Heroic Worlds: The Knight’s Tale and Beowulf
By Edward B. Irving Jr.
Literature and Religion in the Later Middle Ages: Philosophical Studies in Honor of Siegfried Wenzel, edited by Richard Newhauser and John A. Alford (Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995)
Introduction: Anyone about to offer a brief essay on the Knight’s Tale as a tribute to an eminent medievalist ought really to begin with an ample occupatio, listing at length the topics he is not going to treat and the many critics he is not going to praise or argue with. Let these sentences serve as occupatio occupationum, with a general apology to those Chaucerians who have invested so much time in puzzling over this most opaque of the Canterbury Tales, scholars whose work I have neither time nor qualifications to discuss here. I will have nothing to say here, for instance, about courtly love or Boethius or the specific features of romances or Boccaccio and the early Italian Renaissance. I offer instead a limited point of view based on my own experience as an Anglo-Saxonist and student of epic.
I want to place the Knight’s Tale within a broad context of epic atmosphere and epic themes, though well aware that that is not its only important context. Some idea of epic must have been in Chaucer’s mind as he contemplated Boccaccio’s Teseida and behind it the Thebaid of Statius, though it is difficult to guess what exactly such an idea consisted of, since he was unfamiliar with some basic works that go toward making up our modern definition of epic, such as Gilgamesh and the Homeric poems in their complete form. Even the nature of his acquaintance with and understanding of the Aeneid may be problematic.
But Chaucer’s creation of a recognizable heroic world does not depend solely on such intertextuality. His picture of such a world might have drawn much from his own experience as (briefly) soldier and prisoner of war in a campaign in France and (over a long period) court official well acquainted with the powerful. Perhaps he was familiar with such continuations of an earlier heroic tradition in his century as the alliterative Morte Arthure (the famous alliterative passage describing the fighting in the tournament would suggest some such familiarity: Knight’s Tale, lines I. 2601-2616).
From a different point of view, the fact that his major single work, Troilus and Criseyde, also shows a deep interest in a fictional pagan world seems to reveal his wish to study human behavior outside the constricting framework of Christianity (to the extent that that was possible for him). Epic and Christianity are not incompatible, but they are uneasy bedfellows. The pagan world is more readily seen as possessing certain heroic values.