In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain is skillfully brought to life by the unknown author. Through the eyes of numerous characters in the poem, we see Gawain as a noble knight who is the epitome of chivalry; he is loyal, honest and above all, courteous. As the story progresses, Gawain is subjected to a number of tests of character, some known and some unknown. These tests tell us a great deal about Gawain's character and the struggles he faces internally. I will explore the various places in the poem where we learn about Gawain, either through others or through the tests he faces. By the end of the poem, we sense that we have come to know Gawain and have ventured a peek at his human side. However, we also realize that nothing short of perfection is acceptable to him.
Our first glimpse of Gawain occurs when the Green Knight suddenly appears at the New Year's celebration at Camelot. He offers a challenge for anyone to come forward and strike him with his ax. Twelve months and a day later, he will return the blow. No one steps forward to accept the dare. Embarrassed by his knights' lack of response, King Arthur accepts the challenge himself. At the fateful moment when Arthur is about to strike the blow, Gawain jumps up and says:
Would you grant me the grace,In this first meeting, through Gawain's own words, we begin to see him as the noble knight he is. Gawain has cleverly chosen his most courteous words to release Arthur from this predicament and restore the reputation of the knights of the Round Table. We cannot imagine a more courageous action than Gawain offering his life for his king nor a more polite offer to take the game.
To be gone from this bench and stand by you there,
If I without discourtesy might quit this board,...
I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest;
And the loss of my life would be least of any;
That I have you for uncle is my only praise;
My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth;
And for that this folly befits not a king,
And 'tis I that have asked it, it ought to be mine,
And if my claim be not comely let all this court judge,
in sight. Norton, 209
We are able to draw further clues about Gawain's character from the description of his armoring when he sets out a year later to meet the Green Knight. In this passage, we learn that Gawain's shield has gold pentangle on it. The author tells us the pentangle "is proper to that peerless prince" because it is a "token of truth," and he is most true to his word and a "most courteous knight." (Norton, 215) He goes on to say:
The fifth of the five fives followed by this knightWe have no reason to disbelieve the author nor his praise of Gawain.
Were beneficence boundless and brotherly love
And pure mine and manners, that none might impeach,
And compassion most precious--these peerless five
Were forged and made fast in him, foremost of men. Norton, 215-216
Our next chance to understand Gawain occurs at Bercilak's castle where the household is overjoyed that the holiday guest is Gawain of King Arthur's court. They whisper to each other that Gawain has "courage ever-constant, and customs pure," he is "the father of fine manners," and his "displays of deportment" will dazzle their eyes. (Norton, 221) Through these words we see that Gawain is generally well respected for these characteristics; it is not just his fellow knights who feel this way. At this castle Gawain undergoes many tests of character, yet he is unaware that he is being tested. An unknown test is perhaps the best test there is, since the individual cannot prepare for it.
Bercilak's wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he is able to dodge her advances with clever defenses. On the first day after being told she would marry him if she could he says, "You are bound to a better man, yet I prize the praise you have proffered me here." (Norton, 228) On the second day, the author tells us "Thus she tested his temper and tried many a time, whatever her true intent, to entice him to sin, but so fair was his defense that no fault appeared." (Norton, 234) As the days progress, we see how increasingly difficult it becomes for Sir Gawain. We read:
So uncommonly kind and complaisant was she,Throughout these tests, the author allows us to glimpse what Gawain is thinking, and we see that he sometimes works hard at being courteous and loyal. These scenes give us insight into how hard he tries to be as perfect as possible. A lesser man would have easily given in, yet Gawain holds himself to a higher standard.
With sweet stolen glances, that stirred his stout heart,
That he was at his wits' end, and wondrous vexed;
But he could not rebuff her, for courtesy forbade. Norton, 236
One the third day of the bargain, Gawain does not fare so well. We are told that Bercilak's wife
Made so plain her meaning, the man must needsHe is successful at avoiding her continuing advances. However, Gawain is concentrating so hard on being courteous and remaining true to Bercilak that he is tricked into taking a girdle of green silk from her and thus betraying Bercilak. She persuades him to accept the girdle and keep it a secret by telling him that if he wears the girdle "no hand under heaven...could hew him down, for he could not be killed by any craft on earth." (Norton, 240) That night he does not tell Bercilak of the gift. With this simple omission, he has betrayed his host, lied to him, and compromised his own standards.
Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse.
His courtesy concerned him, lest crass he appear,
but more his soul's mischief, should he commit sin
and belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house. Norton, 238
On the way to the Green Chapel, there is yet another test, and Gawain passes it easily. His guide offers him a last chance to avoid his meeting with the Green Knight. Gawain answers that if he were a coward, he could not be excused. He must go to the Chapel to test his luck for "The Lord is strong to save: his servants trust in him." (Norton, 246) It is this never-ending quest to do what is right that enables us still to feel good about Gawain even after we know he has been untrue.
Finally Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel and faces the Green Knight for the return blow. The Green Knight explains that he is Bercilak, and he has been testing Gawain all along. Gawain is embarrassed and reacts uncharacteristically brusquely. The Green Knight says, "She made trial of a man most faultless by far of all that ever walked over the wide earth" and "Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there, but the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, but that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame. (Norton, 250) It doesn't matter to Gawain that the Green Knight forgives him or understands why he did what he did. In his own eyes, he has failed.
In conclusion, through the Green Knight's tests, we see that Gawain is not the perfect knight he strives to be. Neither we, nor the Green Knight, nor his fellow knights of the Round Table hold him to this standard of perfection. We read about the turmoil Gawain experiences thinking about his impending death at the hands of the Green Knight, and we understand why he accepts the girdle. We know he remains true until his fear of death overcomes him. All this proves he is only human. Yet Gawain only sees that he has been inconsistent in upholding the chivalric code, and this means failure to him. This is an indication of the standard Gawain has set for himself, and we see why he has the reputation he has. Despite all that has happened, Gawain is still a loyal, noble, honest and courteous knight.
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