Tucson Traditionalist objects to me including the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the tradition of courtly love:
It’s a mistake to cite the case of Gawain without noting its outcome. Gawain is rebuked for having flirted with Bertilak’s wife and taken her favor, without disclosing this to her lord husband. As Tolkien said, Gawain represents a divorcing of the chivalric ideal from the notions of courtly adultery and obedience to a lady’s commands. He is commended for resisting her seductions, and chastised for yielding as much as he did.
So yes, chivalry *is* a good thing — all of it, from the code of honor to the pious brotherhood to the courtesy given to women — when it has been purified from the later Provencal tendency to delight in fornication, adultery, and the abasement of men. It was so cleansed in the greatest medieval literature (Gawain, Malory, Dante, etc.), and represents a point to which Christians in the 21st century should rally.
The reason chivalry is so pernicious is the inability of it’s proponents to spot the very obvious corruption. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a morality tale that teaches the moral primacy of courtly love. When the obligations of masculine honor (keeping his word) contradicts the morality of courtly love, our hero chooses courtly love as the higher morality. As Infogalactic explains this is how he passes the test and ultimately is victorious (emphasis mine):
Temptation and testing
Knights of Gawain’s time were tested in their ability to balance the male-oriented chivalric code with the female-oriented rules of courtly love. (God Speed! – Edmund Blair Leighton 1900)
At the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain’s adherence to the code of chivalry. The typical temptation fable of medieval literature presents a series of tribulations assembled as tests or “proofs” of moral virtue. The stories often describe several individuals’ failures after which the main character is tested. Success in the proofs will often bring immunity or good fortune. Gawain’s ability to pass the tests of his host are of utmost importance to his survival, though he does not know it. It is only by fortuity or “instinctive-courtesy” that Sir Gawain is able to pass his test.
In addition to the laws of chivalry, Gawain must respect another set of laws concerning courtly love. The knight’s code of honour requires him to do whatever a damsel asks. Gawain must accept the girdle from the Lady, but he must also keep the promise he has made to his host that he will give whatever he gains that day. Gawain chooses to keep the girdle out of fear of death, thus breaking his promise to the host but honouring the lady. Upon learning that the Green Knight is actually his host (Bertilak), he realises that although he has completed his quest, he has failed to be virtuous. This test demonstrates the conflict between honour and knightly duties. In breaking his promise, Gawain believes he has lost his honour and failed in his duties.
The hero originally feels ashamed for yielding to the woman and choosing deceit over honoring his word. But he learns that this feeling of shame was his real mistake. Again from Infogalactic:
Gawain is ashamed to have behaved deceitfully but the Green Knight laughs at his scruples and the two part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a token of his failure to keep his promise. The Knights of the Round Table absolve him of blame and decide that henceforth that they will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure.
What started as Sir Gawain’s reminder of shame turned into a badge of honor other knights chose to emulate. This is the moral of the story. For those who might have missed this quite obvious moral, the poem concludes with:
Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it)
This ties the tale back to St. George and the Order of the Garter. Tellingly, there is a longer version of the French expression the Order of the Garter is said to be founded on:
Honi soit qui mal y pense. Tel qui s’en rit aujourd’hui, s’honorera de la porter.
The latter part of the expression translates to:
Those who laugh at this today, tomorrow will be proud to wear it.