Friday, September 30, 2011

Sample Classification Paper, Option 1

Below appears an example of a classification paper, first option, as discussed here.  It treats a type of hero that is forbidden from consideration in student papers, so that it can serve as a model while not actually doing the students' work for them.  Please note both that it is an early draft, and so can stand to be improved, and that it is on the short end of acceptable length for student papers, when formatted according to stated submission guidelines here.

Also, I am well aware that I give Le Morte d'Arthur where the source I reference gives Le Mort d'Arthur.  The spelling of the title varies from edition to edition, as is evident here, and I use the one with which I am most familiar.

The anti-hero can be defined as a character who achieves heroic ends by carrying out actions that are themselves generally considered evil; they attain fair ends by foul means.  Typically, the Arthurian knight Sir Gawain is not lumped in with such figures as stand to define the anti-hero type.  A close examination of his attributes, however, reveals that he very much fits the model.

As a knight of the Round Table, the highest order of traditional chivalry in English-language literature, and a close kinsman of King Arthur, the legendary paragon of royal virtues, Sir Gawain would be expected to be a fairly common sort of hero.  A common image of the Arthurian knight is one of an ennobled warrior riding a white horse while wearing shining armor.  He (and it is almost always a he) is seen rescuing maidens from unjust captivity and battling against evil creatures given to laying waste to the peaceful countryside and its population of simple farmers who would otherwise sing merrily as they go about their honest work of tilling fields and husbanding livestock.

Sir Gawain falls short of that standard.  For example, in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the standard text of English-language Arthurian legend, Gawain errs gravely in his first mission as a knight in Arthur's service.  He moves to slay a knight who was attempting to yield himself, actively denying the plea despite the fact that "a Knight that is without mercy, is without worship [sic]"; he intemperately kills the knight's lady, instead, as he is unable to check his sword-swing when she throws herself over her knight in an attempt to protect him--"he smote off her head by misadventure" (Malory 1.119).  In failing to show mercy to a foe who had conceded defeat, and in failing to control his martial abilities, particularly as they befell a noblewoman, Gawain violates the Round Table Oath to which all those of the high chivalric order were sworn not just at their induction, but annually (1.134).  Violating one's sworn oath is generally regarded as an action good people do not perform; neither is killing those who have yielded or who are not in a position to defend themselves.  Gawain's commission of both acts is marked as evil.

Even so, Sir Gawain does manage to meet his end well.  When his brothers, Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, are killed by Sir Lancelot as he rescues Queen Guinevere from being burned at the stake, Gawain vows vengeance upon him (3.312).  Given the dictates of the warrior culture in which all four lived, it is a wholly appropriate response, the more so because Gawain is the eldest brother and therefore the patriarch of the Orkney royal household; Gawain's actions thus read as well performed.  He does eventually have the opportunity to attempt that vengeance, and fights against Sir Lancelot, receiving a head-wound in the process.  Complications from that injury lead to Gawain's death.  On his death-bed, though, he forgives his recent foeman, absolving him of guilt for his death; "I Sir Gawain, Knight of the Round Table, sought my death, and not through thy deserving, but it was mine own seeking."  He recalls the greater good of Arthur's realm above his own personal vendetta; "come over the sea in all the haste that thou mayest, with thy noble Knights, and rescue my noble King that made thee Knight, that is my lord and uncle, King Arthur."  He even refers to Lancelot as "Flower of all noble Knights that ever I heard or saw in my days," which is high praise (3.350-52).  Gawain dies as a result of performing his duties, which is admirable, and he forgives his enemies as he dies, which is the mark of a particularly noble soul.  He ends his life in line with the promise of his chivalric calling.  He passes on as a hero.

That the Arthurian Sir Gawain functions as an anti-hero becomes obvious upon consideration of his knightly career in Malory's depiction.  Since Le Morte d'Arthur occupies a position of singular importance in English-language Arthurian legend, serving as the primary reference text for it, its portrayals of the knights of the Round Table and their deeds underpin much other writing in the English language and indeed of productions in other media.  The anti-hero that figures so prominently in many of them is thereby shown to have much older iterations than is commonly realized, showing that what goes on now is very much of a piece with what has gone on for a long, long time.  It illustrates that our past can yet teach us much about our present selves.

Work Cited
Malory, Thomas. La Mort D’Arthur. Ed. Joseph Haslewood. 3 vols. London: R. Wilks, 1816. Print.

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