Part of the essence of drama is conflict. A man cannot be considered a hero unless he has overcome some form of opposition. In many cases, this opposition comes in the form of another character. Typically, the conflict is simplified as a malignant character with wicked intentions committing acts which would be characterized as evil; the protagonist opposes this villain and usually overcomes that character, winning the day and the admiration of all. Sometimes, the main character becomes a hero by overcoming some force within his or her own self. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this is ultimately what Gawain must do in order to be considered a hero.
Sir Gawain is originally faced with the challenge of the Green Knight. The Green Knight appears in King Arthur's court and causes a disturbance, issuing an open invitation to all in the court "to strike one stroke for another" (Norton, line 287) with his strong, sturdy, and finely-crafted axe as the prize. This test appears simple enough, and it puts Gawain into a straightforward, short-term conflict with the Green Knight. Yet the Green Knight is not the main enemy whom the hero must overcome in this story. Traditionally, a hero is portrayed as a noble, gallant, and even infallible human being. That heroic character is frequently placed on a pedestal. From old folk tales to modern pop-culture, a hero is often seen as being generally respected and admired for his heroism. Throughout the course of his quest, Gawain must face temptation and the less-than-heroic qualities within himself-and he does not necessarily overcome them all.
As Sir Gawain presses on in his search for the Green Chapel, he faces numerous physical challenges. Yet he overcomes them all to the point that "to tell but the tenth part would tax my wits" (1719) as he has countless battles with serpents, wolves, and the like. The true challenges come after he arrives at Bercilak's castle. There, he is tempted three times by Lady Bercilak's advances--yet he does not give in to her advances, nor spurn her completely in an uncourtly manner. Further, he does not accept her gift of the ring which she offers as a remembrance. However, when she offers her green girdle, proclaiming its properties of protection:
Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought
It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:
Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!
His greatest foe ultimately turns out to be not the Green Knight, but himself, as the major conflict is within: his own fear of death. He does triumph over that fear insofar as he seeks out the Green Knight, honoring his end of the bargain. However, in taking the girdle, he fails. But perhaps it is the truest hero who learns from his mistakes, for in the end, Sir Gawain realizes and understands where he has failed. He vows to wear the green girdle as a symbol of his disgrace.
Gawain faces a conflict on two levels. The challenge of the exterior opponent is readily vanquished. The interior foe, however, is something not quite as easily conquered as Gawain eventually gives in to his phobia. Yet the protagonist is made no less of a hero. Why? Perhaps because everyone dies--death is a foe which cannot be conquered. Every hero has feet of clay. As such, they must deal with their own mortality, even as their legend brings them to immortality.