The impossibility of chivalry continuing when the fellowship has already been fragmented by the very men who led it is highlighted by Gawain’s fruitless desperation to punish Lancelot for the betrayal of his chivalric duties towards Gareth. Gawain’s previous association with blood feuds has overshadowed the fact that his persistence in killing Lancelot is not to do with blood ties, but a genuine attempt to restore Gareth’s honour which he feels was destroyed by Lancelot’s actions. In this essay I will discuss how Malory shows the futility of Gawain’s chivalrous actions in an environment which has already begun to forsake the very values that formed it.
According to Kate McClune, most of the men in the Orkney family are in some way the cause of destruction in the book due to their obsession with blood feuds (91-92), this may be true of the other Orkney brothers, but I don’t believe this is the case with Gawain. Even before Gawain swears his oath to kill Lancelot the fellowship is already fragmenting. When trying to reassure Guenivere, Lancelot displays a greater trust in kin as opposed to his chivalric brothers: ‘For I am assured that Sir Bors, my nephew, and all the remnant of my kin, with Sir Lavain and Sir Urry, that they will not fail you to rescue you from the fire’ (Malory and Cooper 472). In privately giving him their allegiance they will have forsworn their loyalty to other knights and to Arthur, therefore Malory is inferring that even before the final chapter, Lancelot’s adultery with Guenivere has forced the knights to pick a side. That Arthur is also more invested in blood ties than one would expect the King to be proves that Gawain’s actions cannot be the undoing of the Round Table. Arthur’s revelation of Gareth and Gaheris’ deaths is extremely manipulative and shows that he is already ready to go to war. He begins by distancing himself from the report, as though to imply that he doesn’t believe that Lancelot is innocent, ‘I wot not how it was…but as it is said, Sir Lancelot slew them in the thick press and knew them not,’ and then goes on to directly bait Gawain into helping him start the war, ‘And therefore let us shape a remedy for to revenge their deaths’ (483). At this point, a grieving character such as Gawain would be easy to exploit, and this creates another huge rift, as Gawain was previously shown to be extremely dedicated to Lancelot. We also know that Gawain himself has a large following as some of them were used by Mordred and Agravain to ambush Lancelot when he was in Guenivere’s chamber – perhaps as he was writing Malory was thinking of the Stanton family during the Wars of the Roses who were influential whenever they switched sides due to their many supporters. If Arthur managed to secure Gawain’s loyalty to him (which was already tentative due to his previous support of Lancelot) it would be an asset to his armies. Similarly, baiting Gawain proves the futility of Gawain’s attempt to rectify Lancelot’s betrayal of Gareth, because how can this chivalrous action work when even the embodiment of chivalry, King Arthur, is encouraging a war based on blood ties?
Gawain’s association with blood feuds is likely to be because the Orkneys are originally Scottish through their father, King Lot, and fifteenth century Scottish society stressed the importance of family and some form of retaliation if their family was harmed (Mapstone 109-110). Whilst he was writing Le Morte D’Arthur it is likely that Malory would have been aware of the circumstances surrounding familial bonds in Scotland and used them to validate the Orkneys’ behaviour. Gawain begins the chapter being very clearly devoted to Lancelot and Guenivere, dismissing the familial bonds between himself and Agravain and Mordred by telling them that he will ‘not hear of your tales, neither be of your counsel’ because he knows how devastating the revelation will be to both the couple and the Round Table as a whole. Furthermore, his knowledge of the consequences of revealing Lancelot and Guenivere’s adultery is thorough enough for him to guess that his brothers are likely to die, and yet he disregards both their deaths and those of his sons because he believes that they were ‘causers of their own death’ (Malory and Cooper 479). There is an air of resignation and dismissal in the speech which one wouldn’t expect to find in a man who is later furious with Lancelot for the death of Gareth. This leads me to believe that the deaths of Agravain and his sons are upsetting for completely different reasons to Gareth’s death – namely that Gawain mourns the former as the loss of obstinate family members, and the latter as a violation of Lancelot’s oath as a knight – a knight that both he and Gareth admired greatly, and may have even followed into battle if given the chance. Gareth’s death in particular is the turning point in the chapter. Lancelot knighted Gareth (125), who then fought against Arthur at the Westminster Tournament because he was ‘shamed to see so many good knights against him [Lancelot] alone’ (439-443) – clearly there was a special connection between the two knights which Lancelot openly acknowledges in front of all the knights when he says that he ‘would with as good a will have slain my nephew Sir Bors de Ganis’ (485). It is because of this special bond that I believe that Gawain would have perceived Lancelot’s killing of Gareth as traitorous, as most knights would have expected Lancelot to be as devoted to Gareth as Gareth was to him.
Gawain so thoroughly believes in Lancelot’s commitment to Gareth that he denies that Lancelot could have killed his brother, despite the fact that it is King Arthur speaking to him:
“That may I not believe,” said Sir Gawain. “that ever he slew my good brother Sir
Gareth, for I dare say my brother loved him better than me and all his brethren
and the King both. Also I dare say, and Sir Lancelot had desired my brother Sir
Gareth with him, he would have been with him against the King and us all. And
therefore I may never believe that Sir Lancelot slew my brethren.” (482)
That Gawain feels no worry in asserting that Gareth would have turned ‘against the King and us all’ suggests an admiration and confidence in the relationship between the two knights he is talking about, almost laying the ground for his emotional turnaround towards Lancelot when he accepts the truth. It proves that Gawain cannot possibly be so invested in familial bonds, or else he would not accept Gareth’s greater loyalty to Lancelot than his brothers and uncle. Furthermore, Gawain only ‘swooned’ when Arthur insists that Lancelot killed Gareth, but little mention is made of Gaheris’ death at this point which proves that Gawain’s emotional tumult is as a result of Lancelot breaking his homosocial bonds with Gareth, as opposed to Gawain losing his family members to Lancelot’s actions.
Gawain’s oath to kill Lancelot in revenge for Gareth’s death (483) isn’t so surprising either as Benson explains, Gawain has previously asserted that had he been in Lancelot’s place he too would have done all that was necessary to rescue Guenivere as it was his knightly duty to do so (Malory 482). As a result, when he finds out that his own unarmed brothers have been killed, he is honour bound to avenge them to preserve his own honour (Benson 296). It is in this last part that I disagree with Benson. Whilst I am sure that some of Gawain’s own honour may have been regained through Lancelot’s death, he explicitly says, ‘for the death of my brother Sir Gareth, I shall seek Sir Lancelot throughout seven kings’ realms,’ (Malory and Cooper 483, my emphasis) which shows that he is not thinking of his own worship at this point, but is seeking to amend what he sees as Lancelot’s traitorous actions. Furthermore, he swears by his ‘knighthood’ which connects his oath to his chivalric duties. This isn’t the first time that a knight has sworn to be someone’s mortal foe, Lancelot himself occupied a similar position to Gawain when he declared himself to be Tristram’s ‘mortal enemy’ (208) because he felt that Tristram had broken his oath to Isode and neglected his chivalric duties. What was seen as a chivalrous action at that point in the book can only be seen as the same here, however it is unfortunate that Gawain’s declaration comes when the Round Table’s values are disintegrating.
I believe that a great deal of Gawain’s decisions in The Death of Arthur were as a result of Lancelot and Arthur’s actions and could have been avoided if Gareth had lived. However, the fall of the Round Table was inevitable as soon as factions started to form and the chivalric code was ignored, leaving the fellowship to self-destruct.
- Benson, C David. “Gawain’s Defence of Lancelot in Malory’s” Death of Arthur”.” The Modern Language Review, (1983): 267–272. JSTOR. Web. 23 October 2013
- Malory, Thomas and Helen Cooper. Le Morte Darthur. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
- Mapstone, Sally. “Malory and the Scots.” Blood, Sex, Malory: Essays on the Morte Darthur, 28. (2011): 107-120. Print.
- McClune, Kate. “‘The Vengeaunce of My Brethirne’: Blood Ties in Malory’s Morte Darthur.” Blood, Sex, Malory: Essays on the Morte Darthur, 28. (2011): 89-106. Print.