Friday, June 29, 2007

On knights errant and courtly love...

Lady Bertilak at Gawain's Bed
"tempting someone else's fate"
(Image from Wikipedia)

In Part 1, Chapter 13 of Don Quixote, Cervantes has the great Knight of the Woeful Countenance describe to a fellow traveller the ennobling sufferings of a knight errant, comparing them to the rigors of a monk's life and suggesting that it is a divine calling because:
[C]hurchmen in peace and quiet pray to Heaven for the welfare of the world, but we soldiers and knights carry into effect what they pray for, defending it with the might of our arms and the edge of our swords, not under shelter but in the open air, a target for the intolerable rays of the sun in summer and the piercing frosts of winter. Thus are we God's ministers on earth and the arms by which his justice is done therein. (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 13 (1605), translated by John Ormsby (London, 1885))
The traveller listens carefully to the great Don's words and courteously agrees, but with a significant caveat:
"That is my own opinion," replied the traveller; "but one thing among many others seems to me very wrong in knights-errant, and that is that when they find themselves about to engage in some mighty and perilous adventure in which there is manifest danger of losing their lives, they never at the moment of engaging in it think of commending themselves to God, as is the duty of every good Christian in like peril; instead of which they commend themselves to their ladies with as much devotion as if these were their gods, a thing which seems to me to savour somewhat of heathenism." (Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 13)
In effect, the traveller is politely calling into question the very thing that he had courteously agreed to. Knights errant may believe that they are carrying out God's work in this world, but in fact, they fall into something like the pagan practice of worshipping goddesses.

Don Quixote responds by appeal to the custom among knights errant:
"Sir," answered Don Quixote, "that cannot be on any account omitted, and the knight-errant would be disgraced who acted otherwise: for it is usual and customary in knight-errantry that the knight-errant, who on engaging in any great feat of arms has his lady before him, should turn his eyes towards her softly and lovingly, as though with them entreating her to favour and protect him in the hazardous venture he is about to undertake, and even though no one hear him, he is bound to say certain words between his teeth, commending himself to her with all his heart, and of this we have innumerable instances in the histories. Nor is it to be supposed from this that they are to omit commending themselves to God, for there will be time and opportunity for doing so while they are engaged in their task." (Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 13)
The great Don has not, of course, truly responded to the traveller's criticism of the knight errant's heathen devotion to his lady, for by re-emphasizing the knight errant's practice of "entreating her to favour and protect him in the hazardous venture he is about to undertake, and ... commending himself to her with all his heart," Quixote merely restates what the traveller finds troubling.

So, naturally, the traveller politely maintains his difference of opinion:
"For all that," answered the traveller, "I feel some doubt still, because often I have read how words will arise between two knights-errant, and from one thing to another it comes about that their anger kindles and they wheel their horses round and take a good stretch of field, and then without any more ado at the top of their speed they come to the charge, and in mid-career they are wont to commend themselves to their ladies; and what commonly comes of the encounter is that one falls over the haunches of his horse pierced through and through by his antagonist's lance, and as for the other, it is only by holding on to the mane of his horse that he can help falling to the ground; but I know not how the dead man had time to commend himself to God in the course of such rapid work as this; it would have been better if those words which he spent in commending himself to his lady in the midst of his career had been devoted to his duty and obligation as a Christian." (Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 13)
Cervantes, perhaps writing these words around 1600, was not the first to note the problem posed to the Christian knight by the practice of courtly love. In the latter 14th century, the Pearl Poet implicitly sets up the problem in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by first presenting Gawain as a good Christian knight:
And all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds
That Christ got on the cross, as the creed tells;
And wherever this man in melee took part,
His one thought was of this, past all things else,
That all his force was founded on the five joys
That the high Queen of heaven had in her child.
And therefore, as I find, he fittingly had
On the inner part of his shield her image portrayed,
That when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart.
(Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff (1967), Part 2, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, Seventh Edition, page 172, lines 642-650)
Gawain, a good Christian knight, maintains devotion to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, which therefore makes him Mary's knight (cf. line 1769) and thus protected against falling into the heathen practice of courtly devotion to a mere woman.

Yet Gawain's courtesy and concern for his own life move him to accept from the beautiful Lady Bertilak the gift of a purportedly magical green belt interlaced with threads of gold that will supposedly protect him from an otherwise certain death:
She released a knot lightly, and loosened a belt
That was caught about her kirtle, the bright cloak beneath,
Of a gay green silk, with gold overwrought,
And the borders all bound with embroidery fine,
And this she presses upon him, and pleads with a smile,
Unworthy though it were, that it would not be scorned.
But the man still maintains that he means to accept
Neither gold nor any gift, till by God's grace
The fate that lay before him was fully achieved.
"And be not offended, fair lady, I beg,
And give over your offer, for ever I must
I am grateful for favor shown
Past all deserts of mine,
And ever shall be your own
True servant, rain or shine."
"Now does my present displease you," she promptly inquired,
"Because it seems in your sight so simple a thing?
And belike, as it is little, it is less to praise,
But if the virtue that invests it were verily known,
It would be held, I hope, in higher esteem.
For the man that possesses this piece of silk,
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth."
Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought
It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:
Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!
The he bore with her words and withstood them no more.
And she repeated her petition and pleaded anew,
And he granted it, and gladly she gave him the belt,
And besought him for her sake to conceal it well,
Lest the noble lord should know -- and the knight agrees
That not a soul save themselves shall see it thenceforth
with sight.
He thanked her with fervent heart,
As often as ever he might;
Three times, before they part,
She has kissed the stalwart knight.
(Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, Part 2, Norton Anthology, Volume 1, page 196, lines 1830-1869)
Up until this moment, Gawain has courteously refused to accept any gift from the lady, for in the act of accepting a parting gift from a lady, a knight setting off on a quest is implictly accepting the lady herself as his lady. By accepting the magical belt, Gawain has exchanged the higher Queen of Heaven for the lower Lady Bertilak and thus relinquished the Virgin's protection from harm in return for Lady Bertilak's protection.

In this manner does Gawain lose his status as Mary's knight and adopt the practice of other knights errant, who "commend themselves to their ladies with as much devotion as if these were their gods, a thing which seems ... to savour somewhat of heathenism," and by accepting Lady Bertilak, he does, as do other knights with their ladies, "turn his eyes towards her softly and lovingly, as though ... entreating her to favour and protect him in the hazardous venture he is about to undertake," as both the traveller and Don Quixote, respectively, have already noted.

In doing so, ironically, Gawain falls into a well-constructed trap and puts his life at risk ... but that is a longer story.

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At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure what I might have thought of this 30 years ago, but at 68, I’m feeling pretty dumb that I only just now got round to seeing it.

I was blown away!! Not since seeing the Broadway production of the musical, Les Miserables, have I been swept up in such a powerful presentation of the grace of God.

Having spent the past two days tracing down its origins, it is clear that there was an invisible hand guiding the various writers through which the life of Cervantes finally became Man Of La Mancha, the movie. Imprisoned by what was calling itself “church” in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes, the sane man behind the mad man, Quixote, finds himself on trial on two fronts. In the dungeon, where the Inquisition has put him, he is put on trial by his fellow prisoners. He defends himself by becoming the crazy Don Quixote, the would-be knight on a quest with an Impossible Dream.

As his defense plays out, he must convince a very fallen woman, Aldonza that she is an incomparable princess. All she need do to make the transition is believe in the new name he gives her, “Dulcinea.” To that end he dedicates his life. His having died to prove his unoffendable love, she sees the light, and in her seeing, transforms the others held in prison by the inquisition of that day.

In short, the Movie seemed to me to be vested with a meaning no sane person of this world intended. The original script can be found in Ezekiel Chapter 16.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...


Not sure what to make of your comment. Thanks for posting your thoughts, but you seem to be referring to the musical Man of La Mancha rather than to my post.

Jeffery Hodges

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