The portrait of the knight in The General Prologue

Refer to the portrait of the knight in The General Prologue and comment upon how it illustrates Chaucer's approach in introducing us to other character. In your answer you should consider the following aspects:

  • the physical and moral impression of the knight
  • ways in which that impression is shaped
  • use of historical and social background

Chaucer - both poet and pilgrim- introduce us to the knight 1st for the sake of hierarchy; with C.the pilgrim it is because of social and cultural proprieties, with C the poet it is to provide the reader with a yardstick by which to measure the worth - or even worthiness(!) of the other characters.

The knight is introduced as "worthy". This is the 1st usage of "worthy" within TGP, & at this point it is totally without irony; the knight really is all that he is made out to be. He is, in fact, an idealised figure; no real knight could have fought at all the actual battles listed in his CV. We are meant to see him as a model of what a knight should be - the gold standard of knighthood. Later in TGP the word "worthy" will be undermined and devalued until it cannot be read without an awareness of ironic potential, but not yet. Furthermore the word, or derivatives of it, appears no fewer than 5 times in the 75 lines dedicated to the knight. This repetition is intended to have a cumulative effect, convincing us of the truth of the judgement.

The vocabulary which surrounds the knight is all heavily loaded with moral worth; we read that he

"loved chivalrie
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie",

that he was "ever honoured for his worthiness", that he was respected everywhere, even "in hethenesse"; we are told that "everemoore he hadde a sovereyne prys", and that he was wise and modest -

"of his porte as meeke as is a maide".

The quadruple negative used to tell us that

"He nevere yet no villeynie ne saide
In al his lif unto no manner wight"

serves to reinforce his virtue; this technique of cumulative repetition is not uncommon in TGP.

He has achieved both internal worth and external approbation. He has, in fact, got it all:

"He was a verray parfit, gentil knight."

The knight's behaviour further proves him to be a mediaeval, knightly super hero; apart from fighting "in his lordes werre" an inconceivable number of times, he has proven his right standing with God by being victorious against Moslem enemies three times in single combat. The belief at that time was that God fought on the side of the right, and so victory in single combat was a sure sign of God's favour.

The physical details given of the knight are few - 4 lines out of his total 75 - and this fits with Chaucer's technique; we usually find in TGP that the amount of attention paid to a character's dress and appearance is in inverse proportion to his or her moral worth. Thus by saying little about the knight's appearance, Chaucer tells us not only what these few details reveal but also that there are more important things about this man to focus on than what he looks like and what he wears.

What the details given themselves tell us is that the knight is not a vain man, or indee at all concerned with his appearance; his clothes are serviceable "but he was nat gay". His tunic is dirty -

"Al bismotered with his habergeon"

because he has come straight from landing at port to go on pilgrimage, without going home to change. This indicates either a tremendous level of devotion and spirituality or, perhaps, a massive level of guilt for deeds done whilst on crusade. I suspect the former, since Chaucer has been at such pains to paint the knight as a paragon of all the virtues.

The knight pays more attention to the quality of his horse than to his clothes, and this is appropriate in a professional man; a knight's horse was a weapon in itself, one of the chief tools of his trade. A well trained destrier , or war horse, was immensely valuable both financially and in terms of its owner's safety and success on the field of battle. As well as admiring the knight because he IS a knight - remember that Chaucer the pilgrim was a sucker for status - Chaucer the pilgrim also admires his professional expertise, another C. the pilgrim trait.

The portrait of the knight is not only revelatory of the knight himself but also of Chaucer the poet's methods and techniques and of some of the historical context of the writing.