In The Prince, Machiavelli provides a guideline on successful governance. He presents some controversial ideas such as the use of cruelty and developing a reputation that instills fear and the use of violence in taking over a new state. On the other hand, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of the importance of chivalry. Lord Bertilak is transformed into an unrecognizable green knight to test the loyalty and honor of the knights at King Arthurs palace. Although these texts cover different topics, the themes explored in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be explained by Machiavellis ideas on the importance of a loyal army in maintaining power and the role of fear and generosity and reputation in governance.
Machiavelli argues that a loyal army helps maintain a government. He gives the example of Hiero the Syracusan who had his army and supporter, a foundation that allowed him to build anything (Machiavelli, 9). Knights were skilled in war. They protected the kingdoms. The green knight sought to determine the loyalty of the people that were responsible for protecting the kingdom. King Arthur's half-sister understood the importance of loyal knights in maintaining the kingdom. As Machiavelli argues, the best way to take over a kingdom is to kill the existing king. Knights can be used as instruments of such treachery. Machiavelli gives an example of Alexander who was murdered by his army after they conspired against him (31). Gawain is a knight and one of the most loyal men in Kings Arthurs court. Honor prevents the knights from treachery, hence the importance of the Green Knights game.
Role of Generosity
In the Green Knight, the nobles have been having a party for a fortnight and a half. The feast had so much food that there was scarcely space to present the stews (Armitage 123). There were a dozen plates per pair (Armitage 128). Although Machiavelli does not advocate for unbridled generosity, he asserts that it is advisable to amuse people with entertainments and ceremonies at appropriate times of the year (37). However, he argues that a prince should not fear the reputation of being mean. Eventually, such frugality will be praised by the subjects as they will not have to be overburdened through paying for the generous acts. A generous ruler will be required to continual remain generous to keep the reputation. Eventually, there will be a need to exploit and increase taxes to get money. By having a lavish party during Christmas, King Arthur follows Machiavellis ideas on generosity.
The Role of Fear
Fear is central to Machiavellis idea of governance. It also played a significant role in ensuring Gawains loyalty and integrity. Machiavelli argues that men are typically ungrateful, over talkative, imitators, cowardly in the face of danger, and greedy for money (94). Consequently, they can easily change loyalties. If their loyalty is inspired by friendship, then it can easily be shifted. However, people are less likely to offend people they fear compared to those they love. Fear is more long-lasting as it is informed by the inevitability of punishment. This statement is true for both texts. However, their way of achieving fear is different. Gawain was fearful, not because of the Lords manipulation, but because of his realization that he is flawed. After learning that he can easily be dishonorable, Gawain claims that he would be forever afraid of bad faith and treachery (Armitage 2383). This fear will drive him to live a more honorable life. Similar to Machiavellis ideas, fear drives people to do what is required of them. However, Machiavelli proposes that the ruler should carry out deliberate activities to instill fear, which was not the case for Lord Bertilak. Machiavelli proposes the use of cruelty to instill fear, a concept that is challenged by Lord Bertilaks kind actions, whose results were also effective.
While the subjects are allowed to show fear, the ruler is not. This Machiavellis idea is demonstrated by Kings Arthurs cool demeanor after the Green Knight picked up his severed head. Although he was shocked by the events, he did not show it and instead assured the queen that such oddities were to be expected during Christmas. By not showing fear, he instilled a sense of confidence in his subjects, enabling them to continue to make merry.
Role of Reputation
Machiavelli argues that reputation is the foundation of maintaining a government. He claims that it is highly important that a ruler strives to develop a reputation for being great and remarkable. King Arthur had a reputation for being brave and was highly honored. When the Green Knight mocked their claim of bravery, the King was so offended that he chose to do the take the ax and attack the knight. The Round Table was known for its bravery. The Green Knight goaded the knights to chop his head off by threatening their reputation. By volunteering to do the act, King Arthur ensured that his reputation as a brave and remarkable man remained unblemished. Although he realized that the offer was absurd, he could not risk losing his reputation.
Participation in the Green Knights game had risked. The knight informed the court that anyone who would take up the challenge should be prepared to have the same done to him after a predetermined time. As such, if the King accepted the challenge, he would also be struck by the knight at a later date. Gawain recognized the risk in the challenge and offered to take the challenge instead of the king. King in the poem, King Arthur claims that folly finds the man who flirts with the fool (Armitage 324). As such, although the Kings reputation of being brave might still remain after participating in such a game, it by be tainted by the impression of the foolishness in allowing himself to be manipulated into a potentially dangerous game. As such, Gawains actions saved the kings reputation.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the King holds a lavish party, where events occur that explore the idea of chivalry. The poem explores themes of generosity, bravery, loyalty, and reputation. Gawains journey is a story of loyalty, bravery, and honor. King Arthur is depicted as s generous, brave and highly regarded man. The Green Knights mission is to determine the honor, loyalty, and courage among the Kings knights. All these occurrences in the poem can be explained using Machiavellis ideas expressed in The Prince. The motivations behind these events attest to the validity of Machiavellis ideas on reputation, fear, generosity and loyalty and their role in governance. Machiavelli argues that fear is a better motivation for influencing behavior as compared to love. This claim is evident in Gawains decision to display the mark of his dishonorable actions, and his quest to always be honorable and loyal. Additionally, King Arthurs party follows Machiavellis idea of controlled generosity. Moreover, the efforts of the King and his knights to protect their reputation of bravery follows Machiavellis idea on the importance of having the right reputation. However, by applying Machiavellis ideas on fear and how to instill it, the poem highlights the weaknesses in the idea.
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Faber and Faber, 2007.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Translated by Rufus Goodwin, Branden Books, 2002.
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