An Examination of Embarrassment and Individual Standards In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

June 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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