Christoper Dean’s comparison of King Arthur and Sir Gawain as character complements in the Alliterative Morte Arthur brings up an important discussion of chivalry and chivalric expectations for medieval romance. By analyzing the characters as a two-pronged approach to understanding the poet’s representation of late medieval aristocratic culture and noble ideals, he avoids the popular condemnation violence and male bravado in the text and focuses on its function and merits instead. While excessive force and what appears to be unfettered violence abounds throughout the text, the destruction is brings in the final episode (the battle against Mordred) has perhaps all too often be used as the definitive critique for the text; however, up until Arthur receives news of Mordred’s usurpation, violence has provided Arthur, his knights, the kingdom, and other kingdoms many benefits.
Chivalry, by its very definition and practice, involves violence. Dean is appropriate in his positive critiques of the poet’s representations of King Arthur’s and Sir Gawain’s behavior in that each utilize violence to fit their hierarchical role, which together provide a complete image of romance aristocracy. Dean identifies how the two characters, despite having an intensely important bond, are often not present at the same time within the poem. This is a very striking detail to me and I believe that Dean provides a qualified explanation for why this decision may have been made. Dean establishes that the two kinds of motivations and expectations of the characters differ in strategic ways: Arthur, as a king, must act within political dimensions seeking counsel from his Round Table (many of them kings under his overlordship), directing statesman and issuing other embassy directives, and ultimately inspiring his knights by personal example, while Gawain’s leadership is in signaling his fitness as a knight in service to Arthur (117). By separating the character’s episodes within the romance, the poet is better able to emblazon each within their respective role, and this may even provide an explanation for why Gawain seems to fail where Arthur succeeds. Dean argues that while Arthur and Gawain both demonstrate their prowess and dominance by defeating “larger-than-life foes” (118), again their status positions provide important contextualization for why the scenes develop the way they do. Gawain insults but is overlooked by Emperor Lucius on the battlefield because it is Arthur’s duty as king to defeat him. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of Arthur’s disparaging remarks to Lucius’ embassadors and declaration of war is confined by the power he single-handedly exhibits during the battle and defeat of the giant, which liberates the people at Michael’s Mount. Furthermore, Gawain goes off on his own and encounters Sir Priamus. Here Dean notes that the poet shifts gears and presents a standard romance adventure where our errant knight, Sir Gawain, challenges, defeats, and converts the otherwise lethal Priamus, kin of Alexander the Great (120-121). This serves to emphasize Gawain’s role as the chivalric knight who should be focused on status, loyalty to his crown and most importantly to God. Similarly, Gawain’s initial engagement with Mordred and his army on British shores fits his chivalric duties to Arthur as well. Dean’s argument implies that Gawain’s beastly descriptions are a poetic trope for a heroic knight realizing that he will die without accomplishing his purpose in vanquishing the foe (122). While the ferocity of his fighting mirrors chivalric expectations of martial skills and their active demonstrations, Dean moments that this description does not diminish the nobility of his mental state in seeking to achieve such chivalric ideals (123). After all, the story of Arthur and the Round Table has one inevitable fate, and as king, it is Arthur’s duty to slay his usurper.
While Dean’s emphasis on chivalric ideals and the different obligations between a king and his knight are extremely effective in surveying the use violence within the text, his final points about the final deaths leaves out some critical issues and ambiguity involving the way violence functions. Gawain’s death by Mordred’s hands is problematic in that it represents a point where fate intercedes over the knight’s actual skills. Furthermore, the loss of Gawain is devastating to King Arthur’s legacy since he would serve as the heir-apparent, which complicates the character’s otherwise commitment to selfish chivalric goals. Additionally, Mordred meets Arthur on the battlefield with Clarent, the ceremonial sword used for dubbing knights and entitling kings. Given that he fights Arthur with it and delivers him his death-blow first raises a legitimate question as to Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Since violence is intrinsically connected to the entire poem’s structure, the questioning of its legitimacy, which is initially raised in Arthur’s dream and dream analysis, is physically tested here. Arthur manages to hew Mordred’s sword hand and run him through, but this is after he has already been mortally wounded. This detail seems to imply a compromised but restructured hierarchy on the battlefield: Arthur must fall, but Mordred, the evil antagonist, will not survive and thus victoriously supersede him as king. Neither character shall rule legitimately from this point forward. Given the ambiguity of legitimacy and its connection to violence, the issue of a just war surfaces—this is after all the common critique of Arthur, including the philosophers who interpret his dream of Fortune’s wheel. The ideas of a God and Church sanctioned war was popular throughout the middle ages given the circulation of Cicero’s and Augustine’s ideas involving a just versus unjust war. This was taken up again during the crusades. For war, and by extension violence, to be just, it must be sanctioned by God and the Church and aim at establishing peace through the thwarting of enemies. While Arthur’s war against Mordred seemingly fits this premise, his initial interest in conquests abroad, including Rome, may have been overreaching—a critique certainly laid on him during his dream analysis and taken up by contemporary medieval scholars.