In medieval times the romance genre was a portrayal of the world of the court, a genre that belonged to the aristocratic class overlooking the realities of the outside world. Adventures, quests and ladies were the conventional reasons for the courtly knights to embark in exciting experiences that helped to establish a set of rules that all other persons of the court were to follow, reinforcing their ideals.
But even as the tradition of the romances spread to modest courts and finally to the uprising bourgeoisie, they kept reflecting the fears and necessities that are common to mankind: the construction of a personal identity and the problems to preserve it. In contrast with texts of the previous epic genre, like Beowulf, the reader is no longer confronted with the construction of a national identity but with a personal one that others can relate to. Romances were born in the French courts with famous troubadours like Chri??tien de Troyes that used the tales and characters of the Arthurian tradition to reflect the life and values of the courts.
The concept of “courtly love”, a sentimental refinement, was one of the main principles for the people in the court, it emphasized the “link between love, its social setting (the court), and its ways (courtliness): the set of social qualities and skills required for distinction at court” (Companion 84-5). The French courts developed many romances dealing with the theme of “courtly love”; maybe one of the most famous is Guillaume de Lorris’ Le Roman de la Rose, an allegoric romance that introduces the reader into the process of courtship, into the values that ruled the attitude of the lovers, especially of the male lover.
The reason that in Le Roman de la Rose forces the main character-the male lover-to embark on his quest for identity is Love; a concept of Love that in medieval times meant a social attitude, “the source of all worth, a model for human relations” (Companion 86), as well as an antisocial one, “bringing folly and isolation to the lover” (Companion 86).
The character’s oneiric quest starts at a “time when Love claims his tribute from young men” (Lorris 3); this is a young man that is finally leaving the world of childhood symbolized by the time of year when his dream takes place: spring, a season commonly related to birth and renewal, to love and joy. As the lover walks alongside a river, he founds a beautiful garden where trees and birds promised a paradise-like place.
This garden, a representation of courtly society, shuns all the negative feelings and states that go against the joy that is supposed to characterized the courtly world; feelings like Envy and Sorrow and states like Old Age and Poverty don’t have place in the universe of the lovers. The garden-and therefore the court-is portrayed as the perfect place for Love to act, a place where all pleasures can be obtained and none of the evils of the outside world can interfere.
All the characters in the garden are the embodiment of these pleasures-Pleasure himself is the owner of the garden-they are the characteristics that everyone in court should posses, elements that will also help in the process of Love. The person that welcomes the lover into the garden is Idleness since “no busy man can lead that life” (Lewis 121), no busy man can find the time to fall in love; as well as all the company of Pleasure “is fair and courteous and well instructed” (Lorris 11), every person in court should also be like that.
All these characteristics are enough reason for the God of Love to be present, “the one that rules over lovers and humbles men’s pride” (Lorris 15) with his bows and arrows, always prepared to shoot someone. The encounter of the lover with all these allegorical characters-the bad ones as well as the good ones-forces him to see a reality of the world and to choose one; in this way he starts to develop an identity that will help him to empathize with the courtly world and finally make him worthy of being a target for the God of Love.
But eventually, just watching these characters enjoy of the garden is not enough for the lover since “there is no better paradise than having the sweetheart of one’s choice” (Lorris 21), and the lover wanders from the others in order to find what will help him to continue in his quest towards identity: his sweetheart.
It is in this moment that the dissociation of the lady begins and the first thing that we come into contact with is the lady’s eyes-the crystals-in the spring of Narcissus; after all love enters trough the eyes and this encounter causes in the lover “new and violent feelings [that] spring up in men, and their hearts are changed” (Lorris 25). Thank you to the reflection of the crystals he is able to see the rose-bushes, and once he approaches he finds his favorite rose, the one that makes “all the others seemed worthless in comparison” (Lorris 26).
The lover is in the verge of falling in love-the girl’s love represented by the rose-all that he needs now is the help from the God of Love, who is ready to shoot his arrows and push the lover into the final stage of love. The emotions that rise in the lover are so strong that he surrenders to Love and recognizes him as his Lord, he becomes “a martyr of Love” (Lorris 28) prepared to do whatever he commands.
After this Love’s lessons begin, they are a significant catalogue of the rules that a man in court was supposed to follow in order to obtain the love of a lady. The lover has finally reached his decision and in consequence he has finished constructing his identity, from now on the lover will identify himself as a servant for Love; he even makes a vow when he declares to the God of Love: “my heart is yours and not my own” (Lorris 31).
But this final identification will bring troubles for the lover since “he will never have what he seeks: something is always lacking and he will never be at peace” (Lorris 37); the lover is presented with an obstacle for his quest, now he will have to fight to preserve the new identity he has embraced. A new adventure is now in front of the lover, in order to fulfill his desire he needs to obtain the rose that has captivated him and in his attempts he first meets Fair Welcome, the sign that the lady is opening up to the lover, that she is willing to talk to him.
However Fair Welcome is not the only guardian of the roses and the lover has to confront “the real enemy who cannot be flattered or overcome” (Lewis 123): Rebuff and his friends Evil Tongue, Shame and Fear; all of them are the cause of the antisocial attitude that the lover also has to deal with. These characters are the main obstacle for the lover; an obstacle that will make him an objective for Reason to try to persuade him out of his new-found identity, of his compromise to the God of Love.
The same consequences that love could bring-which were explained by the God of Love to the lover but with an optimistic side-are used by Reason to discourage the new servant of Love; for her “love” is just a synonym for “disorder”, “nothing but foolishness” (Lorris 47). But the lover is strong enough to resist Reason’s arguments; he “should hear and understand and yet renounce all this good sense, [considered it] a disloyalty to love” (Lewis 132). Encouraged by the reaffirmation of his identity, the lover tries again to approach the rose and to persuade Rebuff to let Fair Welcome return.
The lover goes to the point of asking Fair Welcome if he can kiss the rose, a request that brings forth the theme of Chastity and the other face of Love: sexual desire-represented by the appearance of Venus-the kiss is finally obtained and Jealousy comes out to destroy the expectations of the lover. Fair Welcome is imprisoned, the rose completely walled, and the lover-as well as the reader-losses all his hopes of obtaining the desired rose; the future of the lover is now in hands of Fortune and her ever-turning wheel.
In spite of all these impediments, the lover is still convinced that “a noble heart does not stop loving because it is beaten or mistreated” (Lorris 61). Even though the object of his desire and the person that could helped him obtain it, Fair Welcome, are no longer at his reach, he doesn’t stop believing in the strength of his love, in his confidence towards the God of Love. The lover knows that love-and as a result his identity-is “very changeable, [that] love hardly ever stays the same” (Lorris 53).
All these difficulties will only be tests for the lover to reinforce his identity and his loyalty to the God of Love; he will become a role model for all the courtly men and the path that they are to take in their quest towards “courtly love”. The allegorical method that Guillaume de Lorris used for his romance is a tool to make it a universal reading; after all it deals with a theme of real life, a feeling that makes us humans. “Young readers in the not ignoble ardours of calf-love, and elderly readers in the mood of reminiscence … could all find in it the reflection of their own experiences” (Lewis 116), of their own identities.
As romances became popular they spread to the rest of Europe, and England was no exception where the themes of the Arthurian tradition were reintroduced to the English courts. The stories of King Arthur meant for England a return to their roots, a way to know and learn from their mythical past and reaffirm an identity. Maybe the most important characters in the Arthurian tradition are all the knights that surround him, the embodiments of one of the most important social code in courts-even before “courtly love”-chivalry: “the ethos of the knights” (Companion 97).
The authors that in their romances dealt with the theme of chivalry were interested in teaching people in the court the ideals of a true knight; especially how a simple knight could symbolize the power of his king, which is why loyalty was a central quality for a knight. In previous romances dealing with the court of King Arthur, the knight Gawain “persists as the prototypical knight, [embodying] the chivalric and Arthurian ambiance” (Companion 219).
He is the perfect knight in several romances that retold his adventures, and because of them he becomes a legend, he gains an identity and creates standards by which he has to live. In contrasts with Le Roman de la Rose and his theme of “courtly love”, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight-known as the Gawain-poet-is interested in how chivalry affects one’s identity; in this case Gawain’s identity is already constructed but as the poem evolves this identity will be questioned and the knight will have to reconstruct it as he learns more about him and the world that surrounds him.
The beginning of the poem establishes the mythical connection between Rome and England, reaffirming their qualities of “bold men” (Sir Gawain l. 21); but since the beginning this national identity will come into question by the poet’s comment of its oral source: “as I have heard” (Sir Gawain l. 26), a comment that will be repeated other times in the poem. In king Arthur’s court, the praises continue; the place is full of “mighty lords” (Sir Gawain l. 38) and “gentle knights” (Sir Gawain l. 2) all waiting for their next adventure. The introduction of the Green Knight is the disruptive element for this perfect courtly world, a reminder that “the world of nature and violence” (Benson 101) is outside; he is the menacing presence that will be the cause of Gawain’s quest.
The Green Knight is presented in the poem to contest the allege fame of chivalry of Arthur’s knight; he has been assured that they are “the most warlike [men], the worthiest the world has breed” (Sir Gawain l. 61) but then he doubts this calling them “beardless boys” (Sir Gawain l. 280), declaring that “no man among [them] could match [him]” (Sir Gawain l. 282). After the Green Knight explains the nature of the sport he wants-his own beheading-neither knight volunteers to his demand; the king is willing to do it until Gawain sees this as an opportunity to prove his value and chivalry presenting himself as “the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom” (Sir Gawain l. 354).
By using the figure of Gawain, the poet entered into an already formed tradition with conventions already established; Gawain was “famed not for courtesy, chastity, and loyalty, but for courtesy, lechery, and treachery” (Benson 95). But in this poem he is presented with the opportunity to prove himself as a real knight, “an initiation into chivalric life by means of this test” (Benson 27) that will also lead him into knowledge of himself. Once the test has been completed and Gawain knows what his destiny will be-to look for the knight and his own death-the court acknowledges him as the brave knight worthy of admiration and honor.
These qualities are represented by the Pentangle and its five points, the five virtues that truly defined the chivalric behaviour: Liberality, Lovingkindness, Continence, Courtesy, and Piety; virtues “more firmly fixed on that fine man than in any other” (Sir Gawain ll. 655-656). Leaving the walled and protected world of Arthur’s court-as the garden in Le Roman de la Rose-means for Gawain to encounter the problems of the real world; but Gawain doesn’t spend much time in the outside and it will be in Bertilak’s castle that the newfound identity he has gained in the court for his bravery will be tested.
Gawain thought that Bertilak’s castle, although not as perfect as the court, will also provide him with a shield; but this is a deceptive shield since it will be inside this “bubble” that Gawain will have to strongly prove himself. In the castle we are reminded that Gawain hasn’t always been the perfect man, a symbol of chivalry; his fame as a lover is the quality that people at the castle acknowledge, they are interested in “his converse of courtly love” (Sir Gawain l. 926).
Since Gawain is representing the whole court of Arthur, his fame as a lover devaluates the chivalric quality of the knights of the Round Table and it turns them into mere courtiers; this will be the identity that Gawain will have to vindicate, for him and for the whole Arthurian court. Because of this quality of Gawain’s fame, a sexual temptation becomes a suitable test to prove “the hero’s courtly qualities as well as his bravery and loyalty” (Benson 105) towards his host.
Gawain is forced by Bertilak to stay in the castle and rest before the dreaded day while he goes out to hunt, so that later in the day they could exchange their earnings; an innocent game for Gawain that eventually will be a cause for another test. When the first temptation scene begins-in parallel with the hunt scene-both Gawain and the deer are taken off guard; the lady walks into the bedroom with an “air of love” (Sir Gawain ll. 1206-1207), a clue of what her intentions are, and reminds him of his famed courtesy, literally offering herself to him.
In order for Gawain to decline the lady’s offer without destroying his courtly fame; he devaluates his fame, calling himself “altogether unworthy” (Sir Gawain l. 1244). She wants him to prove that all the qualities that she has heard about him are truth: “good looks, gracious manner, and great courtesy” (Sir Gawain l. 1273) but when he repeatedly rejects her offer, the first doubt of his identity will come into place. She “cannot bring [herself] to believe that [he] could be Gawain” (Sir Gawain l. 293), doubting directly his identity and all the qualities that she has heard of him;
Gawain “the very vessel of virtue and fine courtesy” (Sir Gawain l. 1298) finally caves to the lady’s request for a kiss in order to reaffirm-as little as he can-his courtly identity. Although in the next temptation scenes Gawain is already prepared for the lady’s presence, she seems to be equally prepared to put in doubt Gawain’s identity and now with even more serious accusations. In the second scene, she declares: ‘It seems to me strange, if, sir, you are Gawain, A person so powerfully disposed to good,
Yet nevertheless know nothing of noble conventions, And when made aware of them, wave them away! ‘ (Sir Gawain ll. 1481-1484) Now she is not only questioning his identity, but also his knowledge of courtly behaviour and hence the court of Arthur and how knights are taught there. She continues to see him only as a symbol of the “sport of love” (Sir Gawain l. 1513) inside the world of chivalry, but this fame is exactly the one that Gawain is trying to change. He wants to be known for his bravery and his loyalty towards his king and his host, this is the identity that Gawain wants to preserve without destroying his good manners.
The third day of temptation becomes a psychological one as the lady offers him a chance for survival with the magic girdle; because of this action we are reminded that Gawain is human, that he fears death and finally he caves, not because of a sexual desire, but because of a survival desire. Gawain didn’t broke the rules of courtesy towards the lady but at the end he did broke the ones that command loyalty to Bertilak; his humanity becomes stronger than his knighthood.
Once Gawain arrives to the place of his confrontation with the Green Knight, he must reaffirm his duty, that he prefers to “fall dead than fail in [his] errand” (Sir Gawain l. 068) as he is tested again by the man that leads him to the Green Chapel. The first attempt by the Green Knight to behead Gawain is frustrated by Gawain’s flinch, which causes the Green Knight to denied his identity: “You are not Gawain” (Sir Gawain l. 2270), he declares, “I never did know that knight to be a coward” (Sir Gawain l. 2273).
This doubt gives Gawain courage enough not to flinch in the next attempt, where the Green Knight is the one to stop it this time; by the third attempt, Gawain’s fail will have its consequence: “a mere snick on the side” (Sir Gawain l. 312). Gawain thinks that he has been able to keep his fame, a clear identity, and his life; but as the Green Knight reveals his identity and his real scheme, Gawain is confronted with another test that will finally forced him to rethink what does it mean to be a knight and the representative of Arthur’s court. The discovery of Morgan the Fay’s plan reminds Gawain-and the readers-that “Arthur is not his only kin [and] that [her] blood also flows in his veins” (Benson 32); that evil is also part of him, at the end he becomes a flawed hero.
But he is a flawed hero that recognizes his errors and the girdle becomes a constant reminder of his humanity; he learns that a “man can conceal sin but not dissever from it” (Sir Gawain l. 2511) and it will be this reminder that will help him to mature and at the end be able to construct an identity of his own. The flaws that Gawain acknowledges in him-cowardice, lack of loyalty, presence of evil-are reasons to erase his identity as a knight, but at the same time they are reason enough for him to realize an identity that resembles more to the human than to the courteous.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight becomes a romance that questions the identity of the genre itself; although it wants men to identify with an ideal: chivalry, it also wants them to realize that is not an identity that they can live by all the time. The romance reminds all of its readers that they are humans and therefore they will have flaws; at the end the Gawain-poet is able to see a world outside court, even when the hero returns with Arthur all the knights will be reminded of his adventure by the baldric they will wear.
Romances are known by the portrait of a life where the impurities of reality are purged and chivalry is idealized; this romance removes itself from this pattern and is able to present a “critical perspective that calls social ideals or practices into question” (Companion 1). In this same spirit, Jean de Meun’s Le Roman de la Rose could be seen as an attempt to question the social codes of “courtly love” and change the ideals that Guillaume de Lorris had established; but this romance doesn’t fulfill his goal in the same prolific way that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does.
The main characters in Le Roman de la Rose and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are capable of finding an identity that suits them; the different paths that each characters takes-“courtly love” and chivalry-were the highest ideals in medieval times for any man in the world of the court. Each character becomes a role model for young men when they are confronted with their future; the tests that each character has to surpass in order to reaffirm his identity are evidence that is possible to construct an identity and keep doing it no matter the problems that arise.
Because of the time difference between these romances-and maybe because of their culture of origin-each process of construction of identity is presented in different ways. Le Roman de la Rose was written early in the Middle Ages-year 1225-when these ideals were still a convention; while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight-year 1400-was written in a time when these social conventions were starting to fall apart and people were starting to questioned them.
It is important to realize that both romances deal with themes that remind the reader of his humanity: love as one of the most human feelings, and the possibility of failing and learning from your mistakes. As much as these romances work to help young men to construct a solid and unify identity, the reader has to bear in mind that in order for the characters to achieve this, the poet disassociates the identity of others: the lady in Le Roman de la Rose, and Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.