Arthurian Romance

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King Arthur has been an important figure in English literature since singers and story-tellers first described his great exploits in the 6th-century. Of course, the legend of  King Arthur has been appropriated by many story-tellers and poets, who have embellished upon the first, most modest tales. Part of the intrigue of the stories, which became part of Arthurian romance, though, is the mixture of myth, adventure, love, enchantment, and tragedy. The magic and intrigue of these stories invite even more far-fetched and elaborate interpretations.

While these stories and bits of poetry depict a utopian society of long ago, though, they also reflect the society from which they were (and are being) created. By comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Morte d'Arthur with ​Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," we see the evolution of the Arthurian myth.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Defined as "narrative, written in prose or verse and concerned with adventure, courtly love and chivalry," Arthurian romance derived the narrative verse form from 12th-century France. The anonymous 14th-century English romance "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is the most widely recognized example of Arthurian romance. Although little is known about this poet, who we may refer to as the Gawain or Pearl-Poet, the poem seems fairly typical of Arthurian Romance. Here, a magical creature (the Green Knight) has challenged a noble knight to a seemingly impossible task, in the pursuit of which he meets fierce beasts and the temptation of a beautiful woman. Of course, the young knight, in this case, Gawain, displays courage, skill and chivalric courtesy in overcoming his foe. And, of course, it seems fairly cut-and-dried.

Beneath the surface, though, we seem some very different features. Framed by the treachery of ​Troy, the poem links two main plot motifs: the beheading game, in which the two parties agree to an exchange of blows with an ax, and the exchange of winnings, in this case involving temptation that tests Sir Gawain's courtesy, courage, and loyalty. The Gawain-Poet appropriates these themes from other folklore and romance to accomplish a moral agenda, as each of these motifs is linked to the quest and ultimate failure of Gawain.

In the context of the society in which he lives, Gawain faces not only the complexity of obeying God, King, and Queen and following all of the overlapping contradictions which his position as knight entails, but he becomes a sort of mouse in a much bigger game of heads, sex, and violence. Of course, his honor is constantly at stake as well, which makes him feel as though he has no choice but to play the game, listening and trying to obey as many of the rules as he can along the way. In the end, his attempt fails.

Sir Thomas Malory: Morte D'Arthur

The chivalric code was slipping away even in the 14th-century when the anonymous Gawain-Poet was putting pen to paper. By the time of Sir Thomas Malory and his "Morte D'Arthur" in the 15th-century, feudalism was becoming even more obsolete. We see in the earlier poem a fairly realistic treatment of the Gawain story. As we move to Malory, we see a continuation of the chivalric code, but other features demonstrate the transition that literature is making at the end of the Medieval period as we move into the Renaissance. While the Middle Ages still had promise, it was also a time of great change. Malory must have known that the ideal of chivalry was dying out. From his perspective, order falls into chaos. The fall of the Round Table represents the destruction of the feudal system, with all its attachments to chivalry.

Although Malory was known as a man of violent temperaments, he was the first English writer to make prose as sensitive an instrument of narrative as English poetry has always been. During a period of imprisonment, Malory composed, translated, and adapted his great rendering of Arthurian material, which is the most complete treatment of the story. The "French Arthurian Prose Cycle" (1225-1230) served as his primary source, along with the 14th-century English "Alliterative Morte d'Arthur" and the "Stanzaic Morte". Taking these, and possibly other, sources, he disentangled the threads of narration and reintegrated them into his own creation.

The characters in this work stand in stark contrast to the Gawain, Arthur, and Guinevere of earlier works. Arthur is much weaker than we usually imagine, as he is ultimately unable to control his own knights and the events of his kingdom. Arthur's ethics fall prey to the situation; his anger blinds him, and he is unable to see that the people he loves can and will betray him.

Throughout "Morte d' Arthur," we notice the Wasteland of characters that cluster together at Camelot. We know the ending (that Camelot must eventually fall into its spiritual Wasteland, that Guenevere will flee with Launcelot, that Arthur will fight Launcelot, leaving the door open for his son Mordred to take over – reminiscent of the Biblical King David and his son Absalom – and that Arthur and Mordred will die, leaving Camelot in turmoil). Nothing–not love, courage, fidelity, faithfulness, or worthiness – can save Camelot, even if this chivalric code could have held up under the pressure. None of the knights are good enough. We see that not even Arthur (or especially Arthur) is not good enough to sustain such an ideal. In the end, Guenevere dies in a nunnery; Launcelot dies six months later, a holy man.

Tennyson: Idylls of the King

From the tragic tale of Lancelot and the fall of his whole world, we jump to Tennyson's rendition of Malory's tale in Idylls of the King. The Middle Ages was a time of glaring contradictions and contrasts, a time when chivalric masculinity was the impossible ideal. Jumping forward so many years, we see the reflection of a new society upon Arthurian romance. In the 19th-century, there was a resurgence of Medievalist practices. Extravagant mock-tournaments and pseudo-castles took attention away from the problems that society was facing, in the industrialization and disintegration of cities, and the poverty and marginalization of vast numbers of people.

The Medieval period presents chivalrous masculinity as an impossible ideal, while Tennyson's​ Victorian approach is tempered with a great deal of expectation that ideal manhood could be achieved. While we see a rejection of the pastoral, in this era, we also notice a dark manifestation of the ideology governing the separate spheres and the ideal of domesticity. Society has changed; Tennyson reflects this evolution in many of the ways he presents problems, passions, and strife.

Tennyson's version of the events that shroud Camelot is remarkable in its depth and imagination. Here, the poet traces the birth of a king, the building of the Round Table, its existence, its disintegration, and the final passing of the King. He traces the rise and fall of a civilization in scope, writing about love, heroism, and conflict all in relation to a nation. Be he is still drawing from Malory's work, so Tennyson's details only embellish upon what we already expect from such an Arthurian romance. To the story, too, he adds an emotional and psychological depth that was lacking in earlier versions.

Conclusions: Tightening the Knot

So, through the gap of time from the Medieval literature of the 14th and 15th-century to the Victorian era, we see a dramatic change in the presentation of the Arthurian tale. Not only are the Victorians much more hopeful that the idea of proper behavior will work, but the whole frame of the story becomes a representation of a falling/failing of the Victorian civilization. If women would only be more pure and faithful, it is surmised, the ideal presumably would hold up under the disintegrating society. It is interesting to see how these codes of behavior evolved over time to fit the needs of writers, and indeed of the people as a whole. Of course, in the evolution of the stories, we see an evolution in characterization. While Gawain is an ideal knight in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," representing a more Celtic ideal, he becomes increasingly mean and conniving as Malory and Tennyson sketch him with words.

Of course, this change in characterization is also a difference in the needs of the plot. In "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Gawain is the individual who stands against chaos and magic in the attempt to bring order back to Camelot. He must represent the ideal, even if that chivalric code is not good enough to stand up completely to the demands of the situation.

As we progress onward to Malory and Tennyson, Gawain becomes a character in the background, thus a negative or evil character that works against our hero, Lancelot. In the later versions, we see the inability of the chivalric code to stand up. Gawain is corrupted by anger, as he leads Arthur further astray and prevents the king from reconciling with Lancelet. Even our hero of these later tales, Lancelet, is not able to hold up under the pressures of his responsibility to both the king and the queen. We see the change in Arthur, as he becomes increasingly weak, unable to hold the kingdom together with his human powers of persuasion, but more than that, we see a dramatic change in Guinevere, as she is presented as more human, even though she still represents the ideal and thus the cult of true womanhood in some sense. In the end, Tennyson allows Arthur to forgive her. We see a humanity, a depth of personality in Tennyson's Guinevere that Malory and the Gawain-Poet were not able to accomplish.

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Lombardi, Esther. "Arthurian Romance." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Lombardi, Esther. (2021, September 7). Arthurian Romance. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "Arthurian Romance." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).