Chivalry In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, The Knight’s Tale, And Malory’s Morte

2137 words - 9 pages

The term “chivalry” refers to one of the most popular medieval social ideals. Indeed, this term has excited the imagination of poets and readers throughout history, and modern cultures continue to revise the chivalric ideals of past ages. However, pinpointing what the term meant within the medieval period is difficult at best. The source of this difficulty lies within the fact that there was never one consistent definition for chivalry. Indeed, the meaning of the word seems to shift between cultures and throughout time. For example, the earliest usage of the word seems to denote only mounted cavalry; however, as time shifts, the word becomes synonymous with certain martial ideals. As the period progresses, the ideal of chivalry encompasses a more total social paradigm, incorporating a wide array of ideals including honor, hospitality, and love. Even this rough outline of chivalry’s history fails to account for the shifting ground that surrounds this term. However, regardless of an individual culture or poet’s conception of chivalry, it remained a popular ideal. Indeed, it was most often communicated within the genre of romance, and romance is among the most popular of medieval genres. Often times, these romances not only celebrate the ideal of chivalry but they also examine and critique it. Certainly, the form of the romance offers a perfect vehicle for this exercise. Whereas epic heroes are different from ordinary people by kind, the heroes of romance are different only by degree. While they may be a little stronger, a little smarter, or a little more honorable than the average person, we see within their victories the victories of the culture, and we experience within their failures the failures of the social system. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Knight’s Tale, and Malory’s Morte are three texts that examine the institution of chivalry, and each of the three ultimately expresses doubt that its human practitioners can live up to its high ideals.

The fourteenth century work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most famous and complex of the medieval romances. This text puts Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s greatest knights to the test, and in doing so, interrogates the chivalric ideals. The tale begins with what seems to be a stock romantic scene. Arthur has gathered his knights together for a celebration, and as is typical with Arthur, he refuses to begin the proceedings until there has been an “adventure.” As if to answer his request, the Green Knight arrives, but the adventure that he offers is certainly not the one that Arthur expected. The Knight, whose appearance clearly marks him as an outsider, offers to trade strokes with any knight brave enough to challenge him. His challenge is met with silence, and it is clear that these knights, who represent the greatest gathering of chivalry in history, clearly fail to live up to their ideals. Angered by this intruder and shamed by his own knights, Arthur...

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