In times of old when kings, knights, and mythical beings of legends ruled over the lands, tales of epic quests and journeys were the common theme among authors of the era. In these writings and tales of old, certain aspects of the characters within were portrayed. It was these aspects themselves that were perceived as common among people living during the time. People of the time were expected to behave with certain mannerisms and uphold beliefs common throughout the world. Such common manners and characteristics were predominantly those of chivalry and courtesy. While both of these traits are upheld within many texts written during the Middle Ages and the system was followed by the court as the mainstay for centuries, they too were not without fallacy.
In two such tales of chivalrous knights, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, one can see how, while this system was a step forward in the development of structured laws and standards, it was not without its problems. Sometimes a knight might have to make a different choice to uphold both the perceptions of what makes him a chivalrous and courtly person.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of a noble knight who just happens to be the nephew of the legendary King Arthur. During a winter festival the court of King Arthur is approached by a man of gigantic stature, dressed from head to toe in green, and even this man’s steed is green. The Green Knight challenges the court to a game, and states the conditions of the game. No one in Arthur’s court jumps at the challenge offered by the knight, so Arthur himself is left to take on the challenge. It is then that chivalry is displayed by Gawain as “Toward the king doth now incline / “I beseech, before all here, / That this melee may be mine.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 340 – 342). Gawain asks for the king’s permission to take the challenge offered by the Green Knight, thus showing his courage and chivalrous nature to all. His act of chivalry, though brave, leads him to journey within a years’ time in search of the knight so that he may fulfill his promise. Once again Gawain chivalrously tells of his knightly beliefs when:
He said, “Why should I tarry?”
And smiled with tranquil eye;
“In destinies sad or merry,
True men can but try.” (SGGK 563-565).
This he said to a council of knights, advisers, and others who knew that he would probably die in his quest. Yet being a knight and bound by the court traditions, Gawain sets off.
While searching for the Green Knight, Gawain finds himself traveling through mountains, marsh, and forests. It was within one of these forests that he finds a castle. Gawain rides to the castle and asks for permission from the castle’s lord to take lodge inside for the night. During his stay, he meets the queen of the castle who is accompanied by an old woman. Gawain thus “to the elder in homage he humbly bows; / The lovelier he salutes with a light embrace. / He claims a comely kiss, and courteously he speaks;” (SGGK 973 – 975) showing he is a courtly knight. The next morning when Gawain prepares to leave, the castle’s lord asks that Gawain stay. In a display of courtesy, he accepts the offer and stays once more.
During his stay in the castle, Gawain is offered a game from the lord, a simple game of prizes to be exchanged at the end of the days. Gawain accepts the terms of the game, once more displaying that he is a courtly knight. As simple as the game may be, it challenges Gawain’s knightly virtues of chivalry and courtesy. Upon the next morning Gawain is tempted by the lord’s lady, who tries to seduce him. Gawain is thus faced with a complex decision; his courtesy is to do as the lady asks. Gawain uses his wits and tries to discredit his own reputation to dissuade the lady’s attempts. While they continue to talk, Gawain tells the lady:
“You are bound to a better man,” the bold knight said,
“Yet I prize the praise you have proffered me here,
And soberly your servant, my sovereign I told you,
And acknowledge me your knight, in the name of Christ.” (SGGK 1276-1279).
The lady finally leaves upon Gawain fulfilling her one request for a simple kiss; Gawain fails to refuse the kiss. Gawain exchanges the kiss later to the lord, and does not reveal where it came from. The seduction acts continue for two more days, and each time Gawain does his best to remain both courteous to the lady of the castle, but at the same time try to remain true to the lord. It is only in the third of these days that Gawain finally fails as a knight when, in fear of his own death later from the Green Knight, he accepts a green girdle from the lady. Not only does he break the knightly virtues of chivalry by accepting such a gift from another lord’s lady, but he also has failed because he is doing so to cheat his opponent. Furthermore he never told the lord of the girdle.
When the day came for Gawain to face the Green Knight, he once again faltered in his chivalry. He wore the girdle in hopes it would spare his life and faced the knight. On the first attempt the knight’s ax swing, Gawain flinched, displaying his fear. The next two he remained still, but the Green Knight did not kill Gawain. All was told to Gawain of the trickery that had been planned out, and how it was known about his actions over the days already. Gawain returns to Arthur’s court to tell his tale, of his failure to be both courteous and chivalrous in the face of his challenges.
Another tale of a knight is recorded in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale. The woman tells the story of a noble knight, who does a terrible deed and must repay his actions through a quest given by the queen and her court. The knight in her tale was guilty of raping a maiden that he lusted for, and was brought before the king to be sentenced. The queen and other ladies of the court intervened and proposed that for punishment in lieu of death, the knight would have to search the land for an answer to the Queen’s question and after one year time, present his findings to the queen and court. The knight travels the land asking maidens and ladies in an effort to find the answer that will spare his life.
He has definitely not been a chivalrous knight in his actions through raping a maiden, but he has upheld them in his dutiful quest to find the answer for the queen. Searching high and low the knight was not able to find the answer and being a chivalrous knight “Within his brest ful sorweful was his gost, / But hoom he gooth, he mighte nat sojurne: / The day was come that hoomward moste he turne.” (Chaucer 992 – 994) he returned to meet his fate at the court. While traveling back home the knight happens upon a group of ladies and rides to them in the hope of finding the answer to the question. When the knight arrives at the ladies there is but an old woman standing there, an ugly woman at that. She asks the knight what troubles him, and he proceeds to tell of his quest set forth by the queen. Under the condition of doing what she asks, she promises to give the knight the answer. The knight gives the queen the answer and his life is spared. The old woman then asks for her promise.
The old woman requests, before queen and court, that the knight is married unto her. In a unchivalrous manner, the knight answered:
…”Alas and wailaway,
I woot right wel that swich was my biheeste.
For Goddes love, as chees a newe requeste:
Taak al my good and lat my body go.” (Chaucer 1064-1067).
In fear of being married to an old and ugly woman, the knight broke his chivalry and was not true to his word. Exclaiming this before the old woman and court discredited his courtesy as he slandered the old woman saying that it would be degrading it his lineage to marry such a woman. Despite this fact and protest, he secretly marries her in the morning. Later when the knight and the woman are in bed together, he treats her unjustly and she questions him as such “Fareth every knight thus with his wif as ye? / Is this the lawe of King Arthures hous? / Is every knight of his thus daungerous?” (Chaucer 1094-1096) questioning his chivalry and courtesy as a knight.
As the tale continues the knight finally gives into the woman and grants her what she wants, and allows her to make the choice for herself of what she wishes to be. The lady becomes a beautiful maiden, both faithful and true.
It is from both tales that the aspects of chivalry and courtesy are revered of equal importance for both knights. This chivalry and courtesy do well for both of them when showing their bravery and commitment to their lord. Both Gawain and the knight from The Wife of Bath’s Tale are courteous to the woman they meet and speak with mannerisms that were expected of a knight. In the case of Gawain, this earns him a problem of trying to remain true to the lord of the castle while also remaining courteous to the lord’s lady. For the knight in the Wife’s tale, it has only brought shame to himself for the way he speaks about the old woman. Chivalry and the knight’s code keep both men true to their quest but also caused each a great deal of strife at the same time.
In the end, it can be said that it is impossible to remain entirely chivalrous and courtesy as a knight. The two traits that are valued conflict with one another in a way that may create a situation in which one has to be canceled out for the other to be achieved. Gawain and the other knight tried to maintain both their chivalry and courtesy, but in the end, neither is able to uphold both.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Canterbury Tales. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 2nd ed. Vol 1A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003. Print. 337-356.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Marie Borroff. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 2nd ed. Vol 1A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003. Print. 194-248.