Character Analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Length: 2333 words (6.7 double-spaced pages)
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Depiction of a believable character has always been a difficult task for any writer. A true character must evoke emotions and make the readers want to learn more about him or her. The appearance, acts, words and nature of this character must be vivid and understandable by the audience. In medieval England, Arthurian literary works, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell," describe the character of Sir Gawain as a noble hero, having chivalrous and virtuous attributes.
Sir Gawain is said to be the nephew of Arthur: "His parents are Lot of Orkney and Morgause (though his mother is said to be Anna in Geoffrey of Monmouth). Upon the death of Lot, be becomes the head of the Orkney clan, which includes in many sources his brothers Aggravain, Gaheris, and Gareth, and his half-brother Mordred" (Legends, online). He is also the youngest of the knights of the Round Table.
Besides being the nephew of Arthur, he is one of his closest companions and an active participant in the numerous adventures which they encounter. Sir Gawain is a protagonist or a main hero in the earlier Arthurian legends, but he is often included in later stories of the fifteenth century as a confidant or a secondary character. For example in Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, Gawain is a secondary character, and the main hero is Sir Lancelot.
In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written by an anonymous author, we are given a description of Sir Gawain's appearance, as he is preparing to go on a quest to find the Green Knight and complete the yearlong beheading game (Norton, 215). His armor, clothing and horse all suggest that he is not a poor knight. His helmet is decorated with gems and embroidered with parrots and turtledoves; his shield has image of Virgin Mary on the inside and an "endless knot"(Norton, 215) or a pentangle on the outside. This figure is a star with five points that is drawn in an unbroken line, which also happens to be a symbol of Gawain's five virtues.
Even his horse, Gryngolet, is shielded in ornamented and protective armor (Norton , 214-215). The thorough description of the shield by an anonymous author of the Sir Gawain and Green Knight also tells us that Sir Gawain deserves to have such protection:
Then they showed forth the shield, that shone all red,
With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold.
About his broad neck by the baldric he cast it,
That was meet for the man, and matched him well.
And why the pentangle is proper to that peerless prince
I intend now to tell, though detain me it must.
It is a sign by Solomon sagely devised
To be a token of truth, by its title of old.
Apparently, the pentangle or the "token of truth"(Norton, 125) gives most protection to whoever wears the symbol; all the points represent virtues that cannot be separated. The reference to the King Solomon may signify that Sir Gawain possesses great wisdom because, according to the legends, King Solomon was known for his ability to rule wisely and lead his people to prosperity.
Sir Gawain's actions play a very important role in the overall manifestation of his character. Gawain acts as a noble and "perfect" medieval knight whose sole purpose is to embody the proper virtues of a loyal servant, a servant of his Lord Arthur and a servant of his Lord God. Gawain is not a common imbecile who strives to remain in his King's court for mere entertainment and respect; he looks to protect his master. For example, when King Arthur is in danger, in the "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell," Sir Gawain agrees, in a heartbeat, to marry the hideous Dame Ragnell, if that will help his king:
'Is this alle?' then said Gawen
'I shell wed her and wed her again.
Thoughe she were a fend,
Thoughe she were as foulle as Belsabub,
Her shalle I wed, by the rood,
Or elles were not I your frende.'
("The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell," lines 341-345)
In the same story, he helps the king find the answer to the riddle given by Sir Gromer Somer Joure. Doing so, he follows the rules of comitatus: at all times he is loyal to the king. The career of Sir Gawain shows no dishonesty toward his lord, nor those close to him. His physical actions are always devoted to the outmost servitude (at least in the stories) to the king, his honor and his country. For instance, in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain shows great courage by accepting the challenge of the Christmas game and saving King Arthur from the Green Knight's blow (Norton, 209-211).
The most interesting aspect of Sir Gawain's character is his morality, or to be more precise, the purity of his actions. It is not just what he does, but how and why. At times (in different stories), he seems to show great moral strength and charisma, great courtesy and virtue, yet an underlying meaning of his true nature can be perceived by closer examining his actions. An excellent example of Sir Gawain's moral strength is
source his refusal to succumb to the attempted seductions of the young and extremely beautiful wife of Bercilak (host of the castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who is also the Green Knight); all her attempts are vain when Gawain courteously refuses her instead of taking advantage of the situation (Norton , 238-240). This attempted seduction is also part of the moral tests that Gawain almost passes with flying colors.
Gawain's fear is reveled to the readers, when he fails the last moral test. He lies to the Bercilak about the gift that he accepts, hence, he breaks his promise to exchange everything that he receives during the day with the host (Norton, 242). Under the superficial bravery, there may hide an utter fear of simple yet dreadful death. Seemingly unintentional forgetfullness allows Sir Gawain to conceal the truth of the girdle. Our most noble knight fails to portray his gallant qualities and his attitudes change when he encounters death; Gawain understands the imminent dangers and their inevitablity. He therefore retreats to dishonest lying. Later in the story, Green Knight punishes Sir Gawain for his flaw, his dread of death. Gawain is a human with instincts, emotions and fears. The fear for his life that made him accept the girdle and not confess it, shows his vulnerability. His main objective is to uphold his chivalric duties when they concern the safety, well being and reputation of his king; dishonourable deeds that help him survive are petty and insignificant yet these details allow the reader to see the genuine personality of Sir Gawain.
Besides the admirable actions, Sir Gawain exhibits a unique ability to appear very courteous with his speeches and replies. He seems to know what to say and when to say it. In various situations this ability proved to be most useful. An illustration of this would be Sir Gawain's reply to the Dame Ragnell, in "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell," which decides the outcome of his happiness in marriage. According to the story, Gawain lets Dame Ragnell choose if she should be fair to him and the others during the day and "foulist wife"(662) during the night, or fair only at night: "The choise I put in your fist. Evin as ye wolle, I put it in your hand, Lose me when ye list, for I am bond." ("The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell", lines 678-681) Because he gives her "sovereignty" in the decision, she chooses to be both beautiful to everyone and faithful only to him:
Thou shalle have me faire bothe day and nighte
And evere while I live as faire and brighte;
("The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell", lines 685-695).
Sir Gawain's response to the Green Knight in the Green Chapel (Norton, 250-251), is yet another example of his ability to formulate thoughtful answers, or as William Shakespeare said, "weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath"(Othello, Act3, Scene 3). There are many other instances in which Gawain proves to be virtuous by his words, all of which mostly reinforce the fact that he is the most chivalrous knight.
It is interesting to note that other characters also refer to Sir Gawain as the best knight: he is the "bold knight" (Norton, 244), the "noblest knight alive"(Norton, 239), the "most courteous knight"(Norton, 215), and so on. Everybody, including the King Arthur, the other knights of the Round Table and the ladies of the court, seem to think there is none equal to Sir Gawain. When he leaves to find the Green Knight, in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, everyone in the court thinks he will not return and blames the king by saying that Arthur should have given Gawain a nice governing position instead of sending him on a suicide mission (Norton, 216). Other characters also seem to be very forgiving, when it comes to Sir Gawain's actions; he is forgiven for lying to the Bercilak de Hautdesert, and he is forgiven in the confession and absolved of his sins (Norton, 246-247), which is actually the first of the two times he gives a faulty confession (the second time being in the Green Chapel to the Green Knight about the reason for his dishonesty).
The authors of the stories, possibly, play a bigger role in the reader's perception of Sir Gawain's character. It is not just enough to have other characters refer to Gawain as the 'good guy,' but the most profound influences on the readers' come from the authors themselves. After all, the poets are the ones telling the stories, and we see Gawain through their eyes and judge him according to whatever information we are presented. The anonymous author of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives the readers only the most positive view of Gawain. He presents him as extremely brave and noble, but capable of some dishonesty. The author of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" does not see any flaws in Gawain whatsoever: in his eyes Gawain is just the best Christian knight there could be. This hero glorification seems to be the main portrayal of Gawain by most authors of that time period (which changes to glorifying Lancelot in the following centuries) (Class Lectures, Int296).
Another most intriguing aspects of Sir Gawain's character is his determination to do right and good, almost to the extend of actions without thought, a sort of blind urge to overcome any obstacle and protect his lord. Perhaps, that is the way of a true, noble knight or perhaps that is something that separates Gawain from other characters and makes him so respectable by the others. This quality is sort of fourteen-century propaganda on how a real hero should behave. If he is presented with a task of traveling someplace, he must fight dozens of hideous monsters on the way, if he is in need of rest he should not look for comfort and should sleep in his armor. And he always, always must follow his fate. Gawain, of course, does not hesitate nor does he think before taking what apparently is the best course of action. This behavior, on his part, involves following the rules of comitatus, serving the law or honoring promises and agreements. This particular characteristic of Sir Gawain is responsible for many adventures that he has gotten himself in to. If Gawain did not adhere to his knightly duties so swiftly, we would not see him marry Dame Ragnell or save Arthur from the Green Knight's blow. This characteristic and other hidden attributes of his nature -- is what makes him so appealing to read and write about -- on one hand he is a perfect Christian knight who always saves the day and on the other hand, he is still a human being subject to fear and hunger.
Throughout this essay, we were able to see a man who carefully obeys the mores of Christianity, chivalry and virility. Gawain's righteous behavior, make him a noble hero with honorable intentions, based on the author's and other character's opinions of him. But in the same time, this 'righteousness' shows his absence of desire for an occasional revolt and contribution to thought; such 'righteousness' was, perhaps, taught to medieval knights in order to create an army of obedient toy soldiers. Only through the portrayal of a natural fear can we recognize remnants of a human being that still subsists inside of this perfect Christian knight with bold actions and keen words.
Code Of Chivalry
1. Nobility in Service
2. Death before Dishonor
3. Enterprise in obedience to rule
4. Respect for all worthy people
5. Honor all those above your station
6. Command Obedience through respect
7. Scorn those who are ignoble
8. Protect the innocent
9. Punish the guilty
10. Courtesy to all ladies
11. Battle is the test of Manhood
12. Combat is Glory
13. Defend your charge unto death
14. War is the flowering of Chivalry
15. Death to all who oppose the cause
16. Anger blinds, a cool head will win the day
Definition of the Knightly Virtues
Liberality - generosity; open mindedness
Glory - great honor, popular praise, renown
Courtesy - formal politeness, favor instead of right
Honor - Any token of recognition for distinguished services or high merit;
a fine sense of what is just and right with readiness to apply it to
one's own conduct in relation to others
Unselfishness - generous; caring for others above oneself
Bravery - fearlessness in the presence of danger; courage
Good faith - Trust upon word alone
Pride - A proper feeling of esteem for one's own qualities or achievements
Loyalty - Faithfulness to country, duty, or friend
Adapted from http://thumb.thumb.net/~betts/kop.html