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A Comparison of Honor
The Middle Ages were a time when honor was considered the most important things one could possess in their lives. Honor was the cornerstone for everything that was good about medieval society and people would do anything to protect what honor they had. The three poems The Franklin’s Tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo all have honor as a central theme in the stories they tell us. Honor is portrayed in different ways as it is shown in each of these poems. The theme of honor is shown to be held higher than anything else in The Franklin’s Tale, while in Sir Orfeo his love for his wife seems to push honor aside. The honor that is seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the honor for one’s own beliefs and standards but hope, in the end, overcomes honor.
One major theme of honor in these poems is when honor is put over everything including love or even one’s own life. Honor over everything can be interpreted as trying to maintain an honorable public image and keeping a good name for one’s self. This can be seen by what other things honor goes ahead of. For starters, honor would go ahead of love that may be in the form of marriage or not. If, in fact, love is in the form of marriage than the word of honor that someone gives to his or her spouse could be put in back of the public honor. These people would rather dishonor their pledge to their spouse than be seen by the public as someone with a bad name or a dishonorable individual. This is seen in the pledge between Arveragus and Dorigen. He was very forceful in his opinion saying “I would rather be stabbed, because of the love I have for you, than have you fail to keep your word of honor” (750). Arveragus did this to protect both his public image and to protect Dorigen’s public image also. It seems that for these people the public image was much more important than the private life. Arveragus is willing to give up his wife and all his happiness for the rest of his life just so both of their reputations aren’t blemished with the label of being dishonorable. Arveragus and Dorigen being very high up on the social class system, had to keep their social image free from any dishonorable events in order to keep there good name. If the word got out that Dorigen made this deal her good name would be ruined and she would most likely fall from her high social position. Arveragus almost seemed more concern with their public image saying “I forbid you, on pain of death, ever, while life or breath lasts, to tell anyone of this misadventure”(753). This shows that, above all, what the public thought of their image was most important. Arveragus, being a knight, could not have a wife that made pledges to other men, especially ones that involved her being with that other man. A knight was supposed to have control over everything in his life including his wife. In theory, a knight’s wife would almost be a servant of the husband and a wife should never be as promiscuous as Dorigen was in making the pledge to Aurelius.
On the other side of this issue is the poem of Sir Orfeo. In this story love, unlike that in The Franklin’s Tale, was put above everything including honor. Orfeo can not live without his wife so he decides to go into the woods where he will die. “For now that I have lost my queen, / Into the wilderness I will flee, / and there live for evermore”(209). This act shows that he is so upset about his wife that he will give up the life of a king and take that of a beggar. Orfeo shows how much he really cared for his wife by taking a solitary life of a beggar. During the Middle Ages status was very important and many people would have done something like Arveragus did to protect their honor. Giving up the position of being a king is a very public occurrence and shows that Orfeo didn’t care about his public image or his good name, all he cared about was being with his wife. Before Orfeo’s wife was taken by the fairy king, he had himself and his whole army out to protect his queen. Orfeo was going to do everything it took, this includes dying, to ensure that the love of his life would be there with him forever.
Honor and love are very important in each of the three poems. The ways that love is treated in each of the poems is different. In The Franklin’s Tale love is second to honor, nothing could make these people give up their good name in the public eye. In Sir Orfeo, love is all that matters and honor doesn’t seem to even be a big part in the poem except for at the end when Orfeo tests his steward. “King Orfeo now had proved and knew/ his steward was both loyal and true, / and loved him as duly should”(553). This shows that although the king did put love before honor, he still felt that honor was very important. Orfeo felt that it was important enough to tell people that the king was dead just to see their reactions. In this story it seems as if being honored is more important than having people think that you re an honorable man. Orfeo didn’t care what people thought as he left for the forest but on his return the first this he does is not greet his friends, which he hasn’t seen in many years, but test there loyalty and honor for him.
A third type of honor is seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the honor of yourself and what one believes in. Gawain believed very much in the church and the pride of being a knight. As a knight he would have to be the model of perfection and also protect the citizens of his land. Maintaining this perfection would be very difficult but Gawain would do anything to maintain it, even give his own life. It seems that Gawain did care what others thought of him but he seemed more concerned with his own personal honor than any other. This personal honor comes down to honoring what Gawain believes in. One of the most important things that Gawain believes in is the church. This is seen in one of Gawain’s most desperate times, “Thurgh mony misy and myre, mon al hym one, / Carande for his costes, lest he ne kever schulde / To se the servyse of that syre, that on that self nyght / Of burde was borne, oure baret to quelle.”(749). Even though Gawain is freezing and all alone in a strange land he prays to the Lord that he wants to find someplace where he can pray on Christmas. Gawain is clearly more concerned with honoring his Lord of this special day than praying for a nice warm place so he can survive. Honoring his faith like this proves that Gawain put what he believes in before his own life, and one could say that the only reason that Gawain was going through all this trouble is his faith.
Gawain does maintain his word to the Green Knight, which was a very hard thing to do because in Gawain’s mind he was ultimately going to meet his death. Gawain was the pinnacle of what it meant to be a knight and not only that, he was the best of King Authur’s court which was also very renowned for being the best. The knightly code is the one thing that the Knights of the Round Table and all other knights of that time had to live by. Sir Gawain was considered by the people of the time to be the greatest knight who ever lived, he was the Michael Jordan of knights. These knights were all dressed in the best; they all had jewels on their cloths and held a high position at the round table with King Arthur. The times in which King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were very noble ones, the worth of a man was heavily weighed by how honorable this person was and if his word could be respected as having some trust in it.
There comes a point in Gawain and the Green Knight when Gawain does fail to uphold his honor. This is when he takes and keeps the sash that he gets from Bertalak’s wife and doesn’t give it to Bertalak. This shows that even though Gawain is a great knight he is subject to fear for his life and is in need of some hope. Gawain is punished for this, the small nick that Gawain receives on his neck, but the Green Knight, Bertalak, feels this is a small mistake. Bertalak says “On the fautlest freke that ever on fote yede. / As perle bi the quite pese is of prys more, / So Gawayn, in god fayth, bi other gay kyghtes.”(2363). This means that Bertalak feels that Gawain is the pearl next to the pea, which is the other good knights. Even though Gawain did fail, he still completed a quest that probably no one alive could do. Bertalak lets Gawain keep the sash as a symbol of he journey and what he accomplished. To Bertalak the sash represents everything great that Gawain has done and he believes that Gawain should look upon the sash with pride. Bertalak along with everyone else in the poem believe this major feat that Gawain accomplished was an amazing show of his pride, honor, faith, and skill as a great knight. On the other side of the coin, Gawain sees the sash as a symbol of his failure. Gawain believes that he should be a perfect knight and that he must be able to do everything perfectly. This basically comes down to living a perfect life which, as anyone knows, is if not impossible pretty close to it.
Honor was treated in different ways in the three poems. The theme of honor, though, is very important to each of the plots of the three poems. In The Franklin’s Tale honor is thought of in two respects, public and private. Public honor is more important to the characters in the poem since Arveragus chooses saving their public image than honoring their private vows. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, honor is what Gawain revolves his life around. The honor that Gawain has is in himself and what he believes in and he is ready to give up his life for his honor. Gawain is, in fact, protecting his eternal, honorable image when he decides to keep his word and go find the Green Knight to meet his death. Honor is Sir Orfeo, in respect to the other two poems, is pushed aside for love. Orfeo decides that love is much more important than the honor that his position as king comes with. Honor is the centerpiece of the three poems and they couldn’t exist without it.
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