Re-Read the Text, as well as your own Notes!
Gustatory - taste
Tactile – touch (cold, hot, smooth, etc).
Kinesthetic – movement (I KNOW - You can “see” movement, but movement is NEVER visual.
If any kind of movement is indicated, then it’s kinesthetic).
Olfactory – smell (good or bad smells)
Auditory - sound
Visual – sight (color, light, dark, composition)
What the character DOES
What the character SAYS
What the character LOOKS LIKE
What OTHERS SAY about the character
Ancestry / Family
Assonance – repetition of VOWEL SOUNDS, not necessarily the letters
o My neighbor is away for the day
Consonance – repetition of CONSONANT SOUNDS, not necessarily the letters
o “Sir noble knight”
o “but beardless babes about this bench”
o “his red eyes rolled around”
o “leap to me lightly lad”
p32-33, Medieval Romance
p228-243 “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by The Gawain Poet
HUBRIS – Sir Gawain cannot tolerate being called a coward, or otherwise scared of death
Magical Elements / Religious Symbolism:
o This is set during Christmas and the New Year. The old Celtic religion worshipped the
winter solstice (12/21) and the Christian religion celebrates the birth of Jesus. This
overlapping represents the end of the Celtic ways and the beginning of the Christian
o Since the Knight is Green, this is representative of the old Celtic religion, a time when
evergreen trees and holly bushes were celebrated for their ability to remain green during
the coldest days of winter.
o Green Knight can change his appearance at will; he is seemingly immortal
o Green Sash is protective, and it is also SYMBOLIC of the old pagan / Celtic religion.
Much to Sir Gawain’s chagrin, the Green Knight knew that Sir Gawain had cheated
certain death by using the green sash as protection. He was horrified that he had been so
weak to use magical protection. This is symbolism! He was ashamed to still use the old
pagan religion, and not have courage and faith in the new religion, Christianity. He
should have had courage and faith, but he found that he needed to rely on old ways,
which was considered cheating on the new religion. No, I’m not making this up. Yes,
this really is symbolism in the literature. After you’ve been intensely studying ancient
and modern world literature for, um, about 16 years or so, you’ll notice all of these
patterns, too :o)
PLOT - Arthur and his men are celebrating Christmas in Camelot. A strange Green Knight
comes into the banquet hall. He is totally green, and so is his horse. In one hand he carries a
holly branch and in the other he has a gisarme (a BATTLE AXE!) This is very paradoxical!
The holly is a Celtic symbol of peace (not a Christian symbol, which is also of significance)
and the battle axe, of course, is a sign of war and strife. Perhaps, this gives him a neutral
quality, to lessen the threat of coming into Camelot in a weird costume and battle axe . . .
OK, so where was I . . . Arthur welcomes the Green Knight into Camelot; he welcomes the
Green Knight to eat with them. The Green Knight becomes aggressively proud and refuses to
eat with them. He says that he’s come for a game. Arthur immediately asks if the Green
Knight is there to duel; the Green Knight says that this isn’t the case. He suggests that any
one of the knights in Camelot take his gisarme and attempt to cut him (the Green Knight in
the neck with it. He promises that he’ll not move and allow the knight to take a full swing at
him. 12 months and a day later (what IS IT with 12 months and a day, huh?!) he will get to
take a full swing at that knight, as well.
King Arthur seems annoyed with this disruption. He decides to take on the challenge
himself, showing himself to be a courageous leader (hubris about courage is a super big
theme here). He swings the gisarme around his head, wielding it seemingly easily. The
Green Knight doesn’t seem phased by any of this at all. He waits patiently for King Arthur to
strike him. But he never gets the chance to do this, because Sir Gawain interrupts him.
Sir Gawain says that King Arthur shouldn’t enter into this “game” with the mysterious Green
Knight. The implication is, of course, that King Arthur could loose and thereby, Camelot
could lose its great king. Also, Sir Gawain has copious amounts of HUBRIS; he kind of
wants to show-off that he’s not scared to enter into the “game.” He shows humility, which
can be interpreted as false-modesty. He says that if he dies no one would miss him, since
he’s weak and unintelligent. As King Arthur’s right-hand-man (and nephew), he is, of
course, the best knight in Camelot.
Sir Gawain begins “the game,” and he easily decapitates the Green Knight. (It should be
noted here, that he doesn’t even consider being “easy” on the Green Knight; he assaults him
full-force. If you think about it, the outcome of this entire story might have been different had
Gawain been “nicer” in his attack. This shows an insight to his character. IS HE
CHIVALROUS by attacking an unarmed man who has subordinated himself???).
MAGICAL ELEMENT: The entire audience is then surprised, as the Green Knight’s
headless body picks up its head by the hair and then gets on the horse. The body then begins
to speak. At this point, Sir Gawain and everyone else are informed that the Knight of the
Green Chapel is well-known in other parts of the land; this information sure would have been
handy to know, before Sir Gawain had agreed to enter into the strange game with him.
(NOTE: It seems highly likely that Washington Irving may have been inspired to write “The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow” after having read this).
The story skips ahead in time. Now, the 12 months and a day are almost passed, and Sir
Gawain has set out to seek out the Green Knight. Sir Gawain comes upon a castle, where a
married couple live. The lord of the castle, an example of extreme courtesy, would like to
share gifts with Sir Gawain at the end of each day. The man hunts, so he would share his
hunting trophies with Sir Gawain (perhaps ducks, deer, boars, et cetera). Sir Gawain, though,
doesn’t acquire anything during the day, except the lady of the castle’s kisses! Yes, her
kisses! And since he’s supposedly (not supposebly) honorable, he kisses her husband, the
lord of the castle, to share what he has acquired during the day. In our text, we don’t get to
see the reaction of the man, her husband, when Sir Gawain kisses him (nor do we know if
these are merely chaste kisses on the cheek), but the husband must not be perturbed by these
kisses, because he leaves his wife alone with Sir Gawain every day (about 3 days). Yes, this
is super-strange; we have to use our SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF to deal with this issue.
OK, now this has been going on for a few days, and instead of merely offering Sir Gawain
kisses, the lady wants to give him something of greater value. First she tries to give him a
valuable ring, which he refuses. This can be seen as chivalric; he’s refusing money,
basically, that a woman is offering him. Also, a ring is a very significant symbol between a
man and a woman, so maybe he’s afraid that it might “mean something” if he accepts the ring
from her. She then offers him a green and gold sash that she has tied around her waist (These
colors should immediately make you think). She tells Sir Gawain that the sash is protective
and whoever wears it cannot be harmed in battle, et cetera. It is arguably way more valuable
that any ring, any day. It doesn’t take much to convince him to take the sash as a present. Sir
Gawain is literally thinking about saving his neck; he doesn’t want to die. The sash is
important because it’s SYMBOLIC of the old ways, the pagan Celtic religion. The fact that
he easily reverts back to the old religion was common for people of King Arthur’s time. (He
should have had the Christian faith and courage to simply believe; if he were to die, he’d go
to heaven anyway, so that isn’t supposed to be a bad end, right? . . . ).
Sir Gawain leaves the castle and sets out to find the Green Knight for their meeting. Now,
it’s the Green Knight’s turn to play the “game.” Sir Gawain arrives wearing the protective
green and gold sash; of course, he’s totally cheating. He hides the sash from view. As the
Green Knight tries to strike Sir Gawain, Sir Gawain flinches from the blade. Immediately,
the Green Knight chastises Sir Gawain for being a coward (cowardice is a super-big deal for
the Medieval Knight; courage was the mark of greatness). He reminds Sir Gawain that when
it was his turn, he didn’t flinch from Sir Gawain’s blade at all. Sir Gawain then sits really
still, while the Green Knight taunts him for a while. Sir Gawain then yells at him to get on
with it and take a blow at his neck; he’s gotten a bit nervous and frustrated. Perhaps he
doesn’t really have faith that the sash will work (i.e. maybe he really doesn’t have true faith
in the old Celtic religion, either). Faith is a really important concept. And ultimately, the
sash doesn’t completely protect him, since he does get a cut on his neck; so, ultimately, the
old pagan Celtic religion won’t protect completely humanity from all the dangers of the
world. That begs the question, though: What might have happened had Sir Gawain not used
the sash. Would he have been beheaded? Would the Green Knight have granted clemency?
Would his headless body also have been magically healed? Who knows! If you ask me, he
probably made the right choice, using the sash. Why take a chance with a manic who wants
to chop your head off . . . Of course, most people wouldn’t have bothered to show up for the
second confrontation, anyway.
At the end of this tale, the Green Knight congratulates Sir Gawain for being brave, and he
absolves Sir Gawain of all his sins (this sets him as a religious authority over Sir Gawain). It
is revealed that the Green Knight was the lord of the castle, and that he asked his wife to
tempt him with the sash. Yes, that means that Sir Gawain was kissing the Green Knight. He
tells him that he wasn’t perfectly perfect, since he used the magical sash. Sir Gawain,
though, is forgiven of using the sash. Sir Gawain is invited back to the Green Knight’s castle
to celebrate the New Year. Sir Gawain, though, is so ashamed of his weakness to use the
green sash that he refuses to participate. He leaves alone.
p246-261 “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Mallory
HUBRIS – Sir Gawain is very proud, to a fault. He dies, because he has a burning need to fight
Magical Elements: Sir Gawain has been charmed by a hermit. His strength is strongest from
9AM-12 NOON. Then, he grows weaker. He is always strongest during these 3 hours, and this
makes him seem unbeatable.
o The Siege of Benwick – Sir Lancelot has taken France and has set up his domain in the
city of Benwick. King Arthur at this time, still has a good relationship with his
illegitimate son Sir Modred. King Arthur has appointed Sir Modred to rule Britain, while
King Arthur is away on business.
o The Day of Destiny
MAJOR CHARACTERISTICS OF ROMANCE LITERATURE
“The mysterious and supernatural character of the romance suggests its resemblance to legend and myth.
In romance narratives, as in the myths they often draw on, animals give warnings, dragons threaten, and
princes inevitably rescue the beleaguered at the darkest moment. Events and characters come in sets of
three, like Gawain’s three temptations and the three harpooners in Moby Dick. Havelock the Dane’s life
is threatened during his childhood, as are the lives of legendary characters from Oedipus to Snow White.
And when the romantic hero dies, he takes on the features of a god or, at least, is memorialized as
someone more than human. His final union with the mysterious suggests the romance form’s return to
the realm of legend and myth, from which, we feel, it has never been too distant.”
--Robert Foulke and Paul Smith
The romance narrative most often dominates the earliest period in the literary history of a culture. It is the
dominant form in Anglo-Saxon and medieval English literature. The same is true in American literary
history. . .
Throughout the Middle Ages, the dominant form of literature among the feudal aristocracy was the
romance. Originated by troubadours who wandered across France, the romance spread to Germany,
Spain, and Italy, and finally across the channel to England. There the troubadours were called minstrels.
They chanted their long verse tales of courtly love and knightly adventure in the great halls of the Norman
1. An aura of unreality, despite realistic details of describing tournaments, feasts, hunts, etc.
2. Characters were greatly exaggerated, so evil knights were all bad and good knights were completely
3. Adventures were remote from life: superhuman heroes, giants, dragons, breaking spells to release
maidens; sometimes the adventures were aimless.
4. Though they were set in long ago times, they represented ideals of the period; i.e., Arthur and his
warriors were 6th century, but they conformed to 12th century chivalry, manners, customs, plate armor,
and moated castles.
5. A quest; i.e., the Holy Grail; hostile supernatural forces would be present on the quest to win a lady or
fame or for some religious purpose.
6. They were often loose and episodic; there were many digressions.
7. The theme often was of courtly love; a lady’s every wish was obeyed by a knight who would turn
pale in her presence, sigh in her absence, and suffer for her love
10. Events and characters often came in sets of threes
11. Plots were often simple, even inevitable
Rules of Chivalrous Love
1. Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and thou shalt embrace its opposite.
2. Thou shalt keep thyself chaste for the sake of her whom thou lovest.
3. Thou shalt not knowingly strive to break up a correct love affair that someone is engaged in.
4. Thou shalt not choose for thy love anyone whom a natural sense of shame forbids thee to marry.
5. Be mindful completely to avoid falsehood.
6. Patience is the greatest virtue of love.
7. Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies.
8. In giving and receiving love’s solaces, let modesty be ever present.
9. Thou shalt speak no evil.
10. Thou shalt not be a revealer of love affairs.
11. Thou shalt be in all things polite and courteous.
Ten Rules of Chivalry
1. Thou shalt follow the dictates of moral conscience.
2. Thou shalt be willing to defend your values.
3. Thou shalt have respect and pity for all weakness and steadfastness in defending them.
4. Thou shalt love thy country.
5. Thou shalt refuse to retreat before the enemy.
6. Thou shalt wage unceasing and merciless war against all that is evil.
7. Thou shalt obey the orders of those appointed above you, as long as those orders do not conflict
with what you know to be just.
8. Thou shalt show loyalty to truth and to your pledged word.
9. Thou shalt be generous and giving of one’s self.
10. Thou shalt be champion of the right and good at all times, and at all times oppose the forces of evil.
more about The Chivalric Code
Live to serve King and Country
Live to defend Crown and Country and all it holds dear
Live one’s life so that it is worthy of respect and honor
Live for freedom, justice, and all that is good
Never attack an unarmed foe (figuratively or literally)
Never use a weapon on an opponent not equal to the attack
Never attack from behind
Avoid lying to your fellow man (or woman)
Obey the law of king, country, and chivalry.
Protect the innocent.
Show respect to authority.
Respect women. (Respect men).
Exhibit courage in word and deed.
Defend the weak and the innocent.
Destroy evil in all of its monstrous forms.
Crush the monsters that steal our land and rob our people.
Fight with honor.
Avenge the wronged.
Never abandon a friend, ally, or noble cause.
Fight for the ideals of king, country, and chivalry.
Die with valor.
Always keep one’s word of honor.
Always maintain one’s principles.
Never betray a confidence or comrade.
Respect life and freedom.
Die with honor.
Exhibit (good) manners.
Be polite and attentive.
Be respectful of host, women, and honor.
Loyalty to country, King, honor, freedom, and the code of chivalry.
Loyalty to one’s friends and those who lay their trust in thee.
Arthurian Romance I:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]
Review Courtly Love, Translatio, and the Middle English notions of trouthe and gentilesse. Read
carefully the information on the Alliterative Revival (online reading; print out and bring with you to
class!) and the background information NA 10-13 (on the fourteenth century), 19-21 (on alliterative verse
and the Middle English alliterative line) and 160-62 (on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Recall that
SGGK is thought to be by the same author as The Pearl; this unknown author is therefore referred to as
both the "Pearl Poet" and the "Gawain Poet." Know period when this poet was active (see headnote to
SGGK, NA 160). Note how Middle English alliterative verse resembled and differed from its Old English
models (NA 21) and be able to identify the parts of the Middle English alliterative line as well as the bob
and wheel in the opening stanzas of the poem (NA 161-2 in Middle English; NA 162-3 in translation).
Know the meaning of the following terms: Alliterative Revival, bob and wheel (see NA 161), quatrain,
courtly love, "romance" (both the original meaning of the term and the characteristics of the literary genre
now known by that name), translatio studii et imperii. Be able to describe fully the poetic form of SGGK
and to identify its component parts (Middle English alliterative lines, bob and wheel).
NOTE: For the midterm, you will need to know the significance of the following names/works in the
development of vernacular romance, and be able to date primary readings/authors and place other
events/works in proper chronological order. From the Translatio handout: William the Conqueror;
Geoffrey of Monmouth (and his History of the Kings of Britain); Eleanor of Aquitaine, her grandfather
William IX, her husbands Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and her daughter Marie of
Champagne; Wace (and his Roman de Brut or "Romance of Brutus"); the Romance of Eneas; Chrétien de
Troyes (and his Knight of the Cart); the "Vulgate Cycle." From SGGK: the Pearl Poet, the Gawain Poet,
Brutus, Arthur, Guenevere, Gawain, Bercilak de Hautdesert, Lady Bercilak, Morgan le Faye, the
Pentangle, the notion of trouthe.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[Number references below correspond to LINE NUMBERS (not pages) in the NA]
While medieval romances are frequently episodic -- that is, they relate a series of adventures undergone
by a person or persons seeking to fulfill a specific quest -- the best romances are carefully constructed:
adventures are not randomly chosen, and details tend to "count," adding to the meaning of the work as a
whole. SGGK, for example, combines two distinct sorts of adventure (the beheading contest and the
temptation to commit adultery) with repeated tests of Gawain's trouthe (the two parallel sets of
exchanges: exchange of blows and exchange of winnings) as well as repeated tests of G's loyalty: to
Arthur; to the chivalric code; to his host in the scenes at Sir Bercilak's castle; and to his spiritual "lady."
All of these disparate elements are fused into a unified work designed to illustrate the physical and moral
perfection of Sir Gawain.
As you read, pay attention to descriptive and narrative details. Why are they included? What do they
signify? What is the relationship between the scenery and Sir Gawain's mental state? What is the
symbolism of the three beasts hunted by Bercilak? Which is most dangerous? Is there a relationship
between the hunting exploits of Bercilak and the different sort of "hunt" going on in the bedroom? To
what extent are the bedroom scenes a "duel of Courtesy"?
Arthur is said to be the "most courteous of all" British Kings (SGGK 26). What are the characteristics of
his court? His knights? His Queen? Pay attention to the introduction of the knight Gawain. How does he
distinguish himself in the opening scenes? How is he different from the other knights? Does he fulfill a
chivalric duty that the other knights neglect? What is his relationship to the ideal of "courtesy"? This
concept is similar to the Chaucerian virtue of "gentilesse," and may be represented by other terms such as
"courtly," "courtliness" or "courteous." Pay attention to these terms when they come up in the poem.
Does the Green Knight play by the rules of courtesy? Is he ultimately a negative or a positive figure? At
the end of the poem, the Green Knight declares that Gawain is the best of all Arthurian knights; this
opinion is shared by the Arthurian court but not by Gawain. Why does he think so? Why does Gawain
disagree? What is the significance of the green girdle in the final lines?
What is the significance of the Pentangle? Why is it described in such detail (SGGK 619-665)? What
doese it symbolize when taken as a whole? (see SGGK 626). What is the significance of the series of five
fives associated with the pentangle? Taken collectively, what might they represent? Can the Pentangle be
seen as a symbol of the chivalric virtues? The pentangle is displayed on only one side of Gawain's shield;
who is depicted on the other? What is implied about her role relative to Gawain? What is implied about
Gawain's relationship to the "courtly love" tradition?
The pentangle as a whole is called a "token of truth" ("trouthe," SGGK 626), the very virtue that is put to
the test by the Green Knight. Recall that the Middle English term "trouthe" means more than the modern
English word "truth" (see NA 161); What promises are made by Gawain? Which does he keep? What
lesson(s) does Gawain learn from his ordeal? Can these lessons be applied to the rest of Arthurian
society? What is the significance of the green girdle at the end? Why do the other knights decide to wear
green belts? Does their decision transform the significance of the girdle? Is Gawain a savior figure for the
What is the attitude toward "courtly love"? Which characters represent that tradition? In traditional
"courtly love," a knight performs feats of valor for a lady he loves who is generally not his wife. He
aspires to win her love by proving his worthiness, chivalric merit, etc. through "love service"--doing her
will and trying to help her and be worthy of her regardless of her treatment of him. Does Gawain serve a
lady in the poem? If so, whom does he serve? Is there a more "traditional" depiction of the courtly lady?
What is the poet's (and Gawain's) attitude toward Lady Bercilak? What does that imply about "courtly
Interestingly, there is no reflection in SGGK of the well known love affair between Lancelot and
Guenevere. In the thirteenth-century prose romances of the Vulgate Cycle (later to be translated by
Malory as the Morte Darthur), the love between Lancelot and Guenevere seems almost inevitable:
Guenevere is the most beautiful and noble lady in the world, so it is only natural that she be loved by the
best of Arthur's knights -- a status which Lancelot in fact owes directly to Guenevere, since his acts of
prowess are inspired by his love for her. Why might the poet have ignored or transformed this part of
Arthurian tradition? Does Lancelot appear in SGGK? Consider that Gawain, Arthur's nephew, is a
distinctly ENGLISH hero; Lancelot du Lac is a FRENCH knight. Is there a link between this
displacement of Lancelot as hero and the Pearl Poet's preferential use of alliterative verse over rhyme, the
typical form used in FRENCH courtly literature?
Who are the women in SGGK? (Depending upon interpretation, there are three -- or arguably four.) To
what extent do they play similar roles? How do they differ? What is the function of each? What can you
conclude (if anything) about the depiction of women in the poem? (Is it essentially positive, negative,
neutral, mixed? Are they idealized, realistically portrayed, caricatures?) Are the women in SGGK similar
to those portrayed by other authors read this term? How about to the Pearl Maiden?
What is the significance of the translatio references in the opening and closing lines of the poem? Why
might the poet choose to remind the audience of the connection between Arthur, Brutus, and the Trojan
refugee Aeneas at the beginning and end of the narrative? In the light of these translatio references, what
do you make of the French motto "Honi Soit Qui Mal Pense" found at the end of the poem? The note at
NA 213 n. 2 translates this line, "Shame be to the man who has evil in his heart"; an equally plausible
rendering is "shame on whoever thinks ill [of him/it]." How can this motto be connected to the themes of
the poem as a whole? To the translatio references which frame the narrative itself?
SGGK is thought to be the work of the same poet who produced The Pearl. Do you see similarities
between the two works? Consider e.g. theme; poetic form; underlying values in or message of each poem.
What is the genre of each poem? Can some of the differences between them be explained by the different
purposes/audiences for which these genres were typically written?
Arthurian Romance II: Malory's Morte Darthur
General: Reread the hand-outs on Courtly Love and Translatio. For Malory, read NA 9-10 ("The
Fifteenth Century") and 344-6 (headnote to Malory--REQUIRED READING although our primary text
will be in the Penguin Classics edition, not NA). Recall that Caxton's printing of Malory's Morte Darthur
in 1485 is one of the two events which mark the end of the Middle English Period and of the Middle Ages
(see NA 1; know political event as well!). Read Caxton's Preface (provided as handout). Notice the way
in which he defines Malory's work. Know what is meant by the Winchester Manuscript. Know lifespan of
Malory (dates) as well as composition and publication dates of the Morte Darthur (NA 344). Know the
form in which Malory's work is written (alliterative verse? rhymed verse? prose?) and its primary sources.
Know the meaning of the term "interlace" and its relevance.
NOTE: Because our unit on Arthurian Tradition is divided by the midterm, you will need to review the
development of Arthurian romance, as outlined on the Translatio handout, for the Final Exam.
Additionally, be sure you are clear on the roles played by the following: Malory vs. Caxton, Elaine,
Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur, Galahad, Bors, Perceval, Perceval's sister, Nacien, Joseph of Arimathea,
Elaine le Blank (the "Fair Maiden of Astolat"), Urry, Agravain, Mordred, Ector and Bedivere.
Malory's Morte Darthur
Malory's Morte Darthur is preserved in the printed edition published by Caxton in 1485 and in the
Winchester Manuscript, discovered in 1934. Your edition follows the chapters in Caxton's printed
version; the divisions in the Winchester MS are indicated along with their titles in the questions below
and on chart distributed as handout. The two extant versions of Malory's work are not identical, and
scholars have argued about which is most "authentic," "correct," "reliable," etc. A modern editor must
decide which to use as his base text, knowing that neither is likely to duplicate exactly the text as
originally written by Malory.
Malory's work is not a poem--it is a lengthy prose narrative, based on even longer French prose works
(the "Vulgate Cycle") which tell the "whole" story of the rise and fall of King Arthur's kingdom. Due to
its length, it is a much less unified work than SGGK; in a sense, it is closer to a modern series of loosely
related historical novels than to a medieval verse romance. In the Morte, the focus has broadened to
include not one but many of Arthur's knights, whose adventures have been intertwined in a complex
pattern called "interlace."
The French title of the work (which translates as "Death of Arthur") indicates its primary source: Malory
was working from the French prose romances of the Vulgate cycle, the last of which is called La Mort le
Roi Artu ("The Death of King Arthur"). As a result, Malory incorporates the biases found in that cycle, a
Cistercian reworking of the original 12th-century verse romances (e.g. The Knight of the Cart; see
translatio handout). Whereas in The Knight of the Cart, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere was
blameless (and led Lancelot to become the savior of Arthur's kingdom), in the Vulgate Cycle (and in
Malory) it is problematic, both the source of Lancelot's chivalric prowess and the cause of the downfall of
Arthur's kingdom. Cistercian values are also apparent in the glorification of virginity in the Grail Quest,
in which the virginal Galahad replaces the sinful Lancelot as the "best" knight in the world. It is
interesting to note that the early 13th-century Vulgate Cycle, with its glorification of male virginity, is
contemporaneous with Hali Meidhad, which idealizes virginity for a feminine audience. Pay attention to
the attitude toward love--erotic and spiritual--as you read through the work, especially the glorification of
virginity and demonization of women in the Grail Quest sections, as well as the treatment of the
problematic relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere.
There are too many details in this work for us to master in a cursory reading; note that we are only
reading a small part of the whole (see specific READING ASSIGNMENTS for each day of class; consult
chart on handout for sense of what the whole work contained). Don't worry about names/events that are
referred to in passing. Read for enjoyment, for the basic plot, and for the following themes and issues,
which you should think about (and look for) as you read:
--In the Morte, the focus has broadened to include not one but many of Arthur's knights, whose
adventures have been intertwined in a complex pattern called "interlace." In the Grail Quest sections, pay
particular attention to the adventures of Lancelot and the three Grail heros, Galahad, Perceval and Bors;
know the fate of each. What roles do women play in the Grail Quest? Why is Lancelot, despite his often
mentioned sin, allowed to perceive the Grail? What is the difference between Lancelot and his son,
Galahad? What constitutes chivalric (i.e. knightly ) perfection? What is the difference between earthly
and celestial chivalry?
--The central hero of the Grail Quest is the "celestial knight" Galahad, Lancelot's son; elsewhere in the
Morte, the central figure is Lancelot, best earthly knight of Arthur's court (a status similar to Gawain's in
SGGK). Yet Lancelot is also the lover of the Queen, and their adulterous liaison is blamed for the fall of
Arthur's kingdom. Are these two visions contradictory? To what extent is Lancelot admirable, and how is
he at fault? (Consider the definition of courtly love.) How about Queen Guinevere? (Compare with the
Guinevere of SGGK.) Does the Gawain of the Morte resemble the Gawain of SGGK? How do they
--In addition to the central triangle of King, Queen and best knight, many supporting characters help
reveal the meaning(s) of chivalry. The Grail knights Galahad, Perceval and Bors are contrasted with the
sinful knights of the Round Table. What is the significance of Urry? Mordred? Ector? Bedivere?
--What are the consequences of the love relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere? What are the
positive and negative effects of that love? To what extent are they blamed for their passion? Admired?
Justified in it? What is the function, in this regard, of Elaine le Blank, the Fair Maiden of Astolat? Of the
Boiling Lady? Of Sir Urry?
--In SGGK, Gawain's fault is defined relative to the code of chivalrous behavior (including courtly love).
According to that set of "laws," are Lancelot and Guinevere guilty? Is there a conflict between Christian
law and the rules of courtly love? How is that conflict resolved? At the time of their deaths, Lancelot and
Guinevere have taken holy orders: she is a nun, he a monk. Guinevere is able to predict her own death,
and Lancelot has visions--signs of heavenly favor--and his death is accompanied by further signs of
holiness (the bishop's dream, the sweet smell of his body). Moreover, in spite of her adultery, Guinevere
is reunited with her husband in death. How do these events affect our understanding of the lovers'
innocence or guilt? Consider also Sir Ector's lament upon Lancelot's death.