ther no word hem bitwene / Of jalousie or any oother teene [thing]” (3101-6)—all leave the rest of the pilgrims a little out of sorts, however. Something in it does not quite sit right with them. And so, in their own raunchy ways, they begin to respond to the Knight, and to Boethius, putting forth their own Tales, critiquing, clarifying, and reshaping the themes of the Knight’s Tale to fit more closely with their own experiences, thereby engaging in a kind of subtle conversation with each other. The result is a philosophical debate which spans across the entire work, a Platonic dialogue disguised in peasant clothes and sex jokes pushing ever closer to some grand conclusion when they finally reach Canterbury. It is a sad twist of Fortune’s Wheel, then, that Chaucer died before his pilgrims completed their journey and chose the best Tale, their final response to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.