The Knight’s Paradox: Who Hath the Worse? 

The Knight’s Paradox: Who Hath the Worse? 

Stafford Wood 
Literature Tutorial 
Spring 2024 

“The Knight’s Tale,” the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, concerns two Theban prisoners serving life sentences who instantly fall in love with Emelye, the young sister of the Quene Ipolia when they see her from their cell. As I explore this tale, I will follow the knight’s lead in not questioning whether one can fall in love at first sight and focus on the pain of unrequited love. In telling the tale, the knight speaks a seemingly rhetorical question to end the first section at lines 489-494: 

Yow lovers axe I now this questioun.  

Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun? 

That oon may seen his lady day by day,  

But in prison he moot dwelle alway. 

Tat other wer him list may ryde or go, 

But seen his lady shal he nevere mo. 

While this question may seem like just an aside and unimportant to the reader, considering it closely will offer us a deeper understanding of love, the pain of unrequited love and how our own choices contribute to the value of the love we offer. More specifically, the question of “who hath the worse?” leads us to consider whether love is of more value to both lover and beloved when it is accompanied by suffering as well as focus on how the beloved is perceived (as a goddess to worship or a woman to appreciate) creates a framework for love that changes the relationship.   

Suffering in unrequited love 

The two knights, Palamon and Arcite, are captured in Athens as nearly dead soldiers and sentenced to a life in prison in Thebes. They are of unclear relationship, possibly cousins, but definitely knights sworn to duty and honor in protection of Athens. Soon after they are imprisoned, Palamon spies Emelye, the Queen’s sister, and falls in love with her as if she were a goddess walking in the garden. He is struck instantly and becomes increasingly saddened each time he sees her with longing for his beloved. Arcite sees her as the most beautiful woman he has ever seen “And with that sighte hir beautee hurte him so, / That, if that Palamon was wounded sore, / Arcite is hurt as muche as he, or more” (256-257). The first pain that they share equally is attraction to the beloved, although in different forms, and the suffering of separation from her.  

Their pains of love are quickly heightened as they become rivals for her affection. They quarrel because Palamon feels that Arcite should not love her, and Arcite says that he has the right to do so. In addition to the love at first sight discussion, I will set aside who has the “right” to love her for another essay. Each man suffers for his love while in prison. They pine for her daily and the two men also suffer in fighting with one another. Arcite contextualizes it for Palamon as if they were animals: “We stryve as dide the houndes for the boon (318). The knight describes how it was not just a one-time argument:  “They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon;” (319-320). The second pain that they share is in their fighting with one another. With no way to express their love for Emelye, fighting with one another becomes the only action they can take to expend the pent up energy inside them. The fighting is described more than the loving once the argument begins and then for several lines, including “Greet was the stryf and long bitwise hem tweye,” (329-330). 

While they are in prison in a foreign land, this comes to feel like a stable way of living to them. They come to believe that this is the way things will be forever. Arcite describes this seemingly eternal plight with a summary: “Here in this prisoun mote we endure, / and everich of us take his aventure” (327-328). The situation does change as Arcite’s life sentence is commuted to exile and, with this change in status, each knight now takes his own adventure, rich with its own suffering to be compared instead of shared.   

Once they are at odds over the woman, Theseus is petitioned to release Arcite. He does and exiles the knight from Athens, free to go wherever he pleases and return to Thebes yet unable to see his beloved. Palamon will stay in prison forever, separated from Emelye in life, but still able to see her daily.  

At this point, the two men still live with unrequited love, a hell in itself, but their paths of pain now deviate into two different kinds of pain. One must stay in prison seeing Emelye daily and the other can never see her again. 

Who hath the worse?  

Each of the young men will continue in unrequited love with Emelye, but in different fashions. Who hath the worse? I posit that this is not rhetorical and is a true question central to one theme of the tale. The themes of the story I embrace are (1) that our actions have consequences and (2) that our outlook affects our choices. 

At any given time in life, we have choices to make—whether to go or stay, to choose this college or that university, this major or that one, this job or that one, this husband or that wife.  In Arcite and Palamon, Chaucer offers us a view of that “If/Then” that we rarely get to see in our lives. With two men presumably similarly educated, with the same experience, nearly dead from the same battle, lying amongst the bodies of similar men, imprisoned together and in love with the same woman, he divides their fate by one course—one exiled, one imprisoned—and we get to see what happens to them as a result. It is a grand experiment in the consequences of our actions and the resolution of unrequited love.   

An alternative view is that the two men, similar in so many ways, still see the world differently. One sees a goddess and the other sees a woman. All else being virtually equal, they make different plans, have different fates, and the world drives them both to battle where one dies and one lives happily ever after.  

These two themes get united in one question—Who hath the worse? 

With the first part ending at the precise moment the knight asks the question, I believe we are meant to take some time considering it and finding an answer, if we can. In this, their third pain, each has his own suffering for us to examine. Why does it matter who has it worse? It may be that the man who suffers most deserves his love more. Are we meant to believe that suffering and love are always intertwined despite the circumstances of a particular situation. With unrequited love in both cases, they suffer, but who suffers more? Is it the man who continues in relationship but is held at bay? Or the man who cannot continue any sort of relationship with the woman however one-sided? We are challenged to consider these two situations as they are described and not, necessarily, for the second order thinking of what each life will entail. It is in what happens to each man’s suffering that the question can be resolved, or at least better understood. I will take each knight’s path individually to consider the character and weight of his suffering and, hopefully, weigh them with an answer to the knight’s question.   

Palamon: Imprisoned 

When Palamon first spies Emelye “therewithal he bleynte, and cryde, “A!” / As though he stongen were unto the herte” (220). She pains him on first sight and Arcite remarks that Palamon is “so pale and deedly” that he mistakes his lovesickness for offense or pain. In lines 237-242, Palamon describes his pain: 

But I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye 
into myn herte; that wol my bane be.  
The fairnesse of that lady that I see  
yond in the gardin romen to and fro,  
is cause of al my crying and my wo.  
I noot wher se be womman or goddesse. 

Why is it that seeing a woman so beautiful causes him pain? We often characterize love this way. This effect of pain and love being intertwined is echoed in the popular myth of Cupid’s arrow stinging the heart. When one is so affected by the sight of another he is drawn to, he physically feels stress in his cardiovascular system and actually feels the heart ache at not being able to act on this feeling of attraction.  

Right from the start, Palamon is experiencing the pain of longing, and the ability to view Emelye intensifies this longing daily. He sees her as Venus and cannot believe that the goddess has come into his view in the garden. She is like a goddess haunting him without addressing him, in sight, but not to be touched. 

Once Arcite has been banished, Palamon can love her in isolation. He will experience her daily achievements and activities, continuing to create new memories of her, but from a distance. It is unlikely he will see her displaying negative emotions, for instance angry, sad, lonely or frustrated, as he will only see her public persona. Like a divorced man, who continues to see his wife at school plays and birthday parties, he only sees her happy, without him. If he still loves her, he must suffer the pangs and arrows of her growth and development without him in her life. This feeling of isolation and attraction will continue in perpetuity.  

To be held in prison becomes the metaphor for boundaries that force someone not to act as he is inclined. Like a woman putting him in the modern “friendzone,” the relationship is literally defined that he may be close to her, but never touch her. One can imagine that Emelye has put Palamon in the “friend zone,” where his desire for her will never be fulfilled, but he can continue his love for her. This situation almost never resolves for the lover, as he does not extinguish his love into embers, the fuel never running out. Like a fire, he is allowed just enough oxygen and heat to keep it burning but never enough to burn the fire out completely. The love continues without progressing or retreating.  

If he is lucky, he will come to see her as a real person as she goes about her daily life, but it’s possible he will only see her when she knows she is being watched, and therefore, as graceful, polite and dignified as a princess should be. Over time, he will track her schedule and hyperfocus on each movement and action. She will become all the more real and Palamon will come to love her as a real woman in the way that Arcite first loved her. With each day, he will grow to love her more and continue to be separated from her.  

He will be imprisoned in isolation and unable to act on his attraction but will be in a constant state of closeness to his love. This tension does not cause him to fall out of love or push forward, but instead creates a constantly renewed stasis: love and suffering vacillating in the man’s heart.  

Thus, Palamon has it worse. 

It can be said that Palamon has it worse like the tormented in hell who are thirsty but cannot reach the water. His relationship with Emelye can change as he observes more of her behavior in the days ahead. This transformative nature of his opinion will put him on a rollercoaster of feelings—some days feeling more in love with her and some days feeling less. It is the variability of the relationship that will cause him to suffer as he layers in joy and ecstasy at seeing her with the pain of days when she does not venture into the garden.  

Even beyond how he responds to his lack of relationship with Emelye, he also dwells in prison perpetually and cannot make any choices for himself. His movements restrained, his view sustained, and his choices contained in a tiny box where he will live out his days, the monotony of existence is less likely to give him joy. 

Arcite: Exiled 

When the two men first fall for Emily, Arcite claims that his love is more real, telling Palamon, “thou wistest nat yet now / Whether she be a womman or goddesse! / Thyn is affeccioun of holinesse, / And myn is love, as to a creature;” (298). Arcite sees her immediately as a woman, not a goddess. His love to him is more real than Palamon’s because he knows her in reality, instead of as a vision. He suffers because he understands that even though he is a man and she a woman, and they still cannot be together.  

In the argument, he proclaims the old proverb that there are no rules when it comes to love, in my text translated as “All’s fair in love.” The original Middle English is more complex than this simple refrain exempting lovers from the law. In lines 302-305, Arcite says,  

I pose, that thou lovedest hir biforn;  
Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe,  
That ‘who shal yeve a lover any lawe?’ 

Under this banner, Arcite feels that the oath sworn by knights to support one another and follow the rules does not apply in cases of love. He believes he can remain an honorable knight while opposing another in his quest for love.  

Upon his exile, Arcite is free to go anywhere in the world, except near the woman he loves. Without contact with her and unable to follow her daily activities, he has nothing to hold onto save his memory of her. I imagine this to be like a widower remembering his beloved. As time goes on, one often forgets the worst parts of a person. His memory holds on to all the best parts of her and, as memories do, she becomes more beautiful, graceful and alluring in his mind. She can become more and more like a goddess. Arcite is likely to become more and more in love with the vision of Venus that Palamon first saw.  

Exile is a complicated punishment because it means that a life is saved and free to live as one chooses, but traditionally one is separated from a homeland. In this case, Arcite is free to return to his homeland, but it is not the place he wants to be. This challenge to what is a homeland creates a struggle when another place has everything you want, except the one you love, which promises death as a consequence of moving towards it. If your homeland is bereft of love, then it may not feel free to live there. Without love, life is not complete.  

Thus, Arcite’s life is incomplete as he can have everything except the one thing he wants—Emelye. She has become his homeland, so to be exiled from her has the same effect as being exiled from the place of birth or maturation. He is tortured by the ability to choose his fate. In lines 502-507, his suffering in exile is described in detail as a new permanent state:  

His sleep, his mete, his drink is him biraft,  
That lene he wex, and drye as is shaft.  
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde;  
His hewe falwe, and pale as asshen colde,  
And solitaire he was, and ever allone,  
And wailling al the night, making his mone. 

He creates a prison for himself by not moving on with his life without Emelye. Arcite suffers loneliness, solitude, feebleness, mania and melancholy and is unable to function away from his love. He feels like he will die without seeing her. In his dreams, he is told that if he goes to Athens, the end of his woe waits for him there. He decides to return to Athens expecting the punishment of death if he is discovered, but he believes it will be better than this life he has been living.   

He has the choice to return (as he does) and face the consequences of returning (namely death). With the freedom to choose, he must confront what is important to him in life. Without nutrition and sleep, he makes the choice to return because he must see his lady that “in hir presence, I recche nat to sterve,” (540).  

Thus, Arcite has it worse. 

Like Eve in the garden, the forbidden fruit becomes the only desire. Arcite has all the world accessible to him, including his home, and yet he obsesses over returning to Athens. His vision of Emelye dims from the real woman he saw to a vision of a goddess, every flaw forgotten, and every detail of beauty retained. He entreats the goddess Venus several times in exile to save him from this pain, and finally intwines Emelye with Venus when he cries out, “And venus sleeth me on that oother syde/ For jalousie and fere of hym” (473-4).   

He wanders without purpose, trying to find joy but unable to forget the one love he once beheld. Then, when he cannot stand life without her any longer, he goes against his exile, returning and eventually fights his best friend in a great battle that he wins only to be thrown from his horse and die. His fated sentence and each choice he makes leads to him finally winning Emelye’s hand, and yet he dies without her love.  

Arcite or Palamon: Who hath the worse? 

Arcite initially loved Emelye as a real woman, but with absence, he will come to see her as a goddess. Palamon initially loved her as Venus but may come to see her as a real woman. Each of them suffers for not having her in his life.  

In the first two pains, their initial love and subsequent quarreling, the men suffered equally. Separated on different paths in exile and in prison, each will come to see the woman as the other one does.  

This illustrates a paradox of unrequited love: namely that if you are around someone you worship, who does not return the affection, you are in prison. If you abandon your love to leave their town and see them no more, you are unmoored. Both paths offer suffering and sadness. Unrequited love causes misery whether you choose to remain close to the beloved or exile yourself to live without the one you love.  

Ironically, Arcite chooses his path to defy Thesus for need of Emelye and dies as a result. While this is not the question at the end of Part One, Arcite ultimately dies for Emelye, certainly a worse outcome than winning the battle, Emelye’s hand and presumably a long, happy life with her. If Arcite never returns, then Palamon would break out of prison, flee the city and has the same outcome as Arcite to lead a life of exile. He would not have the opportunity to fight to the death for Emelye’s hand and win it. So, Arcite’s choice to return impacts both men’s lives more than Palamon’s choice to escape prison.  

The knight does not resolve the question 

Now demeth as yow liste, ye that can,  

For I wol telle forth as I bigan. (495) 

The knight does not give us the answer to the question. In fact, he moves on in the story as if it were not necessary to decide. Yet, he brings our attention to the comparison for some reason. He invites us to consider “who hath the worse” so that we might make a judgement and defend our decision. One can even imagine the conversation that ensues after the knight ends his tale with considerations of each man’s pain continuing into the next day’s walk. Without this direct  question being asked, we may overlook the most interesting part of the tale and not compare the men at all or even note that so much is similar between them, save the two differences: outlook and method of suffering.  

If we believe that suffering is necessary for love, then deciding which has the worse suffering is important to understanding whether the correct man wins Emelye in the end. Yet, even if we do not claim that suffering is necessary to love, it is satisfying when suffering is rewarded, and we can recognize that the end of the tale is more triumphant if we believe that Palamon suffered more than Arcite. On the other hand, if we believe Arcite suffers more, his return to Athens makes more sense. Then, instead of criticizing Arcite’s return as a fool-hearty decision, we can have empathy for the suffering that provokes him action and, ultimately, face an early death.  

He posits that not all of us will be able to decide. Perhaps this is because we have never felt unrequited love in the first place, although most of us have suffered this curse.  

Or maybe because once we have been divided into the prisoner and the exiled, we cannot know the pain of the other. It may be impossible to know two paths at once to judge which is worse. 

The knight’s paradox  

While not a statement, precisely, the knight’s question is the essence of a paradox, a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that, when investigated or explained, may prove to be well founded or true. Our answers to the question are contradictory. The question itself seems absurd. But the premise of the question is still important. It matters that we explore “who hath the worse?”  

More importantly, the knight’s question is important in what we discover in our attempt to answer it. In doing so, we identify the differences between the men and see the picture from each side. We will see each on his own path, and despite being condemned to prison and exile, they still each make choices that extend their suffering. It is possible either man could have wearied of his unrequired love and moved on with other pursuits. Palamon could have chosen to stay in prison, suffering for want of Emelye. Arcite could have remained in exile and fallen in love with another woman. Upon meeting in the forest, they could have embraced and regarded their exploits as yet another adventure and gone off together to wage war somewhere else. Or, they could have returned to Thebes and lived to fight another day. None of this happens. Instead, knight’s question and the structure of the story push us to consider “who hath the worse?” 

Whoever seems to us that he has the worse, the other has an argument for the worse position. If we believe Palamon has it worse, then Arcite can refute the claim, as he dies unrequited in the end. If we believe Arcite has it worse, then Palamon can say that he lived with fewer choices in his fate, in prison unable to touch the love of his life. Palamon will always know that he did not win the love of his life but gained her as the remaining living knight. 

The knight has us focus on this question to analyze the suffering in prison or in exile. Perhaps, in the end, it does not matter who has it worse. If we were in either position, we might believe the other had it better. Is the knight encouraging us to recognize the perils of believing that “the grass is greener on the other side” and wishing for the other case in unrequited love? We cannot know what it is like to be in another situation, so we should face the one we are given. 

If we are faced with unrequited love, we know that suffering is ahead of us whether we choose prison or exile. Ultimately, if we exile ourselves but then return to our beloved, we may either win or lose in the end, something not possible if we choose to remain in exile.  

1200 1728 Stafford Wood
Start Typing