The Ambivalence Of Chivalric Ideals in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
Length: 1520 words (4.3 double-spaced pages)
After reading the poem I was very much captivated by the story of heroic journey. The fact that such fascinating narration could be produced more than 600 years ago was very surprising to me. The diversity in the literature is also amazing. Set in the time of King Arthur, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a fantasy story of Sir Gawain who accepts a challenge by a green knight and embarks on a journey. The plot and setting are mythical and magic plays a significant role. However we can still find that various elements reflecting medieval times are abundant in the poem.
The medieval literature was not that gloomy or dark world as the literature in 'The Wanderer' or 'Beowulf'. the words like war and revenge disappeared but rather, bright humor and beautiful romantic love were more rich in those times. The knights that reflect the values of medieval times were always fighting against the evils that impede the faith of christianity and at the same time, they also frequently experienced romance with beautiful ladies.
Then what would be the warrior ideal in Middle Ages? How do the main character of the poem show such ideal? I think these are the important questions to be raised for the understanding of Sir Gawain and the Green knight. In this essay, I would like to discuss about the ideal knight manifested in the poem and analyze the meanings and functions of the three characters; Gawain, Green knight and King Arthur.
As the poem suggests, we can find that the writer put importance on 'beneficence boundless and brotherly love And pure mind and manners. and compassion' as the main virtues of a knight. Gawain equips himself with shield on which the pentangle is carved out before beginning the journey to perform his promise with the green knight, The symbol is a complex body of military, religious and social virtues that a knight should live up to. A knight should obviously be brave enough and at the same time should have warm heart as to feel compassion and mercy towards the weak and the poor. Moreover, he should convey faith in God and be equipped with strong religious belief. It shows that the knight has to stick perfectly to such obligations without forgetting any of them.
Likewise, the pentangle strongly emphasizes perfectness.
Then how can we assess Gawain? We could see in the poem that the evaluations of other characters on Gawain vary a bit. Bertilak, the green knight, think that even though there is a problem in Gawain's honesty, such problem is negligible considering Gawain's concern for his own life. On the other hand, Gawain criticizes himself heavily for his own behavior of receiving the green girdle from the woman and never returning. As for the other knights in the palace of King Arthur, they do not receive Gawain's explanation about the green girdle seriously.
Obviously, to evaluate Gawain as the ideal warrior of medieval ages, it would vary according to different perspectives. Yet, we can find some strengths and weakness that Gawain shows in his journey.
When the green knight suddenly appears and challenges against the knights of king Arthur, Gawain bravely but recklessly accepts his challenge. Obviously, Gawain's behavior reflects the virtues of the pentangle; loyalty to the King and the protection of the nation. He also shows courtesy and warm heart during his meeting with Bertilak's wife. Moreover, another chivalry virtue that Gawain shows is religious belief. During his journey to the green church, he goes to mass everyday and prays to Jesus and Maria. we can see that he is very much faithful in his religion through the expressions of his confessions and prayer. Conceivably, he seems to be qualified as a role model of true warrior.
Yet, when Bertilak's wife entices him continuously, he later fails to keep his reputation as an ideal knight. During the first two days in Bertilak's, he successfully overcomes temptations of the wife by observing his promise with the landlord and being courteous to the wife. On the last day however, when the wife offers the green girdle that holds magical power, he fails to keep promise with the landlord as he accepted her gift. Due to his strong fear of death, he loses honesty and braveness. Such behavior challenges his qualification as a knight. The more serious defect of Gawain's virtue is his lose of bravery and valor. His coward attitudes in meeting with the green knight are very different and contradictory to the ones in facing the green knight for the first in Arthur's palace.
Even though he confesses through his prayer just after accepting the girdle, we can see that he does not repent fully and fails to return the girdle to Bertilak. Finally, in the last part of the poem, he shows strong penitence saying "in you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low!".We can see that Gawain too can not avoid the human nature of fearing death when it comes near.
The Green Knight, a mysterious, supernatural creature who rides into Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve is also major figure in the poem. The green color, symbolizing a tree that holds regenerative powers. By showing a spirit of vegetation, the green knight can still walk even if he is beheaded. He in many ways contrasts with Arthur's court in that the green knight symbolizes the wildness and fertility while the court holds elements of civilization. The green knight is far from civilized one like Gawain. Rather, he is untamed and more in a natural state. Yet, he also supports the virtues of Chivalry and justice. We can suggest that he is somewhat functions as the bridge between Civilization and wilderness.
Even though it is difficult to identify the virtues of an ideal warriorship with the Green knight, he still shows some values of a knight. The Green knight who first raised challenge against the knights in Arthur's court, does not just seek to revenge Gawain but keeps a promise and even helps Gawain to find the green chapel to challenge him. Disguised as a host, he also shows benevolence and brotherly love towards Gawain even thought he secretly put him into tricks. Rather than fearsome character, he is more of mischievous one.
When we read the last part where Gawain finally challenges The green knight, we can understand that he is not an evil character. Rather, Bertilak or the green knight is a warrior who holds deep understanding and compassion towards the human nature and its weakness. Gawain failed in keeping promise with Bertilak and lost the virtue of valor and honesty, but Bertilak, deeply aware of his fear towards death and value of life, does not kill Gawain but asks him to accompany him to Arthur's court. It is because Bertilak acknowledges the overall ability of Gawain as a knight and understands the human nature to desire for life and fear death.
Arthur is the legendary King of the Britons. In Sir Gawain and the green knight, King Arthur plays a small role yet there can be an element of criticism in his characterization. The unknown poet describes the youthfulness of the king but at the same time, we can point out his immaturity. Eager to listen to stories, Arthur shows braver yet bolder behavior than his court when faced with the Green knight's challenge. He jumps out to the front of the green knight and tries to cut off the knight's head until Gawain stops him and accepts the challenge. Gawain while noble and courteous, he may be is too immature to go through the adventures He functions as the epitome of epitome of chivalric society. The author of the poem however does not depict him as a fully positive chivalric warrior. Arthur, without catching the knight's moral dilemma and unease, he just honors Gawain for his bravery. unlike the Green knight, Arthur seems to lack in understanding of human nature and the difficulty of an ideal chivalry.
Overall, the poet seems to have been well aware of the ambivalence of chivalry in medieval times. While suggesting important virtues of heroic knight, he also shows concern on the worldly desire. As accepting the green girdle, Gawain loses the virtue as a perfect ideal knight and fails in showing true repentance through religious faith. I think the author concerned very much about the true faith in Christianity, considering the expressions and the image he used in the poem such as setting as Christmas day, and the confessions and prayer of Gawain. We can also understand that the poet strongly points out that a warrior must not lose modesty and not to go astray in corporal pleasure. Moreover, by acknowledging the weakness of human nature, the writer effectively describes the conflicts in becoming the perfect ideal warrior and also the contradictions of chivalry through the three characters mentioned above. rather than just characterizing the chivalric ideals, the author might have been trying to share the problems of Chivalry in those times.