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Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, is described by the unknown author of Gawain and the Green Knight as "the good knight" and "most courteous" (Norton, 204 & 215). Although young, Gawain understands the true meaning of chivalry and honor, therefore bases his lifestyle on the knightly Code of chivalry. This is exemplified through various tests that he faced, both with the Green Knight, and with the Knight's wife. If all knights were like Gawain, then the Round Table would be a much better place.
The first character test he is put to occurs when he faces the supernatural forces of the Green Knight during the New Year's celebration at Camelot. As the Round Table is faced with an extraordinary challenge, to swing at the stranger with an ax, Gawain bravely steps in for King Arthur when no one else is willing. He is fearful that Arthur will endure some great danger by partaking in the stranger's game, therefore he would rather subject himself to the danger and protect Arthur. He is able to save his lord from any possibility of jeopardy and his fellow knights of humiliation by jumping up from the dinner table and screaming:
"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,...
When such a boon is begged before all these knights,
though you be tempted thereto, to take it on yourself
While so bold men about upon benches sit…
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 have asked it, it ought to be mine,
And if my claim be not comely let all this court judge,
in sight." (Norton, 209)
This shows the respect that Gawain has for his king. He is a great knight, but he modestly says that "the loss of my life would be least of any." He knows that he is a great knight and is extremely important to the unity of the Round Table, but he would rather stay humble and retained than to call himself superior.
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Gawain's ethics are thoroughly tested when he had to face the eroticism of Bercilak's wife when visiting the castle in the woods. He is presented with many opportunities to have an affair with the woman who was basically throwing herself at Gawain, by lustfully saying, "My body is here at hand, your each wish to fulfill; your servant to command I am, and shall be still." (Norton, p. 228) Although his policy is to try to please everyone as much as possible, especially the women, he chooses to stay focused in his actions and what he was there for. He is too concerned with the upcoming battle with the Green Knight to even acknowledge the wife's advancements. Even if he hadn't been extremely worried about facing the Green Knight, all the morals that have been instilled in him would have prevented him from committing the adulterous act. He does allow her to kiss him, but that is only because she is the woman in charge, and he is trying to respect her and her wishes. Both of these challenges of ethics Sir Gawain passes with flying colors and each time throughout his life he faces a difficult situation he gains more respect and honor than he had before. The tasks that he accomplishes prove once more the true attitude of the chivalrous knight.
Sir Gawain is a hero in not only this poem but in all the other stories about him. In the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, Gawain acts in a most courteous, chivalric manner. He is unquestionable when King Arthur approaches him with the dilemma of trying to find what it is that all women most desire. Gawain is not one to complain or whine that it is a stupid request. Rather, he immediately offers himself by saying:
"Ye, Sir, make good chere;
Let make your hors redy
To ride into straunge contrey;
And evere wheras ye mete outher man or woman, in faye,
Ask of theim whate they therto saye.
And I shalle also ride anoder waye
And enquere of every man and woman and get what I may
Of every man and womans answere;
And in a boke I shalle theim write." (Burlesque & Grotesquerie, p. 330)
Gawain has no problems setting aside nearly a year of his life to helping Arthur with his quest for the knowledge of what women want. That is a very good example of honor and respect. But, the finest showing of Gawain's love for his lord comes when Arthur asks Gawain to marry the hag, Dame Ragnell. Gawain's response is exquisite:
"I wolle wed her at whate time ye wolle set;
I pray you make no care.
For and she were the most foulist wighte
That evere men mighte see with sighte,
For your love I wolle not spare." (Burlesque & Grotesquerie, p. 335)
Gawain is saying that it doesn't matter how foul and ugly this woman is, as long as Arthur needs him to do this, he will keep his word due to his love for his lord.
The last priceless example of Gawain's chivalry is demonstrated when she offers him the choice of being beautiful by day and foul by night, or vice-versa. Some men would have their opinions armed are ready to voice in this manner. Gawain chooses to handle this situation alternatively. By abiding to the lesson that he and Arthur learned earlier, Gawain can only reply:
"Alas! The choise is hard.
To chese the best it is froward.
Wheder choise that I chese,
To have you faire on nightes and no more,
That wold greve my hart righte sore
And my worship shold I lese.
And if I desire on days to have you faire,
Then on nightes I shold have a simple repaire.
Now fain wold I chose the best,
I ne wot in this world what I shall saye,
But do as ye lest nowe, my lady gaye.
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.
I put the choise in you.
Bothe body and goddes, hart, and every dele,
Is alle your own, for to by and selle--
That make I God avowe!" (Burlesque & Grotesquerie, 342-343)
By giving the choice to the foul hag, he is yielding to her and therefore demonstrating his chivalry. Truth, honor and respect are what Gawain is all about, and in every one of his actions. In this case, his actions have earned the beauty from his wife during both the night and day.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Sixth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. M.H.Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc., 1993.
Gautier, Leon. Chivalry, The Everyday Life of the Medieval Knight. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Ogden, Erin. Gawain Page. http://www.uidaho.edu/student_orgs/arthurian_legend/knights/orkney/gawain.html; 4/22/98.