In this essay, I will examine two brief episodes from The Knight’s Tale to explore how Chaucer makes use of the comic potential of animals in order to reflect upon the complex and multifarious nature of romantic love. My interest here is not with Chaucer’s attitudes toward animals per se; in both of the episodes I will discuss, he draws on highly conventional and proverbial ideas about the animals concerned, which he accepts without question. Rather, focusing on just a couple of passages, I will examine how Chaucer deploys received opinions about animals as a way of opening up new and complicating perspectives on what is perhaps the central concern not just of The Knight’s Tale itself but of all romance: the resolutely human predicament of being in love. In this way, my focus will be on the way in which the distinctive use of animals in The Knight’s Tale can shed some light on Chaucer’s characteristic attitude toward the genre of romance.
The first of these incidents occurs immediately after the tale’s two protagonists, Palamon and Arcite, have fallen in love at first sight with Emelye, whom they both observe from their shared prison cell, as she is gathering flowers in her garden one May morning. During the bitter argument that ensues, as the two knights hotly dispute their competing claims for Emelye, Arcite momentarily appears to adopt a more measured and realistic appraisal of their chances of winning her love:
And eek it is nat likly al thy lyf To stonden in hir grace; namoore shal I; For wel thou woost thyselven, verraily, That thou and I be dampned to prisoun [End Page 339] Perpetuelly; us gayneth no raunsoun. We stryve as dide the houndes for the boon; They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon. Ther cam a kyte, whil that they were so wrothe, And baar awey the boon bitwixe hem bothe. And therfore, at the kynges court, my brother, Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother. Love, if thee list, for I love and ay shal; And soothly, leeve brother, this is al. Heere in this prisoun moote we endure, And everich of us take his aventure.(I.1172–86)
Here Arcite takes a step back from the intensity of his quarrel with Palamon to offer—through the medium of the briefest of beast fables—a moral commentary on his and his cousin’s unhappy predicament. This opens up a radical new perspective on the sudden eruption of conflict between the two knights, who unexpectedly find themselves rivals for Emelye’s love. Having both fallen in love with Emelye, the knights level ferocious accusations and recriminations against each other, briefly yielding to a moment of clarity and insight as Arcite becomes aware of just how absurd it is for two prisoners, sentenced to perpetual captivity, to argue over a woman who lives beyond their prison walls, and who is ignorant of their very existence. It is the absurdity of this situation that then suggests to Arcite the exemplary fable of the two dogs arguing over a bone.
The analogy of course is far from flattering for the two knights, for at one and the same time it would seem to reduce them to the level of beasts, and to demean and belittle their romantic attachment—the ennobling love that romance conventionally celebrates—to the level of mere animal appetite. However, it is worth noting that the beast fable that Arcite briefly recounts is one whose moral he does not, or perhaps cannot, follow. Rather than accepting the moral logic of the narrative and dismissing his longing for Emelye as either futile or worthless or both, Arcite chooses to draw a different conclusion, reading into the fable the inevitability of human conflict in the pursuit of individual self-interest. So instead of seeking to reform himself, or at least amend his behavior by reflecting on the exemplary animal tale, Arcite implicitly acknowledges his own animal nature. And then having accepted, as it [End Page 340] were, the beast within...