The accounts of King Arthur, as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Layamon, and the tale of Sir Gawain, as told in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, exhibit a persistent engagement with classical and particularly Roman thought regarding the nature of virtue, at times trying to live up to classical notions of virtue as found in Virgil’s Aeneid. At other times (and in varying degrees) Christianizing such virtues. King Arthur’s reign is cast as a foundation legend for Britain throughout Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138 A.D.), Wace’s Roman de Brut (1160 A.D.) and Layamon’s Brut (written between 1189 and 1204 A.D.). All three accounts include the mythical founder of which the isle of Britain takes its name, Brutus, who is said to have been the great grandson of Aeneas of Troy, himself the mythical founder of Rome as related by Virgil in his Aeneid (written between 29 and 19 B.C.). All these Arthurian accounts describe the virtues of Arthur in terms that would have impressed Virgil – Arthur is courageous and compassionate for instance – as well as in terms of Christian virtues, such as following God’s guidance. However, it is with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that explicitly Christian virtues, such as humility, are most profoundly integrated. Humility proves to be an invaluable virtue when navigating relations between the sexes, as seen in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a retelling of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale from earlier in the fourteenth century; discretion is further shown to be helpful in The Saga of the Mantle, a morally-revealing robe mythically employed at Arthur’s court.
Arthur: Classical and Christian
Arthur’s origins, however mythological, prepare the heralding of his virtue, and in significant ways parallel Virgil’s own tale of Roman virtue. The historical Arthur likely commenced his rule as king in the late fifth or early sixth century A.D., after the Romans had been driven out in 410 A.D. In the mythological retelling, the fifteen year old Arthur emerges as King after a succession of events: Vortigern usurps King Constant’s throne (thus driving Constant’s sons Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther abroad) then invites Saxon warriors into Britain to battle the Picts. Aurelius, and upon Aurelius’s death Uther, each later return to reclaim the throne. Uther invokes Merlin’s magic to disguise himself and seduce Igerna, who later becomes his queen and gives birth to Arthur. The reign of Uther (and ultimately of Arthur) is presaged in the heavens as a star casts a fiery dragon figure followed by rays indicating the new king’s rule from France to Ireland; between this and Merlin’s magic, Arthurian legend parallels the Aeneid’s sense of divine sanction, as gods and goddesses such as Venus (Aeneas’s mother), Jupiter and Mercury guide Aeneas on his quest (while Juno, goddess of Rome’s rival Carthage, and the Furies oppose him). As Tolkien claims of the Sir Gawain story, “Fairy Story” helps “to enlarge the scene and the actors” and make the struggle “intense to a degree which a merely realistic story . . . could hardly attain;” so for both Virgil and Arthuriana, the mythical elements sharpen the focus on the tales of virtue.
Arthur’s virtue, as we claim, parallels in many senses that of his Roman counterpart and fellow national founding father, Virgil’s Aeneas, but with a Christian flavoring. Virtue in the Roman Aeneid typically consisted of pietas (“duty”), virtus (“manliness”), both of which can be seen in the iconic image of Aeneas carrying his father on his shoulders while holding his son’s hand as they flee a burning Troy, or the charge of Rome to “put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, to spare the defeated and break the proud in war.” Otherwise, virtues from the classical, pre-Christian era were considered those of justice, courage, and moderation. These are all in abundance in the accounts of Arthur: Geoffrey declares Arthur courageous, winning his fame by “extraordinary valor,” exhibiting “courage . . . combined with generosity” and personally felling four hundred and seventy warriors in a single battle. Arthur’s sense of justice has him avenging the terrors of the Saxons, and slaying the beast which had captured Helen. Self-control and temperance often combined with the Christian virtue of love (exhibited also as mercy), as Laymon declares Arthur to be generous, courteous and noble while Geoffrey cites the mercy with which he treated Scot and Pict prisoners when begging for their lives (though he had previously set out to “destroy . . . with inflexible severity” their entire races) and praises his “generosity, famous throughout the world, had attracted everyone by his love.” Arthur’s explicit Christian faith is also undeniable, as he declares “I, who remain faithful to my God . . . shall surely conquer, with the aid of Christ,” declares his victory over Lucius’s Roman troops as “ordained by the providence of God,” and observes both mass and Christmas, and helps rebuild churches. Arthur even embodies that final Christian virtue, hope, when prophecies declare he will someday return to Britain.
Yet, clad in virtue both classical and Christian, Arthur remains a warrior king, albeit one with a good heart. The “fondest king” with a “woeful heart,” Arthur yet doles out property restoration and even rewards to the loyal, and declares (along with the Archbishop of Caerleon) that Christian faith requires going to war (especially given the “treachery” of their pagan opponents). Arthur seeks to not just liberate Gaul and defend Britain from Roman invaders, but in fact to conquer Rome itself, though he does claim such ambitions justified, owing to Romans who fear for their own lives under the unjust rule there. The war that Arthur wages upon the heirs of Aeneas, the Romans who would take from Britain the liberty they valued so much for themselves, is ironic, however yet sanctioned by virtue. Geoffrey further adds to the irony when Hoel declares Arthur’s pleas to be “touched with Ciceronian eloquence,” a comparison to one of Rome’s finest statesmen. The more dreadful, battle-savvy sides of Arthur and even Gawain fuel the warrior imagery, and often at the expense of their heralded virtue. Gawain slices off the Roman Quintillianus’s head for an insult, and Arthur’s troops often perpetrate wholesale massacres in their battle tactics. Wace’s accounts of Arthur’s inclusive Round Table are tinged with imagery from Laymon’s description of the betrayed and jealous Arthur seeking to kill Mordred and “torch” Guinevere for their adulterous betrayal of him. Virgil’s Aeneas would appear more humane than Arthur in these moments, as in the final book of the Aeneid, he questions “Was it thy pleasure, Jupiter, that peoples / Afterward to live in lasting peace / Should rend each other in so black a storm?” Similarly, Virgil sends Aeneas back from Hades through the gates of ivory for false dreams rather than through the gates of horn for true ones, implicitly questioning the dreams of Roman glory dancing about like sugarplum fairies in Imperial Roman apologist’s heads.
Gawain: The Humility of Christ
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century A.D.) offers a subtle yet stark contrast to the virtue, both classical and Christian, of the imperial and war-savvy Arthur. While Arthur’s shield paid homage to the Christian faith with its depiction of “Our Lady St. Mary” painted thereon, Gawain’s depicts utter humility and the purest of Christian faith. Five sets of five are geometrically symbolized and painted on his shield (as well as embroidered on his coat of armor), each of which betokens commitment to his (Christian) faith: faithfulness of one’s five senses and five fingers on speak of Gawain’s commitment, while the five wounds of Christ on Calvary which allow the five joys of Mary (painted on the inside of his shield) are divine gifts to Gawain; the final set of five, however, were impressed on Gawain most profoundly. Generosity to others in the forms of “free-giving and friendliness,” followed by the personal virtues of chastity and chivalry, and “piety surpassing all points” epitomized Gawain’s virtuous commitment. Gawain’s piety, however, differed from that of Aeneas: in place of duty to his fellow Romans, Gawain’s faithfulness is to Christ (though by his “Free-giving and friendliness” his social duty is included) by virtue of the gifts of his five wounds and the five joys thus made possible: Gawain’s piety is a humility of a divine perspective rather than Aeneas’s mere duty to nation. Gawain’s humility is on display when he requests to take the Green Knight’s challenge owing to his offering the least possible loss, when his steadfast faith in God allows him to survive his perilous journey, and when his search for the castle is guided solely by prayer.
Gawain’s humility is best on display, however, at the story’s end. Space concerns prevent discussion of his temptations, but his confession for his lack of faith at keeping the scarf, however sanctioned by the rules of the game of “court-esy” is arguably the defining moment of the story: he sincerely begs forgiveness for relying on the talismanic girdle rather than faith for his life. The joy of life quickly ensues, but it is his own Aeneas-like question, that he values above all his sash of shame which other knights covet in laughter, mirth and as a symbol of honor, that is the most profound lesson of the tale: “HONYT SOYT QUI MAL PENCE” or “Shame to him who thinks evil.” The shame counters Sir Gawain’s opening lines describing how Romulus had “in great pomp and pride (italics mine) peopled first” and turns us to the ultimate fruit of Brut’s own journey to Britain, the humiliation of Christ and our unjust reward:
Of Women and Men: Humility and Discretion
Gawain’s humility provides a key insight for not just Knights errant, but for Lords and Ladies and how they might best get along. In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, while hunting alone in the woods Arthur encounters Sir Gromer Somer Joure, a knight whose lands Arthur has given to Gawain. Instead of slaying Arthur, Gromer demands that Arthur return in a year with the answer to the question “what women everywhere love best,” with an incorrect answer forfeiting Arthur his head. Arthur vows to return, and spends the following year with Gawain inquiring far and wide for an answer to the eternal question. “Some said they loved to be well dressed; Some said they loved to be sweetly entreated, some said they loved an amorous man . . . Some said one thing, some said another.” With a month left and a cartful of answers, Arthur panics and scours the countryside on his own. He soon finds Dame Ragnelle, who “had her share of loathsomeness . . . so exceedingly foul a creature,” who assures Arthur that she has the answer, only Arthur must agree to offer Gawain’s hand in marriage to her as her price. Gawain accedes, and despite Arthur’s sadness at the prospect of wedding Gawain to a woman whom “never in my life did I see walking the earth as foul a lady,” she responds that “though I am ugly, still I am noble.” Noble Gawain later assures Arthur he will serve his King, through fair or foul, and wed Dame Ragnelle as he declares that “saving your life is my duty – / Otherwise I would be disloyal and a terrible coward – And it increases my honor.” Ragnelle finally reveals her answer, that “Above all other sorts of things, we desire from men / To have sovereignty, in truth, / Over all, both noble and common. / For where we have sovereignty, all is ours, Even if a knight should be extremely fierce And always victorious.”
Arthur’s life is saved, and Gawain weds Ragnelle, though on their wedding night she poses Gawain a challenge of her own. She reveals a curse has made her foul, but that Gawain may choose to have the curse removed either during the day (which she would enjoy) or at night (to his own pleasure). Gawain nobly responds “my beautiful Lady, do as you please. I put the choice in your hands . . . free me when you choose, for I am constrained.” Ragnelle rewards Gawain’s selflessness by further revealing that his action has entirely lifted the curse, that the misperception of her beauty would end when “the best man in England / Had truly wedded me / And also gave me sovereignty / Thoroughly over all his body and his goods.” Further, she vows to never anger nor quarrel with Gawain, and in return it was said that as long as Gawain lived, “he loved no one else as well,” and “thanked our Savior for everything.” This actually was saying something, for Gawain had many different wives in the tales; Ragnelle, the sister of Sir Gromer, however lived just another five years. The peaceable marriage caused Gawain to beat his sword into the plowshare, since while married he no longer partook of knightly jousts, puzzling even Arthur.
Gawain and Ragnelle’s story, dated to 1450, follows that of Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales. The wife of Bath first tells of her many previous marriages, with one spouse using or abusing the other in most of them, then relates a story from the days of Arthur. In it, a lusty knight encounters and rapes a maiden, and is condemned by the King, but saved by the “queen, who offers him freedom if he can learn what women most desire. The knight finds many answers, such as that women “like to be thought wise and void of sin,” or “find it sweet when we are thought dependable, discreet and secret, form of purpose and controlled. Never betraying things we’re told,” (though admitting “Women conceal a thing? For Heaven’s sake!”). The correct answer, the Knight learns from an old woman, a “fouler-looking creature I suppose could scarcely be imagined,” is that “A woman wants the selfsame sovereignty Over her husband as over her lover, And master him; he must not be above her.” The knight is released by the Queen, but bound to the old woman in marriage, and the same curse and offers are revealed and made, and a beautiful, blissful young couple live happily ever after, with a final prayer, “Jesu hear my prayer – cut short the lives Of those who won’t be governed by their wives.”
The need for discretion between the sexes is found in the Arthurian Saga of the Mantle composed near the turn of the thirteenth century. The story is set in King Arthur’s court, though it claims to be translated from the French for a Norwegian King. It is one among several Arthurian tales involving chastity tests by means of charmed objects, such as a shirt, gloves, girdles, rings or roses, and is predated by Robert Biket’s Lay of the Horn, a test in which knights with unfaithful ladies are unable to drink from a horn without spilling its contents. A handsome young rider arrives at a festive gathering in Arthur’s court, carrying a beautiful silk mantle, embroidered in gold with a pattern of leaves, woven by an elf-woman of great skill. He explains to the King and other chieftains gathered that the cloak will grow or shrink to reveal the extent and manner of a woman’s infidelities; the men agree to have all the women at court try it on, with the offer that for whomever it fits best may keep it. Queen Guinevere first tries it on, and it shrinks some, embarrassing and angering her though she did not know the meaning, only that she would not likely get to keep it. She is then informed of its powers, and declares that all the gathered women must try it on. It is a test of faithfulness and steadfastness of their love, “which husbands and trueloves expect . . . they hazard mortal danger and take many risks for your sakes.” The cloak shrinks in various degrees and manners for each of the women at court tested; Geres the Little declares that “all deceive their husbands and want a man who is new as soon as they have tired of the old one.” The young rider who brought the cloak then declares that he may need to leave with the cloak himself, since it fit no one, though a noble maiden, who had felt ill and lies resting within the castle, is found and beckoned. She proves to be as faithful as her beloved Karadin, who doesn’t care that she might be exposed, due to his undying love for her. Nevertheless, he warns her of its power and bids for her sake to not try it on, which she dutifully does, and it does not shorten at all. She is rewarded the mantle, as it proves the “purity of maidenhood,” and the grief and disgrace of its previous suitors prove the joy and honor of her own. She donates the mantle to a monastery; the tale ends with the advice to “let no one say anything but good about women, because it is more fitting to conceal than to reveal something, even though one may know the true state of affairs,” and the charge to “Therefore let us praise good women according to their merits, because they have earned renown and happiness.”
Conclusion: Medieval Virtues and Modern Britons
While Arthur can be seen as the heir of both the classical, Roman virtue which gave birth to Britain and the Christian faith which soon followed, it is with Gawain that we see the embodiment of the humility of Christ himself. We can find threads of both in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, translator of Gawain as well as the one modern British (and Christian) author for whom inventing a new mythology for Britain was paramount, as seen in his adventures of Middle-earth such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Frodo Baggins and his companion Samwise Gamgee are both humble in stature but courageous of heart, though Aragorn embodies courage as much as any character, as when he is described in Christ-like terms in such passages as
Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light that shone in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from a rock.
But at the end of the day, all such epics reduce to a simple virtue, found especially in Sir Gawain, and which Tolkien admitted in his famous lecture on fairy stories discussing how fantasy aids in the recovery of a world of wonder beyond ourselves,
Of the sexes, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis composed an entire trilogy, begun on the male-themed, red planet of Malacandra (Mars as the God of war) in Out of the Silent Planet, continued on a fertile, Venusian Perelandra on which Eve’s temptation is replayed, and concluded on Earth in That Hideous Strength (where Arthur appears) and so inundated with marriage of the sexes that it opens with the word “Matrimony” and closes with love consummated by beast and man alike. Lewis the Medieval scholar continues the wisdom of the Arthurian tales, with the Director of the Society of St. Anne’s informing Jane Studdock, wife of Mark, that “equality is not the deepest thing” and “no one has ever told you that obedience – humility – is an erotic necessity,” though adding that “obedience and rule are more like a dance than a drill – specially between man and woman where the roles are always changing.” Britons Modern and Medieval alike thus demonstrate the value of such virtues as courage and humility, virtues esteemed by the Classicist and the Christian, and virtues adequate to the challenges of the modern day.
Seth Myers, “Medieval Virtue: Arthur and Sir Gawain, Women and Men,” An Unexpected Journal: King Arthur Legendarium 6, no. 2. (Summer 2023), 28-39.
“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm (New York: Routledge, 2013), l.91, p. 481.
Aragorn’s mirth is reminiscent of the finale to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy of 1908, with which Tolkien would have surely been familiar: “Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the giant secret of the Christian . . . never concealed his tears . . . Yet he concealed something . . . There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
For a more thorough discussion, see Annie Nardone, “Gender Not Sex: Presentation of Gender Roles in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy” in An Unexpected Journal, Summer 2020, vol. 3, no. 2. https:// anunexpectedjournal.com/archive/v3-issue-2-summer-2020/.