Term Paper: Courtly Love

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[. . .] Rather, it is an inherent quality of a person and one that cannot be easily corrupted or dulled. When Gawain leaves Camelot to confront the Green Knight, he does so out of a sense of duty (which is, again, different from the kind of sense of duty implied in the treatise which is only valid as long as the man is in love), which never fades. His is a love for duty, his King, and his country which does not suffer from public exposure, does not fade with time, or suffer from jealousies that test his devotion. Gawain is, in short, the perfect knight - he is undyingly dedicated to a single set of ideals of behavior. While the poem of Gawain does depict an archetypal jealousy caused by suspicions and greed, it does so of the people in the Court, the people who are behind who could not measure up to the standard of Gawain. Gawain, then, is the perfect hero as well - the one person who can stand above and beyond the problems that others perceive so that he can tackle the real issues of life.

Reality and idealism, then, mesh poorly in this union. But, this combination is a constancy of the human behavioral history. If Gawain is the ideal man, a legend told and aspired to by the men of the Court, and the ideal of Courtly love is something that is fleeting, imperfect, and explosively passionate (but impossible to maintain) then there is a conflict.

One of the rules of Courtly Love is that the man shall be "Obedient in all things to the commands of Ladies." As one would expect, the behavior of the man to the woman, as he attempts to win her love, is extremely deferential, if not submissive. The most salient aspect of this deference involves the maintenance of emotional distance. This becomes obvious in a series of dialogues in which Capellanus illustrates the proper way in which a man should go about gaining favor with a woman. The conversations are conducted in a rigid and formal manner. The man, in a ritual of praise, extols the virtues and the beauty of the Lady, complimenting her, in fact, in such an exaggerated way that, to the extent that one ignores the ritualistic nature of the speeches, one senses insincerity, the praise seeming a caricature of respect and affection (Koenigsberg, 42)

But, when set against the ideal of Gawain, such a pursuit becomes less about actual love and the betterment of all, and more about simply following sets of proscribed behaviors that, regardless of the real emotion behind them, will earn the suitor a reward - the favor of the Lady. The ideal of Gawain, however, is quite opposed to this because his pursuit is not based upon rules of language and behavior, but upon that which is held deeply within the heart that cannot be quantified or codified.

Gawain does engage in some of the behaviors set out in the Treatise, however. But, he again demonstrates the ideal - that such devotions should be expressions of a true faith in people and in honor. In the poem, on Christmas Eve, a Lady and Morgan le Fay, who ask to be his acquaintances, approach Gawain. He returns that he would like to be their servant (which is an ideal of Courtly love - the dedication of the male to the females who, it is immediately supposed, are imbued with honor and grace and are worthy of such devotion), if they will accept him. This is Gawain's ultimate humility. While he is the best of all the people around him, he is only so if he maintains his sense of humanity and his humility. Gawain proves himself to be a master of the Courtly conversation.

Gawain, perhaps aware of the inherent fleeting nature of attraction and in a nod to the observations (much later) of Capellanus, resists the lady, the temptations of a seductress.

In Treatise, taken at face value, there should be no reason for Gawain to resist, for he has followed all the rules and expectations of Courtly love and, therefore, is entitled to be 'accepted' by the Lady.

His rejection, however, simply reinforces his Christ-like chastity who was so easily able to engage with and resist Mary Magdalene.

Gawain is challenged to save his soul by preserving his sexual purity. Courtly love, however, clearly leads to sexual impurity.

It is perhaps against this sort of confusing contradictions between the behavior expected and the behavior engaged in that later periods of increasing decadence and Puritanism took hold.

If Gawain represents the Father, then perhaps this conflict can be put into perspective. Courtly love, it seems, represented an attempt to engage in a revival of the Oedipal competition. The father, who sets an impossible example, becomes the target of behavior by the son. At the same time, the traumatic discovery of the sexuality of the mother is denied. The early Christians, carrying on from the Greeks, fearing the power of women from the mother role led to what amounts to a phobic avoidance accompanied by a ritualistic devaluation of women. Treatise on Love, maps out that a woman may be won through ceremony and an order of events. It removes the woman's ability to refuse the man because the woman must accept a man who proves himself through his chivalry and honor. This takes the fear out of relationships, or at least seems to have been intended to.

The Treatise and the precepts of Courtly love do a dishonor to women, because it is indeed a reflection of that ancient Greek past and the devaluation of women in order to neuter them. By establishing the objectification of women, men were able to maintain power not only over women, but over their sense of self. Courtly love, however, also seems to be a refutation of Biblical dictate. St. Paul was to have said that it would be better to be married than to burn. His was a sanctioning of sexuality but through marriage. Courtly love, however, observes that marriage should not interfere with the pursuit of love - which is, in its underpinnings, ultimately sexual.

The Courtly Lover involves himself in situations which resemble the situation in which his mother was lost to his father. In thus courting the original resolution, the lover attempts to undo it and to resolve it in another, more satisfactory way: with himself as victor and all other potential lovers defeated (Koenigsberg, 40)

We can see the courtly love in terms of ideals, of behavioral observations, and of archetypal reactions to the fears of women, and perhaps a desperation to maintain what had been romanticized as a constancy of civility and communal love and respect of the past (which never really existed). Gawain represented the ideal man. To him is given the task of conquering the unknown, the supernatural, and, tellingly, women by resisting them. The Courtly love of the Treatise of Love, is one which bases itself on an impossibility and sets forth an acceptance of juvenile, male-centered, adulterous behaviors that they once called "love." Gawain stands above it all as the beacon of hope to swim for, but ultimately, we can never reach him.

Works Referenced

Bennetts, Melissa. "Knightly Prowess and Courtly Love Revealed." Christian Science Monitor. 25 Apr, 1996. v88. i105. pB1 (1).

Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. John Jay Parry, Translator. New York: Ungar, 1959.

Koenigsberg, Richard A. "Culture and Unconscious Fantasy: Observations on… [END OF PREVIEW]

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