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An ode to Paul Bettany’s mellifluous, magisterial turn as Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale.

Emily Temple

April 16, 2021, 10:31am

When we first meet Geoffrey Chaucer in the very fine medieval sports movie A Knight’s Tale (2001), he is naked. Butt-naked, I should say, considering the camera work.

“Oi sir,” says Heath Ledger, aka William, aka Sir Ulrich. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, trudging,” Paul Bettany’s Chaucer tells him. He is not only naked but quite dirty. “You know, trudging? To trudge? To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in his life except the impulse to simply soldier on.”

“Were you robbed?” William wants to know.

“Interesting question actually—yes, and then at the same time a huge, resounding no. It’s more a sort of involuntary vow of poverty, really.”

So we already know he’s a writer, even before he introduces himself as Geoffrey Chaucer. (“You’ve probably read my book? The Book of the Duchess? . . . Fine. Well, it was allegorical.”)

Bettany, as is his custom, charms from the jump. (The nakedness turns out to be a result of a gambling problem, though this doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality.) But Chaucer is actually essential to the plot: William needs patents of nobility to compete in the joust, and he needs to compete in the joust for money/honor (obviously), and just his luck: he stumbles across a writer who can, you know, write them. The fact that he also turns out to be a top-notch herald is just icing on the cake, but we’ll get to that.

So it’s not surprising that Chaucer was always going to be a part of this film, as was Bettany. According to director Brian Helgeland, the real-life Chaucer disappeared for six months (in 1372), and the movie is supposed to be set during that time. “Maybe only a Chaucer scholar would care, but it explains where he was, he was on tour with these jousters when he was missing.” On tour and collecting material, that is. Which sort of makes him the actual protagonist, no matter how curly Ledger’s hair is. By the end of the movie, Chaucer muses meaningfully: “I’m going to write this story.”

Of course, he doesn’t, or not really. My college Chaucer class met three times a week at 8:30 A.M., but despite what that should indicate to you about my attendance records, even I know that the plot of A Knight’s Tale has nothing to do with the plot of “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story in The Canterbury Tales. Except, I guess, that it involves knights, and a love interest, and someone getting unhorsed at the end. But what story doesn’t?

That said, Peter the Pardoner and Simon the Summoner do show up in The Canterbury Tales, “after” Bettany’s Chaucer loses a bunch of money to them and then promises them, “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every last pimple, every last character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” He kept his word, even if retroactively: the Summoner is so ugly (and yes, pimpled) that he scares children; the Pardoner is a greedy fraud.

As for Bettany-as-Chaucer, he and Helgeland had tried to work together on a previous movie, but Bettany had been nixed by the producers. So when A Knight’s Tale came around, Helgeland wrote the part specifically for him—despite the fact that he had never done comedy before. “Usually I’ve played stoics that don’t speak much,” Bettany said in a 2001 interview. “It was a shock—it’s a shock anyway—when paragraphs hover into view when you’re making films. Usually you don’t even deal in sentences. . . . Basically what happened is Brian rang me up and asked if I wanted to play Geoffrey Chaucer. I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Great.’ And I said, ‘Fantastic.’ Then he sent me a picture of an enormously fat, bald, bearded dwarf. And I went (with punctuated hesitation in his voice) ‘ . . . right.’ I did what any self-respecting, young actor would do, which was throw any pretension of doing any research or work out the window. And just hope for the best.”

Well, he got the best. After forging the patents of nobility, Geoff (it’s always funny when they call him “Geoff,” and I don’t know why) becomes the designated hype-man for William’s alter ego, Ulrich von Liechtenstein, and also feeds him lines to impress the noblewoman who catches his eye, and also totally crushes that duster in each and every scene. (By the way, Ulrich von Liechtenstein was also a real person: a man who was born humbly but became a knight, and was also a poet, who wrote poems about chivalry and how great of a knight and a jouster he was.) The introductions are a bright spot in an already bright movie—ornate, lengthy, and full of lies, they’re exactly what you’d think a cocky gambler poet would pull out of his lately-clothed behind, and Bettany delivers them with aplomb. Handily, you can watch all of his many introductions here:

By the end of the movie, Chaucer’s exuberant introductions have changed the field of joust heralding forever! And probably his duster fashion is having an effect too. But at the risk of putting too much on it, for me one of the takeaways here is something I already knew: that language can change everything. Would William have become Ulrich without Chaucer’s writing? Would Ulrich have achieved his celebrity status without Chaucer’s heralding? Would Ulrich have achieved Shannyn Sossamon without Chaucer’s poetry? Would the final joust had ended differently without Chaucer’s belated introducing? The answer to all of these questions is the same. It just proves what I’ve been saying all along: every rag-tag sports team, whether in the 1300s or now, could probably use a writer. Call me!

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