Academic journal article Romance Notes

Completing Character Construction: Gauvain in la Mort Artu

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Completing Character Construction: Gauvain in la Mort Artu

Article excerpt

THROUGHOUT the romance tradition of the Middle Ages, the character of Gauvain is depicted in a variety of ways. (1) In some instances, he is a valiant warrior, a hero to be emulated; in others, he is endowed with a comic edge that, in certain texts, includes a touch of the burlesque or, at times, portrays him as the ultimate lady's man. (2) One of the most multidimensional and intriguing depictions of Gauvain, however, may be found in the thirteenth-century Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate cycle. As Keith Busby has noted, this cycle is "in a sense a summa of previous Arthurian romances and incorporates many earlier styles and traditions. The manner in which the figure of Gauvain is treated is witness to the cycle's tendency to absorb different, apparently contradictory aspects of earlier texts" (315). It is precisely the inconsistencies found within the presentation of Gauvain in each of the five romances of the cycle that make this treatment of his character one of the most fascinating. Yet, nowhere is he presented more diversely than in La Mort Artu, by far the most psychologically realistic romance of the cycle and, perhaps, of the Middle Ages as a whole. (3) It is here, in this last romance of the cycle, that Gauvain truly emerges as a complex and fully formed literary being with intense emotional depth and development. In this sense, he attains a new level of individuation, one that is in many ways far more advanced than that granted him by other authors.

Indeed, this Vulgate author, more so than any of the others, brings to life characters whose thoughts and feelings are responsible for the unfolding of the narrative action. Those involved in bringing the cycle, as well as the Arthurian world, to an end are full of conflicting loyalties and emotions, both more carefully constructed and fully developed here than elsewhere. Psychological drama replaces chivalric adventures, which, as the narrator informs us at the beginning of the romance (and as we are reminded several times thereafter), exist no more. The foreboding sense of doom that opens the romance is reflected in the characters themselves, who all appear to be imbued with a melancholy sadness that is, in itself, telling of what the future holds for them. Soon, dynamics begin to shift, allegiances begin to dissipate, and relationships begin to crumble. The Arthurian universe stands divided, almost from the beginning, and in the end, little remains standing at all.

The final romance of the Vulgate begins after the Grail quest has been accomplished and, with it, the shortcomings of many of Arthur's knights revealed, setting the somber tone of the tale about to be told, (4) a tale that will bring the Arthurian world to a definitive end, representing, as Norris Lacy contends, "not the climax but the anticlimax of the cycle, not climax but closure" ("Cyclic Closure," 86). Although anticlimactic for the cycle, the text is evocative of a climax for the psychological evolution of its characters, particularly that of Gauvain. Like many key figures in La Mort Artu, Gauvain possesses a dual nature that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses. Consequently, over the course of the romance, he evolves considerably, often representing a contradiction in and of himself.

In the beginning, the author presents a portrait of Gauvain that strays little from that provided by Chretien de Troyes a generation earlier, and his actions are consistent with what the reader has come to expect at this point in the cycle. The first half of the narrative depicts Gauvain as one whose unfaltering loyalty to both Arthur and Lancelot is abundantly clear. It is, after all, he who defends Lancelot against Agravain's accusations of a love affair with the queen, convincing Arthur that the rumors are false and representing the one person in whom the king confides. After learning of the truth behind the accusation, Gauvain again proves his loyalty to them both, refusing to speak of the love affair and siding against his brothers in favor of protecting Arthur, Lancelot, and the entire Round Table from destruction. …

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