What a folly it is when a prince, delighting in pleasures, creates havoc and obstructs the equilibrium of good governance!
I will explain to you how, in the Prose Lancelot, a marvelous study of consequential action is recorded and can be showcased as the misdeeds among nobles create catastrophic consequences. Sir Gawain, wanting to indulge in the passions of lust, sleeps with the daughter of the King of North Wales. How, you may ask, does he accomplish this?
He befriends a servant of the princess who leads him, along with his companion Sagremor, by a secret cellar into the strong fortress. Once inside, the servant leads Gawain to the chamber where the princess, who secretly loves him, lies in wait. First, he must pass a well lit room of twenty knights who are meant to keep guard of the king’s daughter. He manages to slyly pass them by snuffing out the candle in the middle of the room, for they were all asleep!
When Gawain takes his pleasure of that girl, catastrophe strikes. The King of North Wales awakes and discovers Gawain through a window and sets upon him with the twenty guards. Gawain and Sagremor band together and kill many of them, and also take captives. It is by a stroke of luck and his prowess that he escapes the debacle. The lady who helped him access the castle does her part in helping them escape by lowering the portcullis of the castle to stop the chase. When it seems we have put this episode behind us, and that there was “no harm no foul” after all, we are reminded of it all to soon in a subsequent chapter.
The twenty knights of North Wales capture Sagremor and his lover, who is the servant of the princess. Sagremor is beaten and bound. The lady is given an even worse treatment. She is hung by her hair to a tree branch in the air. Then, her hands are bound up so tightly that the flesh is torn from them.
“The flesh on the back of her neck, along with the beautiful hair attached to it, had come loose, and her hands were so badly skinned that she could not even raise them to her head. The knight carried her in his arms to the pavilion, but he suffered far more looking at her than feeling the pain of his own wounds. Tears of pity rolled down his cheeks.” (Prose Vulgate, Paraphrase, pp. 220)
Let this set the scene in the mind’s eye of the treachery caused by the prince’s act of lust. He deemed it of no consequence to have his fill with the princess, but revenge was plotted by the king when he sent his guards out. It is Sagremor, Gawain’s trusted knight and companion, along with the servant girl, the princess’s most trusted associate, that take the blame for the royal misdeed. It is even more appropriate to underline the violence that ensues as a result of this rash act of young love. It is only with the help of Lancelot and Yvain that they are freed. Yvain is nearly killed by the knights who far outnumber him, yet he is fortunately saved by Lancelot, in addition to the curious character that had been taken captive at the scene of the initial crime. That captive was freed on condition that he allegiance to Sagremor and come to him in his time of need. Clearly this, if ever, was his time of need, so the knight did everything in his power to subvert the imminent death by blocking strokes from his fellows or riding in front of them seemingly by accident. Still, many people die as a direct result of this conflict, which originates from the sexual union of two unmarried people.
Violence ensues and many people die by this unwarranted act of lust, and it is stressed that good kingship and leadership results in unifying factions with good grace and alliance rather than frolicking with women to incite revolt, bitterness and hatred. If we look at the true consequences of this act it is only too clear what has been lost. Gawain has now created a hostile King in North Wales to his Uncle King Arthur. Hopefully he has enjoyed his pleasure with the lady, for in the name of love he has started a war! Just as Paris destroyed Troy by his love of Helen, so are the seeds planted in this conflict for Gawain to utterly ruin Arthur. We know from previous episodes that the King of North Wales is only one of the seven kings in England who are constantly looking fro a reason to conquer King Arthur. They defy in his early days of kingship with a terrible war. There is the King of Scotland, the King of the One Hundred Knights, the King of Cornwall and the King of Ireland, just to mention a few, who would easily take an opportunity to foil King Arthur’s governance.
By fortune and God’s grace Lancelot is able to defend Arthur’s good name and assuage any forest fires of conflict. Too often did the knight’s of the Round Table rely on Lancelot’s saving grace to keep them from imminent peril and too carelessly did they act on their own accord. However, it is very clear that, if Lancelot had not arrived to protect them, a war would have ensued by the death of the captive Sagremor, who was one of the most reputable knight’s of the Round Table. How many countless times Lancelot frees the imprisoned, heals the sick, and conquers the wicked I cannot recount for it would take me a lifetime.
The medieval concept of the knight was far more than just a warrior. The good one’s had been admired for their prowess and were symbolically constituted, or even glamorized, as angels of God. But rightly so, for in a world without law there was no more important figure that could do right by the people than the wandering knight. I could not with immediate authority declare that that good knight’s had been angels but they certainly did God’s bidding by protecting the innocent. By and through His grace and swift justice was the good knight able to free the oppressed, uplift the poor and break from the bonds of enslavement those who were put down by tyranny. It was the class of the knight that was the protector of the church and upholder of justice. And it was God who pointed the knight in the right direction, if he was truly willing to do His will, to save those who were in trouble. Knight’s weren’t a bunch of brutish men running around with swords. Being a knight required morality, wisdom and a social consciousness towards others. Gawain’s failure to foresee the consequences of impulsivity are to his shame and categorize him as a false knight.
In our lives today we can see that, if we follow the will of God, we may be put on a path that leads us to save another who is in trouble. May we all act as knight’s to uphold values, laws and morals and protect those who are innocent in quarrels. May we all, through divine intercession, be judges in our daily lives to help God uphold those divine laws here on earth, for it is specifically said that we let “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. And so the good knight is only acting in accordance with God’s will when he destroys the tyrant or vanquishes a wicked custom by the sword.