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The Shaping of English Poetry – Volume IV

Essays on 'The Battle of Maldon', Chrétien de Troyes, Dante, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and Chaucer

Gerald Morgan

This fourth volume of essays under the title The Shaping of English Poetry consolidates the work of the previous three volumes on the great subjects of English literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The Norman Conquest of England built upon the rich foundation of Anglo-Saxon England but did not destroy it; thus the present volume begins with the commemoration of English heroism in The Battle of Maldon. In the late twelfth century we encounter in Chrétien de Troyes's seminal romance Le Chevalier de la Charrete a new kind of hero in Lancelot, abject and obedient before his mistress, although Chrétien himself is not an uncritical admirer of the sanctity of adulterous love. Hence the importance of Dante's exposition of love in Purgatorio, XVIII, which forms a background to the essays here on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Parliament of Fowls. The volume concludes with essays on Chaucer's Knight's, Monk's and Nun's Priest's Tales, which form part of a long-term project to interpret the Canterbury Tales as a unified whole and not merely a series of fragments awaiting revision on Chaucer's death.

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4 The Goodness of Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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I. In many ways the modern world has a morbid fascination with the viciousness of human nature rather than its virtues and finds, let us say, Dante’s Inferno more congenial to its taste than the Paradiso or even the Purgatorio. A literary critic such as John Burrow, for example, is undis- turbed by Terry Jones’s interpretation of Chaucer’s ‘verray, parfit gentil knyght’ (GP, I.72) as ‘a shabby mercenary without morals or scruples’ in his still controversial book on Chaucer’s Knight. In Burrow’s view Jones is ‘absolutely right … to reject as too bland and insipid the conventional account of the Knight’.1 Modern viewers of television are not only fed an unrelenting daily diet of cruel and barbaric wars in the Middle East (the holy lands of the medieval crusades) but have these images reinforced in plays and films. And the favourite word employed by modern commenta- tors for such routine brutality is ‘medieval’. It is perhaps pointless to protest at such ignorance at so late a date, for in many ways films and television do more to promote falsehoods than medieval scholars are able to do by way of promoting truth. But something must be said in defence of the medieval world in the face of such persistent disparagement that willingly ignores the still transcendent beauty of medieval churches and cathedrals no less than that of medieval poetry. There is clearly a gulf here between medieval and modern percep- tions of the world and we may begin perhaps by expressing it...

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