Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The period between the Romans and the Crusades in Europe was focused inwardly. A peasant’s understanding of life was not much different from a king’s – the life hereafter was more important.  The human life predominately was a test of virtue; which, if passed, led to eternal paradise. With such a mindset, as we’ve seen in Beowulf, society had begun to deteriorate into small isolated communities with limited communication.
            Yet, by the 1300s, the time of “Sir Gawain,” the picture had changed greatly. The Crusades, while of very questionable foundation, served to unify a variety of kingdoms and princedoms throughout Europe. The results of this were felt in a variety of ways (to be considered later) from peasant revolts to the Renaissance. Starting in the 1100s, building to last had begun anew. In 1033, one thousand years after the calculated death of Jesus, since he had not returned, new works were begun; not surprisingly, these were the first Gothic cathedrals. So we have transitioned from the “Dark Ages” of the 900s to the High Middle Ages and the court of King Arthur.
            Most European regions have heroic kings. Why then, Arthur of Britain? The answer is two-fold. First, due to historical factors of Britain’s history and later empire, Arthurian legend has become recognized the world over. This is in contrast, say, to the great Polish King Krakus, of whom most have likely not heard. Arthur’s specifics do not differ considerably from these other legendary monarchs, and therefore he is a good example to consider.
Second to consider is the text itself. Quality work of the High Middle Ages is rare. Drama, for example, ebbed into simplistic, compelling morality plays. Arguably the two finest works of literature, both anonymous, are “Gawain” and “The Song of Roland”. Why I chose the former has already been elaborated.
            Arthur’s mythos is fundamentally tragic and romantic (depending on the interpretation). This particular story concerns one of the knights of the famous round table, Sir Gawain, who was known for his purity. Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, hardly play a role. Yet the themes explored are as central as those in the stories of Guinevere and Lancelot, or the Grail Quest. Sir Gawain deals with forbidden love, spirituality, and is perhaps the best example of chivalry.
            Chivalry then was rather distinct from our 21st Century notions. Rape and murder of peasants were perfectly acceptable. The stratified code of conduct applied only to the knights and nobles. Over the centuries, as the stories changed, the conduct of the nobility became more refined.  Arthur’s round table is perhaps the epitome of this change. One of the requirements of pure chivalry was unrequited love.  The story of Sir Gawain and the mysterious Green Knight relates this most intensely emotional facet.
            Many heroes, such as Robin Hood, are pure figments of imagination. Yet there is still rigorous debate on Arthur. If he was king it certainly was not during the period he was portrayed. The best suggestion is of a warlord during the late Roman Empire’s presence in Britain. Regardless of whether the mythology persisted or was invented during the Middle Ages the role of Arthur in British history was cemented as an ideal monarchy. It is worth remembering that, as in all societies, these stories of nobility, kings and refined society were representative of a tiny percentage of society. But for the European peasantry such stories were well-known entertainment.

            That we have the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is by the slimmest chance and great luck – only one copy of the story survived and was discovered by happy accident. The following is the story, with some abridgments. For those who enjoy the story and are interested in literature of the High Middle Ages there are numerous Arthurian tales to consider, as well as other great romances. The story of Eliduc is a well-known French romance with similar elements. From a historical perspective, the famed romance of Abelard and Heloise has been preserved in their remarkable letters from the 1100s. As the age came to an end, upward mobility returned through trade and the rise of cities. Trappings of the feudal system persisted for some time, but by the time Sir Gawain’s encounter was recorded (in 1380), the Renaissance artists in Florence were discovering artistic perspective. The golden age of knights was now in decline and would slowly die out over the next two hundred years.

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