Canterbury Tales: The Knight
In his prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are
involved in this fictional journey and who will tell the tales. One of the more
interesting of the characters included in this introductory section is the
Knight. Chaucer initially refers to the Knight as "a most distinguished man"
and, indeed, his sketch of the Knight is highly complimentary. In this essay, I
will contrast Chaucer's ideal Knight with its modern equivalent. The Knight,
Chaucer tells us, possessed good horses, "but he was not gaily dressed". Indeed,
the Knight is dressed in a common shirt "much stained" by where his armor had
left its mark. In other words, Chaucer is telling us that the Knight has just
arrived home from service and is in such a hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he
has not even paused before embarking on it to change his clothes.
Additionally, the Knight has led a very busy life as his fighting career
has taken him to a great many places. He has seen military service in Egypt,
Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Asia Minor where he always
"won the highest honor". Amazingly, even though he has had a very successful
and busy career, he remains an extremely humble man: indeed, Chaucer maintains
that he is meek "as a maiden". Moreover, Chaucer claims the Knight has never
said a rude remark to anyone in his entire life. Clearly, the Knight possesses
an outstanding character, and Chaucer gives to the Knight perhaps one of the
most flattering descriptions in the General Prologue than any other character.
His Knight can do no wrong: he is an outstanding warrior who has fought for the
'true faith' (according to Chaucer) on three continents. In the midst of all
this, however, Chaucer's Knight remains modest and polite. Thus we see him as
the embodiment of the traditional chivalric code: bold and fearless on the
battlefield, devout and courteous off it. Apart from the moral message contained
in the story, perhaps this tale of Chaucer's is of even further interest to
modern-day readers. In our twentieth-century America, we would like to think
that we simply don't have enough people in our society who we can liken to
Chaucer's Knight. Perhaps we are under the impression that our modern society
does not breed such virtuous people as existed in Chaucer's time.
We remember that Chaucer's work represented one of the few sources of
literature available to the people of England in the latter half of the
fourteenth century; The Canturbury Tales was indeed a precursory form of mass
media during its time. I pose that the essence of Chaucer's Knight was no more
real in his day than it is today, and he was simply giving the people an ideal
character to admire. He never intended his fictional star to be interpreted as
a reality, and he was only giving his readers what they wanted. Today, our mass
media delivers the same package and on a grander and even more fictional scale
than ever before. Through television, movies, and books, we are constantly
exposed to fabricated personas of what we should be, and how we should act. As a
further example, during America's altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of
the modest but effective soldier captured the imagination of the country.
Indeed, this nation's journalists in many ways attempted to make General H.
Norman Schwarzkopf a sort of latter-day Knight. He was made to appear as a
fearless leader who really was just a regular guy under the uniform. It would be
pleasant to think that a person with the traits of Chaucer's Knight could really
exist in the twentieth-century. However, I argue that it is unlikely that
people such as Chacucer's Knight lived and breathed even during Chaucer's time.
As he does with all of his characters, Chaucer is producing a stereotype in
creating the persona of such an ideal man. Chaucer, in describing the Knight,
is depicting a chivalric ideal when, in fact, the history books that speak of
the Middle Ages demonstrate that this model was rarely ever manifested in actual