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An Analysis of The Knights Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Updated on August 1, 2019
Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English. She has a master's in education and is a certified teacher.

Chaucer, author of The Knights Tale
Chaucer, author of The Knights Tale | Source

In both The Knights Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, animal imagery supports and furthers the themes and plots of the novels. Chaucer's main characters Palamon and Arcite in his novel The Knight's Tale are both described with characteristics common to animals. Furthermore, as one is a man fleeing incarceration and another is a man avoiding banishment, both are dependent on Theseus' mercy upon discovery. Such is the typical situation of an animal during a hunt, as victims and at the mercy of the hunter. Similarly, in the novel Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is at the mercy of the castellan who hosts him during his journeys. Dependent on this host for shelter, Sir Gawain graciously partakes in games devised by his host that test Sir Gawain's virtue repeatedly. In these tests, his success at preserving his trueness is paralleled by the castellan's level of success at hunting. The animals captured themselves represent the situation of Sir Gawain, as with each further step he takes towards dishonoring his host the animals his host kills regress in worth and value.

In The Knights Tale Arcite speaks words that depict him as a victim, captured and slain by his love for Emelye: "'Love hath his firy dart so brenningly/Ysiked thurgh my trewe, careful herte,/That shapen was my deeth erst than my sherte./Ye sleen me with you're eyen, Emelye" (706-710). This description can be interpreted as literally meaning that cupid has shot Arcite with an arrow of love, and has therefore brought about his downfall as he has no hope to ever claim her for his own. However, this situation also parallels that of an animal in a hunt. A wild animal is a chosen victim, much like love chose to claim Arcite upon his viewing Emelye. Furthermore, the animals fallen victim to a hunt are not strong or powerful enough to dodge or escape their hunters, much like Arcite cannot stray from Emelye's company, and feels an attachment so strong he risks his own life to be near to her, violating his dictated terms of banishment and risking discovery. Finally, such animals die at the hands of those who pursue them, much like Arcite claims to have been pierced through the heart by a blazing arrow by love.

Similarly, Palamon, has also fallen for Emelye, and he is held in a comparable grasp by love that spurs him to break out of prison and risk death to find her. Unbeknownst to Arcite, Palamon hears his declarations of love and reacts also as a fatally injured animal, "Palamon, that thought that thurgh his herte/He felt a coold swerd sodeynliche glide,/For ire he quook, no lenger wold he bide" (716-718), wounded at the end of a sword. Enraged by overhearing this confession, Palamon confronts Arcite with the proclamation: "‘Arcite, false traitour wikke,/Now artow hent, that lovest my lady so,/For whom that I have al this peyne and wo" (722-724). Both men are consumed with love for Emelye, in the unwavering grip of a love so strong they will both risk their lives to pursue it. Both figuratively die when her love appears beyond their grasp, Arcite by arrows and Palamon by a sword, and both are willing to literally die to win her.

Palamon gazes at Emelye with love through the bars of his prison cell
Palamon gazes at Emelye with love through the bars of his prison cell | Source

Therefore, both attack the other, and "Arcite, with ful despitous herte,/As fiers as leon pulled out his swerd" (738-9). Arcite initiates conflict with "ful despitous herte", or the feelings of despise he carries in his heart for Palamon where the arrows of love have previously pierced him. This directly suggests his anger and hatred for Palamon originate because of his love for Emelye. The level of anger and hatred he feels is compared to that of an animal, and animal imagery is now direct instead of implied, as Arcite is described as "fiers as leon". The fact that he pulls out his sword correlates to the description of Palamon feeling as if he has been driven through the heart with a sword upon hearing Arcite desire his love. Each now struggles to escape the death that will result if either fails in his pursuit of Emelye, or succumbs to the weapons of the other.

This suggests that not only are both men hunted by love but they are also hunted by each other, Palamon changing the love Arcite holds in his heart into hate, and Arcite changing the love Palamon feels into the sensation of dying by a sword. Much like animals, fighting on impulses of passion, both mindlessly attempt to murder the other. This image if furthered by Arcite being described as a lion, as lions exist as one male dominant and supreme over the females in the pride, fighting other lions to the death in order to protect such supremacy. In fact, as both men rush to fight each other, both change appearances: "Tho chaungen gan the colour in hir face,/Right as the hunters in the regne of Trace,/That stondeth at the gappe with a spere,/Whan hunted is the leon or the bere,/And hereth him come rushing in the greves,/And breketh both bowes and leves,/And thinketh, ‘Heere cometh my mortal enemy!/Without faille, he moot be dead or I'" (779-786). Both men can simultaneously be the hunted and the hunter of the other. Both are pushed into battle by carnal instincts, to either kill or be killed. Similarly, a man hunting a lion or bear can either be killed or do the killing, and both the man and the beast must fight until one dies.

They are described yet further in animalistic terms: "Thou mightest wene that this Palamon/In his fightening were a wood leon,/And as a crueel tigre was Arcite;/As wild bores gone they to smite,/That frothen whit as foom for ire wood./Up to the ancle foghte they in hir blood" (797-802). To further compare their situations, now Palamon is described as the lion, whereas Arcite was previously, and Arcite now becomes "as a crueel tigre". The similarities progress as both are now wild boars, the same exact type of animal, and both froth and fight in each other's blood. The battle becomes less glorious and more carnal and desperate, as the men go from lions and tigers to the wild boars, which froth at the mouth and wade up to their ankles in blood.

It is in this desperate situation when the two men are discovered by Theseus, who is out on his own hunt, "For in his hunting hath he swich delit/That it is al his joye and apetit" (821-822), quite unaware of the two men at battle in the same forest. For Theseus his hunt is but a game, something which he can take delight and joy in doing, for he is in control of the situation and the one in pursuit. Both Arcite and Palamon are in contrast pursued one by the other, and are ruled by passion and bloody persistence to fight to the death, much like the animals Theseus chases for sport. Theseus finds them, and "he was ware of Arcite and Palamon,/That foughten breme as if were bores two" (840-841). Again, in contrast to Theseus' royalty and civilized practice of hunting, the two men are described as frothing boars fighting without oversight. It is therefore, that Theseus is astonished, asking: "But teeleth me what myster men ye been,/That been so hardy for to fighten here/Withouten juge or oother officere" (852-854). Theseus calls into question what type of men they are, to fight without an officer present as civilized society requires, and instead fighting without rules, much as animals fight in the wild.

However, upon discovery of their identities, Theseus' hunt ends on an unanticipated note as he kills not just wild game, but demands the lives of both Arcite and Palamon as well: "Ye shal be deed, by might Mars the rede!'" (888-889). This completes the animal imagery, as by acting and therefore becoming animals in their all-encompassing passions, Arcite and Palamon are threatened with a similar demise to animals during a hunt: capture and death. However, humanity ultimately offers them a chance as Theseus does not immediately revenge himself upon Arcite for breaking the rules of banishment or upon Palamon for breaking out of jail, he does not pounce upon them with swords drawn as they have done to each other. Instead, he is persuaded to give them a chance to win Emelye's hand through battle, a civilized and societally correct method of settling differences.

The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Source

Animal imagery and parallels also exist in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Sir Gawain happens upon a castle while on a journey to find the Green Knight. Almost dead from exposure to the elements, Sir Gawain is very grateful for shelter and food provided by the castellan and his wife. It is in this situation of dependency that the lord of the castle proposes that the two men undergo a contest or agreement, suggesting to Sir Gawain: "‘Whatever I win in the woods be yours,/And any achievement you chance on here, you exchange for it./Sweet sir, truly swear to such a bartering" (62). The contest consists of the castellan hunting in the woods and accruing game, which he will exchange for Sir Gawain's achievements back at the castle, while he is waited upon by castellan's wife in his bedchambers.

Such a request must be agreed upon, for Sir Gawain is indebted to the castellan. The lord of the castle awakes early the next morning and goes hunting and comes across some deer, and "the deer in distraction darted down to the dales;/Or up to the high ground, but eagerly they were/Driven back by the beaters, who bellowed lustily" (65). This situation parallels that of Sir Gawain, lying asleep in bed at the castle to be awoken by the castellan's wife who appears unexpectedly in his room. He feigns sleep and she states: "How unsafely you sleep, that one may slip in here!/Now you are taken in a trice" (67). Like the deer, confused and running in distraction, Sir Gawain initially feigns sleep in embarrassment and uncertainty when the lady of the castle enters his bedchamber while he lies unclothed beneath the covers. Also like the deer, she playfully calls him an easy catch, "taken in a trice", and has him in her complete control, stating: "I shall hold you fast here on this other side as well/And so chat on with the chevalier my chains have caught" (67), holding him down upon the bed so he cannot by any means escape. Similarly, the deer perused by her husband are entirely in his control, and "if one of the wild beasts slipped away from the archers/It was dragged down and met death at the dog-bases" (65), none escaping.

The lady of the castle tries to tempt Sir Gawain into betraying the castellan, but Sir Gawain will not submit to her desires, and "not loth was she to allure./This lady fair of face; but the night with speeches pure/Answered in each case" (68). The appeal of the lady is not without question; however, Sir Gawain remains true to his host and graciously denies her advances. The only time his actions become ambiguous is when the lady requests a kiss, and Sir Gawain must comply because, as a night, he cannot offend or refuse anything to his host's wife, and he states: "I shall kiss at your command, as become a knight/Who fears to offend you; no further plea is needed" (70). Sir Gawain wins the situation and the lady leaves with only a kiss, while the castellan faces similar success at his hunt: "Hunting the barren hinds in holt and on heath./So many had he slain. By the setting of the sun,/Of does and other deer, that it was downright wonderful" (71). Sir Gawain has preserved his honor and nobility, and during the trade he is justly rewarded by receiving the deer his host captured, animals of nobility and great worth.

However, on the second day, the host fights a boar, a less noble creature than deer, although still a worthy adversary: "A baneful boar of unbelievable size, A solitary long since sundered from the herd,/Being old and brawny, the biggest of them all,/And grim and ghastly when he grunted" (75). Also on this second day, Sir Gawain is requested and delivers to his host's wife two kisses, and the lowered nobility of the animal pursed by the host coincides with Sir Gawain's further loss of innocence and honor through his actions. The host's wife tries harder than before to win Sir Gawain over to actions of dishonor, yet she still ultimately fails, although winning an additional kiss: "that stately lady tempted him and tried him with questions/To win him to wickedness, whatever else she thought./But he defended himself so firmly that no fault appeared,/Nor was there any evil apparent on either side,/but bliss;[...]Till she gave him a gracious kiss" (80).

Similar to his wife's ardent pursuit of Sir Gawain's affections, the lord and his men consistently chase the wild boar, and "loosed arrows at him, hitting him often,/But the points, for all their power, could not pierce his flanks" (76). The boar denies the arrows their power of damage much as Sir Gawain denies the lord's wife her power of enticement. Sir Gawain still has intact honor, only receiving two kisses, and therefore has not dishonored his host, who is also brought closer to honor through his courageous attack on the boar: "the castellan came himself, encouraging his horse,/And saw the boar at bay with his hand of men around./He alighted in lively fashion, left his courser,/Drew and brandished his bright sword and boldly strode forward" (81). The lord has brought himself closer to glory and Sir Gawain has brought himself further away from glory, and yet neither man has been dishonored. However, Sir Gawain has progressed slightly further from the path of honor through receiving another kiss, and both gifts exchanged show proof of such: the less noble, single boar for the two kisses.

An old artistic depiction of scenes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
An old artistic depiction of scenes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Source

Sir Gawain still has not committed any condemnable crime, merely moved in a direction closer to which such a crime could next occur. It is for this fact that the lord exclaims upon their trade that their agreement should last another day: "remain in your room and rest in comfort,/While I fare hunting in the forest; in fulfillment of our oath/Exchanging what we achieve when the chase is over./For twice I have tested you, and twice found you true" (85). The lord contrasts what each man will do-he will hunt and Sir Gawain will rest in his bedchamber accompanied by the lord's wife-and then states that when "the chase is over" they should exchange achievements. This compares the chase of the lord's hunt to the chase of Sir Gawain by the lord's wife. However, where the hunt is the castellan's way of proving his worth, the castellan admits that he has consciously tested Sir Gawain with his wife, and that he has proven himself trustworthy, and through denying the castellan's wife he proves his own worth.

This third day the castellan comes upon a fox as his query, an animal not noble or worthy, and the fox "deviously in difficult country [...] doubled his tracks,/Swerved and wheeled away, often waited listening[...]and stole out stealthily at the side of a valley,/Considering his stratagem had given the slip to the hounds" (85). The fox is referred to as "devious" and "stealthy", words with negative connotations that describe a quite unremarkable and dislikable animal. This again mirrors the situation involving Sir Gawain at the castle, as the lady entices him so relentlessly that "he felt forced/Either to allow her love or blackguardly rebuff her./He was concerned for his courtesy, lest he be called caitiff,/But more especially for his evil plight if he should plunge into sin,/And dishonour the owner of the house treacherously" (89). Sir Gawain falls yet farther from honor, as he ends up now giving the lord's wife three kisses and nearly succumbing to her. He worries over the temptation of betraying his host, and over what he could be accused of upon refusing her advances, of being "caitiff", much as the fox in the forest is called names: "There savagely snared at by intercepting hounds;/Then he was called thief and threatened often" (85).

Ultimately Sir Gawain succeeds in refusing the lady of the castle's advances; however, he does accept a gift of a green garter, as "it appeared to him/A precious gem to protect him in the peril appointed him" (90). This is an entirely different method of deception than the lord of the castle expects, and Sir Gawain deliberately conceals it from the castellan. Such a method of betrayal is devious and stealthy, much like the fox, as Sir Gawain also doubles his tracks, offering the castellan the three kisses he himself acquired earlier in the day, yet deceptively for he does not share the green garter. The lord offers Sir Gawain the fox's skin, stating that next to his gift of three kisses "Mine is inferior,/For I have hunted all day and have only taken/This ill-favoured fox's skin, may the Fiend take it!/And that is a poor price to pay for such precious things/As you have pressed upon me here, three pure kisses/So good" (93).

Similarly to the two exchanges beforehand, the game the host brings home mirrors Sir Gawain and the fox's skin is equal in value to the deception and lies Sir Gawain brings him. The lord of the castle has not single-handedly felled the fox, but merely stabbed at it and let the dogs kill it, and he does not have the previous honor done to him by the acquisition of the boar much as he has lost honor at the betrayal by Sir Gawain. However, unlike Sir Gawain, the host is honest and true to all he has promised, and sends Sir Gawain on his way with a scout, claiming: "In all that I promised you, I shall perform" (94), again in direct contrast to Sir Gawain, who leaves wearing the concealed green garter under his armor. Sir Gawain has fallen from truth and honor much as the deceitful fox fell at the end of the hunt.

In both novels, the main characters exist in situations similar to those of hunted animals. The type of animal each character is compared to represents the type of situation the character is in and the disposition of the character. Arcite and Palamon, like Sir Gawain, are victims of a hunt and at the mercy of forces stronger than themselves, and all fall, symbolized by their depictions as vile or unworthy animals.


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    • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Schatzie Speaks 

      8 years ago

      I'm glad you liked it, Lobonorth. Thanks for commenting!

    • lobonorth profile image


      8 years ago

      Enjoyed the Hub. Thanks.


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