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Sir Gawain: Triumph or Failure?
Sir Gawain is presented as a noble knight who is the epitome of chivalry; he is loyal, honest and above all, courteous. He is the perfect knight; he is so recognised by the various characters in the story and, for all his modesty, implicitly in his view of himself. To the others his greatest qualities are his knightly courtesy and his success in battle. To Gawain these are important, but he seems to set an even higher value on his courage and integrity, the two central pillars of his manhood.
The story is concerned with the conflict between his conception of himself and the reality.
When Arthur's court was challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain alone offered to take the cup from Arthur's hands. He showed pride and courage greater than all - by coming forward. The poem is filled with opportunities in which Gawain inevitably was forced to face difficult decisions. 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. Three times did the lady tempt him and twice he managed to neither offend her with discourteousness nor accept her amorous advances and defile his chastity.
"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 follow him forever - he is judged by them and they affect his entire existence. However, judgement should not be passed on a man's single decisions individually, but only by observing how he has chosen to live his life.
The circumstances under which each choice has been made should be considered as well. From the start Gawain was facing not only the ruination of his pride, his good name, and his spirit, but also almost certain death.
As a result, he learns an essential, inescapable fact about himself and human nature - there is no shame in being imperfect. The true test of Gawain's bravery was to bare his neck to the Green Knight and finish their trading of blows. Even with his 'magic' girdle, Gawain flinched the first time. The second and third times he was able to hold steady and accept fate. After the ordeal the Green Knight ridiculed him for his weakness and fear.
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