Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Imperfect Heroes and the Consolations of Boethius:

The Double Meaning of Suffering in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale

Peter F. Camarda


"Allas, that day that I was born" says Arcite, upon being freed from Theseus’s 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 Knight’s 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 Arcite’s 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 Chaucer’s 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 character’s 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 Chaucer’s work must take into account the influence of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer translated (under the title Boece) and studied quite closely. Because several of the characters in "The Knight’s Tale" express themselves in terms taken directly, or almost directly, from Boethius, it is evident that Chaucer felt that Boethius’s ideas were relevant to the situation he has created in the Tale.

Perhaps the central issue of Boethius’s 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 man’s path to happiness, nor can they make him happy in themselves.] (Bo 3.pr8.56-61)


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 God’s 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 Knight’s Tale." If Boethius is right, then the lamenting hero is wrong, for his suffering has been ordained by God and is part of God’s plan for his spiritual welfare. Arcite’s 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 Palamon’s 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 1223).

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 Arcite’s 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 man’s 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 Boethius’s Philosophy insists that Fortune is an illusion produced by our inability to discern the workings of God’s Providence, upon which Fate and Fortune rest. Seen in this more philosophical light, the passage illustrates Arcite’s immaturity. He has not spoken to Emily, nor has she ever seen him or encouraged him. She doesn’t 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 Arcite’s 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 Arcite’s narcissistic overestimation of the power and importance of his own passions? While Arcite the Theban may have had no option besides surrender to Venus, Chaucer’s medieval audience had the Christian God to call upon for help. In one sense, then, the whole of the "Knight’s 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 Arcite’s 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 Chaucer’s 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 Venus’s 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 contemptuous–but 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. Theseus comments:

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 one’s love is a destructive illusion is pure folly. Chaucer may intend Theseus’s 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 lady’s 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 thus:

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 Boethius’s Consolation:

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] (Bo 2.pr5.148-54)

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 one’s 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’ motives–survival, hunger, the protection of the brood–and 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.
And though he first for ire quook and sterte,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

he thoghte anoon And softe unto himself he seyde: "Fy
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 Theseus’s example is meant to cast some shadow upon the supposedly heroic foundation of the young men’s 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 classes–how 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 Chaucer’s deliberate intent?" I think the evidence suggests that Chaucer wanted to create the "Knight’s Tale" as an arena for staging a conflict between various viewpoints on love, war, and human destiny.

Theseus’s "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 Arcite’s 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 Theseus’s 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 Theseus’s decision to bring the Theban knights to Athens as prisoners that sets the whole plot of the "Knight’s 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, heaven’s 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 appeal–something 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 Chaucer’s description of the three gods. As Salter points out, "violence runs like a thread of variable thickness through the descriptions" of the oratories in Theseus’s 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 humanity’s 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. Venus’s 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 Diana’s connection, as Persephone, to Pluto’s 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 "Knight’s 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 Boethius’s Consolation, have become allegorical personifications in the "Knight’s 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.

Boethius’s 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 Boethius’s universe, it is love that leads to divinity–not 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 "Knight’s 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 "Knight’s 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 "Knight’s 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 Chaucer’s 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 Emelye’s 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 one’s 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 "Knight’s 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 good.

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 "Knight’s 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 Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy are from Chaucer’s Boece, in Benson. Modern English translations are from Richard Green’s translation, also listed in the Bibliography. Return


Works Cited

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 UP, 1995.

Salter, Elizabeth. Fourteenth-Century English Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.












Updated 9/30/02