Fate and Fortune in the Canterbury Tales

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Fate and Fortune in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. This masterpiece is one of the greatest classics of English Literature, it was and continues to be still very popular. Many manuscripts survived and it was the first work to be printed by William Caxton. It is a story about pilgrims travelling together, who tell stories on their journey to Canterbury, to pay tribute to Saint Thomas Becket. As it is a collection of tales, it varies in genre (there is beast fables, romances, fabliaux, saints’ lives…), subject, mood, length (some tales are 80-page long whereas some are much shorter), form (in verse –several verse-form are also found- or in prose). For this reason it is possible to find many themes, major or minor, that occur in several tales: virtues, honour, chivalry, marriage, love, mastery, religion, magic… Among these themes, chance and fate is really repetitive. When you look in a dictionary for the definition of the word ‘fate’, you find it is explained as a power, that some people believe it causes and controls all events, so that you cannot change or control the way things happen. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often draws a personified Fortune, seen as a kind of goddess, who, with her wheel, controls everyone’s lives. Thus she is able to put someone on top one day, and the day after to make him or her fall from grace.

In this essay, we are going to deal with The Knight’s Tale, the Monk’s Tale and to a lower extend the Man of Law’s Tale. The Knight’s Tale comes from Boccaccio’s Teseida, and it accounts the story of two cousins, Arcite and Palamon, who fell in love with the same woman and who fight against each other to gain her. The Monk’s Tale is a collection of tragedies, telling the destiny and the bad ending of 19 famous figures. Among them, we find Lucifer, Hercules, Julius Caesar, Nero, Alexander the Conqueror… These stories come from several sources: from the Old Testament or the Christian tradition, from the classical history and myths, and from more contemporary stories. The Man of Law’s Tale is influenced by romance and saint’s live genres, and deals with the life of Custance, who despite her bad fortune, remains faithful to Christianity and gets a happy ending.

Fortune
Fortune comes from Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck who was very popular in the late Roman Empire, and whose fame continues thrtoughout the Middle Ages. She was the only alternative to a belief in God, and also a convenient figure to blame when one was not satisfied with his or her life. (Howard Patch “Chaucer and Lady Fortune” The Modern Language Review, Vol 22 No 4 (October 1927) pages 377-388 all subsequent references will be to this edition). Chaucer uses Boethius’s ideas from The Consolation of Philosophy, a work he translated. This book deals with a debate between Boethius, a Roman philosopher, disgraced and imprisoned, and the personified figure of Philosophy. Boethius complains about the injustice of human life and Fortune. Philosophy answers that all is a matter of perspective. (Introduction of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, edited by Jill Mann (London: Penguin, 2005) All subsequent references will be to this edition).

When they speak about the superior force that rules their lives, human beings use several words, the most common are, of course, fortune and luck. We can also find the nouns aventure, hap, cas, chance…

The personified Fortune is reputed to be changeable, cruel, and to like playing games on humans. The Monks opens his tale in saying “For certein, whan that Fortune list to flee / Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde” (The Monk’s Tale, 1995-96) People at that time believed Fortune was a kind of god, without limits and all-powerful. She likes to play with human’s lives, and her doing can never be foreseen, as shown in the Monk’s Tale “ for whan that Fortune list to glose / Thanne waiteth she hir...
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