No One’s Perfect, Not Even Sir Gawain

Say goodbye to Camelot and honor: the gradual degeneration of Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Gawain is a noble knight who serves under his uncle King Arthur and the Round Table at Camelot. The Christmastime holiday celebrations in Camelot are in full swing, wine was flowing and the dishes seemed never ending. All was well in the hearts of the men except for the king himself, who wouldn’t sit down for his meal until a whimsical sport stirred his folly. King Arthur gets his wish in the form of a massive Green Knight who bears an axe with a four foot blade and the promise of a challenge for anyone in the court to be brave enough to face it. Something was not right in the court for not a single knight to stand up to the challenge, as Rhonda Knight argues in her article All Dressed Up with Someplace to Go, “The luxurious courtly life of the knights that the opening of the poem describes seems incompatible with the heroic knights whose rous (fame, reputation) spread throughout the land. Their actions in court support this incompatibility.” Gawain steps forwards after Arthur believes it’s his responsibility to defend his court against the mock name-calling the Green Knight serves to the knights. Everyone in the court thinks the challenge is over after Gawain beheads the visitor, until the Green Knight recovers himself and sets the date for Gawain to receive his return stroke. The moment that Gawain stands up to the Green Knight he becomes representative of the future of Arthur’s court, heralded as a Pentangular Knight because he upholds the five virtues of the knighthood: love and friendship, courage, freedom from sin, courtesy and pity. Taking on this challenge, he displays his courage and honor to his uncle by saving the Round Table’s reputation, but at a cost to his own. Through the use of images and the poet’s choice of words, Gawain is destined to fail in his mission, and fail he does. In the very beginning there are signs of his carelessness. After the Green Knight leaves Camelot carrying his head, Gawain and Arthur laugh at the whole incident, as though it was a big joke, not realizing the severity of facing a supernatural and powerful foe of the likes of the Green Knight in an unknown land. As the poem moves towards its pinnacle of the three temptation scenes, it becomes more apparent. It is important to note that the temptation scenes encompass more than what occurs in the confines of Gawain’s sleeping chambers with the host’s wife. It also includes the scenes of him hunting, and the action in that scene and the one in his sleeping chambers are, in actuality, very much alike. The two settings make “a skilful combination of two entirely independent adventures so managed as to produce a harmonious unit.”(George Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight, 107) Gawain undergoes degeneration, much like the epic degeneration found among the noblest of characters in medieval literature, but his was contained within the text of the poem. When a character degenerates, he loses his prestige and honor, either through supernatural forces or the uprising of a more honored figure. In Gawain’s case, he loses his honor through fault of being human and being driven by cowardice. Gawain leaves Camelot as the perfect pentagular knight, which the language that was used to describe him at that moment exemplifies. A feast was made in his honor, and he was adorned with the finest accoutrements, placed on “a rich red rug” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 568) as red as the color of royalty, and at this moment he was the most respected knight besides his uncle. Many at Camelot weep for the loss of their knight, but Gawains’ faith in God guides him through their grief and his own apprehensions, for he says “Tomorrow without fail, as God guides me” (SGGK, 549.) While at Camelot he places his trust in God, but while in Hautdesert he places his trust in material objects and the antithesis to the qualities of a Pentangular Knight, in particular the green girdle of Gawain’s last day. His downfall begins with his third day at Hautdesert, where he reminds the lord of the house that he needs more traveling time to reach the Green Chapel. His host remarked that not only does he know where the Green Chapel is; it was not too far from the Hautdesert castle. Gawain accepted the extension, as W.R.J. Barron states in his book Trawthe and Treason, “it is ill-bred in a guest not to obey his host’s every command or even to protest that he is too generous, since that would be to question the host’s right to rule in his own house”(44). So even if Gawain had a pressing desire to take leave, he would be doing his honor a disservice if he left. The irony builds as his host proposes a game in the Exchange of Winnings, or an exchange of honor as Gawain discovers after his host departs the following morning for a hunt and recommends that Gawain sleep late in the seemingly innocuous and feminine realm of the bedroom. The lord and his men wake at dawn for their first day of hunting, and come across a deer. It’s interesting to note that a law was in place that season that prohibited the hunting of male deer. Since the Lady is eagerly pursuing Gawain, then he too is being hunted. In being hunted, he is also being effeminized. The action in the bedroom is a hunt of moderate proportions, not of more but of equal importance to the hunt that occurs in the wilderness of Hautdesert. When the Lady enters his quarters to a scantily clad Gawain feigning sleep, he becomes “embarrassed” (SGGK, 1189) and sacrilegiously crosses himself to protect his knightly qualities and integrity, “using a sacred sign for purposes of deception”(Trawthe and Treason, 22). The Lady listened as Gawain rightfully humbled himself to her, naming the lord of the castle as a better man and exclaiming that her “noble words, like many men’s deeds, assign me honor and virtue that in fact I’ve never deserved.” (SGGK ,1264-1266) The Lady takes his words and presses the issue of his fame for his courtliness and courtesy, known beyond the halls of Camelot, and he kisses her upon request. Unfortunately, he’s already succumbing to blasphemy in this first of three days of temptation, aligning prayer in crossing himself with an ambiguous scenario of sexual temptation and fear. The second day differs in the approach Gawain has towards his situation, and unlike the first day of the game, he isn’t surprised when the Lady enters his bedroom, but rather expects her arrival and displays a “warm welcome”(SGGK, 1477) to her. He learned from the previous day that to show anything but courtesy towards the Lady of the house would be dishonorable, but his hostess did not see his greeting as such. She questioned his identity when he forgets to present her with a kiss, asking him “Can you really be Gawain? Your soul reaches up for Goodness and Holiness, nothing else. Polite matters escape you ;”(SGGK, 1481-1483). To have her define courtesy to a Pentangular Knight who is supposed to embody courtesy is not dissimilar to someone telling a pure maiden how to be virtuous. As mentioned earlier, courtesy is one of the tenets of this highest form of knighthood, and along with courtesy, the Lady also challenged Gawain’s upholding of another of the tenets, love and friendship, especially when she notes how he forgets her “instruction in the greatest of love’s lessons” (SGGK, 1485-1486).Telling the knight that he is forgetful of something when he should have been engaged in what the Lady said to him is not showing proper respect, when a knight should offer all his attentions to her speech. The Lady prodded the knight with more questions as to why he was not taking advantage of the situation of her and him in a locked room with her husband gone hunting for the day, and why someone as him could be incapable of love. Gawain remembered who he was and what he represented at that moment, and blessed her with Christian virtues, telling her that “Christ reward you!”(SGGK, 1535); incorporating a compliment in the name of his faith was a noble move. “The moral victory is Gawain’s” (Trawthe and Treason, 29) because at that moment Gawain represented Christian virtue. In her book Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition, Gwendolyn Morgan says that “Courtly love thus directly clashes with Christian virtue and with knightly honor and hospitality” (14). In order to be a courteous guest to the Lady, he must put himself at her service, and doing this takes away his purpose of serving God. This small “moral victory” of Gawain’s translated to the hunting scene, where the lord and his men pursue a restless boar that fatally wounded some of the hounds employed for the chase. Unlike the deer, who resigns to the hunt much like Gawain tried to avoid the Lady, the boar is a fighter who refused to surrender as he also injured some of the hunters with his teeth. In the same respect, Gawain damages the picture that the Lady has of knights when he does not immediately follow “courtly” protocol. This beast has a history of being a “lustful boarâÂ?¦the enemy of courtly love” (Trawthe and Treason, 58) and to be the animal the men hunt alongside Gawain’s challenged courtesy by a lustful woman bears some significance. Gawain is not as passive as he was during the first interview with the Lady, so he was better able to think about his options in response to her overt advances. With his current situation in relation to the boar he has two options, as Barron writes, he could “take the Lady’s hint and play the ravisher, or alternately, reject her courtly formula with brutal words, betray her secret advances to others and eventually to her husband (Trawthe and Treason, 59.) If he plays the male aggressor he breaks the Christian virtues of chastity that Gwendolyn Morgan warns courtly love clashes with, and the Lady would claim victimization, and report his inappropriate behavior to her husband. The other option allows Gawain to pursue justice for the wrongdoing the Lady placed on him and report the incidents to him. Unfortunately in doing so he would break the Lady’s confidences in keeping a secret, and it would also be an act of discourtesy for her reputation as a faithful wife to a respected lord. In the long run, the reported incident would take away from the lord’s valor, as many would question his decision-making and trusting a knight from Arthur’s Round Table. Gawain takes neither action, but instead uses courtly speech in his dealings with her, keeping their relationship on the verbal level. He keeps things pleasant with his hostess and turns from corrected pupil to “so gracefully evasive that he seemed always polite” (SGGK, 1551-1553) and the Lady seems satisfied, kissing him as she leaves his chambers. The boar, on the other hand, is eventually apprehended by the lord, who chases him to a lake and assures his death with the accurate placement of his sword into its throat. The way the boar met its death is no accident, as it draws the narrative closer to the moment when Gawain is expected to face a similar fate. It’s the night before the third day that Gawain is reminded by his host that there was still more to come in regards to proving his worth as a Pentangular Knight. He says to Gawain “For I’ve tested you twice, and you’ve proved yourself true. The third throw will come up best, cast the die, drink while we can, and rejoice” (SGGK, 1678-1681). Gawain is unaware of the tricks his host has planned for him, but the close reader is aware of them, as “he had tricks to try” (SGGK, 1689) The lord rises early to hunt the animal that symbolizes trickery, the fox. The fox comes to be very similar to Gawain in that what Gawain ultimately does to completely compromise his courtesy is made apparent in the pursuit of the fox. When the animal becomes a harder hunt than what the lord and his men bargained for, “they labeled him a “thief”, threatened his life” (SGGK, 1725) and threat of life is the exact reason Gawain took a bite out of the proverbial apple. He is plagued by nightmares about his upcoming journey to the Green Chapel, and puts on a face to courteously greet the Lady when his sleep is disturbed by her playful scolding. His mortality is obviously on his mind, and he knows as a mere human, even wearing his armor, that he is unable to retain life after beheading by an axe. The Lady once again presses her intentions on him, she wants him to love her in a more literal sense, and now the temptation’s becoming harder to resist, for the Lady’s beauty is extenuated by a bare neck. As in the previous two days she challenges his identity, shames him for his lack of opportunity, and at the last minute offers him one last chance if he gives her a gift. If Gawain gave her one of the game winnings her husband exchanged with him, then his loyalty with his host would be called into question. If Gawain gave her a piece of his armor, then a piece of his identity that made him a Pentangular Knight would be missing. In giving her nothing it prompts her to find an item to give to him, in order to keep a connection between them. Gawain refuses the ring and initially refuses the green girdle, but after she persuades him that the garment would make him immune against suffering the human fate of death, he concedes. In accepting the girdle Gawain places his trust in material things rather than God, but there are also deeper implications involved. Although Gawain and the Lady never consummate their affections, Gawain still commits a sexual blunder by accepting the item. Gawain accepts her gift because he has a love of life, and according to A.C. Spearing in his book Readings in Medieval Poetry, this self-love has a deeper meaning during those times, where “the urge to survive and the urge to reproduce, both, in the eyes of medieval Christianity, almost inevitably tainted with sin, but both necessary for the continuance of the human race (198.) Even if one finds it a difficult argument to swallow, associating love of self in the sexual domain, in the Middle Ages it was still as sinful as engaging in intercourse because it’s a desire to go against the time God has set for that individual to die. Not only does Gawain see the girdle as playing God to keep him immortal, but he goes along with it, over his previous prayers to God and the Holy Virgin, and over what his shield represents with the portrait of the latter inside, meant to keep him safe above all else. This is his third day as a blasphemer, but the most severe of the three because he placed his own life in the hands of a non-Christian force. After committing this sinful act, he goes to confession. This move appears to be a turn away from sin, as it’s remarked that “he told his sins, small and large, and prayed for his mercy of almighty God”(SGGK, 1880-1881) and a large sin could be his placement of his life over his duties as an honest knight. However, Gawain presents his host with the three kisses he received from the Lady, and nothing more. If he was truly repentant and confessed to stealing the green girdle from his host, because in keeping what he earned makes him a thief, then he would have returned the green girdle upon exchanging the two men’s winnings. He not only keeps the girdle but makes the pentangle more or less obsolete by placing it like a sash on his armor. The pentangle is a five-pointed star that’s continuous, whereas the girdle has a beginning and an end; it also begins Gawain’s failure in his eyes and ends the present significance of the pentangle. Gawain discovers that the green girdle works against him in more ways than one. It earns him a nick on the neck by the Green Knight’s axe for not being honest with him, the host of Hautdesert, in not surrendering the gift when he gave him the three kisses. It also presents Gawain in a different light and not different by lack of courage, but for his lack of courtesy towards women. When he learns that the lord’s wife went along with the challenge and tried to abolish his knightly virtues, he has some anti-feminine sentiment to share with his nemesis, “Women ruined them: how wonderful if men could love them well, but never believe them!”(SGGK, 2420-2421.) A Pentangular Knight would never speak of women in such a negative way, let alone a knight whose cowardice fueled his deception and blasphemed against God. Gawain redeems himself in the end by realizing his own human frailties and wearing the green girdle as a symbol of his imperfection. Arthur and the rest of his court fraternize with Gawain and adopt the green girdle as their new symbol, but probably do not realize the spiritual and personal flogging Gawain commits upon himself for wearing the accessory. He comes to accept that he can no longer be looked at in the same perfect light he once was as the sole knight to defend the reputation of Arthur’s court, but he is not lost. True, the poem is not a “tragedy of chivalric corruption and spiritual blindness” (Trawthe and Treason, 144) but an examination that everyone fails at least once in their life because of their inherent humanity, and nothing won through breaking the chivalric code is going to work in one’s favor. If Gawain gets anything out of his humbling experience, it’s to teach younger knights what mistakes to avoid should a similar challenge arise in the future. Works Cited Barron, W.R.J Trawthe and Treason: The sin of Gawain reconsidered: England: Manchester University Press, 1980 Kittredge, George A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight: Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960 Knight, Rhonda Studies in the Age of Chaucer: All Dressed Up with Someplace to Go (pp 259-284): England: The New Chaucer Society, Volume 25, 2003 Morgan, Gwendolyn Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition: Lang Publishing: New York, 1993 Raffel, Burton trans.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: New American Library: New York, 1970

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