Honor and chivalry, principle and kingship, servitude and courage: These are the foundations of the knights depicted throughout medieval literature. The essential difference among the knights however, is often spread throughout the medieval works as a highly prevalent tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, known as “Courtly Love”. This distinctive characterization can be noted quite differently amidst Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot of King Arthur’s round table. Sir Gawain presented religious chastity in the face of temptation, while Sir Lancelot enticed Gwenivere with his noble nature and longings for the symbolic pleasures of the flesh. These two opposing figures of chivalry represent the fundamental contrast among noble knights: the pursuit of courtly love as compared to dutiful continence.
Sir Gawain’s measure of abstinence and loyalty to a noble lord is depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Amongst the prevailing plot of Sir Gawain’s devotion to the wager of the Green Knight, Sir Gawain stays for a brief period at the home of a local Lord. The Lord’s wife took a liking instantly to Sir Gawain, and thus gave the beginnings of what would seem to be an adulterous affair, as in many medieval depictions. Upon their third meeting alone, the lord’s wife says to Sir Gawain, “Now shame you deserve, if you love not one that lies alone here beside you, who beyond all women in the world is wounded in heart, unless you have a lemman, more beloved, whom you like better, and have affianced faith to that fair one so fast and so true that your release you desire not and so I believe now; and to tell me if that be so truly, I beg you. For all sakes that men swear by conceal not the truth in guile.” Within this context is the giving of one’s own body for the pleasure of the knight. Never so openly is there a concise measure for the impiety of chastity among the knights than this. Sir Gawain has the choice of bedding the woman in presumed secrecy for the indulgence of his lust, or to deny her. Sir Gawain responds plainly with, “By Saint John, Nay! lover have I none, and none will have meanwhile.” Being the third time she attempts to court Sir Gawain, there is a sense of a possible weakened state, possibly to claim a chivalrous notion to help a damsel in distress as it were. But despite her countenance and seductive attempts, Sir Gawain stands firm, yet courteous in his refutal of the noblewoman.
The third attempt of seduction by the noblewoman is also predominantly significant because of her attempt at giving Sir Gawain a gift. As read in context, “A rich ring she offered him of red gold fashioned, with stone like a star standing up clear that bore brilliant beams as bright as the sun...But the knight said nay to it, and announced then at once: I will have no gifts, for God, of your grace at this time. I have none to return to you, and naught will I take.” The significance of the ring is prevalent within it’s symbolism for marriage and as such, the giving of oneself sexually to another. Sir Gawain refutes the gift because he knows that it’s meaning gives the same indulgence and consequence of courtly love and thus, adulterous behavior. There is another significance within the third meeting of the noblewoman with Sir Gawain and the offering of the ring within the theme of holy beatitude. The ring symbolizes eternity because it has no beginning and and no end, thus it is used for religious symbolism of the never-ending love within a marriage, but it also symbolizes the eternity in a divine reference to Christ’s gift of eternal life. The eternal life Christ offers as payment for the obedience of his beatitudes and faith in him. The symbolism of Christianity is again seen within the three meetings of the noblewoman. This meeting of three signifying the holy trinity of God, the Holy Ghost and Christ, hence another symbolic reference to pious driven abstinence. Sir Gawain denies the noblewoman and brought upon himself the gift from the lord of the fox from the hunt: A carefully situated symbolic icon that displayed Sir Gawain’s cunning in his denial of the noblewoman while still commending her honor.
Sir Lancelot shows a different approach on courtly love, and is a strict contradistinction from Sir Gawain. In Chretien De Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart, Sir Lancelot is shown as having a deep and profound love toward King Arthur’s queen Gwenivere. His quest through violent jousting and countless endeavors from murderous lords and lustful demanding maidens, is but a test of his continuing quest for the captured queen. The important scene of the story is the first meeting of Gwenivere with Lancelot, “‘My lady’ said the king, ‘This is Lancelot, who has come to see you.’ ‘To see me? He cannot please me, sire. I have no interest in seeing him...Sire, in truth he has wasted his efforts. I shall always deny that I feel any gratitude towards him.’” Gwenivere denies Lancelot, confusing him beyond all belief. Gwenivere conducted herself this way partly because she was still upset at Lancelot’s decision not to step in the cart, and more abundantly to conceal her hidden desire for him.
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There love for one another is shared again with their separate decisions to kill themselves upon hearing that the other had been killed, and finally revealed upon their next fateful meeting. The next significant scene occurs when Lancelot secretly visits Gwenivere at night at her tower. “When Lancelot saw the queen leaning upon the window ledge behind the thick iron bars, he greeted her softly...They were vexed beyond measure being unable to come together, and they cursed the iron bars..Lancelot boasted that, if the queen wished it, he could come in to her...’Of course I want you to be with me,” she replied...‘But you must wait until I am lying in bed, in case some noise might reveal your presence, for we would be in grave trouble if seneschal sleeping here were to be awakened by us. So I must go now, for if he saw me standing here he’d see no good in it.’ In opposition to a chivalrous virtue of truth, Sir Lancelot confides to Gwenivere’s wishes due to his own desire for her. He forswears his king and his honor to cuckoldry in his deep and passionate love for Gwenivere. A love Troyes describes when he states, “But if her love for him was strong, he felt a hundred thousand times more for her, Love in the hearts of others was nothing compared with the love he felt in his.” It was a true love, a deep love, but a forbidden love. Gwenivere’s initial concealment of her love with her denial of meeting Lancelot at the first mention was because psychologically she was ashamed because of her devotion to her king and to Christ in marriage. Their shameful behavior in again noted within the next meeting in secrecy and in the night. Gwenivere warns Lancelot not to make much noise or it could awake the guard and thus revealing their “sinful” intentions. It is assumed that they consummated their secret love when Troyes points out, “But I shall let it remain a secret forever, since it should not be written of: the most delightful and choicest pleasure is that which is hinted at, but never told.” The more important aspect of the passage however is not the assumption, but the fact that Troyes admits that such things should not be written of, displaying himself as a Pontius Pilate, absolving himself of the approval of adulterous behavior. Sir Lancelot reveals himself to hold an undying love for a beautiful maiden who happens to be a wife, and a queen and thus, all religion aside, dishonors Kingship and thus chivalry. This proves that Sir Lancelot’s behavior is in direct contrast to Sir Gawain’s dedication in the area of sexual respect.
Thus the juxtaposition of Knighthood its presented among two of the round tables’ most well regarded knights. On one side there is the faithful abstinence from Sir Gawain for the loyalty and truthfulness to a noble lord, and on the other, the deceitful and shameful, yet passionate love from Sir Lancelot for his king’s queen. This reoccurring thematic clash between the chivalry of virtue, and the lusts and desires of courtly love present themselves within many medieval works including such example as those of Malory and Marie de France. From the excites and pleasures found within King Arthur’s promiscuity, to the deadly penalties of adulterous behavior found in Equitan. It is without a doubt that this was a very popular topic and very clear controversial subject. The crusades and absolving of all templar’s sins might have contributed to this pagan resistance to chastity, or perhaps on the other hand contributed to the celibacy of Christian virtue, but it is certain that religious bigotry contributed to the controversial differences in knights found in literature, as Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot. Perhaps the courtly lovers are doomed to the fate of ravaging wolves and boiling hot tubs from the works of Marie De France. Or perhaps it is to be tortured for all eternity throughout the first circle of Hell described in The Divine Comedy, but it can be certain that there was a always passionate desire for countenance and courtly love shared by all people of the time, as has been, and is today.
Joseph Ray on August 29, 2014:
This is a good article. I have heard from various sources that Tolkien's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not the best version for following the actual medieval tale as Tolkien was not actually the biggest fan of King Arthur. I have yet to read Tolkien's version though, so I myself cannot actually judge.