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In the 'Middle Ages', wealth was controlled by the knights and the clergy. Merchants, living on the outskirts of society, were condemned by the church for their materialistic approach, often considered as operating outside the law. A segment of researchers has described knights during this period as "right arm" of the society while placing craftsmen and merchants as the "left arm". In this environment, Geoffrey Chaucer emerged as one of the most prolific poets in the literature. Chaucer's contribution to English poetry places him, according to several critics, as the "Father of English Literature". Chaucer's London was a city in which commerce was flourishing. The merchants achieved greater political representation and social status never witnessed before. London society was becoming more mobile experiencing increased competition between different groups of merchants and craftsmen etc. It was the type of environment in which Chaucer spent major part of his childhood and adult practical life. Chaucer, son of John Chaucer who was an importer of wine, resided in the area home to several merchants including Italian wine merchants. His frequent visits to Italy also provided him a deep insight into Italian traditions and customs. Chaucer's acquaintance with Italian literature and people proved an asset to produce a master work of art; the "Canterbury Tales" (Mair 115-135).
Chaucer was highly influenced by an Italian writer Boccaccio. 'Teseida' by Boccaccio is regarded as the source of inspiration for writing 'Canterbury Tales' as it "allows an insight into the process of artistic innovation and a perspective on how far Chaucer's poetry is anchored in tradition, whether Italian, French, classical- or English". Although several studies have searched for exact correspondences between Boccaccio's and Chaucer's versions, it is pertinent to highlight that 'Teseida' serves only as a starting point on which Chaucer elaborates while eventual difference between both works is "one of narrative method and imagination" (Klitgard 38-41).
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Chaucer in Middle English. Chaucer wrote the stories in late 14th century, some of them in prose while mostly in verse. The Canterbury Tales is the story of a group comprising thirty people travelling as pilgrims to Canterbury. All these pilgrims have different societal backgrounds as they told stories to each other considering it the best utilization of time spent on journey. 'The Knight's Tale' is the first and the longest tale in 'Canterbury Tales'. Arcite and Palamon, the two knights, are friends and relatives of King Coele of Thebes. Chaucer is showing how a real friendship can transform into rivalries. It is amazing to learn that emotions of love may also result in hatred creating differences between two best friends. They are imprisoned by the 'Theseus'- the Duke of Athens and rival of King Coele. During imprisonment, both knights fell in love with Emily who is a sister-in-law of Theseus.
Even though Chaucer is using centuries-old theme with two men fighting over a woman, it is the presentation style and poetic excellence which captivates the audience. The events take a dramatic turn when Arctic manages to escape leaving Athens. The power of love, however, prevails and it is his love for Emily that forces to return even becoming a page in her chamber. Palamon is also a victim of love similar to Arctic. It is his burning desire for Emily that he also successfully flees. The drama continues as both knights meet but start fighting and claiming Emily. The tale reaches climax when Theseus apprehends both knights and decides to settle the matter in a traditional way by arranging a tournament between knights while setting Emily as a prize for the winner. It is at this point audience wonders how the tale will end and whether fate favors Arcite or Palamon. The role of gods is pertinent in the tale deciding fate of three major characters; Arcite, Palamon, and Emily. Palamon is praying to god Venus and Arcite begging mercy of god Mars. Emily prays to Diana but with different desires and wishes. She is praying to Diana for letting her remain unmarried. In case this wish is not granted she prays that man loving her most should marry her. The gods Venus and Mars are also quarrelling over the results of these prayers. The dispute is finally resolved by the wise god Saturn deciding prudently. The god Saturn assures that everyone will receive fair and deserving rewards. Result of contest is almost beyond the imagination of the audience. Although Arcite wins but dies accidently as he falls from horse. He allows Palamon to marry Emily before death. Chaucer is, therefore, tactful to create a mixed feeling of sadness and happiness showing death of Arcite and Palamon marrying Emily (Geoffrey Chaucer). Chaucer, by showing the conflicting views of gods, is raising the question about incompatibility of requests made by the people asking God for opposing things. Since God cannot grant every or both opposing wishes, Chaucer leaves audience wondering as to how God is justified in granting wishes and wise to rule the world (The Knight: his Portrait and his Tale).
The tale is appropriate for the knight telling story about two knights fighting for love. As already mentioned pilgrims travelling in the convoy are from all sections of society; knight belongs to privileged class. Knight is highest in rank and aware of customs in the elite section of the society. It is, however, a coincidence that the knight is given the chance to tell the first tale "drawing the shortest cut in the Host's lottery". Chaucer mentions this happy coincidence in an indirect way as:
Were it by aventure, or sort, or cass,
The soothe is this, the cut fil to the Knyhght (I.844-5) (Pearsall 110-120).