Essay – MEDIEVAL LITERATURE CONCEPTIONS: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, & Canterbury Tales

What were the Medieval conceptions:  constructions, perceptions, understanding of character? 


The Middle Age audience’s understanding of their tales was coloured by the influence of the Christian religion and Church.  The Middle Ages were

an age of faith.  Almighty God was acknowledged as the Source of all life; the world was God’s world, and Christians were God’s people.  The workings of God were recognized in everyday life, and any unusual or striking events, whether storms and comets, victories and recoveries of health were regarded as signs of his direct intervention in human affairs. (Shirley-Price, 1978, p. 29)

Today’s audience views the tales without the insider religious and social knowledge, seeing the flat nature of the heroes, the sexual and social inequality,and the ‘fantastic’elements of the tales as signs of their ignorance.  If, however, they look at the surviving remnants of Anglo-Saxon art and literature – the wall-tapestries and Old English illustrated manuscripts – they will see a complexity, an interweaving of two-dimensional characters, heavily symbolic of attributes or of stereotypical tasks, e.g. the hunter. These are placed on ornamented historical backgrounds, interlaced with religious (both Christian and pagan) symbolic creatures and paraphernalia.

It must always be borne in mind that all forms of Anglo-

Saxon culture, whether pagan or Christian, are intimate-

ly related to religion; yet always the natural tendency is

towards ordered conceptions with a strong sense of fit-

ness and continuity …. Similarly, the qualities of Anglo-

Saxon literature point to the same gifts of ordered cere-

monious arrangements and balanced types of ornamen-

tation … (Wrenn, 1967, pp. 10-11)

In the Middle Ages, literature, in Old and Middle English, incorporated the characteristics (among others) “of love of ordered ceremony and delicate sense of ornament, assimilative receptivity of foreign influence, a sense of continuity in conserving tradition, and delight in moralizing” (ibid, p. 15) in the form of transcribed oral verse-narrative – usually alliterative, sometimes rhyming, with patterns of syllabic and parted text stresses.  Despite being early medieval tales told in the late medieval period, the historical social conditions of the Feudal society provided their credibility.  These verse-narratives mainly dealt with religious allegories, chivalric/ courtly love, and heroic epics.

It was not until the advent of the novel in the mid-eighteenth century that psychologically complex fictional characters began to be constructed and explored.  That is not to say that there were no complex characters prior to the novel.  In poetry and drama, particularly Shakespeare – Hamlet, Macbeth, and even Henry V who was a heroic figure – the characters had many levels.  The comparison remains, however, for the medieval characters were not developed psychologically, but represented on face value as heroic, or romantic/chivalrous.

Homer’s ‘the glorious deeds of men’ …. is the primary theme

of all heroic poetry: the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. …. [S]urpass[ing] other men, …. he represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. (Alexander, 1976, pp. 14-15)

The characters of epics like Beowulf tended to be caricatures of heroic attributes, two-dimensional vehicles of exemplary attitudes depicted via the events and actions of their narratives. In the Arthurian Cycle including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the characters varied in dimension – the main characters being more highly developed, the secondary characters merely populating their landscapes.  While tending to represent some particular attribute, like honesty or greed, as in his contemporary Langland’s allegorical tales, Chaucer’s characters, in Canterbury Tales, were more realistic, more ‘human’ and less heroic.


Tolkien saw Beowulf as an ‘imaginary’ poem, with a narrative about “a great king’s fall”, (Tolkien in Tuso, 1975, p. 112) contrasting youth and old age, with ‘historical’ allusions giving it depth and darkness to highlight the ‘light’ and goodness of its hero.  Larger than life, Beowulf requires larger than life foes, inhuman and supernatural, to fight and conquer – easily done in youth, and fatally in old age.  Beowulf,

son of Edgetheow, is the very type of a hero in that it is his

eagerness to seek out and meet every challenge alone and

unarmed that makes him glorious in life and brings him to his tragic death.  He also has a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men.  (Alexander, 1976, p. 15)

John Leyerle’s ‘The Interlace Structure of Beowulf’ makes sense of the seeming historical digressions that occur throughout the text.  If this was a script then Beowulf and the monsters, Grendel and his mother, would be the A story, culminating with the Beowulf/dragon fight.  Hrothgar and historical flashbacks would be the B story, while Hygelac and his historical flashbacks would be the C story.  The atemporal nature of the flashbacks would not matter as they would link to the relevant theme in the corresponding story.

Leyerle’s idea of interlacing is another way of expressing this script/flashbacks idea, using the notion of interweaving seen in the tapestries, manuscript illustrations, jewellery, weaponry, etc of the Middle Ages.  The flashbacks are allied to their appropriate reference – for example the torque given to Beowulf by Hrothgar sets off the relating of the history of the torque, and its consequential battles.  Leyerle cites many examples of this inter-lacing, concluding by demonstrating the way the narrative returns to its beginning – the funeral of Scyld opens the narrative, and that of Beowulf ends it.

Scyld was placed in a boat, filled with treasure, his weapons and war accoutrements, and given “to the flood, / [they] let the seas take him, with sour hearts / and mourning mood”. (ibid, p. 52)  When dying, Beowulf instructed Wiglaf to “[b]id men of battle build me a tomb / fair after fire, on the foreland by the sea / that shall stand as a reminder of me to my people,” (ibid, pp. 139-140) and be seen by ‘ocean travellers’.  All the dragon’s treasure, and Beowulf’s weapons, armour and accoutrements were buried in the tomb built on the site of the pyre.  Both funerals entailed pagan rituals, fortunately not modified by the Christian poet, but described in detail, adding to its authenticity.

The interlaced structure of the Beowulf text creates a layering effect – a building up of the flashback information about Beowulf’s personal and predecessor’s history that gradually adds dimension to his character.  Initially portrayed as a warrior by the poet, his exploits are unfolded and his reputation expands before the audience, as he first tackles and defeats Grendel and then Grendel’s mother.  We are shown him in heroic form, bragging of his feats in competition – in reply to Unferth’s challenge, Beowulf said “I had more sea-strength, out-staying Breca’s, / and endured underwater a much worse struggle” (ibid, p. 68) – and in battle –

[f]ar and wide it is told how I found in the surges

the grim and terrible guardian of the deep.

After a hand-to-hand struggle …

I had hewn off her head …

with a sword of huge size.  I survived that fight

not without difficulty; but my doom was not yet.”

(ibid, p. 118)

It is expected that Beowulf will succeed where others have failed.  But with the encroachment of age the inevitability of his death hovers over his final battle with the dragon.  In true heroic form he sets out to fight the dragon alone, with the fate of his people at stake.  He would not ask others to face such a fierce foe – “… This affair is not for you, / nor is it measured to any man but myself alone / to match strength with this monstrous being, / attempt this deed…” (ibid, p. 131). But he is not deserted, and requires the aid of youth in the person of Wiglaf to achieve the dragon’s death.

Loyalty and bloody deeds of vengeance are preoccupa-

tions in much of the world’s literature, not least in the later,

feudal Middle Ages …. Beowulf … shares in this doctrine of

particular loyalties and of personal and social vengeance,

and in the literary habit of extracting pathos from these

patterns … (Hieatt, 1967, p. 8)

Like me, it seems that Tolkien found the ending fight and funeral compelling – I believe that by then the reader has been ensnared by the fate of the hero who is not perfect, tending to boast and ultimately overreach himself.  We can empathise with him.  The notions of loyalty (an essential part of the Chivalric Code) and fealty are highlighted, particularly in the final battle with the dragon.

As expected, I liked Tolkien’s argument concerning the nature, structure and intent of Beowulf by its author.  Opening his argument with an allegory – a parable about the destruction of a tower to search for what lay beneath, when its function was to allow a view of the sea – Tolkien lists the differing views of those critics who searched for what lay beneath the narrative without seeing its function as “an historical poem about the pagan past”. (Tolkien in Tuso, 1975, p. 106)  Ironically, the ‘view of the sea’ aligns with Beowulf’s burial mound/barrow which gives his spirit a ‘view of the sea’ and can be seen from the sea.

According to Tolkien, the poet brought to the work “considerable learning in native lays and traditions …. [and] a Christian English conception of the noble chief before Christianity”, (ibid, p. 107) drawing on the Old Testament, in particular Genesis for support.  Tolkien believed that Beowulf was not a historical depiction of Geatland or Sweden.  As mentioned, the past was given to create a depth to his illusion of dark and troubled times in which Beowulf was to struggle, succeed and finally die.  To Tolkien Beowulf was about balance, “an opposition of ends and beginnings …. [the] intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death.” (ibid, p. 108)

Like Tolkien, I am partial to the time placement of a work, feeling that its position in temporal history by necessity should affect our reading of it, and acceptance of it, despite our Marxist, Feminist, or Post-Colonial leanings nowadays.  However, I do believe that the female characters of medieval literature, unless in the text in an allegorical form – that is representing Truth, or Holy Church as in Langland, or delivering a homily as in Pearl – are treated superficially.  But this merely reflects their status in their particular era.  In Beowulf, the poets use the theme “of women as the bond of kinship.  The women often become the bond themselves by marrying into another tribe, like Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Freawaru.” (Leyerle inTuso, 1975, p. 167)

In his article ‘Beowulf – A Personal Elegy’, F R Rebsamen says Beowulf is a “literary character” having “a measure of compassion and understanding and meditative restraint” as well as heroic strengths (physical).  His “ambiguous qualities” (no wife, children etc) are not important – the poet was “trying something big and new, involving the best standards of two different ways of life (pagan and Christian) … [concentrating] upon theme and mood …” (Rebsamen in Tuso, 1975, all p. 188)  As already mentioned, as an integral part of life in the Middle Ages, religion pervaded all literature, especially when the poet was Christian writing of a pagan time.  It was inevitable that Christian attitudes would be attributed to the pagan hero.

To the late-medieval audience it was unthinkable and unbelievable that a hero could be lacking in compassion, could be merely a blood-thirsty warrior out for treasure and renown.  As a consequence, Beowulf was credited with feelings for those in trouble, prepared to risk his life to save others.  Although the trouble belongs to Hrothgar, who is not even of his land, Beowulf pledges: “The affair of Grendel/ has been made known to me on my native turf./ …. I should seek you out, most sovereign Hrothgar/ [and] … I alone may be allowed … to cleanse your hall Heorot.” (Alexander, 1973, p. 64)  This is to be done for altruistic reasons, not for the treasure, that includes the “fabled collar …. the Brising necklace”, (ibid, pp. 89 & 88) to be heaped on Beowulf should he succeed.

E B Irving Jr, in his article ‘The Feud: Ravenswood’ wrote to this effect.

Consistently Beowulf’s energies are directed outward and

away from the world of human violence and warfare, … with

the purpose of preserving human community by fending off

threats from the outside …. Beowulf is the embodiment of

a moral discipline so perfect as to seem instinctive and

effortless.  His tremendous strength, both physical and

spiritual, is applied to precise objectives for the good

of other men: it is never wasted, never turned on itself,

never beyond the control of his calm heroic will. (ibid, p.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In regard to the character development in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain at first seems gallant, impetuous, loyal to his King, yet not truly ‘real’.  But as he is ‘tested’ by his host’s wife and struggles to maintain his chivalric standards he becomes more convincing.  When he yields and accepts the girdle to aid his self-preservation against apparently certain death – “… he wore not for worth nor for wealth this girdle, / not for pride …/ but so that himself he might save when suffer he must,” (Tolkien, 1995, p. 78) he becomes human and three-dimensional. An indication of the perceived status of medieval women lies in the portrayal of the wife as a temptress –

… by the wiles of woman to woe be brought.

For even so Adam by one on earth was beguiled,

and Solomon by several, and to Samson moreover

his doom by Delilah was dealt; and David was after

blinded by Bathsheba ….

and all of them were betrayed

by women that they knew  (ibid, p. 89)

The fact that Gawain remains courteous and preserves her reputation foregrounds the constraints of the Chivalric Code.  Only at the end do we find that her behaviour had been directed by her husband, who placed her in a position of risk, and that she is therefore worthy of respect. “I sent her to test thee, and thou seem’st to me truly / the fair knight most faultless that e’er foot set on earth!” (ibid, p. 87)

There is substantial use of symbolism, and the story is a ‘moral tale’ – that total faith in God’s protection is all man needs.  When Gawain prepares to receive the blow from the axe “standing so stout, so stern there and fearless, / armed and unafraid , [the Green Knight’s] heart it well pleased” (ibid, p. 86)  Exemplary behaviour marred by Gawain’s lack of faith and loyalty, which caused him when found out to “[shrink] into himself with shame” (ibid, p. 88) and over-react.

Cursed be ye, Coveting, and Cowardice also!

…. Through care for thy blow Cowardice brought me

to consent to Coveting [my own life], my true kind to forsake,

which free-hand and faithful word that are fitting to knights. (Tolkien, 1995, p. 88)

Thus the pre-Christian tale of Christian knighthood, with its “rejection of unchastity and adulterous love” (ibid, p. 4), may act as a parable, indicating suitable moral behaviour to be followed by its audience.

According to Andrea Hopkins, “Sir Gawain’s personality changed during the 400 years of medieval Arthurian romance.” From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of him as ‘the bravest of all knights’ fighting valiantly for his uncle King Arthur, Sir Gawain’s character portrayal shifted to that “as a foil to other , newer heroes – Lancelot, Ywain, Perceval” in the French romances.  Chretien de Troyes depicted him as heroic and courteous, but worldly and womanizing, while Malory portrayed him as “a callous, brutal, selfish murderer” in the story, Tristan.  According to Hopkins he remained a “pre-eminent Arthurian hero in Britain” (Hopkins, 1993, all p. 53), a Grail hero in Germany, and in favour in Holland.  She believes that the verse-narrative, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, shows him

at his best – brave, generous, noble and too chivalrous

to rebuff the lady’s sexual advances discourteously.  At

the end of the poem, though Gawain turns out not to be

absolutely perfect, the Green Knight admits that he is

‘one of the most faultless fellows alive’. (ibid, p.53)

Tolkien’s views of the poem focus on the poet’s skills in showing the humanity Gawain gains by his yielding to the temptation for self-preservation.  Tolkien believes that Gawain’s reaction to having the concealment of the girdle discovered by the Green Knight, though excessive, is in keeping with his character.  Tolkien describes it thus:

His character is drawn so as to make him peculiarly fitted

to suffer acutely in the adventure to which he is destined. ….

We see his almost exaggerated courtesy of speech, his

modesty of bearing … with a subtle form of pride: a deep

sense of his own honour … a pleasure in his own repute ….

the warmth of his character, generous, even impetuous

which by a slight excess leads him ever to promise more

than necessary …. his delight in the company of women,

… and at the same time his fervent piety …(Tolkien, 1995,


The fact that it is only a Christmas game of rash promises, where his testing increases as the gains of the hunt decrease, has no affect on the degree of guilt and shame that Gawain experiences and expounds.  As I have previously stated and as Tolkien also writes – “[t]he credibility of Gawain is enormously enhanced by [this break in perfection].  He becomes a real man, and we can thus really admire his actual virtues.” (ibid, p. 5)

I believe considerable skill was employed by the poet who wrapped his story around the three traditional stories of the ‘Beheading Game’, the ‘Temptation Story’ and the ‘Exchange of Winnings’.  “The Gawain poet, a master of juxtapositions, has constructed from these separable story elements a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.” (Borroff, 1966, p. viii)  Because of this, the degree of Gawain’s personal complexity deepens – not to the psychologically complicated twentieth century level of characterisation, but to a greater degree than other contemporary characters.

According to Tolkien educated men of the fourteenth century, when this poem was written – a chivalric tale united with Christian morality – were not interested in the basis or various forms of the tale.  Rather they read “poems for what they could get out of them of sentence, as they said, of instruction for themselves, and their times”. (ibid, p. 6)  Like Chaucer and Langland, this poet created a tale that carried, through the construction of a virtuous, heroic character whose dimension grew from stereotype to ‘real’, moral messages to his readers on the way life should be lived.

Canterbury Tales

There is a distinct difference between the pre-feudal heroic and romantic medieval tales and those told by Chaucer.  The heroic, like Beowulf, in tribal or clan settings, exemplified qualities expected of the clan warriors, who could attain kingship by their heroism.  The romantic tales of the Arthurian cycle, including the Grail Quest, Tristan and Isolde, and The Knights of the Round Table, also exemplified qualities, but these were of Christian morality aimed at the nobility about whom they were written.  As mentioned, the stories were often pre-Christian in origin, told in Christian times with a Christian bias, involving complex inter-weaving of the pagan and Christian, of allegory and heroism.

Chaucer, though writing at the same time as Malory and the Gawain and Beowulf poets, moved away from Christian morality and the courtly, towards the secular, and the urban.  Subverted by his less judgemental, less Christian style, he ironically set his protagonists on a Christian pilgrimage.  During their journey to help time pass, the middle class individuals each tell a story that illustrates class and moral distinctions within their post-feudal society.

In his Canterbury Tales, these stories repeat common material accessible to most writers of the Middle Ages.  As already mentioned, the important thing was not the originality of the story.  Rather it was the lessons to be learned from the reading.  Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell were both based on a Middle-English poem; The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the story of Chanticleer the Rooster, was similar to the fable by Aesop, The Fox and the Crow; and The Knight’s Tale was the Greek story of Theseus, Palamon and Arcite.

While it seems weird to read Greek legends couched in Medieval Chivalric terms, with the Greek heroes/ protagonists as knights, these tales would have been known, probably in oral form, during the breadth of the Middle Ages.  The ‘pilgrims’ of these tales, in fact, tell stories from all over Europe, from the Orient, and from ancient times.  ‘The Knight’s Tale’ does reveal much of Chivalric code of love, romance, courtliness, and battles, while ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ and her ’Prologue’ is a version of an Arthurian legend, about a knight (Gawain, I believe) who married an ugly old woman (Lady Ragnell) who was revealed in the end by his chivalrous courtesy to be beautiful and young.

In his ‘Introduction’ to his translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Nevill Coghill writes that the collection of stories, “diversified in style to suit their tellers and unified in form by uniting the tellers in a common purpose”, (Coghill, 1970, p. 17) was Chaucer’s own idea.  It allowed stories from the commoners to mix with those of the clergy and the nobility, all illustrating ways of life, and ideals to be sought and followed.  It also enabled a degree of character development that heroic tales could not supply.  According to Coghill, the Prologue

is the concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old

and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and

ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and

country, but without extremes.  Apart from the stunning

clarity, touched with nuance, of the characters presented,

the most noticeable thing about them is their normality.

(ibid, p. 17)

Not only were the pilgrims characterised, but also the protagonists of their stories – some quite richly embellished.  For example, in ‘The Miller’s Tale’, the characters are real, believable by their actions, dialogue and descriptions – “this jolly lover Absalon/ In gayest clothes, garnished with that and this; [who] chewed a grain of liquorice/ To charm his breath before he combed his hair” (ibid, p. 118) is instantly recognisable to the reader, now as then.  Nicholas is a lecherous student/conman, John is gullibility personified, and his young wife, Alison, with whom we sympathise, is avenged for her husband’s jealousy by proving to the community that he is a madman.

Another thing that separates Chaucer from his contemporaries is the extent of descriptive detail he applied to his characters.  A good example is his description of the widow in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.  After describing her poverty, by use of such evidence as “[t]here was no sauce piquante to spice her veal, / No dainty morsel ever passed her throat,” (ibid, p. 233) he continues to build the picture of her, to construct her reality.

Repletion never left her in disquiet

And all her physic was a temperate diet,

Hard work for exercise and heart’s content.

And rich man’s gout did nothing to prevent

Her dancing, apoplexy struck her not” (ibid, p. 233)

The description of her domestic situation as a ‘dairy-woman’ is more important than any moral qualities she may possess.  The same attention to detail applies to his description of Chanticleer the rooster –  “His comb was redder than fine coral, …/ His bill was black and shone as bright as jet, / Like azure were his legs and …/ toes with nails of lily white, like burnished gold his feathers, flaming bright”. (ibid, p. 233) – and to Chanticleer’s crowing, and to his wife, Lady Pertelote.  With two lines Chaucer attributes them with speech – “For in those far off days I understand / all birds and animals could speak and sing.” (ibid, p. 234) – thus opening the way for the fable to be told via all the participants.

As a Londoner, Chaucer used the form of Middle English that became the Standard English of today.  Thus he reached a wider audience then, and is still widely read nowadays.  By the creation of middle class characters to tell the tales, his audience was the Bourgeoisie rather than the nobility.  His appeal is and was to the ‘common man’.

*                   *                   *

These examples show three different streams of character construction from Middle Age literature.  Beowulf portrays the heroic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays the chivalrous, and Canterbury Tales portrays the Bourgeois – all written by con-temporary poets.

Jud House  27/05/1998  &  14/09/2012



Alexander, M (Translator: 1973)  Beowulf  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books.

Girvan R (1935)  Beowulf and the Seventh Century – Language and Content  London:  Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1971

Hieatt, C B (Translator: 1967)  Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

New York:  The Odyssey Press, Inc.

Klaeber, FR. (Editor: 1922)  Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg.  Boston:  D C Heath and Company 1950.

Nitzsche, Jane Chance (1979) ‘The Critic as Monster: Tolkien’s Lectures, Prefaces, and Foreword’ in Tolkien’s Art – A ‘Mythology for England’.  New York:  St Martin’s Press

Tuso, J F (Editor: 1975)  Beowulf – The Donaldson Translation; Backgrounds and Sources; Criticism.  New York:  W W Norton & Company, Inc.

Arthurian Legends

Borroff, Marie (1966) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  Connecticut: Longmans.

Green, R Lancelyn (1953)  King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table  London:  Puffin Books.

Hopkins, Andrea (1993) Chronicles of King Arthur  London: Collins and Brown Ltd.

Malory, Sir Thomas (1485) Le Morte D’arthur  Editor: Griffith, T (1996) Ware,Hertfordshire:  Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Thorpe, Lewis (Translator: 1966)  Geoffrey of Monmouth – The History of the Kings of Britain  Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd. 1980 :- ‘The Prophecies of Merlin, & Arthur of Britain’.

Tolkien, J R R (1995)  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers

Vinaver, E. (Editor: 1971)  Malory Works   London:  Oxford University Press


Coghill, Nevill (trans.)(1970) The Canterbury Tales  Middlesex: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd.

General Texts

Arnold, R. (1963)  Kings, Bishops, Knights and Pawns – Life in a Feudal Society.  London: Constable Young Books Ltd.

Brooke, C. (1971)  The Structure of Medieval Society. London:  Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Ker, W P (1896, 1908) Epic and Romance – Essays on Medieval Literature.  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 1957.

Sherley-Price, Leo (Translator: 1955, 1968) Bede – A History of the English Church and People  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books 1978

Stone, Packer & Hoopes (1983)  The Short Story – An Introduction.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, Inc.

PART 1.  BEGINNINGS: FORMS OF EARLY STORIES – Myth and Legend;  Fable, Parable, Exemplum, and Allegory – pp 1 – 67.

Wrenn, C L (1967)  A Study of Old English Literature.  London:  George G Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1970.

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