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In his prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are involved in this fictional journey and who will tell the tales. One of the most interesting of the characters introduced is the Knight. Chaucer refers to the Knight as “a most distinguished man” and, indeed, his sketch of the Knight is highly complimentary. Another Knight seen in the “Canterbury Tales” is the rapist knight in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, who is not a very noble knight and doesn’t follow a chivalric code. This knight seems more realistic as opposed to the stereotypical ideal knight that Chaucer describes in the Prologue. It is hard to believe that such a perfect knight existed during that time.
Today we look back at knighthood, chivalry, and “curteisye” as romantic and unreal. It is true that a code of behavior did exist, and Chaucer presents the Knight as a real representative of the code. However the Knight in the Wife of Baths tale, is the complete opposite of this one, and violates all of the rules of Knighthood. By way of contrast the Knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is more common during the Middle Ages, and stories of rape by knights were not uncommon. Chaucer goes against the normal chivalric ideal of a knight by presenting a knight as he really might have been, which is the knight presented in The Wife of Bath’s Tale.
As all of the different tales reflect back on the characters of the pilgrims who tell them, the ideas in the Knight’s Tale are reflected back on the Knight. His tale is a tale of ideal love and chivalry, and fits the character of the Knight. Furthermore, fitting the Knight’s character, his tale has no incidents of vulgarity, the love is a clean love, with no hint of sensuality. The love exists on a high, platonic level.
In the article “Costume Rhetoric in the Knight’s Portrait: Chaucer’s Every-Knight and his Bismotered Gyphon,” by Laura F. Hodges, featured in the April 1995 edition of the Chaucer Review, Hodges examines the reasons behind Chaucer’s decisions on the clothing of his Knight. Hodges said that the fact that the Knight was wearing soiled clothing is an allusion to the fact that the knight was soiled religiously. However I think his shirt was “much stained” by where the armor had left his mark, and he just arrived from service and went directly on his pilgrimage.
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After examining the introduction of the Knight’s character in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, Hodges said that Chaucer intended his Knight to be the one true life portrait of a knight of the 14th century – an every knight of sorts. Chaucer says that the Knight is very courageous, very prudent and very sage. He says that the Knight is, “The very pattern of a noble Knight.”
The knight from the “Wife of Bath’s Tale shows a darkside of the glorious knighthood presented to us. However, the traits of his character are more real than the Knight. He is guided by his desires, and doesn’t think about punishment when he rapes the girl. However he follows the chivalric codes by keeping his promise to do whatever the old hag wants. He seems to live only for the present moment. He agrees to do anything she wants in return for hearing the answer he is looking for. True, if he doesn’t get an answer, he will lose his life. However he doesn’t think about the possibility that what the hag will want may turn out to even worse, considering the fact that honor and personal integrity were valued more than life in those times. He is also ungrateful for even though the hag saves him for a certain death and requests that he marry her, the knight should be grateful to escape death, but instead he views the marriage to his savior as another form of the same punishment. This manifests his knighthood qualities by keeping his promise. This knight is more real than Chaucer’s knight, for he has flaws, he is the antithesis of the qualities that a good and honorable knight should have.
It is highly unlikely that a knight such as Chaucer’s night lived and breathed in his times. As Chaucer does with all of his characters, he is producing a stereotype in creating the persona of such and ideal man. Chaucer in describing the Knight, is depicting a chivalric ideal, when in fact the actions of the knight in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is the actual portrait of the knight that existed in those times. 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 and 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.