Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most well known medieval poems that survives to this day. Despite this, the identity of the poet is unknown, and indeed very little is known about him. He is referred as the Gawain-poet, and was most likely a contemporary of Chaucer, living in the Cheshire area. The poem, part of the so-called Alliterative Tradition, describes Sir Gawain’s undertaking of “a Crystemas gomen” with a strange and supernatural Green Knight. They agree that Gawain is allowed one attempt at beheading the Green Knight and, a year later, the Green Knight will have his turn at beheading Gawain. And so, at Camelot’s Christmas feast Gawain beheads the Green Knight with one axe-stroke and, to Gawain and Camelot’s amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off. Gawain is then faced with an almost impossible undertaking that will surely lead to his death. Nonetheless, he is determined to find the Green Chapel (the dwelling of the mysterious Green Knight) and fulfill his side of the agreement. When he does finally arrive after days of travelling and a number of days spent at Sir Bertilak’s court, the Green Knight’s axe only grazes Gawain’s neck and Gawain survives the seemingly impossible adventure. However, Gawain has already undergone his true test: the sexual temptations of Sir Bertilak’s wife. The whole poem can therefore be seen as a test and judgment of Gawain’ character, and this is why a number of critics have studied Gawain’s character and questioned how admirable he really is.
Before we can examine Gawain’s character, we must first examine the court he represents: Camelot. The Camelot presented in the poem is a young one, a place where a “fayre folk in her first age” is ruled over by a “childgered” king, King Arthur, who cannot bear to do anything for long, “So bisied him his yonge blod and his brayn wylde”. The inhabitants of Camelot are childish and innocent, and indeed upon the arrival of the Green Knight they are stunned into a trepid silence. This, in itself, is somewhat embarrassing: the knights of Camelot, renowned for their courage, are shocked and scared by the Green Knight’s proposal. However, this is slightly unfair: the sudden appearance of a supernatural entity at a feast is surely enough to shock anyone into silence, particularly considering his proposal of a Beheading Game. King Arthur, on the other hand, greets the visitor, and accepts the challenge almost immediately. He does, however, get angry with the Green Knight, and Moorman argues that we should compare Camelot with Sir Bertilak’s court. Where Sir Bertilak and his courtiers greet Sir Gawain very admirably and kindly, the Green Knight is received coldly, by Arthur in particular. Thus it is possible to conclude that, in comparison to other courts, Camelot is discourteous and unwelcoming. However, that would be forgetting that the Green Knight insults Arthur and the knights of Camelot, whereas Gawain does nothing of the sort.
Gawain’s response to the challenge is brave and admirable, thus possibly redeeming Camelot’s initial hesitance. Moreover, although the blow will presumably kill him if he does not succeed in killing the Green Knight with his first blow, he takes pains to find out where he must go to keep the appointment. Furthermore, throughout his stay at Sir Bertilak’s castle, he does not forget the terrifying goal of his quest, making his continued display of courtly values to his host and hostess all the more impressive – surely he has no reason to upkeep these virtues if he will be dead soon. However, rather than showing forgetfulness or insensibility, he shows an amazing sense of self-control in his ability to remain courteous, and indeed he repeatedly rejects Sir Bertilak’s invitations to remain at the castle. Although he understands that reaching the Green Chapel means almost certain death, he would rather die than not reach it. We admire Gawain for ignoring the temptations of the Guard and therefore for persisting with his adventure and not avoiding his task.
Gawain is a knight famous for his courtesy, or “cortaysye”. He is known for his skills in the art of love making, and indeed when he arrives at Sir Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve, the inhabitants whisper about Gawain: “I hope that may hym here / Schal lerne of luf-talkyng.” Moreover, the Lady believes that she may learn not only love talking, but also love making, from Gawain. Gawain demonstrates his “cortaysye” and deference to ladies when, after the proposal of the Green Knight, he asks for Guinevere’s permission to accept the challenge. However, courtesy is not the only virtue that Gawain sees as important. A.C. Spearing refers to what he calls the ‘five fives’: the five sets of five qualities in Gawain himself that the pentangle symbolizes. He is without fault in his five senses, he does no wrong with his five fingers, his faith is in Christ’s five wounds, he draws his fortitude from the five joys of the Blessed Virgin, and he follows a pentangle of virtues: “fraunchyse”, “felawschyp”, “clannesse”, “cortaysye”, and “pité”, and it is the conflict of these virtues that causes him his trouble. The poet stresses the interdependence of Gawain’s virtues so that they support each other. However, this also means that the failing of one virtue will bring about the falling of the whole pentangle of virtues. Thus this prepares the reader to see, in the test he undergoes, not a single quality being tried, but a whole complex of virtues. It is also worth noting that, as well as being a courteous knight, he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. In fact, he has her image painted on the inner side of his shield to look at in battle, and he also prays to her in his search for the Green Chapel on Christmas Eve. Thus Gawain is admirable for his values and devotion to Mary.
It is this conflict of virtues (between “cortaysye” and “clannesse”) that makes the Temptation of Gawain in the castle so complicated. His courtesy means that he cannot give an outright refusal of the Lady, and to accept the Lady’s sexual advances would obviously be going against “clannesse”. Although Gawain is proud of his reputation of courtesy, he finds it hard to reconcile this with his dedication to “clannesse”. Thus he can neither accept her nor reject her. The test is one of sexual temptation, and indeed a major danger to Gawain lies in the Lady’s attractiveness. She is described as:
“Wyth chunne and cheke ful swete,
Bothe quit and red in blande,
Ful lufly con ho lete
Wyth lyppez small laghande”
Moreover, the persistent hint of laughter on her lips make her all the more sexually provocative to Gawain, who finds her attractive, thinking her “wener then Wenore”. It is, for obvious reasons, hard for Gawain to reject these temptations, and indeed he is angry with himself at her advances and his inner response to them. He feels as if he owes to others to keep up his reputation, and the Lady exploits this. This use of his reputation enables the Lady to show him what is expected of him as the knight of courtesy, and thus to tempt him even more. Thus, we admire Gawain for his resolution to keep faithful to his host by not sleeping with his wife, thus remaining chaste despite obvious temptations. Gollancz summarises the poem as “the story of a noble knight triumphing over the sore temptations that beset his vows of chastity.”
However, Gawain’s actions are not completely without blame. Although he is determined not to give her a love token, when he is offered the possibility of survival (the girdle she offers him will save him), he is unable to reject it. A.C. Spearing notes that “He accepts it because it will save his life but as a love-token, a ‘luf-lace’.” He continues: “in wearing it openly, as he sets out to face what he believes to be his supreme test, he is declaring himself the Lady’s ‘man’, even though the inside of his shield still invisibly claims that he is Our Lady’s man.” One could therefore argue that he fails in his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Moreover, by agreeing to conceal the girdle from her husband, Gawain is breaking his agreement with Sir Bertilak, and thus his test can also be seen as a test of his truth. Burrow writes:
“The hero makes two contracts with his adversary, the beheading agreement and the exchange agreement, and the outcome of his adventure is made to depend on his fidelity to these contracts – what the poet calls his ‘trawpe’… and we are expected to accept this truth-trial as a sufficient basis for the life-and-death moral judgment passed on him by the Green Knight in the last part of the poem.”
It is for breaking the exchange agreement with Sir Bertilak that Gawain receives the cut on his neck. In fact, the Green Knight’s three axe-strokes are explicitly symbolic of the three days of Temptation – it is only on the third stroke (e.g. on the third day of Temptation) that Gawain is cut (as punishment for his error).
One less admirable characteristic of Gawain is his seeming lack of modesty and his concern with his own reputation. In fact, as aforementioned, the Lady uses this to her advantage. When she questions whether he really is Gawain, he betrays himself and his concern for his reputation in his swift response: “‘Querfore?’ quoth the freke, ans freschly he askez, / Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes.” Moreover, on her third visit, the question of Gawain’s reputation is brought up again, but this time by himself. He says that a glove would not be worthy of her as a gift, but he also implies, somewhat arrogantly, that a gift from Gawain should be something better: “Hit is not your honour to haf at this tyme / A glove for a garysoun of Gawaynez giftez.”
Another reason not to admire Gawain is that he seems to be trying as hard as possible to escape his fate without breaking his agreement, something that appears almost impossible. Not only does he break his agreement and take the girdle that will supposedly save his life, he is also incredibly impatient upon his arrival at the Green Chapel. There is a lot of emphasis on speed in his words: “If any wyye oght wyl, wynne hider fast, / Other now other never, his nedez to spede.” It is as if he hopes that the Green Knight will not appear, meaning he can escape with his life while still fulfilling his agreement and keeping up his reputation.
After their meeting at the Green Chapel, Gawain immediately begins to accuse himself of almost every offence he can think of. He is first silent, but swiftly becomes full of shame and anger. We admire him for his acceptance of his error:
“‘Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben ever
Of trecherye and untrawthe: bothe bityde sorwe
I biknowe yow, knyght, here stylle,
Al fawty is my fare.’”
However, he soon grows angry at the girdle, blaming it for his downfall, and indeed he then diverts his anger to the “wyles of wymmen”. He is angry that he was deceived by the Lady and by Morgan la Fay, and indeed he identifies himself with other men who have similarly been deceived by women, notably Adam. The fault is clearly his, and although he has been tricked, he ought not try to shift the blame. Nonetheless, despite this desire to shift the blame from himself, he inevitably admits his failing and concludes that he is permanently stained with sin. The wound in his neck will heal, but his failing will remain, so he will continue to wear the girdle. Moreover, he is full of shame when he tells his story to the knights at Camelot:
“He tened quen he schulde telle,
He groned for gref and grame;
The blod in his face con melle.
When he hit schulde schewe, for schame.”
However, the Green Knight sees Gawain’s error as relatively trivial, and indeed he tells Gawain this. He says that he still thinks very highly of his moral standing and the poet says that the Green Knight admires him in his heart. He presents Gawain’s experience to him in terms of sin, confession, penance and absolution. Gawain’s penance is the cut in his neck, and the Green Knight offers him absolution. Thus he does his best to help Gawain to come to terms with his sin peacefully. Many critics have suggested that the Green Knight is actually the devil in disguise, and that his offer of absolution could be tempting Gawain to participate in blasphemy. Moreover, the invitation back to the castle could be seen as another form of Temptation, and Gawain is admirable for seeing through this and managing a courteous refusal. On the other hand, his anger is exaggerated and almost comic, since he is accusing himself of every sin he can think of. Overall, although we admire Gawain for his acceptance of his sin, we struggle to see him as completely admirable because of his erratic anger at having been tricked, and his desire to shift the blame.
It is worth noting that Gawain only admits his fault and feels guilty once he has been discovered. It is not until the Green Knight has revealed that Gawain has been tricked and has been found out that he admonishes himself. Indeed, there is one point in the poem when he seems incapable of analyzing his own situation: just after he accepts the green girdle and agrees to keep it a secret. He shows no guilt or shame, and indeed he goes to the priest to receive full absolution (“And he asoyled hym surely and sette hum so clene / As domezday schulde haf ben dight on the morn.”) To receive this full absolution it is very unlikely that Gawain told the priest about the girdle, since he would have been instructed to give it to the Lord of the castle (because of the Exchange Agreement). Burrow believes that the confession is therefore invalid because of this omission, and claims that Gawain’s imperfections are not made good until he acknowledges his fault at the Green Chapel and receives absolution from the Green Knight. However, it is particularly strange that the poet makes absolutely no note of Gawain’s guilt and concealment during confession. A.C. Spearing suggests that it is because Gawain’s “concience” has failed him, and that he does not include the girdle in his confession because he does not see it as a sin. The guilt that he might have had is ignored because of his thankfulness at the chance of being saved from an almost certain death. In this way, it is hard to admire Gawain because he does not acknowledge his fault when he is making it.
Gawain agrees to take the girdle because he knows nobody could possibly find out (the Lady has no reason to tell anyone, since it would reveal her bad conduct), so he is not worried about public shame. It is not until Gawain discovers that he has been found out (by the Green Knight) that he begins to feel guilty for taking the girdle. When he discovers that the Lady and the Green Knight have been scrutinizing his behavior all along, he loses self-control completely and is overcome by anger directed at himself, the girdle and the Lady. Perhaps it is not that Gawain sees the issues and deliberately acts wrongly, but rather that he fails to see what the issues are – that to take the girdle is a sin in itself. In this way, the reader sees Gawain’s flaws and his inability to realize his error. Gawain’s situation is paradoxical: when he is truly guilty, he is overjoyed at having saved his own life, but when his offence has been discharged and the Green Knight assures him he is “pured as clene / As thou hadez never forfeted sythen thou watz fyrst borne,” he begins to accuse himself of sinning. When he finds himself known to be imperfect, he feels guilty, and this is his true flaw: he is more concerned with keeping his repuatation safe than he is concerned with being virtuous.
Gawain’s sporting of the girdle as a baldric is somewhat absurd. Throughout the poem, Gawain has measured himself by perfection, and when he discovers that he is actually imperfect, he is determined to be the most miserable of sinners instead. It is as if he is so arrogant that he believes that his own imperfection deserves such ostentatious treatment as the eternal sporting of a baldric, as if human imperfection in him is remarkable. The courtiers of Camelot laugh at Gawain’s story and laugh at him for sporting the girdle, and many critics have argued over what we ought to make of this. It is indeed possible that Gawain has returned from his adventure, having lost his innocence and matured, while the courtiers of Camelot are still young and immature. Perhaps their laughter is the laughter of incomprehension. By taking the girdle as a badge of honor the courtiers are perverting its meaning (known only to Gawain himself). However, other critics argue that the reaction of the courtiers should guide our own. They see that he is being proud and giving excessive importance to a minor failing in an impossibly difficult task. By wearing the baldric, the courtiers are pointing out that all humans are imperfect, preventing Gawain from becoming the outstanding figure he wishes to be. Gawain’s sporting of the baldric can therefore be seen as admirable, as he is accepting his guilt, or absurd, as he is doing it out of arrogance and pride.
Thus, the reader is left unsure as to whether to admire Gawain. Of course we admire him for undertaking the Green Knight’s challenge and for persisting with it to the very end. Moreover we admire him for refusing to give in to the Lady’s sexual temptations (although he does take the girdle). However, Gawain’s reputation is not perfect. He breaks his Exchange Agreement by taking the girdle, and he tries, understandably, rather hard to avoid his death. Nonetheless, his least admirable characteristics are his obsession with his own reputation and also his faulty conscience. The fact that he only understands that he has made a mistake once the Green Knight has revealed his trick demonstrates this. He does not see it as a sin until he knows that his reputation has been tarnished, and this is surely a fault in him. As a knight he has a certain arrogance and pride about his reputation, and indeed this is one of his most prominent characteristics, making it very hard to admire him.