Justice Redefined (and Rhymed)

This is a short tale-within-a-tale from Chaucer’s peerless Canterbury Tales that has stuck with me since I read it a few years ago. It’s not exactly a cheery, end-of-Friday, sunlight-on-your-face read, but clever all the same.

Once on a time an angry potentate,
Seneca says, bore rule over a state.
A certain day two knights went riding out
And fortune willed that it should come about
That one of them returned, the other not.
The knight was brought to judgement on the spot;
This judge gave sentence: “You have killed your friend.
You are condemned to death and that’s the end.”
And to another knight was standing by
He turned and said, “Go, lead him out to die.”
And so it happened as they went along
To the appointed place, towards the throng
There came the knight that was reported dead.
So it seemed best that both of them be led
Together back before the judge again.
“My lord,” they said, “the knight has not been slain;
His friend is guiltless. As you see, they thrive.”
“You all shall die,” said he, “as I’m alive!
You first, the second, you, and you the third!”
And turning to the first he said this word:
“I have condemned you. You must therefore die.”
Then to the next, “You too, and this is why:
Your comrade clearly owes his death to you.”
Then to the third he turned and said, “You too;
You had my orders; they were not fulfilled.”
And so it was the three of them were killed.