Part nineteen: l.899 'The queen thanketh' - l.949 'But that tale is nat'

Synopsis of l.899-951

The first contract and the quest begins

The Queen makes a contract with the rapist. His life will be spared if in twelve months and a day he can return to her with the answer to the question – ‘What is it that women most desire?' The Knight is downcast initially, but then accepts the contract which may spare his life and sets out in search of the answer. 

The Knight has difficulty finding a single answer to his question. There seems to be no agreement among women. The answers range widely and include wealth, honour, fun, flattery, attention, good sex, lack of criticism, and praise for discretion, purity and wisdom. 

Commentary on l.899-l.951

l.909 A twelf-month and a day: The traditional length of Romance quests, which meant that judgement would be given on exactly the same day as the challenge was issued.

l.912 Thy body for to yelden: (to return your body). Notice how the Knight's body is the focus of this first contract with the Queen. It is also central to the second contract that he will make later with the Old Woman – he must give her his body in marriage. There is an ironic justice about this since the rape was a crime of the body.

l.914 he may nat do al as hym liketh: An ironic reversal of the knight's previous behaviour.

l.917 as God wolde hym purveye: The arrogant Knight is now dependent on the provision of God for his needs.

l.924 Two creatures accordynge in-feere: Chaucer punctures the urgency of the Knight's quest with a humorous comment about women's inability to agree on anything.

l. 925-44 … somme seyden lust abedde … : The character of the Wife is clearly revealed in her narration. From Chaucer's account of the Wife in The General Prologue and from her Prologue we know that the Wife rejoiced in female dominance, sex, lack of constraint, and control of money and possessions. 

l.949 that tale is nat worth a rake-stele: Chaucer makes the tale relevant to the Wife by allowing her asides and comments, e.g. her view of women who hold it a great delight to be considered as constant and discreet (line 945-9). She has her own view of this ‘delyt' (delight) - not worth a rake handle!

Investigating l.899-l.951

  • Identify the words and phrases that Chaucer uses to reveal the power of women in this part of the tale.
  • What do you find ironic about the nature of the quest that the Queen imposes on the Knight?
  • What is the effect of Chaucer's rhyming of ‘desyren' and ‘yren' (iron)?
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