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December 1, 2010
The Influence of the Supernatural on Courtly Conduct, Christianity, and Chivalry in Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In the world of medieval literature the supernatural is a consistent theme, presented in extraordinary encounters, mysterious experiences and with magical objects such as potions, spells, and the prominent image of the green girdle of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Magic and the supernatural is seen as the driving force behind several narratives and acts as a method by which we might judge human achievement against that of a species that appears to be greater than us, akin to the role of religion in similar texts. This paper aims to examine the Marie de France’s Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to reveal how they use the supernatural to create striking, fantastical worlds that are indicative of the attitudes of the time period and how the supernatural is used to create a world where the high ideals of medieval culture are epitomized, questioned and praised. Of particular note will be how both the lais and the quest narratives reflect contemporary outlooks and ideas, and creatively incorporate them into their tales using magic as a transitory element. Alongside a broad overview of the role magic and the supernatural play in both texts, the paper will also attempt to explore the relationship between human and otherworldly magic and how both schools exert an effect on one another as well as magical figures that are present in the texts. Most notably, the images of the Lady Bertilak’s girdle and the Lanval’s fey queen will be contrasted against images taken from medieval literature that features more of the Christian supernatural in an attempt to compare the altruistic or maligned agendas each group has in their respective narratives and how they affect the characters around them. To begin to analyze the effect that the supernatural has in aligning contemporary medieval ideologies, the nature of fey court that is constructed by Marie de France reveals a commentary on patronage by contrasting the supernatural world against that of the Arthurian court to provide deeper insight into how medieval literature measures human achievement. The first lines of the lais familiarize the reader with the titular protagonist of the narrative, Lanval, a “very noble vassal” (Lanval 3) and member of King Arthur’s court. Though Lanval is a knight of the Round Table, whom it is said “had no equal in all the world” (Lanval 16), he is spurned by Arthur because he was “far from his heritage” (Lanval 27). This image is juxtaposed against a deeply ingrained view of Arthur’s court being the pinnacle of medieval honour and conduct; rather than portraying respectable conduct, the members of Arthur’s court are shown to be insincere in their conduct with Lanval who desires their camaraderie and approval. Elements of the supernatural gradually come into play as Lanval leaves the court to find solace in the outdoors and comes into contact with the fey world, represented by the river which divided the land where he came to rest. Upon awakening he is met with two beautiful maidens whose mystical qualities are stressed by the narrator who goes so far to reaffirm the veracity of the narrative, “I shall tell you the truth without fail” (Lanval 63). The supernatural factor of the world that Lanval has been invited into is further highlighted in the description of his entrance into the fey court, contrasting it directly against the courts of mortal men. Not Queen Semiramis,
when she was at her richest
and most powerful and wisest,
nor the emperor Octavian
could have bought the right flap (Lanval 83-86) .
On a purely material level, everything about Lavnal’s fey host’s wealth trumps that of Arthur’s court as it is said that, “no king under heaven...
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