Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain in the Green Knight is a story about chivalrous values and trickery. This story involves the Green knight’s arrival at King Arthur’s feast one evening. The green knight challenges the king to his game and just as King Arthur accepts Sir Gawain insists on accepting the challenge instead. The Green knight is beheaded, but picks his head up and tells Sir Gawain that he must meet him in one year so that he can return the challenge. Sir Gawain sets off on his journey one year later and arrives at a castle along his way. He is graciously let inside where he stays a few days. The lord of the castle creates a game of his own involving the Lord hunting and Sir Gawain remaining at the castle and the two exchanging their winnings at the end of each night. The lord of the castle, also known as the Green Knight, is testing the chivalrous values of Sir Gawain throughout the story through use of games.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a prominent writer of this time period. His stories were meant to be read aloud to entertain the courts as this was part of his job. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unknown; however, there are many translations; the translation the reader is best familiar with being that of J.R.R Tolkien. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written during the same time period as Geoffrey Chaucer and can be assumed his intended audience was that of the courts. Even in the story, King Arthur’s court engaged in storytelling; storytelling was a very common thing to use as entertaining to the courts. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight therefore can be assumed that it was used for storytelling and entertainment.
The first motif present in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is game playing. The Green knight presents Sir Gawain with games in terms of his wife, acting as the host, supplying winnings, and the overall challenge of meeting the Green Knight. The act of game playing in the story acts as a motif for the overall theme of Chivalry. Chivalry was a very important code to live by during this time period. Chivalry during the 1300 -1400’s is best seen as “the lifestyle and moral code followed by medieval knights. Chivalry included the values of honor, valor, courtesy, and purity, as well as loyalty to a lord, a cause, or a noble woman” (Novelguide.com). Sir Gawain proves his loyalty as a knight initially when he takes the place of King Arthur challenging the Green Knight. The Green Knight initially challenges the court and King Arthur is the only to accept, but Sir Gawain acts as his right-hand-man and steps in place of his king. Chivalry and the game playing presented by the Green Knight go hand-in-hand because the Green Knight uses the game playing to test Sir Gawain’s inner worth and honor as a knight.
Sir Gawain’s chivalry is tested throughout the story by the Green Knight who is also Bertilak the host of the castle and Bertilak’s wife. Sir Gawain’s chivalry is first tested as the overall plot to the story is unfolded. The Green Knight challenges Sir Gawain to meet him one year from the moment he asks him to so that the Green Knight can return the blow he received. This challenges Sir Gawain’s chivalry because if he does not meet the green knight then he is perceived as a dishonorable man who does not keep his word. An important characteristic of a knight was courage whereas Sir Gawain must keep his word to prove his courage and bravery as a knight otherwise he would be useless. The second moment of chivalry that is tested involves encounters between Sir Gawain and Bertilak’s wife. Bertilak leaves each day to go hunting as he plans to return with winnings to compare with Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain lies in bed as Bertilak’s wife comes in asking for her “way” with him. Over the course of Sir Gawain’s time spent in the castle, the wife kisses Gawain on three different occasions. He is to give these kisses to the Green Knight during their exchange of winnings. On the final night of winnings, the wife presents Sir Gawain with a green girdle that will protect him from the Green Knight. Sir Gawain presents Bertilak with the kisses, but does not tell him about the green girdle. Sir Gawain’s chivalry is tested here in terms of how he treats the wife. It is stated that a part of the chivalrous code, a knight is to have loyalty to a lord or noble woman. The lord or host of the castle was not shown such loyalty when he allowed the wife to kiss him. He was also displaying un-chivalrous characteristics when he failed to tell the Green Knight about the green girdle that was given to him that helped him remain alive during their meeting. It can be assumed that not only is Sir Gawain’s chivalrous code being tested/questioned, but the chivalrous code as a whole as well. Sir Gawain was perceived as one of the most chivalrous men in Arthur’s court, but he is capable of human error. Is the code too strict? It can be understood that knights should be able to make these human minor errors without their chivalrous honor being questioned. Chivalry was also linked very much with religion. A knight’s sword was supposed to uphold the dignity and honor of the church. His honor was to be centered on the church as well as all of his values.
The chivalric expectations of a knight in Arthur’s court are that of loyalty. Knights, in this case Sir Gawain, were to remain loyal to God, his King, and in this case to Lady Guinevere. Knights were also to strive to exhibit courage, courtesy towards others, and keep to their word. According to the court’s standards, when a knight possessed these expectations/qualities he was seen as a true and noble knight. Sir Gawain exemplified all of these qualities according to Arthur and his court. Arthur originally was going to take on the Green knight, but Sir Gawain stepped forth as a mark of his loyalty to his King. This is especially important for Sir Gawain because he is not only is he Arthur’s best knight, but he is closest to Arthur. Sir Gawain kept his word as a knight and followed up the Green Knight with his request to meet Sir Gawain one year from the date requested. Sir Gawain allowed the Green Knight to return the blow to his head as requested thereby keeping all terms of his word.
Sir Gawain’s chivalric expectations of a knight prove to be stricter than that of the Green Knight and King Arthur. According to Sir Gawain the chivalric expectations of a knight were not met after his final meeting with the Green Knight. Sir Gawain failed to tell the Green Knight about the green girdle given to him by Lady Bertilak to ensure his survival in the fight against the Green Knight. Due to his failure to follow the rules of the game, the Green Knight puts a slight cut on Sir Gawain’s neck from the axe as punishment. Sir Gawain is ashamed and disappointed in himself for his failure to follow by the rules and keep his complete word as a knight. In Sir Gawain’s eyes, he is a failure and a knight who has sinned. He believes he has not met the expectations of a knight while the court believes he has through his courage, bravery, and ability to remain alive and return to him safely as loyalty to King Arthur.
The Green Knight’s view of chivalry seems much lighter than that of the court, King Arthur, and Sir Gawain. The Green Knight viewed Sir Gawain as a worthy knight despite Sir Gawain’s view of himself after their final meeting. The Green Knight believes that because Sir Gawain has confessed his sin that all is well and he is a trustworthy knight; however, Sir Gawain feels that his trust as a knight has been compromised by his sin and failure to follow the rules. He laughs off Sir Gawain’s disappointment in his failure and still calls him the worthiest of all knights. This shows that the Green Knight does not follow what can be depicted as the court’s or Sir Gawain’s chivalric expectations. The Green knight is much more lenient when it comes to the expectations and does not account for the human mistakes that Sir Gawain has made. He recognizes them as human mistakes and still finds Sir Gawain a brave, courageous, and commendable knight of Arthur’s court.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem for entertaining during the Renaissance era. It illustrates the chivalry that knights were meant to follow and base their life upon. The values of chivalry are tested throughout the story as well as the chivalry system as a whole through use of trickery and game playing. Essentially Gawain loses his moral innocence as he falls victim to the archetype of the temptress. He finds failure in himself as a person and as a knight. He no longer views himself as the knight that exemplifies all the chivalric expectations a knight should possess despite the expectations of King Arthur and the Green knight.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. Kindle.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Nature of Chivalry
The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The code of chivalry, in particular, shapes the values and actions of Sir Gawain and other characters in the poem. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.
The ideals of Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Gawain’s symbolic shield. The pentangle represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem examines more than Gawain’s personal virtue; it asks whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. What is really being tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be the chivalric system itself, symbolized by Camelot.
Arthur’s court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur is introduced to us as the “most courteous of all,” indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances hold too much power over the company. The members of the court never reveal their true feelings, instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.
On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot into the wilderness. In the forest, Gawain must abandon the codes of chivalry and admit that his animal nature requires him to seek physical comfort in order to survive. Once he prays for help, he is rewarded by the appearance of a castle. The inhabitants of Bertilak’s castle teach Gawain about a kind of chivalry that is more firmly based in truth and reality than that of Arthur’s court. These people are connected to nature, as their hunting and even the way the servants greet Gawain by kneeling on the “naked earth” symbolize (818). As opposed to the courtiers at Camelot, who celebrate in Part 1 with no understanding of how removed they are from the natural world, Bertilak’s courtiers joke self-consciously about how excessively lavish their feast is (889–890).
The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawain’s adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host’s wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight’s challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain’s time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knight’s axe, and his acceptance of the lady’s offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.
The Letter of the Law
Though the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a “game,” he uses the language of the law to bind Gawain into an agreement with him. He repeatedly uses the word “covenant,” meaning a set of laws, a word that evokes the two covenants represented by the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament details the covenant made between God and the people of Israel through Abraham, but the New Testament replaces the old covenant with a new covenant between Christ and his followers. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul writes that Christ has “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The “letter” to which Paul refers here is the legal system of the Old Testament. From this statement comes the Christian belief that the literal enforcement of the law is less important than serving its spirit, a spirit tempered by mercy.
More main ideas from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight