Essay: La Quête du Sens de la Vie (or: Whistling in the Dark) -

Essay: La Quête du Sens de la Vie (or: Whistling in the Dark)

William: Father, I am afraid, I won’t know the way back home.
John Thatcher: Don’t be foolish, William, you just follow your feet.
~ A Knight’s Tale

Attempts to explain life’s little mysteries have been performed practically since the beginning of time. It is only natural for people of all cultures to come up with their own theories about the life, the universe, and everything. Most are decidedly different in comparison, but others are surprisingly similar. Religion, for example, is the greatest common factor in the world’s societies, with the use of deities and various paranormal elements to decipher the puzzles of the universe. Catholicism and its many forms was ubiquitous throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, but many people still yearned for definite direction. The quest for the meaning of life was taken up by writers of all genres of medieval literature, and while philosophers loftily bickered over trivialities, many fiction storytellers wrote for the masses, using vivid imagery and exciting plots to bring the uncertain into reality. As religion and general fear of the unknown were pervasive parts of society, the supernatural is a major component of medieval romance.

Perhaps the greatest of Middle English literature is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. A collection of satirical stories that expose the imperfections of fourteenth century society (often humorously), they are arguably the most renowned English fiction after Shakespeare, who himself was influenced by Chaucer’s writings. Even today, his popularity has not waned: it is not uncommon to see an especially enthusiastic English major student sporting a “Chaucer: Because Shakespeare Was Too Easy” T-shirt. Besides medieval and modern literature, The Canterbury Tales have also pervaded the relatively new category of film, with 2001’s A Knight’s Tale having lifted its title and a few of its characters (including Chaucer himself) from the best known Tale, “The Knight’s Tale.” Despite what the name may suggest, “The Knight’s Tale” takes place in Ancient Greece with Olympian gods instead of, say, King Arthur’s court and the Christian God. As such, religion (albeit considered mythology even by this time) plays an important rôle in the course of the story. The first half of the Tale is about the plight of Arcite and Palamon, who are prisoners of war as captured by Theseus, duke of Athens. Up to this point, the supernatural is somewhat subdued, unless debilitating love at first sight can be considered paranormal. One thing leads to another, and the climax of the story is a great battle between Palamon and Arcite (both completely supported by Theseus, who miraculously seemed to have forgotten their originally imprisoned status) over a woman, Emily. Like the great Helen of Troy, hordes of testosterone-pumped men are willing to be impaled on swords and spears just for her hand in marriage (or more probably, sexual exploits of the foulest kind, knowing Chaucer). This story is mainly regarded as a romance, as it idealizes chivalry and the noble deeds of heroes in addition to involving a hero’s love for his lady (Lamb). Unusually for this sort of thing, the lady in question has a voice in “The Knight’s Tale,” albeit a small, ultimately irrelevant one. As is customary before potential death/heartbreak, the characters pray to the gods for help. Palamon endears himself to female readers by revealing his sensitive side and praying to the goddess of love, Venus (despite being set in Greece, the gods are called by their Roman names). “’Fairest of the fari, daughter to Jove and spouse to Vulcan, O Venus my lady, you who gladdens the mount of Citheron,’” he schmoozes.

“Have pity on my bitter burning tears and receive my humble prayer. . . I wish fully to have possession of Emily and die in your service. […] And if you deny me, my sweet lady, then I pray that tomorrow with a spear Arcite may bear me through the heart.” […] But at last the statue of Venus shook, and made a sign by which he understood that his prayer that day was accepted. (Chaucer)

Arcite takes the obvious route and appeals to Mars, god of war:

“. . . I must win [Emily] with force of arms upon the field, before she will promise me mercy; and well I know without help or grace from you my strength cannot avail. […] Now, lord, have pity on my bitter sorrows, and give me victory; I ask of you no more. […] And at last the statue of Mars began to ring his hauberk. And with that sound Arcite heard a low and dim murmur which said “Victory!”, for which he gave laud and honor to Mars. (Chaucer)

For her part, Emily turns to the virgin goddess, Diana, insisting that she has the “’desire to be a maiden until I die, never do I wish to be a lover or a wife’” and that “ ‘if you [Diana] will not favor me, or my destiny be ordered that I must have one of the two, send me the one who desires me most’” (Chaucer). Aside from the sexist terminology, these prayers reveal much about the nature of the gods and how prayer is intended to work. Olympian gods are powerful but not all-knowing; at times, a prayer with a sacrifice is the only way to get their attention. All three must prepare a sacrifice, light the fire inside the temple (in which they pray), and recite the appropriate rites. Their prayers can also be ignored, as evident by their waiting for some sort of sign that they have been acknowledged. For Emily, Diana actually appears, and it looks as though it is Emily who shall have her prayer answered. However, the goddess of the hunt apparently is also the goddess of bad news, for she tells the poor girl, “’It is decreed among the high gods and written and confirmed in eternal words, that you shall be wedded to one of those who has had so much care and woe for you; but to which one I may not tell. Farewell. . .’ ” (Chaucer). There is obviously no sense in fighting what can only be explained as destiny, so Emily returns home, resigned to her fate. These exchanges also reveal the gods’ pettiness and literal-mindedness. Venus and Mars both accept the prayers of Arcite and Palamon but belatedly realize that only one of the two can actually marry Emily. Like spoiled little children, they run to their father, Jupiter, to put their cases before him. Much like an overwhelmed human dad, Jupiter is at a loss of how to remedy the situation without upsetting either child, and his own father, Saturn, must take over the whole operation. Like many stories involving genies, Saturn decides to take Arcite and Palamon’s prayers at their face value—that is, interpret them literally. Arcite does indeed win the battle, but then his horse falls on top of him, crushing not only his bones, but any future prospects with Emily. Thus, Palamon gets the girl by default after Arcite dies, which also indirectly grants the part of Emily’s prayer that mentioned her wish to wed the one who desired her most. It is a stereotypical ending with Palamon “living in complete happiness, in bliss, in wealth, and in health. And Emily loves him so tenderly, and he serves her so gently, that never was there a word between them of jealousy or any other displeasure” (Chaucer). Arcite is now forgotten, although it was his prayer that allowed for the supernatural convention, then subsequent intervention. If the gods did not factor into the story at all, Arcite probably still would have won the battle, and then claimed Emily as the prize. There are Christian elements, as well, namely the repetition of 3, a sacred number tied to the meaning of the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit), which is only natural given the time period in which “The Knight’s Tale” is being told (Lamb). Arcite and Palamon are more like chivalrous knights instead of Roman warriors, and Emily is a virgin, pure and blameless (in God’s sight).

Although “The Knight’s Tale” is more of a romantic adventure than a philosophical venture of truth, the pervasiveness of the supernatural still applies. Curses and blessings to the gods (intentional or not) flow from the character’s lips, and their prayers in the temples take up an entire quarter of the Tale. The fear of the unknown was, well, unknown to Arcite and Palamon, both of whom were supremely confident that the gods were on their respective sides, and as such, were able to fight without caution or hindrance. The moral of “The Knight’s Tale” is more about the value of honor, an especially important piece of advice for the upper class lot, but the lower classes masses could also take away a lesson in trusting in God: like the Olympian gods, His answer to prayer may not be what is desired, but what is best. Not that any of this was intended by Chaucer, who undoubtedly was poking fun at organized religion and wishy-washy Church officials, but certainly by the Knight telling the story within the story.

Works Cited

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight.” Gerard NeCastro, ed. eChaucer. University of Maine at Machias, 2007. Web. 7 Feb 2012.
  • Lamb, Wendy. “Havelok.” UCR, Riverside. 20 January 2012. Lecture.



Still more essays! English major! Yay! XD

The Canterbury Tales is one of the few “classic” pieces of literature I actually like and enjoy, probably because once distilled into the modern vernacular, it’s pretty funny — and gross. Canterbury is also one of the historical sites I visited on my trip to England, though of course, it’s much more modern now.

(Also, to my Star Wars buddies, May the Fourth Be With You! 8D)

“Greece-1173 – Temple of Athena” by Dennis Jarvis is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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