The role of fortune in “The Consolation of Philosophy” in comparison with “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”

Term Paper, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” and the role of fortune

3. “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Consolation of Philosophy”

4. “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Consolation of Philosophy”

5. Final statement



1. Introduction

This thesis will deal with the role of fortune in Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” in comparison with two stories of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, namely “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”.

“The Consolation of Philosophy” was one of the most translated works in history and therefore it must have been of great significance[1]. It was understood as the paragon of Christianity, although few voices did see the more philosophical elements as superficial[2]. In the 15th century Chaucer’s translation of this work was one of his most popular compositions[3]. His point of view coincides in many aspects with Boethius as he was Christian too[4] and Chaucer was considered a “supremely philosophical poet”[5] as in medieval times poetry was not distinguished from philosophy[6]. Chaucer translated Boethius’ main work “The Consolation of Philosophy” which he wrote during his arrest in prison in 523/24[7]. Hence it can be assumed that he knew a great deal about him and his work had a massive influence on his poetry[8] namely the Canterbury Tales which he was writing at the time he was translating Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”[9]. In research the examination of the similarities between Boethius and Chaucer’s works are quite popular as they all agree that Chaucer adapted many ideas from Boethius. Stretter for example examined in detail to what extend love corresponds with fortune in “The Knight’s Tale”.

At first there will be a brief introduction to Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, followed by a description of the characteristics of fortune. Then I will compare in what way these characteristics are mirrored in “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”. Furthermore I will also investigate some other topics that necessarily emerge from fortune as this leads to the question what should be sought if not fortune, which results in the search for happiness and the right way to achieve it. This correlates with the control of the emotions which are the essential premise and the cause for all misdeeds. As men are deluded by their senses they are not able to think and act reasonably. In “The Knight’s Tale” and in The “Tale of Melibee” the protagonists are thirsting for revenge. Arcite and Palamon want to fight for their love Emelye and Melibeus is driven by anger and wants to take revenge on behalf of his wife and his child. They are all deeply engaged with the question why the evil can exist and how these evil people should be treated. Finally the seemingly dominant position of fortune raises the question if people are enslaved by her or if they are capable to act independently and hence have a free will.

2. Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” and the role of fortune

Boethius wrote his main work the “Consolation of Philosophy” during the time of his imprisonment. His intention was to preserve the knowledge of the old world, especially the theories of the Philosophers Plato and Aristoteles, and pass it on to the descendants[10].

It is divided into five books, each of them stressing a different topic. In book one he complains about his situation and how fortune mistreated him as he struggles to understand how in a world that is ruled by God the evil men who accused him remain unpunished whereas he as a good person had been imprisoned. Lady Philosophy appears and counsels him with her remedies. Book two deals with the nature of fortune. Book three is about happiness and the right way to find it. Furthermore it explains how the evil can exist. This continues in book four and mainly focuses on how the universe is ruled by God. Book five deals with the free will and how it correlates with the order of God.

In the following I will summarize the main aspects of fortune’s role and characteristics before I go on comparing it with the works of Chaucer. In the beginning Boethius complains about the “fickle bounty” of fortune, as she treated him well and then deserted him (p.2). He considers it unfair to be punished by her as he believes to be a good person who always fought for justice (p. 11). But this lies in the nature of fortune, her change is her constancy and thus it was only a question of time when she would leave him and therefore she shouldn’t be feared or desired but be taken advantage of in good times and condemned when she leaves you (p. 26 f.). She turns her wheel as she pleases and there is no way to stop her. So it follows that Boethius has no right to complain as Lady Philosophy explains to him, because he didn’t lose anything that he owned (p. 28 f) but only owed to fortune. He put “his neck beneath the yoke of fortune” (p. 27) and decided thus to be “tossed on fortune’s wave” (p.18). So people can only blame themselves and not Fortune as it is their free decision to get on the wheel of fortune. Therefore fortune cannot come close to reaching happiness as she always must be feared to get lost (p.38). However fortune has her good sides as well as Lady Philosophy claims that “ill fortune is of greater advantage to men than good Fortune” (p.53). Good fortune is changeable, but bad fortune will lead men the right way to the good (p.54). In conclusion Boethius’ fault was to rely on fortune and consider her to be on his side whereas she is on nobody’s side and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad (p.47) and moreover isn’t reliable but proves her power by “mak[ing] the lowest turn to the top, the highest to the bottom”(p.29)[11].

3. “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Consolation of Philosophy”

In the following I will compare fortune’s role in “The Knight’s Tale” as well as other topics such as happiness, the control of the emotions, the free will and the role of good and evil which are all interconnected and cannot be looked at separately as they are all linked together and depend on each other as one determines the other which will become clear in the course of this thesis. “The Knight’s Tale” is one of the most often and widely interpreted stories within the Canterbury Tales and contains many philosophical allusions which derive from the Boethian source[12]. According to Stretter Chaucer applied love as a model for fortune to show abstract problems of human suffering in a more practical and better understandable way[13].

The characters Boethius, Arcite and Palamon share the same destiny of being captured in prison and hence not being able to act. But for Arcite fortune seems to change for the better when he is freed, but this is only a physical liberation because he is mentally still in prison, as the following analysis will show. For Stretter Chaucer structured the tale in a way that makes Theseus representing the voice of Boethian authority and Palamon and Arcite speaking for human suffering. Hence they ask Boethian questions whereas Theseus gives Lady Philosophy’s answers[14]. Burnley also sees Theseus as someone who “considers the trespass and the cause in the Knight’s Tale”[15]. He is full of wisdom and chivalry (l. 865) and stands up for justice (l. 961) when he helps the widows to bury their husbands and moreover he prevents Arcite and Palamon from killing themselves (l.1706) and acts like a judge when he arranges the battle in which no one shall die (l. 2541). But despite of all these attributes he is closer to the protagonists than Prudence or Lady Philosophy as he admits to have been a servant of love too (l. 1814) and does not understand men’s active role but sees himself as a slave of fortune. Hence he is not an allegorized authority which looks down to them but one who shares their faults.

The description of fortune correlates to a great extend with book two of Boethius where he describes the nature of fortune, as only being constant in her change ( p.26) and the way she turns her wheel (p.28). Chaucer has adapted this in describing her as changeable (l.1242) and using the image of her false wheel (l. 925). Additionally he applied the idea of people never being satisfied with their fortune as they are constantly complaining. Arcite gives a speech in which he cries out: “Alas, why do folk so commonly complain about the providence of God, or of Fortune, that gives them full often in many a manner much better than they can themselves imagine?” (l. 1251- 54), not realizing that this is exactly what he is doing as he complains that Palamon is better of as he says “The victory of this adventure is thine” (l. 1235) and claims that “[…]Fortune [has] turned the dice for thee” (l. 1238). Arcite thought that he would be happy if he was freed (l. 1271f.) but now as he got what he wanted he realized that it didn’t meet his wishes as he is exiled and therefore not able to see Emeyle. Furthermore we can already see that there is no real order of God as providence doesn’t belong to God as in “The Consolation of Philosophy” but to fortune likewise. Palamon complains that Arcite is more fortunate than him as he envies him for being free and hence being able to make war (l. 1287). This aspect can be found in book two (p. 36) where Lady Philosophy says that nobody is at peace with the things fortune gave them, so no one values what they have but only see what they don’t have. Moreover she speaks about this in book three p. 63 as she says that men always think that something is lacking or present that they don’t possess.

In this context Arcite also raises the issue of happiness as he says that everybody eagerly seeks felicity, but in the wrong way (l. 1266 f.), which is illustrated by the image of the man who is “drunk as a mouse” and can only remember the fact that he has a house, but not where it lies (l. 1261 ff.)[16]. Furthermore to him the way is slippery which means that he cannot follow it in a straight way but always goes astray. He realizes that all positive things can turn negative as being rich may evoke murder (l. 1256) or being let out of prison may lead to death as well (l. 1258), where he already unconsciously foreshadows his own destiny. He does not realize that he searches for felicity in the wrong way as well as he expects to find it in the love for Emeyle, so he is the proof that we often fail to find happiness because we look for it in the wrong place[17]. This coincides with Boethius’ view in book three p. 57, where Lady Philosophy states that men “[…] go forward by different paths but strive to reach one end, which is happiness” , “but error leads them astray towards false goods by wrong paths”. The reason for these errors lies in the fact that men confuse the aims and the causes of the things as they want to have wealth for example in order to get power or the other way round desire power to be wealthy (p.58). Hence they all search for happiness in earthly things (p. 74), such as “[…] riches, places of honour, kingdoms, glory, and pleasure” (p. 60) which all have negative consequences and can be lost (p. 73). Boethius is consumed by longing for fortune (p. 25) and Arcite and Palamon are absorbed by their love for Emelye. Lady Philosophy instructs Boethius to put away passing joys (p.24) and turn to reason instead, which is the precondition to gain freedom (p. 143) as men are less free the more they are affected by their emotions (p. 144). Men who are consumed by fear or desire become dependent and link for themselves the chain by which they are dragged (p. 9). The way out of this misery lies in the ability to become the master of oneself as only then men are in possession of something that fortune cannot take away (p. 37) and hence they are not dependent on her any longer. In “The Knight’s Tale” Arcite and Palamon are driven by their emotions that they cannot think reasonably anymore and therefore fall into slavery. “The Consolation of Philosophy” would state that they have brought this slavery upon themselves (p. 144) as it is explicitly stated by Lady Philosophy on p. 143 that “There is free will” and furthermore on p. 138 where it is said that the nature of fortune rests in one’s hands that one chooses for oneself through the exercise of using reason (p. 143). So people decide actively about their fortune and aren’t chosen passively by fortune. But both Arcite and Palamon do not understand this and think they are enslaved by fortune. In the Knight’s Tale love is depicted synonymously to fortune. Theseus says that there is the God of Love who is mighty (l. 1786) as he can “make as he pleases” (l. 1789) which reminds of the wheel of fortune in “The Consolation of Philosophy” which she turns as she pleases (p. 28). He states that love has brought them to die (l. 1797) which Arcite says as well in l. 1568 where he accuses Emelye to be the cause of his death.


[1] Rossignal, Rosalyn: A literary reference to his life and work, p. 19 says that King Alfred the Great made the first English translation and an edition or translation was produced every generation until the beginning of the 19th century.

[2] Grasmück, Ernst Ludwig: Trost der Philosophie, p. XXVIII.

[3] Minnis, A.J.: The Boece as late-medieval translation, p. 167.

[4] Jacobi, Klaus: Gespräche lesen. Philosophische Dialoge im Mittelalter, p. 45 states that some people claim that he was no Christian whereas others say that it is implicitly existent in his work; Wolfgang Rod: Der Weg der Philosophie p. 267 says that although he does not prove his arguments with the Christian doctrine they are still compatible.

[5] Lynch, Kathryn L.: Chaucer’s Philosophical Visions, p. 6.

[6] Ibidem, p. 9.

[7] Grasmück, Ernst Ludwig: Trost der Philosophie, p. XI.

[8] Brewer, Derek: A new introduction to Chaucer, p. 145.

[9] Rossignal, Rosalyn: A literary reference to his life and work, p. 138.

[10] Röd, Wolfgang: Der Weg der Philosophie, p. 267.

[11] Patch, R. Howard: The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature, p. 67. f. says that the fall from a high position, from a state of happiness due to fortune constitutes an important topic during the Middle Ages.

[12] Schweitzer, Edward C.: Fate and freedom in The Knight’s Tale, p. 13 f.

[13] Stretter, Robert: Cupid’s Wheel: Love and Fortune in The Knight’s Tale, p. 69.

[14] Ibidem, p. 72.

[15] Burnley, J.D.: Chaucer’s Language and the Philosophers’ Tradition, p. 46.

[16] Schweitzer, Edward C.: Fate and freedom in The Knight’s Tale p. 32.

[17] Ibidem, p. 30 ff.

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The role of fortune in “The Consolation of Philosophy” in comparison with “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistik: Medieval Studies)
Manifestations of Cultural Concepts in Medieval English Literature
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consolation, philosophy”, knight’s, tale”, tale, melibee”
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Jacqueline Barth (Author), 2014, The role of fortune in “The Consolation of Philosophy” in comparison with “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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