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The Canterbury Tales: Summary
The Knight’s Tale
Theseus laid siege to Scytha and, though Hippolyte put up a fierce fight, the kingdom
fell, and she married Theseus, who brought his new bride to live with him in Athens, along with
her fair sister, Emily.
On the way home, they met a crowd of ladies in mourning. The eldest told the king the
reason of her sorrow when questioned, and he took compassion on her, swearing that he will
avenge them by facing the tyrant who killed her husband, desecrated the body and conquered
Thebes, oppressing its people. He sent his new queen and her sister on ahead into Athens, then
headed towards Themes with his army. He fought Creon in a field and killed him, then seized the
town. He gave back to the ladies their husbands’ body so that they may be properly buried.
While Theseus rested, his knights found two young knights, who were of royal blood. They were
healed, then sent to prison in Athens indefinitely without ransom.
Emily grew into a beautiful young woman. One day, while enjoying a lovely spring day,
she wandered into the garden beside where Arcita and Palamon were imprisoned. Palamon,
while pacing, chanced to look out the window and saw fair Emily and was struck by her beauty.
Arcita was made even more miserable to see her beauty, saying that he would prefer not to see
her at all than to see her everyday yet cannot have her. Palamon wanted Arcita to help him win
her love, but Arcita refuses as he was in love with her himself. They continued to bicker, but
comes to no conclusion since they were both imprisoned.
Perotheus was a great childhood friend of Theseus, such a great friend that after much
pleading, Theseus agreed to release Arcita, who was also a friend of Perotheus for many years.
The price for the release, however, was exile. If he were to be found anywhere in Theseus’
kingdom, he would be beheaded. Without a choice, he returned home to Thebes, cursing the day
he was born because while Palamon can still gaze upon Emily and be close to her, Arcita cannot
be anywhere near her. Tam 2
Palamon, on the other hand, was furious that Arcita was gone. He believed that Arcita,
now free, is able to return to Thebes, gather their kinsmen and assault the city, possibly winning
Emily’s hand in the process. He weeps that he must be fettered and tied down, while his cousin
can roam free. Palamon becomes ill, growing pale from jealousy.
Arcita finally reached Thebes and at the city, fell ill. It seemed as though it was a real
malady, and not just lovesickness. Mercury came to him in a dream, however, and told him to
rise up and go to Athens, where his destiny awaited him. Waking up, Arcita resolved to go to
Athens, even if it means death to him, but looking at the mirror, realized that he had changed so
much that none would recognise him. So he disguised himself with a squire of his, to whom he
had told his story, and they set of for Athens, asking for work at the court’s gate. Seeing that he
was young, strong and handsome, he became a worker under the chamberlain who worked for
Emily. As a page, he worked for a year or two, known as Philostrate and became known for his
gentlemanly disposition, helpfulness and courteous tongue. He was so beloved by the court that
all thought it would be a gracious act for Theseus to raise him up to something worthier of the
man’s talents, and in such a manner, he was made into a squire, which gave him a better income.
With the income that his people brought to him from his own lands in his own country, which he
spent prudently and discreetly, he was able to live quite comfortably. Theseus came to value
Philostrate quite much.
Palamon had been in prison for seven years, driven half mad by his grief and sorrow. On
the seventh of May, however, helped by a friend, he broke out of prison by drugging his guard
with opium. He fled to a nearby wood because day was coming, and planned to return home to
Thebes when night fell, hoping to beg assistance from his friends and family to go to war against
Theseus, and either win Emily’s hand or die trying.
Arcita, rising happily, paid homage to the beautiful May day and went out into the fields
and the woods on his horse. He happened upon where Palamon was hiding in the woods, but
Arcita did not see him and Palamon did not know it was his brother. However, in a moment of
reflection after his song, Arcita revealed himself. Palamon, upon the revelation, accused Arcita
of being a traitor to Thebes and was enraged that Arcita had to opportunity to have Emily.
Palamon challenges Arcita to a duel for Emily’s hand. Arcita agrees, though he could have killed Tam 3
Palamon at the moment since the latter was not armed, having just escaped from prison. On the
next day, Arcita packed two sets of arms and set off to the woods.
Theseus decided to go hunting with Hippolyta, his queen, and her sister, Emily. They
came across Arcita and Palamon dueling in the woods, bloodied but still fiercely in combat.
Theseus called for a halt. Palamon confessed that he was the escaped criminal and admitted that
he ought to be killed on the spot. However, he made certain to point out that Arcita was not the
man he said he was. Enraged, Theseus called for both men to be killed, but the ladies of the
court, Hippolyta and Emily and their entourage, fell to their knees with tears in their eyes and
pleaded for mercy. Theseus realized that he would be a terrible ruler if he did not know humility
from arrogance, and if he treated repentant prisoners the same as those who are arrogant and
unrepentant. He decided to forgive them, but reminded them that only one could win Emily’s
hand. He decided to allow them a span of time to gather 100 knights, and the contestants would
battle to the death in the lists. Happy and thankful for the pardon, and grateful for the
opportunity, the two race off to prepare.
Theseus built the lists, sparing no expense, including temples for Mars, the god of war,
Venus, the goddess of love, and Diana, the goddess of chastity. As the day of the event
approached, Palamon appears with Lycurgus, the king of Thrace, while Arcita brought Emetrius,
the king of India. They each brought a hundred men with them, and looked fierce.
The night before the duel, Theseus was shown as a gracious host as he searched for and
provided appropriate accommodations for each guest, throwing a great feast for all, with music,
food and dancing.
Before dawn broke on the day of the duel, Palamon went to Venus’ temple in the lists and
prayed to the goddess, to allow him to marry Emily, but if it was not her will to do so, he prayed
that she would let Arcita end his life. He made the proper sacrifices to her, and the statue shook,
indicating that the goddess heard his prayer. Feeling reassured, he hurried off to bed cheerfully.
After the daybreak, three hours after Palamon prayed to Venus, Emily woke up and
hastened to Diana’s temple, praying to the goddess of chastity that she may remain a maiden and
unmarried in her life. She prayed that there would be peace between Arcita and Palamon, and
that their desires for her would burn down and die. However, if it was the goddess’s will that she
should marry, Emily prayed that the goddess would ensure whoever loved and desired her most Tam 4
would win the combat. All at once, the fire on the altar went out and the statue of the goddess
shed tears of blood. Then Diana herself appeared, telling her follower that her destiny was to
marry one of the two, and the one she will marry will suffer for her. She went on her way,
disappointed with her fate.
Arcita chose to pray to Mars, asking for victory, reminding Mars of the pain and fury he
felt when Venus was taken from him by Vulcan, her husband. When his prayer ended, the rings
on the temple door and the door itself clattered and rang, and the fire blazed hot and high. A
voice murmured “victory” to him. Pleased with the promise, he gave honour and glory to the
god, and left the temple happily.
In that instant, a war began in the heavens. Mars and Venus argued, and Jupiter was kept
busy trying to pacify them. Finally, it was Saturn who came up with a plan. He promised Venus
that her devotee would get his lady, but Mars also would be allowed to help his devotee and
bring about the outcome that was promised to him.
On the morning of the battle, everyone rose early for the fight. Theseus set the rules of
the duel: no intentional killing, modifying his original plan so that no royal blood would be spilt.
If an opponent was overcome, he was to leave the battle, or carried off to the edges of the lists.
The people cheered, agreeing with the rule. Arcita, with a red banner to honour Mars, entered in
through his gates with his company. Palamon, with a white banner dedicated to Venus, entered
through her gates with his men. A roll call was done and the numbers were counted to ensure no
deceit. It is noted that both companies were well matched in size, rank, age and ability. With all
that complete, the battle begins.
As men began to fall, Arcita pursued Palamon. Emetrius wounded Palamon. Lycurgus, in
an attempt to help Palamon, was unhorsed. Palamon, before he fell, unhorsed Emetrius as well.
However, since Palamon was unhorsed, he cannot continue in the fight and was dragged off to
the side of the lists. Theseus, seeing this, called for a cease in fighting and declared Arcita as the
winner, having won Emily’s hand fairly. In the heavens, Venus wept, feeling as though she had
been disgraced. Saturn hushed her, saying that the end was yet to come. Out of the ground came
a Fury, sent by Pluto at Saturn’s request, spooking Articus’ horse, who threw his rider to the
ground. Arcitus’ chest was crushed by the saddle horn, and though he was quickly taken to Tam 5
Theseus’ palace and attended by physicians, he was dying. He gave his Emily over to Palamon,
an equally worthy husband, and died, whispering her name as his last words.
There was great weeping by all in the court, especially from Emily. Theseus, greatly
saddened by these events, searched for a suitable burial place for Arcita. Finally, he decided
upon the grove where he first met the two lovers and their ardent love for the lady. The funeral
was one befitting for one of royal blood, so great and elaborate it was. After it passed, Theseus
sent for both Palamon and Emily. Theseus gave a speech about the gods and of destiny, then
continued on a philosophical course until, at the end, he pointed out that Palamon had loved and
served Emily from the very first, and asked the lady for compassion to marry him. Marry
Palamon Emily did, and they made a beautiful and loving couple.
Theseus: A main character in the story insomuch as he is in both the beginning and the end of the
story, keeping its plot moving and is the main thread that runs through much of the tale. He is
the Duke of Athens, and marries Hippolyta, the queen of Scythia, a country he conquers at the
very beginning of the tale. While defeating Creon, who oppressed Thebes after killing its
rightful King Cappaneus, he discovers the rightful heirs of Thebes, and he has them
imprisoned. After the two falls in love and leaves prison, one rightfully released and the other
escaped, he grants the princes pardon, and allows them to duel for the hand of Emily. Arcita
rightfully wins the tournament, and Emily is declared as his wife. However, due to his injuries,
he dies, and after holding a proper funeral for the prince of Thebes, he allows Palamon to
marry Emily, and they all live happily ever after.
Arcita: A prince of Thebes and cousin to Palamon. He was imprisoned with Palamon for some
time, but Perotheus, a childhood friend of Theseus who had known Arcita in Thebes, pleaded
before the Athenian duke for his freedom, and Theseus relented, allowing Arcita to go free on
the condition that Arcita was not to be seen on his land. He returned as Philostrate, however, to
work for Emily. His disguise was destroyed by Palamon when they met in the woods after
latter escaped from prison. They duel for Emily’s hand and Theseus happened upon them while
hunting. Hearing their ardent love for Emily, he granted them pardons, asking them to swear
fealty to him. A duel was prepared and Arcita brought Emeritius, king of India to help him.
Arcita won the battle and was declared as Emily’s husband, but died from his wounds before Tam 6
he could marry her. Theseus gave him a funeral befitting of his rank, and he was buried in the
grove where he was made into a free man again and had declared his ardent love.
Palamon: A prince of Thebes and cousin to Arcita. He was imprisoned with Arcita for some
time, until finally, with a help of a friend, he was able to escape by lacing his guard’s drink
with opium. While hiding in the woods waiting for nightfall, he came across Arcita, who
revealed his true self, and enraged that Arcita would be so close to Emily, challenged his
cousin to a duel, to which the latter agreed. While dueling for Emily’s hand, Theseus happened
upon them while hunting. Hearing their ardent love for Emily, he granted them pardons, asking
them to swear fealty to him. A duel was prepared and Palamon brought Lycurgus, king of
Thrace to help him. Palamon was wounded by Emeritius, however, and was forced by the rules
of the duel to withdraw from combat. However, Arcita died from his injuries, and after his
burial, Palamon was permitted to take Emily’s hand in marriage.
Emily: Sister to Hippolyta, queen of Scythia and wife of Theseus. She was brought to Athens to
live with her sister after the latter married Theseus, and the earlier grew into a fair young lady.
While she was wandering in a garden, she was seen by Palamon and Arcita who were
imprisoned in the tower next to it. The two princes duel for her hand, and she was given to
Arcita, the winner. As he died, however, it was determined that fate and the gods must mean
for her to marry the other, and she married Palamon, living the rest of her days beloved.
Hippolyta: Queen of Scythia until her kingdom was conquered by Theseus, who took her as his
wife. She went back to Athens to dwell with him, taking with her her sister, Emily.
Creon: The one who ruled Thebes after he killed Cappaneus until he was killed by Theseus, who
was sent to do so by Cappaneus’ widow.
Perotheus: A childhood friend of Theseus and presumably a nobleman. He had met Arcita
previously in Thebes, and as such, repeatedly pleaded to Theseus for the prisoner’s release.
Theseus finally agrees, releasing Arcita on the condition that the man is never seen again in his
Emeritius: King of India and described as a very fierce and wealthy man. He brought a hundred
nobles with him to fight with Arcita. During the duel, he unhorsed by Palamon and, by the
rules, forced to withdraw from combat. Tam 7
Lycurgus: King of Thrace and described as a strong and fierce warrior. He brought a hundred
knights with him to fight with Palamon. During the duel, while attempting to help Palamon, he
was wounded by Emeritius and was forced, by the rules, to withdraw from combat.
Prologue and the Miller’s Tale
The audience is said to have enjoyed the knight’s tale immensely, believing it to be a
very noble story. The host asks Mister Monk whether he has a tale that can top the knight’s, but
the miller, so drunk he could barely stand, cuts in, swearing that he has a splendid tale for this
occasion. The host, seeing that he is drunk, warns him against speaking as he was drunk, but the
miller insists, confirming that he is indeed drunk, and says that he has a tale about a carpenter,
his wife, and her involvement with a scholar. The host cuts in, not wishing a tale about
adulterous wives to be told. The miller retorts, and insists of telling the story, saying that if
someone wishes not to hear it, he is free to turn the page and choose another tale.
The Miller’s Tale
There was once a rich carpenter named John who would accept lodgers, one of which
was Nicholas, an impoverished scholar who was particularly interested in astrology. This
carpenter had recently wed a wife named Alison who was much younger than he, only eighteen,
in fact, and was wild in nature and comely in figure. The carpenter kept he close, jealous and
afraid she’d make a cuckold out of him.
One day, when John was away to Osley, Nicholas began to flirt and play with the young
wife, and by the by, grabbed her, wishing to have intercourse with her. She squirmed and twisted
away, but with sweet words and much pleading, softened her heart until she swore to St. Thomas
that she would be his when the opportunity presented itself.
Absolon, a parish clerk, was a popular one with the town. He dressed stylishly, could sign
and dance, knows multiple instruments, but is somewhat prim in speech. He saw Alison while
censing the women of the parish and fell in love with her. That very night, Absolon took his
guitar and went to the carpenter’s house, and standing beneath a window, sang to the wife. John
awoke to the singing, but did not hear the content, and as such, was ignorant that Absolon was
trying to woo her. All day he stayed there, trying to win her heart, but to no avail for it was given
already to Nicolas. Tam 8
Growing impatient to be together, while John was gone to Osley again for the day, the
two hatched a plan. Nicholas, taking enough food for the day to his room, pretended to be ill, and
had Alison tell John for him. John saw him through a crack, and thought that Nicholas had seen
the face of God by the blank look on the scholar’s face. Finally, coming back to his senses,
Nicholas told John that another great flood was coming, and that to save themselves, John must
grab three water troughs, tie them to the roof, and load them with supplies so that when the
flood comes, they may all go to the troughs, chop the rope and be safe. One final command was
that John and Alison’s trough must be placed further apart so that they will not look at each other
and sin. They must not speak all night, but devote the whole time to prayer. Believing the tale,
the miller did as asked. That night, while all were lying in their troughs, John was passed out
from the labour he was doing all day. When he began to snore, Alison and Nicholas sneaked out
of the troughs and into the house, spending the night together at last.
Meanwhile, Absolon hearing that the carpenter had not been seen since he went to Osley,
thought that the man would be away that day also, and when day broke, wooed Alison again,
hoping for a kiss. Alison told him that she was in love with another, and he begged for a quick
kiss, to which she assented. She stuck her backside out of the window, and it was that which
Absolon kissed. Since it was dark, he did not realize until he heard the mocking within from
Alison and Nicholas. Mad with fury, he went to Gervase, a blacksmith, and from there borrowed
a hot poker and went straightaway to the carpenter again. Knocking on the door, he pretended
that he had a beautiful gold ring that he would give Alison should she give him one other kiss.
Nicholas, who had gotten up to void his bladder, had heard the exchange, and thought it would
be fun to play a little mischief. He stuck his backside out the window and let pass some gas,
blinding Absolon, but he had his poker ready and branded poor Nicholas’ bottom. The scholar
shouted for water, and the carpenter awoke and, thinking it was the Flood, chopped the ropes to
release the boats, and came crashing down to the floor below. Alison and Nicholas ran into the
streets, creating a ruckus until the villagers came and saw John with his arm broken, lying on the
floor. Alison and Nicholas both claimed John to be mad, and all believed it, mocking the
carpenter for believing another flood was upon them.
Nicholas: a scholar who boarded at John’s house. Persuaded Alison to have sex with him and
came up with an elaborate scheme for them to have time alone to do so. Tam 9
John: an old carpenter who married a young wife name Alison. He was jealous, but she was wild
and she schemed with Nicholas so that they can sleep with one another. After being taken in by
Nicholas’s lie, he was believed to be mad by the villagers.
Alison: the young wife of John the wealthy carpenter. She was persuaded to cheat on him with
Nicholas, the young scholar, and helped create a plan to do so
Absolon: the parish clerk who fell in love with Alison, but ended up being shunned and abused
Prologue and the Reeve’s Tale
Most of the folk has a laugh at the miller’s tale, none taking offence except one: the reeve
whose trade was once carpentry. He takes offence at the jesting, then goes on a rant, saying that
despite his age, his wit remains. The host then asks him to tell a tale rather than preach, and reeve
begins to tell a tale that would make a fool of the miller’s tale.
The Reeve’s Tale
Near Cambridge, there was a mill which stood near a brook. The miller who lived there
dressed fancily and went about heavily armed; all called him Symkym. He married a
noblewoman for himself, one who had gone to a nunnery for her schooling and is smug. They
had a daughter of twenty years as well as a young, infant son.
The miller had monopoly of the grain-grinding business of the village and has always
been the one to grind the flour and meal for Cambridge College. Hearing that the director fell
sick and was on his deathbed and fearing that he would not be receiving business from that
location anymore, he began to plunder, stealing money, corn and meal from the college.
John and Alan, two students of the college, were given permission to see the corn ground
and resolved among themselves to watch so carefully that not even half a grain of corn could be
stolen. While they ground the corn, however, Symkym outwitted them and crept outside, setting
their horses free. After the corn was ground and bagged, the two returned outside only to see
their horses disappeared. The cunning wife ran outside, telling the students that she saw their
horses running on the fen with other wild horses. They chased the horses until nightfall,
whereupon there were able to corner them in a ditch. While they were out, the miller took nearly
half a bushel of grain from them and made a cake out of it.
With dark falling, the two had nowhere to stay and pleaded for hospitality at the mill. The
miller allowed them to do so after they said that they would pay, though he said that the house Tam 10
will be small, and likely somewhat cramped with so many people. However, he fed them with
ale, bread and a roasted goose, and they all had a merry time. When it came time for sleep, the
miller laid down b