Treason and Betrayal in the Middle English Romances of Sir Gawain

Treason and Betrayal in the Middle English Romances of Sir Gawain

By Gregory L. Laing

The Hilltop Review, Vol.3:1 (2009)

Abstract: This article explores the themes of treason and betrayal which are common motifs of medieval romances, specifically those featuring the Arthurian knight Sir Gawain. Because loyalty to one’s lord, nation, or family unit was critical for survival in the Middle Ages, the problem of treachery by close companions is often a recurring subject in romances from this period. Such themes revealed to their audience the fragility of these relationships and cautioned against overconfidence in the bonds of loyalty. Romances featuring Gawain, like the Middle English Awntyrs off Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, conclude with the young hero learning to understand the dangers of duplicity. Positioning these messages about treason against the competing tradition of Gawain’s own role in Arthur’s betrayal, however, exposes a broader lesson about finding comfort in loyalty. Only by reading the lessons of the Gawain romances through the wider lens of those traditions surrounding the fall of Arthur’s kingdom can we gain a full appreciation of the medieval warnings against treason and betrayal included in these romances.

Introduction: Treason and betrayal both play significant roles in the literature of the Middle Ages. As Richard Firth Green points out in The Crisis of Truth, just like “truth,” “treason” is a critical and enigmatic concept for the late medieval English world. One does not need to look extensively within medieval romance texts to encounter numerous examples of treasonous behavior in the sources of both the British Isles and the Continent. From the infamous betrayal of Ganelon in the French Chanson de Roland to the myriad Arthurian stories chronicling the usurpation of the throne by the wicked and treacherous Mordred, subversion and infidelity are themes that stretch across the boundaries of nation, language, and even concepts of genre to occupy a momentous place in the corpus of medieval literature. Within the romances of the Middle Ages, however, treason and betrayal become particularly important motifs employed by poets in order to deprive the protagonist of his or her rightful inheritance, to divide him or her from a true love, or to challenge the bonds of loyalty to others.

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