Middle Ages Blog Part Four: A Close Reading of Ywain and Gawain

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The Fourteenth century medieval romance Ywain and Gawain highlights the issues of chivalry and knighthood, which illustrates its significance in romance literature and values of the medieval world. During the Middle Ages, the concept of chivalry holds substantial importance for mundane life as well as prestigious knighthood. Furthermore, the genre of medieval romance explores narratives serving as depictions of heroism, intense action, as well as the common motif alluding to fully resolved conflicts and positive endings. However, the final moments of medieval romances are ambiguous in nature considering that narrative elements often remain unaddressed. Despite various elements of medieval romances remaining unanswered, narratives such as Ywain and Gawain maintain the issue of a happy ending which also creates the perceived notion of fully resolved conflict within medieval romances.

Ywain and Gawain emphasizes traits which characterize a good knight, such that knighthood directly corresponds with nobility, honour, and bravery. Furthermore, the issue of chivalry resonates with real world values during the Middle Ages. Medieval narratives frequently contain elements of heroism and bravery, such that aspects of the romantic fantastical world establish issues which resonate with men of real world society during this time period. In respect of characteristics of chivalry, such fantastical medieval romances highlight acts of heroism and bravery in order to deliberately encourage men of the real world to emulate such romanticized behaviour. Ywain and Gawain highlights the role of men and women during the middle ages, which further demonstrates real world values and beliefs. In respect of the issue of chivalry, the representation of male and female roles within Ywain and Gawain demonstrates the nature of each role through Sir Ywain’s chivalric duty with his later wife, Alundyne.

Prior to their marriage, Sir Ywain defeats Alundyne’s husband in combat whom of which later dies from his injuries. The battle between Sir Ywain and Alundyne’s previous husband directly corresponds with the medieval concept of chivalry. Furthermore, the act of engaging in combat when challenged demonstrates the issue of bravery and heroism, depending on the nature of circumstances. Sir Ywain’s influence for challenging Alundyne’s husband draws from his cousin Colgrevance’s embarrassment attributed from the knight six years earlier. Colgrevance informs Ywain of a knight by whom he was defeated in battle, such that this defeat embarrasses Colgrevance which juxtaposes the primary conception of chivalry. In order to emphasize honour and duty, Ywain avenges his cousin’s embarrassment and defeats the knight who ultimately dies from his injuries sustained in battle. Following the knight’s death, and prior to Ywain’s marriage to Alundyne, Sir Ywain portrays characteristics of chivalry depicted within medieval romances as a means of proving his dedication to knighthood. Furthermore, Sir Ywain’s determination to protect Alundyne following the death of her husband directly corresponds with real world values among knighthood, as well as men from a general perspective. During the Middle Ages, men determined that protecting women was among the most honourable actions, such that it is a significant component of chivalric behaviour depicted within medieval romance literature.

The issue of chivalry frequently highlights noble actions, such as protecting women at all times. Furthermore, the ability for an individual to protect those around them is a contributing factor for determining one’s worth and notion of masculinity. Although the idea of women appearing helpless is not particularly associated with the modern world, during the medieval period men believed that protecting women was an inherent duty. Moreover, during the middle ages the protection of women demonstrates significant components of expected behaviour, such that men perceived women as helpless. Alundyne’s conversation with Lunette while Sir Ywain is invisible draws from the issue of women requiring protection at all times, which further corresponds with idealistic behaviour which exists amongst various medieval romances through intertextuality.

Following the death of her husband, Alundyne experiences significant apprehension considering that her husband is no longer available for her protection. In relation to the issue of chivalry, Sir Ywain determines the protection of Alundyne is his inherent duty as a man and a noble knight. Following the conversation between Sir Ywain and Lunette, Lunette offers Sir Ywain protection from hostiles considering that years prior Sir Ywain treats her with respect during her visit to Arthur’s Court. Unlike Arthur and the remaining members of his court, Sir Ywain deliberately treats Lunette with respect and acknowledges her intention of travelling to speak with Arthur and other members of the knighthood. Sir Ywain witnesses Alundyne’s grieving from her husband’s death due to his invisibility ring acquired from Lunette, such that Sir Ywain’s experience inspires him to establish his role as a noble knight through selfless behaviour. Ywain’s selfless behaviour ultimately leads to a marriage with Alundyne, which the narrator depicts as honourable and characterizes an idealistic knight.

The following passage from Ywain and Gawain highlights the interaction between Lunette and Alundyne, which inspires honourable actions from Sir Ywain, (Old English) :

Unto the chameber to Sir Ywayne, The lady thoght than al the nyght, How that sho had na knyght Forto seke hir land thorghout To kepe Arthurgh and hys rowt” (lines 1020-1025)

The lady Alundyne expresses genuine fear and sadness because a man is no longer present to protect her from external dangers and invasion of the castle from Arthur’s Court. In relation to the mindset displayed during the Middle Ages, Alundyne’s fear directly resonates with mundane values and perceptions during this time period. In further respect of the issue of chivalry, romance literature emphasizes that it is a man’s inherent duty to protect women and those around them. Moreover, brave and noble actions further illustrate a man’s worth within society as well. Although dramatically ironic, Sir Ywain falls in love with Alundyne while he witnesses her grieving for the man he killed. A common motif in romance literature is the ability for characters to quickly surpass emotions of fear and sadness, such that Alundyne dismisses her husband’s death within a few hours.

Sir Ywain demonstrates chivalric behaviour through his recognition that Alundyne requires protection following the death of her husband, considering that Sir Ywain witnesses Alundyne’s grieving. The passage continues with Lunette convincing Alundyne that she will not survive living in the castle without a husband as Lunette says:

With wrang now I hir wite. Now hopes sho I wil never mare Luf hir als I have done are. I wil hir luf with main and mode; For that sho said was for my gode." (Lines 1025-1035)

Within this section of the passage, Lunette informs Alundyne that if she is unable to find another husband she will not survive attacks from Arthur, nor will she survive from a general perspective. In respect of the societal perceptions during the Middle Ages, Lunette’s insistence of convincing Alundyne of her reality draws from real world issues during the medieval period. Furthermore, during the medieval era women unfortunately did not possess significant positions within society. Without protection from prestigious men, women are perceived as unable to maintain a significant position in society.

The narrative of Ywain and Gawain demonstrates the reality of society during the Middle Ages. Moreover, considering that the conversation between Lunette and Alundyne following her husband’s death is realistic despite the issue of romance literature serving as somewhat of a hyperbole of heroic narratives. Although romance literature is hyperbolic in nature, literary narratives throughout history have drawn from real world values and issues within the structure of society. Therefore, the concept of chivalry depicted in medieval romances such as Ywain and Gawain draws influence from medieval society and its representation of gender and expected behaviour.

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020

Further Reading:

“Ywain and Gawain” from Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain. Ed. Mary Flowers Braswell. (Lines 1020-1035). Kalamazoo, Michigan. Medieval Institute Publications. 1995.

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