Please note that in your own papers, you are not to color-code; I do so in the example as a teaching device, showing you how the parts fit together. Please note also that, as with the earlier paper, the topic of the example is not one you may use.
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, 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.
For him to fit the model, however, necessitates that the model is correctly formed, and there is not agreement that this is the case. Indeed, scholars disagree on the nature of the anti-hero. For instance, in the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, J.A. Cuddon defines the anti-hero as "A 'non-hero', or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave, and resourceful" [sic] (42-43), a definition which would seem to belie the contention that the anti-hero attains fair ends by foul means. Similarly, Chris Baldick, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines the anti-hero as "A central character in a dramatic or narrative work who lacks the qualities of nobility and magnanimity expected of traditional heroes and heroines in romances and epics." Both sources speak to a disagreement with the idea of the anti-hero as performing heroic deeds by means of evil actions, and to a prevailing scholarly disagreement as to the nature of the anti-hero, generally.
That the two sources disagree and thereby suggest a lack of scholarly consensus, however, has problematic implications. Both sources are reputable and are therefore likely the result of sound study. The two, insofar as they disagree, cannot both be correct; if one of them is right, the other cannot be, since they differ. That one of them must be wrong, despite being reputable, raises the possibility that both are wrong; if one of the two reputable sources can be in error, then the other might be, as well. More problematic, however, is that both definitions attempt to say what an anti-hero is by discussing what it is not. While it is helpful to do some work in defining by negation, as it allows for a restriction of examination to a reasonable extent rather than the wide-open field of inquiry that otherwise exists, not all definition can be done by negation. The antithesis of a hero can be a villain as surely as an anti-hero, so that Cuddon's definition is incomplete. Also, central epic characters such as inform Baldick's definition can be noble yet far from heroic, as Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost attests. Cuddon's definition is too narrow, and Baldick's too broad, to be accurate. Room exists, therefore, for another view of the anti-hero, and for judgments based upon that view.
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. The knight is almost always a man--only in Spenser's Faerie Queene does an active female knight appear in a traditional English-language Arthurian context. 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 Lancelot is often regarded as the exemplar of the type, although he is not as good an example in the standard text of English-language Arthurian legend, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, as is often perceived. The knights who achieve the Holy Grail in Malory's text--Sir Bors, Sir Percival, and most especially Sir Galahad--are better representatives. Bors fights for right despite the sure knowledge of his peers' condemnation for his doing so (2.324). Galahad is in fact so pure an example of noble knighthood that he is translated directly to heaven (2.314). Both typify the common conception of Arthurian chivalric conduct.
Sir Gawain falls far short of that standard. Even in a major work which centers on Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which he could be expected to show up as a pure example of heroism, he ends up coming off as committing less-than-good acts. In the work, Gawain enters into a wager with Sir BertilakBertilak; she threatens to trap him in bed on the first day and on the second, she kisses him while he is still abed (ll. 1211-25, 1504-07). Gawain makes his trades to Bertilak, gaining in exchange an abundance of venison on the first day (ll. 1372-82). On the second day, his trade gains him the meat of a boar hunted at great personal risk; even an average boar is more than capable of disemboweling a person in short order, and it "was massive and broad, greatest of all boars, / ... / For three men in one rush he threw on their backs" before maiming several hunting dogs and charging at the hunting party as he shrugs off volleys of arrows (ll. 1439-67); Gawain gains a dearly-bought prize. On the third day, however, Gawain betrays his vow, keeping from Bertilak an enchanted belt or sash he receives from Lady Bertilak (ll. 1679-1947). The lie is bad. That the lie takes the form of contravening hospitality oaths is far worse, violating an ancient and widely-respected code--and that it comes after Gawain has gained so much from it only compounds the ill. That it occurs over the receipt of a gift given in bed by another man's wife is perhaps worst of all. That Gawain does so marks him as enacting evil.
He does worse yet. In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, 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, again, generally regarded as an action good people do not perform; even worse yet 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.
So, too, is an action taken late in his chivalric career. After Arthur, responding to a papal command, seeks to reconcile himself with Lancelot, Gawain intervenes, declaring blood feud against Lancelot (3.417). It skirts the commands of the Vicar of Christ, which comes perilously close to the active commission of evil. That he shortly refuses Lancelot's offer of penance takes it even closer--certainly, it smacks of the kind of harshness commonly associated with villains. That he compels Arthur to join him in his feud, shattering the fellowship of the Round Table as he does so and setting up the potential for a coup against Arthur in which Camelot is overthrown makes his feud very much a venue for evil (3.422). Thus, Gawain situates himself as enacting evil, helping him to qualify as an anti-hero despite the initial impression of him as a wholly noble Arthurian knight.
Even so, Gawain is able to come to fair resolution. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, after his perfidy with Bertilak, Gawain faces the Green Knight, whom he had earlier attacked as part of a wager in Arthur's court (ll. 381-456). In facing the Green Knight, Gawain knows that he is putting his own head under the axe:
He bent his neck and bowed,That Gawain works to fulfill a vow despite the deep-rooted belief that doing so will cost him his head speaks well in his favor. So, too, does the valorization offered him by Arthur and Arthur's other knights, that they mimic his dress with a green belt, "And whoever afterwards wore it was always honoured" (l. 2520). Enjoying the renown of the Round Table can easily be regarded as a fair end, and Gawain comes to it through less-than-honorable means, situating him as an anti-hero.
Showing his flesh all bare,
And seeming unafraid;
He would not shrink in fear. (ll. 2255-2258)
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 (Malory 3.406). 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 an extravagant, pitched battle against Sir Lancelot, receiving a head-wound in the process (3.426-30). Any battle with Lancelot is a perilous situation, given Lancelot's long history of inflicting grievously fatal injury upon his opponents (see 3.379-80 for an example; Lancelot splits Meliagraunce's head open while one hand is literally tied behind his back), so that Gawain's entry into it speaks to his innate heroism. 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 (3.435). 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. And that he does so after engaging in such foul deeds as that with which he begins his chivalric career firmly establishes him as an anti-hero.
That the Arthurian Sir Gawain functions as an anti-hero becomes obvious upon consideration of his knightly career. Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte d'Arthur occupy positions of singular importance in English-language Arthurian legend, serving as the key example of medieval romance and the primary reference text for Anglophone Arthuriana, their 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.
~Baldick, Chris. "Anti-hero." Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford UP, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford UP, 2011. Web. 14 November 2011.
~Cuddon, J.A. "Anti-hero." Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Rev. C.E. Preston. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.
~Malory, Thomas. La Mort D’Arthur. Ed. Joseph Haslewood. 3 vols. London: R. Wilks, 1816. Print.
~Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.
~Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. and trans. James Winny. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview P, 2005. Print.
~Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Edmund Spenser's Poetry. 3rd ed. Comps. and eds. Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.