Gawain's Moral Superiority Revealed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


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Gawain's Moral Superiority Revealed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


In the final scenes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s encounter with Sir Bertilak allows Gawain to perceive his own flaws, manifested in his acceptance of the Green Girdle. The court’s reaction to his personal guilt highlights the disconnect between him and the other knights of the Round Table. Gawain’s behavior throughout the poem has been most noteworthy; his understanding of his sin, one that many of us would dismiss since it was propelled by his love of life, enhances his stature as a paragon of chivalry.

When Gawain shows up at the Green Knight’s chapel, his mere presence provides comfort to his host, who greets him: “Sir so sweet, you honour the trysts you owe.” Perhaps the green gallant had been expecting Gawain, as representative of the crumbling House of Arthur, to be derelict in his duties. Gawain lives up to his good name. Similarly, he resisted the unbearable temptations of Lady Bertilak on numerous occasions, providing a mere kiss, in accordance with the code of chivalry.

Yet, Gawain did err in accepting the girdle; that much cannot be denied. We, the reader, can forgive him since he repents fully, even going so far as to impose penance (of wearing the girdle eternally as a mark of his fall) on himself. It takes a mild rebuke by the Green Knight to crack Gawain’s façade of confident valor. His conscience compels him to break down when confronted by his host as to his indiscretion. However, this happened only when the host had revealed himself to be the same as the Green Knight. We realize that Gawain had previously perceived in Sir Bertilak an equal in knighthood; thus his ease in deceiving him in the exchange of winnings game. When Gawain realizes he was the subject of a test, he sees Bertilak/Green Knight in a different light. The Green Knight now becomes Gawain’s confessor and in doing so assumes a fatherly role.

We see that Bertilak perceives Gawain’s fault, his love of life, and irrespective of it, loves Gawain. Despite having sinned, Bertilak sees in Gawain a first-rate knight, far superior to his peers in Camelot, who, faced with the spectre of death, grew silent with cowardice, as the honor of the King lay unguarded.

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It was Gawain who ‘at Guinevere’s side’ accepted his lot in life; to be the last defender of the chivalric tradition. Gawain is blessed with the rare ability to grasp the deeper meaning of an event. Moreover, his ability to perceive his own faults, manifested in his feeling of shame before the Green Knight, sets him apart from his brethren in the Knights of the Round Table.


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