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Integral Temerity

Written during 1380-1392, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales presents “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a story narrated by the Wife of Bath herself, a woman traveling among a large group of men; a woman fearless and outspoken on her views of love and marriage. Immediately, in her prologue, Wife dissects and criticizes what “men may interpret and gloss up and down” (233) when discussing women, but Wife assures that she has no need for such (for herself or anyone in her audience), and only offers truth: “But well I know especially, without lie, God bade us to increase and multiply” (233). Wife’s integral temerity is paralleled in the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, to the character of Gawain. Born in a time where “bold men were bred” (1204), Gawain feels societal pressure to accept the Green Knight’s challenge to obtain honor. Chaucer and Gawain’s poet write characters that wield integral temerity, but both characters are not insusceptible to fear or weakness to show how believable, and relatable they both are to the audience.

In a time where a woman’s voice could be easily lost in the crowd of men, Chaucer’s Wife not only courageously defies the conventional virgin-like attitude towards women, but openly presents a sound logical argument. She pulls examples of King Solomon, alludes to quotes from The Bible, and discusses the multiple wives of both holy men Abraham and Jacob (234-235). Brazenly, she also finds a loophole in the logic of men by countering complacent standards with the admonition that Apollo only suggests that women maintain maidenhood, and “Counseling is no commandment” (235). In this passage, the Wife of Bath is not only squaring her shoulders to bear the discussion of her marital choices, but also makes sure that her audience is incredibly aware that she is not only clever, but fearless in discussing and questioning societal taboos. Further into the prologue, Wife acknowledges that her choices are not “perfect,” and perfection is distinctly not what she’s looking for: she chose, instead of a virginal outlook seeking whimsical love, a life of fearless honesty through the acquisition of marital-monetary gain (237, 253). Instead of following the societal standard of marrying haplessly for love, Wife courageously chooses to follow a path that leads to her own acquisition of power in a relationship, even if it is through marrying for material wealth.

The Wife of Bath reveals her weakness and vulnerability even more subtly than her bravery and nerve. While Wife tells the stories of her several husbands, and the fiscal reasons she has accepted their proposals, she waits until the very end of her prologue to reveal her story of her fifth husband, the man she married for love. The relationship quickly turns abusive, and the Wife, instead of leaving #5, continues to live in a home where she is constantly cursed and chastised for being a woman (270-273). Eventually, tired of her fear, Wife tears out a page of her husband’s “book of wicked wives,” only to be hit hard enough on the head to cause deafness in one ear (267). Her husband, after thinking he has punched her hard enough to cause her death, begins to apologize, only to have Wife remember her true courage in a blaze of self-righteousness and hit him in the face even harder while admonishing that she is much “avenged” (273). In this passage, Chaucer reveals his stone character, Wife of Bath, is not without chips, flaws, or weaknesses. Instead, he implores the reader to acknowledge that Wife is not always bold and daring, but is instead a character that has moments of weaknesses who, eventually, always remembers the fortitude of her integral temerity.

Unlike Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Gawain’s poet, in Gawain and the Green Knight, expresses his character’s bravery through physical tests instead of shrewd personal dialogue. Gawain, like the Wife, is immediately introduced as a character willing to, literally, stand up in a situation, rightfully, causing fear. When the Green Knight—bearing his Holly of Peace and his own version of the game Russian roulette—bursts into the hall, no other knights of Arthur rise to meet the green demon’s challenge (1209-1211). Painted against the cowardice of the “bold men” still sitting on the bench, Gawain is immediately labeled courageous, even though he is the smallest, weakest, and “in wit feeblest” (1211). His physical and mental deficiencies are immediately dismissed because he accepted the challenge of the Green Knight, took the axe, and made his swing. Gawain’s second challenge is his departure for his turn in the Green Knight’s game. Instead of staying in the safety of Arthur’s castle, Gawain does not succumb to weakness, and instead seeks out the Green Knight, even though he knows he goes to face his expected death. On the edge of the forest, Gawain’s manservant is struck by the realization that by entering the forest he and Gawain are dead men, and offers Gawain a free pass on cowardice:

And I shall haste me home again, and on my honour I promise
that I swear will by God and all His gracious saints,
so help me God and the Halidom, and other oaths a plenty,
that I will safe keep your secret, and say not a word
that ever you fain were to flee for any foe that I knew of. (1250)

In this quote, Chaucer creates a voice for the personification of fear using the manservant of Gawain. Instead of succumbing to the devil in the desert, Gawain replies to Fear that he does not have the option of cowardice, because his failure in knighthood would be inexcusable: “But however heedfully thou hid it, if I here departed, fain in fear now to thee, in the fashion thou speakest, I should a knight a coward be, I could not be excused” (1250).

Gawain is imperfect, however. On the third day of enjoying his host’s hospitality, Gawain is gifted a green girdle that will, supposedly, save him from death. Instead of trading the host’s hunted fox for the girdle and Gawain’s acquired three kisses, Gawain, in fear, keeps the belt in a desperate attempt to avoid the death he knows he must shortly face. His faintheartedness becomes even more ironic as his manservant, taking on the personification of fear itself, tries to convince him that a lie will not only save his life, but bring with it an undeserved and easily acquired tale to tell around the table of Arthur (1249). Gawain’s second discrepancy happens during his actual turn of the Green Knight’s challenge. Instead of standing still to receive the blow to his neck, Gawain “jerked back the blade,” revealing not only to the audience and the Green Knight, but also to himself, that his gallantry is rightfully questioned (1253). While standing under the heavy axe of the giant, Gawain remembers the tenacity of his spirit and remembers his bravery and boldness—his integral temerity. Gone is his fear of the blade and with courage restored, he challenges the Knight to take his swing.

Both Gawain’s Poet and Chaucer write characters that are outstanding in courage, yet not insusceptible to fear or weakness, to show readers that Gawain and the Wife of Bath are three-dimensional, and relatable, characters. Neither tale showcases the weaknesses of the protagonist to lessen the value of the “hero,” but, instead, offers a courageous character that has weaknesses, and then overcomes the deficiency. Instead of condemning the characters for their moments of ineptitude, the audience, instead, relates to the characters in their moments of weakness. Instead of creating courageous characters a page thick, Chaucer and Gawain’s Poet resist the urge to create perfect heroes, and instead create real-life, flawed heroes that makes mistakes, but learn from them. The characters go home and tell their tales, be it to other travelers on the road, or to the other knights around Arthur’s round table; Wife and Gawain go home and share their lessons so that the mistakes are never made again. They tell their tales, reveal the flaws and blemishes of their characters openly, and in doing so, reveal the integral temerity that lies within them both.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tale. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2006. Print.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Damrosch, David and David L. Pike. Ed. The Longman Anthology of World Literature: Compact edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008. 1200-1259. Print.