The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales has been called a portrait gallery, and also the first and finest specimen we have in English literature of characters. In The Prologue, we come across a group of pilgrims, who represent the widest possible section of English medieval society. The Knight and The Squire represent the chivalric class. It is not the highest class of society, but it is the highest among those who could be expected to go on a group-pilgrimage.
The Knight is an interesting character, and grips our attention as he stands at the 'entrance' of the gallery. He comes at the very beginning because of his high status in society. It is also appropriate that he begins the list of pilgrims because of his virtuous character. He presents a moral standard against which one can judge the crudeness and lack of integrity of many of the other pilgrims. Chaucer has presented an idealized portrait in the Knight.
Campaigns in different lands
The Knight was a worthy and brave man, having fought well for his king as 'well as for Christianity. His skill and prowess in battle was well-known in several lands, both Christian and heathen. He had naturally travelled widely in the course of his military career. He was respected everywhere for his honourable behaviour, and had often been given the prestigious position of sitting at the head of the table. Chaucer lends a romantic air to the Knight by giving a list of the places where he had campaigned. The mention of far-flag cities and countries like Alexandria, Lithuania, Grenada, etc., give a sense of added adventure, mystery and romance to the Knight's career as a soldier in the defence of his land and faith. A brave solider, he had killed many in single combat. He had also won several distinctions.
Multifarious facets of his character
Brave and courageous though he was, the Knight lacked the boastfulness and arrogance which is commonly associated with the successful solider. But then, he was a representative of the chivalric code. Further, he was endowed with several virtues. He was not only brave; he was wise, too. He was modest as a maid, says Chaucer emphatically. He had loved chivalry, honour, truth and courtesy in all his life. He had never uttered a single rude or unkind word to anyone. He had an unfailing tenderness towards the feelings of others. He was devout, besides being a brave defender of his country and faith. He had vowed go on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, and, as soon as he could do so, had set out to fulfil his vow. Thus, he had not even discarded his battle-dress; he had come straight from his campaigns abroad to join the company on the pilgrimage.
Idealized portrait in the Knight
Chaucer sums up the Knight in words which have now become famous—"He was a verray parfit, gentil knyght". The idealization of the Knight is particularly obvious in the statement. What is interesting to note, is that Chaucer achieves his idealization through realistic details. On the one hand, the list of campaigns has a realistic touch. On the other hand, it gives a 'superlative' or ideal effect as well. Through the catalogue, Chaucer tries to make us think of the Knight as heroic in stature, as a fighting-man bigger than life.
Almost as an afterthought, Chaucer adds a few details of appearance, dress and equipage. The Knight, we are told, had good horses. He was dressed in tunic of coarse 'fustian', which was decidedly the worse for wear. The stained 'gypon' or doublet spoke of the campaigns from which he had made his way directly to join the pilgrimage. The Knight does not care much for personal appearance— "he ne nas nat gay". In the Knight, we have an example of Chaucer's art of characterization. Realistic details are combined with ideal ones. Typical traits intermingle with individualistic ones. The Knight becomes a type, an individual, and universal, all at once.
Typical and individual traits in his character
He is typical of the chivalric class, brave, wise, just and generous. At the same time, he is modest as a maid. The trait at once typifies him as an ideal worthy knight of the Middle Ages, and individualises him as Chaucer's Knight. His sober aspect and his taking along only one servant with him on the pilgrimage, mark him as an ideally modest and gentleman person. The individual details are given through the description of his stained tunic. He is the very essence of chivalry, ever-ready to spring to the defence of the weak, and, hence, a universal figure who represents the defender of the oppressed in all times and lands. He, alongwith the poor Parson and the Ploughman, represents the moral order which holds society together in the face of the dangers embodied by corruption and tyranny.
The Squire : personal appearance and nature
The Squire who comes next in the procession of pilgrims, is the Knight's son. He, too, represents the chivalric class. He offers a striking contrast to the Knight in appearance. A young, handsome lad of twenty, is lively, gay and brightly dressed. We are given graphic details of his appearance. His hair were curled as if it had been laid in a press. He was of average height, and had a well proportioned body. He was strong and agile. He had given a good account of himself in battle. His record in fighting made him hope to win his lady's favour. He was a passionate lover who slept as little as did the nightingale. We see the youth of the Squire reflected in his brightly 'embroidered' dress, which had flowers of red and white and looked like a meadow. He was as fresh as the month of May, sums up Chaucer succinctly.
The Squire is adept at drawing and writing. He played on the flute or sang in a gay voice all day long. He could write poetry, compose songs, dance, and joust. He is a well accomplished young man. He did his duty as his father, the Knight. He carved, or cut the meat at the table, before his father. Thus, he too, like his father, is humble, dutiful and courteous. Chaucer's Squire is obviously trying to qualify himself for knighthood.
Typical, individual and universal traits in the Squire
Chaucer combines typical, individual, and universal traits in the Squire, as he does in many of the other characters. The Squire represents the youth of all ages in his carefree, gay and fresh countenance and in his zest for life. At the same time, such a squire must have been a common picture in the England of the fourteenth century. He represents the fashionable young man, a lusty lover, well accomplished in the arts as well as in battle. He also typifies the chivalric code of behaviour. He is made an individual in his colourful dress, average height and curly hair. We notice that some of the details used by Chaucer to describe the Squire are at once typical, individualistic, and universal.
The Knight and The Squire contrasted:
Characters compared and Contrasted achieves an effective contrast between the first two portraits of 'The Prologue'. After the sober and dignified Knight, we come with a perceptible sense of difference to the Squire. The very verse used to describe the Squire, springs with the uninhibited gaiety and zest of youthful high spirits, while the lines describing the Knight were suitably dignified and sedate. The 'blood relationship' between the Knight and the Squire provides the base for a dramatic relationship, and at the same time, is the groundwork for a modestly generalized metaphor of age and youth. Each portrait is enhanced and defined by the presence of the other. The long roll of the Knight's achievements on the battle field, is matched by a short list of the Squire's prowess. The Squire is as yet too young, and has had 'so litel space'.
The Knight and the Squire differ most markedly in their dress. The father is attired in a battle-stained doublet of 'fustian' or coarse cloth. The son reflects his youth in his embroidered gaiety. It is a comparison of the carefree joy of youth, as yet unmarked by experience, with hardened and experienced maturity. The Knight's modesty and quietness are contrasted in the Squire by an enthusiastic involvement in life. He sings and loves passionately, even though he, too, is not boastful or arrogant. The Knight's love is an achieved devotion, a matter of pledges fulfilled and values woven into the fabric of experience—he loved 'trouthe', 'honour', 'freedom', 'courtesie'. The Squire is a lover, playing court to his lady. The father is the representation of the acquired, disciplined, elevated and enlarged love, which is piety. In the son, we have the representation of the love channelled into an elaborate social ritual, a 'parody piety', but still fresh and full of natural impulse. The very springtime at which the pilgrimage takes place, is reflected in the Squire—the surge of youthful, natural energy is a reflection of the spirit which animates the beginning of The Prologue.
The Squire following the footsteps of his father
The Squire is, however, practising to become a worthy knight like his father. He is courteous, 'lowely and servysable'. The youth, energy, colour, audibleness, and the high spirits of the Squire seems ready to bend to the service of the Knight, and to attendance on his pilgrimage. There is suggestion of the present submitting to the sober and respected values communicated by the past, as one critic observes. Beyond the natural submission of son to his father, is the submission to the supernatural goal, the shrine of St. Thomas to which the pilgrims are bound.