Hello, this is Elizabeth, and I am here to tell you the story
of two knights who were best friends and cousins, but who then quarrelled over the love of a princess.
It was first told over 700 years ago by the English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, and it is the first story in his book known as The Canterbury Tales. In that version, it is known as the Knight’s Tale. But I am going to tell you this in the voice of the Princess, Emelye, and that’s why I’ve called this story Emelye’s tale. So now, let me hand you over to our heroine .
Before I tell you my story, you probably should know a little bit about who I am and where I come from. My name is Emelye, princess Emelye, and I grew up in the mountains of Greece, among the tribe of the Amazonian warriors. You may or may not know that there is one thing that makes us different from other people: our society is made up solely of women. This meant that when I was little I got to do all the things that normally only boys do, like sword fighting and shooting bows and arrows. And because we managed perfectly well without men, I never saw the point of them really. But this all changed one day when Duke Theseus arrived with his army of Athenian men. We fought the invaders with all our might, but in the end we made peace with them. To make sure that it was a lasting treaty, my sister, Queen Hippolyta, agreed to marry Theseus. Believe me, this was a big thing for an Amazonian Queen to agree to do, but it was all in a good cause. And this is where my tale begins…
We were approaching the gates of Athens, the city where Hippolyta and I would start our new life. But our way was blocked by a crowd of women from the City of Thebes.
They were in mourning, veiled in black, and they threw themselves down on the ground in front of the army. We soon heard that they had come to ask the help of Theseus, for their city of Thebes had been invaded by a monster of a man called Creon, who had treated them with cold hearted cruelty.
Theseus hated injustice, and he led his men straight to Thebes where he crushed the army of cruel king Creon.
But just before he set off to return to Athens and finally have a slice of wedding cake, one of his men spotted two Theban knights lying on the battlefield. They were wounded, but still breathing, and from their coats of arms, you could see that not only were they royal, but that they were cousins.
They lay there in their chain-mail, their olive skin turning pale as the blood drained from their faces. It was hard to tell them apart with their jet black curls and chiseled features. They could have been mistaken for brothers. If you did look closely, however, you might have noticed that Palamon, (he was the elder of the two by half a year), had hazel eyes whereas Arcite’s eyes were a deep green.
You may wonder how I could possibly know all this, given that I was not there, but we don’t have time for that right now…
The two Theban knights were carried to the tent of Theseus, who would decide their fate.
Now my brother-in-law, Duke Theseus could be very stubborn at times, like he was in the pursuit of my sister Hippolyta and in this instance he was particularly stubborn, refusing to release the two wounded knights back to their people.
Members of their families came in turn, offering the most elaborate gifts you could imagine, from horses, to gold and jewels, and in desperation they even offered other relatives, that perhaps they were less fond of, like Palamon’s dopey younger brother. But Theseus was not moved. He commanded that the two young men be taken back to Athens, where they would be imprisoned until the end of their days.
It was this decision that changed my life, although I didn’t know it at the time, for I was only 13 when I left the Amazons with my sister and moved to Athens, city of theatre, music, philosophy… and men who did not always treat us Amazonian Women with the respect that we were used to. I had to learn to be an Athenian lady, under the watchful eyes of my teacher. But even though I was a princess, I got into trouble sometimes for beating up the boys around the palace who were rude to me.
I knew nothing of Arcite and Palamon who passed their days chained to the wall in a dark prison cell. The only thing they had to look forward to were the times the jailer would take pity on them and unbolt their shackles. In these brief bursts of freedom they could walk out of the shadows to the barred window on the far side of the room, and gaze upon the world outside. Here, they would see the grounds of the palace, its beautiful gardens and beyond that the buildings of Athens with its temple and theatre, all enclosed by the city walls. And although the view remained the same, they saw it shift from season to season, as the years passed by in their cell.
Three years after they had first been imprisoned, I had my sixteenth birthday and a great party was thrown for me. There was feasting and dancing and the finest actors in all of Greece put on a hilarious comedy. After that, it was time for my birthday presents. Firstly my sister had ordered a beautiful gown for me, embroidered with flowers stitched in gold and silver thread and lined with a silk petticoat. Then it was Duke Theseus’ turn to give me my birthday gift. Now I was 16, he said that I could have free reign of the palace grounds, and gave me a key to his private rose garden. Now I could go exploring on my own.
One summer morning, as I was picking flowers in his majesty’s garden in order to make a garland to crown my golden hair, I was so happy that I began to skip along with my basket and sing to myself. I would never have done so had I known what would happen because of it, but at that point I was blissfully unaware.
You see, on this May morning, as the sun was shining and a brilliant blue sky blazed over Athens, the jailer felt particularly sorry for his pale and weary inmates. First of all, he unchained Palamon, so that he could walk over to the barred window to see the daylight and the world outside. The knight lowered his gaze to the rose garden below, trying to see if he could remember what roses smelt like and who should he see but lovely, royal me. I was skipping along with my blond tresses flowing behind me as I danced and sang in the sunshine. And, wearing my exquisite new gown, I must admit that I did look pretty splendid.
The effect this had on Palamon was quite peculiar. Unable to speak or move his gaze, his jaw dropped open and he felt his heart pounding in his chest. As his eyes filled with tears, he let out a long sigh which caused Arcite to look up out of the shadows.
“Cousin,” he said, “you do yourself no favours by sighing our captivity. It’s our fate to be Theseus’ prisoners. It was written in the stars the day we were born.”
To which Palamon replied, breaking from his momentary trance,
“Arcite, you have no idea what I have just experienced. My heart is aching because I have just seen the most beautiful woman on earth – in fact, I don’t think it was a woman, but Venus herself, the goddess of love.”
Which beats your average chat-up line! And then closing his eyes he prayed that Venus would take pity on them and release them from their chains.
While Palamon was making this prayer, Arcite pleaded with the jailer to unlock him from his chains so that he too could walk over to the window. I, all the while, was still picking flowers and had no idea that such an appreciative audience had gathered.
Now if the effect I had on Palamon sounded strange, you should have seen what happened to Arcite, (I wish I had!). He let out a heavy sigh and had to cling to the bars of the window to stop himself from collapsing, as his legs had given way. Some men really are made of no substance!
“I think I’m dying” he said, “I am so struck by her beauty, that if I cannot have her love and see her face everyday, I won’t be able to live.”
This enraged Palamon. He turned to Arcite and said: “ Let me remind you: we are knights. We are Cousins. We are sworn to be true to one another. How can you betray me this way, and threaten to steal my love from me?”
“Cousin, you know I would die for you in a battle,” said Arcite, “and would always remain true to you, but here I am the one who is injured. I have been shot through the heart with Cupid’s arrow.”
“If you don’t step down, as would a man with any decency, I’ll have to fight you.” retorted Palamon.
But Arcite was in no mood to give up the love of his life – yours truly, whom he had just seen for the first time two minutes earlier.
“I don’t see why I should step down. After all, it was I who loved her first. You thought you had seen Venus, but from the moment I saw this vision of loveliness, I knew it was a young woman whom I loved. Therefore she is rightfully mine. But let’s not make rules for how we should love, but just accept that in this battle there are no rules.”
While they continued to argue, neither of them noticed that I had skipped back inside the palace for my lunch. Here I met an honoured visitor, Prince Perotheus, who had been friends with Theseus since childhood. I was sitting on the other side of the table, but I heard him say how he had come to Athens to plead for the release of a prisoner in the tower. He had trained this prisoner as a knight when he was a boy, and he had treated him like a second son. And Theseus, in honour of his long friendship with Perotheus, promised to release the prisoner, whose name was Arcite.
But he gave the order for Arcite’s release on one condition: He must leave Athens immediately, never to set foot in the city again, on pain of death.
And was Arcite pleased by this news? I believe that he was not sure. The two cousins in the tower did not know who had the worst fate.
For both were now possessed by an insatiable love for me, (yes I know!) but Palamon although he could see me everyday from the window of his cell, did not have the freedom to leave the tower and approach me, whereas Arcite had the freedom to go anywhere in the world he chose, but knew that if he set foot in the city where I lived, he would forfeit his life and so would never see my face again, or would he?…
To find out what happens next to these two love-struck knights look out for the next installment of Emelye’s Tale at Storynory.com. There will be four parts in all, and we promise to release them in quick succession so you won’t have to wait until the next one.