Yow loveres axe I now this questioun:
Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?
That oon may seen his lady day by day,
But in prison he moot dwelle alway;
That oother wher hym list may ride or go,
But seen his lady shal he nevere mo.
Now demeth as yow liste, ye that kan,
For I wol telle forth as I bigan. (The Knight’s Tale 1347-1354)
We read to understand. Sometimes, that is hard to do with texts written as long ago as The Canterbury Tales. We can barely parse though the language, let alone make connections to our own lives more than 600 years later. And yet, there are still moments in these texts, if we truly look for them, that can show us something about ourselves.
In The Knight’s Tale, the knight posits to us a question: Which is worse – being imprisoned, only to see your beloved from your small window, or being set free but never being able to see your beloved again? At first, I dismissed this question completely. If you know anything about this knight in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous frame narrative, you’ll know that he’s arrogant, determined to tell the best story, as is determined by the structure of famous, classical, scholarly epics. I thought to myself, “Well, both answers are horrible. This is a stupid question.” This philosophical inquiry could only exist to make the knight seem learned in the ways of the “art of thinking.” That’s the only function of this ridiculous, depressing dilemma.
But then, this question began to haunt me. It seemed like there was no possible answer to the men’s plight. But, as I continued to think through this dilemma, I related it to my own long-term, long distance relationship, one with no end to this distance in sight. After all, Chaucer addresses us in this passage as “you lovers.” Finally, in the context of my own life, I understood the question:
We choose hope. We choose the prison for the sliver of light from the window that warms our cheeks as we look on toward our beloved. We choose the patience and the sacrifice because, ultimately, we choose love. Though these two choices look the same initially – both filled with longing and anguish – I know otherwise. If you truly love someone, you don’t turn your back on them, no matter how difficult the situation. Instead, you grab onto whatever glimmer of hope you can find in the dark prison cell, and you hold on.
After all, it is Palamon who looks on patiently from the shrunken prison window, Palamon who prays to the goddess of love, and Palamon who unites with his beloved in the end. In the end, love wins.
Sure, this story has a few flaws (like can love at first sight be real love, and what about Emilye’s agency in this whole saga anyway?) but, as much as we criticize the satire of this arrogant knight and his clueless misrepresentation of traditional courtly love, I think the knight who tells this tale got one thing right: He chose hope. He chose love.