The alliterative romance poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight addresses the notion of principles that is best seen through the poem’s direct and indirect characterization of the protagonist, Sir Gawain--- most notable in the following three codes: knightly conduct, Christian virtues, and courtly love.
"More than a code of manners in war and love, Chivalry was a moral system, governing the whole of noble life"1.The Medieval English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the greatest literary piece of romance there is in the middle English scripts. It should not be only viewed as a type of love story, rather medieval stories often narrate the wonderful adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight who often runs after a journey, facing countless risks and supernatural threats in between, to show the king his prowess and courageous behavior. King Arthur's knights have always been thought to be filled with the most desired attributes in Camelot: loyalty, graciousness, respectfulness, Christianity, and chivalry, principles that a knight of Arthur's round table shall possess in order to bravely protect the king, the queen and the rest of the kingdom in periods of inevitable war. From the time of the Noman Conquest of 1066 and the arrival of the romantic genre, principles of chivalry have played a key role in the English society. During this time, knights followed a code of conduct (chivalric principles or chevalerie, the french term for horse soldier), in which the knight endeavors to keep his honor by endeavoring to do as his liege lord commands. In many instances, the knight's bravery and skill as a warrior is tested over the course of a quest that may be imposed by a lady, king or one's self.
As kings converted to Christianity, knightly virtues later incorporated religious virtues as knights honored God as a faithful Christian. Over time, the chivalric code also included more virtues ideals such as honor, courtesy and courtly love. Within the genre, the romantic hero is characterized as having a sense of religious duty and seeks to conquer what is deemed evil through a quest. The hero searches for meaning throughout his adventure and is often ignorant of his enemy. Furthermore, his quest has a supernatural element in which the knight must show his strength and worthiness or return to his community in shame and loneliness. The alliterative romance poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight addresses the notion of principles that is best seen through the poem’s direct and indirect characterization of the protagonist, Sir Gawain--- most notable in the following three codes: knightly conduct, Christian virtues, and courtly love. Knightly conduct is one of the most important aspects developed throughout the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in the character of Sir Gawain, as he upholds the knight’s code of bravery, respect, and honor. Knights are supposed to be brave, fearless and kind with all men and women, that’s why Arthur king was angry with his knights when they hesitate to do the bet ; The mysterious Green Knight's challenge represents the perfect opportunity for lord Arthur's youngest knight and nephew, Sir Gawain, to unfold his knightly demeanor in king Arthur's court. Even though the king is who responds to the imputations against the reputation of his round table, individual knights, such as Gawain, are the ones who step up as representatives of the king, court and the kingdom itself; He showed bravery when he accepted the dwelling even though he wasn’t a knight yet, and this action gave him the right on Arthur’s eyes to be one of his knights, the hero courageously rises "'Hear me, / My lord. Let this challenge be mine'" (341-342)2. Displaying a true chivalrous behavior, Sir Gawain exhibits bravery when confronting and accepting the Green Knight's "Christmas sport", as the green man calls it, to exchange axe blows with his opponent, a bet that would be ". . . not now: a year / And a day will be time / Enough" (297-299) at the Green Chapel, which Gawain forebodes as an evil, forbidden place, filled with unknown threats that the knight will have to struggle with during the voyage. Though, Sir Gawain does not hesitate to quickly take immediate action into accepting the Green Knight's "beheading game". The main character then emerges, takes the Green Knight's axe and neatly cuts through flesh and bones the giant's head off in one stroke. ". . . the head fell on the earth, rolled / On the floor, and the knights kicked it with their / feet" (427-429). However, the Green Knight does not fall down, instead he stretches out his hand, picks up his bleeding head and remounts his horse to remind Gawain that the two shall meet again at the Green Chapel. The hero's uprising is seen in Arthur's round table as a bold act which shall be greatly rewarded because of the difficulty the duel stands for. Sir Gawain's respect towards his king and the Green Knight is perceived by the rest of the knights as a relevant deed worth honor within the kingdom. The king and the queen are flattered and proud by Sir Gawain's honorable attitude when swinging the Green Knight's axe to behead him. Gawain, honorably offered his stroke, knowing that whatever it happens, he would receive another in return, as the Green Knight has clearly said it. The green man plans to carry out this bet in order to prove if king Arthur actually has the bravest men in his kingdom. Gawain's demonstration of respect and honor in king Arthur's sight portrays a chivalric conduct, a truly desired attribute amongst knights in Camelot, that is best seen in the romantic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the protagonist quickly attends his king's call in to confront the Green man's game, he didn’t run out of his destiny when he failed and accepted he could lose his head, galloping bravery into the forest to confront his destiny, and his fears putting his life on God’s hands and treating with good manners men and women.
Another quite important, chivalric code concerns Christian virtues as Sir Gawain relies on the almighty God through this epic quest. Christianity plays an impressive role in Gawain's life, as he does not manifests apprehensiveness towards death at all. Gawain is fearless of death, because he knows he will have eternal life if dying at the Green Chapel. The religious virtues Gawain displays are based on his trust in God's strength and mercy. As Gawain honors God by becoming more like Christ and living his life as a God-like hero, he graciously prays and asks for blessings, strength and guidance to find and, eventually, defeat the green man at the Chapel, where Gawain and the Green Knight agreed to meet a year and a day ago. "'Tomorrow I go to the green man and his axe, / Tomorrow without fail, as God guides me'” (548-549). Thus, the protagonist calls for God's favor to be his driver on his way to the Chapel, as he also learns about himself and his inner Christian disposition to honor God, he faces a lot of problems not specified that could be interpreted as his own demons and he defeats them with the help of god. Christian knights take their strengths on the over natural powers of God to lead them and help them with their problems; because when they feel hopeless and without an exit they find the way to face their problems with God since for him everything is possible and even death can not defeat him; Christ is seen here as courageous man who triumphs over death, a very honorable conduct that a knight should imitate; besides humans can not escape from death so Christ is more powerful that it, and even death is afraid of god, that’s why Christ is a model to follow and a support for asking help. The surrounding nature is the perfect setting to contrast the roughness and chaos of the wilderness, represented in the Green Knight's color (green), to the peace and tranquility of Camelot and God's presence. Gawain requires God's guidance as the process of pursuing this fantastic journey develops. The hero trusts his life onto God’s hands as he enters in the woods alone, and does what he believes God would do. "'God is good' / Said the knight. 'I’ll not weep / Or complain: I keep / My trust in Him, I’ll do as He would'" (2156-2159). Although Gawain is not quite afraid of death when entering the Chapel, he feels somewhat guilty of not having enough faith in God's assistance when the Green man swings the axe to behead noble Gawain. "And to Gawain his chances / Of living seemed scant" (2307-2308). At this point, Gawain is slightly afraid of dying, because he thinks the green man is about to cut his head off forever. However, Gawain receives a stroke that barely cuts his neck. ". . . he [the green knight] struck hard, but hurt him only / With a nick, that snipped the skin" (2312-2313). This close approach to death made Gawain flinch of fear, frightened of losing his life; nevertheless, his trust in God's protection never left his side. The hero's Christian virtues maintained him bravely solid though the Green Knight's challenge, and gave him the strength to get away of that difficult situation victorious.
The third principle of chivalry consists of courtly love. Courtly love was a medieval literary conception that emphasized nobility and chivalry in the ancient England: having perfect manners, showing wit through conversation and to treat ladies with upmost respect. As it is displayed in Sir Gawain's characterization, courtly love plays a key role within his life and the kingdom, being this a valuable quality mostly shown to kings and queens in the fourteenth century. The Arthurian court is also know to have the most delightful knights, who respectfully volunteer to fight not only to protect their kingdom but also to obey their mighty king and queen's requests in every way. “. . . he (Gawain) quickly / Pledged himself their servant" (975-976). The hero knows quite well his duty in regards to women. Women are to be protected and also respected; the knights of the round table promise to always rescue them, strengthen them in their rights (whatever these might be), and not to rape them, because the penalty for this type of crime would be death. Gawain's willingness to follow women's orders, serve and love them must not be only seen as merely obligations to accomplish but as proper moral standards to achieve, enhance and tolerate with mighty determination. The central character treats women respectfully well, he is very courteous, well mannered and witty when having conversation, he avoids temptation towards intercourse as well, and there is when Sir Gawain faces a big problem at Bertilak of Hautdesert's castle. Bertilak’s wife attempts to seduce Gawain when she enters his room wearing seductive silks, while innocent Gawain sleeps. Lord Bertilak's wife's seduction is surprisingly strong and as she lays directly on top of Gawain, they begin to kiss. Gawain realizes that the kissing is wrong and stops the action. "To offend like a boor / Was bad enough; to fall into sin / Would be worse, betraying the lord of that house" (1773-1775). The lady then accepts Gawain's refusal; however, she is amazingly clever and flirtatious. She ultimately convinces Gawain to receive a green belt to remember her with. Bertilak then comes back from hunting, and gives Gawain a fox. Gawain, in return, gives him the kisses which he received from the lady, but not the belt. This flaw makes Gawain to seem very human, because any normal person, no matter how honest, would do what Gawain had done for fear of losing his life. Gawain's test of honor and respect towards lord Bertilak's wife and house would be greatly appreciated by the Green Knight, whom would turn out to be no one else but lord Bertilak itself. Our hero's demonstration of courtly love and respectfulness would be, at last, what maintains him alive throughout his voyage to the Green Chapel and afterwards. Likewise, Sr gawain respect the courtly love principle when getting into the castle and being enough smart to treat a married courtly woman with good manners, and avoiding the temptations, however he was tested three times and this woman try to make him to fail into sin as Eva did with Adan, but not achieving completely her goal. This girl pretend to love him, and test him many time but his fate in god and his Christian and courtly love principles were stronger than his own natural human sex instincts; for him was more important to preserve his loyalty to the lord than satisfy and please himself with a pagan pleasure, even though this woman was worthy enough in beauty, grace and wisdom. Although, she gave him a price that he should not accept as knight, but that he accepted as a human being afraid of his own death; in this case the idea was to save his life of this powerful opponent, but he broke the principle of not accepting gifts, that at the end he had to wearing it as a symbol of his sin.
To conclude, we can now compare and contrast key attributes found king Arthur's knights to our own communities and ourselves. As we have seen, the fourteenth century is entirely based on knighthood conduct, Christian virtues, and courtly love, that are perceived by the readers as the most important aspects that knights in Camelot, such as Sir Gawain, should definitely own. These principles are persistent in Gawain's character throughout the entire poem, and just like Gawain is, we are also somehow civilized when talking to others. Even though some people in the twenty-first century do not show respect towards women, or towards Christianity, we shall learn about Gawain's epic story, and do as the hero would do in regards to these main attributes (respect, Christianity, and love), Sir Gawain is confronted to preserve this three main principles even though the circumstances were difficult for keeping them; be brave in unfair circumstances against someone who seems to be immortal, or worst the devil; keep courtesy with a madam who is decided to make him fell in to sin with his flirting, sensuality and gifts, and trust in god when his life seems to get to an end. All those principles were proved on his journey and make him to be more worthy of his knight position even though he does not complete successfully all the testing that Morgana made on him but knowing that a real knight is not free from sin as everybody expect him to be, because he is also human being. In spite of Gawain's ability to acquire a Christ-like role in the poem, Sir Gawain is not all perfect, he is another human being, like us, capable of making mistakes. Yet, he remains a hero after all, not because he is absolutely flawless, but because he learns from his own mistakes, becoming a better person as a result. In today's society, most of us do not even worry to try to get acquainted with these principles, because we are living in a society in which most of our lives revolve around pride, and self-concerns. However, as Gawain learned about his own flaws, we should also learn how to coexist with one another in an imperfect world. We find a need to follow Gawain's attributes, given that these are quite appropriate for our future lifestyles; since we are not perfect, we can still face and fight back our inner Green Knight. The medieval romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represents knightly practices that are to be preserved throughout human history. Given the fact that we still read Gawain's epic journey done in the 1300's, we should also seek for our own journey and test our principles, test ourselves, just as Gawain did, to successfully become part of a better humankind.
Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror. Quotes about Chivalry and Knighthood. Quotes were obtained from http://www.chivalrynow.net/articles/steven.htm
All quotes within this work, unless otherwise cited, are from the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
1 Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror.
2 All quotes within this work, unless otherwise cited, are from the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.