Athens played host to a magnificent feast that day, and the beautiful May weather put everybody in such a joyful mood that they spent all of that Monday jousting, dancing and giving honour to love. But because they all had to rise early the next day to witness this great tournament, they did not stay up very late.
The next morning, as the sun rose, the whole of Athens rang to the clattering of horses and armour being readied in all the hostels. Knights made their way up to Theseus’s palace leading ponies and war horses and there you would have seen the arranging of strange and extravagant armour, fashioned skilfully by goldsmiths, by embroiderers and by those skilled in working steel; bright shields, helmets and horse trappings, coats of chain mail, coats of arms, lords draped with their heraldic emblems sitting on war horses, knights following them, squires in attendance riveting lances and buckling on helmets, fitting straps to shields, lacing leather thongs; wherever there was a job to do there was somebody doing it. No one was standing idly about. Sweating horses gnawed on their bits, armourers sped to and fro with their hammers and files, yeomen walked about and the common people also with short staves, crowding the place. Pipes rang out, drums, trumpets and blood-curdling clarions.
The palace was full of people – groups of three here, ten there, discussing which of these two Theban knights had the best chance of victory. Some said one thing, some another. Some liked the look of the warrior with the black beard, others liked the one with a bald head or one with a huge neck – he looked grim and ready for a fight. Another's battle axe weighed twenty pounds! The hall was full of opinion, full of speculation, which continued long after the sun had begun to climb into the sky.
Theseus, who had been awoken by all this noise, chose to remain in his private chambers until the two honoured Theban knights had arrived at his palace. He sat on a balcony, dressed like a god on a throne. Soon the people pressed forwards to see him and to pay him due reverence, and also to hear what he had to say. A herald on top of a scaffold shouted for quiet and immediately the noise of the crowd was hushed. When the herald saw that everybody was waiting expectantly, he read out a pronouncement that Theseus had given him to make.
‘Our lord,' he cried out, 'through his great wisdom, has decided that it will be a great shame if the ensuing battle is to be fought in the manner of all-out war. Therefore, to keep casualties to a minimum, he will modify the original terms of the contest. No man, therefore, upon pain of death, shall carry any projectiles, any poleaxes or stabbing knives onto the tournament field, or cause any of these to be brought onto it, and no short swords may be used either. Every man will ride only once against his opponent, carrying a sharpened lance, and he may afterwards defend himself on foot with his sword if need be. Any knight who is stricken shall be carried off the field, his life spared, and taken to a stake that shall be set up for each side, and there he must stay. If it comes about that the principal adversary on either side is captured or killed, then the tournament will be deemed to have been decided and will end. God speed you all. Now go and give each other hell! Do whatever you want to do with long swords and maces. This is the will of Theseus.’
With this, a huge cheer rang out. 'God save such a worthy lord, who wishes to see no great loss of life,' they all cried merrily.
Trumpets sounded and everybody obediently made their way through Athens, which was adorned with flags of cloth-of-gold, towards the arena where the tournament was to take place. Theseus fully looked the part as he rode along in magnificence and splendour, flanked on either side by Palamon and Arcite. Behind him rode the queen and Emily. Behind them, another company and so on and so forth, in descending order of status. They all left the city and soon arrived at the great arena. It was not yet nine o’clock in the morning when Theseus sat down on a seat on a high platform with Hippolyte and Emily, and all the other noble ladies who were with them. Then everybody else scrambled for seats.
Arcite appeared at the western gate, below the temple of Mars, with his hundred knights, bearing a red banner. At the same moment, Palamon appeared at the eastern gate beneath the temple of Venus, with his hundred knights, boldly bearing a white banner. One could search through the whole world and not find a more evenly-balanced contest. It was impossible to determine which side had the advantage over the other, neither in age nor in fighting ability nor in status nor in anything else. Both sides formed up. When the rolls were called and it could be seen that both sides had counted their numbers honestly, the gates were shut and the cry went out: ‘Now do your duty, you proud young knights!’
The heralds withdrew. Trumpets and clarions rang out. Every knight put his lance into its rest with purposeful resolve, dug spurs into his horse’s sides and everybody in the arena was treated to the marvellous spectacle of accomplished warriors urging war horses into a gallop, with fine skill. What more is there to say?
Breastbones jarred on impact as lances shattered against shields or rose twenty feet into the air, swords were drawn, shining like silver, helmets were hacked at and smashed to pieces. Blood burst out in red streams. Warriors fought their way through a wall of knights only to have their bones broken with blows from a mighty mace, horses stumbled and fell, bringing everything crashing down around them, knights rolled into a ball under the horses’ hooves or stood and jabbed with the broken stumps of their lances, bringing down other knights. Some were wounded and, bitterly protesting, taken to the stake were they could take no further part in the action. Now and again, Theseus called a halt to allow them all to drink, if they wished, and to rest for a moment.
Many times Palamon and Arcite meet one another in combat and exchange some fearsome blows. No tiger looking angrily for her stolen, new-born cubs has ever been more tenacious in the hunt than Arcite, as he rages with jealousy against Palamon; no lion, mad with hunger or hunted by men, has ever been more hungry for blood than Palamon, who is desperate to see Arcite slain. Each has unhorsed the other. Jealous blows rain down upon both their helmets. Both have blood running down their sides.
But everything has an end, and before the sun drew into the west, King Emetreus caught hold of Palamon as he fought with Arcite and drove his sword deep into his flesh. Twenty knights then seized Palamon, against his will, and carried him off to the stake. During a rescue attempt, King Ligurge was unhorsed and King Emetreus, for all his strength, was toppled a sword’s length from his horse by Palamon, but to no avail. Palamon was taken to the stake. His brave heart was not enough. He had no other choice but to remain captured, both from physical compulsion and by the terms of the contest.
Who cries out in misery now but woeful Palamon? He cannot re-join the battle. When Theseus saw what had happened he stood and cried: ‘No more! It is finished! I give my impartial judgement that Arcite of Thebes shall have Emily. He has won her fairly on the field of battle.’
The roar of the crowd rose to a crescendo of cheering and whooping until it seemed that the whole arena would collapse from the noise.
What can fair Venus do now? What does she say? She weeps at the humiliation of it all, until her tears fall upon the field where the fighting has now ended.
‘I am ashamed,’ she confides.
‘Be still, my daughter,’ replies Saturn. ‘Mars has had his way and his knight has got what he wants. But you will shortly be comforted, I shall stake my head on it.’
Blaring trumpets, the raucous noise of singing and the shouts and cries of heralds sound out joyfully in celebration of Arcite’s victory. But listen, pause for a moment, for a miracle is about to unfold. Arcite has taken off his helmet in order to show his jubilant face and is riding his warhorse across the entire breadth of the arena, his head turned in adoration towards Emily. She returns his gaze in a friendly way (for women, in general, can swiftly accommodate themselves to any turn of fortune) and her smile warms his heart. But suddenly, out of the ground rises an infernal fury, sent by Pluto at the request of Saturn.
Arcite’s horse reared in terror, tried to turn and in doing so stumbled and staggered sideways. Before he could do anything, Arcite was flung out of the saddle onto the ground. He landed head first and lay as though he was dead, his chest ruptured by the saddle where his horse’s weight had caught him. He lay there as black as coal, his face was so bruised.
Quickly, he was carried away with immense grief and concern to Theseus’s palace, where they carefully removed his armour and took him swiftly to a comfortable bed. He was still conscious and able to speak, and called continually for Emily.
Theseus made his way back to Athens, followed by a great host, in splendour and great solemnity; but despite this unfortunate accident, he did not want proceedings to lose their element of festival. Men were of the opinion that Arcite would live and that he should fully recover. And furthermore, with equal pleasure it was announced that nobody had died during the tournament, although there were many who had been injured and one in particular who had received a lance right through his breastbone. Ointments, as well as objects of mystery and words of magic were applied to wounds and to broken bones. Infusions of herbs, and especially sage, were prepared and drunk, for every knight wished to retain the use of his limbs.
Theseus comforted and honoured the foreign knights and made merry with them all until long into the night. There was no ill-feeling or malice now, it was all viewed simply as a jousting contest, where falling off your horse is just a part of the game, as is being led away from the fighting against your will by twenty knights and being carried head, foot and toe and having your horse chased away with sticks by yeomen and boys, and even this is not considered a disgrace. Duke Theseus requested that there should be an end to all hostilities and gave every knight a gift that befitted his status. The feast lasted for three days, then Theseus escorted all his guests out of Athens and they all took the shortest route home. There was nothing to hear but: ‘Farewell! Have a good day!’
But I shall now turn to Palamon and Arcite. Arcite’s chest began to swell as the underlying injury grew worse. Despite the attention of physicians, his blood became infected and festered in his body, such that neither blood-letting nor herbal medicines had any effect. Their expulsive properties were not enough to drain the poison. The vesicles in his lungs began to fill with fluid and every muscle in his chest became bloated with puss and corruption. Neither drugs to induce vomiting nor laxatives to force poisons out from the other end had any effect. This region of his body was nearly destroyed and all natural healing had abandoned it; and where nature has given up, one can only say: ‘Farewell!’ and carry the man to a church. Recognising that he was going to die, Arcite sent for Emily, and his cousin Palamon.
‘It is impossible,' said Arcite, bravely, 'to describe the sadness that I feel. My lady, you whom I love the most, I can say nothing except that I shall serve you even in death. Alas, the agony, the heartache that I have suffered because of you, for so many years. Alas, my death! My Emily, we must now part, queen of my heart, my wife, my destroyer. What is this world? What does a man hope to find, now with his love, now alone in his cold grave without any company? Farewell my sweet foe, my Emily. Hold me gently in your arms, for his love, he who died for us, and listen to me.
‘I have fought with my cousin Palamon for a long while, because of jealousy over you, but may Jupiter guide me to use all honesty when I speak about the knighthood, the wisdom, humility, stature and honour of one who is more worthy to be loved by you than anybody else in this world, and that is Palamon, who adores you and will do so for the rest of his life. If ever you choose to marry, don’t forget Palamon.’
Then his speech began to fail him and a deathly cold rose from his feet into his chest until it overcame him, his arms went limp and a last flicker of sorrow and regret passed across his eyes before they went dim and he stopped breathing.
Arcite's spirit changed its habitation and went to somewhere that I have never been, I could not tell you where, therefore I shall say no more. I am no theologian. There is nothing mentioned about souls in this story, nor have I any inclination to relate the opinions of those who do speculate upon where they go. Arcite is cold, may Mars guide his soul, and now I will speak of Emily.
Emily screamed and Palamon howled. Theseus took his sister-in-law in his arms and led her away from Arcite's dead body. But what purpose will it serve if I take time to tell you how Emily wept night and day for Arcite? Wives endure such sorrow when they lose their husbands. Often, they either weep all the time or worse still, fall into such a deep depression that at last they die as well.
Everybody in the city, young and old, felt an immense sadness over the death of this Theban and everybody wept. So great a show of grief was not seen even when Hector was brought back into Troy, freshly-slain. Alas, such scratching of cheeks and tearing of hair!
No one could console Theseus except for his father Aegeus, who knew this world’s transmutations, as he had seen it change over the years – joy after woe and woe after joy. He explained to his son: ‘Just as no man has ever died,’ he said, ‘who has not lived on this Earth at least for a while, so in the same way, no man has ever lived, who has not died at some time. This world is nothing but a sorrowful thoroughfare and we are all pilgrims, travelling to and fro. Death is an end of every worldly trouble.’ And he said a lot more to this effect as well, in order to urge the people, wisely, to moderate their grief and to be reassured.
Theseus, with great care and energy, turned his attention to determining where Arcite’s tomb should be built, so that it would receive due honour. At last he decided that it would be appropriate to put it where Arcite and Palamon had first fought one another for Emily’s love, in that green woodland clearing where Arcite had first given expression to the full fire of his passion. He thought that it would be right to build the funeral pyre there, so the command went out to hack and hew the ancient oaks and to gather the wood into bundles for burning. Officers ran swiftly to their horses to see that this was done. Theseus then had cloth-of-gold spread over a bier, the finest that he had, clad Arcite’s body in the same costly material, put white gloves on his hands, placed a crown of green laurel upon his head and placed a sharp, bright sword in his hand. He left Arcite’s face uncovered and wept at the sight of him lying there. And so that everybody could pay their respects, as soon as it was daylight, Theseus had Arcite’s body brought into the main hall of his palace. The sounds of weeping and lamentation soon became deafening. Palamon entered, with his young, wispy beard and his long hair covered in ashes, dressed in black clothes, tear-stained, followed by Emily who wept more loudly that anyone.
In order that the funeral should bring the greatest honour to Arcite’s memory, Theseus next instructed that three horses should be brought, clad in shining steel and draped in Arcite’s heraldic arms. Upon each of these great, white horses sat a knight, one bearing Arcite’s shield, another bearing his lance high in the air and a third his bow, a gold case with his arrows and everything else pertaining to archery fitted out in gold. Then, Arcite’s bier was carried upon the shoulders of some of Theseus’s noblest knights, who made their way slowly forwards with measured pace and red, tear-stained eyes along the main street of Athens, which was adorned with black flags hanging high, then out towards the woodland and the clearing. On the right side of the bier walked old Aegeas, on the other side, his son Theseus, carrying golden vessels filled with milk and honey, blood and wine. Palamon followed behind with a great company, then Emily, who carried the fire, as was the custom at the time, in order to perform the crucial act.
The green boughs lying at the top of the pile of wood for the fire seemed to touch heaven. No expense had been spared and it was more than a hundred feet wide at the base. Cartloads of straw had first been placed onto the ground. But exactly how the bonfire was then built up and the names of all the trees used to make it, such as oak, fir, birch and aspen, alder, holm oak and poplar, willow, elm, plane and ash, box wood, chestnut, lime and laurel, maple, thorn, beech, hazel and yew, or how they were all felled, you shall not get from me. Nor shall I describe how the nymphs and fawns were all scampering about, having had their peace, contentment and homes destroyed by the woodman’s axe, nor how the birds and animals had all fled in fear when their nests and burrows were obliterated, nor how aghast was the ground to see the sunlight for the first time in decades when the trees that had been growing there were brutally cut down, nor how the bonfire was laid first with straw, then with dry sticks split into three, then with green branches, then with cloth-of-gold and gemstones, garlands of flowers, myrrh and incense to perfume the air, nor how Arcite lay amongst all of this, nor the fine clothes and objects that covered and surrounded him, nor how Emily, as was the custom, placed the fire that she had been carrying into the pyre, nor now she fainted when men fanned the flames into a conflagration.
I shall not tell you what she said either, nor what she thought, nor what jewels were thrown into the fire as it burned ever more fiercely, nor how some threw their shields into the conflagration, some their spears, some the very clothes that they were wearing, cups full of wine, milk and blood, thrown into a fire that now burned uncontrollably, nor how these Greeks in a huge company rode anticlockwise three times around the flames, roaring with their voices and clashing their spears together, nor the three shouts that the ladies cried out, nor how Emily was then led home heartbroken, nor how Arcite is now burnt to cold ashes.
The funeral vigil lasted all night, but I will not describe the funeral games that were performed the next day, nor who it was who wrestled best, naked and covered in oil, nor who won the contests, nor who lost them, nor how they all returned to Athens when the games were over. I will get quickly to the point of my story and bring it to a close.
Over the years, the passage of time lessened the grief and the tears. By general agreement, a parliament was called by the Greeks in Athens, to discuss certain issues. One of the main topics for discussion was the idea of forming alliances with other countries and city states and bringing Thebes under Athens’ direct control. To this end, Theseus sent for Palamon. And although he had no idea why he was being summoned, and still wearing black, Palamon dutifully arrived in Athens. Then Theseus sent for Emily.
When they were all assembled, and a hush had descended, Theseus waited for a moment, let the sadness show in his eyes, sighed, and then said:
‘The prime mover of the heavens, when he first fashioned the love that binds the world, knowingly changed the universe, for with that beautiful chain of love he bound together the fire, the water, the air and the land, so strongly that they could not flee from one another. This same prince and prime mover established a predetermined duration to everything that lives in this wretched world, and beyond these days it may not extend, although a man may certainly succeed in shortening his days, as experience shows. But let me explain what I mean.
'People may infer from these laws that the prime mover is constant and eternal. Men may understand as well, unless they are fools, that every part derives from his whole. For nature has not been created out of a part of something, or only a portion of it, but from a thing which is whole and perfect and unchanging, which has descended until it has become corruptible. Therefore, through his generous wisdom, he has so arranged matters that all the different kinds of things and their evolving histories shall endure through succession, and not be everlasting. The truth of this needs only to be observed. The oak, that takes such a long time to grow from an acorn into a tree and has such a long life, is wasted and lifeless at the end. Even the paving stones under our feet are slowly cracked and broken and trampled into dust. Rivers dry up. Great cities flourish and then lie in ruins. Everything has an end, and men and women are the same. They must necessarily die, either in their youth or in their old age. This applies to a king as well as a page. Some will die in their beds, others in the sea, some out in the open fields. There’s nothing we can do about it. We all go the same way in the end. Everything must die.
‘Who can possibly be responsible for all this but Jupiter, the king, prince and ultimate cause of all things? He returns everything back into his own marvellous fountainhead from which it was derived, and there is no creature on Earth who can gain anything by struggling against this. So it is wise, I think, to make a virtue out of necessity, to accept in good part what we cannot escape from and which is coming to us all; for whoever complains is a fool, and a rebel to the prime mover of everything. Certainly, a man derives most honour when he dies in the flower of his excellence and can be sure of his good name. He has done no dishonour to his friend, nor to himself, and his friend should be glad that his death has taken place under these happy circumstances, rather than that he has died an old, forgotten nobody. It is better, if you hope for fame, to die when your reputation is at its zenith. To argue against this is just obstinacy.
'So why do we complain and feel sad when good Arcite, who was the flower of chivalry, departs with such great honour from the foul prison of this life? Why does his cousin here still wear black and grieve for him? And why does his wife?
'Would Arcite thank them? No, God knows, those who think so offend both his soul and themselves as well, and yet they persist in this. So what can I say in conclusion, other than that, after sorrow we should he merry, and thank Jupiter for all his grace. Before we all depart, therefore, I propose that out of two sorrows we make one perfect joy. The greatest sadness can be a starting point for healing and a new beginning.
‘Sister-in-law,’ said Theseus. ‘I am entirely of the opinion, and in agreement with the advice of my parliament, that Palamon, your gentle knight, who adores you with all his heart and all his strength, and has done so since he first set eyes upon you, shall have your pity and your compassion and that you will take him to be your husband. Give me your hand, for this is our agreement. Show us your feminine pity. He is a king’s nephew, by God! But even if he was a poor bachelor knight, since he has loved you for so many years and been through so much pain because of you, it would be right for you to show mercy upon him now, for mercy outweighs all other virtues.’
Then Theseus turned to Palamon: ‘I don’t believe I need to use a great many words in order for you to agree to this. Come here, and take your lady by the hand.’
Palamon and Emily were married at once, in the presence of all the nobility of Athens, with beautiful music, song and all the joy in the world.
May God, who made this world, send Palamon his love, for he has surely earned it. Palamon is now in bliss and contentment. He loves Emily so tenderly and serves her so courteously that there is never any word of jealousy between the two of them, nor any discord at all.
So ends the story of Palamon and Emily. God save this fair company. Amen!
Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Knight's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2016