The Good, the Bad and the Gawain: Identity Development in the Tradition of Medieval Knighthood

In reading, understanding and analyzing Medieval romance literature, it is easy to fall into the trap of pigeon- holing central characters into the moral traits of either “good” or “bad”. We look for tell- tale signs of heroism or villainy, especially when the romance involves a knight as one of its principal personages. Knights have always been seen as a literary trope that generally symbolize the good. To be a “bad” or evil” knight is to shock an audience. Oral history, written storytelling, and also current- day depictions from popular media of various characters from Arthurian medieval romances have contributed to viewing mystical- historical personas in that way.  

Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s Round Table can be viewed as one of those individuals at risk for being considered historically “good” or “bad” through the medieval romance tales The Rise of Gawain and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight found within The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm. A “bad” knight could be considered as one that does not follow the code of the Order of Chivalry, whereas a “good” one is a knight that does. That being noted, following the guidelines of knighthood is not a simple, black- and white- affair. It is a very intricate social order that centers itself around the development and creation of  both a collective and personal identity.The Sir Gawain of The Rise of Gawain is a newly named knight fixated on following all etiquette and establishing himself as a trustworthy and valuable member of the brotherhood of chivalry. As someone who is portrayed as having no identity and instead is brought up into one through his vocational knighthood training, we may view him as a “good” knight. However, the Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, takes some not- so- chivalrous actions that could lead him to be viewed as a “bad” knight, or at least one that fell off the wagon of following the code of knighthood.

In truth, it is altogether possible for the two differently depicted Sir Gawains of Rise of Sir Gawain and the Gawain of SGGK to be one in the same, as the concept of knighthood in medieval romance literature is ever- evolving and unique to each individual whose chooses to take up its vocation. What makes a knight noteworthy and famed are his defining characteristics that emerge from within the conventions of identity as they relate to medieval knighthood. Each knight takes an oath to follow the code of the chivalrous brotherhood, and it is through exploring the possibilities of this knighthood and trying to stay true to them that a man grows and changes. As said by Medievalist Victoria L. Weiss, “Chivalry is an institution of men- not supermen, but real men… He [Sir Gawain] is not the usual cardboard hero of romance who nevers fails and who is always in control… these human reactions should not keep us from regarding Gawain as worthy of knighthood”(Weiss, 187).

Chapter III of The Book of the Order of Chivalry or Knighthood by Franciscan philosopher Ramon Llull lists The Responsibilities that Pertain to a Knight, which can be used to cross- reference the acts of men of chivalry to the expectations that he is obligated to uphold by the nature of his vocation. Knighthood was considered to be a vocation just as important as one to religious life, as both were rooted in the betterment of one’s being. Amongst these expectations is included:

 

Support and defend the Catholic Faith

Support and defend his earthly lord

Succor and help those that are in lower orders

Chastity, to do no wrong or violate the rights of women,

 

to name a few(Llull, 2-5).  “Justice, wisdom, charity, loyalty, truth, humility, strength, hope promptness and all other similar virtues pertain to the preparedness of the Knight’s soul”(Llull, 4). These values would be closely adhered to by the “cardboard hero of romance” at all times, as described by Weiss, in that all men are upheld to this standard as part of a larger collective within medieval tradition(Weiss, 187). Pressure to excel in this exclusive craft creates a certain identity that each male must grow into in order to be revered as a knight.  In considering Gawain specifically, we can see where he fits this mold and where he, like any other well- meaning earthly person, falters.

Who is Sir Gawain? An essential characteristic within the concept of medieval knighthood is the formation of a personal and unique identity which separates men of gallantry from one another. Anything from social status to fashion sense has the potential to contribute to the identity of a medieval man, yet the most telling of all is the action taken by each man that truly demonstrates his character. The concept of anonymity within the romance creates a platform or blank canvas on which the activity of each person can speak for him. “The theme of establishing one’s identity gives The Rise of Gawain its structure and plot. Gawain must first learn who he is as an individual: a knight of incomparable prowess but known only as the “Knight of the Surcoat”(378). We are to read on about this nameless boy and know him not by just a name, but by actions and character development that render a name significant to his knighthood.

A regular occurrence within the medieval romance is the ambiguous and mystical origins of a hero coupled with his unawareness of self. Gawain is completely unaware of his royal origins for the entirety of his young life.  “From all men and from the boy himself; let not even his real name be revealed” is the order of Viamundus which creates the context of the romance(382). Upon the death of his foster father, he is then taken back into the palace and educated in the order of knighthood until at the age of 15, he valiantly receives arms, dons a red tunic and becomes the “New Knight with the Surcoat on his Armour” or simply the “Knight of the Surcoat”(383). The Surcoat of which we first come to recognize him serves as a symbol of his identity, as to be a knight is an identity in and of itself. Through his dedication to learning his craft, “He has achieved worthiness of membership in the Arthurian fellowship of knights primarily by his deeds, and not thanks to his name, reputation, or linage” as Arthuriana’s The Man with No Name: Identity in French Arthurian Verse Romance explains, for as far as the boy or anyone else knows, he has none(Gordon, 72). This lad has gone from a boy to a knight, but the individual knight he develops into still has yet to be determined.

His formal name is still not revealed to us until the end of the romance, upon having “accomplished some outstanding exploit” of having slaughtered and decapitated a rival king and company in King Arthur’s presence(405). As previously established, the duty of a knight is to “support and defend his earthly lord, for neither a king nor any high baron has the power to uphold righteousness among his people without aid and help”(Llull, 3). In order to prove himself worthy of the title of a knight, the boy must pledge his commitment to his earthy lord, King Arthur, through acts of skilled combat and courage. In fact, he is so committed to his vocation that despite his interest in a queen “greatly attracted” to him, he tells her “It is plain that the king exceeds us in the number of and strength of his soldiers” and because he is needed to defend his king and his kingdom against another, he cannot entertain her wishes(389, 390). Instead Gawain says to her “If my desire could be joined by equal ability, without doubt there would be no delay in obeying your will”, as his loyalty, chastity and commitment not to violate the female sex must come before his own desires(390).  

Here, the “Knight of the Surcoat” is named as “Gawain” not due to anything else but his courage, loyalty and accomplishments(408). Is is through studying the traditions and expectations of knighthood and the desire to excel in them in all ways that Sir Gawain is not only dubbed “a  man more notable than all the rest for his loyalty, his strength, his noble courage, his breeding and his manners” as according to The Book of the Order of Chivalry or Knighthood, which becomes a form of identity for this anonymous boy, but he is also referred to by use of his proper name. Thereafter, the name of Gawain is deserving of knighthood by means of  his outstanding character(Llull, 1). To be a knight is to assume part of a collective identity of a bigger brotherhood, but to be Sir Gawain is to be uniquely him.

The Rise of Gawain creates an ideal of the perfect medieval knight that readers would expect to see followed in other stories related to him. However, having this expectation is altogether unrealistic, as the whole point of committing oneself to the order of knighthood is to seek self- improvement and to always “ask himself whether the excellence of his manliness and good behavior accorded properly with the principles of the Order”(1). This is impossible if the Gawain we see here is already perfect. In order for the self- improving tradition of medieval knighthood to continue, we need a broad spectrum of “Gawains” underneath the one name. In understanding him as a boy of no particular title who ascended to a man of elevated social status, we also understand him as both flawed and human. He will have his good days and his bad days just as any other medieval man.

The Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not have the opportunity to allow his anonymity to aid in the development of his legacy, as he is already named as Gawain within the text. In knowing the knight of The Rise of Gawain, there is already a precedent for him set by the valiancy that this name represents within the order of chivalry. This particular Gawain could be someone we might define as a “bad knight” or not one necessarily or entirely fitted for the title of a knight. His name and his actions in this instance conflict as we expect him to be constantly honorable, yet there are times when he does the exact opposite of what we expect a knight to do. The name of Sir Gawain takes on a different role in determining who he is.

“Gawain the good”, as referred to in Fit 1, displays his loyalty to King Arthur just as he had in The Rise of Gawain in saying “While so many bold warriors are warming these benches… My body has no blessing except from what comes from your blood”(414, 420). Seated next to Queen Guinevere at the Christmas feast, it is clear that he is valued by his uncle the king for his morality and knowledge in warfare(414). He offers to take the place of Arthur in battling the Green Knight while other skilled and able- bodied knights basically sit back and serve as benchwarmers.

Despite the indication that he is a man of merit, Gawain displays the humility essential to knighthood and humbly states that now his only claim to fame is being akin to Arthur. He attempts to simply offer himself up in his uncle’s place and dismiss his previously established legacy as a skilled warrior, which was impossible to do in The Rise of Gawain given Gawain’s initial mysterious lineage. Now that everything is out in the open, Gawain has the opportunity to use his newly acknowledged social status in conjunction with his knightly vocation to be of noble assistance to Arthur and the Round Table. Ironically, although he wants to evade being inutile and takes action in the name of Arthur by striking the first blow to the Green Knight and vowing “to be promptly repaid on the approaching New Year’s morn”, he behaves cowardly,“lies in his gaudy bed, lolling there while daylight is lengthening on the walls”, indulges in the women of other men and does not prepare for battle(421, 441). Because he is unprepared, he then dishonestly steals the Lord’s sash which unlike the Surcoat, becomes a symbol of his shameful negligence to his knighthood. In seeing the comparison between the Surcoat and the sash, we know one Gawain that through action develops a duplicity of meanings.

“The knighting ceremony itself developed from the ancient Germanic maturity rite whereby a youth old enough to participate in war was ceremoniously presented with arms. In its earliest form, then, it had consisted merely of belting a sword around the waist of the candidate”(Weiss, 1). In The Rise of Gawain, in addition to his arms the knight receives the surcoat signaling his individuality amongst a selective group of men, whereas the stolen green sash serves as a symbol “the blame worn” on the neck of one who cowardly loved his life too much to sacrifice it as his oath of chivalry dictates of him(471, 474). However, the sash later transforms into instead a relic of knightly brotherhood, forgiveness and also humility. Gawain, although having allowed his carelessness to influence his decisions, admits to King Arthur

 

“It is a token of the untruthfulness that trapped me,

And I have to wear it for as long as I may live;

For a man can hide his hurt, but never hurl it away,

Since once it is attached, it will not disappear”(475).

 

In publicly acknowledging his wrong doings and being resigned to accept them, he elicits sympathy and praise from King Arthur even after having wronged both his uncle and the code of chivalry.  The result of his heartfelt apology is that “they agreed that every member of their baldric should wear a baldric, a slanted belt about him of burnished green, out of sympathy for the sake of their sweet friend” who did not really act so sweetly(475). “In this way, all heroes were honored that wore the belt”, even though Gawain did not act heroically and completely deviated from what we would considered to be proper behavior for a well- renowned knight of the Round Table(475).

We can say that Gawain screwed up big time as someone who was not portrayed as a model of perfect knightly behavior in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even though he maybe he is supposed to be according The Rise of Gawain. Perfection simply is not something that can be realistically attained. When somebody makes a mistake and sincerely repents or offers up an apology, that action debatably says more about their character than their initial faux pas, which is perhaps why Gawain ends up being rewarded by Arthur in the end.

This might come as confusing in reading SGGK and Rise of Sir Gawain and comparatively thinking that one Gawain is way better or worse than the other. In reality, they are the same. We are introduced to a young knight set on always doing good- everybody starts off with good intentions, but putting them into practice is another thing, as Gawain himself recognizes in professing his regret. At the onset of the romance, he humbly states that his only redeeming quality is his newfound connection to Arthur. In his sloth, he seemed to have forgotten his humility, but then later on re- harnesses it as he reflects on his wrongdoing and has to admit them to his king. He redeems himself by returning to the focus of his vocation, which is to be continually on the path towards a better him. The act of both questioning himself and submitting himself to possible ridicule or even being shamed out of his knighthood by others, yet willing to take the risk, shows that he is growing a person. As said by Victoria L. Weiss, “To recognize… Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to see that Gawain has indeed grown”, but does not mean that we find Gawain as perfect(Weiss, 186). There are “flaws in Gawain- flaws which might keep us from regarding the hero as worthy of the praise and honor” of knighthood(Weiss, 186).

Knighthood due to its many conventions and expectations allows itself to be exemplified and executed in a variety of ways. This differing interpretation of what it means to be part of the Order of Knighthood aids in formation of different knightly individuals. In the case of Sir Gawain, it allows for him to be a complex and evolving character within medieval romance history and tradition who can be both analyzed and critiqued, but also emulated and revered for his humanity in that although of a high social status he, just like everyone else, has flaws. Having flaws is not something that makes him a “bad” knight at all, but rather a worthy example of how knighthood was essential in unceasingly helping develop the moral compass of men.

The anonymity of Gawain on his onset allows for him to be recognized later not only by his surcoat or the symbolism of his sash, but by his demeanor, strengths and weaknesses. If all men were to be exactly the same in every story in which they appear, then the tales that survive and are still told, collected in anthologies and portrayed in everything from popular culture to modern day romantic relations would not exist. The same predictable story about the same predictable “knight” leaves very little appeal for readers and even less to the literary imagination. The variation of how each knight becomes and is a knight is what makes his legacy appealing, as each knight seeks to have a lasting legacy.

The development into a knight of the Round Table in an Arthurian medieval romance is a constant learning experience that involves making mistakes and testing oneself. Failing does not make a man “good” or “bad” in the gaze of medieval knighthood, so long as he recognizes his mistakes and humbly seeks to correct them all his life. Knighthood is not noted by the symbol of the sword or sash, but by the heart of the man. By nature of our humanity, both the good and the bad are at play within each person, including Sir Gawain. Neither Sir Gawain in his rise, nor in his transgressions depict a concrete definition of what it means to be a knight of the Round Table. What it takes to be a “good” or worthy knight, and to recognize one, is simply the acknowledgement that although born imperfect, a chivalrous man will always desire to become perfect. There is no “good” Sir Gawain or “bad” Sir Gawain, just simply a Gawain.

 

Works Cited:

 

Gordon, Sarah E. “The Man with No Name: Identity in French Arthurian Verse Romance.”

Arthuriana18.2 (2008): 69-81. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

<http://www.jstor.org/stable/27870906&gt;.

 

Lacy, Norris J., and James J. Wilhelm, eds. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval

Texts in Translation. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

 

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W.W Norton and Company, 2010. Web. 13 Dec.

  1. <https://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/middleages/topic_1/lull.htm&gt;.

 

Weiss, Victoria L. “The Medieval Knighting Ceremony in Sir Gawain and the Green

Knight.” The Chaucer Review (1978): 183-89. Print.

 

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