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Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered to be a romantic poem because of its nature and the era in which it was written, it does not represent romance in the traditional sense of courtly love during the medieval times. It is worth mentioning that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not substantially represent any of the conventions listed in "The Art of Courtly Love" by Capallanus, but instead focuses on the chivalrous nature of an honorable knight who struggles when his chivalry comes into conflict with his basic need for self-preservation.
This paper will examine Gawain's character, which is clearly very noble, and how this conflict between morality and mortality becomes almost a mockery by the poet by the end of the poem. Through satire, the poet is able to show the reader how even the noblest and most honorable knight can fall victim to the basic instincts of humanity and come into conflict with moral code of chivalry.
Upon closer inspection, the reader is left to wonder if the poet is doubting the values of the chivalric court by playing within the bounds of the romantic genre. This could certainly answer the question pertaining to the romantic genre. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is "one of the latest and certainly the best of the Middle English romances; yet its greatness lies in the fact that, without ever ceasing to be a romance, a fiction full of the most comic touches, it is something much larger, one of the really significant literary achievements of the Middle Ages" (Abrahms 242). The poem belongs to the Alliterative Revival, an emergence of a body of poems in the alliterative meter of Old English verse (232).
The poem takes place in Arthurian England during the New Year's celebration at Camelot, known to be a place of adventure and bravery. King Arthur has established a court of chivalry and nobility with brave knights and lovely ladies. At the celebration are King Arthur and Queen Guinevere surrounded by knights, including Gawain.
It is interesting to note that the poet does mention the darker side of British history, in saying that war and misery have played their part in British history as well as British prosperity. Another point worth mentioning is the elaborate description of Camelot, which seems to border on the excessive. One could argue that such a talented poet would not need to go to such lengths to describe Camelot unless there was an underlying reason to do so. Could the mention of the dark side of British history along with the almost laborious description of Camelot a subtle hint of things to come?
In addition, the poet, with the description of the merriment at the New Year's feast, implies perhaps a certain amount of corruption or perversion in Arthur's court. The reader is also given the impression that Arthur is immature when he is described as being "light in his lordly heart, and a little boyish" (235) and also when he demands some form of entertainment before the feast.
The stranger from the beginning can be viewed as an obvious object of opposition. He seems to represent everything Gawain does not. It is not difficult for the reader to imagine this, especially knowing the end of the story. The stranger could also be seen as a symbol of the Devil, as he is opposing good (Gawain).
The poet spends quite a bit of time in describing the stranger. If the poet is indeed criticizing the chivalric court, that would explain his mocking tone. Another hint that the poet might be slighting Arthur's court would be the silence of the court as they "sat stunned at his strong words" (239) with the stranger mocking them.
Gawain's offer to accept the Green Knight's challenge in the palace of Arthur, is the reader's first real indication of his nobility. He steps forward to risk his life so Arthur would not have to risk his. The noble knight wins the beheading game and the date is set for an exchange blow at the Green Chapel.
In the second part of the poem, the reader experiences a very detailed description of Sir Gawain as he prepares for the next day and the ensuing journey. He and his horse are richly attired; Gawain is suited with a veiled helmet topped with a diamond-studded crown. He also has a shield, which has a pentangle, or five-pointed star on one side. The poet pays close attention to the pentangle, describing it as a "sign by Solomon sagely devised to be a token of truth, but its title of old, for it is formed with five points and each line is linked and locked with the next for ever and is called in all England, as I hear, the endless knot" (247). An image of Mary was on the other side of his shield, which gave him courage.
Gawain is described as "good in works, as gold unalloyed, devoid of all villainy, with virtues adorned in sight" (247). The poet goes on to describe Gawain as being faultless in his five senses, his five fingers unfailing, his faith fixed upon Christ's five wounds, and his strength is found in the five joys Mary had through Jesus, and lastly, he embodied, more than any other living man, the five virtues. These five virtues were friendship, fellowship, cleanliness, courtesy, and charity (248).
As Gawain travels to the Green Chapel, the reader is shown the strength of his character as he encounters so many tribulations and finds comfort in talking to God. It is important that Gawain never questions whether or not he should take this journey -- he just goes to honor his agreement. Nor does he turn back, which would have been easy enough to do. Those two points alone attest to Gawain's own personal belief system. He accepted the Green Knight's challenge and insists on keeping his side of the bargain because he was chivalrous. The reader is shown the depth of Gawain's morality as well as the breadth of his convictions. Gawain shows himself to be the strong and noble knight.
It is on Christmas Eve, alone in the forest, that Gawain prays to God for guidance to a haven where he may attend mass and pray on Christmas morning. This was granted to Gawain; almost immediately, he stumbled upon a beautiful castle within a moated fortress. Gawain is greeted by the lord of the castle and when he learns who Gawain is, he is delighted that "father of fine manners is in our midst" (254).
It is after dinner when Gawain meets the lady of the castle, whose beauty and bearing "excelled the queen herself" (254). The reader is introduced to another aspect of Gawain's character when the lord of the castle challenges Gawain to a game of gifts where the lord will exchange whatever game he catches during the day with whatever Gawain happens to gain during that day.
The third section of the poem reveals Gawain's biggest challenge of all as he is confronted with temptation of the worst kind. No sooner than morning breaks than he is greeted by the lady of the castle on his bedside. Diplomatically and very tastefully, Gawain dodges her sexual advances. She is persistent and threatens to hold him prisoner, then admiring his greatness as a knight, offers herself to him, assuring him that anything that happened between them would be secret. Gawain finds her "beneficence noble" (261), but tells her he is not worthy. She still persists and tells him she would choose him for a husband and he tells her that she "is bound to a better man" (261). The two continue in a pleasant conversation, but it is clear that he has successfully resisted her and remained honorable. Nearing the end of their conversation, however, the lady asks for a kiss, which Gawain obliges. When the lord of the castle returns, he dutifully gives Gawain his catch for the day, and Gawain gives the lord a kiss but does not tell the lord who the kiss is from.
The second day begins much like the first, with the lady of the castle greeting him in his bedroom at dawn. She flirts with him more and again, Gawain is able to withstand her temptation, but not without two kisses. After hunting, the king gives his catch for that day to Gawain and Gawain kisses him twice. Gawain is convinced to stay for a third day with the lord telling him that he has "tested you twice, and true I have found you" (270). This is significant because it tell the reader (and Gawain) that there is more going on than meets the eye. It also reinforces Gawain's noble behavior.
The third day the lady greets Gawain in the morning the same way she has done before. Her advances are more forceful and tempting than ever but Gawain is…[continue]
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