Gawain, nephew of the famed Arthur of the Round Table, is depicted as the most noble of knights in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nonetheless, he is not without fault or demerit, and is certainly susceptible to conflict. Gawain, bound to chivalry, is torn between his knightly edicts, his courtly obligations, and his mortal thoughts of self-preservation. This conflict is most evident in his failure of the tests posed by the wicked Morgan le Fay. With devious tests of temptation and courage, Morgan is able to create a mockery of the courtly and knightly ideal, through Gawain's failure of these tests. By satirizing the effects of Gawain's inner conflicts, the unnamed Gawain poet reveals that even the best of men are innately selfish and subject to thoughts reprehensible to the chivalrous code.
In order to satirize Gawain's courtly ways, the poet must first convey a sense of chivalric quintessence in Gawain toward the reader, only to later mock that sense of perfection with failure. This quintessence is created in part through the diction used to describe Gawain throughout the poem. He is described as "noble" and "goodly" on more than one occasion, giving the reader a positive perception of the poem's hero (405, 685). This sublime view of Gawain is further substantiated by his noble acceptance of the Green Knight's beheading game, in order to "release the king outright" from his obligation (365). Even among famed knights such as Yvain and Agravain, both worthy of exaltation, Gawain was the first to accept the Green Knight's terms. His acceptance of the beheading game when no other knight would allows the reader to assume that Gawain represents the most noble of Arthur's court. Lastly, even the...
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...mocks Arthur's court and his so-called honor, and is in concordance with Morgan le Fay's plan to make a fool out of Arthur and his knights.
Although Gawain's actions are not chivalrous and makes the court appear foolish, he learns a lesson from his actions. He realizes the disgrace in his actions, calling his own heart "cowardly and covetous" (2374). By taking responsibility for his actions, Gawain allows the reader to forgive him. This forgiveness is allowed because the conflicts within Gawain force him into situations that will result in unavoidable disaster. By showing the reader that even the best of knights is not perfect, the poet reveals that the balance between knightly morals, courtliness, and thoughts of selfishness is able to be breached.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. by Marie Borroff. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1967.
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