|Image credit: The Historical Association|
(For those of you who might be wondering what I’m on about . . . ‘romance’, in this context, refers to: ‘a tale, in prose or verse, that embodies the adventures of some hero of chivalry, belonging both in matter and form to the ages of knighthood.’)
So, what do fantastic tales about knights, magic and adventures have to do with the fairly dry subject of law? As it turns out, quite a lot. An understanding of law helps us understand why some characters behave the way they do, say what they say, and occasionally, it even make us question the efficacy (and justice) of the norm. Here’s an example of how the use of legal language and procedure can help us approach romance in a new light.
Talking Ghosts and a Question of Ethics
Here commes an errant knightDo him reson and right
Reminders of the transience of life and earthly
glory is a prevalent motif in medieval art,
and is frequently found on tombs.
Image credit: Morbid Anatomy
In the first half of the poem, Arthur is off on a hunt while Gawain and Queen Guinevere take rest by the Tarn Walding. Here, they end up receiving a few key life lessons from the ghost of Guinevere’s mother.
Its skeletal body caked in mud, sunken eyes glowing like coals and a toad biting into the skull, the ghost preaches (with words and by its very presence) private as well as social responsibility: So as I am, you shall also be. All earthly things are but temporary. Remember the poor while you are still alive, and stay away from sin.
While the message seems somewhat lost on Guinevere, Gawain is led to question the lifestyle of his king and fellow knights:
“How shal we fare," quod the freke, "that fonden to fight,
And thus defoulen the folke on fele kinges londes,
And riches over reymes withouten eny right,
Wynnen worshipp in werre thorgh wightnesse of hondes?"
‘How shall we fare,’ said the warrior, ‘that undertake to fight,Our hero has come to realise that his livelihood and reputation are built on depriving others of their rights. (An important concept, as much of English common law was concerned with the question of who was entitled to what.) How does he reconcile this with the knightly ideal of achieving renown through warfare and acts of violence? The Ghost concludes that Arthur is ‘too covetous,’ and prophesies that once his time atop Fortune’s Wheel is past, he (and Gawain) will meet a tragic end.
And thus trample over the folk on various kings’ lands
And enter realms without any right
Winning worship in war through prowess of arms?’