Writing on Chivalry

So, I’m presently “writing” an essay on some imagined amalgem work constituted by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer‘s The Knight’s Tale.

The difficulty is, there are 5 questions, none of which immediately speaks to my heart and says “I’m the question for you!”. I’ve read each poem a number of times now, and generally browsed some secondary sources to try and develop a wide perspective, but the alien language they’re written in continues to daunt me. Chaucer less than the Pearl Poet. 2000 words presently seems an endless supply to answer the more obvious and less devious questions.

Paying close attention to the poetry, the language, the type setting, of this magnificent work, we are asked the following questions:

1. Both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Knight’s Tale can be seen to ask questions about the nature and function of the chivalric ideal. Do they do so in the same ways? Do they come to the same conclusions?

Well that’s just a plainly obvious no-brainer, isn’t it? No and no. Unless the answer to either is “yes”. Hmm.. a 50/50 shot at getting each question right just seems a bit low. That gives me a 25% chance of guessing the whole correct answer for an A+. I don’t like these kinds of questions simply because they boil down to that kind of binary opposition. Pick a position, then defend it to the teeth and damn the torpedoes. Somehow, I always get off track on these (except for my essay on whether Capitalism is a Religion1), floating around the issues or being sucked into a too clear-cut answer.

If I were to attempt this question, I think it would have to be underpinned by a solid and well supported theory of what Chivalry was at a minimum (this would need to be very brief, I think). Try phrasing that in e-prime as homework. Then with some concept of which parts of the poem were “chivalric” (as opposed, I guess, to more generally romantic) you could build two thesises (plural, anyone?) and spend the last bit of your essay comparing them.

The other thing I don’t like about this essay is that it’s a compare/contrast essay which encourages you to treat each work seperately and then do a hand-is-quicker-than-eye recombination at the end. Because you’ve only got a one-dimensional comparasin, it’s hard to see how you could do a point-by-point dissection. When writing Discuss the role of Revenge in Penthesilea and Romeo and Juliet, I was able to point to the different pivot points of society, individual honour, and plot significance as a three-fold comparasin that broke it up. No such clear distinction occurs to me.

I also don’t like the work “function” slipping in there, because it carries an implied weight of critiquing the supposed society from whence the actoin in the two poems comes. What purpose to knight’s have, how is their purpose ameliorated by their chivalric code? Very tricky, and probably best just glossed over, hoping to recover ground in the “nature” aspect of the question.

Ultimately though, this is a question of limited scope; there’s quite a bit of guidance on what you’re supposed to be doing and a clear objective for your essay. It’s not a question like Discuss the Role of Progress in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, which was hopelessly vague. Plot role? Thematic? Yet, that question allowed me to range as far and wide and delve at whatever acute angle I liked and still retain that crucial element of any essay: Relevance. This one a narrow focus from the outset.

2. Consider the importance of death in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Knight’s Tale (In discussing The Knight’s Tale you may, if you wish, focus on either Theseus or Palamon and Arcite.

Writing an essay on death in Sir Gawain is like writing a play about Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. There’s material there, but it’s mostly constituted by the background which is implied by the main work, rather than clearly and comprehensively suggested by the work itself. Nobody dies, you see. For most of the poem it seems inevitable that Gawain will die, but he doesn’t.

Death’s role in The Knight’s Tale is much more direct, because the plot is in the end resolved by the death of (and I can never keep the two of them straight, so may have the wrong one) Arcite. Then, of course, there’s Theseus’ big long rant at the end about how Death is inevitable, and not to be feared.

An interesting essay could be built casting Palamon and Arcite as Gawain. Each of them hopes, just as Gawain does, to kill their opponent before he can return the favour. Gawain’s mighty blow to decapitate the Green Knight is the same kind of blow P & A hope for; the formality of the Green Knight’s challenge is echoed in the decision by Arcite to bring a fair quantity of weapons for Palamon before they fight for the first time. I’m getting that this: there is a strange formality associated with the process of being killed, which would be easily avoided by any of the knights, but isn’t. Death, just as in Theseus’ speech, is seen as less important than honour (etc). This casts Gawain in a worse light than either Palamon or Arcite because he is afraid of death, and at the last step falters in his acceptance of it.

This is a nicer question about The Knight’s Tale, because you get to grips with easily isolated and apparent structural plot elements. It’s main failing, as a question, is that it offers the temptation of reducing Gawain to a secondary and subservient place in your essay. He is simply a bit harder to write about in this context.

3. Trouthe, Honour, Fredom, Courteisye. Consider the aspirations, efforts and achievements of Gawain and either Theseus or Palamon and Arcite in the light of the chivalric values identified.

On first reading of this question, it seemed the likely candidate for me. We have a clearly defined purpose in the essay, which has equal weight for both works, we are not after a finite answer the way Q1 is… What we have is an opportunity to monkey-grind our way through each poem citing examples of where each character meets or fails to meet each of the chivalric values and sum up at the end with “and that’s how it was”. A+, guaranteed.

Except, that’s just too easy. The meanings of those words are not actually that clear. My edition of Gawain, for example, glosses “trouthe” as including not only a literal “truth telling”, but a conglomeration of the other knightly virtues; largely eclipsing Honour. The essay runs the strong risk of derailing itself early on by misapprehending the marker’s understanding of these terms.

Then as well, on closer examination, we see that The Knight’s Tale isn’t nearly as concerned with a direct exploration of these concepts as Gawain is. In fact, in the grossest sense, both the main protagonists abandon their knightly virtues only a few lines after being introduced due to their love of Emilie! Theirs then can become a catalogue of failures or omissions, running a slight risk of arguing a position supported by a void where evidence should be.

4. Both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Knight’s Tale embody the idea that learning cannot be attained without sacrifice.

Big, big warning bells go off at this question. Learning? I thought Death was obscure, and now we’re talking about character development! (Well, that and how the poems generally critique the unyielding nature of the Chivalric code.) Of all the questions, this one offers the least help in what kind of answer is expected, yet like question 1 we’re offered an essentially polar chocie. Is the statement true, or false? And to what extent?

The problems is: learning what? What does each character learn, and how, and how is this learning accomplished via sacrifice?

This question resonates so little with my understanding of the poems that I can’t concieve of attempting any kind of answer to it.

5. Discuss the nature and importance of rules Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Knight’s Tale.

This is a popular choice amongst people I’ve talked to. I think there’s an association of rule-bound inflexibility with chivalry generally. Especially from gamers (ever played with a Paladin?).

Both poems’ plots are controlled by adherence to rules, some devised within the poem, some simply assumed as a common background. It’s mere popularity warns me away, simply that when you mark a larger number of similar essays the fractures and cracks become more apparent in any specific essay. Do I sound confident? I think my Penthesilea essay got off slightly lightly because I was the only person in the class brave enough to attempt it. Nobody else even managed to read it (there were 8 people, so we talked).

This essay then, has that nice and obvious route: what are the rules set out in each? Why are there rules? Are they adhered to? Presto: an essay. The main risk is in missing a rule, and not citing sufficient evidence.

I tend to avoid these clear-cut essays because of my difficult and troublesome nature. I find that my spirit rebels at doing the obvious, I strive always for some odd angle, some quirky perception. Having picked a screwball approach, I tend to fall down in the meticulous evidence-gathering. It’s rare that my path is actually untenable, but normally a more thorough approach to evidence would shield me from the loss in marks.

In Conclusion. Which essay I choose may come down to a guess at what the markers will like. I got pinged in the class test for using “&” instead of “and”, so, like the classics department, I think that solid academia will be the route to success rather than quirky innovation. Which is a pity, since I don’t enjoy it nearly as much, however this essay is worth too much to risk marks through craziness. Occasionally, as in my Communist Manifesto argument, things just don’t quite work, and a “C” for a 40% essay bodes ill for my future in the english department. Unless I continue the trend of As in the other english subjects, which isn’t unlikely. πŸ™‚

1 Although, come to think of it, I avoided answering this question by denying that it was a sensible comparasin to make; like asking what the colour orange sounded like.

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7 Responses to Writing on Chivalry

  1. Y’know, if you’d spent as much work on writing your essay as you have on complaining about essay topics, you’d be done by now. Sorry, almost done – your word count is 1,765.

    I told you to write your own essay topic. πŸ˜‰


    • mashugenah says:

      Yeah. That happens. πŸ™‚ I’m not complaining, just doing that first step in any writing: Thinking.

      I could write multiple essays and see which is better recieved though.

  2. In case it helps you any, this one has already been approved by Kathryn:

    “My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,
    Hath more power than wot any man.
    Myn is the drenching in the see so wan;
    Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
    Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte;
    The murmure and the cherles rebelling,
    The groyninge and the pryvee empoysoning.
    I do vengeance and pleyn correccioun
    Whyl I dwelle in the signe of the leoun.”
    Knight’s Tale, III. 1596-1604

    Discuss the relevance of fate, fortune and free will in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Knight’s Tale.

    • mashugenah says:

      πŸ™‚ I’ve run out of enthuisiasm for evaluating questions. πŸ™‚

      Yours is not really any easier than theirs though.

      • But it’s more interesting. More interesting to me, anyway.


      • mashugenah says:

        Fair enough. πŸ™‚ From my POV, your topic suits TKT much better than Gawain, since really, there’s not any higher-power evident in Gawain. Though one is discussed and implicit, and I suppose that’s where you’re going with your essay.

        It does score some points for being wackier than their questions though.

        Fate/fortune/free will is something I spent a fair amount of time thinking about with respect to tragedy in the first half. It can be a bit murky in there. πŸ™‚

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