How does Medieval Literature influence today’s society

This paper focuses on the Medieval Literature using the story of King Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The paper analyzes the story of both tales and how the codes of behavior in the past can be related in today’s society. An example of this code of behavior that had been very prominent in the medieval times is chivalry. As a knight, one of the values that a person must possess is the code of chivalry. It also discusses how the codes of behavior affect how society thinks about a person and the different effects of adapting such attitude in our present society. The tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight showed the faults and the preconceptions of society to Sir Gawain. Nowadays, it is hard to find a knight among the people in society. Viewing the scenarios happening in the present day is quite impossible because recently, more people think about themselves rather than worry about anyone else. The sources used for these research paper is the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, translated by Jessie L. Weston, the Encarta Encyclopedia, 1999 edition, World History by Francisco Zaide and other websites that had been helpful in providing some insights and observation regarding the tale of Sir Gawain and King Arthur.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

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How does the Medieval Literature influence today’s society?

I.                   The concept of the Arthurian Tales and the Modern Ages

The story is one of only several stories in the Arthurian legends which show chivalry at its peak. The main theme of most stories would be the devotion of a man to his sworn duty, and that “the strong should protect the weak”. The building of a “Camelot”, a place where everyone is content remains the objective. To achieve this goal, an order consisting of several nobles was formed, hence was born the famed “Knights of the round table”, a group whose main goal was to right injustices and to serve the needy. The concept of Camelot itself is a Utopia which is yet to be attained. The Modern man has always been torn between two conflicting creeds known in society.  We are referring to man’s constant war between serving his own self interest and serving his neighbor. “The law of the survival of the fittest” is a constant law taking effect today both from scientific and social perspective.  It is a known reality that the weak cater to the strong, and that the strong dominates the weak. This present reality is a complete opposite of the theme represented by Camelot.[1]


II.                Chivalry and the Society

The   tale of “Sir Gawain   and the Green Knight” depicts the impact of chivalry

During the medieval period, it is shown in detail as to how a knight should act towards

another   person. It would appear that the most important part of chivalry is summarized into three things:  first is Integrity, which means having a word of honor; second is courtesy towards your neighbor; and lastly, courage and loyalty. It is well within the   context of the story that chivalry appears to be of more importance than life itself. Dying for one’s principle is and was always a noble vocation worthy of undying praise and adulation. The code of chivalry, as depicted in the Arthurian legends, is a tenet based on respect which a human being has for another person. This is a principle that entails making other people comfortable as much as possible, respecting their rights and acknowledging their worth as an individual. There also appears to be a possibility that a certain class in society may be treated differently from other classes.  As depicted in tales, knights often came from influential families. A knight is almost always a product   of aristocratic upbringing, since aristocrats are the ones which could afford education during those times.  Being a noble would demand preferential treatment both from others within their circle and from a commoner. Hence, if they do something unacceptable in society, only those from the same circle may mete out sanctions, any similar action    from a commoner would definitely mean either repercussion from both commoners and noblemen.[2]

Society nowadays partly recognize the existence of chivalry for instance, it is still  a  prevalent  aspect  of  man’s  existence  to  be  “Gentlemanly”  as  we may  call  it. Americans born and raised in the south still have a high sense of honesty and integrity.

Among them and up to now is pretty famous for being honest and kindhearted. This trait is gradually disappearing in urban areas since such places believe in the principle of “survival of the fittest” and the “dog eats, dog world” saying.  People in big cities are noticeably less warm and hospitable towards their neighbors and of course tend to be indifferent to what their less fortunate neighbor is experiencing. Chivalry as a whole maintains a set culture, because having a chivalrous character means that a person is committed to help the weak and help watch for his welfare. If all people are chivalrous; all people would be content and happy because they would be looking at how they would be able to make their society better as a whole instead of looking for self-gratification in improving their personal lot. Chivalry is a concept which goes hand in hand with morals, justice and “being civilized”. Without a slight hint of chivalry in our being people would be similar to lesser animals, which do not have a sense of what is moral or proper. As noted by Carl Jung, an analytical psychologist in the 1960’s, we could either be civilized ignorants or self-serving animals.  Everyone would be doing as he pleases without any regard for another human being. Basically everything which has something to do with laws, concern for others, and social order has something to do with chivalry.


III.             Analysis of the tale: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In the earliest Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain was the greatest of the Knights of the

Round Table. He was famed for his prowess at arms and, above all, for his courtesy. Here Gawain is the perfect knight; he is recognized by the various characters in the story and, for all his modesty, implicitly in his view of himself. Conclusions on Gawain’s character is revealed further from the description of his armoring when he sets out a year later to meet the Green Knight. The story itself is primarily concerned with the conflict between his conception of his “ideal self” and his “real self”. As the story goes, he eventually found out that “he is weighed but found lacking” so to speak.  He was surprised to know that he was not that brave or honorable as he thought he was, but still brave and honorable beyond ordinary standards[3].

An opportunity to understand Gawain occurs at Bercilak’s castle where the

Household is overjoyed that the holiday guest is Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s court. People whispered that Gawain has “courage ever-constant, and customs pure,”  he  was though of as “the father of fine manners,” and   his  “displays  of  deportment”  will  dazzle  their  eyes.[4]  Through these words it can be seen that Gawain is generally well respected for these characteristics; it is not just his fellow knights who  feel  this  way. At this  castle Gawain  undergoes   many  tests  of   character,  yet  he is unaware that he is being tested. Bercilak’s wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he is able to dodge her advances with clever defenses. On the first day after being told she would marry him if she could he says, “You are bound to a better man, yet I prize the praise you have proffered me here.”[5]. On the second day, the author tells us “Thus she tested his temper and tried many a time, whatever her true intent, to entice him to sin, but so fair was his defense that no fault appeared.”[6] As the days progress, we see how increasingly difficult it becomes for Sir Gawain.[7]

A  thorough  analysis  of  the  mystery  surrounding  the  Green  Knight  is greatly essential for the effect of the poem, which shows Gawain being subjected  to uncertain complexities – it appears that he encountered the undertaking  he  least expects, and not the one  he is thinking of encountering head on.  He was thinking to himself that the real test he has to subject himself into is meeting and receiving a presumably mortal blow from the Green Knight and his axe.  He exhibited   a very human trait; that of fearing death, which he was able to quash later on. After conquering his reluctance, he was able to face the challenge of the Green Knight and accepts the deathblow, It just so happens that this is not the actual test itself but a symbol of a test that was meted out by the Green Knight’s wife, which Gawain has already failed. “We are placed on the side of mortality itself, and can thus, with the Green Knight, forgive Gawain for his single act of cowardice:  what he did was done not out of sensual lust but for love of life–‘the less, then, to blame.’ In the context of this affectionate sympathy, Gawain’s own violent anger[8] at the revelation of his fault must itself be viewed with amusement, as part of his human fallibility.”[9]

“Gawain is, naturally, more fully drawn than any other character. Not only do we observe him  ourselves,  we  are  told  how  he  impressed  other  people  in  the  story and how he himself thought and felt. We see him behaving, as  all  expect  him  to do,  with  exquisite courtesy; but we also see what is  not  apparent to the other characters, that such behavior does not always come easily  to  him. All the time that he is parrying the lady’s advances, we  are  aware  that  he  feels  himself  to  be  on  a  knife-edge  between  discourtesy and compliance.” [10]

IV.              Conclusion

In  the  end,  through  the  Green  Knight’s tests,  we  see  that  Gawain  is  not  the perfect knight he strives to be. Neither we, nor the Green Knight, nor his fellow knights of the Round Table held him to this standard of perfection. The turmoil Gawain had experienced  thinking  about  his  impending  death  at  the  hands  of  the  Green   Knight had been seen, and this showed why he had accepted the girdle. He remained true until his fear of death overcomes him. All this proves that he is only human. Yet Gawain only sees that he has been inconsistent in upholding the chivalric code, and this means failure   to   him. This is an indication of the standard Gawain has set for himself, and  we  see  why  he has the reputation he has. Despite all that has happened, Gawain is still a loyal, noble, honest and courteous  knight.[11]