Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Chivalry’s test

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

            Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is probably the best known Arthurian romance in today’s existence. Its text is rich in symbolism, description and themes as 14th century poems traditionally were. Although the author is unknown, this work has valuable information about the culture of the audience it was written for and their value system. A reader can decipher the poem and reconstruct from the values it, who the implied readers were and how they compare to earlier audiences such as those of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Key themes to look at it include; the role of chivalry, the lessons gained through game playing and how women are depicted within the poem. However, the author appears to combine all aspects in an attempt to make a tale of the honor of truth and faithfulness where chivalry is tested.  

              Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the chivalry of Sir Gawain is tested to withstand against temptation and remain a loyal and courteous knight. A majority of the text explores the specific temptation of Sir Gawain by his host’s wife and her effort to seduce him. As a game, Sir Gawain agrees to the host’s proposed covenant that “Whatsoever I win in the wood shall be yours, and whatever may fall to your share, that shall ye exchange for it” (Sir Gawain 11) This covenant is a mark of Sir Gawain’s word and his adherence to it is a testimony to honor and honesty, two main components of chivalry. Needless to say, his adherence to this covenant was of great importance to him and would take great care and difficulty to try and keep.

              Sir Gawain is tested three times by the lord of the castle and his wife before he re-encounters the Green Knight. Prior to any of tests these test, the narrator makes it clear that Sir Gawain thought the lord’s wife to be the most beautiful woman in the castle and that he was very attracted to her. The first time he is tested by the wife, her intentions are made explicitly clear. She sneaks into his bedroom as he is sleeping and tells him that she “shall bind you [him] in your bed” (Sir Gawain 12). Being a courteous knight, Sir Gawain promises, “I will do your will” but quickly follows with the request for him to “get me from bed, and array me better” (Sir Gawain 12). Doing his best to keep this covenant and his word as a knight is expected to do; he treads this fine line between his honor to the King and his honor towards a woman of the court. After traversing this request cunningly, he is further pressured by the lady when she reminds the undressed Sir Gawain that “we are alone, my lord and his men are afield, the serving men in their beds, and my maidens also, and the door shut upon us” (Sir Gawain 13). Yet, he continues to decline her advances and suggestions in ways that still compliment the lady and remain loyal to his host and their covenant. He “turned her speech aside” and feared “he had lacked in some courtesy” agreed by use of her pressure to “kiss at your commandment as a true knight” (Sir Gawain 13). As agreed by the covenant between himself and the lord of the castle, Sir Gawain returns the kiss to his host upon his return and exchange of winnings. This first encounter between Sir Gawain and the lady is only the beginning of the tests he endures and yet it sets the stage for the dilemmas that he will face throughout the work. As a chivalrous knight, his word and honesty are of great importance to him but they are uniquely challenged by his loyalty to treat a woman of the court, especially a host, with courtesy and obedience.

             Although the lady’s first test was the most seductive of them all, she does not fail to use flattery, logic and the very idea of what a chivalrous knight is against the knight in an effort to seduce him. Upon the second morning of the covenant, she again comes to his bed chamber early in the morning. She quickly reminds him that “it behoves a courteous knight quickly to claim a kiss” and being a courteous knight himself and wanting to abide by the ideals of chivalry, he tells her, “I am at your commandment to kiss when ye like” (Sir Gawain 15). With his concedence, she kisses him and proceeds to use the ideal of what a chivalrous knight is against his refusal of her more devious advances. She claims that a knight known as ‘the head of all chivalry” should be so well known in the wisdom and love and war that he should teach her about the ways of love (Sir Gawain 15) In addition to referencing the idea of chivalry to persuade the knight, she again challenges his adherence to these standards by insinuating that he may think that she is not worthy of his advances (Sir Gawain 15). Again, Sir Gawain masterly treads the line between the honor of his word and his courtly “love” by flattering the lady and promising, “I will work your will to the best of my might as I am bounden, and evermore will be your servant” (Sir Gawain 15). The narrator even compliments Sir Gawain’s ability to traverse the situation and notes that “he defended himself so fairly that none might in any wise blame him, and naught but bliss and harmless jesting was there between them” (Sir Gawain 15). Finally, she kisses him again and took her leave of him. Having survived yet another encounter with the lady, Sir Gawain honors his word and remains honest when he returns the two kisses to the lord of the castle in exchange for the wild boar he caught. Unfortunately, this would not be the hardest temptation he faced.

             Without fail, Sir Gawain was greeted by the lady of the castle the next morning. This morning she “clad herself in rich mantle… bordered and lined with costly furs” and came exuberantly dressed to visit with him (Sir Gawain 17). She kissed him and he admired how beautiful she was but “she might win no more of her knight… He cared for his courtesy, lest he be deemed churlish and yet more for his honour lest he be a traitor to his host” (Sir Gawain 17). It is clear by the narrator’s notation that his honour mattered more to him that his courtesy to the lady and that her seduction via her dress and words were unsuccessful yet these were not the only tools at her disposal to challenge his true chivalry. She kisses him again and uses her final tactic to make Sir Gawain takes something from him. She tells him that the silk from her kirtle when worn by a knight shall not allow “no man under heaven can overcome him, for he may not be slain for any magic on earth” (Sir Gawain 18). Seeing that this could save him from the fate that awaited him with the Green Knight, he conceded to accept her gift and not to reveal it to her lord. The lady leaves him with a final kiss and the joy that he might live past his encounter with the Green Knight. It is only upon the return of the lord that Sir Gawain makes the foolish decision to only exchange the three kisses he had received for the lord’s winnings. It is here that Sir Gawain dishonors himself and his knighthood as he breaks the code of chivalry by not honoring his world to the host. He skillfully negotiated the tests that were presented him except when the possibility of life beyond the next day was presented to him. Even though the desire for life is one of natural instinct, he failed to honor his word more than himself and this is where he falls short of what chivalry, according to this time period, meant.

           Sir Gawain’s chivalry was tested through seduction, logic, flattery and his desire for survival. Throughout the piece, his honesty and promises were tested and then pinned against his dedication to being courteous as a knight should be. Although all of these were parts of what chivalry encompassed, they were uniquely combined to test the knight’s honor above all. A reader can see through the text and the Green Knight’s cunning plan to test Sir Gawain that honoring promises and abiding by chivalry above all were of the greatest importance to readers of this time period. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight brilliantly depicts the moral dilemmas of a knight in this time period to abide by the various roles chivalry requires of him while presented with challenging situations. Sir Gawain’s struggle to meet these ideals and his valiant effort to do so are a testimony to how important these values were to the time period.

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