King Arthur and His Knights

Even as most historians are still doubtful about the existence of Arthur, writers from the fourteenth and fifteenth century were captivated by his world. By superimposing their own ideals and values onto this fantastical realm, these writers eventually created the kingdom of Camelot and its legendary king. The stories of Arthur and his knights probably hold little or no resemblance to the reality but the legend has endured for centuries and will no doubt continue to seize its audience’s imagination.

Chivalry, loyalty, and courteousness are themes that lace many of these tales. Just as the Anglo-Saxon warriors before them had to abide by their code of honor, the knight had to live by a new code known as chivalry. During the fourteenth century, authors such as the one who wrote "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" chose the character of Gawain to embody all the chivalric ideals. In fact, Gawain is often described as the most courteous and noble knight during this period of time.

Even as the Round Table and, in consequence, the king himself are described as fairly young and new to his reign, Gawain shows a maturity and presence of mind that is lacking among his peers. For example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain intervenes to stand in for Arthur in the game proposed by the green knight when no one else would. The manner in which Gawain replaces Arthur is reminiscent of how Beowulf asked Hrothgar for the honor of fighting Grendel. Both characters are extremely tactful with their offers so as not to offend anyone.

With the introduction of Lancelot, Gawain’s character recedes into the background. The shift in focus reflects the altered taste of the audience for which these stories were written. As a result, the emphasis changed from politeness and courtesy to the subject of love. Since Gawain is traditionally depicted as one who ignores women as shown in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his character starts to fade into the background during the fifteenth century.

Lancelot, in contrast, becomes the preeminent knight. The classic love triangle he gets tangled in with Guinevere and Arthur makes his story more poignant. His love for Guinevere is often described as the perfect love in stories such as Morte D’Arthur. As a consequence of this affair, however, Arthur’s court is cleaved in two and his best warrior is forced to depart with the queen in tow. The eventual demise of the Round Table is not due to any external enemy but, rather, is the result of internal strife.

The themes that run through knightly tales reflect what the audiences of the day perceived were important ideals. Themes change in accordance to changes in opinion and thoughts. As a result, the stories of King Arthur are the perfect indicator for the attitudes during that time. The fact that Arthur and his knights are still popular to this day is testament to the enduring themes that were written about so long ago.