Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Why Chivalry is Unattainable

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The backbone upon which the medieval romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was constructed is the code of chivalry. Chivalry, in a modern context, may bring to mind the simple practice of being courteous to women. In a medieval context, though, it is the basis of every action a knight ever performs. Gawain is no different in this regard. He, like every other member of Arthur’s court, is expected to uphold the rigid code of chivalry in order to also uphold his own personal honor and that of the court. The Gawain Poet, however, is presenting the audience with a critique of chivalry through Gawain’s ultimate failure in the beheading game with the Green Knight. By following Gawain’s fall from his position as the “noblest knight,” the audience is meant to understand that to be perfectly chivalrous is an unattainable standard (“SGGK” 217).

During the first fitt of the poem, the author introduces the idea that chivalry is firmly based on reputation and outward appearances to the point of detriment. In the second stanza, the author says, “But most regal of rulers in the royal line was Arthur, who I heard is honored above all” (emphasis mine), making it clear early on that hearsay plays an integral role in the concept of chivalry (“SGGK” 204). Since King Arthur’s knights are “the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom,” their sparkling reputation is what attracts the Green Knight to the court in the first place (“SGGK” 205). And, when no one rises to accept his challenge, the first thing the Green Knight attacks is nothing other than their reputation. Though their “virtues reverberate through the vast realms,” the Green Knight tells them that he cannot find “the fortitude and fearlessness” they are renowned for (“SGGK” 210). Rather than allow his kingdom to be slandered, King Arthur himself rises to the challenge when none of his knights do, ready to risk leaving his kingdom potentially void of a ruler to avoid tarnishing the reputation of Camelot. A year later, after Gawain has accepted the challenge and is preparing to leave Camelot in pursuit of the Green Chapel, the author spends an exorbitant amount of time describing Gawain’s armor and the pentangle on his shield. The pentangle represents an interrelation of the virtues that Gawain possesses in order to be considered perfect. It is important to note that the pentangle is on the outside of his shield, an ostentatious location that would be impossible for others to miss. His perfection is quite literally found on the outside; his spotless armor and pentangle are not necessarily indicators of anything chivalrous on the inside as well. Furthermore, once Gawain reaches Bertilak’s castle, he is treated with the utmost hospitality due to the fact that he is “famed for prowess and purity” (“SGGK” 223). His reputation precedes him in this situation, and it is because of what others have heard about him that they hold him as an esteemed guest in their castle. Once he is within the castle, he is clothed in fine robes for the duration of his stay, similar to how he was outfitted in spotless armor before undertaking his journey. And, when he finally falls from grace in the final fitt, Gawain has a visceral reaction to the idea that his name is sullied by his failure, not necessarily that he failed in the first place. He begs the Green Knight for a way to “clear his clouded name” before anything else, demonstrating once again that chivalry finds its basis in outward appearances (“SGGK” 253).

The fact that chivalry is so deeply rooted in outward appearances facilitates the idea that Gawain’s Christian faith is rooted in outward appearances as well. According to Donald Howard, “the chivalric ideal was no doubt modeled upon the Church’s notion of perfection; yet chivalry was at base a worldly institution” (Howard 219). As such, loyalty for knights extended to one’s lord and also to God. However, since chivalry in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is mostly demonstrated through outward appearances rather than through introspection, it can be argued that Gawain does not necessarily walk the walk of his faith, so to speak. This is made evident after the Green Knight has revealed Gawain’s failure when Gawain says “… man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean; once sin is entwined it is attached for all time” (“SGGK” 255). This is a sentiment that directly challenges what is expressed in the Bible. In Hebrews 10:10 it is said that “Our sins are washed away and we are made clean because Christ gave His own body as a gift to God. He did this once for all time.” Being a Christian knight, Gawain should be intimately familiar with the idea that Jesus was sent by God for the express purpose of pardoning mans’ sins. However, by saying something that so obviously contradicts what is taught in Christian theology, it can be concluded that Gawain’s faith is little more than a show he puts on to check a box on the list of chivalric values he must uphold. He attends mass and he prays throughout the poem, but these things take place only when he is in the company of other people or wants something from God. This does not demonstrate a genuine Christian faith, but rather one that is preoccupied with convincing others that it is genuine. Gawain’s faith, much like the pentangle on his shield, is a superficial outward projection of his own chivalry. Moreover, by claiming that he is above forgiveness, Gawain is actually demonstrating a pridefulness that, as both a Christian and a chivalric knight, he should not have. Once again, to think that one is above the forgiveness of fellow knights and, more importantly, God, shows that Gawain does not take his Christian faith to heart. Proverbs 16:18 warns against this very behavior, stating that “Pride comes before being destroyed and a proud spirit comes before a fall.” It seems that when Gawain fails in one virtue, he then fails in them all. His “cowardice lead[s] to covetousness and covetousness lead[s] to deceit,” suggesting “a kind of inverse connectedness among the vices” (Beauregard 149). Gawain’s deceit then leads to a demonstration of an overinflated ego and a lack of faith in God, tarnishing his chivalric image even more.

When Gawain returns to Camelot having failed to uphold the tenets of the code of chivalry, the reaction of Arthur’s court is mystifying. This is because Arthur’s court is a place where the most chivalrous and courteous knights congregate; however, instead of berating or ostracizing Gawain for his failure, he is welcomed back into the fold with open arms, and the green girdle which is supposed to eternally represent his sin is adopted as a symbol of honor among the knights in the court. That the knights react in this manner, and that they choose to adopt the girdle as a symbol of honor when Gawain is wearing it as a symbol of failure, is very telling. It is at this point in the poem that the author is exploring the failure of the entire court rather than just the failure of Gawain as an individual. As author Benjamin Utter states: “The problem at the heart of the poem is not that some particular sin has been perpetrated by an individual, but rather that the entire court is primed for a much greater sin, and in no spiritual condition to recognize it, even as one of their numbers comes, belatedly and feebly, to sense his own condition” (Utter 147). Just as Gawain’s faith is empty and meaningless outside of the outward projection of chivalric values, it is Arthur’s court that allowed that sort of faith to develop in the first place. For a court that so strongly values the code of chivalry to laugh when one of their own returns after having failed the same code they hold so dear is a contradiction of the highest order. This indicates that either the court does not place as much emphasis on chivalry as previously thought, or they genuinely do not understand the depth of Gawain’s failure. Either way, allowing Gawain back into the court without any repercussions only serves to “[substitute] the ‘blysse’ of imperfect human perfection for the perfect ‘blysse’ of redeeming trawþe” (Blenkner 386). Gawain’s failure to uphold the chivalric code means that he should be made to repent and confess, which was in line with the Christian values that knights were meant to follow. Instead, when the entirety of Arthur’s court laughs “in lovely accord” as the king comforts Gawain, it presents them as though they have been blinded by chivalry, and that they are uncomprehending of the lesson Gawain learned while outside of the court (“SGGK” 255). This lesson is something that impacts them all: chivalry is not possible to maintain outside the walls of the utopia that is Arthur’s court. Everyone, especially Gawain’s fellow knights, should be shaken by this particular discovery because it affects every aspect of their livelihood. Their indifference to it, however, serves to emphasize the blinders that chivalry has put on the entirety of the court.

One such example of chivalry’s impossibility outside of the court is manifested in the situation Gawain finds himself in in regards to Lady and Lord Bertilak. Chivalry states that one must be loyal to one’s lord, but it also says that one must extend courtesy to noblewomen. Lady Bertilak’s attempted seduction of Gawain in conjunction with Lord Bertilak’s game puts Gawain in an impossible position. On the one hand, Gawain cannot ignore Lady Bertilak when she lets herself into his room to speak with him because that would be failing to show a noblewoman courtesy. However, in tolerating her seduction, he is also violating one of the Ten Commandments that drive Christian morals: thou shalt not commit adultery. This, in turn, is a failure to uphold the chivalric code because “the chivalric virtues themselves were, in part, Christian ones” (Howard 218). In addition to this, Gawain’s allowance of Lady Bertilak’s actions also perpetuates his ultimate failure of the game between himself and Lord Bertilak — that is, he accepts the green girdle and hides it from his lord in order to spare his own life. Again, this is a failure to uphold the chivalric code in more than one way. Not only is he proving to be disloyal and adulterous, he is also proving to be a coward as well. However, part of the reason why Gawain ultimately fails is because of a flawed system that does not allow for victory in this sort of situation, or, at the very least, a victory that involves upholding the code of chivalry. Lady Bertilak even goes so far as to say that “a good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded, the embodiment of courtliness… could never have lingered so long with a lady without craving a kiss…” (“SGGK” 231), effectively using chivalry to trap him, mirroring the way that her husband Lord Bertilak is out trapping his prey. In this case, the code of chivalry is a shackle that must be broken if Gawain is to move forward in his quest.

Thus, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” serves as a critique of fourteenth-century chivalry by following the journey of Sir Gawain and his ultimate return to Arthur’s court as a knight who failed to uphold the tenets of chivalry and was forced to come to terms with his own mortal imperfection. While the Gawain Poet demonstrates that chivalry is an unattainable standard, it can be seen that, through failure, Gawain endures a transformation from a knight who is perfect in name to a “perfected knight, a knight made perfect through testing, failure, and recovery” (West 12). In the utopia of Arthur’s court, Gawain comes to possess something that no other knight has, and that is the knowledge that chivalry, while it cannot be maintained in the outside world, is an ideal that one can still continue to strive towards.

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