The concept of courtesy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features on almost every page of the poem. Taking into account the time during which the poem was written, courtesy implies more than the usual pleasantries of exchange. The virtue of courtesy is presented as an honorable aspect that should be practiced by all people. To the Knights of the Camelot Court, courtesy meant living up and being true to the code of the court. The members of the court are called to the duty of being faithful, full of virtue, defense of truth, fighters of evil, and resistance of all kinds of physical temptation (Borroff 29).
As such, courtesy means the values of the court. Sir Gawain stays at Bertilak’s Castle and is tested when his master’s wife seduces him. However, the code of courtesy bounds him not to act on the premises of such desires. Another example of courtesy comes into light in the Christmas game challenge when the lords are challenged to protect their master, King Arthur. It would always be expected that a master should be protected by his juniors or soldiers at any cost. Sir Gawain, although viewed as young and weakest among all, feels duty-bound to defend the honor of the King and takes on the challenge. However, his speech at the King’s court does not betray the fears he has within. He prays that his lord and lady allow him to face the challenge by the Green Monster “Grant me the grace…to be gone from this bench” (118). He further commends his fellow knights “while so bold men upon benches sit/ that no host under heaven is hardier upon will../ nor better in arms where the battle is joined” (119-201).
From the excerpt above, the values of bravery and courage are elucidated and expressed as the true values of courtesy. In an address to the court, Sir Gawain exemplifies humility as the order of courtesy. He says, “I am weakest…and of wit the feeblest, and the loss of my life would least of any” (198). He places little value on his own life over the honor of the court. This paper focuses on highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of courtesy based on the facts presented in the poem.
Upon invitation to play the game of chivalry by the Green Knight, Gawain exhibits the virtues of respect and honesty as the companion to his host’s wife. He manages to ward off her advances as she only manages a kiss. Later, the two men exchange their prices of the day. He strives to uphold his spiritual and Christian duties. He should not commit adultery. Even with demands of courtly love, he discharges his roles effectively and, as such, is able to evade conflicts with his master. By choosing to live by his religious doctrine, though still exposed to breaching it by his dedication to courtly love as the knight of the Round Table, Gawain is able to overcome his internal conflicts.
Upon entry into Bertilak’s Castle, Sir Gawain is symbolically stripped off his armor and dressed in the robes (Borroff 35). When Gawain finds Lady Bertilak in his room in the morning, he remains courteous by humbling himself while he praises her. Though her seduction moves erode his Christian values by the third morning and expressly disturbs his mental state as seen in his dreams, he repudiates the idea of lying with her (Borroff 40). This courteous deed by Gawain helps him to avoid a fall out with his host and, at the same time, exposes the weakness of human nature as he takes the girdle for protection in place of God whom he had hitherto trusted.
As Gawain falls from a highly spiritual man to a man highly dependent on the girdle for survival, fear engulfs, and every time the Green knight touches him, he trembles (Borroff 41). He sings from fearless and God-honoring Knight to a mortal coward. This is a lesson that dependence on human flesh is fallible and cannot provide the necessary assurance that humans need. It is, therefore, critical that man believes in God. In fact, those who believe in God can be assured of some things in life.
The tenets of Christianity run through the poem. Gawain is seen making confessions at the chapel every day in a bid to ward off the seductive actions of Bertilak’s wife. The irony is, however, that he fails to disclose that he has received the girdle from Bertilak’s wife. When the time comes for Gawain to take the ax from the Green Knight, he gives him more than a nick on his neck, choosing to preserve his life rather than kill him as the rules of the game had stipulated. As such, mercy is given primacy over the law. The overall implication of this event can be interpreted to mean that the express practice of religious values has the advantage of preservation. Strikingly, this event takes place at the chapel, as opposed to the castle or the battlefield.
Knights were held in high regard for their outstanding virtues and values. Bravely, humility, honor to duty, and readiness to pay with their own lives to protect their masters were some of the greatest honors. A critical analysis of the poem, however, exposes the knights as only normal human beings with normal human fallibility. It also exposes the code of courtesy as one that is not alive to realities of human weakness and highly exposing the Knights to the breach of their knighthood, especially as seen through the practice of courtly love.
Gawain’s commitment to the doctrine of courtly love, as practiced in the Camelot, brings to light serious social issues on living up to courtesy. As a knight, he was expected to engage a certain level of flirtations with the ladies of the court with only minimal physical interactions such as a kiss or a pat. Even though Gawain begs lady Bertlak for permission to serve in a more comfortable position, the lady refuses his requests, further putting him the greater risk of breaching his knighthood. Gawain, therefore, is exposed to a situation where he has to confront and battle his own erotic desires as well as those of Lady Bertlak’s. Courtly love as a value of courtesy exposes Gawain to a difficult situation with Lady Bertilak as keeping that value was, in reality, hard to keep in terms of balancing preserving one’s chastity and offending the Lady of the court.
When the Lady of the Court rebukes Gawain for lack of perfect manners of the court, Gawain swiftly reacts by kissing her without having to think much about his action; “I will kiss at your command as becometh a knight” (1540). From the perfect guest who enters the Bertilak Castle, Gawain is unable to answer his host when he is asked who kissed him. Whereas Gawain’s religious values dictate that he should not covet his master’s wife, he desires her kisses and ironically commends her to Christ when he attends mass in the church. Thus, some of the expectations of courtesy are almost seen as absurd in their ends. Although Lady Bertilak does not succeed in seducing Gawain, she certainly succeeds in awakening a strong desire to live at the expense of his own honor.
While in the initial excerpts, Gawain accepts that his life is meanest to be lost among the Knights standing before King Arthur, his desire to live is easily awoken by Lady Bertilak’s incessant temptations that he chooses to cheat by secretly taking the girdle to ensure that Green Knight does not kill him. As he takes the girdle from the lady, it becomes clear to him that the need for survival surmounts living up to the ideals of virtues on the Pentangle or the Image of Mary on his armor. At some point, the Green Knight appreciates that Gawain acts in a natural way. As such, though a breach of knighthood, the Green Knight (Master Knight) saw no reason for reproach.
The knighthood ought to be humanly enough and within the limits of faith. According to the poem, courtly love is a value of the Knights of the Round Table and is a difficult practice, which is incompatible with the devotion to the Christian faith. The poem highlights the weaknesses and strengths of courtesy in society.
Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a new verse translation. Longman Publishing Group, 1968. Print.