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  • The Walking Dead in Chaucer's Knight's Tale
  • Sachi Shimomura

Palamon and Arcite, the lovesick heroes of Chaucer's Knight's Tale, live in a stasis that they themselves perceive. For them, that stasis lies not in their perpetual imprisonment by Theseus, but in their suspended love affairs with Emelye. Prisoners of love even beyond their political status as prisoners of war, they languish together "in angwissh and in wo" (I 1030).1 The pair's initial narrative appearances bring them to the verge first of physical death, and then of frustrated romance: liminal situations that compromise their sense of identity. They first emerge in the tale as casualties of Theseus's war against Thebes, hidden within a pile of dead bodies, where they too appear as bodies without character or living identity: wounded, but with no details on the origins of those wounds; paired together by their coats of arms, but with no revealed history of their connectedness or common origins. In this sense, they are the walking dead: "Nat fully quyke, ne fully dede they were" (I 1015). When taken to Theseus and sentenced to life imprisonment, their story peters out before it has really begun; then, one May morning, they each in succession glimpse Emelye outside the prison window but can do no more than fall hopelessly in love with her. At this point of seasonal rebirth in the garden below, the tale stops in its tracks again, as neither knight sees any way to win her; the two knights are now caught in doubled states of inaction as though to reflect the originary scene where Palamon and Arcite lay most literally between life and death. When Arcite concludes to Palamon, [End Page 1]

"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 1183-86),

his words underline the sense of a perpetually frustrated desire that leads to no end. The two knights remain as bodies bereft of history, lacking any substantial causes or characteristics developed through their past history to motivate their future actions or aventures. The center of the tale proceeds, therefore, with no overtly sustained history, merely the sense of loss of a past ungrounded and already fading in the memories of its putative protagonists.

Its stasis, then, becomes artificial, a sort of anti-stasis that suggests the continuation of a past but with no cohesive past to continue.

Such lack of cohesive pasts characterizes the tale and the career of its narrator on several structural levels. These levels interlock with each other much as do the layers of authority (or putative authority) and order in the tale, from individual knightly action, to Theseus's controlling role, to the determinations of the pagan gods, as others have already shown.2 On the broadest structural levels, the gaps in forward movement throughout the Knight's Tale begin to pull askew the living identities and life trajectories of knighthood as inorganic or unnatural, as though uncertainly grafted upon failing roots. Lee Patterson, in discussing the need for historicist literary criticism, pinpoints how "for postmodernity, nostalgia has replaced memory. . . . Nostalgia is a sanitized moment of fulfillment that encourages us to think of the present not as the effect of a historical process but simply as a place of loss."3 Such a structure of thought defines the world of the Knight's Tale; there, already, in the lives of Palamon and Arcite, the present sheds its backing in historical process to become an ostentatious marker of loss: loss of life, loss of freedom, but equally (and paradoxically) loss both of stasis and of the chivalric ideals, nostalgically portrayed, based upon such stasis. With its loss of stasis, however, the tale eventually reenters an historicized consciousness. In its forays out of and back into historical processes, the Knight's Tale enacts, in the stops [End Page 2] and starts of its plot, a deferral of historicity and an unstable stasis: these manipulations of time reflect the narrative pace and place of the tale, and they further, as I will argue, literarily recreate instabilities inherent...


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