Sir Gawain And Green Knight

In the epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author uses the
protagonist, Sir Gawain, to illustrate the heroic ideals of chivalry, loyalty
and honesty in fourteenth century England. The poem depicts the fabled society
of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It extols and idolizes the
virtues of the fabled kingdom. In the poem, Gawain is the epitome of virtue and
all that is good. Throughout the poem, however, his character is constantly
tested and his integrity is compromised. In the end, Gawain proves that,
although he is fallible, he is an honest and chivalrous man of heroic stature.

The poem begins on New Year’s Eve in Camelot during a huge dinner celebration.

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The author elaborately details the “feasting and fellowship and carefree
mirth” and sets the scene with “fair folk” and “gentle
knights”. (p. 2) Amid the merriment and festivities of these noble persons,
a huge man on horseback dressed entirely in green, gallops into the hall.

Arrogantly he issues a challenge to everyone at the feast for someone to come
forward and strike him with his axe. To this man, the green knight promises to
award his adversary with his beautiful axe on the condition that in a year from
then the challenger should also receive the same single blow of the axe in
return. Such a challenge baffles the court and no one responds until, finally,
King Arthur stands up and accepts the green knight’s offer, though claiming it
ridiculous. With grandeur and the courteous air of a hero, Sir Gawain stands up
and graciously asks to be granted the challenge on behalf of the king. Such a
courageous and noble act defines the character of Sir Gawain. With an adept
swing of the sword he swiftly beheads the illustrious green knight. Yet, instead
of killing him, the green knight picks up his head, tells him to seek out the
green chapel and warns him not to shirk from what he has promised, “Sir
Gawain, forget not to go as agreed,/ And cease not to seek till me, sir, you
find….” (p. 10) After almost a year has passed, Gawain has not forgotten
the green knight or his promise. Therefore, he resigns himself to his duty and
prepares to leave Camelot in search of the green knight. He arms himself with a
five-pointed star on the outside and the image of the Virgin Mary on the inside
to protect him, a symbol of his purity and goodness. Before he leaves, Arthur
tells him “In destinies sad or merry,/ True men can but try.” (p. 12)
Such a statement aims to further highlight the nobility and integrity of Sir
Gawain. Upon his departure, he travels for many arduous days until finally
reaching a paradisiacal castle in which he is taken in as a guest. His host,
“A man of massive mold, and of middle age…” (who shares a remarkable
resemblance in build to the green knight) is welcoming and very hospitable to
Gawain. During his stay at this castle, Gawain is repeatedly besieged with
temptations. The wife of his host constantly tries to cajole Gawain into having
an affair with her. To the credit of his impeccable character, however, he
declines. Though she cannot tempt him with herself, she is able to break his
moral purity by convincing him to accept a gift that could protect his life
against formidable the green knight. Furthermore, what makes the acceptance of
this gift a true shortcoming is the fact that Gawain was not honest with his
host and tell him that he received such a gift, although earlier they had agreed
to such terms. After this, Sir Gawain departs, no longer infallible, to seek out
the green knight. He finally comes upon the green chapel and the knight appears.

The green knight commends Sir Gawain for being noble and keeping his word and
with this Gawain prepares for blow of the axe. The green knight returns the blow
by merely cutting the skin and drawing a little blood. This astounds Sir Gawain
and he jumps up and is ready to fight. The green knight laughs at Gawain and
tells him to relax that he did not intend to cut off his head. The small cut
represented Gawain’s small sin of accepting the “magical” sash from
the green knight’s wife (who reveals that he had been his host at the castle
after all). Besides that small shortcoming, the green knight proclaims that
Gawain is truly a noble, honorable man henceforth absolved of all guilt. Gawain
is deeply upset and disgraced by his behavior and decides to keep and wear the
sash as a sign of his shame. After this, he returns to Camelot and is hailed by
all the court as a hero and they lightly dismiss his recent disgrace. Throughout
the poem, the importance of chivalry, nobility and integrity is an overarching
theme. It defines Gawain’s behavior and heroism as ideal. This attitude
illustrates the values of fourteenth century England. Through his actions,
Gawain proves his chivalry, valor and status as a hero by courageously defending
King Arthur, keeping his word to seek out the green knight, refusing to have an
affair with his host’s wife, and holding to his ideals and principals.

Therefore, if Sir Gawain, the heroic knight, is depicted as the epitome of all
that is good and pure then, one can conclude that the society as a whole placed
great emphasis and value upon the ideals of chivalry and nobility.


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