King Arthur has been an important figure in English literature since singers and story-tellers first described his great exploits in the 6th-century. Of course, the legend of King Arthur has been appropriated by many story-tellers and poets, who have embellished upon the first, most modest tales. Part of the intrigue of the stories, which became part of Arthurian romance, though, is the mixture of myth, adventure, love, enchantment, and tragedy. The magic and intrigue of these stories invites even more far-fetched and elaborate interpretations.
While these stories and bits of poetry depict a utopian society of long ago, though, they also reflect the society from which they were (and are being) created. By comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Morte d'Arthur with Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," we see the evolution of the Arthurian myth.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Defined as "narrative, written in prose or verse and concerned with adventure, courtly love and chivalry," Arthurian romance derived the narrative verse form from 12th-century France. The anonymous 14th-century English romance "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is the most widely recognized example of Arthurian romance. Although little is known about this poet, who we may refer to as the Gawain or Pearl-Poet, the poem seems fairly typical of Arthurian Romance. Here, a magical creature (the Green Knight) has challenged a noble knight to a seemingly impossible task, in the pursuit of which he meets fierce beasts and the temptation of a beautiful woman. Of course, the young knight, in this case Gawain, displays courage, skill and chivalric courtesy in overcoming his foe. And, of course, it seems fairly cut-and-dried.
Beneath the surface, though, we seem some very different features. Framed by the treachery of Troy, the poem links two main plot motifs: the beheading game, in which the two parties agree to an exchange of blows with an ax, and the exchange of winnings, in this case involving temptation that tests Sir Gawain's courtesy, courage and loyalty. The Gawain-Poet appropriates these themes from other folklore and romance to accomplish a moral agenda, as each of these motifs are linked to the quest and ultimate failure of Gawain.
In the context of the society in which he lives, Gawain faces not only the complexity of obeying God, King, and Queen and following all of the overlapping contradictions which his position as knight entails, but he becomes a sort of mouse in a much bigger game of heads, sex, and violence. Of course, his honor is constantly at stake as well, which makes him feel as though he has no choice but to play the game, listening and trying to obey as many of the rules as he can along the way. In the end, his attempt fails.
Sir Thomas Malory: Morte D'Arthur
The chivalric code was slipping away even in the 14th-century when the anonymous Gawain-Poet was putting pen to paper. By the time of Sir Thomas Malory and his "Morte D'Arthur" in the 15th-century, feudalism was becoming even more obsolete. We see in the earlier poem a fairly realistic treatment of the Gawain story. As we move to Malory, we see a continuation of the chivalric code, but other features demonstrate the transition that literature is making at the end of the Medieval period as we move into the Renaissance. While the Middle Ages still had promise, it was also a time of great change. Malory must have known that the ideal of chivalry was dying out. From his perspective, order falls into chaos. The fall of the Round Table represents the destruction of the feudal system, with all its attachments to chivalry.
Although Malory was known as a man of violent temperaments, he was the first English writer to make prose as sensitive an instrument of narrative as English poetry has always been. During a period of imprisonment, Malory composed, translated, and adapted his great rendering of Arthurian material, which is the most complete treatment of the story. The "French Arthurian Prose Cycle" (1225-1230) served as his primary source, along with the 14th-century English "Alliterative Morte d'Arthur" and the "Stanzaic Morte". Taking these, and possibly other, sources, he disentangled the threads of narration and reintegrated them into his own creation.
The characters in this work stand in stark contrast to the Gawain, Arthur, and Guinevere of earlier works. Arthur is much weaker than we usually imagine, as he is ultimately unable to control his own knights and the events of his kingdom. Arthur's ethics fall prey to the situation; his anger blinds him; and he is unable to see that the people he loves can and will betray him.