In this passage from Part IV of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is voyaging with a guide to the Green Chapel and meets his fate at the hands of the Green Knight. Throughout the poem, Gawain is portrayed as the quintessential knight, standing by his king at all times and doing only what is right and good. However, as this passage shows, even though Gawain is a great person, his is also human. Being human, Gawain allows his fear and his will to survive drive him to dishonor. Sir Gawain’s knightly character has always been his distinguishing quality. As other stories have shown, such as “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell”, Gawain is selfless, kind, and a true knight with his loyalty to his king. His constant nature is obvious in his refusal to turn away at the advice of the guide. Even when the guide tells him about all those who have died at the Green Knight’s hands, Gawain says that he “forsake this place for fear.” (Abrams 202) Rather, he must go see the knight “to chance his luck….befall what may through Fortune’s will”.(Abrams 202) He bravely rides on, alone, but not afraid. As a knight, battle is one’s life and, if he dies in battle, it would be a nobler death than any other. Also, it is not in Gawain’s character to renege on a promise made. Therefore, it is only right to assume that Gawain will not take the guide up on his offer to escape without ridicule. However, even the best person is not without fault. Though Sir Gawain is obviously willing to fulfill his end of the bargain, he is human. And, as a human, he has human qualities, the strongest being the will to survive. When the Green Knight’s ax is coming down to cut off his head, Gawain tries to sustain his life and “shrank a little from the sharp iron”.(Abrams 204) His involuntary move is definitely understandable, but unexpected of the perfect Sir Gawain depicted thus far. He does this not once, but twice. His fear, even with the added protection of the girdle, shows his mortality. This passage helps to bring Gawain down from his pedestal. Symbolism is the key mechanism through which the poet displays Gawain’s downfall from faultlessness. Symbols can come in many forms. For Gawain, his defeat came in threes. Throughout the poem, Gawain is tested, first with the three days at the magical castle in the wood and finally with the three blows by the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. During those three days, he made a promise with the king to return what ever was given to him during the three days he rested at the castle. Though he did as told the first two nights, he didn’t fulfill his promise the third night because he received the green girdle and knew that it would come in handy. In this passage, Sir Gawain has come to the Green Chapel to fulfill his promise and receive a blow to his head. But, knowing he is not magical or immortal like the Green Knight, he moves away during two of the three blows of the ax. At the third blow, he remains unharmed, because of the girdle, but receives a scratch on his throat. Though Gawain later laments his dishonesty, the fact of the matter is that he was dishonest. In that way, the green girdle and the cut are both symbols of his humanity. Because of his fear of death, he takes the green girdle to save himself. The cut serves as his reminder of that moment of disgrace. Finally, the theme of Christianity that is widespread throughout the poem adds another level of intensity to this scene. In Anglo-Saxon times, literature tended to depict the pagan, ritualistic lifestyle of the people. Similarly, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents many Christian terms and references, due to the new power of the medieval church in society. Several times, Sir Gawain refers to the will of God and the grace and power of the Lord. In this passage, before he continues on to the Green Chapel, he tells the guide that he has no fear because “the Lord is strong to save…his servants trust in him”. (Abrams 202) His belief in God is so strong that he believes he can help him through everything. Also, when he happens upon the Green Chapel, he refers to it as the “Chapel of Mischance” where “the devil himself may be seen saying matins at black midnight” (Abrams 203). This brings about the image of good and evil, Gawain being good and the knight being evil. When Gawain fails to give back the green girdle, it is like he is given into the devil’s temptation. In this passage, when he fails to keep his promise to the knight, it is like evil has won over good. Gawain mourns his disgrace like a sinner repents for his sins. Gawain, in the end, seems an angel that has fallen out of grace with God. Because of the downfall of Gawain’s character in this passage, the audience’s outlook of Gawain from now on will be lowered. His usually perfect nature is now tarnished by his involuntary human qualities of fear and will to survive.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Created By Judith Mathieu, JM86812n@pace.edu
Last Modified: May 17, 2004