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Knights in Literature: Sir Gawain, Canterbury Tales, & Beowulf Analysis

There are some Knight’s Period stories that everybody knows, or maybe, heard about, but if one strives for a deeper understanding and acknowledgment of their main themes and ideas, it is necessary for him or her to analyze them, compare some of their characters with one another. Therefore, the following stories and their particular parts might be suggested for the discussion: the anonymous “Beowulf”, Thomas Malory’s “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”, “The Wife of Bath” prologue and tale, “The Nun’s Priest” and the “Pardoner”. One may also propose to compare the two medieval romance’s epic heroes – Beowulf and Sir Gawain; discuss the attitudes towards the relationship between the sexes and towards marriage in “The Millers Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s” prologue and tale; to discuss the morality concern in the “The Nun’s Priest” tale and recover the author’s message intended to reach the audience; to reveal the main idea of the “Pardoner”.

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Comparing Beowulf and Sir Gawain, it is necessary to note that both are true heroes, but for different reasons. They have a lot of common traits, but they have differences as well, which are determined by their motivation and personal qualities. Nevertheless, both heroes can be described as ideal knights.

The qualities of the heroes define the course of the stories, helping or hindering knights in their journeys and feats. Personal honor and courage are Sir Gawain’s main ideals. As for Beowulf, the most important for him is his bravery, but his heroism differs from Sir Gawain’s heroism.

Even though Beowulf’s bragging about his strength and powers, what may seem unheroic, “I count it true that I had more courage / More strength in swimming than any other man” (cited in Norton Anthology, 2005), one may assert that such behavior is determined by the traditions and Beowulf’s surrounding, thus, he uses such manner to express how he feels inside; this hero is in the search of fame. His courage can be proven by the episode where he fights against Grendel’s (monster’s) mother without a sword, using only the physical strength, and says: “On the might of his hand, as a man must do / Who thinks to win in the welter of battle / Enduring glory; he fears not death” (cited in Norton Anthology, 2005).

If compare the former character with Sir Gawain, then it is necessary to say that everything he does is driven by the standards of honor, but not by the search for fame. Sir Gawain is represented as a modest and self–critical hero. For example, in the knight’s game, he respectfully asks to perform against the Green Knight. He feels that it is his duty and he has to do this as he is “the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom… / And my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly” (Malory, cited in Norton Anthology, 2005).

Of course, this is not true, as everybody in Camelot considers Sir Gawain as one of the best and the most famous knights; moreover, he is King Arthur’s nephew. But the natural humility, modesty bordering with courage make him feel such way described above. Nevertheless, when the Green Knight tells the hero about his (Green Knight’s) magic powers, Sir Gawain falters trying to protect his own life.

Therefore, he learns from such an unpleasant experience and suffers greatly knowing that he does not feet his own honor ideals. In defense of Sir Gowain, one may suggest that only the person of great honor is able to admit his or her mistakes, as this knight did. Contrasting Sir Gowain, Beowulf does not learn from his mistakes. That is why he has to fight with the dragon being an advanced age.

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Concluding, one may strongly assert that both knights – Beowulf and Sir Gawain are true heroes; they are brave, courageous, and chivalrous. But those qualities, actually, lead them to the downfall. For example, if Beowulf was less courageous, he would probably not fight the dragon at an advanced age. Sir Gawain’s honor leads him into the Green Knight’s trap. But, one may suggest that this is a destiny of the true heroes that can not be just half brave or half honorable.

Passing to the discussion of the attitudes towards the relationship between the sexes and towards marriage in the stories “The Millers Tale” and “The Wife of Bath” prologue and tale, it might be suggested to begin the analysis with the former story. In order to repay the miller for his hospitability, the monk tells him and other guests a legend of the old and ignorant carpenter John’s and his beautiful eighteen–year–old wife Alisoun’s life and, of how a young clerk Nicholas, who was once an Oxford student, made a fool of that man sleeping with his wife. Primarily, most of the pilgrims (the gests) reveal their immediate objection to the story. Responding to this, the host– the miller tells everybody, present in the room, that he himself is not concerned about his wife’s sexual relationship with other men, and would like to hear the story.

According to the tale, Nicholas makes up a story about Flood taking his beloved one from her husband for the entire night; they sleep together at the carpenter’s bed. Moreover, they make fun of the clerk Absolon, who also desires a young woman, by making him kiss not Alisoun’s leaps, but her naked “ers”.

Absolon wants to repay the woman fully; he gets a red-hot iron poker to throw at her face, but instead, he injures Nicholas who thrust his head out of the window. The later one cries out, “Help! Water! Water!” (Chaucer, cited in Norton Anthology, 2005), but John thinks that the flood has come. He tells people about that referring to Nicholas and Alisoun, but they deny everything, saying that the carpenter is mad. The pilgrims are still shocked with the story’s details, but the liberal views’ miller animatedly asks that God save all of the tale’s participants.

Another story that concerns the attitudes towards the relationship between the sexes and towards marriage is “The Wife of Bath”. The Bath’s wife starts the Prologue to her own tale by obtaining her image as an authority in the cases of marriage. According to her, she has extensive personal experience in this field: she has had five husbands since the age of twelve.

Many people from their society have criticized her for this. Most of them referred to the fact that Christ was married only once. Nevertheless, the Wife of Bath interprets the Scripture and God’s plan in her own manner. In accordance with her, no man has ever been capable of giving her an exact answer to the question of how many husbands a woman has a right to have in her lifetime.

The story also represents people’s attitude towards women’s behavior during King Arthur’s golden age. Although women were forbidden to travel alone because of the reason that the evil spirits could seduce them, the society was highly matriarchal. As evidence of her words, Bath’s wife tells that even King Arthur’s education came through women.

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Another Geoffrey Chaucer’s story “The Nun’s Priest” is a fable edifying tale about animals: the rooster Chanticleer, his favorite wife Pertelote, and a flatterer Fox. It ends with a moral lesson that suggests never trusting a flatterer. Anyway, the tale is much more complex than the common reader might think. This literary work contains courtly romance, the parodies of epic poetry of medieval literary thought, and scholarship.

The story has a specific reference to the important actual event of the late fourteenth century. This happens when the widow and her young daughters, who are the owners of the farm, begin to chase the fox to get back their rooster, and the entire barnyard joins them producing a lot of noise. The narrator tells that, “Certes, he Jakke Straw [leader of the English peasants’ rebellion in 138] and his meynee / Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille / Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille, /As thilke day was maad upon the fox” (Chaucer, cited in Norton Anthology, 2005).

Following this, it might be suggested to discuss the Pardoner from the story of the same name by Chaucer: “The Pardoner…begins as a human being and reveals himself progressively to be an inhuman being, the image of vice as it acts on the body and soul and, at the same time, the image of the soul which vice has consumed” (Chaucer, cited in Norton Anthology, 2005). This quotation might be explained by Pardoner’s frankness of his hypocrisy that is shocking despite the fact that the people of his profession are likely to be corrupted. He accuses himself of such disgusting deeds and qualities as swindle, avarice, and greed; he also accuses himself of gluttony – all the things he actually preaches against. And here is the culmination: rather than expressing remorse with those things he confessed, he remains proud at the heart of his corruptive deeds.

Works Cited

Norton, W. W. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1: The Middle Ages through the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, 8th ed. London: Norton, 2005.

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StudyCorgi. "Knights in Literature: Sir Gawain, Canterbury Tales, & Beowulf Analysis." September 24, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/knights-in-literature-sir-gawain-canterbury-tales-and-beowulf-analysis/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Knights in Literature: Sir Gawain, Canterbury Tales, & Beowulf Analysis." September 24, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/knights-in-literature-sir-gawain-canterbury-tales-and-beowulf-analysis/.

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