Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Periodical Elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf
In both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, mead halls are used as a community space where the king, his warriors and servants can settle down and plan battles. They can also partake in some casual hobnob and enjoy a honey-based drink called mead. While similar on paper, these two buildings are vastly different in their structure and size – one being a castle and the other, a central “hub” with auxiliary buildings around it. Heorot, the mead hall in Beowulf, was built during a simpler yet viler time period. In the book, we find that the mead hall was built under the strict supervision of Hrothgar. “So his mind turned to hall-building: he handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall…” (Beowulf 67-68) It, similar to Camelot, is extremely well and meticulously built. Hrothgar wanted Heorot to be used primarily as his throne-room but also to host feasts and a safe haven for his warriors to plan their battles.
There is a sense of gloominess and grittiness surrounding the whole hall, which is largely connected to the brutal life that the warriors led during the Dark Ages. Grendel’s arm is ripped off and nailed up, with is head paraded all throughout the hall. Death and violence at every corner meant that no man could ever truly put his guard down. Camelot, as portrayed in the tale, is a castle that served as the seat of government. The tale, taking place in the Middle Ages, portrays Camelot as a more civil environment when compared to Heorot. During the beginning of the book, Camelot and its guests are enwrapped in the Christmas festivities. Everybody is singing, caroling, being merry and enjoying life. While the common folk is being entertained by the festive activities, the knights take part in jousting, which was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. King Arthur and his knights are surrounded by good food and fair ladies while sitting at the Round Table. “This king lay at Camelot at Christmastide: Many good knights and gay his guest were there, Arrayed of the Round Table rightful brothers, with feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth. There true men contended in tournaments many, joined there in jousting these gentle knights…” (Gawain 37-43).
They were surrounded by costly silk curtains and a wide variety of food which indicates a higher standard of the time when compared to Beowulf. While both structures are huge in size, we can envision Camelot as whole castle, where, one part was used as a hall that people visit and can always feel welcome. It shows community and unity was valued above all else and the need to celebrate life no matter the circumstances. This is a somewhat unreal perspective of the Medieval time period, during which, many a battle took place. Heorot on the other hand, has a sense of realness and less of the “fairytale” aspect of Camelot. The danger is out there, full of monsters (real and symbolic) just waiting to attack. This is why a structure such as Heorot, was much more likely to actually exist.
The Lessons of Morality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf
Grendel is one of the main antagonists in Beowulf, a descendent of Cain. Cain, in the Bible, is full of jealousy and envy and kills his brother, Abel; Grendel is a projection of this envy. Unferth is an important minor character in the poem. He is always trying to prove himself and is jealous of Beowulf. In the Middle Ages, the word “wraecca” means exile, or a thane without a master. Both Grendel and Unferth represent the wraecca through their independent jealousy and actions against Beowulf. This is an obvious flaw against their wergild system. “Wergild” means man-price, and that everyone is worth something. This is apart of an arrangement based upon feuding in those times, where if someone kills a person then their family has the right to kill them back because the price evens out. Grendel never pays wergild to Hrothgar for the men he killed in Heorot, and Unferth never actually kills anybody, which shows his lack of commitment to slay Grendel as the man-price for his fallen friends.
“Wyrd” is the Old English term that means fate. This entropy exists in the belief that this world exceeds another. The dragon is referred to as a wyrd worm because it is hoarding treasure from a past life. As Beowulf says he is going to fight the dragon, he leaves his life up to fate. When the dragon kills Beowulf, the people build a funeral monument to recognize and honor him. In the next life, the people will see this pyre and understand the way their entropic system exists and not see it as tragic, but rather admirable like the treasure hidden by the dragon in this life.
Gawain’s armor was described in detail before he rode off to find the Green Knight. Gawain’s shield was scarlet red with a golden star covering the front. This star was known as a pentangle, a symbol of eternal faithfulness in five ways, which include virtue, loyalty, kindest, truth, and nobility. Gawain’s character was proportionally represented through his shield: perfect senses, actions, faith, joy, and friendship. Throughout the poem, the knight portrays each of these qualities through his interactions with the lord and his wife, by keeping his promises of the trade game, and the final battle against the Green Knight, where he is brave in confrontation and is called faultless.
The old woman at the end of Gawain and the Green Knight is Morgan le Fay, a sorceress related to King Arthur. The Green Knight explains that she lives at his manor. There, through her magic, brought the Green Knight to Camelot to test the Knights of the Round Table, mess with their heads, and essentially have Guinevere die from the tragic event. This destabilizes the entire tale by showing the forces behind the Green Knight’s actions as Morgan’s attempt to cause trouble in Camelot. The author of Lanval is Marie de France. Little is known about this poet, but she is figured to be a highly educated noblewoman, so she is familiar with court life. She is thought to be not the true originator of these stories, but more of a cultural anthropologist of the tales at court. Her character, Lanval, is a knight so he is also familiar with court life. He is an outcast, as Marie would be as a woman poet at that time.
Human sexuality is for whom you express feelings for and to what extent of emotion. Milun, a Breton Lai, written by Marie de France is one of the first poems where female empowerment is at play in courting. The lady in Milun hears of this great knight and starts to fall in love with him. She writes and seeks him for marriage, a role normal to males. After she is pregnant, she also decides what to do with the baby. This presents human sexuality with more of a woman’s role in a relationship as opposed to other poems and life of this time period.
The fairy kingdom described in Sir Orfeo can be seen as paradise. There are castles and hundreds of towers with rivers, forests, green grass, flowers, and clear blue skies. With the royal halls and jewels of the kingdom, one could compare this scene to a Disney fairytale land. The characters in the fairy kingdom are the fairy king, a group of ladies, the lost wife of Orfeo, and Sir Orfeo when he arrives. The fairy king rules the area and sits on a throne, while Orfeo’s lost wife is sleeping under a tree as he enters the kingdom. I believe the fairy king collects people from the human world to satisfy his need for human followers and his beliefs. He provides this beautiful kingdom for them, but has a problem with obtaining human citizens to rule, so he forces the wife to go. This satisfies his need for subjects while also believing that his world is better than reality.
After interacting with the fairy king for the first time, Heurodis tore her clothes apart and scratched herself until she bled while she cried. This event shows how powerful the fairy realm is to make the harm self-inflicted instead of physical torture by the king. The violence shows Heurodis’s transformation of an ideal queen to one of almost hysteria, opening up her body to the fairy realm.
Immoral people are most certainly capable of formulating moral lessons. The pardoner in the poem has poor morals and is a hypocrite with his sermons, however, he can inspire people to give him money through a moral story. The pardoner is a bad person, but utilizes his role to make money. In a real world example, think of any leader like a president. The president might be a horrible person, but be good in rallying people for a cause because it is his job. The pardoner is doing his job very well by collecting money for himself and the church, because why else would the church allow someone to pardon sins? He just happens to be a bad person, making him immoral and a hypocrite because of the religious setting.
One moral lesson that can be picked from the overflowing tree of this tale is hypocrisy. The main character, the pardoner, has the authority to collect money in exchange to pardon sins. He himself does not care about their salvation, rather just the money coming to him. On top of that, the only sermon the pardoner preaches is about greed. The greediness of the pardoner makes him neglect the spirituality of his job, so he does not “practice what he preaches.”
The Hunt Vs. Temptation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
When reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Finn 3, the three hunting scenes and the three seduction scenes portrayed are parallel to one another. As the host goes out to hunt his game, Gawain is told to rest in the castle, on the agreement that he will give the host whatever he earns in the castle in exchange for the whatever he has hunted that day. The host goes out hunting for three days, tirelessly continuing until he has caught three animals: the deer, the boar, and the fox. During those three days, the host’s wife tries to seduce Gawain by metaphorically “hunting” him for his affection, trying to seduce him in different ways including trapping him in his room, questioning why he will not show her affection, and dressing seductively to earn his attention. While her husband has to use special tactics when hunting to kill each of the animals with their different behaviors, his wife uses different tactics in her hunt for Gawain’s love.
During the first hunt scene, the host of the castle goes out to hunt deer. The deer in the scene are passive creatures. They do not try to fight back or act aggressively, simply running away from the hunters chasing them. The deer are chased to a hillside where there is an obstacle that they can not pass, meaning that they were physically trapped during the hunt. Gawain was relaxing in the castle, when he was metaphorically trapped by the host’s wife because he was trying to sleep in his bedroom when she came in without warning. She locked the door and slowly crept up to where he was laying within a bed surrounded by canopies. The canopy bed serves as a symbol of entrapment, creating a physical barrier that Gawain could not escape from the lady “hunting” him. Gawain heard the sound of the door opening, but instead of reacting, he simply laid in the bed and faked sleep which is parallel to how the deer acted passively in the hunting scene. This made Gawain the “prey” in this scene as the deer was pray to the hunters. The seduction scene continues as the host’s wife tells Gawain that he can have her because everyone in the castle is away and no one will know. She also tells him that he would have been her first choice for a husband over her own. Gawain tells her that he cannot be with her because her husband, who she is married to, is a better suit for her than he is. She finally relents, but does not leave without, what she refers to as a kiss of “courtesy,” such as all knights give a lady. At the end of the day, he gives the host a kiss, though he does not tell that the kiss was from his wife.
In the second hunting scene, the host goes out to hunt a wild boar. The wild boar is an aggressive animal, wounding many of the host’s men and dogs before being fatally wounded by a slash across the throat by the host’s sword. The host’s wife in this scene acts more aggressively than she did the first time that she tried to seduce Gawain. She scolds him for not remembering the lesson she taught him about kissing out of “courtesy” the day before. He defends himself by telling her that he did not want to force a kiss on someone who would reject him. She becomes more aggressive, and invites him to the use of violence, saying that he should force a kiss if any woman were foolish enough to reject his advances. He rejects her advances and tells her that this is not acceptable behavior and that he can give a kiss if a lady is willing. After telling her this, he kisses her. Then, the lady tries to seduce him again by telling him that he should teach her about courtly love, but Gawain rejects her advances by saying she is far more knowledgeable than he is, shutting down her efforts for that day, though he is more distracted by her than he was the first day. He receives in total two kisses from her that day, which he gives to the host without telling who he received them from.
The final day of hunting comes, and the host goes out to hunt a fox. The fox is the most cunning and sly of all the animals so far and takes more measures to catch than any of the animals before it. The fox relates to the host’s wife because of the way she uses her own sly techniques to try one final attempt at seducing Gawain. She dresses up in a seductive dress that reveals more than any dress that she wore before while he was visiting the castle. The dress was lined with fur, which is parallel to the fur pelt, which is the most valuable item from the fox. She also had jewels strewn through her hair, trying to show off her beauty. She tried to seduce Gawain by first asking him if he would not reciprocate her love because he has a lover at home. He shuts her down by telling her that he has no lover and that he would not take one. The host’s wife stops trying to seduce him sexually at this point, but she tries to tempt him three more times, showing that she is crafty in her seduction. Instead of testing him in his loyalty to the host and his knightly honor, she tempts him by using his desire to live. First, she asks him for a small token as a parting gift to remember him by, such as a glove. She then tries to offer him a ruby ring as something to remember her by. He rejects both these gifts because he has nothing to offer her. It is not until she offers him a green silk girdle that he thinks about giving into her temptations. He at first refuses the girdle until she says that it is a magical and protects the wearer from death, which is something he needs for his challenge with the Green Knight. He readily accepts this gift from the host’s wife, which shows that while he turned down the offer of love from the lady, he is just as caught as the fox in the end because he gave into the temptation. Gawain giving into his desire to live by accepting the girdle from the host’s wife shows that he has a human flaw, just as the fox was given the human characteristic of being a thief. He also felt that the belt was worth nothing to the host’s wife, just like the dead fox was worthless to the host. He only gives the host the three kisses that he received that day and does not tell him about the belt that he received, meaning that he not only lied to him about who the kisses came from, but also about receiving the belt that he should have given him at the end of the day because of their deal.
A Role of the Fox in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Parallels Between the Fox and Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the themes of chivalry and moral behavior are constantly recurring. After a towering Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s court, he offers a challenge which nobody would accept, so he begins to criticize the people in the court. Arthur decides to step up, but one of his knights, Sir Gawain, takes his place because he had to put himself before the King, as with the nature of chivalry. Gawain accepts the challenge, striking a blow to the back of the Green Knight’s neck with an axe, and as part of the challenge, the Green Knight would be able return the favor in a year and a day. Unfortunately for Gawain, the Green Knight doesn’t die immediately but instead picks up his decapitated head and walks right out the door, leaving Gawain anxious about his fate.
After some time, Gawain finally has to prepare for his pilgrimage in search of the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight resides. After a rough start to his journey, he stumbles upon another castle, Lord Bertilak’s court. There, he is treated with great hospitality and offered to stay for a while. During Gawain’s time at the court, Lord Bertilak proposes a game—he goes hunting while his lady keeps Gawain’s company, and at the end of each day, the two will exchange whatever they received. The Gawain poet then continues by describing three hunt scenes with Bertilak each corresponding to a bedroom scene with Gawain and the Lady. Each hunting scenes is a parallel to its respective bedroom scene, demonstrating the various levels of moral integrity displayed from Gawain by comparing it to the difficulty of Bertilak’s hunt. While Bertilak is attempting to catch prey slipping away from him, Bertilak’s Lady is trying to catch Gawain slipping from his moral foundation. The last of the scenes describes Bertilak’s hunt for a sly fox determined to stay alive, which mirrors Gawain’s innovative responses, (in lines 1792 to 1816,) to the Lady in attempting to not be rude and determined to stay on track with his objective and chivalrous code in mind.
Gawain eludes the Lady because he is clever and never straight up rejects her. He tells her that “Lover I have none, nor will have, yet awhile” (1790-1791). This is his nice way of saying he isn’t looking for a relationship right now, yet this still manages to upset the Lady. Calling his words “the worst of all,” the Lady asks for a simple gift of Gawain’s “glove or the like,” so she could “think on” him and “mourn the less” (1792-1800). Seeing as the Lady is clearly upset and desperate,Gawain comes up with the clever response, saying that he truly appreciated what the Lady has done for him and wishing he had the the “most precious possession” to give to her for all she’s done for him (1802). Gawain clearly knows his ways with women, flattering the Lady and trying his best to make her feel better after subtly rejecting her. This shows just how clever Gawain was, just like the wily fox in the hunt.
Just as the fox puts up a good fight but eventually dies, Gawain eventually breaks when he fails to keep his end of the deal with Bertilak. He still, however, shows his finesse in his language and adherence to the codes of chivalry (for the most part). When the Lady asks for a gift, Gawain doesn’t actually have any possessions to spare for the Lady, but he can certainly work his way with words. He explains why he doesn’t want to give up his glove with the rationale that “a love token … were of little avail,” because he is “here on an errand” (1805-1807). This may reveal the discipline and focus of Gawain, keeping his goal in mind and holding on to his necessary provisions. His attitude is summed up concisely when he says, “A man must keep within his compass,” which can be referring to both his venturing and moral compass (1811). No matter how small and seemingly insignificant his bearings were, he made sure to keep them because they could end up saving his life. On the same note, this may make it seem that Gawain is very selfish and afraid to give up any possessions. This is supported by the fact that he later refused to mention or give the girdle he received from the Lady to Bertilak, which broke the rules of their game. Knowing that the girdle could save his life, or so the Lady claimed, Gawain held onto it. This reveals that although Gawain is an acclaimed knight, he would still break the code of chivalry and be selfish if the matter was a question of life or death.
The fox hunt can be seen as a parallel to Gawain and the Lady’s conversation, but also a parallel to Gawain’s fate for the rest of the story. It is interesting to note that during the fox hunt, the fox was called a thief. This may have been simply because the fox stole some livestock, but it could also be a subtle foreshadowing for when Gawain keeps the girdle hidden from Bertilak. The fox meets his demise, and when Gawain is preparing to meet his fate, the story takes a sudden turn. Up until then, however, the story of the fox seems to somewhat foreshadow and mirror Gawain’s fate.
Gawain’s third encounter with the Lady and the fox hunt have many parallels in the story. They’re both are clever in their methods—the fox being swift and sly, and Gawain being a cautious of his words and actions—but both ended up failing. Gawain is able to maintain his chivalrous integrity and the fox is able to keep his life for some time, but they both fell short. Gawain put his life before his integrity, breaking the rules of his game with Bertilak and also the codes of chivalry, while the fox was unable to evade death against a hound and Bertilak. Gawain and the Lady’s third bedroom talk and the fox hunt mirror each other in many ways; both the fox and Gawain used their cleverness and finesse to be the most difficult for their pursuer to conquer.
Main Themes of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The legendary land of Camelot and King Arthur’s castle is a common location within British Literature. It is also the main location in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This place is described as having the bravest and most chivalrous knights of all the land guarded by a great king known as Arthur. Even in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the knights are described to be great by the Green Knight saying,
“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide?
Where is now your arrogance and your awesome deeds,
Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?
Now are the revel and renown of the Round Table
Overwhelmed with a word of one man’s speech,
For all cower and quake, and no cut felt!”
This quote is from the villain of the story, the Green Knight, a very tall, strong knight that has an unusual green tint to his armor. It shows that even the villains of this world give credit to the knights of Camelot, showing them respect and knowing they are quite chivalrous. This medieval quest-like story can be viewed upon in two very different aspects. The first one is a literal analysis which is that the story is a quest for Sir Gawain. Gawain is ultimately challenged by the Green Knight. The “game” as the Green Knight calls it is to hit him with his gisarme and if he dies, then it is over. However, if the Green Knight lives, then in one year Gawain must travel to the Green Chapel and the knight gets to hit him back. Gawain fails and must travel on a quest like adventure to the Green Chapel. During his time away, he learns more about himself and matures as a human. The second way that this story can be analyzed is on a maturity level. It can be viewed as Gawain starting as a child, to maturity, and finally up to adulthood.
The scene is set when the Green Knight rides in on his strange green horse. It is assumed by King Arthur that he wants to fight but the knight merely shrugs it off and says he wants to play a “game” with one of the other knights. The Green Knight is expecting at least one of the knights to accept the “game” since they are supposed to be the most chivalrous but not one volunteer’s one self. The Green Knight is not pleased and says, “There are about on these benches but beardless children.” By saying this to King Arthur and all of the knights in the courtyard, he is deeply insulting each and every one of them. Having a beard in medieval times showed manliness. The Green Knight has a big beard and strokes it as he talks to King Arthur. He is basically calling all of these knights children because they do not have a beard and questioning why none of the knights will take on his “game” if they are the bravest and most courteous knights in all the land. The Green Knight wants to put the knight’s chivalrousness to the test. The text also says, “The stranger before him stood there erect,/ higher than any in the house by a head and more.” This quote also backs up the idea of being a child. When a child grows up, they grow and therefore become taller which shows that the Green Knight has already gone through “maturity”, explaining why he is so much taller than the other knights. This section of the story represents Sir Gawain as in childhood by being a beardless child and not immediately accepting the Green Knight’s requests.
The story progresses as Sir Gawain eventually takes the gisarme from King Arthur. King Arthur, upset that the Green Knight insulted the knights of Camelot and himself in such a manner, accepts the “game” from the Green Knight. This is a crucial part and realization for Sir Gawain. He realizes that King Arthur has the potential to lose his life in this game and knows that Camelot will suffer greatly without Arthur. Gawain knows what must be done as he doesn’t fear the loss of his own life, he accepts it if it may come down to that. Gawain tells the king that he will be a part of this, to keep Arthur safe.
“The court assays the claim,
And in counsel all unite
To give Gawain the game
And release the king outright.”
As soon as this is said and done, it is maturity starting to form for Sir Gawain. A child might be scared of an intimidating task compared to someone starting to mature who might accept it. In this case, Gawain is accepting what must be done for a greater good of Camelot. Also, when Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel is also a sign of maturity. A whole year later, Gawain still kept his word to the Green Knight and set off to find him. He had no idea where he was going; he just left Camelot in search of a man he made an agreement with. This shows maturity because he is being loyal to what he said. Gawain doesn’t know exactly where to go while in search of the Chapel. This is also like maturity because at that point in life, people often think of what their life will be like during adulthood, but they don’t know exactly where they will be.
Sir Gawain is alone on his travels when he finds a castle. This is the location of where Gawain reaches adulthood. A man named Bertilak occupies the castle with his wife, the Lady of the Castle. He allows Gawain to stay until he has to cover that final stretch to the Green Chapel. The only rules are that Bertilak will share everything he acquires with Gawain but Gawain must share everything he gets in the castle with him. For three days, Bertilak goes out hunting and shares what he caught with Gawain. Gawain receives kisses from the Lade of the Castle each day and gives them to Bertilak. However, on the third day Gawain receives a magical green girdle which will protect him. He doesn’t share this with Bertilak and keeps it for himself. This is a sign of adulthood because all adults do wrong things every once in a while; nobody is perfect. Another sign of adulthood is at the end of the story when the Green Knight teaches Gawain a lesson about his life.
“I confess, knight, in this place,
Most dire is my misdeed;
Let me gain back your good grace,
And thereafter I shall take heed.”
This shows adulthood in Gawain. He has learned a lesson from the Green Knight. He is one of the knights of Camelot and supposed to be the most chivalrous in the land. The actions that were taken were not that of a chivalrous knight and Gawain learns this. He is ashamed of what he has done and wears the girdle as a sign of failure. The other knights do not understand this because they have not matured like Gawain has.
The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that of a medieval quest and that of maturity and growing up. The theme of maturity fits exceptionally well with this tale as there are moments throughout the entire story that represent childhood, maturity and finally adulthood. The theme of a typical medieval quest is the common theme within this story as finding and understanding the maturity theme requires the story to be analyzed on a deeper, more thorough level.
A Character of Sir Gawain in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Justification of Sir Gawain the Mortal Man
Though Arthur’s legendary knights may have gathered at the round table as equals, one knight stands out today. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, scholars debate whether Sir Gawain is or is not an ideal knight under the Pentangle. While scholars cannot reach a unanimous verdict, they can agree that he is an imperfect man matched against an unattainable standard of perfection. During life-threatening situations throughout the game of blows, Gawain’s human nature and its tendencies dictate his reactions, and his mortality is directly connected to his morality. Gawain has no choice but to obey his human nature, and he is justified because his reactions are motivated by the natural desire for self-preservation rather than hate or malice.
Gawain’s first response to mortality is his intercession to take Arthur’s place in the game of blows. Arthur declares he will not eat until “some chancer ha[s] challenged his chosen knight, dared him, with a lance, to lay life on the line, to stare death face-to-face and accept defeat should fortune or fate smile more favorably on his foe” (Sir Gawain 188). He views death lightly, and he would willingly sacrifice one of his own knights lives for the sake of entertainment. In spite of all this, Gawain humbly volunteers to take Arthur’s place in the game of blows. He claims that King Arthur’s life was too valuable to lose, and it would not matter if his life were lost because he was weak and unintelligent (Sir Gawain 193). He is willing to sacrifice his life in his uncle’s place, and Arthur unhesitatingly lets him. Arthur is careless, but Gawain is selfless.
Gawain’s selflessness is quickly forgotten when he is placed in this unpredictable situation. As he goes to take Arthur’s position, Arthur advises him to “catch [the Green Knight] cleanly” and “use full-blooded force” (Sir Gawain 193). Logically, if Gawain kills the Green Knight first, the Green Knight cannot kill him. Gawain follows Arthur’s advice, cutting through the Green Knight’s spinal cord and decapitating him. The seemingly immortal Green Knight, however, does not die. The Green Knight remains a threat to Gawain’s safety, and Gawain has reason to fear a fatal blow in return.
Gawain’s decision to decapitate the Green knight causes a division in scholarly judgements about Gawain. Scholar Victoria Weiss acknowledges that Arthur’s court takes pride in “knightly valor [and] aggressiveness” but does not believe that upholding this pride is enough to justify Gawain of his “lack of concern for human life” (363). Scholar Bryant Bachman, Jr. counters, however, that Gawain is appropriately adhering to social order (500). He argues that ceremonialized violence in activities like jousting was a fundamental way in which “society impose[d] order on impulse, or channel[ed] instinct into modes of behavior that do not threaten it. Thus, jousting orders aggression…Nothing is out of place here. All is ordered and controlled.” (Bachman 499) According to Bachman’s reasoning, Gawain’s breeding causes him to respond in this way. Being raised with the morals of his society, he was taught to believe this behavior was socially acceptable and had no way of knowing otherwise.
This section of the story is often referred to as the Beheading Game, but the Green Knight never details what type of strike it must be (Weiss 361). He makes vague, misleading statements—such as “the axe shall be his to handle how he likes” and “show your striking style”—and red flags pop up when he claims the terms are “crystal clear” (Sir Gawain 192 & 194). Gawain, influenced by Arthur’s advice, misinterprets strike to be synonymous with beheading. He could have chosen a different type of blow, but he did not know the challenge could be fulfilled by a nonfatal blow. He also did not know the Green Knight’s intent, perceived him to be a threat, and acted in self-defense. Arthur again carelessly diminishes another life or death moment by breaking the silence with “at least I’m allowed to eat at last”, but silent and somber Gawain reflects seriously on his decision (Sir Gawain 195). He does not take his actions or his consequences lightly.
At the end of the game of blows, Gawain inevitably approaches his death just as death inevitably approaches all people. He survived his quest’s dangerous trek through the wilderness, prolonging his life, but he finds himself at the Green Knight’s chapel, having brought himself one step closer to the return blow of the Green Knight and his death (Bachman 509-510). If he had attempted to avoid the Green Knight and death, he would continue being vulnerable to threat of the Green Knight and would live in constant fear. By confronting the Green Knight and death, his fear increases as he realizes death will become a reality. The more he tries to distance himself from death the closer it seems.
Although Gawain realizes he will certainly die, he has not fully accepted this fate. He loves his life and demonstrates his desire to live by wearing the green girdle, claimed to be enlaced with magical powers that could save his life (Sir Gawain 228). Gawain has no idea if the girdle truly has these powers. The idea that a green girdle contains magical powers in and of itself seems illogical and foolish, but it provides hope. Gawain desperately clings to this thin ray of hope as he confronts the Green Knight.
Gawain displays a spectrum of reactions over the course of the Green Knight’s three blows. As a parallel to the Green Knight in the beginning of the game, Sir Gawain lays his neck bare, and he makes himself vulnerable for the promised return blow. Unlike the Green Knight, he instinctively flinches in fear just before the blade hits because he “sens[es] its sharpness” (Sir Gawain 228). He does not flinch at the second attempted blow and seems to have unwillingly accepted his fate as there is nothing else he can do. The Green Knight then delivers his third and final blow, but the blow is merely wounding. It is “far from being fatal…just skimming the skin and finely snicking the fat of the flesh…” (Sir Gawain 233). Shocked with the disbelief that he is still alive, Sir Gawain jumps up and warns the Green Knight he will fight if provoked (Sir Gawain 233-234). Gawain intends to defend himself. He values his fragile life even more now that it was nearly taken from him.
Much like at the beginning of the game, Gawain seems to be lacking information and makes incorrect interpretations about the Green Knight and his intent. Leaning on the head of his axe, the Green Knight explains that he possesses the strength and ability to kill Gawain at close range, but he instead chose to fulfill the challenge was a nonfatal blow (Sir Gawain 234). In addition to being wrong about the type of blow the Green Knight had originally intended to give him, he also incorrectly assumed that the Green Knight’s returning blow would match the blow he dealt (Weiss 364-365). To Gawain’s amazement and shame, the Green Knight is fully aware that he is wearing the green girdle because the Green Knight is none other than Lord Bertilak himself—Sir Gawain’s generous host, new found friend, and Lady Bertilak’s husband (Sir Gawain 234). He might have reached a different decision if he had known this information and had been able to consider it. Regardless, Gawain takes responsibility for his decisions and acknowledges his blame, and even the Green Knight believes he is justified.
Gawain is a knight, but underneath “the suit of armour” he is first and foremost a man (Hollis 276). Being mortal, he is bound to act according to human nature. From the beginning of the game of blows until the end, he is vulnerable to physical pain, harm, and death. When placed in situations where his life or the lives of loved ones are in danger of a real or perceived threat, Gawain becomes defensive of the life he values and fears death. When he has any ability to control the situation, he is unwilling to die and fights to live. As death closes in and desperation increases, extenuating circumstances cause Gawain to react in atypical ways. His decision-making process changes as his decision becomes more and more critical to his survival, and mortality takes precedence over morality. He weighs his options seriously, makes the best decision he can based on what he already knows and the little information he receives, and must deal with the emotional consequences of that decision because he holds himself accountable. Obedient to human instinct and motivated by self-preservation rather than hate or malice, Gawain does everything in his physical power to balance mortality and morality. He reacts how humans are expected to react, exceeding expectations when he offers to sacrifice his life for Arthur, and in light of this, his actions become noble and just as he attempts to transcend human nature.
The Green Knight and the Symbolism Behind
Arthurian legends served as a means to centralize the Celtic culture and provide the Celtic people with their own myth in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE. One such Celtic myth of the late fourteenth century CE is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many interpretations have explained the Green Knight as a symbol of the spring season and a Christ-like figure. The tale does indeed portray several significant myths, such as those of Christ and a quasi spring deity, for the European people. The Green Knight and Bertilak, however, are a better representation of not a transcending conception but of a mortal essence: Sir Gawain’s conscience. The symbolism of the Green Knight and Bertilak as Sir Gawain’s conscience provides a cyclical development of Sir Gawain’s character by juxtaposing the characters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, juxtaposing the characters of Sir Gawain and Bertilak, and initiating Gawain’s repentance for his sinful pride.
The symbolism of the characters the Green Knight and Bertilak as the conscience of Sir Gawain is first introduced with the juxtaposition of the Green Knight and Sir Gawain. In the beginning of the tale, Sir Gawain is established as a good, righteous knight without any faults, through the dialogue and narration in the Arthurian court. He is the only knight who challenges the goliath Green Knight as King Arthur’s replacement. The Green Knight is described as lacking armor yet carries a battleaxe, which he does not intend to use, when he challenges the Arthurian court. Once Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge. Gawain is interested in protecting his king and the court, whereas the Green Knight wants to harm the court. Gawain’s Christian faith in God appears to be the source of his courage and confidence against the Green Knight. As Gawain departs on his journey, King Arthur speaks of Gawain’s integrity as Gawain may have spoken with the words, “‘In destinies sad or merry, true men can but try’” (ll. 564-565, pp.1471). The Green Knight serves as a part of a test of virtues in the beginning of the tale and therefore as the criticalness of Gawain’s conscience. Sir Gawain continues his pilgrimage to the Green Chapel in hopes of finding the Green Knight and, ultimately, his true self.
Sir Gawain and Bertilak are juxtaposed secondly to further the symbolism of Bertilak and the Green Knight as Sir Gawain’s conscience. In Gawain’s moment of desperation and need of rest, the vision of the castle of Hautdesert provides hope for Gawain. The hope restored in Gawain with his vision of Bertilak’s white castle conveys the castle as a safe haven and Bertilak as a savior. Once Gawain meets Bertilak, he examines him studiously, as if he knows him. The familiarity of Bertilak suggests that Gawain recognizes certain characteristics that remind him of the Green Knight, or rather characteristics that remind him of his self. His amazement in the presence of Bertilak is expressed in the lines, “So comely a mortal never Christ made as he. Whatever his place of birth, it seemed he well might be without a peer on earth in martial rivalry” (ll. 869-874, pp. 1479). Bertilak is seemingly interested in being hospitable and honest to his guest. The agreement between Bertilak and Gawain is to trade whatever each one receives during the three days. The three days of Bertilak’s hunting signify Gawain’s journey and his nearing future vividly. Bertilak is relentless and merciless in hunting the helpless animals, as Gawain is restless in his search for the Green Knight. During the hunt, Bertilak symbolizes the pureness of Gawain’s conscience while the animals represent Gawain during the hunt. The animals are resilient and sly in escaping the dangers of the king, yet are ultimately doomed, as Gawain is. Gawain’s own conscience is awaiting his downfall to advantageously slaughter him and teach him of his mistakes. The castle, ironically, leads to Gawain’s acceptance of temptation and his demise from perfection and virtuousness.
The juxtaposition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Bertilak is continued in the gloomy woods at the Green Chapel and, there in the woods, Gawain’s conscience causes him to repent for his pride. The armoring of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, once again, in the forest convey a significant representation of Gawain’s consciousness. The Green Knight has no defensive arms except the battleaxe. However, Gawain, who agreed to not defend himself from the Green Knight’s blow, has elaborate though worthless defensive paraphernalia. The bejeweled and elaborately decorated weaponry and his shield and diamond-encrusted helmet would intimidate any warrior except the one he has chosen to fight. As additional protection, Gawain accepts the sash from Lady Bertilak in hopes of preserving his life, which suggests his lack of faith in God to protect him. His fear and guilt accumulate as he waits to be decapitated by the Green Knight-he knows that the sash is not going to protect his life now. After three strikes with the axe, the Green Knight only leaves a nick on Gawain’s neck. The Green Knight reveals his true identity as Bertilak and reprimands Sir Gawain for conceding to the temptation of the sash with the words, “‘Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low’” (ll. 2374-2375, pp. 1508). Sir Gawain realizes that his guarded conscience was infiltrated easily by the seductiveness of Lady Bertilak’s sash and was overwhelm with pride. Gawain responds to the reprimand, “I confess, knight, in this place, most dire is my misdeed; let me gain back your good grace, and thereafter I shall take heed” (ll. 2385-2388, pp. 1509). Gawain also realizes that the acceptance of the sash fetters his own virtuousness.
In conclusion, the Green Knight and Bertilak as a part of Sir Gawain’s conscience rectify the mistake and sinful nature of Gawain’s actions. Bertilak and the Green Knight serve as a catalyst in Sir Gawain’s own consciousness to evaluate his actions and pride and to experience humility for the first time. The evilness of the Green Knight and goodness of Bertilak recoil on themselves and ultimately lead to Sir Gawain’s realization of his prideful nature. His pilgrimage to find the Green Chapel is necessary to assess his own faithfulness and virtuousness. His confession and faithfulness, specifically his disinterested piety at the beginning of the tale, are conveyed as the whole of his virtuousness. Faith and virtue, furthermore, are nothing if they are not tested. One’s own test of faith and virtue leads to better discernment for the conscience. The evilness and goodness of Sir Gawain are reconciled at the end of the tale into one being to provide the stability and security of his tested virtues.
The Contradiction Between Chivalry and Basic Instincts of a Man
As is the case with almost every example of romantic epics, and certainly every story concerning King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the characters carefully observe a strict code of ethics, or chivalry. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain and his peers hold values such as courtesy, loyalty, and honor in high esteem. This respect for the chivalric code is apparent in many instances throughout the poem, such as when King Arthur accepts the dangerous challenge from the Green Knight to save face in front of his knights and the strangers, as well as to live up to his name as a brave man. It is even more obvious in Sir Gawain’s wish to take his king’s place in the Christmas game that the knight has great veneration for honor and loyalty. Sir Gawain attempts to live his life morally, humbly, and in accordance with Christian teachings. Such reverence for civilization and society’s order falls apart in the second half of the story when Sir Gawain visits the castle of Lord Bercilak.
Although Sir Gawain attempts to adhere to society’s standards, the atmosphere of the castle causes the basic needs for food, sex, and a will to live to overcome the desire for structure and civility. The castle of Lord Bercilak is the appropriate setting for this struggle and slackening of chivalric code since it serves two main purposes: one good and one evil. On the positive side, the castle and Lord Bercilak’s court are the answer to Gawain’s prayer as they appear to him in the middle of the wilderness and provide for him a haven to rest before his battle. In reality, however, the castle is a fabrication of Morgan le Faye, and exists only to deceive Gawain and cause him to stray from his noble ambitions to live up to his word and meet the Green Knight.
The events of the three days before Sir Gawain travels to the Green Chapel illustrate the struggle between a want for a strict code of ethics and instinctual urges. Each day the lord of the castle sets out to hunt and Sir Gawain rests and attends Mass in preparation for his upcoming battle. The agreement that the two men make to share their winnings at the end of each day gives readers the sense of rules and civility, yet what goes on during the hunt, or hunts, is reduced to basic human urges. This hunt is presumably out of entertainment and politeness to his guest, but essentially, the act of hunting is very barbaric in nature. It involves one animal killing another for food (and clothing in the case of humans) and is a task necessary to survival. The hunting party engages in fierce chases and battles to kill the prey, emphasizing their brute manliness. Despite the uncivilized aspects of the hunt, much show and pageantry surrounds the daily hunting, especially when the lord is preparing to leave and upon the party’s return. This wildness acts as a setup for the action to follow and could also be foreshadowing the fall from chivalry and order that Gawain later experiences.
One might expect such primal adventures to take place in the wilderness of the surrounding forest, yet inside the castle another hunt is taking place. When the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Sir Gawain every morning, she initiates a second battle between chivalry and basic instincts, namely the knight’s morality and the basic urge for sex or procreation. Sir Gawain begins the first of these daily encounters by suggesting that he dress himself and get out of bed, saying, “I should quit this couch and accouter me better, And be clad in more comfort for converse here”? (1220-1). This modesty shows that Gawain is concerned with behaving morally and in the proper fashion as it would not be suitable for a noble lady to converse with a man in his pajamas sitting in a bed. He tries to obey this social norm, but the lady of the house convinces him to stay in this most improper position. This is most likely because it is a more intimate situation and would allow the knight to obey her request for sex, telling him that “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill” (1236-7). He talks his way out of having sex with Lady Bercilak, but in the end must give her one kiss. This concession shows that Gawain’s noble will to always do the right thing is imperfect. The next morning, when she enters his bedchamber again, Lady Bercilak plays on the knight’s wish to be polite and chivalrous to get him to have sex with her again. She uses the very virtue that should be a deterrent to promiscuity to attempt to convince him to be immoral. The lady tries to persuade him by saying that “A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed” should feel it his duty to be polite and do what she asks of him (1483). At this, Gawain allows her to kiss him again, and once more before she parts Ã¢Â?” one more step away from upright chivalry and one step closer to giving in to desire.
On the third morning, the battle between the lady and Sir Gawain takes on a different air when she offers him the green girdle. Before, it was a struggle between chivalry and desire, but with the introduction of the girdle, the element of survival comes into play and makes it even harder for Gawain to resist his urges to accept the lady’s offers. While Gawain was able to fend off sexual advances and only broke down slightly to accept the lady’s kisses, when he accepts the invincible girdle, the knight’s fear of death proves to be more powerful than his wish to be honorable towards his host. He tries to deny the gift, but once the lady tells him that it is a magic, invincible girdle, it does not take long for Gawain to give in after he “began to muse , and mainly he thought/ It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come/ When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:/Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!” (1855-8). All it takes is for the lady to ask him one more time and Sir Gawain readily accepts the garment and promises to keep it a secret from everyone, especially the lord of the house. Even though he knows that he should give it over to Lord Bercilak at the end of the day, his will to survive in battle against the Green Knight makes Gawain keep the garment secret. Later, he regrets giving in to his instincts rather than following his conscience when he realizes that it was a test of his loyalty, one of the most important aspects of chivalry. The Green Knight, Lord Bercilak in disguise, forgives this breach of promise and loyalty when Gawain meets him to fulfill the rest of the contest by saying, “But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame” (2369). Gawain, however, still feels horrible about betraying his word to the lord of the castle. He calls his desire to live cowardice and hands the girdle back to the Green Knight while Gawain continues to berate himself for his misdeed. That the Green Knight forgives Gawain, but Gawain cannot forgive himself, illustrates the difference between the two men as noble knights. The Green Knight, who is in the service of the evil Morgan le Faye, believes that it was permissible for Sir Gawain to betray his morals to save his own life, yet the righteous knight of King Arthur’s court does not accept this as an excuse. True chivalrous knights were not supposed to fear death, but to live and battle bravely and in accordance with court and Christian morals, no matter what the consequences.
Sir Gawain’s struggle between chivalry and instincts is in some ways as basic as the struggle between right and wrong, yet more intricate in others. The relationship between good and evil deeds gradually becomes more complex as Gawain’s visit at the castle wears on. Obviously, when the lady of the castle tempts him with the desire to have sex with a beautiful woman (and another man’s wife), the correct, moral choice is clear” that the knight should stand by his ethics and the chivalric code and not give in to his lustful thoughts. When she tempts him with the girdle, however, more is at stake than pleasure and wish-fulfillment. When Gawain sees a way to spare his life in the upcoming battle between him and the Green Knight, he hardly puts up a resistance and abandons his morals and loyalty to Lord Bercilak. Gawain is supposedly the most virtuous and chivalrous knight in all of Arthur’s court and, therefore, all of Britain, so readers should take his judgment of his morality more seriously than the opinions of other characters. While most common people would find no harm in this act, once Gawain realizes what he has done, he is ashamed of himself, no matter what the Green Knight or Arthur’s own court thinks about the act. Ultimately, most of society, even in medieval time, would expect someone to do whatever he or she could to save their lives, and not have any qualms about justifying it as a necessary act of self-defense. The noble Sir Gawain, however, cannot accept this excuse since he has a higher order of ethics to uphold as a knight of the Round Table. This difference between societal norms and chivalric code is an important distinction since the original purpose of the poem was most likely to entertain nobles at court, and the poet would want to flatter his employer and his virtues as much as possible.
The Gender Roles and Their Portrayal
Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is caged within a static binary composed of the masculine and the feminine; relative opposites within which individuals are expected to conform to a certain quota of behaviors – for to fit into neither category would seemingly render a character useless to the plot: a celebration of masculine virtue. As a late Arthurian narrative, the poem appears much like its counterparts – posing Gawain of King Arthur’s court, an apparent epitome of this masculine virtue and chivalric value, in contest with the mysterious and similarly brawny Green Knight, later known as Lord Bertilak – creating an image of absolute, impenetrable masculinity. Interestingly, despite the constructions of masculinity retaining the narrative limelight, females appear to act as the architects of the plot of the poem, using their femininity, both through love and scorn, to dictate the actions of the masculine characters surrounding them. Not only does this confirm the static binary by making gender relative to narrative role, where the females generate plot and the male follows suit, there is, in addition, a contrasting blurring of what it means to be innately masculine or innately feminine. The blurring of binary behaviors warps the importance of gender within the poem as well as its appearance as a key theme throughout, essentially rendering the celebration of masculine heroism as null since it celebrates feminity equally if not subtly more so in the ultimate reveal of Morgan le Faye’s successful deceit of Gawain.
Masculinity has an undoubtable link with Arthurian literature, and could be described as thematically key to the construction of an Arthurian narrative such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The chivalric male protagonist, who remotely follows a variant of the earlier epic heroic code, takes part in a quest, which is normally centered around romantic interest, in order to win the favour of the court and the lady in question; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight loosely follows these principles. Gawain is almost immediately introduced to us as possessing the characteristics which wholly create the desirable chivalric male: ‘Gawain was for good knowen’, since his behavior is ‘so cortays, so knyghtyly’ – later displayed through his armor, ‘ful awles’, and then his actions. The depiction of Gawain as a knight is relatively stereotypical in this way, bringing together all the masculine aspects of chivalric knighthood, represented by the ‘fyve pointes’ of the pentangle; having the ability to fight well whilst being a devoted follower of Christianity. It is emphasized by the poet that the ‘pure fyve [virtues] were harder happed on that hathel then on any’ – he is the epitome of masculinity – essentially, chivalrous representatives do not get much better than Gawain. Gawain’s armoring is described at great length, and we are introduced to Gawain in great detail – much more than any other male throughout the poem besides the Green Knight, later known as Bertilak, who represents masculinity through his lordship. There is, therefore, great weight given to Gawain’s character, as if as readers total reliance is given to him to convey what masculinity in terms of Arthurian literature is – there is in fact little inclusion of other male characters, and even King Arthur himself is side-lined to closer bring the focus on Gawain, the ‘gentylest knight of lote’, and his gendered representation. The representation of gender is narrowed by this process. The Green Knight, Lord Bertilak, is the only other reliable representative of masculinity, since his character too is given significance by the poet, known as a ‘lede of lordeschyp a lee of ledes ful goode’. Bertilak’s character, both as himself and as the Green Knight, is recognizably ‘sturne’, which conveys a similar masculine strength and power possessed by Gawain both during the challenge of blows and in his return to Arthur’s court. Bertilak’s ‘huntes’, like Gawain’s quest, is representative of his masculine characteristics – portraying violent strength and power over the natural world. The hunt, alike the battle, is a recurring theme in Arthurian literature and therefore directs us towards the belief that masculinity is constrained and dictated by the genre. The exchange between Gawain and Bertilak as the Green Knight acts as the plots central aspect, and the entirety of the narrative is almost purely dedicated to the challenge of blows between them, giving further centrality to masculinity and the behaviors expected of masculine characters for them to have significance. The focus on masculinity appears to be impenetrable since, despite the occasional interruption, the main focus of the poem is continually brought back to the masculine struggle to do what is expected of them as male members of society: display ultimate strength, resilience and virtue in all situations, as Gawain attempts and Bertilak undoubtedly possesses, having an understanding which allows him to forgive Gawain for his failure at relative male perfection; the ultimate achievement in a male orientated, Arthurian world.
Femininity is posed as the obvious counter to masculinity in the Arthurian world, where the binary appears strict and there is little or no deviation between the two gender spheres. Once again, femininity within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows a set of stereotyped ideals that masculinity does, but the basic principles of these ideals are very different – instead of the hero, they are the ‘damsel’, sometimes in distress, yet most commonly a tempestuous lover. Arguably, Lady Bertilak is the sole representative of femininity throughout the entirety of the poem, since she is the only female character to be graced with personality, having the ability to engage in conversations with her male counterparts. Her character also embraces the flirtatious womanly nature expected of the Arthurian ‘lover’, acting as a temptress to Gawain from her initial entry with her brest bare displayed’, and through the bedroom exchange: eager for Gawain to teach her of ‘wyt while [her] lord is fro’. Her beauty is central to her power, and this is emphasized by the poet in the constant reminders: ‘hit lady, loveliest on lyve to beholde’. The appearance of femininity, in contrast, is much subtler than that of masculinity not only because the appearance of female characters is lesser, but also because it doesn’t appear on the surface that femininity displays the same power and strength as masculinity; femininity seems relatively weak since it is based on often difficult to see emotional and mental qualities instead of physical attributes like Gawain and The Green Knight. The power of femininity lies within its ability to control – the prime example of this within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Lady Bertilak’s persuasion of Gawain in the bedroom, and Gawain’s subliminal acceptance of her terms without fail, even putting her desires before his own – accepting her request to lie about the girdle despite it causing a risk to his chivalrous reputation. Women in the Medieval Era would have been viewed as closely linked with the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and this stereotypical image of temptress is followed and represented by Lady Bertilak as part of her binary gender. Morgan le Faye, introduced at the poems conclusion, yet not sharing the same influence as Lady Bertilak due to her lack of physicality, also appears to use her femininity through her successful temptation and use of other characters for narrative development. Morgan le Faye, although it does not appear she uses her feminine nature for sexual temptation like Lady Bertilak, as her character is not physically met within the story, definitely possesses the ability to control the masculine using her femininity. Interestingly, this makes masculinity appear relatively feeble. The mental strength of masculine characters is not explored, as previously seen, the focus is on their chivalric virtue rather than their intelligence as such, both sexually and not. Females, like Lady Bertilak and the briefly mentioned Guinevere, are constructs of their place within the hierarchy which means that, even if their power exists it is not necessarily recognized as equal; it does not share the same clarity is nature as that of masculinity. This is what separates the masculine and the feminine into two separate gender binaries. The ‘flesch’ and ‘lere’ of the female carry importance, they must perform in order to emphasize these qualities; achieving the ultimate goal of femininity by having such charm as Lady Bertilak. Yet, their performance is not passive as may be expected, it is instead an extremely active process.
Arguably, both masculinity and femininity are required in order for the narrative construct to work – since it appears that both the masculine virtue and feminine intelligence are needed to reach a fully developed plot, causing the binaries to merge together through their reliance on one another for a successful narrative. Some characters begin to possess attributes that are both masculine and feminine, having both physical strength and mental competence, confusing the clear-cut ideal of gender within Arthurian literature which was reflective of the Medieval society and the hierarchical trappings that defined gender performance of the period. Unexpectedly on the basis of a prevailing medieval masculinity, females appear to drive the plot in its entirety. Dependence surrounds the female characters, as if the poet themselves requires females to make the events have some chronological link between them by leading the male protagonists between scenarios. In the poems conclusion, it is revealed that Morgan le Faye was successful in a plan to trick the Arthurian court when using Bertilak as the Green Knight, and in utilizing Lady Bertilak to deceive Gawain more specifically: ‘thurgh mygnt of Morgue le Faye’. Morgan le Faye’s character is able to use her understanding of femininity and the feminine role not only within society but also within narrative to undermine masculinity through the manipulation of chivalric encounters between characters. Though she does not carry out the work herself, her character is positioned at the top of a literary chain; having ultimate control over Bertilak, his wife and ultimately, Gawain. Female centrality appears as relatively unusual within a narrative that is distinctly masculine in purpose – a purpose to follow and make sense of the trials of knighthood, a trade dominated by masculinity. Instead of following the assumed, Morgan le Faye arguably becomes the real image of masculinity by removing the masculine nature of others for personal gain. Gawain, later understanding ‘the falssyng’, recognizes the deceit he has faced through female charm and curses the girdle, which he believes is representative of his masculine failure and of Morgan le Faye’s success and gain – since it is Gawain’s acceptance of the girdle, and therefore that of female control, which allows the female derived plot to continue, as if he is performing a role which he has been given. The agreement between Lady Bertilak and Gawain to keep the girdle a secret makes Gawain go against all of the masculine virtues that he believes in, and aims to achieve as if the feminine romantic aspect of knighthood and masculinity are more important than the heroic ‘code’ which the knight is expected to follow. Lady Bertilak’s girdle is symbolic of the power of femininity in this way; Morgan le Faye’s encourages the use of feminine power in order to seduce and take control of the male by subverting his values and virtues, and directing the heroic glory away from them, giving the limelight to the narrative women. The female adopts the virtues of the male that are left behind, such as their power and strength, which gives them aspects of both binaries – whereas the male adapts to the relative submission to female charm and narrative direction causing a gender coagulation which complicates the, what originally appeared to be, rigid binary. In other words, chivalric knighthood as the representative of masculinity cannot exist solely without its antithesis which is, however much it may be resented, base femininity.
In conclusion, neither masculinity or femininity is constrained to the stereotypical Medieval binary that immediately comes to mind when thinking about gender of the time. Despite the masculine characters expecting to fulfill the heroic and chivalric ideals of Arthurian literature, which at first sight they do, this is ultimately undermined and attempts are failed as they are proven to have faults with this masculine strength and virtue – mainly evolving from the fact that the masculine characters are following the lead of those who are feminine, both intentionally and unintentionally. Although it appears also that the female characters, such as Lady Bertilak, are performing the passive roles expected of the Medieval woman in following the command of her husband, the ultimate rule of Morgan Le Faye complicates this gender hierarchy and allows for the movement of women between the two gender binaries, embracing both the role that is given to them because of their gender and the masculine roles that they are able to obtain through the use of their female charm; ever moving away from the image of the Virgin Mary and the pre-fallen biblical Eve, and towards the scheming, intelligent and testing figure of Morgan Le Faye. The representation of gender, therefore, within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is mixed and often unexpected – as if the poet is attempting to follow the rigid binary set by early Medieval literature, yet taking a more ‘modern’ twist on it due to the composition of the poem being relatively late. Gender is represented as not unmovable set of rules by a subtly changing and evolving idea which can be used in many ways for the benefit and determent of various characters within narrative. Ultimately, gender is utilized by the author and the characters within to progress the storyline and emphasize other themes and meaning within the text.
Odysseus and Gawain: Quest Narratives and the Concept of Guilt
In the first chapter of his novel, How to Read Literature like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster discusses the idea of a quest narrative. “They [protagonists] go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves” (Foster 3). Essentially, while a hero may set out on a journey with a specific goal in mind, he will undoubtedly gain invaluable knowledge about himself along the way. At first, this explanation may seem extremely limited. If “the only subject that really matters” is the hero, why should any other person read their story? However, authors of quest narratives often write to enlighten their audience about the condition of humankind. Their message could focus on either the vulnerable, broken, greedy, or even ignorant condition of mankind. In the poems, the Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both Homer and the Gawain-poet send their heroes on quests in order to develop the idea that all humans, even heroic warriors and knights, are subject to fault.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ goal is to reach home. At the beginning of the epic, Odysseus is found near the end of his journey and is isolated with Kalypso on her island. Although they had sexual relations, Odysseus felt that “the sweet days of his life time were running out in anguish over his exile, for long ago the nymph had ceased to please” (Odyssey 5.159-161). In other words, Odysseus longs “for the sight of home” (5.229). This pitiful longing asserts Odysseus’ goal and that Odysseus is not perfect as he allows anguish to consume him. In all, this pitiful longing asserts the humanness of Odysseus. However, this realization may come as a shock to Homer’s audience. Odysseus is perceived as the ideal Greek hero. While relaying his story to the kingdom of King Alkinoös in Book Nine, Odysseus explains that he had sex with Kirke and Kalypso, “but in [his] heart [he] never gave consent” (9.37). Not only does he possess faithfulness to his wife, but he possesses great skill in battle and extremely persuasive oratory abilities. While speaking with Eumaios, Odysseus is described as “the master of improvisation” by Homer’s narrator (14.228). Despite this set of convincing facts about Odysseus, he is still mortal. Throughout his travels, this truth is revealed. In all, he acquires a sense of irresponsibility; he loses his entire crew of men, he is sexually unfaithful to his wife, he breaks the code of honor, he displays hubris, he displays impiety, and he allows his men to preemptively release the bag of winds. Specifically, Odysseus’ visit to the Kyklopes’ island serves as an example of many of these behaviors. He breaks the code of honor by entering the Kyklopes’ cave without permission. After escaping this unwelcomed place, Odysseus yells to the Kyklopes, “If ever mortal man inquire how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: Laertes’ son whose home’s on Ithaka!” (9.551-552). Here, Odysseus demands recognition for his impressive escape strategy. While this recognition is well deserved, Odysseus acts out of excessive pride, hubris, to gain it. Odysseus also voices that, if possible, he would kill the Kyklopes, send him to hell where “the god of earthquake could not heal” him (9.573). Questioning Poseidon is a great act of impiety. All this behavior is strangely uncharacteristic of Odysseus. However, a purpose of these inconsistencies does exist.
The events that Odysseus experience on this travel transcend a simple arrival at home. The purpose of his quest is to re-identify himself as the King of Ithaka, a place of civilization, after the long and taxing Trojan War, a place of savagery. Although an odd way to discover this, one must remember that growth only results from pain. The gods understood this. Zeus declares that while Odysseus’ “destiny is to see his friends again under his own roof,” he “will have no company, gods or men” to get him there (5.46-47, 36). This tactic does work well. Not only does Odysseus return home, defeat the suitors, and bring peace to Ithaka, but he shows respect to the suitors. When Eurykleia rejoices at their death, he reprimands her, “No crowing aloud, old woman. To glory over slain men is no piety” (22.461-462). Odysseus also yields to Athena and “his heart was glad,” an act of piety (24.610). He rediscovers his identity of piety, humility, and respectfulness along a taxing journey and is now fit to be a King. In all, Odysseus discovers that he is prone to many faults despite his successful life. On a deeper level, this suggests to readers that no human is perfect.
Likewise, Sir Gawain experiences a similarly taxing and self-revealing sort of quest. His goal is to find the Green Knight and receive the deathblow of his axe because of the “Christmas game” that he agreed to play (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I.283). Although a noble gesture of Gawain, this agreement displays the idea that Gawain is too confident in himself as he literally agreed to a death sentence. Similar to the reaction of Homer’s audience after realizing the imperfection of Odysseus, the Gawain-poet’s audience may be shocked to discover that Gawain is not perfect either. He is skilled in rhetoric, charming, courteous, brave, noble, self-sacrificing, and probably a dashing specimen of masculinity. Gawain’s brave and sacrificial act of taking King Arthur’s place in the beheading games suggests a parallel between him and Christ. When he arrives at Lord Bertilak’s court, the poet references Gawain as “so comely a mortal never Christ made as he” (II.870-871). The shield that Gawain receives to protect him during his journey further develops this idea. The shield possesses many Christ-like qualities. The shield “shone all red, with the pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (II. 619-620). While the red represents the bloodshed of Christ, the gold represents the royal divinity of Christ. Ultimately, the shield represents the moral perfection of Christ. Consequently, this suggests that Gawain possesses moral perfection as “all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds that Christ go on the cross” (II.642-643). Despite this perception, Gawain discovers his humanness on this “quest”.
At first, Gawain’s likeness to Christ is upheld. He valiantly braves the forest and remains faithful to his mission until he reaches “a castle cut of paper for a king’s feast” (II.802). Once he enters the castle, he displays courtesy in Lord Bertilak’s court and even agrees to play Bertilak’s game. However, Gawain reaches his major downfall the third day that he is staying in Bertilak’s castle. The belt that Lady Bertilak offers to Gawain presents a way for him to succeed in his goal without dying as well. Like any human who values life would, Gawain takes the belt. After the transaction, Gawain “agrees that not a soul save themselves shall see it [the belt] thenceforth with sight” (III.1864-1865). This means that Gawain will break the rules of the exchange game that he is playing with Lord Bertilak. With this one decision, Gawain’s piety, bravery, honesty, honor, nobility, and self-sacrificial nature disappear. He can no longer be likened to Christ. Gawain’s humanness cannot be denied.
Although discouraging, this realization serves a bigger purpose. After surviving the agonizing beheading game, the Green Knight, or Lord Bertilak, calls Gawain out on his dishonesty with the belt. He says that Gawain’s dishonesty occurred because Gawain lacked “a little loyalty in there” and “loved [his] own life” (IV.2366, 2368). After hearing this, “all the blood of [Gawain’s] body burned in his face” as he realizes his fault and shame (IV.2371). However, the Green Knight allows him to keep the belt because it will remind him of “the faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse” (IV.2435). Gawain accepts the belt and symbolically, this belt now replaces his shield. This further symbolizes his inconsistent human nature: the nature of all men. Gawain now better understands himself and helps the audience better understand the nature of mankind.
In all, these two texts appear to simply relay the journeys of two heroic characters. Odysseus faces countless obstacles on his way home and Gawain faces strange and unconventional obstacles on his way to his destiny as well. However noble these characters may appear, the audience discovers that both are still human. Subconsciously, both characters discover their real identity while they consciously discover their destination. The subtle discovery suggests that all mankind are at some point blind to the undeniable nature of men: no man is perfect.