Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Christian Chivalry and Sir Gawain
Here is some of my writing from college, enjoy:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight explores the chivalric life of a Christian Knight in Medieval society. It catalogues the rules to which a knight, like Gawain must adhere to such as: courtesy, loyalty, humility and courage. It also shows how the church influenced knighthood by incorporating Christian ideology into the life of a knight.
What exactly is Chivalry? Chivalry which is from the French word cheval (horse),is more than just armor-clad knights riding around looking for adventures, or slaying dragons, and rescuing damsels in distress, it is a way of life, with preset rules and regulations that a knight must adhere too, or be looked upon in shame. A major influence on chivalry was works of literature such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Francis Gies explains that it helped to fix the self-image of the knight and it also defined the standards of knightly behavior which were set down in the codes of chivalry (77). These codes were somewhat like the rigid codes of ethics (Bushido) of the samurai of Japan. As Gies further explains that these rules of conduct were mainly social (77). A knight had to be courteous, loyal, humble, and courageous; just to name a few.
Courtesy, the act of having good manners, is one of the many characteristics that a knight must display. This came in handy when in court, because manners go a long way when working with people. Gawain expresses his courtesy not only to his lord, King Arthur, but to Bercilak and the lady of the castle. Alan Markman notes, “His courtesy requires no discovery here. His very first words in the romance, as he asks Arthur’s permission to accept the challenge (164).” Gawain out of respect for the authority of the king politely says to Arthur “I beseech, before all here, that this melee may be mine. Would you grant me the grace, [To be gone from this bench and stand by you there, If I without discourtesy might quit this board…](lines 341-345).This shows the extent of Gawain’s manners, he doesn’t just step up and say “move aside king, let me handle this!” but instead he maintains that in being within courtesy that he must ask to take the place of the king and to leave the court table.
Gawain’s courtesy to Bercilak is shown in the work as well. On coming to Bercilak’s castle, Gawain doesn’t just barge in and take a room, but he politely asks the porter “if your lord would allow me to lodge here a space (lines 812)?” When Gawain is allowed to stay, upon greeting the lord of the castle he openly says “Many thanks (line 38).” The people of the castle even admire Gawain for his courtesy saying “… with command of manners pure, he shall each heart imbue (lines 924-925).” Even during the exchanging of the kills Gawain puts on his best words to Bercilak, commenting, “ this game is the finest I have seen in seven years in the season of winter (lines 1380-1381).” Throughout Gawain’s whole stay he made note to always be courteous to the head of the house.
As to Bercilak’s wife, Gawain displays courtesy to her as well. Whenever in the presence of the lady he acts according to courtesy, bowing , and kissing her hand and talking politely and softly, and things of that sort. When they are alone, Gawain tries to be as courteous as possible without leading her on. When asked during the second visit on why he didn’t kiss her, he politely replies that is was out of fear that “ it were rude to request if the right were denied (line1494).” With these confrontations it becomes harder for Gawain to express all of his courtesies because of his loyalty to the lord of the castle.
Loyalty, or pledging allegiance to a lord, was necessary in Medieval life since many knights were vassals of higher ranking lords they were required to give their life and services to their lord. Gawain shows his loyalty to King Arthur, as well as to Bercilak. As Markman suggests that loyalty is Gawain’s “strongest part of his character (164).” Gawain’s loyalty to King Arthur can be seen as Gawain steps up in place of his lord to play the game, as if to say that the king is too valuable to be injured. Gawain’s loyalty seems to over-shine the other knights at the court, because he was more willing to step up for Arthur, as the other knights even confer amongst themselves “to give Gawain the game (line 364).” Therefore Gawain being the “prized knight” gives his undying loyalty to his king.
Gawain displays his loyalty to the lord of the castle, Bercilak who is allowing him to take refuge. Gawain openly tells Bercilak that, “while I lie in your lodging, your laws will I follow (line 192).” In this statement Gawain pledges himself to the lord’s requests, in thanks for allowing him to lodge there. Gawain as well gives his word in the deal that is presented to him, and his loyalty (being tested) is his bond. Another example of his loyalty to Bercilak is in the way he handles himself in the presence of the lady of the castle. Markman suggests that it is Gawain’s loyalty that “keeps him from inviting the Lady into his bed” (172). This is evident because Bercilak is Gawain’s lord while in the castle, and as a guest it is not “kosher” to sleep with the lady of the house. Gawain questions the situation to himself saying, “…should he commit sin and belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house (lines 1774-1775).” This shows Gawain’s active conscience on his loyalty to Bercilak.
Also however in pledging loyalty to Bercilak, Gawain also pledges his loyalty to the Lady. This particular loyalty causes some conflicts and puts Gawain in a bind. Gawain in the third attempt of the lady to seduce him is given a girdle and the Lady asks for his loyalty and silence in the matter. This deal as Jan Solomon notes causes, “a breech of loyalty in keeping the girdle, and the Lady having demanded secrecy, prevents Gawain from turning over the girdle” (270). Gawain must use both of his loyalties and determine what is best in the situation.
Gawain’s humility can be seen outright in the opening of the story and throughout. Gawain at proposing to take the challenge, shows his humility by telling Arthur, “ I am the weakest, well I know, and of my wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any (lines 354-355).” Here he humbles himself below all those who are present at the banquet. Gawain goes on to exclaim that, “I have you [Arthur] for uncle is my only praise (line 356).” This is to say that Gawain is able to sit among the table because he is a blood relative of Arthur. Gawain’s humility can further be seen at the castle of Bercilak. Bercilak tells Gawain that he is lucky for having him as a guest. Gawain tells Bercilak on line 38; “ All the honor is your own”. Gawain reverses the situation and tells Bercilak that it is by his (Bercilak’s) honor that makes him lucky. Gawain’s humility is further seen when asked by the Lady to tell of his many deeds and of his loves and so forth. Gawain however, avoids the situation by telling her, “In all that I am able, my aim is to please, As in honor behooves me…(lines 1546-1547).” In other words he is saying that, if he tells her it would be boastful of him to do so. In these actions Gawain preserves his humility by not going overboard with is position as a knight and by not making up some over-exaggerated story of love and his adventures.
Gawain’s courage is a trait that is shown at the beginning of the story and throughout as well. The importance of courage is vital to a knight, especially in combat. Markman notes that, “his courage is, of course, is demonstrated, in the first place, by his willingness to accept the monstrous challenge of the Green Knight“(163). Gawain is the second only to Arthur to take the challenge. Gawain is the only other knight to put himself on the line, the others vote that he take it. Only Gawain possesses knightly courage to step up for his king, and furthermore to seek out the Green Knight and maintain his contract. His courage is further showed on the way to and at staying in Bercilak’s castle. Gawain’s courage is tested in the wilderness when he encounters some beasts in the woods and defeats them. At the castle his courage is seen when he makes the deal with Bercilak. Gawain who doesn’t know Bercilak at all, is brave enough to make the deal to exchange winnings with each other. Not to mention to stay in the castle another day after having been confronted by the Lady, such as he did, should speak for itself on his sense of courage.
Gawain’s courage is once more seen when the guide advises him to turn back. Gawain tells the guide on line 2131 that, “ I were a caitiff coward; I could not be excused”. In this Gawain is brave enough not to except this bribe, and gathers himself to face his fate. At meeting the Green Knight, Gawain’s courage is seen as he goes through with the contract and uncovers his neck, although Gawain does flinch, he allows for the Green Knight to take the strike. To further show his bravery, Gawain draws his sword and challenges the Green Knight, telling him in line 2325, “ If you make another move I shall meet it midway”. All these things show how Gawain is absent of fear and takes action as a knight should.
The Roman Catholic Church, made great influences on the institution of knighthood. The Church transformed the knight out of barbarity and into a soldier of the Cross. Before the Church put their hands in knighthood, many warriors were fighting feudal wars, these wars sometimes left villages destroyed and millions of people killed. A system of checks had to be placed into society, and as Thomas Bulfinch notes the Church did this by their influences, in hopes to protect the weak and to bring peace about (39). One way in doing this, was the institution of limitations, the Peace of God and Truce of God put restrictions on the days that a feudal war could be fought on and even the time, place, and reason for fighting were kept in check.
In order to directly effect the fighting the Church went right to the source, the knights. The Church made the knights, protectors of the Church in the essence that the Church endowed the order of knighthood to those worthy. Bulfinch takes note that, the order of knighthood, endowed with all the sanctity and religious awe that attended the priesthood, became and object of ambition to the greatest sovereigns (42). The ceremonies and the symbolism was what put people in the state of awe.
The ceremony to become a knight was very religiously based. As Bulfinch
explains it on page 42 of his work, “the knights were to fast and pray the whole
night before and he was the go to confession and receive the sacrament. They
were bathed and dressed in pure white (simple) clothing. The next day he would
go before the Church and with his sword around his neck, a priest would bless it.
Then the sponsor would issue the oaths and receive his spurs, mail, hauberk,
and lastly his sword was girded around his waist. Then the president would give
him the three strokes on the shoulders with the flat edge of a sword and declare
him a knight saying to him: “ In the name of God, of St. Michael, and St. George,
I make thee a knight; be valiant, courteous, and loyal!”. The knight was then
given his helmet, shield, and spear.” The three taps were for the three persons of
God (the Trinity) as well as for St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers
and St. George, patron to knights, soldiers, and to England. All of
these things were to cleanse the knight for his duty as a soldier of Christ and the
Church, and also having taken the sacraments, and as Geis describes on page
104, “he heard Mass and a sermon stating the articles of Christian faith , and the
Ten Commandments“, made him duty bound to defend the church.
To go even further each piece of equipment had a religious symbolism. Frances Geis explains on page 79 that; “the shield protected him as he must defend the Holy Church from all malefactors, robber or infidel. As his hauberk guarded his body he must defend the Church. As his helmet shielded his head he must shield the Church. The two edges of his sword signified that the knight was the servant of both Our Lord and of his people. The point signified the obedience the people owed the knight. The horse symbolized the people, who must support him, as the knight guarded them knight and day, they should provide him with necessities of life. As the knight guided his horse, he must guide the people“. Gies continues on page 105, “the sword (in the form of the Cross) showed that its owner must combat the enemies of Christianity and to maintain justice; the spear signified truth; the helmet “dread of shame”; the hauberk resistance to “vices and faults”; the mail stockings were meant to keep him from straying; the spurs to endow him with diligence and swiftness in pursuit of duty.” These are all the things the Church did to make knighthood an institution of Christianity.
How does all this apply to Gawain? At Gawain’s leaving he hears Mass and is dressed in his armor. The thing that stands out the most is his shield which is described in lines 620-665. It is red and it’s main frontal feature is the pentangle, an endless knot, like the star of David and Solomon, with five points which is representative of the five senses, virtues, wounds of Christ, and the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary (Annunciation of the angel to Mary, visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, Nativity, presentation of Jesus to the Temple, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple). On the inside of the shield (what Gawain sees) is an image of the Virgin Mary a symbol of purity and honesty, which is to guide him and keep him safe. It could be assumed that Gawain too is a virgin based on his expression to St. John in line1788, St John is known to be a symbol of virginity. In the journey to meet the Green Knight it is apparent that Gawain is serious of his commitment to God, Gawain is desperate to lodge somewhere and hear Mass and at finding Bercilak‘s castle he hears the Mass service daily. All of these things show the influence that the Church has given him in the form of Christianity.
In conclusion, it can be seen that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, catalogues the rules of knighthood: courtesy, loyalty, humility, and courage all of which are present in Gawain; also it shows the influence the Roman Catholic Church had on knighthood and Gawain through the implementation of the Christian symbolism in the equipment and in the ceremony. Furthermore it can be said that Gawain is a Christian knight.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s mythology: The Age of Chivalry, the legends of Charlemagne and others. Ny: The New American Library of World Literature, 1962.
Gies, Frances. The Knight in History. Ny: Harper Row, 1984.
Markman, Alan. “The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight“. Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays. Ed. Blanch, R. Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1966. 162-173.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight“. Ed. M.H.Abrams. The Norton anthology of English literature,7th ed. London:Norton & Company, 1999. 156-210.
Solomon, Jan. “ The Lessons of Sir Gawain”. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Howard, Zacher. London: Notre Dame, 1968. 267- 275.