Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Controversial Concept of Courtesy
The medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depicts two different medieval models of courtesy – courtesy towards men and courtesy towards women. Defined by different members of the community, the two types of courtesy also necessitate different, sometimes contradictory conducts. The incompatibility of the two models of courtesy displayed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight impedes complete restoration of the social order.
Regarding courtesy shown towards men, Dr. E.L. Skip Knox states, “Originally, courtesy meant the special consideration one knight showed to another.” The courtesy that two men exchange is a mutual contract of loyalty that they define and practice. It involves trust, respect and, in some cases, allegiance. Gawain presents this type of courtesy not only to Arthur, his king, but also to Bercilak and even to the Green Knight.
The description of Gawain’s pentangle and the virtues it symbolizes confirm the importance of courtesy to Gawain’s character:
The fifth group of five the man respected, I hear,
Was generosity and love of fellow-men above all;
His purity and courtesy were never lacking,
And surpassing the others, compassion: these noble
Five were more deeply implanted in that man than any other.
(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ll. 651-655)
The pentacle is the embodiment of all the knightly virtues and it “[suits Gawain] extremely well.” (SGGK l. 622) Gawain’s peers see him as the ideal knight and, as such, he must preserve his courteous actions throughout the poem.
As a member of Arthur’s court, Gawain owes a certain allegiance to Arthur. By taking up the Green Knight’s challenge, Gawain helps to protect the king and also upholds the honor of Arthur’s court, by verifying its reputation for bravery. Thus, because Gawain retains the benefits of belonging to Arthur’s court, the principle of courtesy dictates that he defend it by defending Arthur.
The courtesy between Gawain and Bercilak is similar to that between Gawain and Arthur. It involves respect and loyalty. Mutual respect is evident when, upon his arrival at Bercilak’s castle, Gawain is immediately treated to elegant, warm clothes and a sumptuous meal and then questioned about his identity. “Then he was tactfully questioned and asked by discreet enquiry addressed to that prince, so that he must politely admit he belonged to the court.” (SGGK ll. 901-904) Only after Bercilak has shown courtesy in the form of hospitality does he require Gawain to reveal his identity. Loyalty between Bercilak and Gawain is manifest when Gawain, out of courtesy for his friend, refuses the advances of Lady Bercilak. Bercilak reciprocates this, as the Green Knight, by sparing Gawain’s life.
Like Bercilak and Arthur, Gawain also treats the Green Knight with courtesy, even though he is a terrible figure. The courtesy between them is based on an agreement that Gawain will seek out the Green Knight one year after their initial encounter. In this way, the courtesy is mutual. Gawain’s honor and sense of duty lead him to keep his promise to the Green Knight, even though it probably means his death.
Thus, it can be seen that the courtesy displayed in male-male relationships in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes respect, loyalty and a degree of mutuality that serves to equalize the parties involved. Contrastingly, courtesy in the male-female relationships entails more of a one-sided interaction than the reciprocal rapport shared by courteous men.
So good a knight as Gawain is rightly reputed,
In whom courtesy is so completely embodied,
Could not have spent so much time with a lady
Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness,
By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark.
(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ll. 1297-1301)
These lines, uttered by Bercilak’s wife indicate the unbalanced courtesy between men and women in the poem. Here Lady Bercilak demands courtesy from Gawain in the form of a kiss. Rather than a joint effort to define courtesy, Lady Bercilak dictates what Gawain must do in order to be courteous. As Larry D. Benson argues, “In Sir Gawain [courtesy] is the most important aspect of the temptation”(44) After Gawain refuses Lady Bercilak’s initial advances, she attacks his courtesy. There is no free exchange of courtesy, rather Lady Bercilak insists upon it and Gawain, because of his sense of knighthood, complies. ” The knight reacted cautiously, in the most courteous of ways” (SGGK 1282) In a sense, Lady Bercilak forces Gawain to act according to her idea of courtesy. The author recapitulates Lady Bercilak’s dominance in the temptation scene by having her enter Gawain’s room (and not vice versa) and also through her playful lines about imprisoning Gawain while he surrenders. (SGGK ll. 1211-1216)
Lady Bercilak’s assault on Gawain’s courtesy emphasizes the tension that exists between male-male and male-female courtesy. It is in accepting the green girdle and fulfilling Lady Bercilak’s model of courtesy that Gawain fails to comply with the courtesy that he and Bercilak share. The irreconcilable nature of the two courtesies hinders the re-integration of Gawain into the Arthurian court.
Although Gawain survives his encounter with the Green Knight, he does not emerge unscathed. He keeps the green girdle to eternally remind him of his transgression. He announces to Arthur, ” This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing, and now I must wear it as long as I live, for a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it.” (SGGK ll. 2509-2511) The girdle, which symbolizes Gawain’s breech of courtesy, has changed Gawain forever.
Gawain’s newly marred character is unable to mesh with the subjects of Arthur’s court. They “laugh loudly about [the reason he wears the belt]” (SGGK l. 2514) and adopt the custom themselves. Wearing a green belt becomes a point of honor for Gawain’s fellow knights but remains a blemish for Gawain himself. The tension between the two models of courtesy causes a rift between Gawain and the social world in which he lives. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight embodies two complicated medieval ideals of courtesy. The intrinsic differences between them thwart Gawain’s ability to remain courteous, in effect cutting him off from Arthur’s court. Thus courtesy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not only insufficient to maintaining social order, but is, in fact, the cause of its decay.
Benson. Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1965
Knox. E. L. Skip. “Courtesy” 12 October 1995 <http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/medsoc/courtesy.Htm>
Whinny. James, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press 1996
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