Medieval Literature Essay

Within Medieval Literature, Sir Gawain and The Green Knights is one of the most famous stories within that time period. It is interesting with secure plots and character development and is entertaining as well. However, reading Sir Gawain and The Green Knights, one cannot help but feel a little sad at the fact that such codes of chivalry are barely present in our culture today. What is cast off today as old fashioned and puritanical is really the glue that holds a culture together and keeps it thriving: a chivalric code of ethics that goes beyond the law and prompts individuals to treat their fellow human beings with the respect that they deserve. The chivalric code of honor speaks to the time when: “a man’s word was as good as his bond.” Now a man’s word is as good as the contracts that he writes along with the threat of litigation if he should break that promise. It is not against the law to break your promise to your friend (oral contracts are very hard to prove) and especially to your enemy as Sir Gawain was faced with but it is against the code of chivalry to do so. What role does the code of chivalry play today? Sadly, a less than influential one is the case in contemporary society. However, the ideas and appeal towards Camelot is larger than it has been since the 19th century.  With the recent historical figures of President Kennedy and his extended family, as well as the live of Princess Diana, the ideas of Camelot during the days of King Arthur have been contemporaries and will not be lost to posterity.

“In Sir Gawain and the Green Knights, the theme of chivalry is central to the importance and understanding of this classic tale. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.”[1] The ideals of Christian morality and chivalry are brought under one story in order to represent the five virtues of being a knight: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy and piety. Sir Gawain’s following of these virtues is put to the test throughout the entire poem and there is inner struggle with regard to Gawain and his meetings with the lord’s wife, Bertilak. Arthur’s court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. “Arthur is introduced to us as the “most courteous of all,” indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances hold too much power over the company.”[2]  The members of the court never reveal their true feelings, instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.

“The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawain’s adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host’s wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight’s challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life.”[3] Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain’s time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knight’s axe, and his acceptance of the lady’s offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.

Are these codes of honor followed today? Since Sir Gawain is a work of fiction, it is difficult to place the reader in the situation of Sir Gawain and ask him how he would have reacted. But the story speaks to the bigger issue of chivalry in general and asks the question: What role, if any, does chivalry play in our contemporary society? The sad fact is that chilvary plays little to no role and our society and we are left so suffer because of it. The angelic and vitreous woman as once a symbol of proper womanhood has been replaced by the sexually promiscuous, tough talking and fighting independent woman who is seen as being able to do everything that a man can do (including every deplorable act) and the beautiful differences that women and men possess have been blurred.  Rap and pop music are the most popular form of music entertainment in this country despite the music videos which portray women as mindless sex objects and ignore their self worth as human beings.  The chilvaric ideal of elevating women above men due to their moral superiority is not present at all in our culture. And what are the dangers of that? The old fashioned ideas of holding a door open for a woman and pulling their chair out for them before sitting down may seem as silly or speaking to the helplessness of women but not doing so, speaks to the bigger problem of man’s regard or rather disregard for women in a society that has decided that such actions are oppressive and unnecessary. And the pornography society plays off that modernization of women in a direct way. The pornography industry is one of the fastest growing and already large industry in America. The degradation of women by certain bizarre and unmentionable sexual acts is more popular than ever and is freely accessible on the Internet to anyone willing to pay a nominal fee. In the past when there was some idea of chivalry, such images would have been shocking to the entire culture and not just a segment of the population that has been deemed judgmental and prudish by its detractors. And one should only want to spend half an hour in a locker room with teenage boys and listen to how such images shape their opinion of women. They receive a warped sense of women and how they should be treated.  In the past, the proposition of a one night stand would almost always guarantee a slap or an insulting reaction of some type. Today, such efforts by men are receiving an alarming rate of success. And what is the danger of this? Such propositions speak to the complete lack of respect for the woman’s value and angelic qualities in favor of carnal pleasure. And the result is that millions of children grow up without a father because the man saw the sexual act as only as a means to an end. This is contrary to the code of chivalry on all levels but it has become the norm as feminists and humanists preached free love and sex without consequences and the vitreous women described in Proverbs 31 as a guide for men, has been cast away.[4] Television is flooded with “hip” shows where career daters and casual sex are thought to make for good dramatic television and its effect on its viewers are unmistakable. Vows of chastity are ridiculed instead of respected and our society gives no respite to individuals who connect deeper and religious meanings to sexual intercourse.

In a recent USA Today poll,[5] 82% of men saw the fact that millions of children are growing up without a father as a problem. However, there seems to be no trends that will encourage the reader to think that this tide will be changing. This speaks to the fact that many would say that the above mentioned qualities of chivalry are useful and/or at least to be respected by society, yet is not followed. The silent majority in this country, if polled, would say that such qualities such as charity, friendship, courtesy and generosity are high ideals and would be in favor of them. However, the bigger questions are: Are these qualities put into daily practice within their lives? There are some pockets of the country where these are followed along with chastity and piety but to what degree, it is hard to say. With the industrialization and the rise of the big city, friendly conversation and visiting one’s neighbors have been replaced with a busy schedule. Many people will live decades in the same house yet never get to know their neighbors. They are only friendly to the people they know and acts selflessness like the man in New York who fell on top of a college student in order to protect him from an oncoming train, are so very rare that they are the number one news story for an entire weekend. Our contemporary society does not and would not follow such explicit codes of conduct today. There are rare exceptions and when that does happen, it makes the local and sometimes the national news.

The legend of King Arthur has remained popular into the 21st century. This is due to the fact that the legend of King Arthur includes, fantasy, mysticism and the mystery behind what is fact and what is fiction. Also, contemporary society has kept the legend of King Arthur alive through comedic spoofs such as The Monty Python skits. Though the popularity of Arthurian literature waned somewhat after the end of the Middle Ages, it experienced a revival during the 19th century, especially after the publication of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.[6] “The subsequent period saw the creation of hundreds or thousands of books, poems, and films about King Arthur, both new works of fiction and analyses of the relevant historical and archaeological data.”[7] One of the reasons for us having such a clear conception of Arthur is how frequently the same concepts about him, his court, and his life story are repeated in modern fiction. Authors write what look like very different books, but under the surface many share strong similarities.

“We have come to associate several stereotypes with Arthur and his court. The archetypal quest, for us, is the quest for the Holy Grail. When all is lost, the King who returns to save us is Arthur.”[8] The mysterious magician is Merlin, and the trickster can also be Merlin. One of the great love triangles is Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, and Mordred is one of the great betrayers. These are key aspects of Arthur but also the idea of Camelot. This idea has helped to make such figures as The Kennedy’s and Princess Diana bigger in death than in life. Society’s fascination with these historical figures and their seemingly idealist existence has prompted many books as well as a recent motion picture, The Queen and its dealings the life of Princess Diana which just this week, received a nomination for best picture of the year.  The fascination with Camelot and all of its elements has not and probably will not fade with time as long as the public does not seem able to be satisfied.

It seems that chivalry is not sleeping but suffered a slow and painful death at the hands of contemporary society which blindly killed it in order to stay “hip” and current in today’s society and such reactionary talk is dismissed. But the chivalric ideas of piety, chastity, friendship and generosity to name a few are essentially good and ignoring these facts only serve as an impediment to society and the hope of a society to grow and prosper while at the same time, treating people as they deserved while at the same time, recognizing their beautiful differences and using them to the benefit of the society as a whole.

ENDNOTES

[1] Day, M. (1990). King Arthur Through the Middle Ages.
[2] Taylor, A. (1992). Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages.
[3] Keen, R. (1945). Arthurian Material. New York
[4] The Holy Bible. 2000. London: Oxford Press

[5] USA Today. A! January 2, 2007
[6] Byrne, M. ( 1996). Sir Gawain through the Years. San Francisco:
[7] Isome, H. (1998) Sir Gawain and Chivalry.

REFERENCE LIST

Bestul, T. (1994). Satire and Allegory in Medieval Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Blanch, R. (1971). Sir Gawain: Critical Essays. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Byrne, M. (1996). Sir Gawain through the Years. London: Rutledge Publishing.

Day, M. (1990). King Arthur Through the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing.

Keen, R. (1945). Arthurian Material. New York: Burt Franklin Publishing.

Isome, H. (1998) Sir Gawain and Chivalry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Loomis, R. (1995). Medieval Legends. London: Rutledge Publishing.

Taylor, A. (1990). Introduction to Medieval Literature, New York: Barnes and Noble.

Taylor, A. (1992). Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages. Norwood: Norwood Press.

USA Today. 1A. January 2, 2007.

The Holy Bible. 2000. London: Oxford Press.