Saturday, March 2, 2013

Humanity in Arthurian Legend

Even King Arthur's best knight - who was depicted in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knicht as being Christ-like and of adhering to every humanly virtue - was capable of screwing up.

I wanted to include on my blog this argumentative essay from my Medieval Literature class because I think it is important to stress that even the most perfect knights - like Gawain, who in this legend was depicted as being more man than even King Arthur himself - can commit faults.

In my life I am a strong advocate of the "No one is perfect" saying - especially in the way author John Green puts it in his novel Looking for Alaska: "What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person." I think it is interesting how medieval Arthurian legends taught this same lesson. Below I have pasted my paper on signs of humanity in a figure in history who was given Christ-like attributes, but who failed in one aspect that made him human, and brought him down to the level of a person we can relate to as humans.

The Humanity of the Best Knight of King Arthur’s Court
Ultimately, the test that Gawain – who is depicted as the best knight of King Arthur’s court in this legend of Sir Gawain and the Grene Knicht – fails is one of fox-like trickery. The Green Castle that lay en-route to Gawain’s destination at the Green Chapel holds a serious obstacle – from it comes a test of pride in which a young, seductive lady of the Castle offers Gawain something he fails to refuse in his courtliness – a token providing supposed invincibility to its bearer. This implies that even the best of King Arthur’s court, who is represented by his courtliness and his adherence to the five Christian virtues depicted in the endless knot on his shield, is still capable of human failure.
The beginning action of this particular Arthurian legend starts as a mysterious knight intrudes the New Year’s festivities of King Arthur’s court. Before this “aghlich mayster (line 136)” comes to the court, the people of Camelot are described as “fayre folk, in her first age, on sille (lines 54-55),” and even the King himself is “so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered (line 86).” All people of this Arthurian world – including King Arthur – are depicted as young, or in a childish behavior. Only a few pages before, King Arthur is exalted as the bravest person of his kingdom: “Hit were now gret nye to neuen/so hardy a here on hille (lines 58-59)”However, much the opposite is revealed in his character when the mysterious Green Knight appears in the court. When he explains that he is there to partake in a game with the noblest knight of King Arthur’s court, he is answered with disturbed silence by the noble people. When King Arthur must stand to defend his people and partake in the game to protect them, he is red in the face: “De blod schot for scham into his schyre face (line 317).” By contrast, when Gawain accepts the task in place of his king, he does it so willingly that he leaps up and goes to receive the Green Knight’s axe with grace. “And he ful radly vrpos and ruchcbed him fayre” (line 367). With these subtle descriptions of behavior in the text, it appears that Gawain – even being the King’s nephew, therefore younger than the King and likely other knights of the court – is the best of the noble knights of King Arthur’s court. 
Gawain takes off on All Saints’ Day on a quest to finish the Green Knight’s game, saying in a cheerful manner, “Quat schuld I wonde?/ Of destines derf and dere/ What may mon do bot fonde?” (lines 563-565). He does not begin the journey grimly or with plain shame on his face as the King did. He nobly accepts that this is his duty and is proud to try to do the best that he can as would any other man in his position. This also shows contrast between his willingness to do what is noble, and what the King himself is willing to do – another indication that Gawain is made to appear nobler than the “…gret nye to neuen” (line 58) that is (or was, at the beginning of the story) known as King Arthur.
The Pentangle on Gawain’s sword, as he is donned in his fanciful armor in Fitt II, is described as an emblem of truth: “bytoknyng of trawรพe” (line 626), signifying the ways in which Gawain is like purified gold because embodies faultless virtue.  1) He is perfect in the five senses: “first he watz funden fautlez in his fyue wyttez” (line 640); 2) his five fingers are unfailing: “And efte fayled neuer be freke in his fyue fyngres,…” (line 641); 3) his faith is fixed firmly on the five wounds which Christ received on the cross: “And alle his afyaunce vpon folde watz in be fyue woundez…” (line 642);4) he draws his strength from the five joys Mary had through Jesus: “Dat alle his forsnes he feng at be fyue joyez/ Dat be hende heuen-quene had of hir chylde” (lines 646-647); and 5) he embodies, better than any other living man, the five virtues of franchise, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and charity: “Watz fraunchyse and felaschyp forbe al byng,/ His clannes and his cortaysye croked were neuer,/ And pite, bat passez alle poyntez, pyse pure fyue” (lines 652-654). In this way, it is almost as though the poet is making Gawain up to be parallel in Christ’s virtues. Not even King Arthur is worthy of the honor of riding into a potential battle armor that would depict him as being perfect in every possible way.
As the epitome of a perfect knight, Gawain sets off toward North Wales, battling and defeating wolves, dragons, bears, boars, and giants (lines 720-723), and even praying as a Christian knight should: “Ne no gome bot God bi gate with to karp” (line 696). Nothing on his journey to the Green Chapel leads the reader to believe that he is nothing but a perfect knight – nothing until he encounters a young lady belonging to a lord of the Green Castle. After Gawain was met kindly at the Green Castle, the lord received him well and asked that he stay awhile. He was to spend some time every day with two women – one being older and the other being young and “loflyest to beholde” (line 1187). It was this younger lady who would visit Gawain three times in the middle of the night during his stay, and cause him – through language and trickery – to commit the one fault that puts him at level with the rest of men.
Though Gawain is embarrassed and annoyed with himself (line 1660) that a woman would entice him so with her presence in the middle of the night, his manners keep him polite in answer to her seductive requests, “Bot dalt with hir al in daynte, how-se-euer be dede turned towrast” (line 662). However, when she offers him a belt that will make a man indestructible [“Der is no habel vnder heuen tohewe hym bat might” (line 1855)], he does not refuse. Though he does not owe her anything, out of pride, he allows possible aid against his daunting opponent. Up until this point, Gawain has shown that he is worthy of carrying the Pentangle shield for all that it stands for. Here, it is revealed that Gawain commits a sort of treason against the lord who has offered him kindness and lodging during his long travels. When he sees the lord again the next morning, he breaks the emblem of truth by offering the lord the kiss he won, but fails to offer the girdle. This holding back of truth becomes Gawain’s downfall as Green Knight himself knows it belonged to the lady. Though Gawain does not fail in his battle against the Green Knight, he fails in his long-standing perfect knightly image, which implies that even in the Arthurian world, the virtues that Gawain represents cannot be preserved by anyone, as even the best of knights is only human. 

Works Cited
Sir Gawain and the Grene Knicht. Trans W.S. Merwin. Knopf: New York, 2002. Web.

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