Human Nature is not Perfect
“King Arthur was counted most courteous of all.” Line 26 of Part 1, one of the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, reveals a society in which people are ranked in accordance with their adherence to a certain code of behavior: the chivalric code. Indeed, the knightly chivalric code, derived from the Christian concept of morality, is an essential element of Sir Gawain’s belief system as a knight in Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain’s behavior is governed by this code; indeed, it is what prompts him to accept the Green Knight’s challenge in Arthur’s place, despite his initial hesitance. It is also what prevents him from granting the improper request of his host’s wife.
Despite its divine origins, the chivalric code is ultimately a human ideal. Chivalry is not a trait naturally found in man, but rather a concept constructed by humanity in its pursuit for Christ-like perfection. It has even been suggested that chivalry is at odds with the nature of man. Despite the weakness of his human nature, however, Sir Gawain is expected to maintain the chivalric code, and he must depend on his faith in God in order to do so. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the chivalric code – or rather, the human ability to abide by it – is challenged by nature in a number of different ways.
The challenges that nature presents to the chivalric code are epitomized by the Green Knight. The superficiality of the code is revealed in the reactions of the people of the court to the Green Knight’s challenge. His proposition reduces “the most noble knights known under Christ” (Part 1, line 51) to cowering, quaking men (Part 1, line 315).
The superficiality of the chivalric code is further disclosed by the poet’s numerous references to separations between the unspoken truth, and what is actually said and done. This is particularly evident in regards to the afore-mentioned “most courteous of all”, Arthur: the very embodiment of chivalry. “Though high-born Arthur at heart had wonder, / He let no sign be seen, but said aloud” (Part 1, lines 467-468). Despite their reputation, the knights are reluctant to take up the Green Knight’s challenge. This insinuates that humanity may be unable to live up to the idealistic standards it has set for itself. The Green Knight observes this hesitance, and mockingly replies:
Where now is your arrogance and your awesome deeds,
Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?
Now are the revel and the renown of the Round Table
Overwhelmed with a word of one man’s speech,
For all cower and quake, and no cut felt!
(Part 1, lines 311-314)
In spite of the court’s initial reaction to the Green Knight’s challenge, Arthur still insists, “No guest here is aghast of your great words” (Part 1, line 325). By verbally accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, Sir Gawain supports Arthur’s frivolous – if not outright dishonest – words, thereby managing to maintain the integrity of King Arthur’s court. He also unknowingly passes his first and most obvious test.
It must be noted, however, that although there are numerous indications that what is said and done out of expectations is not always what is actually thought. It is suggested that Sir Gawain honestly believes in the valiant words he speaks as he accepts the challenge: he is later described as “to his word most true/ And in speech most courteous knight” (Part 2, lines 638-639). In fact, Sir Gawain is more or less portrayed as the ideal knight, “Devoid of all villainy, with virtures adorned/ in sight” (Part 2, lines 634-635). This quality is perhaps what makes him ideal for the tests at hand, because it reveals that human weakness can be found within even the most seemingly perfect men.
It is suggested that Sir Gawain is successful at achieving the ideal because of his unwavering faith in God. This faith is physically represented by the adornment of his shield, which is decorated by a five-pointed pentangle that represents the five wounds of Christ as well as the five knightly virtures, and, on the inside, an image of Mary:
And all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds
That Christ got on the cross, as the creed tells;
And wherever this man in melee took part,
His one thought was of this, past all things else,
That all his force was founded on the five joys
That the high Queen of heaven had in her child.
And therefore, as I find, he fittingly had
On the inner part of his shield her image portrayed,
That when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart.
(Part 2, lines 642-650)
Sir Gawain’s faith is confirmed when, while lost in the wilderness in search of the Green Chapel where he will meet most certainly meet his death, he finds himself nonetheless compelled to pray:
And therefore sighing he said, “I beseech of Thee, Lord,
And Mary, thou mildest mother so dear,
Some harborage where haply I might hear mass
And Thy matins tomorrow – meekly I ask it,
And thereto proffer and pray my pater and ave
(Part 2, line 753-759)
When Sir Gawain prays, he does not plea for God to spare his life; even in such dire circumstances the knight remains faithful. He wishes only for one last opportunity to say mass before he meets his death at the hand of the Green Knight. The poet’s endorsement of the Christian faith is further supported when Sir Gawain’s prayer is answered: after he prays and crosses himself three times, he stumbles upon an inhabited castle almost immediately .
While at the castle, Sir Gawain’s commitment to the chivalric code is tested by the seemingly simple agreement he makes with his host to exchange the day’s gains. Although this initially appears to be nothing more than a joke, the course of events reveal it to be of far greater significance.
It is in the castle that Sir Gawain’s ability to maintain the code of chivalry is challenged by human nature, in the form of sexual desire. Sir Gawain, in obedience to the chivalric code, may not sleep with his host’s wife even in light of her willingness and his obvious physical attraction to her:
The fair hues of her flesh, her face and her hair
And her body and her bearing were beyond praise,
And excelled the queen herself, as Sir Gawain thought.
(Part 2, lines 943-945)
It is a test of Sir Gawain’s sheer will that he is able to deny his nature in the spirit of chivalry. However, here the superficiality of the code is once again hinted at, for this challenge reveals a contradiction: it is rude of Sir Gawain to decline a lady’s wish, yet it is not proper for him to yield to her desires:
For that high-born beauty so hemmed him about,
Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs
Either take her tendered love of distastefully refuses.
His courtesy concerned him, lest crase he appear,
But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin
And belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house.
(Part 3, lines 1170-1776)
Although Sir Gawain does grant her request for a kiss, he still manages to uphold his agreement with his host. As promised, he gives his host the day’s “profits”: as the Green Knight later recalls, “You kissed my comely wife – each kiss you restored” (Part 4, Line 2351). In this manner, Sir Gawain manages to uphold the code despite the complications presented by this particular situation.
Despite Sir Gawain’s reputation as a noble and chivalrous knight of King Arthur’s Round Table and his ability to uphold the code under challenging circumstances, readers are reminded that utimately, Sir Gawain is only human. As he later admits to the Green Knight,
Your cut taught me cowardice, care for my life,
And coveting came after, contrary both
To largesse and loyalty belonging to knights.
Now I am faulty and false, that fearful was ever
Of disloyalty and lies, bad luck to them both!
(Part 4, lines 2379-2383)
Being only human, Sir Gawain is subject to failure. Like the Green Knight with his dismembered head, nature continually restores and regenerates itself; this is reflected in the cyclical nature of the changing seasons as described at the beginning of Part 2. However, despite nature’s regenerative abilities, humans are inclined to evade the spectre of death. Sir Gawain’s fear of death – or rather, his primal instinct to survive – is thus in conflict with the idealistic virtues he must adhere to as a noble knight.
Faced with certain death, Sir Gawain is finally persuaded to violate the chivalric code. He keeps the girdle in spite of his deal with the host because he believes it may allow him to evade an otherwise inevitable death:
For the man that possesses this piece of silk,
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.’
Then the man 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!
(Part 3, lines 1851-1858)
Even Sir Gawain, “a man most faultless by far” (Part 4, line 2363) with “matchless faith” (Part 4, line 2470), cannot always uphold the chivalric code. Though he manages to honor the chivalric code through a number of challenging situations, fear for his own life is the final breaking point. As the Green Knight says, “But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, / But that you [Sir Gawain] loved your own life; the less, then to blame” (Part 4, lines 2367-2368).
By breaching his agreement with his host, Sir Gawain violates the chivalric code. In doing so, he reveals not only human weakness and cowardice, but also a lack of faith: he opts to depend on the girdle’s supposed powers rather than have faith that God will save him. Because he does not appeal to God to save his life, it is apparent that he does not believe that his faith will save him. This suggests that it is actually his lack of faith that results in Sir Gawain’s downfall.
The poem takes an interesting twist at this point. Throughout the story, Sir Gawain’s adherence to the chivalric code has been tested by what appear to be natural, random elements; here, the Green Knight reveals that it was all a ploy contrived by Morgan le Fay. Even before this is disclosed to Sir Gawain, he cites several instances in which women brought about the downfall of men, from Adam and Eve to David and Bathsheba. He attributes his own entrapment in “their trammels so quaint” (Part 4, line 2412) to the Green Knight’s wife and the other older woman, who turns out to be Morgan: “But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder, / And through the wiles of woman be wooed into sorrow” (Part 4, lines 2413-2414). This only furthers the poet’s Christian inclinations.
More importantly, however, this trickery sets up Sir Gawain for inevitable failure. It is only the Green Knight’s inside role in the scheme that prevents Sir Gawain from getting away with his violation of the chivalric code. Indeed, it is quite possibile that he would have upheld the code by seeking out the Green Knight at the Green Chapel as promised, despite his early breech of the agreement with his host. However, because he does not realize that he is being tested, Sir Gawain fails the test.
By the time he returns to King Arthur’s court, Sir Gawain has experienced the weakness of human ideals in the face of nature. Through deceit and trickery, Morgan la Fey has revealed the weakness of the chivalric code of chivalry, underscoring man’s inability to adhere to it. However, despite the weakness of these ideals, the poem does not appear to suggest that the code be repudiated. Rather, the chivalric code is presented as a valuable set of ideals that mankind should strive to uphold. In the process, however, man must remain cognizant of his mortality and human weakness. The girdle serves as a reminder of this, as Sir Gawain explains to the Green Knight after his failure has been exposed:
But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take
And be pleased to possess, not for the pure gold,
Nor the bright belt itself, nor the beauteous pendants,
Nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine,
But 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.
(Part 4, lines 2429-2438)
The poet professes the belief that humanity’s savior is not successful adherence to this specific code of behavior, but rather faith in God. This faith grants mankind grace despite the innate weakness of human nature. Sir Gawain is the ideal knight, yet even he fails to achieve perfection. He is merely human; it is only his faith that permits him to strive for the ideal.
Many such, ere we were born,
Have befallen here, ere this.
May He that was crowned with thorn
Bring all men to His bliss! Amen.
(Part 4, lines 2537-2530)
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