|AUTHOR:||Joshua R. Eyler and John P. Sexton|
|TITLE:||ONCE MORE TO THE GROVE: A NOTE ON SYMBOLIC SPACE IN THE "KNIGHT'S TALE"|
|SOURCE:||The Chaucer Review 40 no4 433-9 2006|
Upon the death of Arcite, Theseus announces that the knight's funeral shall take place in "that selve grove, swoote and grene," wherein "first Arcite and Palamoun / Hadden for love the bataille hem bitwene" (I2860; 2858-59).(FN1) That the grove exists at this stage in the narrative, however, creates a textual problem, since Theseus's earlier orders suggest that the grove was destroyed to make room for the lists in which Arcite lost his life. Most readers accept the concurrent existence of two different objects (the lists and the grove) unquestioningly, but the evidence demands that we envision both places as occupying the same physical space. It is easy and tempting to dismiss this moment as a simple error, because to take it seriously raises challenging questions of textual consistency. If we read the Knight's Tale, though, as being primarily concerned with chaos, then a solution to this problem becomes possible. The existence, destruction, and eventual reappearance of the grove ultimately highlights Theseus's failure to resolve the chaos caused by the strife between the two Theban cousins.
We are not the first to recognize this manipulation of space, although the point remains significantly underexplored. Peter H. Elbow, who briefly addresses the textual complexity represented by the lists and the grove, theorizes that "Chaucer adds to [the] focused shape of things by erecting both the tournament and the funeral upon the virgin grove where Palamon and Arcite first fought. Chaucer is willing to contradict himself in this detail of geographical centering."(FN2) Though Elbow's observation is astute, his phrasing of "this detail" as a mere contradiction seems reductive. V. A. Kolve, who discusses this problem of space in greater depth, acknowledges the intentionality of Chaucer's choice. He finds the "contradiction" technically irresolvable, but finally reads it as a symbolic sequence complementing "the poem's major events in which order is created by means of an appalling disorder."(FN3) Though Kolve acknowledges that the disorder and chaos in the tale (such as that implied by the lists and the grove occupying the same space) are outside of human control, he believes that they are ultimately contained by Theseus's efforts and his "shaping will."(FN4)
Kolve's discussion of order ultimately relies on the tradition established by Charles Muscatine in his influential study Chaucer and the French Tradition:
Order, which characterizes the structure of the poem, is also the heart of its meaning ... [The] subsurface insistence on disorder is the poem's crowning complexity, its most compelling claim to maturity ... and the crowning nobility, as expressed by this poem, goes beyond a grasp of the forms of social and civil order, beyond magnificence in any earthly sense, to a perception of the order beyond chaos.(FN5)
Though Muscatine acknowledges the "subsurface" presence of chaos in the Knight's Tale, he assigns it a place within a fundamental cosmic order. His comments have proved for many critics to be the standard view of the poem, and not a few of these scholars have constructed readings of the tale built eloquently upon the initial work of Muscatine.(FN6) Other scholars, such as Elizabeth Salter, have questioned the primacy of order in the tale and have instead chosen to illuminate the important role played by chaos.(FN7) In what follows, we extend this latter argument. Chaos looms large in the Knight's Tale as an arbitrary force, not in the service of order but as its complete opposite and eventual undoing. We suggest that the serious issues of physical and symbolic space raised by the grove and the lists demonstrate a conscious move on Chaucer's part to highlight the uncontained power and, indeed, the ultimate ascendance of chaos as the driving force in the tale.
The initial duel of Arcite and Palamon, following the release of the former and the escape of the latter, begins as a chaotic fracas in the grove:
The bataille in the feeld bitwix hem tweyne; And on his hors, [Arcite] allone as he was born, He carieth al the harneys hym biforn.
The absence of any judge or civilizing force allows for the fighting to be vicious and bloody. Palamon is described as a "wood leon" and Arcite a "crueel tigre" (I 1656-57), and each is severely wounded. Theseus intrudes on this battle, though, carrying with him his moral and ethical codes of law and justice from the public world. By nature of his ruling position, the duke believes that he has the power to bring order to this violent world and he attempts to do so. The justice Theseus initially decides upon is death, having been reminded by Palamon that this is the appropriate punishment for the two men. This judgment does not hold for long, however, because Hypolita, Emelye, and the other ladies in the hunting party begin to cry for the mercy of the two Thebans (I 1748-61). Moved by their impassioned plea, for "pitee renneth soone in gentil herte" (I 1761), Theseus relents from his original decree and decides to settle the matter with a tournament to be held at the site of the duel: "The lystes shal I maken in this place" (I 1862). The grove now becomes quite important for understanding this tale, because the lists will refashion, symbolically, the contest that was to be fought in very real terms within its confines and, indeed, its physical space.
It is significant that Chaucer's narrator refers to the site of the tournament as a "theatre" (I 1885) even as it is being built, because it highlights the dramatic and symbolic implications of the event, as Lawrence M. Clopper has recently discussed.(FN8) Thus, before the tournament takes place, the reader is already made aware that it will be performed upon a "stage" to enact a social drama. The tournament lists themselves add to the drama of the event because of their fantastic proportions:
The circuit a myle was aboute, ... Round was the shap, in manere of compas, Ful of degrees, the heighte of sixty pas, That whan a man was set on o degree, He letted nat his felawe for to see.
(I 1887, 1889-92)
As Kolve has persuasively argued, any stadium so massive would certainly have encompassed the entire space of, and indeed destroyed, the small grove.(FN9)
The results of the tournament are well known: Theseus's efforts achieve a symbolic success by reconciling the two men, but Arcite, though he has rightfully won the contest, is killed by the machinations of Saturn. Arcite's death complicates the duke's accomplishment because this death could have been achieved by the duel that Theseus interrupted. Theseus oversteps his bounds as an agent of human justice and human knowledge when he tries to map the symbolic paradigm of the tournament onto the very real crisis of the duel of Palamon and Arcite. As a way to emphasize the limitations of Theseus's emblematic attempt at order, Chaucer has Arcite's body carried back to the grove where the two knights had originally fought the duel(FN10)
And at the laste he took conclusioun That ther as first Arcite and Palamoun Hadden for love the bataille hem bitwene, That in that selve grove, swoote and grene, Ther as he hadde his amorouse desires, His compleynte, and for love his hoote fires, He wolde make a fyr in which the office Funeral he myghte al accomplice.
The choice of Arcite's resting place creates the textual impossibility about which our argument is concerned. The reader has previously been told that the grove was destroyed to create the tournament lists (11862), and now the grove reasserts itself as if it never left the physical space of Athens. Indeed, the lists do not enter into this scene at all, and we as readers seem to be asked to forget that they had ever been built.
Chaucer imbues the space of the grove with layers of meaning: first, the chaotic violence of the cousins' private duel and then, literally and figuratively, the attempted obliteration of that chaos with the physical structure of the lists and the civilized ritual of the tournament. When this effort collapses, the reintroduction of the physical grove highlights this failure. Theseus's attempt to cover over the private grove is only fleetingly successful, and the eventual return of the grove to its ungoverned state is inevitable. The space itself, in which both the lists and the grove are dually operating, offers Chaucer an arena in which to work out ideas of the violence inherent to life and the chaos that results from trying to impose symbolic resolutions to create order. We are thus asked to accept a double reality of the grove--one in which the grove appears, is destroyed, and appears again; and another in which the grove works along with the lists to create a symbolic continuum where the physical structures are less important than, and indeed yield to, the metaphorical significance of the space in which the drama unfolds. Chaucer's use of space within this tale enforces, then, the chaotic conclusion of the tournament: nothing has truly been resolved, and one of the knights has died anyway.
In locating the lists and the grove at the same spot, Chaucer significandy changes Boccaccio's Teseida, the primary source for the Knight's Tale. In Boccaccio's text the lists exist prior to the duel in the grove; they are not constructed in order to bring Arcite and Palamon to justice.(FN11) This change indicates that Chaucer is actively concerned with issues of space and its symbolic possibilities. What, then, are the larger implications of this symbolic space? The chaotic themes established by the grove and its reemergence are developed in the conclusion to the tale. Traditionally, Theseus's famously (yet unintentionally) erroneous "Firste Moevere" speech is read as the Knight's Tale's ultimate assertion of the irresistible power of order:
"What may I conclude of this longe serye, But after wo I rede us to be merye And thanken Juppiter of al hi grace?"
The duke clearly understands himself to be under the control of Jupiter, though the reader knows that Jupiter had nothing to do with the events in the tale; Saturn was actually the "First Moevere" for most of the unfortunate happenings. Theseus cannot properly judge the reasons why his attempt at order failed, and he uses the false judgments he does make concerning Jupiter's control of providence to bless the marriage of Palamon and Emelye. Read in this way, the marriage at the end of the tale may simply be the beginning of another doomed episode in the history of Theban strife. As he did with the duel in the grove, Theseus tries once more to assert order on a situation beyond his control. Thus, in the Knight's Tale the destructive forces of chaos ultimately win the day, and we are forced to ask pointed questions about the efficacy of human conceptions of order and about the darkness and uncertainty that necessarily attend an inscrutable providence.
Joshua R. Eyler and John P. Sexton
University of Connecticut
We would like to thank C. David Benson, Frederick M. Biggs, Heather J. Nabbefeld, and Gretchen A. Nevins for reading and commenting on various drafts of this essay. We have also benefited from the helpful and detailed suggestions made by the editors and anonymous readers of The Chaucer Review.
1. All Chaucer quotations are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
2. Peter H. Elbow, "How Chaucer Transcends Oppositions in the Knight's Tale," Chaucer Review 7 (1972): 97-112, at 98.
3. V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford, Calif., 1984), 131.
4. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, 131.
5. Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley, Calif., 1964), 189-90.
6. An exhaustive discussion of Muscatine's influence would obviously be impossible in such a brief space, but for two important extensions of this tradition see Jill Mann, "Chance and Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight's Tale," in The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, Eng., 2004): 93-111; and Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, Wise, 1991), esp. 202. Mann posits an optimistic tone to the tale by which the harshness of chance is understood, though not seen, to serve a providential plan, while Patterson has argued that the Knight-narrator creates a tale focused on the order that Theseus tries to assert, which Chaucer, as the actual author, complicates by insisting on the complexity of the tale's world and philosophy.
7. Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight's Tale and the Clerk's Tale (London, 1962). Although Salter raises important questions about the presence of chaos in the tale, she does not attempt to reconcile in any concrete ways the chaotic moments of the poem with the rest of it, because she feels that Chaucer did not intend for any such reconciliation. Instead, the chaotic elements of the tale "emphasise the great gulf which lies between the questions asked by the poet's imagination, and the replies he feels able, in this instance, to give" (36). For other important studies on the chaos of the tale, see especially David Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination (London, 1980), who, though greatly aligned with Salter's reading, takes a slightly different approach by suggesting that the chaos of the tale is used to critique the noble society of Chaucer's own era; Brooke Bergan, "Surface and Secret in the Knight's Tale," Chaucer Review 26 (1991): 1-16, who finds in the tale a "perversion of the natural order" in which man symbolically merges with beast--a manipulation of the natural world that "reflects the ineffectually restrained violence running beneath the ordered surface of the tale" (11); and Kathleen A. Blake, "Order and the Noble Life in Chaucer's Knight's Tale?," Modern Language Notes 34 (1973): 3-19, who systematically analyzes the tale's chaotic elements, from the rhetoric of Theseus to the arbitrary decision-making of Saturn, to suggest that chaos may be more important than order in the tale, concluding that an emphasis on disorder "reveals that order may be created out of nothing, for no all-encompassing, rational purpose, but out of gratuitous impulses of will" and ultimately drawing a parallel between Theseus and the narrator himself (17-18).
8. Lawrence M. Clopper, "The Engaged Spectator: Langland and Chaucer on Civic Spectacle and the Theatrum," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 (2000): 115-39.
9. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, 112, 130. Vincent J. DiMarco, in his explanatory notes to KnT in The Riverside Chaucer, remarks that the dimensions of Chaucer's lists would yield "accommodations for upwards of 200,000 spectators"--massive even by modern standards (834). Compare the largest sports arena in the world, the Estadio de Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, in which 200,000 came to witness the World Cup Final on July 16, 1950. The capacity of the stadium has since been lowered to 105,000 for safety purposes; see <http://www.netvasco.com.br/mauroprais/futrio/maracana.html>.
With regard to the size of the grove, the MED defines grove as 'A small wood; a grove, thicket' and this definition of the term is dated to ca. 1225; see MED, s.v. grove, n. 1. The entry in the OED is more extensive: grove is here defined as 'A small wood; a group of trees affording shade or forming avenues or walks, occurring naturally or planted for a special purpose. Groves were commonly planted by heathen peoples in honour of deities to serve as places of worship or for the reception of images.' The OED dates the term as far back as 889. In both cases a "grove" is described as "small," and the definition in the OED suggests that groves may have mainly been used for shade. Although the implication that groves were often planted in "honour of deities" is interesting given the setting of the tale, the indication of size is most important for the present argument.
10. Interestingly, William F. Woods notes parallels between the sizes of Arcite's funeral pyre and the lists, which suggest yet another symbolic connection between the grove and the lists; see "Up and Down, To and Fro: Spatial Relationships in the Knight's Tale," in Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in 'The Canterbury Tales', ed. Susanna Greer Fein, David Raybin, and Peter C. Braeger (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), 37-57, at 43-44, 54, 57n5.
11. See Giovanni Boccaccio, The Book of Theseus, trans. Bernadette Marie McCoy (New York, 1974), 187.