Sir Gawain And Green Knight

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In the epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author uses the

protagonist, Sir Gawain, to illustrate the heroic ideals of chivalry, loyalty

and honesty in fourteenth century England. The poem depicts the fabled society

of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It extols and idolizes the

virtues of the fabled kingdom. In the poem, Gawain is the epitome of virtue and

all that is good. Throughout the poem, however, his character is constantly

tested and his integrity is compromised. In the end, Gawain proves that,

although he is fallible, he is an honest and chivalrous man of heroic stature.

The poem begins on New Year’s Eve in Camelot during a huge dinner celebration.

The author elaborately details the “feasting and fellowship and carefree

mirth” and sets the scene with “fair folk” and “gentle

knights”. (p. 2) Amid the merriment and festivities of these noble persons,

a huge man on horseback dressed entirely in green, gallops into the hall.

Arrogantly he issues a challenge to everyone at the feast for someone to come

forward and strike him with his axe. To this man, the green knight promises to

award his adversary with his beautiful axe on the condition that in a year from

then the challenger should also receive the same single blow of the axe in

return. Such a challenge baffles the court and no one responds until, finally,

King Arthur stands up and accepts the green knight’s offer, though claiming it

ridiculous. With grandeur and the courteous air of a hero, Sir Gawain stands up

and graciously asks to be granted the challenge on behalf of the king. Such a

courageous and noble act defines the character of Sir Gawain. With an adept

swing of the sword he swiftly beheads the illustrious green knight. Yet, instead

of killing him, the green knight picks up his head, tells him to seek out the

green chapel and warns him not to shirk from what he has promised, “Sir

Gawain, forget not to go as agreed,/ And cease not to seek till me, sir, you

find….” (p. 10) After almost a year has passed, Gawain has not forgotten

the green knight or his promise. Therefore, he resigns himself to his duty and

prepares to leave Camelot in search of the green knight. He arms himself with a

five-pointed star on the outside and the image of the Virgin Mary on the inside

to protect him, a symbol of his purity and goodness. Before he leaves, Arthur

tells him “In destinies sad or merry,/ True men can but try.” (p. 12)

Such a statement aims to further highlight the nobility and integrity of Sir

Gawain. Upon his departure, he travels for many arduous days until finally

reaching a paradisiacal castle in which he is taken in as a guest. His host,

“A man of massive mold, and of middle age…” (who shares a remarkable

resemblance in build to the green knight) is welcoming and very hospitable to

Gawain. During his stay at this castle, Gawain is repeatedly besieged with

temptations. The wife of his host constantly tries to cajole Gawain into having

an affair with her. To the credit of his impeccable character, however, he

declines. Though she cannot tempt him with herself, she is able to break his

moral purity by convincing him to accept a gift that could protect his life

against formidable the green knight. Furthermore, what makes the acceptance of

this gift a true shortcoming is the fact that Gawain was not honest with his

host and tell him that he received such a gift, although earlier they had agreed

to such terms. After this, Sir Gawain departs, no longer infallible, to seek out

the green knight. He finally comes upon the green chapel and the knight appears.

The green knight commends Sir Gawain for being noble and keeping his word and

with this Gawain prepares for blow of the axe. The green knight returns the blow

by merely cutting the skin and drawing a little blood. This astounds Sir Gawain

and he jumps up and is ready to fight. The green knight laughs at Gawain and

tells him to relax that he did not intend to cut off his head. The small cut

represented Gawain’s small sin of accepting the “magical” sash from

the green knight’s wife (who reveals that he had been his host at the castle

after all). Besides that small shortcoming, the green knight proclaims that

Gawain is truly a noble, honorable man henceforth absolved of all guilt. Gawain

is deeply upset and disgraced by his behavior and decides to keep and wear the

sash as a sign of his shame. After this, he returns to Camelot and is hailed by

all the court as a hero and they lightly dismiss his recent disgrace. Throughout

the poem, the importance of chivalry, nobility and integrity is an overarching

theme. It defines Gawain’s behavior and heroism as ideal. This attitude

illustrates the values of fourteenth century England. Through his actions,

Gawain proves his chivalry, valor and status as a hero by courageously defending

King Arthur, keeping his word to seek out the green knight, refusing to have an

affair with his host’s wife, and holding to his ideals and principals.

Therefore, if Sir Gawain, the heroic knight, is depicted as the epitome of all

that is good and pure then, one can conclude that the society as a whole placed

great emphasis and value upon the ideals of chivalry and nobility.

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