awain and Green Knight Sir Gawain Green Knight EssaysSir Gawain and The Green Knight – The Character of Sir Gawain
In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain is skillfully brought to life by the unknown author. Through the eyes of numerous characters in the poem, we see Gawain as a noble knight who is the epitome of chivalry; he is loyal, honest and above all, courteous. As the story progresses, Gawain is subjected to a number of tests of character, some known and some unknown. These tests tell us a great deal about Gawain’s character and the struggles he faces internally. I will explore the various places in the poem where we learn about Gawain, either through others or through the tests he faces. By the end of the poem, we sense that we have come to know Gawain and have ventured a peek at his human side. However, we also realize that nothing short of perfection is acceptable to him.
Our first glimpse of Gawain occurs when the Green Knight suddenly appears at the New Year’s celebration at Camelot. He offers a challenge for anyone to come forward and strike him with his ax. Twelve months and a day later, he will return the blow. No one steps forward to accept the dare. Embarrassed by his knights’ lack of response, King Arthur accepts the challenge himself. At the fateful moment when Arthur is about to strike the blow, Gawain jumps up and says:
Would you grant me the grace,
To be gone from this bench and stand by you there,
If I without discourtesy might quit this board,…
I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest;
And the loss of my life would be least of any;
That I have you for uncle is my only praise;
My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth;
And for that this folly befits not a king,
And ’tis I that have asked it, it ought to be mine,
And if my claim be not comely let all this court judge,
in sight. Norton, 209
In this first meeting, through Gawain’s own words, we begin to see him as the noble knight he is. Gawain has cleverly chosen his most courteous words to release Arthur from this predicament and restore the reputation of the knights of the Round Table. We cannot imagine a more courageous action than Gawain offering his life for his king nor a more polite offer to take the game.
We are able to draw further clues about Gawain’s character from the description of his armoring when he sets out a year later to meet the Green Knight. In this passage, we learn that Gawain’s shield has gold pentangle on it. The author tells us the pentangle “is proper to that peerless prince” because it is a “token of truth,” and he is most true to his word and a “most courteous knight.” (Norton, 215) He goes on to say:
The fifth of the five fives followed by this knight
Were beneficence boundless and brotherly love
And pure mine and manners, that none might impeach,
And compassion most precious–these peerless five
Were forged and made fast in him, foremost of men. Norton, 215-216
We have no reason to disbelieve the author nor his praise of Gawain.
Our next chance to understand Gawain occurs at Bercilak’s castle where the household is overjoyed that the holiday guest is Gawain of King Arthur’s court. They whisper to each other that Gawain has “courage ever-constant, and customs pure,” he is “the father of fine manners,” and his “displays of deportment” will dazzle their eyes. (Norton, 221) Through these words we see that Gawain is generally well respected for these characteristics; it is not just his fellow knights who feel this way. At this castle Gawain undergoes many tests of character, yet he is unaware that he is being tested. An unknown test is perhaps the best test there is, since the individual cannot prepare for it.
Bercilak’s wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he is able to dodge her advances with clever defenses. On the first day after being told she would marry him if she could