The Significance Of The Symbolism In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight
In this persuasive analytical paper, I will be performing a study on the significance of the symbolism of the green sash in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A brief synopsis of what the green sash is will be necessary for this analysis. In Part 2 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is a guest in the house of Bertilak. Bertilak states a proposition for Gawain that “whatever I win out in the woods shall revert to you, and whatever you gain, be so good as to give it to me.” Bertilak wins a deer, a boar, and a fox in the next 3 days and gives them all to Gawain. Gawain receives a kiss from Bertilak’s wife on the first day and two kisses from her on the second day and gives them to Bertilak.
On the third day, Bertilak’s wife wishes to give Gawain a token. He rejects a ring but when she offers a green sash that she claims guards the wearer from death, he accepts out of fear for his life from his impending showdown with the green knight. However, Gawain does not pass this prize onto Bertilak, breaking their agreement. My thesis is that even though Gawain accepted the “magic” green sash and broke his agreement with Bertilak, this does not mean he is an unchivalrous or poor knight, nor does it tarnish his legacy as the noblest of knights. I will be defending this thesis by analyzing and displaying how even though Gawain acted selfishly, this one act does not cause him to be an impure knight. My first sub-argument in the defense of Gawain’s integrity is an analysis of his behavior and actions preceding his temptation of the sash. Gawain is known as the purest knight and the epitome of what it means to be a knight of the Round Table. He exemplifies the chivalry that all knights strive for.
In Part 1 when the Green Knight is defiling Arthur and his court, Gawain selflessly defends the honor of his king and country. Gawain pleads with Arthur, “I beg you, sir, here and now: please let this match be mine,” after no other knights stood up for their king. This alone proves the chivalry and selflessness of Gawain, but his reasoning is even more convincing. His justification for him being the one to accept the Green Knight’s challenge is that he is “the weakest of all knights…the feeblest in wit” and that the loss of his life “would surely be the least important.” He then goes on to explain how the sole reason he is on the Round Table is that he is kin to Arthur. He reasons that since the Green Knight’s challenge is foolish, “it shouldn’t fall upon” Arthur.
These arguments by Gawain can be delved into in many different ways. One such way is how they display Gawain’s self-awareness and practicality. Gawain is fully aware of his status as the least adept knight in combat and skill. I believe self-awareness is a very important trait to possess because yes having confidence is important, it must be utilized in conjunction with practicality for peak success. Another way to look at his statements is how brave he is. His king (and kin) is being disrespected in his own court by an outsider, yet not one of the brave and noble Knights of the Round Table has stood up for their king, whether it be out of fear or shock or some other reason. Gawain being the first and only knight to support his king shows that while he may not be the most skilled knight, at that moment, he was the most courageous. A final interpretation, and perhaps the most important one, is how selfless Gawain was in those moments. He was not thinking about his fear of this menacing threat. He was not thinking about embarrassing himself in front of everyone he knew. He was not even thinking about his own livelihood. All that was on his mind was defending the honor of his king and homeland. This demonstrates his chivalry and selflessness.
In conjunction with the selflessness Gawain displayed by standing up to the Green Knight in Part 1, his handling of Bertilak’s wife’s tests in Part 3 is also evidence to support his chivalrous actions prior to receiving the green sash. Bertilak commissions his wife to attempt to seduce Gawain multiple times to see if he would stray from his chivalric code. She snuck into his chambers and made many innuendos and passive-aggressive joking advances towards Gawain, such as jesting about tying him up and stating how they are all alone. Gawain attempts to grant himself leave from the lady to get clothed, but she refuses. She eventually reaches the point of telling him “my person is at your pleasure, your every wish to avail”, essentially giving him free rein to do whatever he wishes with her body. Most men would accept that offer and never look back with a woman as beautiful as Bertilak’s wife, but Gawain was not most men. He kindly refuses in the most respectful way possible. This goes back and forth a few times until the lady concedes and grants Gawain adieu, but refuses to leave without a kiss. This happens the next day, with the end result being her requiring two kisses. This displays not only his respect for her marriage, but also allows him to uphold his chivalry by respecting and serving women. My second sub-argument in favor of Gawain upholding the chivalric code is that even though he may have given into selfish ways and accepted the green sash, this does not make him a poor knight because wanting to save one’s own life is human nature.
In Part 3, on the third day of Bertilak’s wife visiting Gawain in his chambers, she asks for a token from Gawain, but he says he has nothing worthy of her. She then offers to give him one instead. He rejects a ring from her, but his tone changes once she offers the green sash and explains its supposed magical properties. According to her, “whoever is girded by this green-colored sash and wears it tightly wrapped around his waist…. he can’t be killed”. This made Gawain think for a moment. As was discussed under the first sub-argument, Gawain is a practical and self-aware man. He understands that once he faces the Green Knight, he is facing certain doom. But with this magical sash, in his mind, he can remain honorable by still facing the Green Knight, but also retain his life due to the magic of the sash. He accepts the garment from the lady and agrees to keep it a secret. Now some might say that this tarnishes Gawain’s integrity, but I disagree. Gawain acted not out of intent to cheat the chivalric system, but out of fear of his own life. It is embedded in human DNA to want to protect one’s own life. This was an act of self-interest, but not of selfishness. He was simply looking out for his own life, while still attempting to remain true to his word by facing the Green Knight. My third and final sub-argument displaying that Gawain upheld the chivalric code is analyzing how he acted after his showdown with the Green Knight.
Once Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel in Part 4, the Green Knight strikes Gawain with his ax, grazing him. After this, the Green Knight reveals himself to be Bertilak, also revealing that he had his wife attempt to seduce and test Gawain. Gawain feels remorse and shame for taking the green sash and asks for forgiveness, which Bertilak grants. Bertilak then calls him the most worthy of Arthur’s knights. Gawain’s immediate reaction is one of shame, showing that while he did make a mistake in taking the green sash, he was immediately remorseful. This displays his chivalry never left him and Bertilak deems him worthy because of it. Gawain also “roughly grabbed the sash free, flinging it frantically” away from himself. He feels so much humiliation because of the sash that he curses it and discards it out of disgust. Despite his discarding of the sash, Bertilak implores Gawain to take it to meditate on the events that transpired at the Green Chapel that day. Gawain decided to take it one step further though. On the subject of wearing the sash in the future, Gawain proclaimed “I’ll wear it with good will…as a sign of my excess, I shall survey it often. Whenever I ride with renown, rehearsing to myself the frailties and faults of this fickle flesh, how it eagerly embraces every taint of corruption…one look at this love-token will make my heart feel lowly.” These lines are perhaps some of the most important of the entire story regarding the topic at hand. Up until this point, Gawain has, for the most part, been generally chivalrous and an exemplary knight. But this proclamation to not only admit his wrongdoing, but to wear it on his sleeve for all to see, exhibits his utmost chivalry. Not only is he showing others that even he, the noblest of all knights, is not without fault, but he constantly reminds himself of the error he made. This serves as a reminder to not only himself, but those around him to not give in to the temptations of the human flesh and to always remain steadfast to the chivalric code.
After he returns home and tells his tale, Arthur and the other knights decide they too will don green sashes in honor of their fellow knight. Although Gawain took the sash and tried to cheat death in his showdown with the Green Knight, this does not taint his integrity, nor cause him to be unchivalrous. He remains the noblest knight due to his chivalrous actions preceding and proceeding his misstep, in addition to the sole reason for him even taking the sash being one of simply trying to protect his own life. As aforementioned in the previous paragraph, I believe that Gawain’s immediate remorse for his actions, coupled with his donning of the sash as a constant reminder of his lapse in judgement, serve to negate his misstep and uphold his legacy as the most chivalrous knight of Arthur’s court.
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