Rethinking Medieval Literature
October 14th, 2022
Loyalty and Literature
The texts we have read in class have far more overlap than I originally thought. They contain a multitude of theme crossovers, sometimes even more than one. It was difficult to narrow in on just one theme, but my essay will present how loyalty is present across the texts. Also, how loyalty has been presented in various forms. In this essay, I’ll discuss where loyalty is present, as well as how it presents itself. The texts I’ll be discussing are “The Wife’s Lament” by Unknown, “Beowulf: A New Verse Translation” by Maria Dahvana Headley, and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by David Lowery.
“The Wife’s Lament”‘s Lack of Loyalty
“The Wife’s Lament” contains an underlying theme of loyalty throughout the poem. Here, loyalty is presented with a lack of loyalty. The idea of loyalty here is a passive act, to be a pushover for whomever you are loyal to. Men and women are stereotyped to show their loyalties differently. Men’s actions of loyalty are shown through just that – action. Men tend to show their loyalty through dominance, making decisions, and taking action. On the other hand, women tend to show their loyalty through passiveness. Meaning they’ll often keep quiet and roll with the punches. Women also tend to have their loyalties within a romantic love. Jay believes that “Masculine loyalty is directly tied to an action while feminine fealty can be traced back to immobility or passivity” (Jay, pg 2, para 1). Within “The Wife’s Lament” we see both masculine and feminine acts of loyalties present.
The speaker of the poem receives a fairly severe lack of loyalty. Having minimal friends and loved ones results in minimal loyalty given to her. Her husband believes he’s shown immense loyalty to her through all that he’s done for her. He argues that their love and loyalty are all that matter, despite the wife’s belief that she is “light in loved ones anyways in these lands in the loyalties of allegiance” (The Wife’s Lament, lines 16-17). Regardless of minimal allegiances and separation, their love and loyalty should be enough to keep them going, according to the husband.
The woman has loyalty to her husband, which the entire poem illustrates. Her life is the way it is due to it. The wife addresses the fact that “He was the one who said I should go live in the woods or something” (The Wife’s Lament, lines 27-28). I’d say it’s rather obvious that the poem contains the wife grieving. I believe loyalty and grief tend to go hand in hand. The absence may feel like they aren’t upholding loyalty while you have, which is extra painful, creating more grief. The wife must spend time alone, meaning her one loyalty faded away, leaving her with essentially zero allegiances while exiled. The wife declares she wandered “the ways all alone, under the oaks, around these graven walls” (The Wife’s Lament, lines 36-37).
A woman without her husband is just as lost as a warrior without his lord. The speaker presents a masculine concern regarding loss of leadership, rather than her loss of romance. She doesn’t act like a woman without her husband, but more like a warrior who’s lost their lord. The wife declares that “For too many watches the wrathful from-ways of my lord grabbed hold of me in this place. Who could I count on? Buried. Loved in their lives – all they care about now are their beds” (The Wife’s Lament, lines 32b-34). It seems like the speaker is more worried about who’s going to guide, protect, and rule her, rather than love her.
“Beowulf” Bloodsheds Loyalty
“Beowulf” illustrates a strong theme and display of loyalty throughout the novel. Loyalty here is often shown through bloodshed and protection. Loyalty was one of the most important parts of the heroic code, along with honor, courage, and strength. Beowulf’s loyalty seems to drive his heroism. Cory argues that “All of Beowulf’s actions are clearly motivated by loyalty, starting with his decision to help the Danes” (Cory, pg 3 para 2).
Beowulf agrees to fight/kill Grendel to repay debt to King Hrothgar. His father’s debt rather, who Hrothgar helped with a feud in the past. Beowulf declares “Now, I want to test my mettle on Grendel, best him, a match from man into meat. Just us two, hand to hand” (Beowulf, pg 21, lines 424-426). Beowulf is willing to risk his life to remove evil from the world, to free people from a monster. In the same regard, Beowulf shows loyalty to Wealththeow, assuring her he will fight Grendel and defeat him. If he doesn’t, then he is okay with dying. To Wealththeow, Beowulf delcares “I mean to give you a show, to make your sleep safe or be slain myself, Grendel’s spikes in my skin. I’m gonna do as real men do, and render myself a reaper, bleed him dry, or let Death attend me and cup-bear in your place, here in this mead-hall” (Beowulf, pg 30 lines 633-638). Beowulf is showing his loyalty in this case through both bloodshed and protection.
He also shows his loyalty to Heardred, by denying the briberies and offering of the throne from Queen Hygd. Instead, he offers to provide the prince support until he’s able to do things all by himself. The work of Headley illustrates that “She couldn’t convince Beowulf to step over Heardred, nor consent to come to her bed, but instead he offered his counsel to the boy-king, until he was man enough to rule the Weder-Geats himself” (Beowulf, pg 102 lines 2374-2378). Beowulf shows his loyalty here through protection of Heardred’s throne.
King Hrothgar showed his loyalty by rewarding Beowulf’s successes with treasures, as he said he would do. Headley’s work shows that “Hrothgar gave his own father’s sword to Beowulf… Yeah, the lord of Heorot paid properly, tendered treasure for services rendered in blood. Anyone knows how fair it was: bro, more than fair” (Beowulf, pg 46-47, lines 1020-1049).
Grendel’s mother also showed loyalty through bloodshed, by avenging her son’s death. She stayed awake full of fury and hatred, waiting until it got late. Headley’s text declares “The Geat was asleep when Grendel’s mother struck. Heorot Hall howled-she’d taken their trophy, too: Grendel’s hand!” (Beowulf, pg 57-58, lines 1301-1303).
Lastly, Wiglaf was an extremely loyal character to Beowulf, as he was the only one to stay, and to help, during the dragon fight. As Beowulf indicates, “one man felt something, a bond that bound him back. He was kin and could not leave his king to die alone. His name was Wiglaf” (Beowulf, pg 112, lines 2599-2601). Wiglaf also scolded the other kinsmen for being fearful and not assisting Beowulf. He reminds them of what Beowulf has done for all of them. This is how they show their loyalty to him? Or their lack of loyalty. Wiglaf addresses “We swore to our lord we’d stand by him, swore to our ring-giver we were worth his investment? That we’d bleed in our battle-gear, given us for fighting, not strutting?” (Beowulf, pg 113, lines 2634-2637). Loyalty in Beowulf was mainly shown throughout bloodshed and protection, and was riddled throughout the entire novel.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”‘s Defensive Loyalty
Loyalty within “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is illustrated as defending and listening. Defend the King or the Lord, and defend the Church. Follow the orders you are given, listen and do as you are told. Gawain is a prestigious and passionate knight. He shows integrity and honor while being faithful to the King. He also meets the knight’s code, and the chivalric code of loyalty, valor, honesty, and honor.
Gawain shows his loyalty to his uncle, King Arthur, when he accepts the Green Knight’s challenge. By doing this, he’s also protecting the King’s honor. Gawain shows his loyalty to his host, Bertilak, by not sleeping with his wife. With this, Gawain shows his loyalty to God, believing it “would be not only the sin of adultery but also a betrayal of his loyalty to his lord-host as well as a violation of his obligations under the exchange-of-winnings game” (Greydanus, Fitt 3, section 4, para 3). Gawain further shows his loyalty to God by seeking out the Green Chapel to protect him from harm, and having a need to please God. Otherwise, he asks God for forgiveness.
Loyalty is shown throughout many texts we have read thus far this semester. It comes out in various strengths, and in various ways. In “The Wife’s Lament”, it was an undertone, more so illustrating a lack of loyalty. Loyalty was shown through action or passivity. In “Beowulf”, loyalty was a strong theme, shown through protection and bloodshed. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, loyalty was embedded into their code and way of life, often shown through defense and listening.
Anonymous. “Old English Poetry Project.” Translated by Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project The Wifes Lament Comments, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 26 Dec. 2020, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-wifes-lament/.
Cory, Eleanor ’12, “Bravery, Honor, and Loyalty as Morals in Beowulf” (2010). 2010 Fall Semester. Paper 3. http://digitalcommons.imsa.edu/fall2010/3
Greydanus, Steven D. “A Deep Cut: The Green Knight (2021): The Green Knight (2021).” Bright Wall/Dark Room, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2021/09/22/a-deep-cut/.
Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf: A New Translation. MCD x FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
Jay, Shelby. “Lover and Lord: Gendered Displays of Fealty in ‘the Wife’s Lament’ and the Lord of the Rings.” Metamorphosis, University of Montevallo, 1 May 2016, http://metamorphosis.coplac.org/index.php/metamorphosis/article/view/26Lowery, David. “The Green Knight.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 30 July 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9243804/.
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