Providence, Destiny and Time in The Knightâ€™s Tale and The Consolation of Philosophy Sean Hill
2 The relationship between providence and destiny is an often overlooked aspect of The Knight’s Tale. It is most entertaining to see and fascinating to interpret how Chaucer plays with them individually and in relation to each other in The Knight’s Tale. Allegories of providence, destiny, free will and luck are woven together as they form the entity known as time. Not only does Chaucer succinctly portray elements of both destiny and providence and play with their influence on the story and the reader, but he draws from other literary sources, perhaps the strongest of which is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In this paper, I will explore Chaucer’s indebtedness to Boethius in the use of providence, destiny, fortune and time.
I. PROVIDENCE AND DESTINY To understand some of the allegories Chaucer makes, it is helpful to understand how Chaucer viewed the relationship between providence and destiny. Probably the clearest way to state Chaucer’s view is to say that these two entities are two different ways of viewing time. Providence is the view taken by the gods, from which all of time can be seen at one instant. From this view, there is no past, present or future and consequently, the gods are neither powerless over nor afraid of the future as humans are. This fear is a result of the fact that humans view time in a linear fashion, with a past, present and future. Future is what is referred to as destiny. Jill Mann observes in her essay, Chance and Destiny: “Destiny and providence are merely two different names given to the same thing, which is called providence when considered as a unity out of time, and destiny when it is manifested in the linear succession of events in time.” (Boitanni and Mann p.97) Boethius’ influence on Chaucer is explicitly clear when we look at some of the things that Philosophy says concerning time in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. “When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God’s understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things, whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the name the ancients gave it, Fate.” (Boethius p. 104) It is advantageous to point out that destiny and fate are synonymous. Boethius describes the nature of fate/destiny very well. Chaucer not only plays with both of these aspects of time, but it is as if he simply rephrases what Philosophy says, using the medium of storytelling.
II. PRAYERS AND APPEALS
3 In part three of The Knight’s Tale, Chaucer makes the relationship between providence and destiny tangible when he describes the main characters’ prayers immediately followed by the scene of angst in heaven between the gods. The prayers of Palamoun, Emelye and Arcite seem to be stressing these characters’ lack of foresight. Palamoun is particularly bewailing. Alas! I ne have no langage to telle Th’effectes ne the torments of myn helle; Myn herte may myne harmes nat biwreye; I am so confus that I can noght seye (2227-2230) It is as if Chaucer is preparing us for Palamoun’s appeal to Venus. Palamoun, who is only able to look at time in a linear fashion, asks Venus to use the power inherent to a providential view of time, which is only possessed by the gods. But mercy, lady bright, that knowest weele My thought, and seest what harmes that I feele, Considere al this, and rewe upon my sore, (2231-2233) These lines make it clear that Palamoun knows Venus is aware of his thoughts and all the tribulation he has endured. After he has finished praying, the ground begins to shake, which Palamoun perceives to be a positive answer to his prayer. What is most interesting to note is that this sign doesn’t come until after a brief delay in time. Any attempt to argue Chaucer is not playing with destiny, providence and time is, at this moment, foiled. For Palamoun does eventually receive that for which he has asked, but it is only after he has waited for a period of time, just as Venus sends a sign after a pause. Not only does Chaucer make this clever analogy refer to the timeframe that is to come, but it also has another possible meaning. At this point in the reader’s timeframe, the gods have not had their argument at the end of part three. Thus, the outcome of the story has not yet been determined by Saturn. How could Venus use this symbolic delay in the answering of Palamoun’s prayer if the gods hadn’t decided that Palamoun would have to wait for his prayer to be answered? Again, this is Chaucer playing with the elements of time. It is analogous to an optical illusion of something in a picture reaching out over the frame into the real world. The reader does not know what this delay means, but the gods do. Thus, it could be argued that this delay in time is Chaucer reasserting the fact that divinity sees the entirety of time all at once. Emelye and Arcite also receive signs from their patron deities. Both of their signs seem to lead us into thinking that both Palamoun and Arcite’s prayers will be answered. Emelye prays for deliverance from the situation, but is told that she will marry one of the two men. Arcite actually hears a voice
4 pronounce “victory” after he prays. It is as if Chaucer is trying to emphasize the impossibility of the situation when viewed from a human, linear standpoint. What is impossible for man, is possible for God, as Chaucer shows us in the next scene. Immediately following Arcite’s prayer, Chaucer switches over to the providential aspect of time with the argument of the gods at the end of part three. We have already established that deities view time all at once. This does not necessarily make the gods omnipotent, because they have to compete with each other. Thus, there is a great dispute over which god will get his or her way in the end. Jupiter cannot settle the debate between Mars and Venus. The interesting thing is that Chaucer ingeniously continues his play on the undercurrent of time by making Saturn the god who takes control of the situation. In Greek mythology, Saturn’s name was Chronos (the Greek word for time), which influenced the fact that he was the god of time for the Romans. Chaucer stresses that the lengthy period of Saturn’s orbit gives him his power and wisdom and he is depicted as icy and aged. We see Saturn console Venus in a way that makes him seem analogous to Philosophy in Boethius. Al be ye noght of o complexioun, That causeth al day swich division I am thin ayel, redy at thy wille; Weep now namore, I wol thy lust fulfille. (2475-2478) Though he promises to deliver Venus from her anxiety, Saturn brags of all the destruction he has caused. Myn is the ruine of the hye halles, The falling of the toures and of the walles Upon the mynour or the carpenter. I slow Sampsoun, shakinge the piler; And myne be the maladyes colde, The derke treasons, and the castes olde My looking is the fader of pestilence. In this way, Saturn is analogous to the character Fortune in Boethius. Fortune is known for being untrustworthy in that she brings men up one day and brings destruction on them the next. Boethius makes the famous analogy of “Fortune’s Wheel” to illustrate how she continually raises and lowers the lives of men. The analogy that Chaucer seems to draw here with Saturn is worth noting. Since it is safe to portray Saturn as the embodiment of time, it seems that Chaucer is saying that time can also do the same things as Fortune. Time might see someone who is leading a content life be brought to their lowest point just as what happened to Arcite and Palamoun when they were imprisoned. This theme of people being exalted
5 and then having their hopes dashed is recurrent through The Knight’s Tale. Through this pattern, we see another instance of Boethius influencing The Knight’s Tale. Another similarity worth studying is the fact that the prayers of the main characters are analogous to Boethius’ appeals to Philosophy. Boethius has been through the mill, as is the case with Arcite and Palamoun, and he begs Philosophy for an explanation of his fall from society and for an escape from the mental agony of injustice. The way in which Philosophy answers his questions and goes on to ask her own, invokes a somewhat complex philosophical theory, but the basis of this issue of injustice leads to the question of where free will and chance fit into this view of providence and destiny.
III. FORTUNE AND FREE WILL The existence of chance in the Consolation of Philosophy is represented by the female figure, Fortune. It is the cruel dealings of Fortune that Boethius agonizes over at the beginning of the book. The question might be asked, what exactly is the role of fortune in a world of destiny? How can Chaucer and Boethius say they believe in destiny while, at the same time, making chance an integral part of their storytelling. Contrary to common opinion, fortune and destiny do not contradict each other in the world of Chaucer and Boethius. The example used in The Consolation of Philosophy is that of a man who finds a buried treasure in a field. To the human observer, it would seem that the man who found the treasure had a stroke of good luck. When we are able to look at all the events leading up to his discovery, such as someone else burying the treasure, we can see Fortune at work. As mentioned above, Saturn seems to play a similar role to Fortune’s. The fact that Boethius supports the idea that God controls creation and Fortune controls the lives of men is clear from reading Philosophy’s questioning: ‘Do you believe that this life consists of haphazard and chance events, or do you think it is governed by some rational principle?’ ‘I could never believe that events of such regularity are due to the haphazards of chance. In fact I know that God the Creator watches over His creation. The day will never come that sees me abandon the truth of this belief.’ ‘It is true,’ she said, ‘and indeed it is the very thing you were singing of just now when you were deploring the fact that only mankind is outside God’s care. (p. 19) We can clearly see that Boethius is convinced of the existence of a higher plan. Since he believes mankind to be beyond the control of this plan, this leaves room for pure chance in the form of Fortune.
6 Chaucer also emphasizes chance in his other works, especially in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde. It can be convincingly argued that the inception of Troilus and Criseyde’s relationship relies on pure chance. Though Pandarus serves as somewhat of a uniting force, things are ultimately out of his control and he is a tool of Fortune just as in the example of the man finding buried treasure. Once again, Jill Mann portrays this first meeting succinctly: I have said that this first encounter is dictated by nothing more than chance; Chaucer makes this clear by using the adjective ‘happy’ (‘his happy day’: 621), whose root is the noun ‘hap’, meaning ‘chance’. As Chaucer presents it, Troilus’s riding past the window at that particular moment is nothing more than ‘a piece of good luck.’ (Boitanni & Mann p. 95) Thus, we can see that Chaucer also gives Fortune a prominent role in the lives of many of his characters. Not only does Fortune play a central role in Chaucer’s narrative, but her wheel is a recurring theme throughout The Knight’s Tale and many comparisons can consequently be made to The Consolation of Philosophy. Arcite and Palamoun both find themselves in prison in the early parts of the story, just as Boethius starts out not only in a physical prison, but in a mental one as well. Then, Boethius, Arcite and Palamoun all have a moment of revelation when Boethius recognizes Philosophy and Arcite and Palamoun are enamored (their eyes are opened) to the beauty of Emelye as the wheel takes a turn upward. Arcite is promised victory, but falls to his inescapable destiny, and Palamoun is initially defeated, but rises from the ashes to receive Emelye, the highly desired prize. One could find many other similarities between the two works, but this is not what we have set out to do. Taking all of these observations about Fortune into consideration, it is enjoyable to see how Chaucer seems to play with the concept of pure chance. Looking at the surface of The Knight’s Tale, there are events such as Arcite’s horse being scared after the tournament that seem like pure chance. Upon closer inspection, we see that the relationship between chance occurrences and their causes in The Knight’s Tale is a unique one. The fact that Saturn is a planet, not a god, has much to do with this. Even though Saturn is not a deity, he still has power over human destiny. Since Chaucer is indebted to Boethius and since God is supposed to have no control over mankind, it is logical that Saturn can do this because he is not as elevated as God, but rather just a planet. Whatever the case, this section of The Knight’s Tale has somewhat of an Oedipal feel. No matter how hard Arcite and his men fight, and no matter how close he gets to preventing Palamoun from getting Emelye, he will not succeed. Since Chaucer reveals Saturn’s plan at the end of part three, before the tournament takes place, it is as if he wants us to get this sense of inevitability that comes
7 with the concept of destiny. Chaucer breaks the mold of keeping the reader’s view a strictly linear one, while at the same time making the reader uncertain as to how things will play out to fulfill Saturn’s promise. In other words, Chaucer shows us what is determined to happen by providence, but at the same time, he ingeniously constructs the narrative so that we can watch the outcome through the linear view of the characters. What maketh this but Jupiter the king, That is prince and cause of alle thing,
IV. THESUES’ FINAL SPEECH Lastly, we will take a look at Thesues’ speech on time at the end of The Knight’s Tale. Theseus’s role throughout the narrative constitutes an acknowledgement of the powers of chance and an illustration of readiness to adapt to it. (Mann) Seeing both Emelye and god from the prison; god = goodness and happiness The web of allegory that is woven by Boethius and made even more tangled by Chaucer is a fascinating one to explore.
8 Works Cited The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Paul Strohm, Ardis Butterfield, David Wallace, et al., Edited by Piero Boitani and Jill Mann. Cambridge University Press. 2003. The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius, Translated by Victor Watts. Penguin Books, New York. 1999. The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 2005.