Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

What makes a man a hero? Where lies the line which when crossed changes a mortal man into a legend? Is it at the altar at Canterbury? in the Minotaur’s labyrinth? or is it an age or a time? Does a man become a hero when he transforms from a boy to an adult? or when he stops being a man and becomes a martyr? Where are the heroes of 1993? In whom do the children of this age believe? Like whom do they strive to be? Kennedy, Lennon, and even Superman are dead. World leaders are mockeries of real men, more like Pilates than Thomas Mores. Pop culture’s icons change daily. It is interesting that nearly 600 years ago someone was writing about heroism in a way that can be understood today. The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells a tale in which a man is proven to be a hero through the seemingly un-heroic decisions made in the course of numerous tests. Sir Gawain is a hero for the 21st century. He is tried and trapped, he is inundated with opportunities to fail and yet he does not lose. More importantly though, in the end he learns an essential, inescapable fact about himself and human nature.

What makes a man a hero? Just before he leaves Camelot in search for the Green Knight, Sir Gawain gives perhaps the best possible answer to this question:

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Tests and decisions are as numerous in any man’s life as are the beats of his heart. The consequences he incurs follow him forever; he is judged by them and they affect his entire existence. Gawain’s statement is not merely profound sentiment, useful even today as a measure of a man’s mettle. It is also, coming as early as it does in Part II of the poem, a harbinger of how Gawain’s tale may end. It tells a reader that Gawain means to do his level best in his grand endeavor and if in but one small way he should fail, do not persecute him until considering how a different man may have fared.

Gawain, similar to most of the characters in the tale, is tested on several occasions. In the poem, as in real life, judgment should not be passed on a man’s single decisions individually, but only by observing how he has chosen to live his life.

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And consideration must be given to the circumstances under which each choice has been made. A man’s better judgment is often understandably clouded in dire situations.

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Gawain made more than a few decisions in the poem and from the start he was facing not only the ruination of his pride, his good name, and his spirit, but also almost certain death. When all of Arthur’s court was challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain alone offered to take the cup from Arthur’s hands. Gawain could have just as easily been content to let Arthur have his go. But he showed pride and courage greater than all by coming forward. (Arthur really had no choice in the matter; he had to accept the Green Knight’s dare or be shamed in front of all his court.)

The poem is replete with instances in which Gawain inevitably was forced to face difficult decisions. At the beginning of Part II Gawain could have simply left Camelot never to return. But he chose the option of keeping his word and searching for the Green Knight even though he knew his head would be on the block when he reached his goal. During his travels he had every opportunity to turn around, especially when the rain and cold and desolation became fierce. Gawain, however, continued on his way. Thrice the knight was tested by a fair temptress and twice he managed to neither offend her with discourteousness nor accept her amorous advances and defile his chastity.

Gawain was once again tested by the Green Knight at the end of the poem. This was the true test of Gawain’s bravery. He was required to bare his neck to the Green Knight and finish their trading of blows. Even with his ‘magic’ girdle, Gawain flinched when the Green Knight feinted the first time. The second and third times, after being chastised for his flinch, he was able to hold steady and accept fate. In fact he was quite perturbed that the Green Knight was having so much fun with him. Of course after the ordeal the Green Knight ridiculed him for his weakness and fear. But the Green Knight didn’t seem to think that Gawain was an absolutely worthless coward. He told Gawain that he had “lacked” a little, but only because he loved his own life; and that in itself is not a damnable offense. Gawain’s conscience punished him more than the Green Knight’s teasing. The Green Knight, who was, in reality, Bercilak, along with Morgan LeFay’s help, taught Gawain an important lesson: There is no shame in being imperfect. All mortals are … even heroes.

How often is a man made to choose between Scylla and Charybdis? Should he be damned for choosing? or should he be admired?

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Gawain does not fail in this poem. When he was tempted a third time by the fair lady, Gawain chose to accept her ‘magic’ girdle in the hopes of triumphing against the Green Knight. Is it correct to consider this as an act of cowardice on Gawain’s part? Here Gawain was presented with the opportunity to appease the incessant mistress, beat the Green Knight at his own game, and return to Camelot with his torso intact. And what price the prize? One lie to the lady’s lord and one lie to the Green Knight and Gawain could be free. In the heat of the moment, under pressure, with his courteousness, pride, chivalry, and (not least of all) life on the line, wouldn’t two venial sins seem like a bargain price to pay? What was Gawain’s alternative? He would have had to offend the lady, and then offer himself defenseless to a seemingly immortal figure bent on taking a slice at his head … as a game.

It turned out of course that the girdle was of no use to Gawain in his adventure, except to remind him of his own mortality. And in the end and down deep, what more can be expected of a hero?

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”
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