As portrayed in the first two parts of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Sir Gawain, a legendary member of Arthur’s knight, is a paragon of virtue and modesty. He describes himself as the least of the knights both in mental and physical prowess, and at the first glance appears to be another flawless but humble hero who regularly saves the day. However, there is much more to his character than just typical qualities of a telltale knight. Throughout the poem, all the obstacles and challenges Sir Gawain has to overcome reveal his inner self in a new, much more human, light.
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Sir Gawain and What He Represents in Medieval Literature
A long history of epic heroes and journeys precedes the tale of Sir Gawain. King Arthur’s nephew and one of the most famous knights of Camelot, he often belittles his virtues, determined to improve his inner self. The poem plays on Gawain’s deep fears and anxieties, but his desire to grow and become better at the end of his journey enables him to conquer his fears in his quest for the Green Knight. Despite all his bravery, perseverance and dignity, Gawain still values his own life more than his honesty. The reader can see the implication in the third part of the poem, where Gawain conceals an important information from his host in fear of being proclaimed a coward. Burrow (2017b) wrote that “This iteration of similar serves to hammer home his intense mortification at having failed to uphold the very virtue, ‘trauthe’, for which his armorial charge the pentangle chiefly stood” (p.15). Through the character of Gawain, the poet shows that no living man is static: the constant flow of changes and consequences of one’s actions creates a complicated pattern of a real human.
The Virtues of a Knight
To be a knight in shining armor means to represent only the best that is to be found in a man: strength, bravery, nobleness, kindness of heart, and determination of soul. Fairy tales tell stories about chivalrous warriors who save beautiful princesses and by no means show any flaws in their image or character. Yet, looking past those childish views, the reader might find that the knights, while still perceived as heroes and saviors, were highly speculated upon by poets and philosophers. Waters (2019) inquires that “considering the literary “beyond” form – with its implication of striking out into new territory – offers an encouragement to consider the boundaries that discussion of the literary sometimes seeks to establish” (p. 15). Conversing with medieval religious traditions, metaphysics of human nature, and being heavily affected by the Greek philosophy, poets provide a unique insight into the folklore of Middle Age through a picture of legendary knights.
The Religious Aspect
In terms of religion, the Middle Age reflects a rise of Protestantism and catholic tradition. In that period, philosophy and theoretical Christianity becomes more consistent and organized, as the science now serves religion. With church controlling every aspect of social life, it is clear that religious motifs affect deeply each and every piece of art created at the time. The Gawain-poet is well versed in theology and is ultimately orthodox, including divine symbols in his work, but they do not determine the main course of action. The hero’s journey, both spiritual and literal, remains a centerpiece, and Gawain’s main motivation lies still in a need of inner growth. Burrow (2017a) inclines, that the fact of three knightly verdicts not being followed by any supervening Christian or clerical comment is typical of a poem’s representing of how knights in particular see themselves and their fellows. The story, although being somewhat religious, includes no godly interference – the God here is a mere watcher, a silent presence.
Romance in Medieval Poetry
Church dominated not only external relationships between society’s different classes, but also more personal, romantic matters, dictating puritan views and exploiting the concept of immanent sin. Still, there was more to intrasocial contacts than it seems in retrospective, as the story demonstrates a rather provocative scene of feasting knights. While generally perceived as noble and pious, the members of Arthur’s Round Table described in Burrow’s analysis (2020) as “jolly” and even “gay” in contrary to the medieval tradition of showing a sad and unbendingly gravy demeanor, which is associated with hypocrisy. The Gawain-poet does not give an actual romance much thought. Although there is another poem – The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle – that is supposed to tell the reader about more romantic aspects of Sir Gawain’s personality. Still, both stories are focused on knightly chivalry and companionship – between King Arthur and his fellow Camelot members in general, and between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight personally in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This traditional love-hate dynamic is a result of the clash between Christian beliefs and Greek philosophy, represented in a form of two enemies, who still admire each other.
Opposing the Green Knight
A great deal of the story is dedicated to the continuous adversary between the Green Knight and Sir Gawain. The significance of the green color of opposing knight’s armor is worth emphasizing. According to Burrow (2020), the effect the poet was trying to achieve is to establish him as a supernatural creature – in medieval folklore, green was considered the color of fairies, of the dead and of the devil himself. However, the gold of his garments and trappings suggests youth, courtesy, and joviality. The challenge of the Green Knight symbolizes a challenge to the death, an opportunity to become immortal in a form of a legend. While the Green Knight admires and praises Gawain’s virtues, he also points out his flaws and mistakes. Providing both guidance and support in the form of a traditional knightly rivalry, the Green Knight becomes the pushing force to Sir Gawain for growing in body and spirit alike.
The meaning that is concluded in the stories of Sir Gawain refers to the philosophical and theological inculcation of beliefs, morals and views, as an expression of the age. The knights being examples of everything good, driven by the God’s providence, while simultaneously showing the flawed nature of a man created in the image of said God, become symbols of humanity’s pursuit of perfection. In the end, Sir Gawain represents morality, inner strength and determination in the form of an epic story. The reader does not see in him a true hero in the beginning, but as Gawain’s journey goes on, and his character reveals a hidden depth, the poem becomes immensely insightful and inspiring in its own way. Stepping aside from singing odes to perfect heroes, this concept allows a new literary perspective to arise and take the stage.
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Burrow, J. (2017a). The conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Three knightly verdicts. Essays in Criticism, 67(2), 103–115. https://doi.org/10.1093/escrit/cgx002
Burrow, J. (2017b). ‘Inculcation’ in Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetics and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notes and Queries, 64(1), 13–15. https://doi.org/10.1093/notesj/gjw232
Burrow, J. A. (2020). Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Routledge. Waters, C. M. (2019, October). What’s the use? Marian miracles and the workings of the literary (Chapter 1) – The medieval literary: Beyond form. Cambridge Core. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787442191.002.