The Medieval Romance: A Relevant Structure

According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a medieval romance is marked by structure, rather than style, because “romances classically have a tripartite structure: integration (or implied integration); disintegration; and reintegration” (Greenblatt 141). This structure is obvious in Sir Orfeo, the three elements apparent in Kind Orfeo’s transition from kingly status to ruin when he leaves his throne to recapture his wife, wandering the wilderness and becoming old, poor, and ragged, to final redemption when his wife and throne are returned to him. Though slightly less recognizable, this tripartite structure is also present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a member of King Arthur’s court, at the poem’s beginning Gawain is fully integrated into his surrounding society, and this becomes especially evident when he steps up to play the Knight’s game in Arthur’s place. He fulfills the role of chivalrous hero, but when the Green Knight walks away from his beheading, Gawain becomes disintegrated because he is tasked to return to the Green Knight to receive a presumably lethal blow. But keeping in the conventions of a romance, the poem ends well with Gawain successfully completing all of the trials and returning to Arthur’s court.  Instead of the typical defeat, like Sir Orfeo defeating his wife’s captor, Gawain is successful because the Green Knight, who is also the lord of the castle, is impressed by Gawain’s true character.  Furthermore, Gawain does not necessarily feel like a hero, for when the Green Knight reveals his identity and his testing of Gawain, Gawain replies with, “And now I am found to be flawed and false, thought treachery and untruth I have totally failed . . . Such terrible mistakes, and I shall bear the blame. But tell me what it takes to clear my clouded name” (235). Gawain feels like a coward because he was afraid of death and therefore kept the green sash from the castle’s lord; however, the very traits that Gawain is ashamed of pleased the lord because Gawain’s only downfall is love of his life. These ironic twists of the knight code show variations in this romance, but despite these variations in content, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ultimately aligns with the criteria of a medieval romance because Gawain is reintegrated into the Arthurian society.

These three elements of romance are elements that many would say are integral for formation and maturity in people still today. Gawain returns to King Arthur as a more mature and well-rounded reintegrated member of society with an understanding of his own fears and weaknesses.  Sir Orpheo has experienced great loss and can return to rule his kingdom with great perspective.  Essentially, disintegration creates a better individual for re-integration. The Norton Anthology agrees, for the romance’s “deepest wisdom is this: civilization is not a unitary concept. To enter and remain in the world of civilized order, we must, say romances, have commerce with all that threatens it. To regain Rome at the center, we must first be tested in the marginal wilds of romance. To be recognized and found, we must first be lost” (141).  While I shy away from the concept of universals, I wonder if perhaps this is a truth that is still often true in today’s context. The romance uses the structure that frames many of our lives. We are born into our society, given a place because of our existence, but we face trials, questions of identity, faith crises, tragedy, loss, myriad challenging circumstances and we are disintegrated from our initial society. We wander through figurative wilderness seeking answers, we lose ourselves in our own circumstances, and we become estranged from what was once so familiar. But then we return, with fresh perspective, with experience, with victory, and we find our places once again.

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