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Although it could be contended that chivalry and courtesy are essentially aspects of the same code of restraint and responsibility, the romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents a distinction between the domestic test of the Gawain’s chastity and the fantastic challenge of his bravery and mental resolve. Gawain’s virtues, symbolised in “the endeles knot” of the pentangle of his shield, are profoundly and religiously interconnected, meaning that his very knighthood, in its attempt to achieve personal spiritual salvation through earthly and social struggle, can be threatened by one of his virtues being strained. Contrastingly, the shorter, simpler and earlier romance of Sir Orfeo far less psychological or symbolic depth and a thoroughly inexplicit narrative causation; the action being driven very little by the decisions of the characters and more by the capricious and inexplicable intervention of the fairies. Although Gawain is an exemplar of knightly virtues, he also has human faults and an arguably inadequate religious sensibility, whereas Sir Orfeo seems to be the victim of wider, uncontrollable circumstances and to rejoice in an unequivocally complimentary presentation.
Throughout literature, knights have served as models of the traditional chivalric attributes such as bravery, strength, pride and avarice, and it is characteristic of the genre that these should be clearly delineated and identifiable. The fantastic romantic landscape that knights inhabit allows them to engage with simple moral challenges and face allegorical confrontations in which the didactic subtext is only thinly veiled. When, at the end of the poem, Gawain declares “this is the token of vntrawe that I am tan inne” (L 2509) he has a retrospective view of his sin and can isolate the moral failing, both for the other knights and for the reader. Writing in his book Chivalry, Maurice Keen suggests that “[a]n ideal of knighthood culled from what appears so often to be essentially a literature of escape is scarcely a promising model for a social historian to make much of”, indicating that although the misfortunes of the knight are described in detail there is still a beguiling and superficial simplicity to the adventure. Indeed it could even be inferred that the relationship between chivalric romances and the genuine deeds of knights was a symbiotic one because just as the knights may have aspired to imitate their literary heroes, so writers would use the exploits of certain knights as inspiration for their work. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is especially powerful in its demonstration of the corruptibility of man, an especially prominent theme in the fourth ‘fit’ and the wider themes of Marian devotion. The relatively greater religious intensity of Gawain and the Green Knight as compared to Sir Orfeo allows for a more intense drama of principles in which the hero is left declaring that “mon may hyden his harme, bot vnhap ne may hit” (L 2511). The syllabic balance of the line contributes to its aphoristic sense of definite authority and, indirectly, to the conclusive tone of the last stanza. When Gawain is staying at Bertilak’s castle it is courteous loyalty to his host that prevents him from sleeping with Bertilak’s wife, whereas his stern resolve to face death without fear arises from a distinctly different article of the chivalric code; the common factor being an inviolable sense of responsibility, truth and fealty. Gawain’s character is superficially consistent, like the “[l]arge & courteys” Orfeo, but where Sir Orfeo seems to provide guidance on how to cope with ill fortune, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to deal with the corrupting emergence of vice from within the self. Gawain’s act of self-preserving deception in accepting the gift of the green girdle is a practical response to potentially lethal circumstances, but we also witness his repeated attempts to avoid gifts from, or seduction by, Bertilak’s wife. His fault is clear, but it is also a mistake which is magnified by the seriousness with which Gawain views his knightly responsibility of being courteous.
Although many knights like Gawain are attractive figures and social role-models, there is frequently a sense that his life is not one of adventurous freedom, but of painful restraint, combined with insufficient self-awareness. For example, directly after “he asoyled hym surely” (L 1880) Gawain goes and “mace hym as mery…as neuer he did bot that daye”. (L1883) Gawain’s reputation proceeds him, one such instance is when Bertilak’s wife says, “so cortayse, so knyÃ§tyly, as Ã§e ar knowen oute” (L1511) and his achievements are proven by his very presence at Arthur’s high table. Despite his renown and physical fitness, Gawain is passive for much of the poem and his ideals become the subject of the Green Knight’s mockery and contempt. This image of the otherwise perfect knight with the crippling flaw is clear in characters like Malory’s Lancelot du Lac, but interestingly absent from his Galahad and Sir Orfeo. Although it could be easily argued that the flaws of the imperfect knight are the subject of the romance, Alan Markman is happy to claim of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “that the primary purpose of the poem is to show what a splendid man Gawain is”. This claim is confusing because the poem not only explores numerous issues with very similar degrees of emphasis, but one of them is Gawain’s deviation from the courtly code. To explain the apparent contradiction between transgression and perfection, after an explanation of the girdle incident, Markman later says, “[a]ll the more human for this slight fault, Gawain is a likable man”, which seems hard to reconcile with his model virtues and moral perfection. Are we to infer that a knight who never went to war and who sexually indulged himself would be even more perfect because he would be even more human? The conflict between the exemplary qualities of the knight and the meticulous demonstration of fault is extraordinarily more complex and invites a much broader range of responses than Markman supposes.
In discussing the validity of the titular assertion it is imperative to recognise that the presence of the word ‘although’ indicates a simultaneous acceptance of the role of courtesy and chivalry as ideals, and the penitential element in the poems. The characteristics of the romance genre are not presented in a state of mutual exclusivity, but as surprisingly co-existent properties. However, the word ‘penitential’ can itself be ambiguous. The romances could be penitential as an extension of their didactic function, in the sense that they inspire penitence through demonstrating a correctly remorseful response to transgression. Alternatively, the romances could be understood as penitential through a greater concentration on the subject of penitence than on the instructive presentation of knightly or chivalric virtue.
The symbolic pentangle on Gawain’s shield seems to have an overt moral message, but as Maurice Keen observes, “[v]irtue is a characteristic of the inner man, of the mind or the soul: external marks, such as heraldic devices, cannot be expected to take account of anything more than virtue’s outward manifestation, in life and act” (pg 163). If Keen is correct and virtue describes an interior ethic of ontology then it must in some way be connected with inner religious purity and a prescriptive exploration of the ‘virtue of penitence’ quickly ensues. On the other hand, penitence is a significant element of Gawain and the Green Knight with some critics observing that the conversation between the Green Knight and Gawain at the Green Chapel takes the form of a confession. ‘Confession scenes in Gawain and the Green Knight’, John Burrow claims “[t]his scene follows, clearly though informally, the pattern of the confessional, with Gawain again the penitent and the Green Knight playing the part of the confessor”.
Burrow also describes parallelism between the scene at the Green Chapel and Gawain’s confession at Bertilak’s castle in which Gawain “neither makes restitution…by returning the girdle nor resolves to sin no more”. In each case the confession signifies that Gawain has made a mistake and that he has fallen short of his supposed perfection. It could even be argued that by going to confession Gawain is renouncing his ties to the physical world and acknowledging the prominence of the divine and transcendent in the task that faces him. The Green Knight even says to Gawain at the chapel “know I well thy cosses, and thy costes als” (L 2360) in which the word ‘costes’ can mean ‘ways’ but also manners or courtly behaviour and this highlights the social nature of Gawain’s failure. His only failure of martial conduct is that he “schranke a lytel with the schulderes for the scharp yrne” (L 2267) and this chivalric shortcoming is amended by a true confession which concludes “I schunt onez, and so wyl I no more” (L 2280) showing real resolve. Penitence is a prominent theme, but as the confession scenes and their causation show, it is almost indistinguishable from any didactic depiction of positive character traits.
In analysing the chivalry and courtesy in Sir Orfeo it must be acknowledged that a modern understanding of what chivalry meant to knights in the fourteenth century is partly inferred from romance literature. Maurice Keen argues that “the romances do indeed help, in one obvious way, toward a definition of chivalry’s elusive ethical implications…we find the romantic authors habitually associating together certain qualities”. The Gawain Poet was clearly aware of a tradition of set chivalric virtues, but he manipulates expectations such as when Gawain, in attempting to strike the Green Knight in place of the king, finds a conflict between the need to be loyal to his king and to defend the honour of his knightly order. He begins “[w]olde Ã§e, worthilych lorde….bid me boÃ§e frp this benche, and stoned by yow there, / that I wythoute vylanye myÃ§t voyde this table, / and that my legge lady liked not ille” (L 343) which clearly demonstrates his self-conscious honour and constrained enthusiasm. The politeness of his speech acknowledges all the usual courteous conventions but, when given at such a time, is clearly desperate. In Gawain and the Green Knight the language and the content reveal the piece as a romance immediately whereas in Sir Orfeo the first verse-paragraph seems to say explicitly that the tale is romantic, “[w]hen kinges miÃ§t our y-here / of ani meruailes that were, thai token an harp in gle & game / & maked a lay” . This seems to indicate that contemporary readers would have been happy with the poem’s identification of itself as part of the romance genre. Although Sir Orfeo supports Keen’s claim that medieval romantic literature is characterised by an exhibition of knightly virtues in hermetic fantasies there are also several riddling situations in the poem that, although less subtle and psychological than those in Gawain, do create some problems. A reference to the question is needed here.
An apparent deviation from normal chivalric standards occurs in Sir Orfeo when, upon his return, he decides to test his steward to see if he is loyal, and although he employs deception he does so with the pragmatic objective of proving the virtue of another. Even when the steward has the intelligence to recognise the harp and ask where it came from Orfeo replies “[i]n vncouthe thede, thurth a wilderness as y Ã§ede ther y founde in a dale with lyouns a man to-torn smale, & wolues him frete with teth so scharp; bi him y fond this ich harp”. Orfeo seems to be indulging himself here by the creation of a complex and grisly narrative and even if it is an affective way of testing the steward it seems to be uncharacteristic of chivalric behaviour. Earlier on when the king of the fairies is attempting to withdraw from a promise, Sir Orfeo pushes him with appeals to traditional chivalry, “[g]entil king, Ã§ete were it wele fouler thing to here a lesing of thi mouthe”, which again, along with the elevated tone here, indicates Orfeo’s cleverness. There is no attempt made in Sir Orfeo to depict any interiority or psychological struggle and this massively weakens the capability of the poem to engage with the issue of penitence, just as its fantastic, non-Christian setting cannot evoke a sense of immediate spiritual crisis like that in Gawain and the Green Knight. The penitential aspect of Gawain and the Green Knight also ties the hero to a context that would have been uniquely familiar to the contemporary audience meaning that Gawain’s faith could have direct correspondence to a reader of the poem. Some romances do not deal with penitence at all because although it was standard church practice it requires an advanced level of psychological realism to portray in a poem. Say more
Chivalry and courtesy comprise the domestic and martial aspects of the knight’s code, the former dictating strength, courage and fair play, the latter loyalty, trust and justice. In Gawain and the Green Knight the hero is faced by simultaneous and interrelated challenges in these areas in which a triumph of courtliness results in his own death and a triumph of chivalry is impossible. Sir Orfeo’s protagonist stops at nothing to reclaim his wife and suffers enormous pains for her loss. In both poems the undeniable didactic purpose is tightly bound up with other notions, be they pragmatic or religious. Gawain’s shame itself becomes a virtue because he is educated by his experience at the Green Chapel and he is a better knight as a result. No knight can be truly perfect (because of the fall of man and the stain of original sin) because part of the purpose of the Christian knight is to emulate Christ’s transcendental through the actions and heroism of the body. Sir Orfeo presents a clearer narrative in which the plot, the style and the virtues of the pragmatist are more prominent than any penitential theme. Indeed, Sir Orfeo, based as it is upon the Greek myth of Orpheus, could even be taken as a huge metaphor for the power of music and the aesthetic to change the world, rather than through violence and sword play, areas in which Sir Orfeo demonstrates no particular skill.
Romances concerned with interior morality, the interaction of abstract righteousness and the individual and worthiness in the eyes of God, are rare within the genre and this is one of the means by which Gawain and the Green Knight stands out. The penitential subtext does not detract from the excitement of the adventure, but rather humanises the quasi-ethical struggle and makes the fantastic accessible. The knights of romance have been enduring symbols of mental toughness, chivalric heroism and perfect social grace since their conception in the Middle Ages. However, their attraction finds itself at its most profound and palpable when the superhuman talents of the knight are held in direct contrast with the spiritual incompleteness and unavoidable failings of the flesh.
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