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.