In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain is skillfully brought to life by the unknown author. Through the eyes of numerous characters in the poem, we see Gawain as a noble knight who is the epitome of chivalry; he is loyal, honest and above all, courteous. As the story progresses, Gawain is subjected to a number of tests of character, some known and some unknown. These tests tell us a great deal about Gawain's character and the struggles he faces internally. I will explore the various places in the poem where we learn about Gawain, either through others or through the tests he faces. By the end of the poem, we sense that we have come to know Gawain and have ventured a peek at his human side. However, we also realize that nothing short of perfection is acceptable to him.
Our first glimpse of Gawain occurs when the Green Knight suddenly appears at the New Year's celebration at Camelot. He offers a challenge for anyone to come forward and strike him with his ax. Twelve months and a day later, he will return the blow. No one steps forward to accept the dare. Embarrassed by his knights' lack of response, King Arthur accepts the challenge himself. At the fateful moment when Arthur is about to strike the blow, Gawain jumps up and says:
Would you grant me the grace,
To be gone from this bench and stand by you there,
If I without discourtesy might quit this board,...
I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest;
And the loss of my life would be least of any;
That I have you for uncle is my only praise;
My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth;
And for that this folly befits not a king,
And 'tis I that ...
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...ee that Gawain is not the perfect knight he strives to be. Neither we, nor the Green Knight, nor his fellow knights of the Round Table hold him to this standard of perfection. We read about the turmoil Gawain experiences thinking about his impending death at the hands of the Green Knight, and we understand why he accepts the girdle. We know he remains true until his fear of death overcomes him. All this proves he is only human. Yet Gawain only sees that he has been inconsistent in upholding the chivalric code, and this means failure to him. This is an indication of the standard Gawain has set for himself, and we see why he has the reputation he has. Despite all that has happened, Gawain is still a loyal, noble, honest and courteous knight.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
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