The Chaucerian Aspect
By Christina Gregory
Of all the movies that could be recommended, A Knight’s Tale would certainly be high on the list. It is a highly entertaining movie, even if unrealistic and highly unhistorical. The plot: a peasant boy lies about royal lineage in order to joust, gets caught, thrown in the stocks, and then released and knighted by a prince he had befriended at a previous joust. Such events would absolutely never have happened in real life, not in that time or age; they just weren’t possible, and certainly not allowed. However, for this time and age, when a man’s fortune and future do not depend on his father’s profession, it is a heartwarming story that inspires hope. Also, the fact that, even though the story is set in medieval times, modern day music appeared frequently throughout the movie added to the un-believability as well as the humor.
The characters, while seeming real because they had qualities we see in people, weren’t actually based on real people. William, the protagonist, is a complete figment of fiction, as well as his two original accomplices, Watt and Roland, and pretty much the entire cast. However, there were two characters that were based on real, historical figures. That would be Edward, the Black Prince, who is the one whom William befriends and who comes back to be William’s savior, and Geoffrey Chaucer, a famous writer of that time period, who also acted as William’s herald.
In the movie, Chaucer is played very well by Paul Bettany. When Bettany first enters the scene, he mentions one of Chaucer’s works, The Book of the Duchess; Chaucer’s best known work in The Canterbury Tales, comes later than the period in which this movie was set to take place (1370’s for a six month period). In the movie, when Chaucer is confronted with his gambling problem (a detail that is in fact not based on truth), he says to the two men who stripped his clothes when he did not have the money to pay, “I will eviscerate you in fiction; every last pimple, every last character flaw. I was naked for a day. You will be naked for all eternity.” And to an extent, that part ended up being fulfilled (even though it is established that he did not have a gambling problem). There are two characters in The Canterbury Tales that are like those two men, portrayed as greedy, greasy scoundrels.
In his life, Chaucer was not actually known as a professional writer, but rather as a civil servant during the times of King Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. Very little is truly known about Chaucer’s childhood, since the era he was born in was before it was seen as fashionable to record poets’ lives. The earliest record of him is in records from Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster, when an account of seven shillings was used to buy a tunic, some hose, and a pair of shoes for “Galfrido Chaucer Londonie” (Geoffrey Chaucer of London).
In the movie, Chaucer’s character is humorous, and very animated, especially when announcing William, or rather “Sir Ulrich Von Liechtenstein,” into the arena. Many times one can be caught laughing at him, or smiling at one of his bickering spouts with Watt, or even at his absurdly lavish, sometimes completely ridiculous, mini-monologues when announcing William. As stated, not much is really know about Chaucer personally, and while it is considered controversial to suggest Chaucer’s personality is reflected in his works (since they are, in fact, fiction, it can be argued that even the persona of the narrator could be fictionalized), there is something to be discovered from his works about his own personality. Can, in fact, a writer of that time write something comical, if he does not have a single humorous bone in his body (figuratively speaking, of course)? Can a person write an inspiring piece of work, filled with hope of redemption if he himself does not believe in hope or redemption, for that matter?
Chaucer was born to a family of prosperous wine merchants, and as stated earlier, was in the business of civil service, rather than professional writing. He spent most of his life in the service of the King, making diplomatic trips, holding the office of Comptroller, and other offices of importance. However, Chaucer is still considered by many to be the “father of English literature.” He was the first known writer to write in English (other works were written in French, from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066.) The Book of the Duchess was Chaucer’s first major work, probably commissioned by John of Gaunt after the death of his wife, Blanche. Chaucer wrote quite a few more works before his most famous The Canterbury Tales, (Anelida and Arcite, The House of Fame, Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde) It is thought that his work Treatise on the Astrolabe was written for his own son. There is a possibility that Chaucer wrote Equatorie of the Planetis, which is in a similar hand and language to Chaucer’s known works and contains many of the ideas from Astrolabe; however, it is still uncertain if it is actually Chaucer’s work.
The Canterbury Tales is a captivating tale of twenty one pilgrims, who make a journey to Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas a Becket. Along the way, the pilgrims participate in a contest, to see who can tell the best story. At the end of the pilgrimage, whoever told the best story gets a dinner, bought by all the other pilgrims. Each pilgrim was supposed to tell four stories, two on the way there and two on the way back; however, only twenty four stories are told, which leads to the possibility that the work is either a) not finished, or b) that Chaucer changed his intentions, but forgot to change the Host’s instructions (the Host is the owner of the Tabard, the inn where they all meet).
A good book to read for more information is Chaucer A to Z, written by Rosalyn Rossignol. It is basically an encyclopedia on anything Chaucerian , and anything from Chaucer’s life and world, including his works, his family, people he knew and/or worked for, and even other writers from whom he took inspiration, and borrowed ideas. It is easy to read, and very concise in each little (and in some cases big) chunks of information. Each of his works gets an entire section, with a summary of the work, and comments from the author, as well as lists of other books you can read that focus on that specific work, if you so choose to study further. Each individual tale from The Canterbury Tales has its own block of information (even though each tale is already given a short summary under the actual The Canterbury Tales section). A few pictures can be found throughout the book.
Another book that could be useful is The Personality of Chaucer, written by Edward Wagenknecht. After reading all the “straight up” facts from Chaucer A to Z, we are left wondering what was his personality really like (was it similar to that depicted in the movie A Knight’s Tale?) However in the film The Knight’s Tale there is very little, if any, similarity to the original). This book, though unable to give us a definite answer (for who can really tell the personality of someone alive seven centuries ago with very few records and only his works to go on) gives us a good nudge in the direction of actually looking at his worlds, for he does seemingly put himself in them, as the narrator, or another character. This book goes through, not only his personality, but also his appearance, personal habits, background and interests, certain attitudes, and some of his beliefs on topics such as love, virtue, and religion. Furthermore, a good suggestion is to read the actual book, The Canterbury Tales, as it has been suggested that the best way to get to know Chaucer is to know his works.
Since there are many, many major books on Chaucer himself, and even more books on his own works, it would take a great deal of time to discuss him in full and justly. However, by looking at the books mentioned (and others, since there are so many), we can perhaps gain a glimpse of Chaucer himself, his works, his life style, and his world. A Knight’s Tale will encourage viewers to do so.
Rossignol, Rosalyn. Chaucer A to Z. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1999.
Wagenknecht, Edward. The Personality of Chaucer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.