Sir Gawain and Green Knight Essays: Allegory


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Allegory in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  

Discuss the allegorical significance of the following words of the Green Knight,  You are so fully confessed, your failings made known,/ And bear the plain penance of the point of my blade,/ I hold you polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright/ As you had lived free of fault since first you were born .

These words are uttered by the Green Knight almost immediately after he delivered the third blow on Gawain s neck (l 2391-2394). They should be understood as referring to events which began with Gawain s arrival at the Lord s castle.

The words  confessed  and  penance  appearing in the Green Knight s utterance may lead one to connect them not only with events of the narrative, but also with the Christian idea of sin. According to Christian ideology all human beings are sinners, though- owing to God s grace and kindness- sins may be forgiven. But before this happens there is need for confession and penance. Absolution is the final stage which may be reached only by those who pass the former ones.

When Sir Gawain is looked at closely, the events of the story correspond to the sequence: temptation -sin - confession - penance - absolution. The sin committed by Gawain was not being loyal to the lord by concealing the green girdle. This weakness of character resulted from the love of life - the girdle was to protect anyone who wore it. What happens at the Green Chapel are the later parts of the cycle: confession - penance - absolution. The penance is the fight with the Green Knight during which Gawain receives a cut on the neck and absolution (granted by the Green Knight) is attained through blood, which makes it even more meaningful. On the other hand, a nick on the neck is not an extremely painful experience (although the way in which it was attained was definitely very stressful) and shows that Gawain s sin was only a minor one. He did not sin against chastity as he did not give in to the lady s wishes. But still, in this interpretation Gawain s character turned out to be faulty.

There is a different possibility of interpretation - one which broadens the allegory even more. It may be said that Gawain s primary fault was sinning against courtesy. If courtesy was in reality what he had been tested on, Gawain did not stand a chance of passing this test.

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He understood courtesy as reverence for the woman, obeying and serving her. The Lady s idea of courtesy was entirely different and included adultery in its meaning. Because of the coexistence of these two meanings Gawain had no choice but to trespass against one of them. The concept of penance and absolution does not change when courtesy is what Gawain is tested on. What does change is the scope of the allegory. In the first understanding of Gawain s sin his weakness of character was a personal fault for which he was penalized, but which was later forgiven. In the second, it may be said that man in general cannot attain perfection and is destined for sin. There is no way of escaping it. But sin will be forgiven if it is admitted and atoned for.

This is exactly what happens in Gawain s case and thus it may easily be understood why the Green Knight says that Gawain is  as a pearl, as pure and as bright . He has paid for his sin and is now pure again.

 


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