Sit Gawain and the Green Knight
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is alliterative poem written by anonymous poet referred as the Pearl-poet. The poem is considered to belong to a series of Arthurian legends. The events take place in the mythical past of King Arthur’s court before the recorded history, though after the fall of the Roman Empire. The poet tells the story from the point of view of the main hero – Gawain. However, occasionally the moments happened outside the scope of Gawain experiences are narrated by the author.
The poem tells about the importance of chivalry, about Christian morality and code of heroism. The poem is a combination of symbolism irony and legend. Therefore, the paper discusses main conflict, themes, tone and main characters involved in the plot. (Borroff, 12)Firstly, it is necessary to admit that the tone of the narrator is straightforward and rather ironic. The narrator prefers to discuss frankly characters’ motifs, though he prefers not mentioning whether he approves or criticizes the code of chivalry, court behavior and ethics involved. For example, reflections about the mystical past are enveloped in tone of nostalgia and in several lines the author is on the verge of criticism.
The poem is thus characterized by high levels of ambiguity, because the author involves signs and symbols instead of defined meanings. (Borroff, 18)The main conflict of the poem is attempts of main hero, Gawain, to find out what is more important for him – knightly virtues or his life. On the one hand, he realizes that it is honor to die in single combat with enemy, though, on the other hand, he doesn’t want to die. The author vividly portrays hero’s thoughts, reflections and anxiety towards his fears. For example, from the beginning Gawain accepts the challenge to fight with the Green Knight, because he remains unaware of his supernatural abilities.
After the Green Knight has survived blow, the hero has to seek him to return blow and he is aware that it means death for him. When Gawain finds the host who promises to show the Green Chapel, he protects his knightly virtues and remains courteous towards host’s wife. Despite the fear of being killed, Gawain struggles with the Green Knight and host. In such a way the author shows that knightly virtues are on the first place for noble warrior. (Weis, 407)The main themes of the poem are the nature of chivalry and the letter of the law.
It is argued that the world of the poem is governed by specific code of behavior – code of chivalry. Therefore, this codes shapes behavior, thoughts, values, ideals and actions of Sir Gawain as well as other main characters in the poem. As it is mentioned, the virtues of chivalry come from Christian morality meaning that chevaliers promotes the ideals of spirituality in order to improve the fallen world. Gawain is also concerned with the ideals of Christian morality, spirituality and the code of chivalry. His principles are brought together in symbolic shield being embellished with a pentangle. According to narrator, this pentangle is alliteration of five knight’s virtues: chastity, friendship, generosity, courtesy and piety.
(Weis 404)The author decides to test Gawain adherence to the knightly code, however, at the same time the poem is concentrated on examining personal virtues of hero. The central question is whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. The whole chivalric system is really tested in the poem. The author doesn’t tend to show that the code of chivalric behavior is abandoned.
He shows that Gawain is adherent to virtues, for example, when he rejects to have relations with host’s wife. Gawain tries to refute Green Knight’s claim that he is only a physical being concerned with his life rather than with noble behavior. Chivalry code promotes the valuable set of virtues and ideals to flows, but it is also suggested that a knight should remain aware of his own weaknesses and morality. Finally, Gawain realizes that, on the one hand, he may remain the most courteous and chivalric, accept the lady’s offering and flinch at the axe of the Green Knight, but, on the other hand, he is a human and capable of committing errors. (Weis 406)The second theme is the letter of law. Despite the fact that the Green Knight refers to challenge as the game, he skillfully uses the language of law to arrange agreement with Gawain.
The word “covenant” is repeated throughout the poem. In the Old Testament, covenant is s set of laws representing the deal between the Israeli people and the God through Abraham, whereas in the New Testament this covenant is replaced by a new between Christ and his followers. In Corinthians Paul admits that Christ has “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”. (Weis 408) Therefore, the letter of law is tangled with Christian morality and belief. Christians believe that law isn’t as important as serving spirit tempered by mercy.
Such ideas are inherent to Gawain. (Weis 408) The covenant between him and the Green Knight suggests legal enforcement associated with the Old spirituality. Following letter of law is knightly duty and, therefore, Gawain decides to challenge the Green Knight, even though he was aware of inevitable death. However, at the end of the poem the covenant is provided with new meaning.
It represents more merciful covenant between Church and Christ in the New Testament. The Green Knight in a Christian gesture absolves Gawain giving him penance. (Weis 408)Speaking about main characters, Gawain considers himself the least knight in the court of Arthur admitting that his physical prowess and mental ability aren’t the same as other knights’. Therefore, he presented as the inferior and his status at court isn’t very high – he is known to be Arthur’s nephew, though he is one of the most famous knights at Camelot. Gawain prefers to testify his ambition and humility seeking for self-improvement throughout the poem.
It is seen that public reputation is of great importance for him and, therefore, in the end, he decides to wear green girdle as a sign of shame and weakness. He claims that sins should be visible as well as virtues. Gawain is concerned greatly with commitment even when it endangers his life. On the one hand, the poem emphasizes his deep fear and anxieties, though, on the other hand, he tries to maintain personal integrity and conquers his fears challenging the Green Knight. When host’s wife claims he is more concerned with his life, he decides to prove that he is able to face danger courageously: (Borroff, 120)“Sir, if you be Gawain, it seems a great wonder—A man so well-meaning and mannerly disposed,And cannot act in company as courtesy bids,And if one takes the trouble to teach him, ‘tis all in vain.
That lesson learned lately is lightly forgot,Though I painted it as plain as my poor wit allowed.” (1481-1491)Summing up, Gawain isn’t a static character. He recognizes the problematic nature of courtly ideals when encountering with the Green Knight. At the end he appears as humble man who admits his faults and realize that he will never live up to his own high standards.
In such a way the author shows Gawain’s emotional development with poem progression. (Hardman, 247)The Green Knight is presented a mysterious creature possessing supernatural powers. He is marked as a foreboding figure because of ability to survive decapitation and his green complexion. This image is, apparently, chosen to oppose the kingly code of Arthur’s court. It is known that knight is a symbol of fertility, wilderness and death and the court symbolizes enclave of civilization within the wilderness.
The Green Knight represents the letter of the law advocating justice and values. He is provided with a long hair shaped in the form of courtly garment in order to establish the relationship between past and present, civilization and wilderness, code and law. Furthermore, he values the power of verbal contacts. The Green Knight is, certainly the symbol of untrustworthy nature. (Hardman, 255)Works CitedBorroff, Marie (translt.
). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1967.
Hardman, Phillipa. Gawain’s Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medium Aevum, 68, 2 (1999): 247-257..Weiss, Victoria.
The Play World and the Real World: Chivalry in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Philological Quarterly, 72, 4(1993): 403-415.