So you want to start the Canterbury Tales, and you’re greeted with one of the longest tales in the series at the start. Why? Well, there are many reasons. First, it sets up a high bar that is brutally smashed to pieces because there is no reasons that the other characters should conform to the arbitrary rules set by The Host. Second, it’s long and tedious, so might as well get that out of the way first. Third, it’s a pretty interesting story that really sets up the things you’ll find in The Canterbury Tales, most prominently the fact that other foreign locales are adapted into medieval settings, how different genres are utilised, and the subtle undermining tone throughout. So, without further ado, a summary.
tl;dr: Two cousins, Arcite and Palamoun, fall in love with a chick called Emily whilst imprisoned in a tower. Arcite gets out, and is so damn sad that he can’t see Emily that he gets sick and returns in disguise. The cousins meet again, and decide to fight, and then it becomes an officially sanctioned fight where the winner marries Emily. Palamoun prays to Venus to receive love, Emily prays to Diane for Chastity or if not just let whoever loves her most marry her (Diane’s like sorry babe I can’t let you be chaste like, soz, your choice doesn’t matter to men), and Arcite prays to Mars to win the fight. Arcite wins the fight, but is mortally wounded, and thus he dies and Palamoun marries Emily, the end.
The tale begins with Theseus, who is in this universe the Duke of Athens. Why? Because the Knight is anti-pagan but is infatuated with the classical world, so the best of both worlds is to just slightly tweak it to fit Medieval sensibilities. Theseus has just violently conquered the Amazons, forced their queen Hippolyta into marriage, and takes Hippolyta’s sister, Emelye, back with him. Needless to say, both women are sad Prisoners of War.
So Theseus is on his way back, and he sees a bunch of women dressed in black, and they’re crying. And he’s like, “Yo, this is a grand day of victory, why you crying? Stop crying, celebrate!” and they’re like “It’s not you, don’t worry dude, but like, Creon (He’s that evil king in Antigone) in Thebes has decided to kill all our husbands and won’t even give their bodies back!” And Theseus is like, “Gasp O: How dare he! O:< I will avenge you sweet women for I am tender hearted and your cries are gonna make me cry and I need to prove I’m manly through violence!” And so he goes off, kills Creon, and returns all these dead bodies. It’s gruesome, it’s great. But his men find these two dude, just holding each other under a bunch of bodies, and they’re alive! So they keep them as prisoners in a tower in Athens indefinitely.
So, now we’re in Athens. Emelye’s making the best of what she has. It’s May, aka the most typical of all Romance times because it’s the peak of Spring, where everything is flowering and beautiful and abundant, because romance is all about abundance and so is spring. Seriously, if you read any romance, it’ll probably be set in May. So if all else fails and you’re not sure what to write about, just talk about the month of May. So these two knights who are also cousins, Palamon and Arcite, are just stuck in this tower forevermore. (It’s important that they were once knights but are now prisoners because this is based on the courtly romance, and you can’t have a courtly romance without nobility!)
Palamon’s just looking out their window one day, and he sees The Beautiful Emelye™ and immediately cries out in anguish. Arcite’s like, “Dude bro you alright there? Who I gotta kill???” and Palamon’s like, “No you got it wrong bro! Like, I just saw this beautiful image, and I ain’t quite sure whether she’s a woman… or a goddess.” Because you know, classic courtly romance includes putting the woman on a pedestal. So Arcite’s like okay, yeah lol, sure, and then he looks out the window and then snaps his head back and is like, “SHIT DUDE, you’re right! She’s beautiful, and I love her!” so I’m gonna go on script a bit to highlight this hilarity.
Pal: Oh no, you’re joking right? You don’t love her.
Arc: I ain’t joking, I’m in love with her!
Pal: Wow you untrue little shit, I can’t believe you would do this to me, I saw her first and therefore I love her first and she’s mine!! How dare you, you should support me, I’m your cousin!!!
Arc: “No, you should support ME! I mean, what the hell you gonna do, I love her, but you’re all like ‘idk if she’s woman or goddess’ so you don’t deserve her because you can’t even tell the difference!
Pal: Oh my GOD how DARE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And then they bicker for the rest of their time.
Until BAM one fine day someone’s like, “Yo, let Arcite out Theseus, like, I’ll pay ya.” and Theseus is like, “I’m not taking bail– o… o……. ok this once.” And Arcite’s let out. AND THIS IS THE WORST PART it’s so cringe worthy. If you’ve ever watched a bad romcom, you’ll understand the cringe. So Theseus allows Arcite as long as he gets out and is banished, never to return.
Arcite starts crying because he’s released. He starts wailing and bemoaning the fact that he will never get to see Emelye again. The number of times ‘woe’ is repeated is absolutely ridiculous, because it highlights the melodramatic nature of Arcite and just the frivolity of these pining romances. So he starts saying, “Dude Palamon, you win. Sure, you might be locked in this tower forever but like, you get to see Emelye everyday, and you don’t have to think of your future, you’re good! You win!! I will suffer without seeing the love of my life ever again, I will die of sadness!” Good lord…
Palamon, on the other hand, is pragmatic. He goes, “Dude, like, you win. Wanna know why? You’ll go home, set up an army, and then you’ll just fight Theseus and take them over, and you’d have to sacrifice me. I will die for the noble cause of our kingdom, so you can go and marry Emelye.” So yeah, Palamon knows what’s up. But like, the Knight has a HUGE boner for Arcite, because he spends most of his time talking about the tragedy of Arcite and why it’s so hard for him, whilst just dismissing Palamon. Why? Because Arcite symbolises the knightly virtues and the violence of fighting for what you love… And then the Knight asks, “So, who has it worse, Arcite or Palamon?” So to a modern reader, and probably most contemporary readers, would say ‘clearly Palamon’, but the comedy comes from the Knight’s inability to distinguish between true suffering and melodrama. It’s funnier, because the Knight’s like ‘I won’t dwell too long, I’ll hurry up’, but this tale is 4 parts long. Good job there.
So there’s a long long description of Arcite’s love sickness, aka, he literally gets sick from his lack of love (It’s called Amorhereos), till he becomes gaunt and creepy. And he gets the idea to go back to Athens in disguise, and manages to become a part of the close company of Theseus without anyone knowing, and he gets to see Emelye! So really, he gets the best of both worlds, huh? Freedom AND the girl. Meanwhile, Palamon’s been stuck up in the tower for 7 years, but he manages to break free, and he’s actually running off because he’s not an idiot. But then he bumps into Arcite, and they starts bickering like old times over Emelye.
Meanwhile, Theseus is off hunting with waifu and Emelye, and they see these two fighting, and Theseus is like, sigh,”why is this happening” And Arcite is like, “IT’S ME your arch nemesis! Arcite!” ANd Theseus is like, “I thought I told you to leave– You know what, you’re both sentenced to death.” BUT THEN, Hippolyta and Emelye start weeping ‘because they’re women’, as the Knight says. Because all women are sensitive and weak and can’t stand the thought of death, which is stupid because they’re AMAZONIAN women. Good lord… but yes, they’re women, so they’re weak and small and sad, and Theseus is touched and is like okay you’re gonna fight over my prisoner Emelye like noblemen.
So Theseus sets up a big stadium for the fight between the two teams, and also 3 temples that just so happen to correspond with the very appropriate Venus, Mars, and Diane. The Knight then spends 100+ lines just talking about some stupid paintings nobody really gives a shit about, because he’s so extra and loves to indulge in lush imagery instead of story. So Palamon goes and prays to Venus, goddess of love, to be granted with, unsurprisingly, love, no matter what. He’s like idc if I lose, I want love! And she’s like, yeah, okay I guess. And Emelye goes to Diane, the virgin goddess of the hunt, and prays to remain a maiden (virgin) forever. But if that can’t be granted, she’s like, well that’s fine but like I guess let whoever loves me most marry me or w/e, and like, make them stop fighting it’s annoying. And Diane’s statues starts weeping blood, and she appears and is like, “Sorry babe, I can’t let you be a maiden because like your fate is in the hands of these men who give no shits about your opinions and would much rather satisfy their needs. You don’t have a choice in this you’re getting married”, so poor Emelye will never get what she really wants. Then Arcite goes to Mars, god of war, and wishes to win the fight.
So the fight ensues, and Arcite wins as judged by Theseus. Palamon is heartbroken. Venus is like, “DAD wtf I thought you’d let ME win!!” and Jupiter’s like, “Shhh don’t worry Mars got what he wants, wink wink” and then Pluto sends an earthquake that knocks Arcite off his horse and mortally wounds him. So Arcite is dying, and he and Palamon make up. Arcite says Emelye should marry Palamon because he’s the best. They hold a big funeral service for Arcite, and Emelye and Palamon get married “nevere was ther no word hem bitwene”, basically they never talk. What a lovely blissful marriage.
And thus concludes the story of how Fate bows down to no-one, and of course, be careful what you wish for, it may be delivered in the strangest ways.