The Role of the Gods
The Knight’s Tale
The Greco-Roman gods play a decisive role in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as both arbiters of destiny and conflicting characters in their own right. But what is their purpose? Do they exist only to further the setting (pagan Athens rather than Christian Britain); to provide a higher level of competition that ups the stakes; or to provide a better philosophical playground for Chaucer? If they are a stand-in for deterministic destiny, why do they quarrel among themselves?
After a review of selected portions of The Knight’s Tale and analysis of the entire work, this paper will conclude that the gods’ characters are self-contradictory and their purpose confused because of the many roles they fulfill in Chaucer’s story: destiny personified; stake-elevating players; place-setting, character-describing archetypes; and stand-in for the Christian God, source of all that is good.
The major events of the Knight’s Tale can be related quickly. Theseus, duke of Athens, has conquered Scythia and is bringing home a wife (Ypolita) and sister-in-law (Emelye) as prizes. On his return to Athens, he is accosted by women begging him to avenge their husbands, and so he sacks the city of Thebes, capturing two brothers (Arcite and Palamon) and imprisoning them.
While in jail, Palamon catches a glimpse of Emelye, thinks she might be Venus herself, and falls in love. When Arcite sees her, he too falls in love and declares that she will be his – breaking troth with Palamon, whom he has sworn to help in all things. Eventually, Arcite is released by the intercession of an off-screen friend, and he returns to Thebes, where he wastes away from his mad love for Emelye to the point that his appearance changes. After a dream in which Mercury tells him to return to Athens, Arcite enters Theseus’ court under an assumed name.
Many years pass, and one day Arcite is out wandering and bemoaning how Emelye is not his. Palamon, having escaped prison the night before, hears him and challenges him over his break in faith. After a day in which Palamon recovers and is outfitted with armor, the two brothers fight, and then they are stumbled upon by Theseus. After learning their identity and their quarrel, Theseus determines to kill them both but is restrained by the ladies in his entourage, and decides instead that the brothers shall return in a year to fight a grand tournament with any knights they can persuade to help them – the winner will then marry Emelye.
After the year has passed, magnificent lists have been built to contain the tournament, containing temples to some of the gods. Palamon goes to the temple of Venus, praying that he may marry Emelye and love her. Emelye prays to Diana that she may remain a maiden; Arcite prays to Mars for victory in the tournament. The two brothers both receive a sign that their wish will be granted; Diana herself appears to Emelye in order to say that Emelye will be wed no matter what occurs.
An odd interlude occurs, during which we hear that the gods are fighting over which of the brothers shall win. Saturn appears and promises Venus that he has a plan which will allow Palamon to marry Emelye.
The tournament is hard-fought and balanced, but Palamon is eventually overpowered by unlucky chance and dragged to Arcite’s stake (the condition of victory under Theseus’ rules designed to prevent fatalities). While celebrating his victory, an earthquake occurs and Arcite is terribly wounded. He eventually dies of his wounds, but not before reconciling with Palamon. The court of Athens mourns, Theseus gives philosophical speeches, and Palamon and Emelye marry.
It is important to note that The Knight’s Tale is not a completely original work. It is based on Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze di Emilia, and some of what Chaucer writes appears to be lifted from other sources (Wilkins).
The gods as Characters
The gods within The Knight’s Tale are obviously characters – in contrast to Boccaccio, in which they barely enter the scene (Brooks). Venus, Mars, Diana, and Saturn all appear directly in the tale. Diana’s role is limited to giving Emelye the bad news that she must wed, but we know that “strif ther is bigonne” between Venus and Mars over their conflicting promises to Palamon and Arcite. Saturn gets a large stanza in which he describes himself and promises Venus that Palamon shall wed Emelye. Their characters are limited but real, and if they lack motivation at many levels, so too do the humans in the tale. The gods definitely exist as characters in the poem, added by Chaucer, and their purpose as such is to up the stakes from a mere mortal conflict to one involving the gods – stories about leaders are more interesting than those about followers, about superheroes more exciting than about leaders, and about gods more exciting than about superheroes. How much more exciting is the tale knowing that Mars and Venus are fighting over the victory and waiting in tense anticipation to see which one will triumph and how! How much more suspenseful it is to know that Saturn has promised Venus victory – without breaking Mars’ promise – and wondering how he shall succeed!
The gods as Archetypes
In medieval England, the gods were well associated not just with their occupations but also with general characters and times of life. All of the main characters (and some of the minor ones) are strongly associated with a single god through their attitudes and descriptions, and these associations grow stronger as time goes on. Frost agrees that many of the gods play their role as “stars” in The Knight’s Tale.
The most obvious association is between Arcite and Mars. Besides praying to Mars in his temple, Arcite is by far the most choleric human character. When he falls for Emelye, Arcite is quick to dismiss Palamon’s claim over his loyalties. After being let out of prison, Arcite pines for Emelye with a madness “Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye \Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye \Engendred of humour malencolik” that changes his appearance to a classically melancholic one (Brooks). When he returns for the tournament, Arcite has as his ally Emetreus, King of India, whose description is thoroughly Martian though partly Solar (Brooks). Before the tournament, he prays, not to have Emelye’s hand, but to win the battle.
Against Arcite we have Palamon, attached to Venus. His first thought upon seeing Emelye is that she may be the goddess Venus. He falls to his knees and prays that “Out of this prisoun help that we may scapen” or else “Of oure lynage have som compassioun;” This is set beside Arcite’s lustful reaction. Later on in the poem, Palamon does not simply pray to Venus for victory, he asks that he may “have fully possessioun \Of Emelye, and dye in thy servyse” (ie, loving) and “have my lady in myne armes.”
Theseus’ archetypal god is Jupiter, the ruler. As ruler, Jupiter mediates between all the gods, and we see this mediation present in Theseus’ personality: he is ready to go to war for the sake of a few widows; he is persuaded not to execute two ex-prisoners (one escaped, one in violation of “parole”) by his wife and their tale of love and woe; he attempts to settle the matter of Emelye’s marriage in a way that brings renown and honor to everybody.
This use of archetypes is created, at least in part, by Chaucer. It is the only way in which to tell Palamon and Arcite apart in his tale (although there are many scholars who say they aren’t different at all (Brooks)). In contrast, Boccaccio provided “specific and detailed physical descriptions” to help readers tell the knights apart (Mitchell-Smith). It seems clear that Chaucer has made deliberate changes throughout the story that emphasize the presence and influence of the gods.
The gods as Destiny
Frost finds that there are 3 different levels of Destiny present in The Knight’s Tale: Venus, Diana, and Mars, appealed to by Palamon, Emelye, and Arcite; Saturn, who resolves the fates promised by these gods into one unified whole, and “‘the First Moevere’ (2987) – beyond all particular divinities.” The first two levels –the individual gods and then Saturn – are certainly present in the poem, but I do not find “the First Moevere” to be a level of destiny necessary in the story. Saturn resolves the problem completely and independently, and since he is associated with time (Brooks) it would make sense for him to be the ultimate Destiny.
Nonetheless, regardless of the particulars, the gods are clearly representative of Destiny in The Knight’s Tale. They are almost completely unnecessary to the plotline – if Chaucer’s desire was to reward he who loves over he who wars, it would have been a simple thing to make Arcite lose the tournament (perhaps through a mistake born of arrogance) and receive an accidental stab wound. The story could then have continued as it does anyway, and the non-theological lessons would have been very much the same. But Chaucer does include the gods, and freak accidents are directly attributed to them, and they are Destiny.
The gods as God
While Jupiter as a star is associated with Theseus, and Theseus mentions him frequently, as a god Jupiter is strangely absent from the poem. Whereas Venus and Mars are given motivations and strife, Saturn a long speech, and Diana an appearance to Emelye, Jupiter does not appear as a character at all, and receives only one line during the scenes of heaven: there is much strife between Venus and Mars “That Juppiter was bisy it to stente.” (2442)
The best reason for this seems to be Theseus’ speech near the end of the poem: Jupiter is “prince and cause of alle thyng” (3036) and apparently responsible for creating the world. This is obviously incorrect within Greco-Roman mythology, and points to the true reason for Jupiter’s exclusion from the tale: as the world is a mashup of ancient Greece and “modern” England, Jupiter here substitutes for the Christian God believed in during Chaucer’s time. This belief is continued when Theseus thanks “Juppiter of al his grace” (3069). This possibility also lends credence to Frost’s claim that Jupiter is the highest level of Destiny in The Knight’s Tale. For while Saturn completely resolves the crisis presented, he does so essentially by solving a logic puzzle – what if Arcite or Palamon had worded their requests differently? Well, in a world where Jupiter is God and the cause of all things, this scenario will never arise!
The gods as a philosophical playground
Chaucer has made a number of changes to the basic story of The Knight’s Tale. As noted above, he has invented almost completely the passages describing the gods and their dealings; he has changed the descriptions of Arcite and Palamon; more than this he inserted the description of Diana’s temple (which, unlike those of Mars and Venus, does not exist in Boccaccio’s work), changed Arcite’s and Palamon’s reactions to Emelye (in Boccaccio both of them think she is Venus) and moved up the creation of their rift. Perhaps he did this because he thought that the story would be better; more likely, Chaucer is making philosophical statements through the changes in his poem.
Chance, while acknowledging the “Jupiter as Christian God” interpretation, believes that Chaucer is making a complex statement about stability and peace in the context of Jupiter’s mythological castration of his father Saturn. Under this interpretation, Jupiter is not a passive non-character in the story, but is actively continuing to “castrate” his father by taking credit for all of Jupiter’s work (through Theseus, who continues to attribute the resolution of their conflict to Jupiter rather than Saturn).
I prefer my interpretation of Jupiter as both Christian God and star, however, as it is considerably less convoluted and explains events observed by Mitchell-Smith: namely, that Theseus – despite his association with Jupiter, king of the gods – fails in his chief endeavor: the tournament. Despite his best efforts, it turns bloody and people die. While Arcite fails to wed Emelye; he succeeds in winning the tournament (as he asked). If Jupiter were an active character like Venus or Mars it would seem odd indeed for his human counterpart to be the most failed of the lot; when Jupiter is not an active player in the gods’ drama, it makes more sense for Theseus – without a direct advocate – to seem more poorly off than some other characters.
In light of the nature of the changes made to the story, it seems clear that part of Chaucer’s purpose was to more readily inject his own philosophy into the tale. By transplanting the Christian God into the tale as Jupiter, Chaucer was able to expound on his own Boethian philosophy.
It has become apparent that the gods act in many roles within The Knight’s Tale. They are stars, providing archetypal personalities to many human characters within the story; they are characters, inserted to increase excitement; they are destiny personified. Jupiter acts as the Christian God and all of them together provide Chaucer a larger philosophical canvas on which to act than Boccaccio’s original work. Due to these many conflicting roles, the characters of the gods are both self-contradictory (as when Jupiter is both unable to resolve the conflict between Venus and Mars, yet given credit for all events that occur) and critically confused and blunted.
Brooks, Douglas. “The Meaning of Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’.” Medium aevum. 39 (1970): 123.
Chance, Jane. “Representing rebellion: the ending of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and the castration of Saturn.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies. Volume 38 (2002): 75.
Frost, William. “An Interpretation of Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale.’” Review of English Studies. Volume 25 (1949): 289.
Harrison, Joseph. “’Tears for Passing Things’: The Temple of Diana in the Knight’s Tale.” Philological Quarterly. Volume 63.1 (1984): 108.
Mitchell-Smith, Ilan. “’As Olde Stories Tellen Us’: Chivalry, Violence, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Critical Perspective in ‘The Knight’s Tale.’” Fifteenth-Century Studies. Volume 32 (2007): 83.
Wilkins, Ernest H. “Descriptions of Pagan Divinities from Petrarch to Chaucer.” Speculum. Volume 32 (1957): 511.