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Western Literature 102: Chivalric Trials, Blood, and Honour


The Western Literature series serves as a vital resource for English Language and Literature students aiming to deepen their understanding of Western literature's diverse and dynamic aspects. With a comprehensive exploration of literary works, this series offers a profound insight into the evolution and complexities of Western literary traditions. Beginning with Series 101, delving into the ancient literature from its origin in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Aeneid of Virgil, which marks a critical juncture in the transition from earlier works to the concept of modernisation. By analysing the genre’s transformation, Western Literature 102 provides readers with a rich appreciation for Medieval literature. Through six captivating chapters, readers embark on an enlightening journey through the world of heroes, poets, and rebels, unravelling the intricacies of this mesmerising era and its profound impact on Western literature.

The 102 series is divided into six articles:

Western Literature 102: Chivalric Trials, Blood, and Honour

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a renowned medieval poem is a remarkable literary work that continues to captivate readers with its complex themes, intricate storytelling, and vivid characters. Set within the medieval context, the poem explores the ideals of chivalry, moral trials, and human fallibility. With its skilful use of language and poetic techniques, it transports readers to a world where honour, temptation, and honesty intertwine in the journey of Sir Gawain. This article analyses the prominent themes of chivalry and temptation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The examination focuses on embodying these ideals by the story's characters, highlighting the nuanced ways in which their actions complicate the notion of an idealised knight.

Figure 1: First page of only surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century)
Chivalric Literature

In The Knight in Medieval England 1000-1400, Coss (1995) describes chivalric literature as a genre of medieval literature that glorifies the virtues and code of conduct associated with knighthood and chivalry. Flourishing between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, it exerted considerable influence on the cultural and social landscape of the Middle Ages. Comprising a diverse array of literary works including epic poems, romances, chronicles, and moral treatises, chivalric literature revolves around the ideals of honour, bravery, courtly love, and loyalty.

The genesis of chivalric literature can be traced to the institution of knighthood, which emerged in feudal Europe. Knights, serving as vassals to lords, pledged their allegiance and served as protectors of the realm and defenders of the weak. Chivalric literature exalts the exploits and adventures of these knights, portraying them as noble heroes undertaking quests, engaging in battles, and encountering supernatural entities. Among the most iconic manifestations of chivalric literature is the Arthurian legend, centred around the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The Arthurian tales epitomise the ideal knight as possessing exceptional martial prowess, bound by a stringent code of honour, and exemplifying virtues such as justice, mercy, and courtesy (Coss, 1995).

Chivalric literature frequently incorporated the theme of courtly love, a romanticised depiction of the relationship between a knight and a noblewoman. These romances portrayed knights as ardent and devoted lovers, engaging in elaborate courtship rituals and pledging to undertake remarkable deeds in the name of love. In addition to its entertainment value, chivalric literature also served didactic purposes. It aimed to impart moral lessons and guide on proper behaviour, emphasising the significance of virtue, piety, and social hierarchy. The reach of chivalric literature extended beyond the nobility, resonating with the emerging middle class, who aspired to emulate the ideals of chivalry in their lives. Although chivalric literature reached its zenith during the Middle Ages, its influence endured long after. It left an indelible mark on the cultural imagination, exerting profoundly impacting subsequent literary traditions and inspiring a myriad of works, including later epics, romantic narratives, and even modern fantasy literature. Now, chivalric literature continues to captivate readers, providing a window into a bygone era of knights, castles, and courtly love. It serves as a testament to the enduring allure of chivalric ideals and the enduring power of storytelling in shaping our understanding of the past (Coss, 1995).

Figure 2: God Speed (Leighton, 1900)
Cultural Context for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In order to comprehend the cultural context surrounding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one must delve into the historical and social landscape of fourteen-century England. The poem is believed to have been composed during the late fourteenth century, situated within the Late Middle Ages or Late Medieval Period. Notable political and social transformations marked this period in England. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, a new ruling elite emerged, characterised by French-speaking nobility who held sway over English society. Nevertheless, by the fourteenth century, there was a resurgence of English identity and culture. The prominence of the English language was reestablished, and the rise of vernacular literature, exemplified by works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, played a pivotal role in this cultural resurgence. The poem reflects the ideals espoused by chivalry and courtly love, which formed the bedrock of medieval knightly culture. Chivalry emphasised virtues such as valour, loyalty, honour, and self-sacrifice, while courtly love exalted the rituals of romantic courtship and the devotion shared between knights and noblewomen. These ideals permeated the knightly class and served as a source of entertainment and moral edification for the poem's intended audience (Miller, 1995).

The feudal system, characterised by its hierarchical structure and personal loyalties, played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Within this system, knights held a position of paramount importance, serving as warriors and defenders of the realm. Their loyalty was primarily pledged to their lords, and a stringent code of behaviour guided their conduct. The poem explores the themes of loyalty, honour, and the challenges knights face in upholding their ideals within this feudal framework. Religion also exerted significant influence during the medieval period. The Catholic Church occupied a central position in the lives of individuals, and the values of Christianity permeated every aspect of medieval society. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight incorporates Christian themes, symbolism, and moral lessons, exploring the inherent tension between worldly desires and spiritual devotion.

Furthermore, the poem reflects the medieval fascination with the supernatural and the mythical. The enigmatic figure of the Green Knight, with his supernatural attributes and mysterious nature, embodies this element of fascination. The encounter with the Green Knight tests Gawain's knightly virtues and delves into themes of temptation, honesty, and the inherent flaws of humanity (Brewer & Windeatt, 2019).

Figure 3: King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table (D'Espinques, 1470)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Analysis

Woods (2002) describes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a multifaceted poem that delves into various themes, including chivalry, temptation, and honesty. These themes are intricately woven throughout the narrative, shaping the plot, character development and imparting moral lessons while providing profound insights into the human condition. Chivalry is a central theme in the poem, reflecting the ideals and societal expectations associated with knighthood during the medieval period. The protagonist, Gawain, epitomises the chivalric code, embodying virtues such as bravery, honour, loyalty, and courtesy. This is evident when Gawain willingly accepts the Green Knight's challenge on behalf of King Arthur, demonstrating his courage and sense of duty in safeguarding his king's honour and reputation. Gawain's subsequent quest to find the Green Knight a year later showcases his unwavering commitment to fulfilling his promise, even in the face of peril and uncertainty. However, the poem also delves into the complexities and limitations inherent in gallantry. Despite Gawain's noble intentions, he succumbs to human weakness and falls short in certain tests of valour, thereby unveiling the flawed nature of humanity and the challenges of adhering to the ideals of courtesy (Woods, 2002).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, vv. 339-347

Gawain, that sat by the queen,

to the king he did incline:

‘I beseech in plain speech

that this mêlée be mine’

‘Would you, worthiest lord,’ quoth Gawain to the king,

‘bid me bow from this bench and stand by you there,

that I without villainy might void this table,

and if my liege lady liked it not ill,

I would come counsel you before your court rich.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, vv. 361-365

Nobles whispered around,

and after counselled the same,

to free the king and crown,

and give Gawain the game.

Figure 4: Green Knight's arrival (Wijngaard, 1981)

Temptation emerges as a pivotal and recurrent theme within the narrative as the protagonist, Gawain, confronts a series of moral trials throughout his quest. The character of Lady Bertilak assumes a central role as the primary source of temptation, employing her seductive wiles in an attempt to entice Gawain during his rest at her castle. This sequence of events serves to test his fidelity and moral fortitude. Gawain's internal struggle to resist her advances serves as a poignant representation of the inherent tension between his aspiration to uphold the chivalric code and his vulnerability to the allure of human desires. The poem deftly underscores the intricate nature of moral choices and the potential ramifications of succumbing to the seductive allure of temptation.

Moreover, honesty emerges as a recurring theme that intertwines with the overarching themes of chivalry and temptation. Gawain's unwavering commitment to truthfulness and honesty is scrutinised when Lady Bertilak proffers him a magical green girdle that purportedly confers protection. Although Gawain ultimately accepts the girdle, he fails to disclose its acquisition to the Green Knight during their climactic confrontation at the culmination of his journey. This act of deliberate concealment undermines Gawain's integrity, laying bare the complexities of moral decision-making and elucidating the consequences that can befall individuals when they compromise their principles (Bloomfield, 1961; Pearsall, 2011).

Figure 5: The Vigil (Pettie, 1884)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight serves as a didactic work, offering profound moral lessons on the intricate nature of human behaviour and the challenges encountered by individuals striving to uphold lofty ideals within an inherently flawed world. The narrative adeptly highlights the palpable tension between the noble aspirations of chivalry and the inherent human susceptibility to temptation and deceit. Gawain's character development throughout the poem provides a poignant portrayal of the ongoing struggle to reconcile these conflicting forces within himself, further emphasising the nuanced exploration of human virtue and fallibility. Moreover, Goldhurst (1958) explains that the colour green in the poem holds significant symbolism, contributing to exploring various themes such as the supernatural, nature, youth, moral trials, and human fallibility. Its presence throughout the poem serves to deepen the narrative, imbuing it with symbolism and layers of meaning that enhance the reader's comprehension of the characters and their experiences.

Additionally, Heng (1991) explores the feminist interpretations of characters like Lady Bertilak and Morgan Le Fey and provides valuable insights into how these figures challenge and subvert gender expectations within the medieval context. These interpretations shed light on themes of agency, desire, power dynamics, and the constraints imposed by patriarchal norms. By examining these characters through a feminist lens, readers gain a fresh perspective on the poem, emphasising the complexities and potential for female characters to exert influence and challenge prevailing gender roles (Goldhurst, 1958; Heng, 1991).

Figure 6: Lady Bertilak at Gawain's bed (14th century)
The Poem’s Significance

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight holds considerable significance as a work of literature and has profoundly influenced subsequent medieval and modern works. Its enduring appeal stems from its exploration of intricate themes, masterful storytelling, and the depth of its characters. As a work of medieval literature, the poem exemplifies the ideals and cultural values of its time. It serves as a testament to the chivalric code, courtly love, and moral dilemmas central to the medieval knightly culture.

The poem captures the imagination of its audience, providing not only entertainment but also moral instruction and a reflection of the societal expectations and ideals prevalent during that era. One notable aspect of the poem is its skilled use of language and poetic techniques. The anonymous poet employs an intricate verse structure, adeptly utilises alliteration, and employs vivid imagery to enrich the narrative. The poem's poetic prowess enhances its impact, elevating it to the status of a masterpiece of Middle English literature.

Therefore, the influence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be discerned in subsequent medieval works, particularly within the Arthurian tradition. The poem became a source of inspiration for later authors and poets who continued to explore the adventures of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the themes of chivalry and courtly love. Works such as Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, such as The Knight's Tale, drew upon the ideals and motifs present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thereby cementing its enduring legacy in the literary canon (Howes, 2018; Brewer & Windeatt, 2019).

Figure 7: The last sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Burne-Jones, 1981-98)

Furthermore, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has made a lasting impact on modern literature, permeating various forms of artistic expression, including novels, plays, and films. The poem's themes and characters have been reimagined and adapted by contemporary writers, attesting to its enduring influence. Renowned authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, influenced by the medieval genre, drew inspiration from the poem and incorporated its elements into their own works, notably seen in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Beyond its literary significance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight holds broader cultural import. It offers valuable insights into the values, customs, and ideals of the medieval period, serving as a portal into the medieval mindset and the cultural milieu of the time. The poem reflects the enduring fascination with concepts of chivalry, heroism, and the supernatural, aspects that continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. The poem's timeless themes, masterful poetic craftsmanship, and its ability to illuminate the complexities of human nature and the pursuit of noble ideals contribute to its enduring appeal and scholarly significance (Besserman, 1986; Woods, 2002).

Figure 8: Fellowship of the Ring (Castro, 2014)
The Green Knight vs Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are remarkable works of medieval literature that exhibit similarities and differences, showcasing the diverse range of narratives and perspectives within the medieval period. Both works share a common medieval context, drawing upon the cultural, social, and literary conventions of the time. They provide valuable insights into the values, beliefs, and customs of medieval society, allowing readers to glimpse the medieval world. Furthermore, both works engage in social commentary, shedding light on human behaviour, social hierarchies, and the flaws of individuals. Through their narratives, they offer insightful observations and reflections on the complexities and contradictions of human nature. Satire serves as a shared literary device in both works, satirising societal norms, religious practices, and the hypocrisy prevalent in medieval society. By exposing the follies and weaknesses of characters and institutions, they offer biting social critique and invite readers to reflect on the flaws of their own world, as Brewer & Windeatt argues (2019).

Moreover, their analysis suggests that despite these shared characteristics, the works diverge in several key aspects. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows a single narrative thread, chronicling the adventures and moral trials of Sir Gawain, while Canterbury Tales adopts a frame narrative structure, with multiple characters telling their own stories during a pilgrimage. This structural difference gives rise to distinct storytelling techniques and allows for a wider range of narratives and perspectives. Additionally, the literary style of the two works varies. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poetic romance, employing elaborate poetic techniques, rich imagery, and an elevated language that befits the tradition of courtly romance. In contrast, Canterbury Tales showcases Chaucer's versatility as a writer, incorporating diverse literary styles within its tales, such as epic, fabliau, and romance. This stylistic diversity reflects the individual voices and perspectives of the pilgrims (Brewer & Windeatt, 2019).

Feminist interpretations of Lady Bertilak and Morgan Le Fey in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as Alisoun in The Wife of Bath from Canterbury Tales serve as a lens through which how these characters challenge and subvert gender expectations within the medieval context are illuminated. These interpretations delve into themes of agency, desire, power, and the limitations imposed by patriarchal norms. By examining these characters from a feminist perspective, a fresh and nuanced understanding of the poem emerges, highlighting the complexities and possibilities for female characters to exert their influence and challenge prevailing gender roles. In this context, it is noteworthy that while Morgan Le Fay, Lady Bertilak, and Alisoun belong to different literary works, they share feminist themes centred around agency, the defiance of male authority, the embrace of sexuality, and multifaceted characterisations. These characters stand as exemplars of strong and assertive women who defy traditional gender roles and expectations, thereby rendering them significant figures in feminist interpretations of medieval literature (Heng, 1991; Yildiz, 2013).

Figure 9: A woodcut from second edition of The Canterbury Tales (Caxton, 1483)

In conclusion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stands as a timeless masterpiece of medieval literature, offering valuable insights into the complexities of human nature and the challenges of upholding noble ideals in a flawed world. Through its exploration of themes such as chivalry, temptation, and honesty, the poem delves into the moral dilemmas and internal conflicts individuals face in their quest for virtue. The character of Sir Gawain serves as a relatable and flawed hero, embodies the tensions between the desire to uphold the chivalric code and the vulnerability to human desires. The enduring appeal of the poem lies in its skilful storytelling, rich symbolism, and thought-provoking exploration of universal themes. As readers engage with Sir Gawain's journey, they are prompted to reflect upon their moral choices and the potential consequences of yielding to temptation. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight continues to resonate with audiences across centuries, inviting the reader to ponder the complexities of human behaviour and the ideals people strive to uphold.

Bibliographical References

Author Anonymous (c.1390) - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (n.d.).

Besserman, L. (1986). The Idea of the Green Knight. ELH, 53(2), pp. 219-239. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bloomfield, M.W. (1961). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal. PMLA, 76(1), pp. 7-19. Modern Language Association.

Brewer, D. & Windeatt, B. (2019). Chivalry. In Brown, P. (2019). A New Companion to Chaucer. (pp. 87-103). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Coss, P.R. (1995). The knight in medieval England, 1000-1400. Alan Sutton Publishing.

Goldhurst, W. (1958). The Green and the Gold: The Major Theme of Gawain and the Green Knight. College English, 20(2), pp. 61-65. National Council of Teachers of English.

Heng, G. (1991). Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. PMLA, 106 (3), pp. 500-514. Modern Language Association.

Howes, H.E. (2018). The legends of King Arthur. Heroes and heroines. British Library.

Miller, E. (1995). Medieval England. Towns, commerce, and crafts, 1086-1348. Longman.

Pearsall, D. (2011). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Essay in Enigma. The Chaucer Review, 46(1-2), pp. 248-258. Penn State University Press.

Woods, W.F. (2002). Nature and the Inner Man in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". The Chaucer Review, 36(3), pp. 209-227. Penn State University Press.

Yildiz, N. (2013). A Medieval Madwoman in the Attic: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales. In Davis, F. & Gonzales, L. (2013). Madness, Women and the Power of Art. (pp. 117-136). Inter-Disciplinary Press.

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Deborah Zaccai

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