The poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was written by an unknown English author referred to as the “Pearl Poet” around the late 1300s, which was a period of time when knights, castles, and kings existed in reality, not only in stories and tales. Sir Gawain is the valiant and noble protagonist of the poem who faces a series of challenges given to him by the Green Knight, or Lord Bertilak. Stephen Greenblatt explains that most folklorists classify the main plot of the poem as the “Beheading game,” which is a common motif in French romances where a supernatural challenger offers to let his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow (201). Gawain’s long and difficult quest in the poem serves to demonstrate how a chivalrous knight is capable of acting when put in increasingly odd and mentally challenging circumstances. Sir Gawain’s journey throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight changes him into a more humble and mature man, and the poet utilizes this growth to emphasize the unrealistic standards of the chivalric system in a Christian world.
The setting and first scene of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows the standards of chivalry and the noble attributes that Sir Gawain possesses. According to Dr. Richard Abels, one of the most important facets of the late 1300s Medieval English culture was chivalry, or the desired virtues and characteristics that a knight wanted to embody, including loyalty, bravery, courtesy, and mesure (1). Greenblatt explains that Sir Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew, and according to the older tradition of Arthurian romances, Gawain is considered to be the greatest knight of the round table (201). When no knight comes forward to accept the Green Knight’s beheading game, he insults the House of Arthur by criticizing their bravery and fearlessness, asking the court, “Where’s the fortitude and fearlessness you’re so famous for? And the breathtaking bravery and the big-mouth bragging?” (Sir Gawain 311-12). This offends King Arthur, resulting in him stepping up to accept the challenge, but soon after, Sir Gawain offers to take his king’s place in the deadly challenge. Gawain accepts the challenge that the Green Knight presents because he wants to honorably take the place of King Arthur and gain himself glory by performing more chivalrous duties than anticipated of him. This act of sacrificing himself for his king proves Gawain’s loyalty to his uncle and shows that he is both a valiant and selfless knight.
The Green Knight, or Bertilak de Hautdesert, is a vital character in the poem as he acts as the antagonist and creates the dilemmas to be faced by Sir Gawain. An important motif in the poem is the “troth” that Gawain gives to Bertilak twice; once when he swears to follow the rules of the beheading game and seek out the Green Knight in a year, and the other when he agrees to Bertilak’s exchanging of gifts. The Green Knight tells Gawain right before he allows him to swing the axe, “Before we compete, repeat what we’ve promised. And start by saying your name to me, sir, and tell me the truth so I can take it on trust” (Sir Gawain 378-80). Greenblatt explains that the word ‘truth’ in Middle English means both what it does today and what is expressed by the older form, troth, which is the faith pledged by one’s word and owed to a king, a partner, or someone who places someone under an obligation (202). Gawain honors his word and upholds the first troth by going to find the Green Knight, even when his guide tempts him to act cowardly and turn back. However, Gawain does not uphold the second troth and breaks the promises he made to follow the rules of Bertilak’s gift exchanging game by concealing the green girdle under his clothing.
The pentangle on Gawain’s shield symbolizes the chivalric system and the unreachable standards of these virtues that Gawain tries to honor throughout his journey. The pentangle symbolizes five sets of five virtues that Gawain strives towards, which are being flawless in his five senses; never failing in his five fingers; being faithful to the five wounds Christ got on the cross; being strengthened by the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in Jesus; and exhibiting brotherly friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity (Sir Gawain 217). The poet stresses the pentangle’s significance when he notes that “when spoken of in England, [it] is known by the name of the endless knot,” which emphasizes that the pentangle on Gawain’s shield indicates an unprecedented degree of knighthood that recognizes him not only as one of Arthur’s finest knights, but possibly as the greatest in all of England (Sir Gawain 629-30). Despite this symbol’s intricate meaning and supposed power, it is still a simple design, painted onto Gawain’s shield. In his article, “The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’” Gerald Morgan touches on the poet’s use of the pentangle’s symbolism, stating, “Here we need to recognize that the pentangle is not by definition a perfect unity; it possesses greater unity than a quadrangle but less than a circle. We do not therefore expect of Gawain perfection that is appropriate to angelic being or to God himself. Gawain’s perfection does not require us to suppose that he is without sin and that moral behaviour is for him inevitable” (782). Gawain’s failure of the knightly code shows the pentangle as a symbol with a different meaning, out of touch with the complexity of human existence, suggesting that King Arthur’s court’s tradition of morality and chivalry is not as ideal as previously thought.
Gawain’s virtues come into question during his encounters with Lady Bertilak and the three days of temptation. In their exchanges, Lady Bertilak’s skills in temptation and wordplay are seen, but Gawain is shown to be equally as capable of evading her advances. Gawain resists the seduction attempts of Lady Bertilak, and this shows that Sir Gawain is chivalrous and virtuous because although he could have taken full advantage of the situation, he does not yield to his temptations. He simply receives kisses from the lady, which he returns to the Green Knight in accordance with their agreement. These seduction scenes give an indication of how hard Gawain is trying to maintain his knightly standards as a lesser man would have given in quickly to the seduction of a beautiful woman such as Lady Bertilak, but Gawain is shown to hold himself to a higher standard of living. While she fails at convincing Gawain to be her lover, Lady Bertilak displays great skill in deception to discover the flaw in Gawain’s virtuous morals. In her article “The Lady’s ‘Blushing’ Ring,” Jessica Cooke states that Lady Bertilak “learns from Gawain’s resistance and finally offers the girdle, combining the qualities which will appeal most to him: lack of material worth and an avowed ability to save his life, which she describes with the most tempting of language” (7). With her offer of her green girdle, Lady Bertilak eventually manages to entice him into a breach of faith. Despite Gawain’s successful resistance to the seduction, his willpower is weaker when the temptation is in regards to his life. On the third day with Lady Bertilak, Gawain’s mind is “on dark matters – how destiny might deal him a death blow on the day when he grapples with the guardian of the Green Chapel; of how the strike of the axe must be suffered without struggle” (Sir Gawain 1751-54). Gawain’s thoughts focused on his approaching encounter with the Green Knight instead of focusing on his loyalty to Bertilak, which is undeniably a natural human reaction, and this is what leads him to fail his knightly virtues and break his troth with Bertilak.
The poem transitions from a chivalric composition into a Christian structure, and the green girdle’s symbolism in the poem helps to denote this transition. The act of cowardice does not make a respectable knight, and the green girdle tempting Gawain causes him to act cowardly. Gawain does redeem himself, though, as he acknowledges the guilt and makes it a point to justify that he brought upon himself such embarrassment by wearing the girdle that tempted him. In his article, “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain,” Donald Howard compares the symbolism between the shield and the green girdle, stating,“As the shield is emblematic of Gawain’s knightly virtue, the girdle is emblematic of his fault” (428). The green girdle becomes part of Gawain’s clothing and it serves to remind him of his sin and that “the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault” (Sir Gawain 2435). He reveals his ‘symbol of shame’ honestly to the court of King Arthur and seeks consolation from the King, and the knights of the Round Table wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s humility. Sir Gawain says, “Regard the symbol of sin, for which my neck bears the scar; a sign of my fault and offence and failure, of the cowardice and covetousness I came to commit” (Sir Gawain 2505-08). Although Sir Gawain’s momentary failure is demonstrated through the girdle, the reality of accepting his shame by acknowledging his mistake and wearing the girdle back to Camelot as a symbol of his sin is a great achievement of growth for the knight.
The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes the point that the virtues in the chivalric system are unattainable in a Christian world. Howard states, “The poem suggests in this way how the worldly aims of chivalry and the other-worldly aims of the Christian life are ideally interrelated, but, for fallen man, potentially incompatible” (429). It is apparent over the course of Gawain’s journey that the heavily-formalized system of rules for living in Camelot’s chivalric code does not measure up in reality. The Green Knight forgives Gawain for his fault, saying, “ It was loyalty that you lacked: not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse, but you loved your own life; so I blame you less” (Sir Gawain 2366-68). The desire to survive is expected of any person regardless of their social ranking, and Gawain’s momentary loss of knightly conduct is an indication of what can happen to even the most chivalrous seeming individual. Gawain’s tests also illustrate how the chivalric codes are inconsistent in themselves. Gawain faces the need to be chivalrous in an attempt to be honorable towards his host Bertilak, while still giving Bertilak’s wife the utmost respect and kindness even when she appears focused on attempting to seduce Gawain. A seemingly perfect character in a poem causes the illusion of reality to be lost, but the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight created Sir Gawain as a man with natural human feelings, instead of a flawless and idealized knight. Gawain is shown to be imperfect, and this is the truth that shows the poem’s underlying theme of the unrealistic chivalric standards for an idealized knight.
Gawain’s character undergoes trials throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight not only during the seduction scenes but also as his natural instinct battles with his chivalric duty to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight. He is genuine, courageous, and faithful, until the burden of his life’s almost inevitable loss is too great for him to ignore. At the beginning of the poem, Gawain effortlessly took the place of Arthur’s life but when the time came to surrender his life to the Green Knight, he struggled and soon understood that he had behaved unwisely. The mistake of taking the green girdle is enough to make him flawed, but not so much to weaken his character to a point where his actions and temperament do not coincide. As Lord Bertilak tells Gawain, his flaws only make him human. However, figuring this out is hard for Gawain, who sees himself as a failure and berates himself. Gawain’s journey winds up telling him more about himself, revealing to him that he is not flawless, no matter what everyone suggests or how desperately he might be striving to reach perfection.