Imperfect Heroes and the Consolations of Boethius:
The Double Meaning of Suffering
in Chaucers Knights Tale
Peter F. Camarda
"Allas, that day that I was born" says Arcite, upon being
freed from Theseuss prison through the good offices of Perotheus
(KnT 1223).1 The statement
is only one of a series of sorrowful climaxes that Chaucer builds
into "The Knights Tale." On one level, the statement
is a signal to the reader of just how seriously the character suffers.
To wish not merely that events had happened differently, but that
one had never been born, that no experience of life at all had occurred,
is perhaps the most extreme position of regret that a character
can take. It can be surpassed only by the physical action of suicide,
which takes the emotional premise of hopelessness and failure one
step further by transforming it from expectation to accomplished
fact: the character who regrets being born assumes there
is no value to continued life; the character who kills himself in
despair ensures it, by making it impossible for life to continue.
While we may accept Arcites suffering as genuine, however,
we may also ask ourselves on another level whether such an attitude
is reasonable or not. For the noble heroes Arcite and Palamon, though
they suffer greatly, do not kill themselves. And Chaucers
tale, though it certainly depicts great frustration, never suggests
that they would do well to die. Indeed, when the narrative turns
to the discussion of the characters philosophy of life, it
introduces certain ideas about the meaning of suffering, derived
largely from Boethius, which challenge the notion that suffering
is meaningless and that life is hopeless.
How then are we to interpret the heroes suffering? Is the
lament that wishes for unbirth a sign of emotional depth, of the
characters complete defeat by the forces of disorder and pain?
Or is it a sign of emotional shallowness, a too-easy slide into
a despairing misunderstanding of the nature of life and suffering?
Or, perhaps, does the lament signify both depth of suffering and
shallowness of understanding at the same time? In this paper, I
will endeavor to show how Chaucer, by leaving both the suffering
and the heroism of his characters open to ambiguous interpretation,
deepens the way his tale explores the themes of disorder, hopelessness,
and consolation in human life.
Any discussion of the meaning of suffering in Chaucers work
must take into account the influence of Boethiuss Consolation
of Philosophy, which Chaucer translated (under the title Boece)
and studied quite closely. Because several of the characters in
"The Knights Tale" express themselves in terms taken
directly, or almost directly, from Boethius, it is evident that
Chaucer felt that Boethiuss ideas were relevant to the situation
he has created in the Tale.
Perhaps the central issue of Boethiuss work is the meaning
of suffering. Near the beginning of the Consolation, Boethius
puts the question of human suffering into a poetic appeal to God.
It is clear that the universe is founded upon order, with time and
tides and seasons following their proper order in rhythmic pattern.
The birds migrating and the other animals reproducing or searching
for food similarly follow a natural and well-maintained order. If
God can do all this for the lower realms of the universe, if He
can bring order to both the inanimate world and to the lower orders
of animate life, why does He allow human beings to suffer?
"O thou governour, governynge alle thynges by certein ende,
whi refusestow oonly to governe the werkes of men by duwe manere?
Why suffrestow that slydynge Fortune turneth so grete enterchaungynges
of thynges?" [Human acts alone, O Ruler of All, You refuse
to restrain within just bounds. Why should uncertain Fortune control
our lives?] (Bo 1.m5.31-35).2
In the course of many pages of instruction from Philosophy, personified
in the Consolation as a beautiful woman who comes to visit
Boethius the character in prison where he is awaiting trial on charges
of treason, Boethius the author provides a great and paradoxical
answer to the problem of suffering.
As Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, suffering is not a sign that
God has abandoned man or refused to impose order upon human life.
Rather, human suffering has a purpose, but one which man cannot
always discern. Thus, Philosophy counsels Boethius to accept his
suffering, and even to see it as an opportunity for self-improvement:
For it is set in your hand (as who seith, it lyth in your
power) what fortune yow is levest (that is to seyn, good
or yvel). For alle fortune that semeth scharp or aspre,
yif it ne exercise nat the good folk ne chastiseth the wikkide
folk, it punysseth. [You can make of your fortune what you will;
for any fortune which seems difficult either tests virtue or
corrects and punishes vice.] (Bo 4.pr7.101-106)
To accept suffering in this way is, of course, largely a matter
of faith, though Philosophy endeavors to prove by logical argument
that it is a reasonable faith:
For whiche it es that alle thingis semen to ben confus and
trouble to us men, for we ne mowen nat considere thilke ordenaunce.
Natheles the propre maner of every thing, dressynge hem to gode,
disponith hem alle . . . . [Even though things may seem confused
and discordant to you, because you cannot discern the order
that governs them, nevertheless everything is governed by its
own proper order directing all things toward the good . . .
.] (Bo 4.pr6.166-70)
Thus, Philosophy requires Boethius to believe that "propre
maner" [proper order] directs everything, whether that order
is apparent to him or not.
True happiness, in the Boethian scheme of things, requires a rejection
of the "imperfect" goods of the material world in favor
of the "perfect" good that proceeds from God and the attempt
to become one with God. Philosophy tells Boethius that "worldly
goods," such as riches, honor, power, fame, and bodily pleasure,
ne mowen nat yeven that they byheeten, ne ben nat parfite by
the congregacioun of alle goodis, that they ne ben nat weyes
ne pathes that bryngen men to blisfulnesse, ne maken men to
ben blisful. [cannot achieve what they promise . . . are not
perfect in embracing all that is good, are not mans path
to happiness, nor can they make him happy in themselves.] (Bo
verray blisfulnesse is set in sovereyn God. . . . Forwhy, for
as muche as by the getynge of blisfulnesse men ben makid blisful,
and blisfulnesse is dyvinite, than is it manifest and opene
that by the getynge of dyvinite men ben makid blisful. [true
happiness has its dwelling in the most high God. . . . Since
men become happy by acquiring happiness, and since happiness
is divinity itself, it follows that men become happy by acquiring
divinity.] (Bo 3.pr10.61-62, 138-42)
It is delusion that makes men believe that honor or power or riches
can make them happy. Honor and power and riches appear to
offer the self-sufficiency which is the true source of happiness.
In fact, though, this self-sufficiency can come only from the love
of God. In the unitary worship of the goodness of God, all lesser
goods are included, and the truly good man will receive these lesser,
incomplete goods to the extent that it is part of Gods overall
plan for him to possess them. True happiness, then, lies in submission
to the Divine will. But the unwise man fails to realize this crucial
fact: "Thilke thyng thanne . . . that is oon and symple in
his nature, the wikkidnesse of men departeth it and divideth it"
[Human depravity . . . has broken into fragments that which is by
nature one and simple] (Bo 3.pr9.86-89), and by failing to understand
the unitary nature of the good, men squander their efforts in evil
attempts to seize the partial and imperfect goods that cannot bring
true happiness. The true good, which is of God, "hath no part"
[has no parts], and so men who "enforcen hem to gete partie
of a thyng that ne hath no part, thei ne geten hem neyther thilke
partie that nis noon, ne the thygn al hool that thei ne desire nat"
[try to grasp part of a thing which has no parts . . . get neither
the part, which does not exist, nor the whole, which they do not
seek] and are doomed to suffer, whether they acquire the specious
goods or fail in their attempt to acquire them (Bo 3.pr9.89-93).
Only a philosophical insight into the divine nature of true good
enables man to give up the search for false goods and perceive the
true good of trust in the Divine order concealed behind the apparent
arbitrariness of Fate.
There is little question, then, from a Boethian point of view,
that Arcite and his fellow heroes are in philosophical error when
they give in to despair and rue the day that they were born. But
the question remains whether Chaucer wholly endorses the Boethian
viewpoint or feels that the Boethian certainties are subject to
question, and the adequacy of the Boethian consolation as an answer
to human suffering is one of the cruces of "The Knights
Tale." If Boethius is right, then the lamenting hero is wrong,
for his suffering has been ordained by God and is part of Gods
plan for his spiritual welfare. Arcites lament is an intensely
dramatic statement. We may hear a different resonance in his despair,
however, if we recall that his "Allas that day that I was born"
is an echo of Palamons earlier lament at being unable to leave
prison and approach Emily in the garden, reported by the narrator:
"That he was born, ful ofte he seyde, Alas!"
(KnT 1073). At that point in the narrative, when Arcite has not
yet seen Emily for himself, he finds it quite easy to counsel his
cousin to adopt an attitude of Boethian resignation or "pacience":
Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee
Som wikke aspect or disposicioun
Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,
Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn
So stood the Hevene whan that we were born.
We moste endure it.[ . . .] (KnT 1086-91)
Arcite seems quite aware that Fortune is changeable and unreliable.
Yet less than a hundred lines later, after Perotheus has arrived
and prevailed upon Theseus to free him, Arcite moves from "pacience"
to plaint, from Boethian detachment to courtly infatuation, from
acceptance of life to rejection of life, in the lament with which
we began this paper: "Allas the day that I was born" (KnT
Since Chaucer has set this reversal up so skillfully and timed
it so dramatically, we may do well to look closely at the potential
for double meanings in Arcites speech. Arcite believes he
is commenting upon the cruelty of Fortune when he tells us that
prison would be "blisse" if it kept him close to Emelye,
but return to Thebes, which he so desired before, now is "helle"
(KnT 1230, 1226). It is Fortune that has so turned the wheel of
Fate that Arcite, who would have hoped for nothing better than to
leave prison and go home a short while earlier, now, for the love
of Emelye, wants to stay with Palamon in prison at all cost. Arcite
is left dazed, like a man playing "blind mans bluff"
or "pin the tail on the donkey." He reaches out blindly
for the goal, only to find that outside forces have spun him so
far around that his arms are now reaching in the wrong direction.
But Boethiuss Philosophy insists that Fortune is an illusion
produced by our inability to discern the workings of Gods
Providence, upon which Fate and Fortune rest. Seen in this more
philosophical light, the passage illustrates Arcites immaturity.
He has not spoken to Emily, nor has she ever seen him or encouraged
him. She doesnt know that he exists. Why then should he assume
that obtaining her love is the most important purpose of his life?
The most superficial answer, of course, is that Venus is responsible.
Venus has sent her "firy dart" (KnT 1564) through Arcites
heart, so that he is doomed to a hopeless love. He sees himself
in a very passive light: "shapen was my deeth erst than my
sherte" (1566). This "shaping" is a kind of negative
Providence, the destructive providence of Fate, or of Venus, which
condemns lovers to suffering.
But who (or what) is Venus? Is she a true goddess who purveys divine
love, or is she a false god who merely symbolizes Arcites
narcissistic overestimation of the power and importance of his own
passions? While Arcite the Theban may have had no option besides
surrender to Venus, Chaucers medieval audience had the Christian
God to call upon for help. In one sense, then, the whole of the
"Knights Tale" is an illustration of the bleakness
of a world without Christian religion. If neither Venus nor the
other gods of the Roman pantheon are supreme, if a man may hope
to escape the power of Venus by seeking help from the Christian
God, what then are we to make of Arcites sense of doom? If
Venus is not all-powerful, perhaps responsibility lies not with
the goddess of love, but with the lover. Perhaps if Arcite could
recognize that his love for Emelye is a false good, a misunderstanding
of the deeper love of God that is the only true good, he might find
the strength he needs to resist this temptation and save himself.
Within the limits of literary realism, Arcite cannot call upon
the Christian God, since he lives in a pre-Christian era. However,
Chaucer presents all the human characters in the tale with a certain
anachronistic ambiguity. Arcite is also a medieval knight and a
courtly lover. To the extent that Chaucers medieval audience
identifies him as such, his experience becomes an interesting exploration
of the two kinds of love and of the consequence for the individual
of cleaving to the philosophical values of one era or the other.
Theseus, though he pays lip-service to the power of Venus, appears
to support the idea that Venuss authority can be overcome
or superseded, for he sees in the knights self-centered passion
a strong element of absurdity:
But this is yet the beste game of alle:
That she, for whom they han this jolitee,
Can hem therfore as muche thank as me;
She woot namore of al this hote fare,
By God, than woot a cokkow or an hare! (KnT 1806-10)
To refer to the life-and-death combat of Palamon and Arcite as
a "jolitee" is already somewhat cruel and contemptuousbut
since both knights are enemies of Theseus at this point, perhaps
his contempt is understandable. But to compare his sister-in-law,
Emelye, to a cuckoo or a hare is a clear sign that Theseus finds
the whole adventure absurd. Having passed somewhat beyond the stage
of life when impetuous love seems all-important, Theseus can now
look back at his own youth and state that love makes men into fools
(KnT 1799). In this respect, Theseus speaks as does Reason in the
Romance of the Rose, as one who can see through the instability
of the passions and the futility of making a false god out of love.
Se how they blede! Be they noght wel arrayed?
Thus hat hir lord, the god of love, y-payed
Hir wages and hir fees for hir servyse! (KnT 1801-03)
Reason, in The Romance of the Rose, makes a very similar
argument to the Dreamer: "Have you chosen a good lord, this
one who has thus captured and subjugated you and who torments you
without respite?" (Romance 4229-4253). Both these speakers,
having developed the mental ability to put reason before passion,
see passionate love as a dangerous illusion, one that promises sweetness
but delivers mainly pain. To serve such a "poor Master"
as the god of love in the unwitting excess of youth is excusable,
though regrettable, but to continue to serve when one has been advised
by cooler or more experienced heads that ones love is a destructive
illusion is pure folly. Chaucer may intend Theseuss speech
to signal, at least to the more philosophically educated members
of his audience, a counter-current of anti-heroic (or anti-romantic)
feeling, flowing like an undertow beneath the passionate tides on
which the story moves.
Another hint that Chaucer may not consider the Thebans
love for Emelye purely as an ennobling passion comes from his descriptions
of the way they fight. The fact that they fight at all, given that
they are cousins and natural allies, is a sign that passion for
Emelye has taken them down a wrong path. There is some acknowledgment
of this contradiction in the argument Palamon and Arcite have over
their "rights" to Emelye after they first see her through
the prison window (KnT 1124-85). But, because they are knights,
we may perhaps allow that fighting, and in particular fighting on
a ladys behalf, is much in keeping with the traditions that
produced them, a knightly solution to a courtly love dispute.
But just what kind of fighting is it that the Thebans engage
in? Is it noble? Do they regret the damage they do? Is their violence
marked by self-restraint, by intelligence, by observance of the
rules of engagement, by chivalric urbanity? Chaucer describes the
battles of Palamon and Arcite not in terms of warriors demonstrating
their skill, but in terms of beasts displaying their blood-lust.
The first battle, which takes place in the woods outside Athens,
in solitude (until Theseus accidentally discovers it), is described
Thou mightest wene that this Palamoun
In his fighting were a wood leoun,
And as a cruel tygre was Arcite
As wilde bores gonne they to smyte,
That frothen whyte as foom for ire wood. (KnT 1655-59)
This kind of animal passion recalls the warning of Philosophy in
For certes swich is the condicioun of alle mankynde, that oonly
whan it hath knowynge of itself, thanne passeth it in noblesse
alle othere thynges; and whan it forletith the knowynge of itself,
thanne is it brought bynethen alle beestes [For man is constituted
so that when he knows himself he excels all other things; but
when he forgets who he is, he becomes worse than the beasts]
She also warns us that "whan thei ben perverted and turned
into malice, certes, thanne have thei forlorn the nature of mankynde"
[To give oneself to evil, therefore, is to lose ones human
nature] (Bo 4.pr3.93-96). Boethius makes a clear association between
the pursuit of the false good and the degradation of the soul. The
man who pursues the false good will be drawn into violence and confusion.
By using this imagery of animalistic behavior, Chaucer appears
to be hinting at the same Boethian idea. We may recall that just
before the knights decide to arrange this battle as a way to settle
their quarrel, Arcite had been bemoaning his fate and again laments
"Allas! . . . that day that I was bore" (KnT 1542). Thus
Chaucer links both violence and despair to the pursuit of chivalric
love in the tale.
The implication that passion for Emelye has corrupted Palamon and
Arcite becomes stronger when we consider that the knights continue
to behave in this bloodthirsty, "animal" fashion, even
when they meet a year later in the lists that Theseus has constructed
to "contain" their quarrel. Theseus has prohibited mortal
combat in these lists, and both Palamon and Arcite know that the
purpose of the tournament is not war but determination of the marriage.
They also know that a huge crowd is watching as they fight. Yet
they fall into the same bloodthirsty rage as before:
Ther nas no tygre in the vale of Galgopheye,
Whan that hir whelp is stole whan it is lyte,
So cruel on the hunte as is Arcite
For jelous herte upon this Palamoun.
Ne in Belmarye ther nis so fel leoun
That hunted is, or for his hunger wood,
Ne of his praye desireth so the blood,
As Palamon to sleen his foo Arcite. (KnT 2626-33)
If this battle is simply a sign of chivalric devotion, if the knights
are committed to victory simply because, as good knights, they are
completely committed to the lady whom they serve, why does the narrator
describe them as beasts motivated by instinct, like a tiger seeking
a lost whelp, a hunted creature fighting to preserve its life against
a superior attacker, or an animal searching for food? Note the parallelism
with the earlier quotation: in both cases, Arcite is described as
a tiger and Palamon as a lion. The narration emphasizes the pre-rational,
self-interested nature of the warriors motivessurvival,
hunger, the protection of the broodand does not offer any
recognizably "chivalric" explanation of their ferocity.
Theseus, by contrast, is quite aware of the difference between
a knight whose passions lead him to behave like an animal and one
who has the detachment needed to overcome violent emotion. When
he comes upon Arcite and Palamon fighting in the woods and they
beg him for mercy, he is at first inclined to punish them out of
anger, but soon reconsiders:
For pitee renneth sone in gentil herte.he thoghte anoon
And softe unto himself he seyde: "Fy
And though he first for ire quook and sterte,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . .
Upon a lord that wol have no mercy,
But been a leoun, bothe in word and dede,
To hem that been in repentaunce and drede
As wel as to a proud despitous man
That wol maynteyne that he first bigan!
That lord hath litel of discrecioun
That in swich cas can no divisioun,
But weyeth pryde and humblesse after oon. (KnT 1761-81)
Theseus will not be a "leoun." He wishes to be a man
known for "discrecioun," not for violence. Though we cannot
expect Palamon and Arcite, as young men, to have the same wisdom
and detachment that Theseus exhibits, we may yet consider that Theseuss
example is meant to cast some shadow upon the supposedly heroic
foundation of the young mens violence.
Theseus, Palamon, and Arcite are knights, but Chaucer and Boethius
are not. Perhaps some of the ambiguity of the tale comes from this
multiple framing, or multiple viewing, of the story. A pantheon
of classical deities set within the framework of a medieval chivalric
romance, written by a merchant poet and recorded for a Christian
audience of mixed social classeshow could such a construction
not be subject to ambiguity? The more important question to ask
ourselves, however, is: "to what extent does this ambiguity
serve Chaucers deliberate intent?" I think the evidence
suggests that Chaucer wanted to create the "Knights Tale"
as an arena for staging a conflict between various viewpoints on
love, war, and human destiny.
Theseuss "discrecioun" and his willingness
to forgive point towards another set of ambiguities in the narrative:
the success of attempting to bring order out of chaos. Throughout
the poem, Theseus is seen as a source of order. He conquers Thebes
in order to avenge the disrespect that Creon has shown to the bodies
of the Theban dead. He halts the private battle between Arcite and
Palamon, and elevates it to the level of a public spectacle, building
a huge arena literally to contain it. And once the battle begins,
he tries to limit it to non-mortal combat. After Arcites death,
Theseus tries to bring some kind of peace to the scene by reminding
the survivors that the ways of Heaven are inscrutable, and recommending
"to maken virtu of necessitee" (KnT 3042). At every step,
he seeks to restore order, uphold justice, and extol mercy.
Yet at every step, Theseus in some way also fails to convince
us that he truly can bring order to the world. He goes to Thebes
to punish Creon for desecrating the dead, but once he arrives, Theseus
rends "adoun bothe wall and sparre and rafter," not merely
punishing Creon, but destroying the entire city (KnT 990). Here,
it is Theseus who seems to be overcome by passion, or by the energy
of Mars, the god of war. The narrator tell us that Theseus goes
to battle with "The rede statue of Mars, with spere and targe"
so strongly shining "in his whyte baner large / That all the
feeldes gliteren up and doun" (975-77): an image, not of a
peacemaker, but of a fearful, violent conqueror. And Theseuss
original decision to condemn Palamon and Arcite to "dwellen
in prisoun / Perpetuelly" with no hope of "raunsoun"
also shows a distinct lack of moderation and mercy (KnT 1023-24).
Moreover, though the narrator never assigns responsibility on that
basis, it is Theseuss decision to bring the Theban knights
to Athens as prisoners that sets the whole plot of the "Knights
Tale" in motion, for if the knights had not been in the Athenian
prison, they would never have seen Emelye. Over and over again,
the boundaries and limits that Theseus sets prove inadequate to
contain the forces he seeks to control. The Athenian prison does
not long hold Palamon, and the Athenian lists, despite their glory,
cannot contain the force of the conflict between Palamon and Arcite.
Theseus decrees that the combat shall not be to the death, but as
Salter points out, the gods intervene to bring death into the arena
from which Theseus has attempted to banish it (Salter 169). By leaving
the struggle between Arcite and Palamon up to chance, to be decided
by combat rather than by law or negotiation, Theseus leaves the
door open for chaos to re-renter the grandstand subversively, no
matter how stout and high he has built the round walls of his arena.
Theseus, the earthly ruler, unable to settle the contention
between Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye, presents a parallelism to Jupiter,
the heavenly ruler, unable to settle the bickering of Venus, Mars,
and Diana. Theseus leaves the final choice to Fortune, the goddess
of instability, by leaving the outcome of the knights quarrel
to physical combat. Though he elevates the knights private
quarrel to a public spectacle with a hundred contestants on each
side, he does nothing to bind the outcome to a more rational process
of decision. Similarly Jupiter, heavens lawgiver, chooses
not to dispense justice himself, but to leave the resolution to
the older and more primitive Saturn, the great undoer, bringer of
"strif and drede" (KnT 2450). Both situations cry out
for some higher order to which one might appealsomething more
reliable than Fortune, more beneficent than Saturn. The tale creates
a gap into which the Boethian God, whose mysterious order promises
justice and happiness in exchange for submission and faith, fits
quite neatly and celebrates the heroism of the old way of viewing
the world and undercuts it at the same time.
Nowhere is this undercutting more evident than in Chaucers
description of the three gods. As Salter points out, "violence
runs like a thread of variable thickness through the descriptions"
of the oratories in Theseuss grandstand (166). These gods
are not simply precursors of the Christian god, imperfect prefigurations.
They are something deadlier and more dangerous, a kind of perversion
of the nature of godhead. Mercy and selfless love are wholly lacking
from their repertory of powers. As Salter says, "no part of
the divine plan, whatever god is concerned, operates without pain
for humanity" (168). Yet even in Greek times, the gods were
in part associated with the miraculous ability to heal humanitys
woes and provide mortals with a glimpse of paradise.
Chaucer ensures that his audience does not catch any glimpse
of paradise through his portrayal of the gods. Venuss temple
wall shows things "ful pitous to biholde . . . broken slepes
and the sikes colde / The sacred teeris and the waymentinge"
of those who suffer under the dominion of love (KnT 1919-21). Chaucer
recites a catalogue of historic Christian and pagan personages who
were destroyed by love. The temple of Mars is even more grim: "grisly,"
"hidouse," "gastly," "derke," full
of blood and death, cruelty and destruction (KnT 1971-95). Mars
as well as Venus shows us those "Who shal be slayn or elles
deed for love" (KnT 2038). Diana, too, reveals barbaric rather
than beatific power. We see Callisto turned into a bear, Acteon
eaten by his own hounds, women suffering the pain of childbirth,
and we are reminded of Dianas connection, as Persephone, to
Plutos underworld. It is the fatality of love, not its creativity,
that the poet celebrates in describing the three oratories.
None of the gods show any inclination to negotiate or any awareness
that a solution that meets the needs of all parties must involve
compromise. Similarly, none of the three lovers, Palamon, Arcite,
and Emelye, show any inclination to follow a passion other than
the one he or she espouses most violently: conquest, lust, or self-sufficiency.
All three mortals go to the temple and attempt to gain victory by
selfishly promising to become even more assiduous in serving the
god of their choice in the future. Once again, there is a gap into
which the communitarian ideals of Boethius fit perfectly.
The gods themselves thus become ambiguous figures in the "Knights
Tale." They lose the balance of helpful and harmful qualities
that they possessed in the Greek Pantheon and become, instead of
wise and powerful helpers for mankind, proud, quarrelsome instigators
of misfortune. It is as though lust for power, bodily pleasure,
and self-sufficiency, which appear only as abstract patterns of
human motivation in Boethiuss Consolation, have become
allegorical personifications in the "Knights Tale,"
with all the terrifying power of the Mars, Venus and Diana of classical
mythology but none of their redemptive qualities. They are human
vices writ large.
Boethiuss Philosophy has a very different view of divinity.
It is a divinity based on love:
the world with stable feyth varieth accordable chaungynges
. . . this accordaunce [and] ordenaunce of thynges is bounde
with love, that governeth erthe and see, and hath also comandement
to the hevene. [the universe carries out its changing process
in concord and with stable faith . . . this harmonious
order of things is achieved by love which rules the earth and
the seas, and commands the heavens.] (Bo 2.m8.1-2, 13-16)
In Boethiuss universe, it is love that leads to divinitynot
selfish, erotic love but altruistic, god-centered love. In such
a universe, it is not human vices that become elevated to god-like
status but human virtues. And this god-like status is available
to all men, not just to heroes and lovers. Philosophy tells us that
Forwhy, for as moche as by the getynge of blisfulnesse men
ben makid blisful, and blisfulnesse is dyvinite, than is it
manifest and opene that by the getynge of dyvinite men ben makid
blisful. . . . Thanne is every blisful man God. But certes by
nature ther nys but o God; but by the participacioun of dyvinite
there ne let ne distourbeth nothyng that ther ne ben many goddis.
[Since men become happy by acquiring happiness, and since happiness
is divinity itself, it follows that men become happy by acquiring
divinity. . . . Thus, everyone who is happy is a god and, although
it is true that God is one by nature, still there may be many
gods by participation.] (Bo 3.pr10.138-42,146-50)
It is not necessary to have a multiplicity of gods representing
the multiplicity of human passions. As the quarreling of the "Knights
Tale" demonstrates, these gods are unable, individually or
collectively, to bring happiness to anyone. Rather, it is necessary
to recognize the one true God, to have "stable faith"
in the love "which rules the earth and the seas, and commands
the heavens." By rejecting the multiplicity of false goods,
men discover the one good which can make them happy. By rejecting
the multiplicity of false gods that arises in the pursuit of selfish
passions, men can discover, instead, the one God in whose godhead
they already participate.
Thus we come full circle to the question of the true good,
the true happiness, with which this paper began. The "Knights
Tale" is both a romantic celebration of the glories of knightly
life and courtly love, and an exposé of the faults of those
two systems. Chaucer adds to what might have been a simple romance
a deceptively compact layer of philosophical questioning. Though
both Palamon and Arcite rue the day of their birth in the course
of the "Knights Tale," the progress of the story
serves not to confirm their grief but to suggest its inadequacy.
The heroes will solve the problem of their grief not by ending life
but by continuing it long enough to learn more about the nature
of their despair.
Perhaps the best answer to their lament lies in Chaucers
short poem on Boethian themes called, simply, "Truth."
He writes: "That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse; / The
wrastling for this world axeth a fal" ("Truth" 15-16).
Both Palamon and Arcite fall far, very far indeed, as a result of
their insistence on attaining Emelyes hand. Even if a much-chastised
Palamon does marry Emelye at the end of the tale, it is no longer
because of the heat of his own passion, the force of his own actions,
or the strength of his conviction of his own entitlement. Theseus
has summoned him to Athens without telling him "what was the
cause and why" (KnT 2977). Palamon comes to Athens willingly,
submissively, in complete ignorance of what his business there is
to be. And as a reward, Theseus, once again taking the role of agent
of order, finally bestows Emelye upon him (KnT 3075-98).
Here, at the end of the poem, God is finally mentioned, not as
Jupiter or Saturn or Venus or Mars or Diana, but as the one God
"that al this wyde world hath wroght" (KnT 3099). This
God points towards the Christian God, a God of mercy, and the narrator
tells us that God has sent Palamon the love he desires because he
"hath it dere aboght" (KnT 3100). In the end, then, it
is steadfastness and patience, the willingness to suffer and not
insist ones own will, that brings Palamon to happiness. The
basic message of "Truth" is the same as the advice that
Philosophy gives to the character Boethius, suffering in his jail
cell: "Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede, / And trouthe
thee shal delivere, it is no drede" ("Truth" 13-14).
Thus the "Knights Tale" follows the basic paradox
of Boethian philosophy by illustrating the fundamental ambiguity
of the passions. Only by rejecting passion can one achieve "stable
faith." Only by suffering enough to recognize the emptiness
of the false good can one arrive at an understanding of the true
By rising above the blindness and error of the passions, by "daunting"
the self, one arrives at the wider philosophical understanding that
permits the true good to be discovered and enjoyed. Chaucer does
not write a romance in which the true hero triumphs by discovering
this true creed. But he does give us a tale in which every hero,
despite his prowess and the sympathy we have for his suffering,
shows us the shadowy side of worldly glory and hints at the greatness
of other-worldly goodness. Perhaps that ambiguous hint of Boethian
bliss is the true romance of the "Knights Tale."
1 All references to Chaucer are from
The Riverside Chaucer, listed in the Works Cited under Benson,
the general editor. Return
2 Middle-English quotations from Boethiuss
Consolation of Philosophy are from Chaucers Boece,
in Benson. Modern English translations are from Richard Greens
translation, also listed in the Bibliography. Return
Benson, Larry D., gen. ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd
ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy.
Trans. Richard Green. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
De Lorris, Guillaume, and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose.
Trans. Charles Dahlberg. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton
Salter, Elizabeth. Fourteenth-Century English Poetry. Oxford:
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