Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Green Knight and the Symbolism Behind
Arthurian legends served as a means to centralize the Celtic culture and provide the Celtic people with their own myth in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE. One such Celtic myth of the late fourteenth century CE is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many interpretations have explained the Green Knight as a symbol of the spring season and a Christ-like figure. The tale does indeed portray several significant myths, such as those of Christ and a quasi spring deity, for the European people. The Green Knight and Bertilak, however, are a better representation of not a transcending conception but of a mortal essence: Sir Gawain’s conscience. The symbolism of the Green Knight and Bertilak as Sir Gawain’s conscience provides a cyclical development of Sir Gawain’s character by juxtaposing the characters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, juxtaposing the characters of Sir Gawain and Bertilak, and initiating Gawain’s repentance for his sinful pride.
The symbolism of the characters the Green Knight and Bertilak as the conscience of Sir Gawain is first introduced with the juxtaposition of the Green Knight and Sir Gawain. In the beginning of the tale, Sir Gawain is established as a good, righteous knight without any faults, through the dialogue and narration in the Arthurian court. He is the only knight who challenges the goliath Green Knight as King Arthur’s replacement. The Green Knight is described as lacking armor yet carries a battleaxe, which he does not intend to use, when he challenges the Arthurian court. Once Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge. Gawain is interested in protecting his king and the court, whereas the Green Knight wants to harm the court. Gawain’s Christian faith in God appears to be the source of his courage and confidence against the Green Knight. As Gawain departs on his journey, King Arthur speaks of Gawain’s integrity as Gawain may have spoken with the words, “‘In destinies sad or merry, true men can but try’” (ll. 564-565, pp.1471). The Green Knight serves as a part of a test of virtues in the beginning of the tale and therefore as the criticalness of Gawain’s conscience. Sir Gawain continues his pilgrimage to the Green Chapel in hopes of finding the Green Knight and, ultimately, his true self.
Sir Gawain and Bertilak are juxtaposed secondly to further the symbolism of Bertilak and the Green Knight as Sir Gawain’s conscience. In Gawain’s moment of desperation and need of rest, the vision of the castle of Hautdesert provides hope for Gawain. The hope restored in Gawain with his vision of Bertilak’s white castle conveys the castle as a safe haven and Bertilak as a savior. Once Gawain meets Bertilak, he examines him studiously, as if he knows him. The familiarity of Bertilak suggests that Gawain recognizes certain characteristics that remind him of the Green Knight, or rather characteristics that remind him of his self. His amazement in the presence of Bertilak is expressed in the lines, “So comely a mortal never Christ made as he. Whatever his place of birth, it seemed he well might be without a peer on earth in martial rivalry” (ll. 869-874, pp. 1479). Bertilak is seemingly interested in being hospitable and honest to his guest. The agreement between Bertilak and Gawain is to trade whatever each one receives during the three days. The three days of Bertilak’s hunting signify Gawain’s journey and his nearing future vividly. Bertilak is relentless and merciless in hunting the helpless animals, as Gawain is restless in his search for the Green Knight. During the hunt, Bertilak symbolizes the pureness of Gawain’s conscience while the animals represent Gawain during the hunt. The animals are resilient and sly in escaping the dangers of the king, yet are ultimately doomed, as Gawain is. Gawain’s own conscience is awaiting his downfall to advantageously slaughter him and teach him of his mistakes. The castle, ironically, leads to Gawain’s acceptance of temptation and his demise from perfection and virtuousness.
The juxtaposition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Bertilak is continued in the gloomy woods at the Green Chapel and, there in the woods, Gawain’s conscience causes him to repent for his pride. The armoring of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, once again, in the forest convey a significant representation of Gawain’s consciousness. The Green Knight has no defensive arms except the battleaxe. However, Gawain, who agreed to not defend himself from the Green Knight’s blow, has elaborate though worthless defensive paraphernalia. The bejeweled and elaborately decorated weaponry and his shield and diamond-encrusted helmet would intimidate any warrior except the one he has chosen to fight. As additional protection, Gawain accepts the sash from Lady Bertilak in hopes of preserving his life, which suggests his lack of faith in God to protect him. His fear and guilt accumulate as he waits to be decapitated by the Green Knight-he knows that the sash is not going to protect his life now. After three strikes with the axe, the Green Knight only leaves a nick on Gawain’s neck. The Green Knight reveals his true identity as Bertilak and reprimands Sir Gawain for conceding to the temptation of the sash with the words, “‘Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low’” (ll. 2374-2375, pp. 1508). Sir Gawain realizes that his guarded conscience was infiltrated easily by the seductiveness of Lady Bertilak’s sash and was overwhelm with pride. Gawain responds to the reprimand, “I confess, knight, in this place, most dire is my misdeed; let me gain back your good grace, and thereafter I shall take heed” (ll. 2385-2388, pp. 1509). Gawain also realizes that the acceptance of the sash fetters his own virtuousness.
In conclusion, the Green Knight and Bertilak as a part of Sir Gawain’s conscience rectify the mistake and sinful nature of Gawain’s actions. Bertilak and the Green Knight serve as a catalyst in Sir Gawain’s own consciousness to evaluate his actions and pride and to experience humility for the first time. The evilness of the Green Knight and goodness of Bertilak recoil on themselves and ultimately lead to Sir Gawain’s realization of his prideful nature. His pilgrimage to find the Green Chapel is necessary to assess his own faithfulness and virtuousness. His confession and faithfulness, specifically his disinterested piety at the beginning of the tale, are conveyed as the whole of his virtuousness. Faith and virtue, furthermore, are nothing if they are not tested. One’s own test of faith and virtue leads to better discernment for the conscience. The evilness and goodness of Sir Gawain are reconciled at the end of the tale into one being to provide the stability and security of his tested virtues.
The Contradiction Between Chivalry and Basic Instincts of a Man
As is the case with almost every example of romantic epics, and certainly every story concerning King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the characters carefully observe a strict code of ethics, or chivalry. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain and his peers hold values such as courtesy, loyalty, and honor in high esteem. This respect for the chivalric code is apparent in many instances throughout the poem, such as when King Arthur accepts the dangerous challenge from the Green Knight to save face in front of his knights and the strangers, as well as to live up to his name as a brave man. It is even more obvious in Sir Gawain’s wish to take his king’s place in the Christmas game that the knight has great veneration for honor and loyalty. Sir Gawain attempts to live his life morally, humbly, and in accordance with Christian teachings. Such reverence for civilization and society’s order falls apart in the second half of the story when Sir Gawain visits the castle of Lord Bercilak.
Although Sir Gawain attempts to adhere to society’s standards, the atmosphere of the castle causes the basic needs for food, sex, and a will to live to overcome the desire for structure and civility. The castle of Lord Bercilak is the appropriate setting for this struggle and slackening of chivalric code since it serves two main purposes: one good and one evil. On the positive side, the castle and Lord Bercilak’s court are the answer to Gawain’s prayer as they appear to him in the middle of the wilderness and provide for him a haven to rest before his battle. In reality, however, the castle is a fabrication of Morgan le Faye, and exists only to deceive Gawain and cause him to stray from his noble ambitions to live up to his word and meet the Green Knight.
The events of the three days before Sir Gawain travels to the Green Chapel illustrate the struggle between a want for a strict code of ethics and instinctual urges. Each day the lord of the castle sets out to hunt and Sir Gawain rests and attends Mass in preparation for his upcoming battle. The agreement that the two men make to share their winnings at the end of each day gives readers the sense of rules and civility, yet what goes on during the hunt, or hunts, is reduced to basic human urges. This hunt is presumably out of entertainment and politeness to his guest, but essentially, the act of hunting is very barbaric in nature. It involves one animal killing another for food (and clothing in the case of humans) and is a task necessary to survival. The hunting party engages in fierce chases and battles to kill the prey, emphasizing their brute manliness. Despite the uncivilized aspects of the hunt, much show and pageantry surrounds the daily hunting, especially when the lord is preparing to leave and upon the party’s return. This wildness acts as a setup for the action to follow and could also be foreshadowing the fall from chivalry and order that Gawain later experiences.
One might expect such primal adventures to take place in the wilderness of the surrounding forest, yet inside the castle another hunt is taking place. When the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Sir Gawain every morning, she initiates a second battle between chivalry and basic instincts, namely the knight’s morality and the basic urge for sex or procreation. Sir Gawain begins the first of these daily encounters by suggesting that he dress himself and get out of bed, saying, “I should quit this couch and accouter me better, And be clad in more comfort for converse here”? (1220-1). This modesty shows that Gawain is concerned with behaving morally and in the proper fashion as it would not be suitable for a noble lady to converse with a man in his pajamas sitting in a bed. He tries to obey this social norm, but the lady of the house convinces him to stay in this most improper position. This is most likely because it is a more intimate situation and would allow the knight to obey her request for sex, telling him that “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill” (1236-7). He talks his way out of having sex with Lady Bercilak, but in the end must give her one kiss. This concession shows that Gawain’s noble will to always do the right thing is imperfect. The next morning, when she enters his bedchamber again, Lady Bercilak plays on the knight’s wish to be polite and chivalrous to get him to have sex with her again. She uses the very virtue that should be a deterrent to promiscuity to attempt to convince him to be immoral. The lady tries to persuade him by saying that “A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed” should feel it his duty to be polite and do what she asks of him (1483). At this, Gawain allows her to kiss him again, and once more before she parts Ã¢Â?” one more step away from upright chivalry and one step closer to giving in to desire.
On the third morning, the battle between the lady and Sir Gawain takes on a different air when she offers him the green girdle. Before, it was a struggle between chivalry and desire, but with the introduction of the girdle, the element of survival comes into play and makes it even harder for Gawain to resist his urges to accept the lady’s offers. While Gawain was able to fend off sexual advances and only broke down slightly to accept the lady’s kisses, when he accepts the invincible girdle, the knight’s fear of death proves to be more powerful than his wish to be honorable towards his host. He tries to deny the gift, but once the lady tells him that it is a magic, invincible girdle, it does not take long for Gawain to give in after he “began to muse , and mainly he thought/ 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!” (1855-8). All it takes is for the lady to ask him one more time and Sir Gawain readily accepts the garment and promises to keep it a secret from everyone, especially the lord of the house. Even though he knows that he should give it over to Lord Bercilak at the end of the day, his will to survive in battle against the Green Knight makes Gawain keep the garment secret. Later, he regrets giving in to his instincts rather than following his conscience when he realizes that it was a test of his loyalty, one of the most important aspects of chivalry. The Green Knight, Lord Bercilak in disguise, forgives this breach of promise and loyalty when Gawain meets him to fulfill the rest of the contest by saying, “But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame” (2369). Gawain, however, still feels horrible about betraying his word to the lord of the castle. He calls his desire to live cowardice and hands the girdle back to the Green Knight while Gawain continues to berate himself for his misdeed. That the Green Knight forgives Gawain, but Gawain cannot forgive himself, illustrates the difference between the two men as noble knights. The Green Knight, who is in the service of the evil Morgan le Faye, believes that it was permissible for Sir Gawain to betray his morals to save his own life, yet the righteous knight of King Arthur’s court does not accept this as an excuse. True chivalrous knights were not supposed to fear death, but to live and battle bravely and in accordance with court and Christian morals, no matter what the consequences.
Sir Gawain’s struggle between chivalry and instincts is in some ways as basic as the struggle between right and wrong, yet more intricate in others. The relationship between good and evil deeds gradually becomes more complex as Gawain’s visit at the castle wears on. Obviously, when the lady of the castle tempts him with the desire to have sex with a beautiful woman (and another man’s wife), the correct, moral choice is clear” that the knight should stand by his ethics and the chivalric code and not give in to his lustful thoughts. When she tempts him with the girdle, however, more is at stake than pleasure and wish-fulfillment. When Gawain sees a way to spare his life in the upcoming battle between him and the Green Knight, he hardly puts up a resistance and abandons his morals and loyalty to Lord Bercilak. Gawain is supposedly the most virtuous and chivalrous knight in all of Arthur’s court and, therefore, all of Britain, so readers should take his judgment of his morality more seriously than the opinions of other characters. While most common people would find no harm in this act, once Gawain realizes what he has done, he is ashamed of himself, no matter what the Green Knight or Arthur’s own court thinks about the act. Ultimately, most of society, even in medieval time, would expect someone to do whatever he or she could to save their lives, and not have any qualms about justifying it as a necessary act of self-defense. The noble Sir Gawain, however, cannot accept this excuse since he has a higher order of ethics to uphold as a knight of the Round Table. This difference between societal norms and chivalric code is an important distinction since the original purpose of the poem was most likely to entertain nobles at court, and the poet would want to flatter his employer and his virtues as much as possible.
The Gender Roles and Their Portrayal
Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is caged within a static binary composed of the masculine and the feminine; relative opposites within which individuals are expected to conform to a certain quota of behaviors – for to fit into neither category would seemingly render a character useless to the plot: a celebration of masculine virtue. As a late Arthurian narrative, the poem appears much like its counterparts – posing Gawain of King Arthur’s court, an apparent epitome of this masculine virtue and chivalric value, in contest with the mysterious and similarly brawny Green Knight, later known as Lord Bertilak – creating an image of absolute, impenetrable masculinity. Interestingly, despite the constructions of masculinity retaining the narrative limelight, females appear to act as the architects of the plot of the poem, using their femininity, both through love and scorn, to dictate the actions of the masculine characters surrounding them. Not only does this confirm the static binary by making gender relative to narrative role, where the females generate plot and the male follows suit, there is, in addition, a contrasting blurring of what it means to be innately masculine or innately feminine. The blurring of binary behaviors warps the importance of gender within the poem as well as its appearance as a key theme throughout, essentially rendering the celebration of masculine heroism as null since it celebrates feminity equally if not subtly more so in the ultimate reveal of Morgan le Faye’s successful deceit of Gawain.
Masculinity has an undoubtable link with Arthurian literature, and could be described as thematically key to the construction of an Arthurian narrative such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The chivalric male protagonist, who remotely follows a variant of the earlier epic heroic code, takes part in a quest, which is normally centered around romantic interest, in order to win the favour of the court and the lady in question; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight loosely follows these principles. Gawain is almost immediately introduced to us as possessing the characteristics which wholly create the desirable chivalric male: ‘Gawain was for good knowen’, since his behavior is ‘so cortays, so knyghtyly’ – later displayed through his armor, ‘ful awles’, and then his actions. The depiction of Gawain as a knight is relatively stereotypical in this way, bringing together all the masculine aspects of chivalric knighthood, represented by the ‘fyve pointes’ of the pentangle; having the ability to fight well whilst being a devoted follower of Christianity. It is emphasized by the poet that the ‘pure fyve [virtues] were harder happed on that hathel then on any’ – he is the epitome of masculinity – essentially, chivalrous representatives do not get much better than Gawain. Gawain’s armoring is described at great length, and we are introduced to Gawain in great detail – much more than any other male throughout the poem besides the Green Knight, later known as Bertilak, who represents masculinity through his lordship. There is, therefore, great weight given to Gawain’s character, as if as readers total reliance is given to him to convey what masculinity in terms of Arthurian literature is – there is in fact little inclusion of other male characters, and even King Arthur himself is side-lined to closer bring the focus on Gawain, the ‘gentylest knight of lote’, and his gendered representation. The representation of gender is narrowed by this process. The Green Knight, Lord Bertilak, is the only other reliable representative of masculinity, since his character too is given significance by the poet, known as a ‘lede of lordeschyp a lee of ledes ful goode’. Bertilak’s character, both as himself and as the Green Knight, is recognizably ‘sturne’, which conveys a similar masculine strength and power possessed by Gawain both during the challenge of blows and in his return to Arthur’s court. Bertilak’s ‘huntes’, like Gawain’s quest, is representative of his masculine characteristics – portraying violent strength and power over the natural world. The hunt, alike the battle, is a recurring theme in Arthurian literature and therefore directs us towards the belief that masculinity is constrained and dictated by the genre. The exchange between Gawain and Bertilak as the Green Knight acts as the plots central aspect, and the entirety of the narrative is almost purely dedicated to the challenge of blows between them, giving further centrality to masculinity and the behaviors expected of masculine characters for them to have significance. The focus on masculinity appears to be impenetrable since, despite the occasional interruption, the main focus of the poem is continually brought back to the masculine struggle to do what is expected of them as male members of society: display ultimate strength, resilience and virtue in all situations, as Gawain attempts and Bertilak undoubtedly possesses, having an understanding which allows him to forgive Gawain for his failure at relative male perfection; the ultimate achievement in a male orientated, Arthurian world.
Femininity is posed as the obvious counter to masculinity in the Arthurian world, where the binary appears strict and there is little or no deviation between the two gender spheres. Once again, femininity within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows a set of stereotyped ideals that masculinity does, but the basic principles of these ideals are very different – instead of the hero, they are the ‘damsel’, sometimes in distress, yet most commonly a tempestuous lover. Arguably, Lady Bertilak is the sole representative of femininity throughout the entirety of the poem, since she is the only female character to be graced with personality, having the ability to engage in conversations with her male counterparts. Her character also embraces the flirtatious womanly nature expected of the Arthurian ‘lover’, acting as a temptress to Gawain from her initial entry with her brest bare displayed’, and through the bedroom exchange: eager for Gawain to teach her of ‘wyt while [her] lord is fro’. Her beauty is central to her power, and this is emphasized by the poet in the constant reminders: ‘hit lady, loveliest on lyve to beholde’. The appearance of femininity, in contrast, is much subtler than that of masculinity not only because the appearance of female characters is lesser, but also because it doesn’t appear on the surface that femininity displays the same power and strength as masculinity; femininity seems relatively weak since it is based on often difficult to see emotional and mental qualities instead of physical attributes like Gawain and The Green Knight. The power of femininity lies within its ability to control – the prime example of this within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Lady Bertilak’s persuasion of Gawain in the bedroom, and Gawain’s subliminal acceptance of her terms without fail, even putting her desires before his own – accepting her request to lie about the girdle despite it causing a risk to his chivalrous reputation. Women in the Medieval Era would have been viewed as closely linked with the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and this stereotypical image of temptress is followed and represented by Lady Bertilak as part of her binary gender. Morgan le Faye, introduced at the poems conclusion, yet not sharing the same influence as Lady Bertilak due to her lack of physicality, also appears to use her femininity through her successful temptation and use of other characters for narrative development. Morgan le Faye, although it does not appear she uses her feminine nature for sexual temptation like Lady Bertilak, as her character is not physically met within the story, definitely possesses the ability to control the masculine using her femininity. Interestingly, this makes masculinity appear relatively feeble. The mental strength of masculine characters is not explored, as previously seen, the focus is on their chivalric virtue rather than their intelligence as such, both sexually and not. Females, like Lady Bertilak and the briefly mentioned Guinevere, are constructs of their place within the hierarchy which means that, even if their power exists it is not necessarily recognized as equal; it does not share the same clarity is nature as that of masculinity. This is what separates the masculine and the feminine into two separate gender binaries. The ‘flesch’ and ‘lere’ of the female carry importance, they must perform in order to emphasize these qualities; achieving the ultimate goal of femininity by having such charm as Lady Bertilak. Yet, their performance is not passive as may be expected, it is instead an extremely active process.
Arguably, both masculinity and femininity are required in order for the narrative construct to work – since it appears that both the masculine virtue and feminine intelligence are needed to reach a fully developed plot, causing the binaries to merge together through their reliance on one another for a successful narrative. Some characters begin to possess attributes that are both masculine and feminine, having both physical strength and mental competence, confusing the clear-cut ideal of gender within Arthurian literature which was reflective of the Medieval society and the hierarchical trappings that defined gender performance of the period. Unexpectedly on the basis of a prevailing medieval masculinity, females appear to drive the plot in its entirety. Dependence surrounds the female characters, as if the poet themselves requires females to make the events have some chronological link between them by leading the male protagonists between scenarios. In the poems conclusion, it is revealed that Morgan le Faye was successful in a plan to trick the Arthurian court when using Bertilak as the Green Knight, and in utilizing Lady Bertilak to deceive Gawain more specifically: ‘thurgh mygnt of Morgue le Faye’. Morgan le Faye’s character is able to use her understanding of femininity and the feminine role not only within society but also within narrative to undermine masculinity through the manipulation of chivalric encounters between characters. Though she does not carry out the work herself, her character is positioned at the top of a literary chain; having ultimate control over Bertilak, his wife and ultimately, Gawain. Female centrality appears as relatively unusual within a narrative that is distinctly masculine in purpose – a purpose to follow and make sense of the trials of knighthood, a trade dominated by masculinity. Instead of following the assumed, Morgan le Faye arguably becomes the real image of masculinity by removing the masculine nature of others for personal gain. Gawain, later understanding ‘the falssyng’, recognizes the deceit he has faced through female charm and curses the girdle, which he believes is representative of his masculine failure and of Morgan le Faye’s success and gain – since it is Gawain’s acceptance of the girdle, and therefore that of female control, which allows the female derived plot to continue, as if he is performing a role which he has been given. The agreement between Lady Bertilak and Gawain to keep the girdle a secret makes Gawain go against all of the masculine virtues that he believes in, and aims to achieve as if the feminine romantic aspect of knighthood and masculinity are more important than the heroic ‘code’ which the knight is expected to follow. Lady Bertilak’s girdle is symbolic of the power of femininity in this way; Morgan le Faye’s encourages the use of feminine power in order to seduce and take control of the male by subverting his values and virtues, and directing the heroic glory away from them, giving the limelight to the narrative women. The female adopts the virtues of the male that are left behind, such as their power and strength, which gives them aspects of both binaries – whereas the male adapts to the relative submission to female charm and narrative direction causing a gender coagulation which complicates the, what originally appeared to be, rigid binary. In other words, chivalric knighthood as the representative of masculinity cannot exist solely without its antithesis which is, however much it may be resented, base femininity.
In conclusion, neither masculinity or femininity is constrained to the stereotypical Medieval binary that immediately comes to mind when thinking about gender of the time. Despite the masculine characters expecting to fulfill the heroic and chivalric ideals of Arthurian literature, which at first sight they do, this is ultimately undermined and attempts are failed as they are proven to have faults with this masculine strength and virtue – mainly evolving from the fact that the masculine characters are following the lead of those who are feminine, both intentionally and unintentionally. Although it appears also that the female characters, such as Lady Bertilak, are performing the passive roles expected of the Medieval woman in following the command of her husband, the ultimate rule of Morgan Le Faye complicates this gender hierarchy and allows for the movement of women between the two gender binaries, embracing both the role that is given to them because of their gender and the masculine roles that they are able to obtain through the use of their female charm; ever moving away from the image of the Virgin Mary and the pre-fallen biblical Eve, and towards the scheming, intelligent and testing figure of Morgan Le Faye. The representation of gender, therefore, within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is mixed and often unexpected – as if the poet is attempting to follow the rigid binary set by early Medieval literature, yet taking a more ‘modern’ twist on it due to the composition of the poem being relatively late. Gender is represented as not unmovable set of rules by a subtly changing and evolving idea which can be used in many ways for the benefit and determent of various characters within narrative. Ultimately, gender is utilized by the author and the characters within to progress the storyline and emphasize other themes and meaning within the text.
Odysseus and Gawain: Quest Narratives and the Concept of Guilt
In the first chapter of his novel, How to Read Literature like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster discusses the idea of a quest narrative. “They [protagonists] go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves” (Foster 3). Essentially, while a hero may set out on a journey with a specific goal in mind, he will undoubtedly gain invaluable knowledge about himself along the way. At first, this explanation may seem extremely limited. If “the only subject that really matters” is the hero, why should any other person read their story? However, authors of quest narratives often write to enlighten their audience about the condition of humankind. Their message could focus on either the vulnerable, broken, greedy, or even ignorant condition of mankind. In the poems, the Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both Homer and the Gawain-poet send their heroes on quests in order to develop the idea that all humans, even heroic warriors and knights, are subject to fault.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ goal is to reach home. At the beginning of the epic, Odysseus is found near the end of his journey and is isolated with Kalypso on her island. Although they had sexual relations, Odysseus felt that “the sweet days of his life time were running out in anguish over his exile, for long ago the nymph had ceased to please” (Odyssey 5.159-161). In other words, Odysseus longs “for the sight of home” (5.229). This pitiful longing asserts Odysseus’ goal and that Odysseus is not perfect as he allows anguish to consume him. In all, this pitiful longing asserts the humanness of Odysseus. However, this realization may come as a shock to Homer’s audience. Odysseus is perceived as the ideal Greek hero. While relaying his story to the kingdom of King Alkinoös in Book Nine, Odysseus explains that he had sex with Kirke and Kalypso, “but in [his] heart [he] never gave consent” (9.37). Not only does he possess faithfulness to his wife, but he possesses great skill in battle and extremely persuasive oratory abilities. While speaking with Eumaios, Odysseus is described as “the master of improvisation” by Homer’s narrator (14.228). Despite this set of convincing facts about Odysseus, he is still mortal. Throughout his travels, this truth is revealed. In all, he acquires a sense of irresponsibility; he loses his entire crew of men, he is sexually unfaithful to his wife, he breaks the code of honor, he displays hubris, he displays impiety, and he allows his men to preemptively release the bag of winds. Specifically, Odysseus’ visit to the Kyklopes’ island serves as an example of many of these behaviors. He breaks the code of honor by entering the Kyklopes’ cave without permission. After escaping this unwelcomed place, Odysseus yells to the Kyklopes, “If ever mortal man inquire how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: Laertes’ son whose home’s on Ithaka!” (9.551-552). Here, Odysseus demands recognition for his impressive escape strategy. While this recognition is well deserved, Odysseus acts out of excessive pride, hubris, to gain it. Odysseus also voices that, if possible, he would kill the Kyklopes, send him to hell where “the god of earthquake could not heal” him (9.573). Questioning Poseidon is a great act of impiety. All this behavior is strangely uncharacteristic of Odysseus. However, a purpose of these inconsistencies does exist.
The events that Odysseus experience on this travel transcend a simple arrival at home. The purpose of his quest is to re-identify himself as the King of Ithaka, a place of civilization, after the long and taxing Trojan War, a place of savagery. Although an odd way to discover this, one must remember that growth only results from pain. The gods understood this. Zeus declares that while Odysseus’ “destiny is to see his friends again under his own roof,” he “will have no company, gods or men” to get him there (5.46-47, 36). This tactic does work well. Not only does Odysseus return home, defeat the suitors, and bring peace to Ithaka, but he shows respect to the suitors. When Eurykleia rejoices at their death, he reprimands her, “No crowing aloud, old woman. To glory over slain men is no piety” (22.461-462). Odysseus also yields to Athena and “his heart was glad,” an act of piety (24.610). He rediscovers his identity of piety, humility, and respectfulness along a taxing journey and is now fit to be a King. In all, Odysseus discovers that he is prone to many faults despite his successful life. On a deeper level, this suggests to readers that no human is perfect.
Likewise, Sir Gawain experiences a similarly taxing and self-revealing sort of quest. His goal is to find the Green Knight and receive the deathblow of his axe because of the “Christmas game” that he agreed to play (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I.283). Although a noble gesture of Gawain, this agreement displays the idea that Gawain is too confident in himself as he literally agreed to a death sentence. Similar to the reaction of Homer’s audience after realizing the imperfection of Odysseus, the Gawain-poet’s audience may be shocked to discover that Gawain is not perfect either. He is skilled in rhetoric, charming, courteous, brave, noble, self-sacrificing, and probably a dashing specimen of masculinity. Gawain’s brave and sacrificial act of taking King Arthur’s place in the beheading games suggests a parallel between him and Christ. When he arrives at Lord Bertilak’s court, the poet references Gawain as “so comely a mortal never Christ made as he” (II.870-871). The shield that Gawain receives to protect him during his journey further develops this idea. The shield possesses many Christ-like qualities. The shield “shone all red, with the pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (II. 619-620). While the red represents the bloodshed of Christ, the gold represents the royal divinity of Christ. Ultimately, the shield represents the moral perfection of Christ. Consequently, this suggests that Gawain possesses moral perfection as “all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds that Christ go on the cross” (II.642-643). Despite this perception, Gawain discovers his humanness on this “quest”.
At first, Gawain’s likeness to Christ is upheld. He valiantly braves the forest and remains faithful to his mission until he reaches “a castle cut of paper for a king’s feast” (II.802). Once he enters the castle, he displays courtesy in Lord Bertilak’s court and even agrees to play Bertilak’s game. However, Gawain reaches his major downfall the third day that he is staying in Bertilak’s castle. The belt that Lady Bertilak offers to Gawain presents a way for him to succeed in his goal without dying as well. Like any human who values life would, Gawain takes the belt. After the transaction, Gawain “agrees that not a soul save themselves shall see it [the belt] thenceforth with sight” (III.1864-1865). This means that Gawain will break the rules of the exchange game that he is playing with Lord Bertilak. With this one decision, Gawain’s piety, bravery, honesty, honor, nobility, and self-sacrificial nature disappear. He can no longer be likened to Christ. Gawain’s humanness cannot be denied.
Although discouraging, this realization serves a bigger purpose. After surviving the agonizing beheading game, the Green Knight, or Lord Bertilak, calls Gawain out on his dishonesty with the belt. He says that Gawain’s dishonesty occurred because Gawain lacked “a little loyalty in there” and “loved [his] own life” (IV.2366, 2368). After hearing this, “all the blood of [Gawain’s] body burned in his face” as he realizes his fault and shame (IV.2371). However, the Green Knight allows him to keep the belt because it will remind him of “the faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse” (IV.2435). Gawain accepts the belt and symbolically, this belt now replaces his shield. This further symbolizes his inconsistent human nature: the nature of all men. Gawain now better understands himself and helps the audience better understand the nature of mankind.
In all, these two texts appear to simply relay the journeys of two heroic characters. Odysseus faces countless obstacles on his way home and Gawain faces strange and unconventional obstacles on his way to his destiny as well. However noble these characters may appear, the audience discovers that both are still human. Subconsciously, both characters discover their real identity while they consciously discover their destination. The subtle discovery suggests that all mankind are at some point blind to the undeniable nature of men: no man is perfect.
When Christian Morals Collide with the Nature of Human
While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, chivalric romance by Pearl Poet, might seem as no more than a tale about heroic quest of the noble knight, an observant reader would notice a number of deeper issues discussed in this work. Perhaps the most curious question raised in the poem is Pearl Poet’s criticism of the unrealistic values of the dwellers of Camelot. The author shows gentle criticism of the obsession with appearance and implies that in the final battle between nature and nurture even the most selfless aspirations for the elevated ideas do not overweight simple needs of the human nature. This struggle between natural impulses and endeavor for the greater good is represented by a charming metaphor of the conflict between pagan beliefs and Christian moral standards. At the same time, the poet does not dismiss derived from religion values but insists that despite their greatest efforts people are still children of the Nature and should understand, accept, and remember that.
Throughout the poem Pearl Poet criticizes the widespread overvaluation of appearance and glamour over truth and action. During Christmas feast the pompous charm of the court is dimmed by the overpowering light of the Green Knight. For example, at the start of the poem the inhabitants of the Camelot are described as ideals of prestige, manners, and appearance, “The halls and chambers were heaped with happy lords and ladies as high as you like! There they were gathered with all the world’s goodness: knights as kind as Christ himself, ladies as lovely as ever have lived, and the noblest king our nation has known. They were yet in their pride, in the prime of their youth, and filled as full of heaven’s blessing as the king had strength of will. And mighty men surpassing all were gathered on that hill” (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016). The detailed description of lavish meals, chosen guests, and merriment stops at its pinnacle with the sudden appearance of the Green Knight, who brings contrast to the conventional glamour with which the poem started. The newcomer uses simple words to convey his intentions and show some contempt for the social convention of the court, “I’ve a mind to see his face and would fancy a chat with the fellow who wears the crown” (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016). Despite knights’ and ladies’ remarkable characteristics the appearance of the Priest of the Green Chapel leaves them abashed, “A silence fell filling that rich hall as if they’d all fainted or suddenly slept: their voices just vanished at their height” (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016) The pretentious glamour of the dwellers of the Camelot is literally dimmed with the “natural” light of the Green Knight, ‘’He looked a lightning flash, they say: he seemed so bright; and who would dare to clash in melee with such might?’ (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016) In this scene, obsessed with appearance and luxury Camelot surrenders for honest and realistic outlook represented by the Green Knight.
Excessive emphasis on the appearance is also shown in the attitude of the noble guests of the castle. While the Green Knight, during his visit to the Christmas feast, tries to provoke the merri makers for an open conversation, they prefer to preserve their image,“Some, I suppose, were not floored, but chose to be polite, letting their leader and lord be first to speak to that knight” (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016). However, right after the departure of Sir Gawain, “All that saw him so splendid sighed deep within and whispered soft words one to another in compassion for that prince: “By Christ, what a pity, to lose such a leader, whose life is so noble! There is hardly his equal anywhere on earth! A wary approach would have been wiser; better to have made such a man a duke — such a brilliant leader” (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016). While taking great care to look courteous, brave, and compassionate, those people let “the best in the land” to risk his life and show regret only after being safe from taking his place. This way, the author shows scorn for the dominance of the manners over true feelings and actions.
The main point Pearl Poet raises in his romance is the falseness of the believe in the infinite power of human motivation and effort. To better illustrate this point, the poet contrasts refined dwellers of the castle with the Priest of the Green Chapel to parallel elevated Christian values with humble pre Christian beliefs. During the Christmas feast The Green Knight seems to appear only to disrupt the well-established and renowned Christian event and, perhaps, the well-established and dear held ideas of the people of Camelot. This difference between the green-skinned stranger and elegant members of the court serves not to just contrast the newcomer with the rest of the guests but to parallel two sets of conflicting values better described as pre Christian believes based in acceptance of human nature and simple worldview with Christian well-defined more sophisticated codes of behavior. The Green Knight’s remarkable strength, powers perceived as magical cause subsequent quests’ abashment and show domination of the critical outlook over the popular one. Despite their remarkable characteristics, the ladies and knights look inferior to the priest of the Green Chapel, the representation of author’s thought, which supports the idea that even the most outstanding among people are victims to their natural weaknesses.
Pearl Poet uses final events of the poem to further criticize the excessive believe in the exalted ideas that force people to take futile attempts to ignore their limitations. The most noble among king’s servants, Sir Gawain, aspires to meet unrealistic moral standards only to learn that even the finest among the people is not flawless. After leaving Camelot, that represents the Christian, more sophisticated worldview, Sir Gawain faces the real world and for the first time feels the limitations the Nature placed on the living. The noble knight faces hunger, cold, and tiredness before losing in the final battle with the strongest of his weaknesses. Sir Gawain flinches under the blow of the Green Knight and forced to forever wear a mark that represents his humane origin, ‘He grieved when he had to tell; He groaned for grief and ill fame; In his face the blood did up well, When he showed the nick, for shame’ (alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016). And while the protagonist even at the end of the poem fails to understand the lesson of the Green Knight, readers should learn not to be ashamed of the natural limits of their bodies and souls.
In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Pearl Poet criticizes the excessive value placed on appearance, artificial norms, and futile attempts to completely ignore natural limitations. To better illustrate his point, the author takes advantage of the metaphorical images of the Camelot and the Green Knight. While aspiring to meet chivalrous moral standards Sir Gawain learns that even the finest of the people is capable of error. Therefore, Pearl Poet reminds readers about the importance of acceptance of their personal weakness and living according to the real values.
Work Cited Pearl Poet. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” alliteration. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 February 2016.
The Alliteration and Its Significance in the Poem
In explanation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, J.R.R. Tolkien said “They depend on a balance and a weight and emotional content. They are more like masonry than music” (59). The original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in alliterative verse and follows the use of strict and near-constant alliteration throughout the entirety of the poem. Upon examination of the Middle English text, it is definite that the poet places as much importance on the alliterative structure of the poem as he does the development of characters or plot. When examining the form of alliterative verse in various translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, it becomes apparent that the more modern the translation is, the more lenient the translator acts when adhering to the strict use of alliteration established in the original Middle English text. Why did the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight focus so profoundly on the use of alliteration? Why are modern translations deteriorating the necessity of alliteration within the poem if it is vital for the sake of the work as a whole?
The drastic difference in the medieval and modern audiences likely facilitates the decline of the alliterative stronghold within the texts. The Middle English text relies on the act of oral presentation so that it may fill the gap between an illiterate medieval audience and the written text. The medieval audience must be read to rather than possessing the ability to directly read the work, and the poet focuses on the function of a word phonetically in order to reach his audience indirectly with the use of alliteration. Modern English translations are far less distinct in their focus on alliteration. While more modern translators still deploy the use of alliteration within the poem, the translations often lack the same dedication that the Middle English poet endorsed in the use of alliteration. In contrast to medieval audiences, modern audiences are literate and there is no longer such value placed in the cadence of the language in the name of creating an understanding within the audience. In spite of the decline in use of strict alliteration within modern translations, it is critical to note how the creation of sound at the hand of alliteration is still influential concerning the audiences’ perception of the poem. Some sound is universally understood. A sudden thunder clap is an unnerving or shocking sound no matter what language a person speaks; Music will often swell in order to cue suspense. In this way, the forceful creation of intense sound within the alliteration cannot be overlooked. To fully recognize the development of sound and examine its effect on audiences, studying lines 2199-2207 of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight helps confirm the manner in which the Middle English poet exercises alliteration to parallel the intertwining action and emotion of language.
The existing Middle English manuscript of the poem, as transcribed by Ross G. Arthur of York University, reads: Þene herde he of þat hy?e hil i a harde roche bi?onde þe broke i a bonk a wonder breme noy?e quat hit clated i þe cliff as hit cleue ?chulde as one vpon a gyrndel?ton hade grouden a ?yþe what hit wharred & whette as wat at a mulne what hit ru?ched & ronge rawþe to here Þene bi godde [quote] gawayn þat gere at I trowe Bi rote is ryched at þe reuence me renk to mete (2199-2206) The repetition of harsh consonants imitates the sound that the lines are describing through an elongated “R” sound. The rough sound of the language imitates the grainy noise of a blade being sharpened, but this same noise simultaneously rings as clear as rushing water; a terrifying balance of a sense of both control and unpredictability. This moment in the poem articulates the fear that Sir Gawain feels when he hears a sudden and startling noise, and, through the use of alliteration, the poem is able to relay unto its audience both an imitation of the shrill noise that Gawain hears and the same sudden terror felt by Gawain as his heart sinks into his stomach. The creation of a resonating, dark tone in the language used by the medieval poet conveys the fearful emotion of this moment of Gawain’s journey, and develops a rooted impression of Gawain’s disturbance.
Sticking closely to the Middle English manuscript of the poem, the translation written by E.V. Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien recognizes the importance of maintaining alliterative structure in the poem. One of the true separating qualities between Gordon and Tolkien’s translation and the original manuscript is the removal of some of the archaic Middle English characters. Even with this small change, the poem becomes much more comprehensible to the modern eye. Gordon and Tolkien’s translation reads: Þene herde he of þat hy?e hil, in a harde roche Bi?onde þe broke, in a bonk, a wonder breme noyse, Quat! hit clatered in þe clyff, as hit cleue schulde, As one vpon a gryndelston hade grounden a syþe. What! hit wharred and whette, as water at a mulne; What! hit rusched and ronge, rawþe to here. Þenne ‘Bi Godde,’ quoþ Gawayn, ‘þat gere, as I trowe, Is ryched at þe reuerence me, renk, to mete bi rote.’ (2199-2207) Another helpful addition is the inclusion of punctuation. The original poem carries a heavy rhythm, and the two poets attempt to force the rhythm of the poem onto their audience with the addition of punctuation. The exclamation and forced pauses assist in the modern audience’s formation of the understanding that the language in the poem mimics the emotion meant for them to feel while reading or listening. The use of punctuation also allows the modern audience to immediately feel slightly more familiar with a text which utilizes language that may seem a bit foreign in comparison to translations that use more the modern and commonplace English language.
Still, Gordon and Tolkien’s translation uses primarily the same words as the original manuscript, and the two translators maintain the same strict use of alliteration as the original. The intent of this translation is to keep the rough edges of the Middle English poem while polishing its form. Tolkien, perhaps feeling that shifts in language had necessitated a new translation which could be both more readily understood by modern audiences and appreciated by those familiar with the original text, wrote another translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that maintains a focus on alliteration and the quality thereof while transforming the original language of the poem into words with more modern groundings.
Published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien, modern audiences may find themselves drawn to Tolkien’s later translation because it is intentionally translated for the modern audiences’ eyes and ears. Christopher Tolkien notes that the translation his father published with Gordon was mostly Gordon’s work, and it was his father’s wish to publish a translation which served as a stepping stone for those want to learn about medieval literature. J.R.R. Tolkien writes that the poetry “deserves to be heard by lovers of English poetry who have not the opportunity or the desire to master its difficult idiom” (viii). He also notes that “a translation may be a useful form of commentary; and this version may possibly be acceptable even to those who already know the original, and possess editions with all their apparatus” (viii). Tolkien’s ability to translate the poem into a more understandable, modern language while maintaining focus on the importance of alliteration within the text makes this translation a fine representation of the meshing of the medieval and modern worlds. Tolkien’s translates lines 2199-2207 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Then he heard from the high hill, in a hard rock-wall beyond the stream on a steep, a sudden startling noise. How it clattered in the cliff, as if to cleave it asunder, as if one upon a grindstone were grinding a scythe! How it whirred and it rasped as water in a mill-race! How it rushed and it rang, rueful to harken! Then, ‘By God,’ quoth Gawain, ‘I guess this ado is meant for my honour, meetly to hail me as knight!’ (2199-2207) Tolkien changes the original words “quat” and “what” to “how” in his translation, begging for a sense of yearning within the lines that goes unnoticed in other translations. Tolkien creates a greater sense of suspense in the lines which enriches the description of a grand moment in the poem. Tolkien’s translation is likely more suspenseful because he wants to engage his audience both scholarly and not. This translation is effective in maintaining the original meaning of the poem while lending itself to a modern audience due to Tolkien’s revision of language. Tolkien removed all Middle English characters and replaced them with letters from the modern English alphabet. He replaced outdated and foreign words with ones which are more modern and customary. Tolkien preserves the core of alliteration within the lines while maintaining the same insistent “R” sound which the original Middle English text creates.
In addition to this, Tolkien places additional stress on the creation of the “S” sound in his translation and further spotlights how the alliteration parallels and represents the emotion and action presented in the text. When comparing Tolkien’s modern English translation to other modern translations, it becomes apparent that Tolkien wishes to maintain the same emotional balance within the text that the original poet creates through the use of alliteration. Keith Harrison’s translation, however, does not abide by the same principle. His translation only develops the surface story; it does not delve into the emotional connectivity between the creation of sound and the audience that underlies the alliteration. Harrison’s translates: At that height, from behind a boulder, he heard Way off, beyond the brook, a weird sound. Listen to that! It clattered against cliffs, as if to shatter them: A sound like a scythe being ground against a stone. Listen! It sang, and whirred, like wild mill-water In a race. It clanged and rang out, rushing Towards him. ‘By God, this instrument is meant To honour me alone; it is for me he hones his blade!’ (2199-2207) Harrison’s translation does communicate the same underlying message that the original manuscript and other translations carry; however, it does not transmit the same recognition of balance between sound and meaning. The use of alliteration is minimal in Harrison’s translation, and this diminishes the emotional connection between the audience and the lines.
In conclusion, the use of alliteration in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is of equal importance regarding both medieval and modern audiences. The medieval audience relied heavily on the function of sound in order to connect to a work of literature because of the low literacy rates, so alliteration impacted their ability to comprehend the poem. Modern audiences no longer face such struggles, but the importance of alliteration in the interest of the poem still stands. The use of alliteration allows the medieval poet to intertwine the emotional gravity of the text with the creation of sound in the interest of creating an onomatopoeic quality toward the language used within lines 2199-2207. Some modern translations ignore the consequence of alliteration and choose to dismiss it from the poem, but this is a grave mistake, as the creation of sound through the use of alliteration is as important to the poem as the literal meanings of the words themselves. Alliteration is acts as a symbol in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it should remain prevalent in all translations in the pursuance of preserving the original poet’s intentions of balance between sound, emotion, and action.
Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Berkeley: U of California, 1979. Print.
Arthur, Ross G., ed. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” (n.d.): n. pag. In Parenthesis. Web. <http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_replica.pdf>. “The Cotton Nero A.x Project.” The Cotton Nero A.x Project. University of Calgary, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., E. V. Gordon, and Norman Davis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1967. Print. Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.
Trapp, J.B., Douglas Gray, and Julia Boffey. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Trans. Keith Harrison. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Medieval English Literature. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2002. 356-416. Print.
The Green Knight’s Investigation
In this section of the poem, I wanted the analyze the color selection of the Green Knight. Normally in these types of stories, King Arthur or any other heroic quest, the challenger that comes to the door is a dark or black knight; I wanted to understand the meaning behind the color green in the poem. One of the most prominent examples of the green significance was when the Green Knight brought in a holly branch in one hand, instead of carrying traditional knightly weapons, and a large axe in the other. These two objects predominately connect him to nature and the greenness of all other clothes, skin, hair and his horse supports the idea that green represents nature.
The Green Knight’s investigation of Gawain makes him very aware of his strong survival instinct, after the “scraps with serpents and snarling wolves…or with bulls and bears and the odd wild boar.” If the Green Knight is associated with nature, then he could control these animals to test Gawain’s survival skills and prove himself worthy. Many of the people, places, and things in the poem that are green have an important relationship with nature and the land. Yet despite his mystical appearance, the Green Knight is not monstrous in his physical characteristic like one might expect. He is, however, a bigger, embellished version of the exemplary knight that King Arthur is said to symbolize.
In contrast, if the Green Knight represents nature, then Sir Gawain must represent humanity attempting to capture or control nature. By agreeing to terms of the Green Knight’s deal, Gawain is seen trying to influence nature, and then dominate it after beheading the Green Knight. The similarities that this poem draws to Beowulf is very strong. In class, we discussed the relationship between the City and the Greenworld and this poem seems to be discussing the same ideas. The distinction between Arthur’s court and the Green Chapel shows the difference between Arthur’s civilized world—ruled by codes of chivalry and love, where the Chapel—natural world—is a more chaotic place.
Even at Sir Bertilak’s castle, his hunting demonstrates men’s efforts to dominate and impose order over this world. Yet in the end, the two characters that appear to adhere to civilization’s code the best, also have the natural world within them. Both Sir Gawain and Sir Bertilak allow the natural world to win out over his code of knightly honor. The sharp divide between man and the natural world may not be as realistic as one thinks.
An Evil Pagani
The tale of Sir Gawain and his encounter with the Green Knight is a tale that weaves itself through deceit and trickery by characters who do not hold the same values that Sir Gawain does. His moral standing both as a knight and a Christian is tested several times by seemingly evil people. However, there could be a deeper root to this evil that is not directly addressed within the story. Although the role of the villain can be placed upon many characters within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the true villain within the poem is Paganism.
Paganism, which is an umbrella term coined by Christians to define pre-Christian religions, makes its appearance in Sir Gawain’s tale in several forms (Stone, para 1). But before getting to that, it needs to be explained how these recurring Pagan acts and behaviors do play the villain and therefore ensue conflict for Sir Gawain. Firstly, Paganism doesn’t abide by Christian rules. First and foremost, Pagans are polytheistic, which directly contradicts the Christian belief that there is only one, supreme God. A second difference that plays a large role in this story is Pagans’ belief and use of magic to get things done. One could even argue that it is the belief in the individual that disagrees with the Christian belief that all faith and power be placed in God alone. The Bible itself even warns against turning to magic and witchcraft by stating, “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them. I am the Lord, your God” (Leviticus 19:31). So, knowing this, it is easier to understand the fear and awe that befell Sir Author’s knights when this immeasurably tall and large man on horseback came into the Great Hall during their feast (Gawain, pg 6). During this exchange, the Green Knight proposes a challenge to the King, as well as the entire hall of knights, in which he calls upon the bravest a day” said person must find the Green Knight and be dealt the same blow from the same axe by the Green Knight’s hands (Gawain, pg. 11). This is all a ploy, however, and it’s the catalyst that really begins the story. Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, takes the challenge in Arthur’s place and actually beheads the Green Knight. And to the amazement of the entire hall, the knight picks up his severed head, rides off into the sunset, and reminds Sir Gawain of his end of the bargain (Gawain, pg. 15). This is the first villainous act of Paganism and the trouble that dealing with non-Christians cause. And so Sir Gawain’s battle begins, one in which he has to fight the temptation and trickery of a religion that is not his own, one that he knows nothing about and has no connection to. It could be compared with trying to win a game that you’ve never played before, one where everyone else knows the rules but you. And Pagan games like this are the ones that shake Sir Gawain in his virtue both as a knight and as a Christian.
Sir Gawain, as a knight, was privy to the virtues that came along with that title, and was described by the narrator as such. “Good was he, pure as refined gold, void of all villainy, virtue did him enfold, and grace…” (Sir Gawain, pg. 22). These virtues, however, were tested again and again by Pagan acts and people. It is seen again in another game in Book Two. It was almost a year and a day later, and Sir Gawain prepares to set off to go and find the Green Knight around the time of All Hallows Eve. After months of travel in which he had to battle starvation, animal attacks, and oncoming winter, he prays to the Virgin Mary that he finds a castle so that he could go somewhere for Christmas mass. A glimmering castle does appear to Sir Gawain, and believing that his prayers were being answered, he seeks shelter within it and is greeted by a large, bearded host who all too eagerly welcomes him inside (Sir Gawain, pg. 24-29). Sir Gawain is invited to the feast of the large host in which he asks him to stay awhile to rest. He states, “Thou shalt lie long in bed, and, lingering, take thine ease at morn, nor rise for mass…” (Sir Gawain, pg. 37). This should have been a red flag to Gawain. What upstanding, Christian man would advise his guest to not rise for mass and have morning worship? But, to Gawain, the invitation of a few good nights’ rest and free food allowed him to overlook that statement. Another red flag should’ve been his host’s next statement about how he would allow his wife, his good-looking wife, to keep him company while he went out hunting every day (Sir Gawain, pg 37). For what reason would he leave his beautiful wife alone with another man, knight or not?
Then comes the pact between Sir Gawain and the host, in which he says that he will give whatever he has hunted that day to Sir Gawain in exchange for whatever Sir Gawain has received that day as well (Sir Gawain, pg. 37). So here is the beginning of yet another ploy by those following Paganism to weaken Sir Gawain in both his virtue as a knight and his faith as a Christian. The wife of the host most definitely keeps Sir Gawain company; but only in effort to seduce him. For three days she tried, only able to gain kisses for her efforts. Most notably, on the third day, she gives the knight three kisses and s also able to convince him to accept her girdle, which she says has a protection power. The lure of the Lady’s lace was so powerful that Sir Gawain even lied about gaining it when it came time to exchange his gifts with his host on page 64. He is faltering here, in both of the most important aspects of his life. His virtue as a knight was compromised when he agreed to a pact and lied during it for personal gain, and his chastity and virtue as a Christian was compromised when he allowed the Lady of the castle to kiss him and accept her girdle. Paganism had a hand in all of this, and that is especially seen toward the end of the poem, after Sir Gawain finds the Green Knight, is not beheaded by him, and the Green Knight explains everything. It turns out that Morgan la Faye, the sorceress, has planned all of this, changing the host, whose name is Bertilak, into the Green Knight by changing his appearance and sending him to Camelot to propose the initial jest that caused all of the events following it (Sir Gawain, pg. 80). It was Paganism that allowed these events to take place and made Sir Gawain slip in his moral character. Had Pagan followers like Morgan la Faye, the Green Knight and his wife not begun to resort to trickery and sin to meet their ends, Sir Gawain would have remained upright in his faith and continued to live peacefully in Camelot.
Paganism’s use of trickery and magic are not the only things that would make it evil in this story. The overwhelmingly evil part of it is that Paganism allows for supernatural beings to exist; ones that exhibit powers that only God should wield. Firstly, the Green Knight, who was, in fact, green in color and was able to have his head cut off and survive the blow (Sir Gawain, pg. 6). Then you have the Green Knight’s or Bertilak’s wife, who lacks a supernatural power, but does use her power of seduction several times to get the better of Sir Gawain. She also is the one to present this “magic” girdle to Sir Gawain (Sir Gawain, pg. 60). Finally, there’s the mastermind, Morgan la Faye, who possesses the most power. But she is not mentioned until the end of the story. She is briefly met in Book Two, where she is described as an ugly old woman. But she is, in fact the puppet master with all of this, she changed Bertilak’s appearance so that he’d appear as the Green Knight and she sent him into Camelot. This was all a test of Sir Gawain’s knightly pride. This was the root of the evil; the idea that a being other than the one true God could test a man’s virtue. It is made all the worse that she was a woman. All of these characters exhibit a great sin against God as well, whether it be Lust or Pride or greed. These characters allowed Paganism to be their belief center and they all acted against Christian teachings and tried to take Sir Gawain down that same path.
Though Paganism may not be evil on its own, it did present a threat and evil to people who were trying to live a good, Christian lifestyle. It is easy to blame the characters for their misdeeds, but it is also necessary to take a deeper look into what made these characters commit the villainous and dishonest acts that they did. This could also serve as a cautionary tale to good Christians everywhere, warning them about trickery and like this and efforts that could be made to sway them from their faith. Luckily, in the end, Sir Gawain was able to overcome the forces posed against him.
Influence of Medieval Romance on the Society and Depiction of Chivalry
The romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, and Le Morte d’Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory, tell of the heroic adventures and chivalrous deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Through characterization, conflict, imagery, and diction, both works are able to express on a deeper level that every knight, no matter how great, struggles to fully exemplify the code of chivalry that medieval society values.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain’s actions after accepting the Green Knight’s challenge highlight the values of medieval society, reinforcing the importance of chivalry that dictates the ideal behavior of every knight. Gawain exemplifies a courageous, chivalrous knight by humbly requesting that King Arthur allow that “this melee may be mine” (Borroff 116), and accepts the Green Knight’s challenge in the king’s stead. In addition, Gawain’s courtesy in asking Lady Guenevere if “my liege…misliked [his request] not” (120); his display of respect when he “bows low to his lord” (141); and his encounter with the Green Knight in which he “abashed not a whit” (149) all display examples of a knight who upholds the values of determination, respect to women, and loyalty to the king. The chivalrous acts of Sir Gawain add to his portrayal of an ideal and exemplary knight who reflects the values important to those in the medieval society.
The valiant deeds of Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere in Le Morte d’Arthur reiterate the importance of a knight’s duty to their king, reminding readers of the obligation of a knight to chivalry which was valued in medieval society. Sir Lucan, who helps carry the wounded King Arthur in the aftermath of the battle with Sir Mordred, dies after “his guts fell out of his body” which resulted in “the noble knight’s heart [bursting]” (Malory 191). The diction used in the vivid imagery of Sir Lucan’s death emphasizes how much pain he went through to faithfully serve King Arthur. King Arthur also acknowledges Sir Lucan’s selfless sacrifice with sorrow and gratitude, saying that “he would have helped me that had more need of help than I” (191). Arthur’s lament further portrays Lucan as a chivalrous knight and commends the decisive sacrifice that he makes for his king. Sir Bedivere, despite betraying King Arthur “for the riches of [Excalibur]” (192), eventually redeems himself by fulfilling Arthur’s dying request and remains at the chapel to pray for his deceased king for “all the days of [his] life” (194). Even beyond death, Sir Bedivere’s loyalty to King Arthur inspires him to remain steadfast and honor him. The chivalry of Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere portray how far the extent of loyalty to a king can be and how important it is to honor and uphold the relationship between knight and king.
The values in the code of chivalry and the theme redemption represent aspects that were important to medieval society, suggesting that the effort to become an ideal knight, despite shortcomings, was paramount. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates the struggle to become an ideal knight through Sir Gawain who is distraught from the “villainy and vice” (Borroff 465) of deceiving the Green Knight committed by his “cowardly and covetous heart” (464). Sir Gawain’s resulting resolve to better himself as a knight despite his shortcoming inspires himself to work harder towards the goal of the medieval knight. Acknowledging Sir Gawain as “free of fault” (483) since birth, the Green Knight’s redemption of Gawain highlights the Christian-influenced strive towards virtue and the obligation to forgive for Gawain making his “failings made known” (480). In Le Morte d’Arthur, King Arthur tries to act in accord with chivalry by fighting the evil Sir Mordred and his army “as a noble king should do” (Malory 187), but the anger and anguish brought to himself because of his routed army compel him to kill Mordred in aftermath which Arthur and his army only survives due to “God of his great goodness” (189). King Arthur’s tragic death afterwards illustrates that even the legendary and mighty King Arthur is not infallible, and Christian-influenced chivalry pushes a knight to not only be loyal to the country, but to God as well. Both of these medieval romances praise the deeds of loyal warriors, but also portray the difficulties that they endure in becoming ideal, chivalrous knights. The romance perspective of fallibility through the strife of becoming an ideal, chivalrous knight gives insight to what was important to medieval society. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte d’Arthur mirror the familiar struggle to achieve near perfection of a skill or principle regardless of the limitations of imperfection in people.
Appearance of Honesty over Action
“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
In 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.