Chivalry As Revealed Through Character Essay, Research Paper
INTERPRETATIONS OF CHIVALRY THROUGH CHARACTER
Having developed out of the lofty and pious ideals of the Crusades, chivalry encouraged high personal values and well-manicured behaviour. Loyalty to one’s lord, valour, honesty, humbleness, faith in god, and respect and reverence for women were foremost in the code of Knightly conduct of the Medieval ages. Though many fell horribly short of this, knights were supposedly bound to this code, and since Arthur’s court of the Round Table came closest to this most often it became the example.
King Arthur himself was exaulted as the primary role model due to his being at the head of the Table and his high moral code, expressed in all of the romances pertaining to him. Though he appears somewhat childlike in his enthusiasm in many of the pieces portraying his younger years, “Morte d Arthur” is written at the end of his lifer, at the point when he had matured to the greatest extent. Knowing that he went to his death, he still had no choice but to slay his enemy Mordred (a name traceable to meanings of death) because his morals would not allow him to do otherwise. He loses his life as predicted in the dream featuring Sir Gawain, but dies pure and honorable, and he is content in that. He senses the demise of his empire, and opts to die with it rather than struggle vainly against it. With his worthy nephew Gawain and all but two of his army deceased, he has his follower throw his beloved sword Excalibur into the lake from whence it came. After two treacherous failures at the act, it finally retuns to the lake, its cycle symbolic of the rise and fall of chivalry. The fact that Sir Bedivere twice does not let go the sword and the commoners rabid attack and theft of the fallen knights illustrates the loss of faith in Arthur, and he does well to die at his time. The questionability of his grave (unmarked and undocumented) furthers his role as more of a symbol and ideal rather than an actual person; he was so much a concept that he lost his individuality, though legends of his deeds will remain forever.
Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, is more complex and more real a character, though he is less known. His perfection comes from the very fact that he is fallible, and therefore human. Though everyone else in the court exaulted his honour, he had a lowly concept of himself, thinking that he was included in the Round Table only by the virtue of his relation to Arthur. In accepting the game of the Green Knight, Arthur explains “I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any” (354).When others, not knowing of his identity, talk of the fame of Gawain, he goes so far as to deny the name as his. When the wife of the lord comes to him the first day and says, ” For as certain as I sit here, Sir Gawain you are; Whom all the world worships..” (1226), he replies, “I am not he of whom you have heard” (1242). He, like a true knight, holds his honour and his personal values above even his life, opting to continue on his quest to the Green Knight and therfore his expected death even when given the option of a secure and hidden escape. In going to his death he saves his life (for the Green Knight then admires him), makes himself an example for all other knights, and is able to evaluate his adherence to his morals in light of his failure (to tell of his acquisition of the girdle), and thereby correct himself. He learns and his character develops and strengthens through this experience of failure; the Green Knight gives Gawain a chance to see himself rom a more distant and objective perspective, and the Green Knight in the end is more impressed than is Gawain himself.
Chaucer’s Knight is seemingly perfect and infallible, though somewhat two-dimensional. Without any in-depth examples of his personal conduct in difficult situations, the analysation of him may be at best superficial. He is serious and worthy, doing his duties to the letter and absolving his sins through this journey to Canterbury, as he should. He is a text-book example of chivalry, though it must be mentioned that, in comparison to the rest of the company (with the exception of the Parson and the simple Plowman) it is no great feat to seem ideal. Though he carries it with dignity and modesty, his clothing is dull and his chainmail is rusted, suggesting his melancholy state and his possible disillusionment at what he actually is. He is very good, but there is no evidence of his being truly tested; it is simple to keep faith as long as it is not threatened.
Sir Gawain is the most perfect ideal of the Medieval knight because not only does he follow the doctrines of chivalry, but he goes beyond them to better himself, and feels shame at his shortcomings. Personal growth results from failure, and without growth there is no character. Gawain keeps the girdle as a token of this failure with the intent of never again performing such a deed, saying that, “Where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore” (2512).Arthur and Chaucer’s Knight are strong examples of chivalry, but (in this unit) there has been proof of little test and growth except for that of Sir Gawain. He is the perfect knight through his human fallibility, and his deep emotional reaction to the revelation that he is both better and worse than he thought himself.