In the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Sir Gawain is portrayed as an extremely honorable and courteous knight. Although most medieval stories about the character behave in a similar way, there are two stories that use quite a different angle. It is my belief that the author of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" deliberately used these tales to contrast his own.
Before this, however, it is first necessary to point out that although these stories are taken “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory, a book that was written years after “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is presumed to be, most of the stories chronicled in that book are actually taken from much earlier tales in French. (Gawain, 160) Therefore, a version of “Le Morte d’Arthur” was already in circulation.
The first of these stories is one in which a newly knighted Sir Gawain is sent on a quest to find the white hart that ran through King Arthur‘s hall. After finding and killing the animal, he immediately gets into a fight with another knight, and accidentally slays the knight's lady. (Malory, 84-90)
The first obvious connection between this and the "Sir Gawain" poem is the theme of beheading. In this story, Gawain loses control of his pride and refuses to grant another knight mercy, inadvertently cutting off the head of a woman when she gets in his way. In the poem, of course, Sir Gawain is saved from a similar death by standing on his honor and refusing the demands of the lady of the castle. (One could summarize - and I apologize in advance - by saying that when Gawain loses his head, the lady loses hers, but by keeping a lid on it, he gets to keep his lid.)
There are opposing parallels regarding what may be symbolism in the two instigators of the tales. The white hart could represent many different things, such as innocence, virtue and charity. The Green Knight may be an anthropomorphic characterization of nature, which itself may stand for materialism. Remember how well he adorned himself: “Both the bosses on his belt and other bright gems/That were richly ranged on his raiment noble/About himself, and his saddle, set upon silk, /That to tell half the trifles would tax my wits.” (Gawain, lines 162-165) This is not the attire of an ascetic. If this interpretation is correct, it is definitely interesting to note which test Sir Gawain passed and which one he failed miserably.
Also comparable is the matter of Gawain's punishment. In "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Gawain's slight omission of the lady's girdle leads him to wear it on the ride home. In "Morte d'Arthur," he is forced to wear the lady's head around his neck and place her body on his horse until he reaches King Arthur's Court again. In the one, Gawain devises his own sentence; in the other, it is forced upon him.
The court’s reaction to his story in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” may also be inversely tied to the same event in “Le Morte d’Arthur.” In that story, Sir Gawain is predictably greeted with shock and disgust, and given a decree that he should always be courteous to women, and “to be with all ladies, and to fight for their quarrels; and that ever he should be courteous.” (Malory, 90) In the Gawain poem, however, Gawain’s self-imposed shame is greeted with mirth by the rest of the court, and they decide that all present should wear such a girdle. In a sense, they have all taken on the verdict of Sir Gawain’s devising. (Gawain, lines 2490-2520)
There are other small connections in the story: Each one starts with an astonishing interruption during King Arthur’s feast, and both hold the greater part of the story at another’s castle. They both are parables of virtue - one relating wickedness and the other showing honor. Possibly, the fact that both stories are the result of a quest and both include a hunt is deliberate, but this is more likely to be coincidence, as the two themes are very common in this genre.
The other story that has great bearing on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is that of Sir Pelleas and Ettard (or Ettare). Thomas Malory also tells this story in “Le Morte d’Arthur”, but it may be better known as one of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” (Reid, 68) In this story, or poem, Sir Pelleas is deeply, unrequitedly in love with Ettard. Sir Gawain, on hearing Pelleas’s complaints, promises that he will go to Ettard and champion the knight’s cause, but instead takes her for himself. (Malory 134-140)
The relationship between these two stories is immediately clear. Again, Sir Gawain is left alone with a woman, and once again, there is lust between them. Remember, in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the lady of the castle vigorously pursues Gawain, and he rejects her politely but firmly as to not dishonor her husband. This time not only is Sir Gawain unable to resist such contact, he actually initiates it! (Malory 137-138)
There is no explanation given as to why Sir Gawain would do such a thing - unless it was part of the plan and went awry - but it is perhaps implicit in the text that this is normal behavior of the time (or the author - Malory was supposedly accused of rape). (Malory V) This is not so in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The idea of the infidelity is so abhorrent that Sir Gawain would have been beheaded if he had succumbed. In fact, the “Gawain” plot makes it more acceptable for Sir Gawain to kiss the lord of the house than to kiss the lady. (lines 1639-1647, 2345-2354)
Both Sir Pelleas and the Green Knight consider killing Gawain but in the end both spare him. (Malory, 138) Of course, if Gawain had transgressed in the poem, the Green Knight probably would not have been so lenient. He actually drew blood as opposed to Pelleas’s warning of leaving his sword blade between the two lovers. (Gawain, lines 2309-2314, Malory 139)
The poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is an intricate knot of many threads: those of the plot, the framework of the poem, the characterizations and all else the author has woven together so skillfully. Everything in this poem was planned and executed in detail, from the number of lines and stanzas to the deliberate flow of the plot. It is very difficult to believe that not only did he or she choose to ignore other stories but also seem to go so completely against them without any point to make. It is equally impossible that so many parallels are total accidents. This author made a conscious and purposeful effort to reference these stories and turn them completely upside-down, strongly reinforcing the underlying message in the poem - to hold honor and goodness above all else.
Anonymous. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. 8th ed. Vol 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 160-213.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. 1469. New York: Random House, 1999.
Reid, Margaret J. C. The Arthurian Legend. 1938. Great Britain: Oliver and Boyd Ltd., 1961