Character Sketch of Chaucer’s KnightGeoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, writtenin approximately 1385, is a collection of twenty-four stories ostensiblytold by various people who are going on a religious pilgrimage to CanterburyCathedral from London, England. Prior to the actual tales, however, Chauceroffers the reader a glimpse of fourteenth century life by way of what herefers to as a General Prologue.
In this prologue, Chaucer introduces allof the characters who are involved in this imaginary journey and who willtell the tales. Among the characters included in this introductory sectionis a knight. Chaucer initially refers to the knight as “a most distinguishedman” (l. 43) and, indeed, his sketch of the knight is highly complimentary. The knight, Chaucer tells us, “possessed/Finehorses, but he was not gaily dressed” (ll.
69-70). Indeed, the knight isdressed 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 isin such a hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he has not even paused beforebeginning it to change his clothes.
The knight has had a very busy life ashis fighting career has taken him to a great many places. He has seen militaryservice in Egypt, Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Spain, North Africa, andAsia Minor where he “was of great value in all eyes (l. 63). Even thoughhe has had a very successful and busy career, he is extremely humble: Chaucermaintains that he is “modest as a maid” (l. 65). Moreover, he has neversaid 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 themore flattering descriptions in the General Prologue. The knight can dono wrong: he is an outstanding warrior who has fought for the true faith-accordingto Chaucer-on three continents.
In the midst of all this contenton, however,the knight remains modest and polite. The knight is the embodiment of thechivalric code: he is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is boldand fearless on it. In twentieth century America, we wouldlike to think that we have many people in our society who are like Chaucer’sknight. During this nation’s altercation with Iraq in 1991, the conceptof the modest but effective soldier captured the imagination of the country.
Indeed, the nation’s journalists in many ways attempted to make GeneralH. Norman Schwarzkof a latter day knight. The general was made to appearas a fearless leader who really was a regular guy under the uniform. It would be nice to think that a personsuch as the knight could exist in the twentieth century.
The fact of thematter is that it is unlikely that people such as the knight existed evenin the fourteenth century. As he does with all of his characters, Chauceris producing a stereotype in creating the knight. As noted above, Chaucer,in describing the knight, is describing a chivalric ideal. The historyof the Middle Ages demonstrates that this ideal rarely was manifested inactual conduct. Nevertheless, in his description of the knight, Chaucershows the reader the possibility of the chivalric way of life.