Medieval literature is often difficult to understand not only because the English was different in that time, but because the way in which they were written was intended for a more oral audience than a literate one. Within this story, Gawain is seen to be under the care of King Arthur when the Green Knight appears in his court. When Arthur’s court is criticized for cowardice by the Green Knight, someone must rise to the challenge as a means of protecting the honor of the court. To prevent the king from risking his own neck, Gawain proves his loyalty, courage and honor by accepting the Green Knight’s challenge himself. The rest of the story follows Gawain’s attempts to find the Green Knight’s castle in order to keep his appointment to have his head chopped off. Although the story is widely accepted to be teaching the readers or listeners about the important elements of being a knight, there is also a great deal of hidden meaning in the story, such as its criticism of the male-ordered ‘civility’ represented by King Arthur and his knights as they turned their backs on nature and the natural element in man.
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At the beginning of the story, Gawain comes to the realization that he is the only one capable of accepting the challenge of the Green Knight who has come bursting into Arthur’s court issuing a Christmas day challenge. This is, in large part, the result of his conclusion that he is the least valuable knight in the court and therefore the one most expendable should he fail to win the challenge. “I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom, I know, and my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly” (I.16.354-355). In the context of defining the true knight, humility of this sort is seen to be prized over bravery. According to Garbis, an important element of the Arthurian tradition is the concept of the reluctant hero. “Some kind of shock occurs that makes one aware of the self” (Garbis, 2002). However, as everyone is concentrating on Gawain’s stunning humility, it often goes unnoticed that the Green Knight is largely supernatural and has forced his way into the civilized realm. His coloring and the coloring of his horse suggest he is most closely associated with nature and his ability to survive having his head cut off further associates him with the power of regeneration and recovery only found in nature. Gawain, the most inferior and thus most ‘womanly’ of the knights, is the only one to answer the Green Knight’s call, indicating he is perhaps slightly more in touch with nature than the others, or at least is more willing to discover more about it rather than simply shutting it outside.
The concept of civility was also obviously an important element of the true knight as part of the heroic code of the more Christian-minded society of Sir Gawain and is a great component of the lessons that Gawain learns as a result of his process through this adventure. During the three days that Gawain spends with Lord Bercilak and his wife, the lord goes hunting while the lady attempts to seduce Gawain, with the test being whether Gawain will honor his agreement with the lord to exchange all that they gained each day. Gawain resists the lady’s temptations the first two days accepting only a few relatively chaste kisses from the lady and dutifully giving the lord the kisses he received each evening. Throughout his story, Gawain is faced with the mutually exclusive choices in determining which portions of the chivalric code to uphold when he is faced with the natural and unavoidable advances of the Lady. The natural inclination is to accept what she so arduously presses upon him and can be justified by the chivalric code as a knight is never supposed to refuse a lady (Price, 1997). However, it was also important that a true knight adhere to the Christian codes of morality by not participating in adultery and upholding the expectations of society. In doing this, he remains somewhat within the boundaries of polite, civilized society even though the society he is keeping is not necessarily playing by the same rules as women were generally not permitted to ‘hunt’.
However, he fails to produce the green girdle the lady provides him on the third day. This is because the lady has promised him that the girdle will offer him protection from death when the Green Knight strikes: “For the man that binds his body with this belt of green, as long as he laps it closely about him, no hero under heaven can hack him to pieces, for he cannot be killed by any cunning on earth” (II.74.1851-1854). When Gawain faces the Green Knight on the appointed day, he learns it is really Lord Bercilak, who delivers two false blows of the axe and barely nicks Gawain with the third as punishment for his failure regarding the girdle. He does not kill him because Gawain has shown an appropriate sense of his own mortality in desiring to keep the lady’s gift and his own life. “Gawain is forced to make a choice between courtesy and adultery, either of which would result in the dishonor of either the lady or his host, respectively” (Kallday, 2007), but accepting the green girdle suggests that Gawain is at least willing to consider the needs of nature and this gains him some leniency. Through this exchange, the Green Knight has been teaching Gawain the necessity of staying true to the knight’s code.
Again, however, there are important meanings behind the hunting and the green girdle that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the story. While the lord goes outside to hunt the wild game of the forest, he leaves his lady behind to hunt in the interior spaces of the castle, seeming to acknowledge her need for sport and game as being easily as strong as his own. This is important because women often were seen to embody nature, so to understand nature was to understand women and to neglect women was to neglect nature. Gawain struggles throughout this period to balance his commitment to man and civilization through his agreement with Lord Bercilak and his commitment to nature and the laws of women that run contradictory to civilized understandings. The Lady Bertilak is often seen in green gowns to reinforce this connection and the green girdle she gives him is both symbolic of nature’s protection and an item of women’s clothing. Gawain’s decision to keep the girdle rather than handing it over to Lord Bercilak in fulfillment of his agreement indicates his final understanding that the powers of nature will always override the powers of man as Gawain keeps the girdle in order to survive his meeting with the Green Knight the next day.
In keeping with his true hero’s humility, Gawain returns to Arthur’s castle with nothing more than a small cut on his neck and a green girdle as prize for his adventure. His hero’s story is reduced to a confession of great sin and his grand memorial is not to attain a throne of his own but to be reminded of his shame and humiliation by every knight of the realm wearing a bit of green to commemorate the occasion. Gawain tells the court, “this is the figure of the faithlessness found in me, which I must wear while I live. For man can conceal sin but not dissever from it, so when it is once fixed, it will never be worked loose” (IV.101.2509-2512). The other knights adopt green adornments in amicable agreement with Gawain that they must have something to keep them humble and with a half-joking spirit, but they have little idea of the true meaning in this action as they acknowledge, along with Gawain, that nature is by far more powerful than any force they might bring to bear.
Garbis, Michelle R. Archetypes. (2002). Web.
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Kallday, TM. “Gawain: Noble or Naïve?” (2007). Web.
Price, Brian R. “A Code of Chivalry.” Chronique. (1997). Web.
Stone, Brian (Trans.). New York: Penguin Classics, 1974.