Judging a Book by its Cover
The appearance of a situation, person or place may sometimes be at total odds with its actual reality, and thus change previous conceptions held of a thing or person. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, not only are there illusions throughout the tale’s themselves, but the reality of the story and its message on conclusion paint a very different picture to the initial idea the reader held at the onset. Sir Gawain and the Green knight is believed to be the creation of an anonymous West Midlands poet of the late 14th century. A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, his prose also seems preoccupied with topics such as the human condition, morality within society, social structure and distinct social class systems. Like Chaucer, such questions concerning society were raised through the medium of entertainment, with both authors achieving eminence through their talent for the narrative. It was through their flair for the written word that they raised social issues of the day for inspection and contemplation. Tales were written not exclusively for nobility but for all medieval society, to both enjoy, but also to examine as a social critique of the structuralized hierarchy they belonged to. It is interesting to note, that although both anecdotes’ were written during the 14th century, many of the central topics raised are relevant to our own 21st century, granted we have since gained many issues along the way. Amusingly, had the authors’ been privileged a glimpse of modern day civilization and its fascination with fabrication, their inventive stories would indeed have ample sources to draw from.
At first glance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to follow the conventional form of French inspired romances of the day. An Arthurian, historically inspired romance of chivalry and the unrelenting courage of a knight. The poem opens with a glorious and extravagant feast at the court of King Arthur “Sypen kayred to pe court, coroles to make. / For per pe fest watz ilyche ful fifteen dayes,” (43-45), a world devoid of the harsh realities of nature but rather soaked in courtly ideals, codes of chivalry and an excess of luxury “And sipen mony siker segge at pe sidbordez… Dayntes dryuen perwyth of ful dere metes, / Foysoun of pe fresche, and on so fele disches…Ay two had disches twelue, / Good ber and bryzt wyn bope.”(115, 121-22, 128-129). A class system is in place at court to boot “Pe best burne ay abof, as hit best semed” (73) and it is soon reveled that Sir Gawain sits by Queen Guinevere at the feast “There gode Gawan watz grayped Gwenore bisyd,” (109), informing the audience he is not only one of the most highly respected knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, but also the Kings nephew “Bope pe kynges sistersunes and ful siker kniztes;” (111). The seemingly conventional romance continues, with the appearance of the mysterious Green Knight “He ferde as freke were fade, And oueral enker-grene.”(149-50); his challenge or proposition of a Christmas game to the court “Forpy I craue in pis court a Crystemas gomen” (283); and Sir Gawain both defending his King and courageously taking up the challenge of the strange Knight “I beseche now with sazez sene / Pi smelly mot be myne”(341-42).
Therefore, staying within the conventional form, a hero is presented with not just moral perfection, but also a character of King Arthur’s royal bloodline. Gawain is renown as a perfect knight even as far away as Bertilak’s castle “In menyng of manerez mere / Pis burne now schal vus bring” (925-6) and one who is also perfectly humble “I am pe weakest, I wot, and of wyt feeblest,…No bounte bot your blod I in my bode knowe.” (134, 137) Yet, by the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it is unexpectedly obvious that the...