Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Written in the late fourteenth century by an anonymous author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story about a Christian warrior society. Sir Gawain, nephew to King Arthur, epitomizes the definition of a true noble knight. Sir Gawain is not only brave, but he is also loyal, courteous, and a true believer in God. The story begins with the game of the Green Knight, a game of exchanging hits with an axe (290-300). However, this story is more than an adventure tale; it is also a lesson on the long-term benefits of religious adherence over the short-term benefits of personal pleasure. At Bercilak's castle, Sir Gawain faces his most powerful enemy, himself. In the attempt to maintain his ideals of courtesy and nobility, Gawain causes his own religious downfall.

As soon as Gawain enters Bercilak's castle, he is already slowly stripping off his religious protection and armor. Bercilak's servants take off his armor, which symbolically identifies him, and Gawain is dressed in "robes richly wrought" (859-861). He is without his shield, which is not only a protection from enemies, but from the evil spirits (641-650). It is in this clothing that Gawain faces his next tests.

During the next three mornings, the Lady, Bercilak's wife, tries to seduce Gawain in his bedroom. Each of the three tests is parallel to the three hunting games of Bercilak. Gawain may not have sexual relations with the Lady, but during the tests, his spirituality declines and so does his morality: the Lady is able to receive one more kiss from Gawain each successive day; Gawain takes the green girdle; and he lies to Bercilak.

On the first two mornings, Gawain is extremely surprised and shocked to find the Lady in his bedroom. In fact on the first morning he pretends to be asleep when the Lady comes into the room (1190). Gawain is very courteous in his responses to the Lady's words and actions, by constantly putting himself down and praising Bercilak. Both times, the Lady leaves, successfully getting a kiss the first morning and two kisses the second morning from Gawain. When Bercilak returns from his hunting, to keep his word, he gives Gawain the animals, the deer on the first day and the boar on the second day. Gawain, in return, gives Bercilak what he has received that day while in the castle, first a kiss, then two kisses.

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By the third morning, Gawain, who is already falling in love with the Lady, fails this last test. The passage starts out with a description of Gawain's mental state as he restlessly dreams:

Deep in his dream he darkly mutters
As a man may that mourns, with many grim thoughts.
Of that day when destiny shall deal him his doom
When he greets his grim host at the Green Chapel
And must bow to his buffet, bating all strife.
(1750-1754)

Gawain is now afraid of what is going to happen to him; fear of death has overtaken him. A description of the Lady's seductive dress is also given:

No hood on her head, but heavy with gems
Were her fillet and the fret that confined her tresses;
Her face and her fair throat freely displayed;
Her bosom all but bare, and her back as well.
(1739-1734)

The Lady's beauty and sensuality coupled with Gawain's already weak mental state cause him to be less able to resist his feelings: "His heart swelled swiftly with surging joys. They melt into mirth with many a fond smile..." (1762-1763). However, still having some religious scruples, Gawain resists the physical temptations offered by the Lady and lets them pass.

The Lady asks him how can he resist her, unless he has a lover already, one whom he loves and is extremely loyal to. Gawain replies that he has no lover and does not plan to have one for awhile. The Lady then asks him for a kiss before she leaves, but before this, she requests him to give her a gift, such as his glove, so she can look at the gift and think about him. Gawain tells her that he does not have anything to give to her, for he has come without any gift worth giving to her.

The Lady then decides to give him a gift instead, her ring. Gawain, though, does not accept the ring, for it is much too expensive. However, Gawain is still afraid of death. When the Lady offers him the green girdle, telling him that the owner of this girdle cannot be killed by any man on earth, he takes the girdle, in the hope that it will protect him from the Green Knight (1851-1854). By doing this, Gawain has put his faith in a piece of material, not in God whom he has previously trusted and believed in. On the spiritual level, Gawain has declined a great deal. However, on the secular and personal level, Gawain has advanced tremendously. For he is now richly dressed and is receiving kisses from a beautiful Lady.

When Bercilak returns from his hunting, he gives the fox he has hunted to Gawain. In return, Gawain "clasps him accordingly and kisses him thrice" (1936). Gawain does not exchange the green girdle or even mention it to Bercilak. Thus, he lies and breaks his promise to Bercilak, a sin, and another step in his spiritual decline. By relying on the green girdle, Gawain is cheating in the game with the Green Knight, the actions of a coward, not of a noble knight.

At the Green Chapel, Gawain even though he is wearing the green girdle, still flinches when the Green Knight taps him with the axe on the first attempt (2265-2267). Gawain's fear of mortality causes him to be mocked by the Green Knight. When Gawain does find out that the game has been just a test of loyalty and faith in God, Gawain immediately confesses. He then wears the green girdle as a reminder of the potential weakness of the human flesh.

Gawain falls from being a noble, loyal, fearless and God-fearing knight to a cowardly man who puts his faith in a green girdle. The goal of the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is to teach a lesson. The lesson is about the importance of believing in God and the weakness of the human flesh. There are many Sir Gawains in this world, people whose worst enemy is themselves.

Abrams, M.H., ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight The Norton Anthology of English Literature . New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1993. pp 200-254.
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