Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance. It is one of the better-known Arthurian stories, of an established type known as the "beheading game". Written in bob and wheel stanzas, it emerges from Welsh, Irish and English tradition and highlights the importance of honour and chivalry. It is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his prowess, and it remains popular to this day in modern English renderings from J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage and others as well as through film and stage adaptations.
In it Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious "Green Knight" who challenges any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him with his blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle.


The ambiguity of the poem's ending makes it more complex than most. Christian readings of the poem argue for an apocalyptic interpretation, drawing parallels with the story of Adam and Eve. The Green Knight is interpreted by some as a representation of the Green Man of folklore and by others as an allusion to Christ. Some feminist interpretations see women as in control throughout, while others argue that their control is illusory. Cultural critics have argued that the poem expresses tensions between the Welsh and English in the poet's dialect region. Complex in plot and rich in language, it is also sophisticated in its use of medieval symbolism, drawing upon Celtic, Germanic, and other folklore.;

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.

   
The Shield    
The shield's intricate details all point to its capacity as a symbolic reminder of knighthood oaths, even so much as to define the model chivalric character. First, the Pearl Poet describes the general color as being "shining gules." (Sir Gawain, Fitt 2, Ln. 619) In medieval heraldry, gules, or red, symbolized both valor and courage. The most important design of the shield is a pentangle painted in gold on the front. The pentangle was not considered a symbol of the occult as it is now, but was designed to remind man of things divine. "It is a symbol that Solomon designed long ago/As an emblem of fidelity, and justly so..." (Sir Gawain, Fitt 2, Lns. 625-626). In the poem itself, the pentangle symbolizes five different groups of five: the five wounds suffered by Christ on the cross, Gawain's own dexterous fingers, the five joys Mary found in the infant Christ, and the five human senses. Finally, the pentangle represents a series of virtues: "The fifth group of five the man respected, I hear,/Was generosity and love of fellow-men above all;/ His purity and courtesy were never lacking,/And surpassing the others, compassion..." (Sir Gawain, Fitt 2, Ln. 651-654). These five final virtues are the chivalric virtues of the medieval period, and were contained as part of the oaths the knight swore to his lord. It is important to note that, to a knight like Sir Gawain, compassion for others ranked even above purity or generosity.