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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 6. The Gawain Cycle

It is in the Arthurian romances, and more particularly in those relating to Sir Gawain, that we find the loftier ideals of chivalry set forth. Gawain is depicted as the knight of honour and courtesy, of loyalty and self-sacrifice. Softer manners and greater magnanimity are grafted upon the earlier knighthood. Self-restraint becomes more and more a knightly virtue. The combats are not less fierce, but vainglorious boasting gives way to moods of humility. Victory is followed by noble concern for the vanquished. Passing over Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, which is treated elsewhere, we find in Golagros and Gawain these knightly elements plainly visible. The rudeness of Sir Kay, here and elsewhere, is devised as a foil to the courtesy of Gawain. Arthur in Tuscany sends Sir Kay to ask for quarters in a neighbouring castle. His rude, presumptuous bearing meets with refusal, though, when Gawain arrives, the request is readily acceded to. The domains of Golagros are next approached. He is an aggressive knight of large reputation, whom Arthur makes it his business forthwith to subdue. A combat is arranged, in which Gawain proves victor; whereupon the noble Arthurian not only grants the life of the defiant Golagros, but spares his feelings by returning to his castle as if he himself were the vanquished. Matters were afterwards explained, and Golagros, conquered alike by arms and courtesy, becomes duly enrolled in Arthur’s train. In the Awntyrs [Adventures] of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne we find something of the same elements, together with an exhortation to moral living. The romance deals with two incidents alleged to have occurred while Arthur was hunting near Carlisle. The first, however, is an adaptation of the “Trentals of St. Gregory.” A ghastly figure is represented as emerging from the Tarn, and appearing before Guinevere and Gawain. It is Guinevere’s mother in the direst torments. The queen thereupon makes a vow as to her future life and promises, meanwhile, to have masses sung for her mother’s soul. The second incident is of a more conventional kind, and deals with the fight between Gawain and Galleroun.

Ywain and Gawain is another romance which embodies much that is characteristic of Arthurian chivalry. Ywain sets out on a certain quest from Arthur’s court. He defeats a knight near the fountain of Broceliande, pursues him to his castle and marries Laudine, mistress of that place. After further adventures in love and war, in most of which he has the company of a friendly lion, he falls in with Gawain and, ignorant of each other’s identity, they engage in combat. The fight is indecisive, and each courteously concedes to the other the victory—an exchange of compliments which is speedily followed by a joyful recognition. The Wedding of Sir Gawain, again, points to loyalty and honour, as involving supreme self-sacrifice. It relates how Gawain, to save Arthur’s life, undertakes to marry the loathsome dame Ragnell. His noble unselfishness, however, is not unrewarded; the dame is subsequently transformed into the most beauteous of her kind. Libeaus Desconus, the story of Gyngalyn, Gawain’s son, is constructed on rather conventional lines. The fair unknown has several adventures with giants and others. He visits a fairy castle, where he meets with an enchantress, and rescues a lady transformed into a dreadful serpent, who, afterwards, however, becomes his wife. The scene of the Avowing of Arthur is once more placed near Carlisle. Arthur is hunting with Sir Gawain, Sir Kay and Sir Baldwin, when all four undertake separate vows. Arthur is to capture singlehanded a ferocious boar; Sir Kay to fight all who oppose him. The king is successful; but Sir Kay falls before a knight who is carrying off a beautiful maiden. The victor, however, is afterwards overcome in a fight with Gawain, and then ensues a significant contrast in the matter of behaviours. Sir Kay sustains his earlier reputation by cruelly taunting the beaten knight; while Sir Gawain, on the other hand, mindful of the claims of chivalry, is studiously kind and considerate towards his fallen foe. The riming Mort Arthur, the alliterative work of the same name, deal with the close of Arthur’s life. In the first occurs the story of the maid of Ascolot, and her fruitless love for the noble Lancelot. The narrative is instinct with the pathos of love, and here, as in Tristram, the subtlety of the treatment reveals further possibilities of the love theme. Lancelot is, moreover, depicted as Guinevere’s champion. The queen is under condemnation, but is rescued by Lancelot, who endures, in consequence, a siege in the Castle of Joyous Garde. The end of the Arthurian story begins to be visible in the discord thus introduced between Lancelot and Gawain, Arthur and Modred. The alliterative Morte Arthure is more seriously historical. Arthur is represented as returning home from his wars with Lucius on hearing of Modred’s treachery. He fights the traitor, but is mortally wounded, and is borne to Glastonbury, where he is given a magnificent burial.