Term Paper: Sir Gawain and the Green

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[. . .] According to some historians of the period and also literary critics the period marked a time when the role of women was changing in a manner that the society was unaccustomed to. Women were taking control of households, fiefdoms, and even whole kingdoms as a necessary aspect of the crusade period and its wake. According to MClain changing gender roles were an absolutely crucial aspect of the literature of the period:

Courtly literature, the larger category into which Arthurian literature falls, began with the troubadour poetry of twelfth-century France and continued to be popular throughout the Middle Ages. The medieval period was a time of massive confusion and change in thinking about gender. The period's misogyny has been amply documented - women, as St. Jerome put it, were considered "the gate of the devil, the patron of wickedness, the sting of the serpent." However, during the medieval period European noblewomen also gained unprecedented control of land as their men streamed east to fight and die in the Crusades. They also exerted significant control in the Church, either within the system as powerful abbesses or outside the system as revered, if eccentric, visionaries. Courtly literature reflects this new female power by assigning women the higher role in the feudal system, with men acting as servants of love - the opposite of most women's actual low position within the feudal hierarchy. The Middle Ages is thus a time of glaring contrasts and contradictions about appropriate ways to view women, men, and their relationship to each other. (MClain 193)

How this gender role shifting plays out in Alienor's coming upon the desire and responsibility to codify the chivalric code and support the troubadour poetry which furthered the expression of its social impact could in many ways be explained in this adjustment of the social order for women. The thematic interest of the main challenge for Sir Gawain, Arthur's youngest and most inexperienced knight surrounding the contradictions between "chivalric duty" and "chivalric duty" with regard to another man's wife and specifically a superior's wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Night could also be reflective of the message of changes regarding gender near the close of the period. Some critics see the irony of this central theme as well as other central themes that express inner and outer turmoil as a reflection of the broader changes in society as the period's faults and specifically the faults of the chivalric code begin to find expression. While others stress that irony was not ment to detract from the ideal but to define it for the broader audience;

[Green in Irony in the Mediaeval Romance] observes that "there is no logical contradiction in poets [sic] applying irony to an ideal of courtliness (or of chivalry or love) which they are in process of propagating, for they make use of irony not to undermine or destroy that ideal, but to define it more clearly and to reach agreement on the detailed choices and decisions with which it confronts society" (324 -- 325). (Lambdin 372-373)

Iit is difficult to say that this sort of conjecture is an appropriate one, as the most basic evidence leads one to conclude that Sir Gawain and the Green Night was in some way meant to develop the idea of the inherent flaws in a military turned almost exclusively to a social code. Textual evidence plays out the challenges that Gawain faced in the close proximity of another man's wife. The narrator interjecting his moral message of irony stresses the conundrum faced by Sir Gawain; "Refined as they say Gawain's manners are, With such chivalry as he is said to embody, He could scarcely have stayed so long with a lady Without asking for a kiss, if only from politeness, At some point or pause, somewhere in the conversation." Then Gawain said, "Indeed, whatever you will. I shall kiss at your command, as a knight should…" (Merwin 89) Ashton goes on to say; "Thus the story's events may be read as demonstrating a gap between the different components of a chivalric code and the inner man." (Ashton 57) Ashton goes on to speak of one of the symbols in the work that gets shifted around with what seems no regard for their history;

Perhaps it speaks of the failures of chivalry or tells something of the covert and multiple ways in which we construct social worlds. Maybe the pentangle evokes some of the challenges to the Christian Church in medieval times. Or is it an external symbol of masculinity -- itself problematic -- pinned on to the as-yet untried Gawain and concealing something far more conflicted beneath? Possibly it has no singular truth at all but enacts some, or even all, of these possibilities at once. (Ashton 58)

The theme of symbols in the work including the pentangle as mentioned above and then the green girdle given to Gawain by the Green Knight, after the stories hero assumes he has failed the quest, and is to him worn as a badge of his failure, but then ironically accepted by his fellow knights of the round table as proof of his success is troubling but interesting. The work notes humility in Gawain's character which in and of itself is a serious and important aspect of the chivalric code, yet in all irony the knights upon Gawain's return find so much pleasure in the telling of his tale of woe that they consider the quests a success and join Gawain in wearing their won silk girdles. This could be a trick of the troubadour, showcasing the power of his own craft, as a way to entertain through messages of politics, intrigue and valor. Either way it leaves the reader, of the fable wondering what the point was that the unknown writer was trying to make something that is also a theme of the work and its literary criticism.

Thematic Ambiguity

Though Sir Gawain is considered by the unknown author, as evidenced by the narrator and by the development of the character as somewhat perfect amidst an imperfect system the themes of the work are difficult to interpret, to say the least. This message is expressed by Zott in a piece of literary criticism that attempt to create a functional synopsis of the work;

Scholars have traditionally regarded the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as ambiguous. Some view the poem as the tale of a noble knight who resists sexual temptation and so keeps his vow of chastity. Others interpret it as the unveiling of a knight's improper behavior: According to the second group, Gawain renders what he intends as a mortal wound to the Green Knight, not a sparing blow, as the chivalric code dictates. He also rejects the rules of courtly love by refusing Lady Bertilak's advances; he is disloyal to his host and their Exchange of Winnings Agreement in not giving Bertilak the girdle; and he is cowardly when he avoids the first swing of the Green Knight's ax. Critics consider the puzzle of the theme a major asset of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and they continue to debate whether the real test was what happened at Castle Hautdesert rather than the exchange of blows, as well as whether, finally, Gawain passed or failed the tests. (Zott 257)

Without any trepidation this writer assumes that the ambiguity in the theme is both intentional and meant to be interpreted as a social commentary, by the author regarding the danger of idealism, in both the young and in the development of social order, in this case the chivalric code. This writer contends that the purpose of this ambiguity is to demonstrate that even a "perfect" specimen untainted by the experiences of age and danger has challenges that are seemingly impossible to overcome and will make the best decisions he can in the imperfect system he is unlucky enough to be a part of. Chivalry at the close of the period, when the work is supposed to have been written is a waning social construct, one that can certainly, during this period be shown to have flaws.

The Autumn of the Chivalric Period

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is its place in literary history. The work is what some would call a prequel, attempting to demonstrate the history of the very beginning of the chivalric period, through hindsight. The wisdom of this tactic is clear as the author can then utilize the work to demonstrate social commentary on the period it attempts to depict as well as express to the reader what the characters at the genesis of chivalry really should have done to avoid the challenges of its ambiguity;

Sir Gawain… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Sir Gawain and the Green.  (2011, December 13).  Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/sir-gawain-green/9556072

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"Sir Gawain and the Green."  Essaytown.com.  December 13, 2011.  Accessed April 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/sir-gawain-green/9556072.