In Stanza 74 of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lady of the castle offers a magical green girdle to Sir Gawain and explains that the wearer of this corset “cannot be killed by any cunning on earth.” Sir Gawain, amidst an ethical dilemma, accepts the gift and chooses to conceal it and its powers from Lord Bertilak. Thus, with this passage, two of the main themes of the tale emerge–the inner and outer conflicts between Sir Gawain’s ethics and desire to live and the test of his religious faith.When Gawain is offered the girdle, his knightly ethics are questioned, for the honorable thing would be to reject the offer or bring it to the lord of the castle, but Gawain places the preservation of his life ahead of his chivalry. Gawain has withstood the lady’s constant barrage of sexual advances and has kept his promise to the lord of the castle, but when the opportunity arises to save his own life, he absconds it without a second thought. The point is shown by the way the word “Outright” is placed on a line of its own which emphasizes Gawain’s hasty decision. He is then ecstatic about the thought that he will survive his encounter with the Green Knight the following day, demonstrated by “often thanks gave he/With all his heart and might.”Later, Sir Gawain discovers three faults associated with his actions, the first being his cowardice, a direct contrast to the main principles of knighthood, the second being his covetousness and third his utter lack of faith in God. Even when it is shown that God has forgiven him by healing the wound on his neck, Gawain still feels that he has sinned greatly and is not willing to forgive himself. Thus, he decides that additional atonement is in order, so he makes the decision to wear the girdle from this point on as a sign of his eternal sin, but even with this he does not feel sufficient cleansing of his sin, for he now understands that he must bear the shame and disgrace of sin for the remainder of his life.The reader’s opinions as to whether Gawain has been forgiven appear to be completely opposite of those of Gawain himself, for it is mentioned that the lady kissed “the constant knight,” which questions the true meaning of constant. It is quite obvious that constant does not refer to Gawain’s moral decisions, nor does it mean that he is determined or steadfast or that his faith is unwavering. It is possible that the word is meant to be sarcastic, but more probable “is the anonymous author’s disdain with the current conditions of chivalry and knighthood during the time this poem was composed” (Fox 104). The author appears to be mocking the knights of King Arthur’s court by inferring that they were more corrupt and conceited than legend has led us to believe. Therefore, being labeled a “constant knight” is the author’s way of accepting Gawain’s decision without actually condoning it. The question as to whether Gawain is correct in choosing his life over his morals is mentioned when the Green Knight reveals himself as Lord Bertilak who feels that it was excusable for Gawain to accept the girdle since his decision was well-motivated. With this, Lord Bertilak perceives Gawain as a noble and honourable knight and invites him back to his castle to celebrate the New Year. When Gawain returns to Camelot, he recalls his story, humiliated and humbled. The members of Arthur’s court, however, feel that Gawain has done well and attempt to cheer him up for they are convinced that Gawain has done nothing immoral nor unchivalric and let it pass as they continue their revelries in drink and food.The second of the main themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain’s faith and devotion to God, whose presence is quite prominent throughout the poem as he helps Gawain and leads him on the correct and moral path. Gawain’s acceptance of the girdle demonstrates his lack of faith in God’s protection; he sees himself as a Christian knight but rather than trust in God, he commits a sin in order to protect himself. At this point in the poem, however, there is no reason to doubt God, for he has protected Gawain during his journey and directed him to the area near the Green Chapel, and when Gawain required a place to worship on Christmas Eve, God led him to the castle in the forest. Gawain remained pious as he refused the constant advances of the hostess (could “constant” be a reference to Gawain’s sexual refusals?), but when he is given the opportunity to save himself from the blade of the Green Knight, he forsakes God and forgets all that He has done to help him. In as respect, Morgan “represents Satan, for by using the lady of the castle as her puppet, she endeavours to tempt Gawain and lead him away from God” (Stone 158). When her original sexual attempts fail, she makes a final effort by offering her own girdle, thinking that Gawain might make the same mistake twice. Gawain, in fact, needs little convincing, for he “allowed her to solicit him and let her speak.”Whereas Gawain had previously thwarted all attempts at corruption, he has only a slight doubt about taking the girdle and allows the lady to talk him into accepting it. By allowing the lady to press “the belt upon him with potent words,” Gawain uses her argument to rationalize the acceptance of the girdle. The word “potent” seems to refer to the effectiveness of her words which apparently were sufficient enough to convince Gawain to abandon his principles. When Gawain accepts the corset, he fails this test of faith for he “binds himself with this belt of green” which is related to the evil of the Green Knight and symbolizes Gawain’s “greenness” when it comes to being unwaveringly chivalric. This decision, however, is but a minor sin, for when the truth about the Green Knight is revealed, Gawain is repentant and this is served through the nick of Bertilak’s axe. Though technically, Gawain fails the test when he succumbs to the lady’s temptations, he does well enough to pass God’s judgment. As mentioned previously, Gawain is forgiven by God as shown by the healing of the axe wound.The combination of these themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight creates a complex moral dilemma for the protagonist, Sir Gawain. This complexity revolves around the question of life versus religion, for is it acceptable to forsake God only to save one’s life? In this poem, it obviously would have been wiser for Gawain to have denied the gift of the girdle, for it would have been a more ethical and pious choice. Yet Gawain’s acceptance of the gift is seemingly viewed by God as only a minor fault; God, as the ultimate peer, has forgiven him and allowed Gawain to make his own decisions as a free-thinking, moral individual.BIBLIOGRAPHYFox, Denton, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Twentieth Century Interpretations: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.Stone, Brian. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. UK: Penguin Books Limited, 1971.
“Everyman” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are without doubt two of the best-known works of medieval English literature. The stories demonstrate the epitome of the Christian themes of salvation, mortality, and truth that resonate throughout the genre. In this light, Death and the Green Knight both perform the same allegorical duties, though they exhibit drastically different personalities.Clearly, the two characters would not be hard to discern between to a casual observer. The Green Knight is simply not bound by the formalities of civilization; instead, he is ever rude and arrogant. He is first introduced entering Arthur’s hall: “There hurtles in at the door an unknown rider” (136). The Green Knight doesn’t knock, nor does he ask permission to enter—no, he “hurtles” into the fine, formal hall on his horse, arrogantly challenging the king and his court: “But if you be so bold as all men believe, / You will graciously grant the game that I ask by right” (272-4). After boasting of his powerful weapons and skill, the Knight asserts that it is his right to fight and demand proof of the king’s power. The Green Knight is apparently afraid of no one, and he wants everybody to know.On the other hand, Death takes an entirely different approach to dealing with civilization (in this case, Everyman). While the Knight boasts of his power, Death takes a more passive stance as a courteous, humble servant2E For instance, when God summons Death, Death replies, “Almighty God, I am here at your will, / Your commandment to fulfill” (64-5). Throughout the text, Death truly exhibits signs of a loyal servant. Though he states that he fears no man, Death humbly accepts and acknowledges his great power over all men as simply a gift of God:I am Death that [fears no man],For every man I ‘rest, and no man sparethFor it is God’s commandmentThat all to me should be obedient (115-15)Hence, Death is as unpretentious as the Knight is proud.Furthermore, Death and the Knight differ in their dependence and relevance to the material world. The Green Knight is obviously wealthy. The narrator purposely elaborates on the exquisite nature of the Knight’s dress: “Of furs cut and fitted—the fabric was noble . . . and gold spurs under [his calves] . . . and footgear well-fashioned” (151-60). The storyteller continues to detail the physical appearance of the rich knight, placing much emphasis on the clothing that would have astonished even King Arthur’s court. Later, the reader discovers that the Green Knight is even wealthier than supposed when the Knight reveals that he is none other than the Lord Bercilak de Hautdesert. The Knight is thus the quintessence of nobility and worldly riches in Gawain’s time.In yet another sharp contrast, Death shuns all of the earthly possessions that the Knight is so involved with. In accord with one of the major ideas in “Everyman,” Death makes clear that goods are immaterial to him:I set [nothing] by gold, silver, nor riches,Nor by pope, emperor, king, duke, nor princes,For, and I would receive gifts great,All the world I might get (125-28).Death does not only denounce material possessions; he rejects both the secular and non-secular positions of power valued by most mortals, such as the barony of the Green Knight. Therefore, Death is completely unattached to the ways of man, whereas the Knight is absorbed with typical human ideals.Death and the Green Knight undeniably have major personality disparities2E However, if one examines both characters on a deeper level, he or she will realize that both are driven by the same intrinsic ideals. Subtle references to honor and justice resound continually through each characters’ mannerisms. For instance, the Green Knight’s sole concern is to ensure that Gawain keeps his word. In Part One of the story, he exclaims:”Sir Gawain, forget not to go as agreed,And cease not to seek till me, sir, you find,As you promised in the presence of these proud knights.To the Green Chapel come . . .. . . or else be counted a recreant knight” (448-56).The Knight emphasizes the importance of Sir Gawain keeping his word, reminding Gawain that he would be a “recreant knight”; in other words, he would be an infamous coward, the worst bane of knighthood. When Gawain finally reaches the Green Chapel, the Knight will make certain that justice is carried out by fulfilling his part of the contract (perhaps an allusion to the Biblical covenant), whether he personally desires to hurt Gawain or not. The Knight must submit to the absolute truth of justice, understanding it as an unalterable aspect of life.Likewise, Death also abides by the rigorous moral code of justice and honor. He tells Everyman in response to his bribe offer, “[If I wanted] all the world I might get. / But my custom is clean contrary” (128-30). In his role as the server of justice, Death is merely a means towards an end—he has no say in the matters themselves. This idea is concomitant with the usual idea of justice as fair and morally right. Consequently, Death becomes akin to a court of law, which is neither biased nor able to change the rules. Another example occurs in lines 144-45, when Death explains, “And in the world each living creature / for Adam’s sin must die of nature.” Finally, the concept of justice as it relates to humanity itself is expressed explicitly: death (unpersonified) is basically just a consequence of Adam’s sin—sin that permitted justice to rule the world.Once the motive of justice as the link between the two characters is established, the reader can ultimately discover the essence of these medieval personalities – mortality. Both represent mankind’s own transience; the Green Knight is just not as explicitly symbolic as Death. Upon close examination, nonetheless, the Knight materializes as a test, even a major threat, to Gawain and humanity in general. Upon approaching the Green Chapel, he realizes that he will die, uttering snippets to himself such as “to take my life (2194)” and “forfeit my life may be (2210).” Still, he journeys on to face the inevitable hardship that faces him. However, in sudden revelation, the Knight finds that he is not to die yet; he was merely being tested and judged by the lord to determine if he was honorable. Like Everyman, Gawain finds that the test he must go through is not necessarily evil in itself, as long as he has girded himself well with the tools of salvation. Death comes only as a messenger of God’s moral and infallible impartiality.
The artful creator of the fourteenth- century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” cleverly leads his reader with a trail of words through the mysterious world of “a castle cut of paper…”(Sir Gawain 802). Here, he puts his main character Sir Gawain to the most perilous of tests for an Arthurian knight, the test of honor. The gracious author constructs a most cunning component to his story, which the clever reader will conclude to be a foretelling counterpart. His clues are copious. Of particular importance are the “hunting” scenes of which the poet writes for 802 lines. These scenes, which switch between hunting the animals in the woods and “hunting” Gawain in the bedroom, mirror one another and amplify the somewhat hidden similarities of the respective sports. This comparison thereby elucidates the important facets of knighthood and honor that are so central to this romantic world. The ultimate significance of these three hunting scenes in the larger story is their ability to challenge Gawain on a level that compels the reader to view him as a worthy, true hero.When the poet has led the reader to the hunting scenes the reader has already seen Gawain honorably agree to play a game with the ominous Green Knight. Now the reader encounters yet another game in which Gawain has agreed to share with his host anything he receives during the day in exchange for anything the host receives while out hunting. The first hunt is in search of deer. The “Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread”(1151) while trying to escape “the whistling of arrows”(1160). Following this descriptive passage there is a smooth transition to what is going on indoors with Gawain and the Lady: “So the lord in the linden-wood leads the hunt/ And Gawain the good knight in gay bed lies” (1178-79). This line is important because it directly follows discussion of the outdoors hunting scene- first, alerting the reader that they are somehow related and second, because it nicely contrasts Gawain with the hunters who “Long before the daylight […] left their beds”(1126). This allows us to correlate Gawain with the hunted not the hunter. This notion is further perpetuated when the Lady comes into Gawain’s bedroom and he waits “there warily to see what [befalls]”(1186). This links him with the dazed deer full of dread(1151). Gawain is feigning sleep; however, when he wakes he must do his best to survive the Lady whose “kindling glances dart”(1205), reminiscent of the hunter’s arrow. In this scene, the Lady hunts Gawain much as the men hunt the deer. He is not aggressive nor is he prepared. While the deer are described as “game”(1167), Gawain, as it is growing apparent, has become the subject of a game. In this particular round, his courtesy is at stake. He passes this test rather well as he is in a difficult place. He cannot accept the Lady’s advances, and in the end “he feared he had been at fault in the forms of his speech”(1295). He maintains his courteousness.The second hunt is that of the boar. Not only do the hunters pursue a boar, but “The best of all boars […]”(1439); he is “unrivaled, a renegade old”(1440). The hunters’ arrows which had easily “torn the tawny hide […]”(1162) of a deer, “had no power to pierce through [the] hide”(1456) of the boar. Furthermore, the boar is repeatedly personified as a he; “he was the biggest by far”(1441), “he grunted […]”(1442). This is a clear comparison to Gawain who is described as the “foremost of men”(655), and is donned in “massy chain- mail of many a steel ring”(580). Additionally, the passive deer are “eagerly snatched”(1171) by the “greyhounds so huge […]”(1171); the boar, however, causes these hounds to “Most dolefully yowl and yell”(1453). This is a much more ferocious beast.This hunt adequately foreshadows the subsequent scene between the Lady and Gawain. Gawain, no longer the unsuspecting deer, thinks “it good to greet [the Lady] at once”(1477) when she wakes him the second day. The sport, in both cases, now takes place between a honed huntsman and a primed prey. This test becomes one of Gawain’s gallantry as a knight. The Lady baits him with words of praise, which further develop his likeliness to the boar. She uses language such as “acclaimed […]”(1511), “noblest […]”(1512), “valorously […]”(1518), and “fame”(1521). Gawain remains humble, though he does accept two kisses. Still, “so fair was his defense that no fault appeared”(1551); like the boar Gawain is a true warrior.The third and final hunt is that of the fox. In quest of the fox the hunters must “Cast about with craft for a clearer scent”(1700), as must the Lady in her last attempt to woo Gawain. This last battle is one of wit, which will entice Gawain’s value of faith. A battle of wit must be fought with language. The hounds prefigure this as “A young dog yaps and is yelled at in return”(1701). Gawain does not retreat or wage war, but engages words to win his way and in response is told: ” ‘Those words’ […] ‘are worst of all”(1792). He wittily avoids the Lady’s first advances, but succumbs when “he bore with her words and withstood them no more”(1859). Gawain fails to decline the Lady’s magical girdle that promises to protect him from death.These scenes serve as clever exposition of the facets of knighthood and honor because they test Gawain’s ability as a true knight. Because these are key elements of chivalry, Gawain’s ability to uphold the values of courtesy, gallantry, and faith under such pressure prove his strength as a knight. This section is particularly cunning in that it is secretive- a bedroom is an inherently guarded place; Gawain is unaware that his test has begun. By foreshadowing each test with hunting in the woods, the poet causes his reader to associate the hunting of the animal with the tempting of Gawain- thereby illuminating the prevailing animalistic nature of each. Gawain graciously gratifies his knightly role by passing the ultimate test and humbling himself in the process. Because he has overcome such a challenge the reader is obliged to see him as a true knight.Works Cited”Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature The Middle Ages. Vol. 1A .7th ed. Ed. Alfred David et al. New York: Norton, 2000.
The mystery of love has stumped men and women for ages. Literature, drama, and art have and will always try to understand courting, romance, and passion. So too do they want to understand what happens after love is gone: where it went and how it can ever be rekindled. While love is always shown from different angles, it’s long-standing themes are static, consistent, and comforting for generations after who realize that they are grappling with the same heartache as artisans of the past. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval poem, and Michael Drayton’s Sonnet 61 (“Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,”) a poem from the Renaissance, exemplify how the same threads of love are woven through different time periods with different values and social mores. They particularly look at saying good-bye to a lover, either because of falling out of love (internally) or because of external factors. Sir Gawain and Green Knight and Sonnet 61 both suggest that one is always left with the imprint of past love even after love is gone, that two people who were in love always retain an attachment to their former lovers.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late fourteenth century, cannot be wholly separated from the time period in which it was composed. This truly was an era of knights and their ladies fair, of heroism, gallantry, and chivalry. The respective roles of the sexes were largely ceremonial. From the beginning of the work, for example, the poet sets up a New Year’s Eve feast complete with men jousting and otherwise flexing their brawn; women, in turn give the knights gifts (usually kisses) for their bravery (lines 60-70). In addition, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem largely set against a Christian background; an emphasis, for instance, is placed on the pentangle which “represents” Sir Gawain – the “sign of Solomon,” the narrator tells us, “sagely devised / to be a token a truth” (lines 625-626).In contrast, Sonnet 61 was written during a more secular time period. Though still of a fundamentally religious orientation, the Renaissance witnessed revivals of and advancements in art, literature, and science. This sonnet is separate from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that it expects no ties to religion. Thus, if we were categorize these two works, we would distinguish the first as a “religious-romantic poem” and the second as a “secular-romantic sonnet;” both are romantic in that they are tales of men and women which end, if not happily, with hope.Time period and genre notwithstanding, these two pieces demonstrate the same theme of enduring love, love that doesn’t end cleanly. The difference is that a longer poem can lead the reader through an often winding journey which shows the progression of one such enduring love; the sonnet sets up a single moment in a relationship, in this case, the breakup, and is a more general commentary on this particular quality of love. Yet, these differences serve not to dispute the commonness of the theme, but to enhance it.Both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sonnet 61 start by describing love as an oath or a vow. The entire premise of the former work, in fact, revolves around contracts, most significantly the kissing contract between the Lady and Sir Gawain and the hunting contract between Sir Gawain and the host. The latter agreement, that Sir Gawain gives the host what he has received during the day in return for what the host brings back from the hunt, absolves Sir Gawain of the former. This interlocking nature of the contracts takes on a special meaning when Sir Gawain and the Lady enter into a more binding pact, when Sir Gawain takes the green baldric. “You would not be my debtor for so dear a thing / I shall give you my girdle; you gain less thereby” (lines 1828-1829), says the Lady, giving the first hint of later implications which might befall Sir Gawain when he meets the Green Knight. It is the vow that is not absolved; Sir Gawain does not give the equivalent of the baldric to the host as part of the hunting contract.The lover in Sonnet 61 tells his Lady, “Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows” (line 5). It is reasonable, of course, to imagine the more common vows one might make with a lover: vows of fidelity, protection, and everlasting love. This is not entirely foreign from the symbolism of the baldric; the protection offered by the green garment (the vow which was not absolved) becomes proof against the Lady’s fidelity to her husband and a sign of her love for Sir Gawain. The relationships in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sonnet 61 end with seemingly good sportsmanship. Upon leaving the bedroom of the Lady for the last time before he will face the Green Knight, Sir Gawain thanks the Lady and accepts three kisses from her before she turns to go. After, he gets dresses in “rich attire” and “then with good cheer to the chapel he goes” (lines 1873-1876).This is compared to the lover in Drayton’s sonnet who ends his relationship by saying, “Come let us kiss and part… / And I am glad… / That thus so cleanly I myself can free” (lines 1-4). How these relationships end might lead us to believe that what ensued was the ideal picture of a breakup. Yet, these tear-free, clean good-byes will not last for either couple; Drayton writes, “Be it not seen in either of our brows / That we one jot of former love retain” (lines 7-8). But we see through Sir Gawain that though his love may not be plain on his face, he is wearing the green sash under his clothes. It is then not only as a symbol of protection but inadvertently as a reminder of nights spent with the Lady.Sonnet 61 most directly paints the picture of love’s last stand: Now at the last gasp of love’s latest breath, When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies, When faith is kneeling by his bed of death, And innocence is closing up his eyes…. Lines 9-12 Love that they hope can quietly be forgotten, lingers and dies a slow death. This scene is an allegory for the end of love which is physically played out in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain’s passion for fighting the Green Knight is exhausted when the latter reveals that the Lady with whom he has spent his nights is in fact the Green Knight’s wife. Sir Gawain gives in to the Green Knight, exposing his neck without flinching for his opponent to strike.In this act of surrender, Sir Gawain loses a sort of innocence, the innocence that has led him to believe that he can never be defeated, he who is the great knight Sir Gawain whose reputation is known far and wide. His innocence – and also his faith in his strength – is lost when he realizes the persistence of his love.The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives clues to this end; in an ironic moment, Sir Gawain thinks that a token from the Lady will protect him from the Green Knight for no other reason then that she says it will protect him and he is in love with her. Thinks Sir Gawain about her gift, “It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come / When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward / Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble” (lines 1856-1857). This token of their love which was supposed to protect him will betray his feelings in front of the Green Knight.The narrator in Sonnet 61 has a last moment of panic when he is describing the death of love. As faith and innocence are witnessing the event which they never believed could happen (that love could die) and thus can no longer be “faith” and “innocence,” the narrator tells his former lover that only she can revive love from “death to life” (line 14). So that we see that the narrator has, in fact, retained some of his faith and innocence in believing that even when love is dead – unrecoverable, unsalvageable, gone – it still has the enduring possibility of being reawakened.In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though, the author doesn’t even give a hint to Sir Gawain’s distress at leaving the Lady. “They never before had found him / So gracious and so gay” (line 1891-1892), the author remarks about the afternoon after the two have departed. But we learn later how their love endures. The green garment that she gives him – at first a symbol of her desire to protect him from her husband and also a symbol of his naivety that this garment can indeed do what she promises – later becomes a sign that this parting moment is not an end to their love. When Sir Gawain learns that the Lady is married to the Green Knight, he wears the baldric as a symbol of his shame, to remind himself that one cannot just end love without it later resonating in one’s life. Sir Gawain returns to King Arthur’s court embarrassed about what has happened between him and the Lady but is surprised by the support he receives from his fellow knights. They welcome him and decide that they will all wear green baldrics as a symbol of brotherhood, that is, a symbol that everyone has and will be duped by love.
“On Sir Gawain that girdle of green appeared fine! It looked rich on that red cloth, and rightly adorned.” -Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Lines 2036-2037In the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s acceptance of the green girdle shows his hidden character of self-absorption and fear of mortality. Gawain’s real character is not represented by his pentangle, but rather by the green girdle. Gawain goes against his chivalric and Christian standards of honesty, courage and faith, and allows his animalistic instincts for survival to dictate his behavior.Gawain acts upon his animalistic instincts when he accepts the green girdle from his seducer as a supposed “love token.” In reality, he is only concerned with the girdle’s special powers and its ability to possibly save his life. Gawain outwardly refuses to accept such a gift when he is first presented with the lady’s girdle. It is only after the lady explains that the seemingly simple piece of silk is actually a “prize” that is “praiseworthy, precious, and fine,” (1850) that Gawain consents to keeping the gift. Gawain constantly dwells on his fate: “In the deepest of dreams, Gawain drowsily spoke– / As a man who’s in mourning, with many sad thoughts– / Of the day that his destiny deigned that he must / At the Green Chapel greet the fierce Green Knight” (1750-1753). In his dream, Gawain’s subconscious, true and innermost thoughts are revealed. It is only out of Gawain’s concern for survival that he accepts the gift, not out of his love for his seducer or out of his remembrance of her. He fails to demonstrate his courage when he accepts the girdle in an effort to save himself from harm. When faced with the reality of his decapitation, Gawain’s survival instincts take over his façade of courage and piety, represented by his pentangle symbol. His desire to circumvent his certain death leads him to accept the girdle and to knowingly violate the Exchange of Winnings agreement with his lord to trade all his “wins” of the day. Gawain’s total disregard to honor his agreement violates honesty, part of the code of chivalry.By accepting the lady’s girdle, Gawain places greater value on his own survival than on his chivalric values. He says, “He was sorely concerned should his chivalry fail, / But he feared more his fate if he falsely should sin” (1773-1774). The pentangle symbol on his shield represents the high qualities and standards Gawain strives to embody. Instead of being guided by an internal strength of character and honor to commitment, Gawain takes the cowardly course and places his faith in the magical power of an inanimate object to save himself from harm. As a member of King Arthur’s Round Table, Gawain is supposed to exemplify the highest qualities of chivalry, which include bravery and honesty. When he chooses to accept the girdle, Gawain demonstrates his cowardice and his lack of chivalrous character. Gawain faces a difficult decision: he can either give into temptation and commit a sin or refuse the lady and violate his chivalric courtesy. He chooses to violate the code of chivalry and puts more importance on his life.The actual placement of the girdle and the pentangle, drawn on his shield, is most revealing of Gawain’s character. While the shield is boldly placed in front of his chest and is easily visible, Gawain places the green girdle on his waist, a less noticeable part of the body. It is important to notice that Gawain chooses to place the girdle “about his smooth hips” (2032) and not across his chest. At the end of the poem, The King and the rest of the court decided to wear a girdle similar to Gawain’s; but instead of wearing the girdles around their waists, they wear the piece of cloth as it were a sash: “Even lady and lord who belonged to the Table– / That a baldric be borned by the brothergood’s men, A silk band wrapped about of bright, glowing green” (2515-2517). In the Oxford English dictionary, a “baldric” is worn from one shoulder across the breast and under the opposite arm. Compared to the people in King Arthur’s Court, Gawain choose to wear the girdle on a less noticeable part of the body. Gawain appears to be virtuous and chivalric, as represented by his shield, but his true, hidden character is less noticeable and obvious, like the girdle. There is also a stark contrast between the colors of the two objects; the girdle is green whereas the pentangle is gold. The green color represents something sinister and wicked, while the gold color suggests something holy and precious. The quotation contrasts the symbolism behind the pentangle and the girdle. Gawain’s weak character, symbolized by his keeping of the girdle, falls short of the high virtues of chivalry, represented by the pentangle.It is easy for Gawain to claim chivalry by wearing the pentangle symbol for all to see, but it is far more difficult for him to demonstrate bravery and honor through his actions in the face of death. Although Gawain defeats his foes and keeps his promise to meet the Green Knight, he partially fails the test of bravery and honor and reveals his cowardice and lack of chivalry. A person may put forth an appearance of honesty, integrity and courage in the way he outwardly presents himself to others, but the true measure of a person’s character is through his action and behavior in the face of adversity and temptation.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the anonymous author offers the reader a protagonist infinitely aware of his place in society and of the potentially capricious nature of his acclaim. Popularly considered one of the most virtuous knights in Camelot, a kingdom which is itself the very paradigm of virtue in literature, Gawain recognizes the influence he holds with his compatriots – the power to bolster their waning hopes in times of crisis by remaining fearlessly stoic, or, conversely, the power to quash those hopes by succumbing to the same fear as they. Indeed, the very concept of the idyllic city of Camelot rests on the foundation of the Order of the Round Table, a group of knights that would protect the residents of Camelot from any outside threat, thus maintaining the internal tranquility that defines Arthur’s realm. Understandably, Gawain takes this responsibility very seriously, and to the extreme. As a protector of this perfect place, Gawain holds himself to a standard of utter perfection and feels that any less comprises an embarrassment. This ideal that Gawain sets for himself acts as the impetus for his actions throughout the tale. As the story progresses, however, the nature of Gawain’s embarrassment, or potential embarrassment, changes quite dramatically. At the beginning, it seems that Gawain fears the reaction of the kingdom to any misdeed on his part, especially because he is a very public figure in Camelot. Through this point in the story, Gawain has followed the rules of chivalry by rote because that is simply how he has been trained throughout his entire life, his entire career as a knight. Later in the story, Gawain’s allegiances shift slightly while a guest at Bercilak’s castle, from a king-knight relationship to one between a lord and his guest. Deference to one’s host is certainly chivalrous, and breaking such a social contract would lead inevitably to a tremendous feeling of embarrassment for Gawain. After he meets with the Green Knight on New Year’s Day, however, Gawain’s sense of morality and embarrassment begin shifting from their prior foundations in his hyper-awareness of his reputation to a new basis in Gawain’s own mind. Even when Bercilak forgives him for trying to save his own life at the expense of his word, and even when the residents of Camelot virtually ignore his thievery, Gawain cannot forgive himself. It no longer matters to him that he still stands as the model knight; his own sense of self-worth is damaged, and for the first time, it cannot be repaired by external praise. While his unattainable perfectionism is sure to lead to unhappiness, Gawain’s ultimate embarrassment in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight still offers an optimistic view of his maturation as a human functioning in society.When the Green Knight enters King Arthur’s court and makes his challenge, Sir Gawain volunteers to oppose him because he feels that within the moral framework of chivalry, it is the right thing to do; to act otherwise, therefore, would be contrary to chivalry and thus embarrassing for a knight of Gawain’s renown. After Arthur initially accepts the Green Knight’s dare, Gawain steps in and offers himself, explaining, “For I find it not fit, as in faith it is known, / When such a boon is begged before all these knights, / Though you be tempted thereto, to take it on yourself / While so bold men about upon benches sit” (lines 348-51). The first line of this quotation offers the reader a great insight into Gawain’s motivation, as it juxtaposes his own professed beliefs (“I find it not fit”) with what he declares to be the collective beliefs of the kingdom, specifically of those present at the feast (“as in faith it is known”). Indeed, this connection between Gawain as an individual and the society to which he belongs demonstrates the cornerstone of his moral code at the start of the story; he volunteers to take Arthur’s place against the Green Knight not because he consciously decides it to be the right thing to do, but because he believes that, to his society, “it is known” to be. He assumes that the citizens of Camelot expect this sort of righteous valor from him, a “bold man” who, until he acts correctly by volunteering, has simply been, like the other knights, “upon benches sitting.” If he were to continue to sit passively and watch King Arthur accept the challenge, Gawain would anticipate that the other guests at the feast would be disappointed in him, and embarrassment would ensue. Thus, in Part I, Gawain is drawn into the strange game with the Green Knight by a fear of letting his compatriots down, a fear of embarrassing himself before his country.Later, when Gawain is lodging at Bercilak’s castle, compliance with his chivalric ideals leads to obedience to Bercilak to avoid the embarrassment of subverting the host-guest relationship. The author writes this dialogue between Bercilak and Gawain: “‘You have bound yourself boldly my bidding to do – / Will you stand by that boast, and obey me this once?’ / ‘ I shall do so indeed,’ said the doughty knight; / ‘While I lie in your lodgings, your laws will I follow'” (lines 1089-1092). Gawain’s obligation to agree to Bercilak’s suggestion of a game of trading daily earnings is threefold. First and foremost, as a guest in Bercilak’s home, Gawain feels he must submit to his will (“While I lie in your lodgings, your laws will I follow”). Second, Bercilak has told him where he can find the Green Chapel, thus helping him in another way on his quest, so out of gratitude Gawain is beholden to abide by Bercilak’s wishes. Third, upon learning from Bercilak where the Green Chapel is, Gawain had said, “Now I thank your for this, past all things else! / Now my goal is here at hand! With a glad heart I shall / Both tarry, and undertake any task you devise” (lines 1080-1082). Having promised to “undertake any task” Bercilak desires, Gawain is bound to stand by his word. All three of these obligations are based in the concepts of chivalry, in the principles of courtesy, and so breaking them would cause severe embarrassment for the noble Gawain. For the first half of the story, then, the reader witnesses Gawain continually submitting to the perceived wills of other people, whether they be the citizens of Camelot or Lord Bercilak; he follows the laws of chivalry so uniformly in each of these situations because he knows that he is expected to portray the ideal knight, the model for all others to follow. Any less, he believes, would detract from the esteem in which the court of Camelot holds him, and thus cause him embarrassment. As we will see, however, Gawain begins to shift the focus of his moral code after he learns that he is not, nor has he ever been, perfect.After the Green Knight reveals himself to be Bercilak and alerts Gawain to his failure to turn over the magic girdle given to him by the Green Knight’s wife, he forgives Gawain for his sin, considering it minor with regard to the other, more dishonest sins that he avoided. In fact, Bercilak goes so far as to deem Gawain “polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright / as [he] had lived free of fault since first [he] was born” (lines 2393-4). Sir Gawain, however, cannot ignore even the most inconsequential of sins; after all, his ideal knight is always perfectly courteous. He tells Bercilak that he will continue to wear the green girdle as a mask of shame: “A sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes / When I ride in renown, and remember with shame / The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse, / How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin; / And so when praise and high prowess have pleased my heart, / A look at this love-lace will lower my pride” (lines 2433-8). For the first time, Gawain makes a value judgment that opposes that of another; this demonstrates that the source of his embarrassment at this act is not Bercilak’s disappointment but rather his own inner shame, his broken self-esteem. Although Bercilak has already pardoned his wrongdoing, Gawain, of his own accord, plans to “remember with shame” his “frailty,” so that whenever his feelings about himself grow too complimentary, he will be reminded of the day when he learned of his fundamental, human imperfection. It is possible to argue, however, that Gawain’s apparent switch from external to internal embarrassment at this point in the story is not a progression but rather a regression, a shift not in fact from external to internal but rather from once source of external shame to another. It could be said that when Bercilak unexpectedly forgives him, Gawain cannot fathom this absolution; his sense of self-worth is so damaged that he cannot understand how anyone else could possibly respect him still. In this interpretation, then, Gawain’s inability to comprehend Bercilak’s forgiveness causes him to break the ties of the host-guest relationship and revert to the chivalry of Camelot. So, his decision to wear the girdle forever as a badge of shame would not be considered an individual choice, but rather Gawain’s way of doing what he thinks the court at Camelot would expect of him. Although this interpretation is viable at this point in the tale, Gawain’s actions upon his return to Camelot demonstrate that the embarrassment he feels as a result of his supposed misdeed comes, for the first time, from within his own heart.When Gawain returns home to Camelot, he is greeted by a court that is too ecstatic that he has survived to castigate him for a minor transgression; still, Gawain’s criticism of himself continues separate from the wishes of the society. Gawain shows his garter to the court and explains, “This is the sign of sore loss that I have suffered there / For the cowardice and coveting that I came to there; / This is the badge of false faith that I was found in there, / And I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last. / For one may keep a deed dark, but undo it no whit, / For where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore” (lines 2507-12). The first part of this declaration serves to outline Gawain’s own interpretation of his actions, deeming his transgression a “sore loss” of perfection, a sign of “cowardice and coveting” within him. His next sentence, “I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last,” runs contrary to both the chivalric code of Camelot and the pious Christian faith on which it rests. Both the chivalric and Christian belief systems place great importance on the ability and willingness to forgive the sins of others. Any true follower of these faiths, therefore, should not only be ready to forgive others but also accept the forgiveness when the sin is his or her own. Gawain is unable to do so, because his individual ideas of sin, of morality, of chivalry transcend Camelot’s collective values. At the end of the story, Gawain is intensely embarrassed despite the fact that, externally, there is no cause to be so. The only viable reason for his embarrassment, then, must be internal. Certainly, most readers deem Gawain’s individual moral standards to be far too high for a human being to attain; the important point, however, is not what his touchstones are but that they are uniquely his. His perfectionism may cause him unbearable torment, but even an embarrassed, melancholy Sir Gawain will be more human than the stoic one at the beginning of the story, when Gawain lived his life by rote, as a machine programmed to function according to its creator’s system of behavior.In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the titular protagonist undergoes a clear evolution over the course of his journey out of and back into Camelot. At the start, Gawain seems to be externally content with his place in the kingdom, and with not straying far from what is expected of him in that role. Twice in the story, Gawain acts submissively, allowing his actions to be determined by the wills of his king, his host, even the members of the court at Camelot. By ceding the responsibility of making decisions for himself and with his own standards, Gawain considers himself assured that he will not embarrass himself nor jeopardize his status as the model knight. Once Gawain realizes that perfection is unattainable for him, however, he begins to stray from what he perceives as the watchful eye of the court. Gawain spurns the opinion of the crowd, choosing instead to listen to his inner conscience. Although this inner conscience certainly seems to make his life difficult, its first appearance at the end of the story offers the reader the first sense of Gawain’s humanity, of him being anything more than a puppet of the chivalric codes. Thus, though his ultimate embarrassment mortifies him in the short-term, his discovery of a self outside societal pressures can only serve him well for the rest of his life.
In the most general sense, the Green Knight is an anomaly to the story of ” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the only supernatural element in what is otherwise a very believable and wholly real rendering of a specific length of time. Gawain is momentarily tricked into believingor, rather, hopingthat the garter is magical in nature, but both his fear and the Green Knight dispel him of that heathen notion. Thus on the one hand the poet warns us of the danger of accepting the supernatural qua supernatural, while on the other he demands that we understand the Green Knight to be an expression of the “power of Morgan le Fay,” who is “well taught in magic arts.” The effect of this then is to thrust the Green Knight into an even greater shroud of mystery than normal for Arthurian tales, which usually feature a whole cast of impossible characters. From this isolated line of thought, it would seem as if the Green Knight ought to be held only to his own, strange, separate rules. Since he is the sole fantastical creature, why should he conform at all to any rules of the court, the rules of dress, the rules of promise-keeping, in short, the rules of chivalry? Why should he not be rather more like Grendel of Beowulf, a disgusting, evil thing, virtually indescribable, whose sole rules are the rules of mayhem? The simple answer that one must expect a chivalrous adventure of sort come Christmas Eve proves itself quickly to be a cheap escape to this question: the legend at court as The Quest of the Holy Grail lays it out is that the adventure must present itself before Arthur sits down to eat, whereas in Sir Gawain, “the first course [had] been properly served to the court, when there bursts in at the hall door a terrible figure.” Abandoning this artificial paradigm gives us no alternative but to ask how it can be that this “aghlich mayster” can at the same time be yet another “hathel” on a horse. The poet accomplishes this ingenious conflation of the unknown horror (i.e. the “green”) and the honest challenger (i.e. the “knight”) just a few lines after the Green Knight¹s most unchivalrous entrance into the court. The poet says he “believes” him to be “half a giant” and yet “of all men I judge him the largest.” From the first, then, the Green Knight is in the gray, that incomprehensible space between monster and man. From this point on, the opposites continue to collapse in that one figure. His “back and chest… was foreboding” while “his belly and waist were becomingly trim.” He rides “without shoes on his feet” yet he is adorned in “shining array” just as intricate and perfect as the ceremonies of Arthur¹s court. A thousand other little touches of description abound to the same haunting effect.What is more fundamental in giving us the sense of the walking contradiction is the knight¹s challenge itself. In proposing a trade of blows, the green man inverts another paradigm of the literature, as this is no trade of blows in the conventional sense. He asks rather to stand there and face one single strike of the axe, against which he will not defend himself, in exchange for the opportunity to do likewise. The test then is no test of battle as both the reader and Arthur expect, but instead a test of ethos. Challenging a knight to a confrontation in itself is the stock and trade of an unexpected visitor, but the twisted game of the Green Knight demands that the combatants do not combat. The poet has framed the most unseemly question in the pomp of the normal. In a sense he challenges his readers to confront the rules of chivalrythat one accept a challenge, provided it seems difficultin a foreign context, outside of what we expect that challenge to establish, namely, who is the best fighter. The rules of knighthood are pitted against their aim, in the same way that the monstrous qualities of the Green Knight are pitted against his honesty.
In his 1959 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the literary critic Brian Stone writes of “a Romance both magical and human, powerful in dramatic incident, and full of descriptive and philosophic beauty”. Indeed, this late medieval poem exhibits a rich supply of symbolism and natural imagery throughout, inducing a vast degree of intrigue and confusion in the reader. The Gawain-poet’s ambiguous depiction of the natural world – personified through the formidable figure of the Green Knight – has particularly been a source of critical discussion, with its enigmatic imagery and supernatural overtones creating a daunting, multi-layered impression of the wilderness. On the surface, these primitive aspects of nature appear threatening and foreign, serving to establish a stark disparity between the cultured existence of the knights and the wild, undomesticated world beyond the castle gates. However, the Gawain-poet does not simply intend to characterise the natural world as a sinister opponent to chivalry; instead, nature has other significations within the poem. Several parallels exist between the “courtly” lifestyle of Sir Gawain and the mutability of the natural world, suggesting the existence of a certain affinity between man and nature. Passages detailing the changing of the seasons and the finely-crafted hunting scenes, in particular, highlight the similarity between innate human emotions and the forces of nature, thus implying that the two worlds are not wholly separate. The reader’s first encounter with nature’s wildness occurs with the entrance of the Green Knight into Camelot, an event which immediately halts the knights’ festivities and transforms the celebratory mood of the scene into one of suspense and apprehension. A startling figure attired in green, the giant “hales in at the halle dor”, viciously tearing down the man-made divide between the primitive natural world and the sanctuary of King Arthur’s decorous court. The poet subsequently embarks on an elaborate description of an “aghlich mayster”, whose abnormal height and stature makes him “the molde on mesure hyghe”. His terrifying size is augmented by the poet’s use of alliteration – “And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete” – thus constructing both an image of hideous engorgement and a disquieting sense of the supernatural. Furthermore, the imposter’s uncultivated, organic physical features, namely his massive beard “as a busk” and grass-green complexion, explicitly displays the giant’s association with the untamed natural world. When juxtaposed with the untroubled buoyancy and hierarchical formation of the knights’ festive celebrations (“The best burne ay abof, as hit best semed”), the Green Knight’s appearance and conduct seems to present a stark antithesis to civilised human existence. Therefore, the deep sense of trepidation and obscurity associated with the giant’s entrance has led some to characterise the Green Knight, and, by extension, nature itself, as “the natural foe of Camelot and the knighthood it represents.” In any case, the Gawain-poet’s varying, often contradictory, description of the Green Knight in this passage exposes the hues and ambiguities of the natural world. After initially presenting the reader with a portrait of a grotesque monster, he proceeds by outlining more favourable aspects of the stranger, endowing him with handsome traits which would have earned respect amongst Gawain’s contemporaries: “For of his bak and his brest al were his bodi sturne, / Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale”. Despite the Gawain-poet’s descriptive lines being parallel in structure throughout the passage, the reader’s impression of the Green Knight is continually changing, and the striking depiction of the most “myriest of men” conjures an attractive image of strength and youthful virility. The giant’s multifaceted connection with the natural world therefore calls the significance of the colour green into question, a point of debate which has been the focus of much critical discussion. While Heinrich Zimmer associates his greenness with death and corpses, other critics have highlighted the positive connotations of the colour, suggesting a connection with fruitfulness and natural vitality. Indeed, it has been claimed that similar green-clad figures can be found throughout fourteenth-century literature, usually symbolising the dynamism of youth. In the light of these ambiguities, it would be wrong to dismiss the Green Knight as a mere “stock enemy” of knighthood, as the Gawain-poet skilfully juxtaposes the character’s primitive aspects with more noble elements of sophistication. This uncertainty is most starkly illustrated by the Green Knight’s possession of a holly-branch in one hand and an axe in another, both striking symbols of peace and violence, fertility and artifice, thus foreshadowing Bertilak’s dual role as ominous challenger and hospitable host. Nevertheless, despite the giant’s more admirable features, the poet’s description of the mystifying stranger creates an impression of foreignness and volatility, with the Green Knight’s balance of beauty and terror stunning the knights into a “petrified” silence. The dread that the giant instils into others only serves to enhance his arresting wildness, consequently making the knights’ courtly posturing appear impotent and futile.Nature’s power to overwhelm and belittle man is reinforced during Sir Gawain’s journey to Bertilak’s castle, where he encounters the unforgiving, malevolent aspects of the wilderness:“Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolves als,Sumwhyle wyth wodwos that woned in the knarrez,Bothe wyth bullez and berez, and borez otherquyle,And etaynez that hym anelede of the heghe felle.” (Lines 720-3)In a sharp contrast to his sheltered, courtly existence in Camelot, Gawain is forced to confront the perils of nature, facing dangerous beasts and giants in harsh, wintry conditions. This disparity is further heightened by the poet’s ironic, elaborately crafted description of Gawain’s armour, most notably the “endeles knot” of the pentangle on his shield. In spite of the great moral and religious significance bestowed upon the armour by his fellow knights, its worth is limited when pitted against the forces of nature, suggesting that chivalry places importance on decorative symbols over the reality of human risk and mortality. Furthermore, the poet’s inclusion of fantastical creatures such as dragons and ogres in this passage adds a supernatural layer to the already hostile natural landscape, thus reinforcing the danger and magnitude of Gawain’s plight. As a result of his grisly pledge to the Green Knight, Gawain is entering the daunting realm of the unknown, a challenge for which the confined splendour of courtly life has left him ill-equipped.However, over the course of the text, the reader is made aware of an intrinsic connection between human existence and the natural world. An alternative perception of nature is offered by the passage detailing the passing of the year at the beginning of Fitt Two, with its seasonal imagery providing a clear analogy with human life. For example, the progression from the beautiful “solace of the softe somer” to the destruction of the winter months (“The levez lancen fro the lynde and lighten on the grounde, / And al grayes the gres that grene watz ere”) corresponds to both Gawain’s deteriorating mood and the life-cycle of man. It is perhaps unsurprising that the winter period induces uneasy thoughts of his imminent “anious voyage” in Gawain, as the passing of the year is inescapably linked with notions of human mortality and uncertainty. Although some may interpret this passage as an example of the destructive, superior power of the natural world, a poignant similarity exists between nature’s ability to restore and regenerate itself and the continuation of the human race over time. The cyclical shape of the poem (the Gawain-poet’s repeated allusion to the siege at Troy brings the text full-circle) serves to reinforce the constant and regenerative movement of natural life “as the worlde askez”. As a consequence, the poem uses natural imagery to explore the themes of birth, death and rebirth, with the Gawain-poet’s evocative description of the changing seasons suggesting a sense of harmony between man and nature – two entities united by their transience and mortality.Thus, behind the safe, orderly façade of courtly life lurks the enduring threat of violence and death. This communion between mankind and nature is vividly displayed during the three “hunting scenes”, where the poet parallels Bertilak’s attempts to catch his prey and his wife’s erotic hunting of Gawain. The alternation of the hunting scenes and the bedroom scenes allows the poet to juxtapose the knight’s moral temptation with the slaughtering of animals. Most strikingly, Gawain’s crucial failure in accepting the lady’s green girdle occurs simultaneously with the capture and killing of a fox: “Now hym lenge in that lee, ther luf hym bityde! / Yet is the lorde on the launde ledande his gomnes”. In doing so, the Gawain-poet explores the animalistic, primal aspects of human behaviour, thereby subtly undermining the courtly values of duty and dignity. The literary critic Denton Fox develops this resemblance further by highlighting the unconventional practice of fox hunting in the romances, especially following to the more accepted, “noble” activity of pursuing deer and boars. Indeed, the fact that the poet should “resort to a “foul fox” for his third and final quarry” exposes the artificial nature of chivalric constructions through its implication that human beings are merely base products of nature, much like “verminous” foxes. Despite the court’s best efforts to contain and control it, nature constantly intrudes into civilised life, thus demonstrating how courteous posturing can often shatter under the pressure of human emotions such as fear or lust. It is interesting to consider Sir Gawain’s second journey to the Green Chapel, the location in which he will offer his neck to Bertilak’s axe. Fox identifies a significant distinction between the two winter journeys undertaken by Gawain with regard to the perils faced by the protagonist. While the first journey to Bertilak’s castle is laden with explicit physical danger in the form of beasts and giants, Gawain experiences a different, spiritual danger during his journey to the Green Knight’s lair. The poet’s depiction of misty moors and barren rock-faces (“Thay clomben bi clyffez ther clengez the colde”) creates an ominous atmosphere of uncertainty, culminating in his companion’s tempting offer for Gawain to turn back without confronting the Green Knight – “goude Sir Gawayn, let the gome one, / And gotz away sum other gate, upon Goddez halve!” Gawain’s spiritual and psychological turmoil in this section differs from the more overt perils of earlier passages, and it is possible that the knight is finally acknowledging the more primal, base aspects of his character, such as humankind’s inherent fear of death. Furthermore, the poet’s use of pathetic fallacy in the stanza depicting Gawain’s final night at the castle signifies the apprehension of the protagonist and the gravity of his final voyage:“Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,Whyth nyghe innogue of the northe the naked to tene.The snawe sintered ful snart, that snayped the wylde;The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyghe,And drof uche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.” (Lines 2001-5)The turbulence of the snowstorm reflects Gawain’s anxious state of mind, while the weather’s personification of malice and spite may serve to reinforce the bond between human emotion and forces of nature. It is this distinct lack of a firm boundary between mankind and nature that has led some to claim that chivalric culture makes a fundamental mistake in excluding the natural world from its equations. When the codes and ideals of civilised life are stripped away from an individual, they are simply products of nature with untamed emotions, desires and shortcomings, an essential parallel that exposes the innate communion between man and nature.In conclusion, the poet invests heavily in symbolism throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, constantly engaging the reader’s attention and providing an impetus for critical debate. Principally, the poem expresses the interplay between humanity and the natural world through the Green Knight, the harsh winter landscape, sexual desire and Gawain’s own fear of mortality. This unity is perhaps most aptly demonstrated through the figure of the Green Knight, an intriguing man of contradictions whose combination of primitive horror and noble courtliness personifies the ambiguous ties between man and the natural world. By interlinking the seemingly disparate worlds of humanity and nature, therefore, the poem gently demonstrates the artificiality of chivalric values and affirms the power of the renewable, unyielding forces of nature.
In the Old English poem Beowulf, the warrior culture is centered upon the heroic codes. Those who are members of Hrothgar’s court are ranked based upon the identities and reputations of their ancestors. It can be said that the armor of these warriors, as it has travelled from generation to generation and warrior to warrior, is emblematic of the very reputations these warriors consider most important. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, too, armor plays an important role. It is representative of the virtues Sir Gawain is challenged to uphold, and, on a larger scale, is also symbolic of the test to which the entire chivalric system is put. Thus, the two poems, although different in plot and some general cultural characteristics, contain a motif of armor that opens up the doors to themes regarding the importance of ancestry and reputation as well as the themes of knightly chivalry and Christian morality, respectively. As Beowulf is fundamentally a record of heroic deeds, the identities and reputations of those who have performed and will perform these acts are clearly central to the interpretation and understanding of the poem. In the opening passages, the reader steps into a world in which every male figure is known as the son of his father. Characters constantly refer to lineage when identifying themselves and discussing their backgrounds. The presence of this prominent concern with ancestry in the Geatish and Danish warrior cultures can be attributed to the poem’s central focus upon the bonds of kinship. Men take pride in ancestors who have acted courageously and obtained a praiseworthy status among their kin. Furthermore, these men are provided with a set of standards to live up to that are based upon the performance of the aforementioned ancestors. Upon further examination of the values of the warrior culture in Beowulf, it is evident that armor provides a historical link that is analogous to the ancestry of these men. In a way, the history of a warrior’s armor parallels and reflects the history of the warrior himself – not only in the details of its craftsmanship, but in the results of its performance. Simply put, “…the troops themselves were as good as their weapons” (40). Hence, the historical aspects associated with armor in Beowulf directly correspond to the theme of the importance of a warrior’s reputation. With armor comes the history of its performance from generation to generation, and this history opens up the theme of the reputation of he who owns the armor. While the heritage of a warrior does provide models of heroic and noble behavior and helps one to establish their identity among kin, it is shown through the text that a good reputation is the key to solidifying one’s identity. As the narrator so astutely remarks in the poem’s prologue, “behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere” (34). Beowulf boasts of himself as a great warrior and then backs up his claims by defeating Grendel; he is then celebrated and received among the warriors as a hero. Unferth, in comparison, boasts emptily, ultimately proving himself unwilling to fight the monsters. Thus, although boasts of heroic capabilities are important in the overall construction of warrior culture, it is a hero’s actions that define his reputation. Take, for example, Shield Sheafson. Orphaned at a young age and thus without a father to contribute to the establishment of his identity and warrior reputation, he is left to form his own identity by performing numerous valiant deeds for which he will gain fame and be remembered. He uses his outstanding performance to contribute to the formation of his reputation, and ultimately becomes the originator of the Danish royal line. It is also important to note the weaponry in relation to its aesthetic details. Right from the beginning, the reader is shown the importance of armor through the detailed descriptions provided by the poet. When the Danish watchman finally offers to lead the Geats to Heorot, the reader is shown the “boar-shapes” that “flashed/ above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged/ work of goldsmiths, watching over/ those stern-faced men” (40). The boars that are embossed on the helmets give the warriors an additional form of protection, and it is almost as if the animal is with him as he marches into battle. Additionally, when the warriors arrive at Heorot, they are introduced as seemingly worthy of attention, since “from their arms and appointment, they appear well born/ and worthy of respect” (41). The role of armor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is somewhat similar, although it works to bring about the theme of knightly chivalry more than the themes of reputation and heritage. However, it could be said that adherence to knightly ideals contributes to the establishment of one’s overall identity and reputation. In this poem, Gawain’s shield is without a doubt the most important piece of armor that has been introduced thus far. The center of his protective gear, the shield is the perfect symbol of the virtues and ideals Gawain aspires to: generosity, courtesy, friendship, chastity, and piety. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield represents the formation of the endless knot. The side of the shield that faces towards Gawain when he wears it has the face of Mary, another important aesthetic aspect. The shield thus represents not only the profound heavenly protection of Christianity that was central to knightly culture, but also the protection from earthly harm via the security of Mary, a maternal figure whose womb signifies a place of security. While it is clear that Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, it is quite possible that there is more under examination than simply his personal virtue. Ultimately, Gawain’s shield is symbolic not only of the test he personally endures, but a test of the chivalric system as a whole. King Arthur’s court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, which seems to value appearance and symbols more than actual legitimacy. Arthur is introduced as the “most courteous of all,” a clear indication that people in this court are ranked according to their obedience of a particular code of behavior (163). The first time the values of this chivalric code are brought into question is when the Green Knight challenges the court, ridiculing its knights for being so apprehensive of mere words. This suggests that perhaps words and aesthetics hold too much power over the knights of King Arthur’s court. On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot, land of the one chivalric code he has ever known, into the wilderness – a place where he is forced to abandon these familiar codes of chivalry in order to find the means of physical comfort that are necessary for his survival. Once Sir Gawain prays (to Mary, notably) for help, he is immediately rewarded with the sudden appearance of a magnificent castle. Upon entering this new and heavily fortified castle, Sir Gawain learns about a new form of chivalry, one that is based more firmly upon the values of truth and reality. The people that comprise Bertilak’s court are firmly connected to nature, as is visible in the way Gawain is greeted by servants who kneel on the “naked earth” (179). The importance of this, then, is to note that the people in this castle center their chivalrous ideals upon the reality of the natural world. It is important to keep in mind how different this chivalric code is in comparison to that of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. When Gawain is subjected to this different kind of chivalric code, his virtues are challenged in ways he has not experienced before. Through these tests, he learns that although chivalry does provide a good set of ideals towards which to strive, he should remember that he is ultimately a human, and thus needs to remember his own capability for error and weakness. His shield, then, is a gateway to this revelation. In sum, the motif that works to give way to the themes of reputation and ancestral significance in Beowulf, and to open up on to the theme of knightly chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is that of armor. In Beowulf, armor helps to shed light upon the history of its owners, who define themselves based not only on their own actions, but also upon the performance and reputations of their ancestors. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, armor serves to aid Gawain in discovering that while it is important for him to strive for knightly ideals, he must keep in mind that he is a human and therefore capable of failure. Works Cited “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 29- 100. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 160-213.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the epitome of the Romantic genre in the Middle Ages, one that features both chivalry and courtly love and emphasizes that a knight’s most important duty is to serve God. While most chivalric tales focus on the physical strength and the impressive battles fought by fearless knights, this tale focuses on the strength of a knight’s faith. Sir Gawain’s faith is tested by the beautiful Lady Bertilak, who offers him her green girdle. The silk belt is the perfect utility to tie the two elements of chivalry and courtly love together. Throughout the poem, the Pearl poet shifts the nature of the girdle and how it is perceived by Gawain. The girdle seems like an insignificant, inanimate piece of cloth. However, because Gawain invests all of his faith in it, the girdle’s function, value, and overall connotation become progressively more significant. The presentation of the girdle by Lady Bertilak first tests Gawain’s faith. The Lady first offers Gawain a “rich ring, wrought all of gold…worth a king’s wealth, you may well believe” (ll.1817-20), which makes her second gift – the girdle – seem all the more mundane. When Gawain refuses the gift, the Lady questions his choice: “‘Because it seems in your sight so simple a thing?’” (l.1846). The Lady hints that perhaps Gawain’s senses are not sharp enough to realize the value of such an object, which intrigues Gawain. Still, he argues that “‘Before God, good lady, I forego all gifts’” (l.1822), for earlier in the day he and Lord Bertilak had agreed that anything that either man gains during the course of the day is to be given to the other. Until this point Gawain had held to his personal oath, rejecting both Lady Bertilak’s seduction and her offer of the ring. But once the lady reveals to him the girdle’s powers, he accepts it – and conceals it even though, under terms of the pact with Lord Bertilak, it rightfully belongs to the lord. He gives the lord the three kisses he had received earlier as gifts and then lies to him, saying that “all that I owe here is openly paid” (l.1941). He sins by lying, placing the value of the girdle above his Christian virtues. The girdle also challenges Gawain’s commitment to serve God by becoming a more powerful symbol of faith than any Christian symbol. The girdle, a simple garment worn by women, ordinarily would have no relevance to a knight. Lady Bertilak explains to Gawain that by carrying this girdle, however, “There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down/ For he could not be killed by any craft on earth” (ll.1852-54). The emphasis on “under heaven” and “on earth” gives the girdle an unearthly, supernatural quality. Whereas earlier in the poem Gawain turns to Christianity for guidance – praying, for example, “that Mary may be his guide” (l.738) – he now holds the girdle to be “a pearl for his plight” (l.1856). His trust in the girdle replaces his trust in God to save him from the Green Knight, transforming the girdle from a simple silk belt to a supernatural protector. This development is most significant because Gawain’s knightly duty is to serve God, but he has now placed his faith in a simple object.Gawain’s acceptance and faith in the green girdle deeply challenge his reputation of virtuousness. Gawain prominently displayed his pentangle, a religious symbol that represents the five virtues, on his shield “in purest gold” (l.620). He was esteemed to be “faultless in his five senses” and his great fidelity was “fixed upon the five wounds/ That Christ got on the cross” (ll.642-43). The knight also claimed the attributes of being a “most courteous knight” (l.639) and of a “pure mind” (l.653). Giving into Lady Bertilak’s temptation and lying to Lord Bertilak corrupt Gawain’s seemingly perfect chivalry. They show that Gawain is not without fault. First, he is tricked by the girdle’s false promises of the girdle and distracted by its magical powers. Second, he appears greedy and selfish, wanting to possess a valuable object only to save his own life. Third, Gawain is unfaithful to both Lord Bertilak and God, accepting the Lord’s loyalty in their game of exchange but failing to return this loyalty. Finally Gawain lacks the faith to face the Green Knight alone; instead, he puts his faith in an earthly object. Gawain recognizes his downfall and begins to repent immediately after he conceals it from Lord Bertilak. Straight “to the chapel he goes” (l.1876) after the temptress leaves “to cleanse his soul” (l.1882). He chastises himself: “‘Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low!” (ll.2374-75). By the end of the poem, the experience of the girdle helps Gawain to recognize his faults and leads him to become an even more virtuous knight. He says, “‘I hold you polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright/ As you had lived free of fault since first you were born” (ll.2393-94). Because Gawain fully confesses to the Green Knight, he is completely absolved of his sins. The sin of the girdle humbles Gawain’s pride as well as King Arthur’s court but ultimately becomes an important reminder of the importance of humility and virtue. The green belt becomes a “badge of false faith” (l.2509) that serves as a constant reminder of the “cowardice and coveting” (l.2508) that Gawain came to find on his plight. Without this experience, Gawain and his court would never have realized their faults in character because their virtues would never have been tested. In the end, the green girdle becomes a symbol of virtuousness worn by the entire court.