The Canterbury Tales: A Character Sketch of Chaucer's Knight Term Paper

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The Canterbury Tales

A Character Sketch of Chaucer's Knight

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in approximately

1385, is a collection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by various

people who are going on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral from

London, England. Prior to the actual tales, however, Chaucer offers the

reader a glimpse of fourteenth century life by way of what he refers to as

a General Prologue. In this prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the

characters who are involved in this imaginary journey and who will tell the

tales. Among the characters included in this introductory section is a

knight. Chaucer initially refers to the knight as "a most distinguished

man" (l. 43) and, indeed, his sketch of the knight is highly complimentary.

The knight, Chaucer tells us, "possessed/Fine horses, but he

was not gaily dressed" (ll. 69-70). Indeed, the knight is dressed in a

common shirt which is stained "where his armor had left mark" (l. 72).

That is, the knight is "just home from service" (l. 73) and is in such a

hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he has not even paused before beginning

it to change his clothes.

The knight has had 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

"was of [great] value in all eyes (l. 63). Even though he has had a very

successful and busy career, he is extremely humble: Chaucer maintains that

he is "modest as a maid" (l. 65). Moreover, he has never said a rude thing

to anyone in his entire life (cf., ll. 66-7).

Clearly, the knight possesses an outstanding character.

Chaucer gives to the knight one of the more flattering descriptions in the

General Prologue. The 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 contenton, however, the knight

remains modest and polite. The knight is the embodiment of the chivalric

code: he is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is bold and

fearless on it.

In twentieth century America, we would like to think that we

have many people in our society who are like Chaucer's knight. During this

nation's altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of the modest but

effective soldier captured the imagination of the country. Indeed, the

nation's journalists in many ways attempted to make General H. Norman

Schwarzkof a latter day knight. The general was made to appear as a

fearless leader who really was a regular guy under the uniform.

It would be nice to think that a person such as the knight

could exist in the twentieth century. The fact of the matter is that it is

unlikely that people such as the knight existed even in the fourteenth

century. As he does with all of his characters, Chaucer is producing a

stereotype in creating the knight. As noted above, Chaucer, in describing

the knight, is describing a chivalric ideal. The history of the Middle

Ages demonstrates that this ideal rarely was manifested in actual conduct.

Nevertheless, in his description of the knight, Chaucer shows the reader

the possibility of the chivalric way of life.

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