Analysis Of Sir Gawain's Character
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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain, nephew of the famed Arthur of the Round Table, is seen as the most noble of knights who is the epitome of chivalry, yet he is also susceptible to mistakes. His courtesy, honor, honesty, and courage are subjected to various tests, posed by the wicked Morgan le Fay. Some tests prove his character and the chivalrous code true and faultless, like the time he answers a challenge although it might mean his death, or remains courteous to a lady despite temptation. Other tests prove his character and the chivalrous code faulty such as the time he breaks his promise to his host, and when he flinches from a harmless blow.
The first test to his courage, courtesy, humility and loyalty toward his king, Arthur, occurs when the Green Knight suddenly appears at Camelot’s New Year's feast. He offers the Round Table a challenge: the game is for a man to strike him with his axe, and twelve months and a day later, the Green Knight will return the blow. When Arthur accepts the challenge, Gawain interferes and asks Arthur with humility and courtesy to “grant him the grace to stand by him” (SGGK l. 343-344). He confesses that “he is the weakest, and of wit feeblest, and the loss of his life would not be a great tragedy at all because his body, but for Arthur’s blood, is not worth much" (SGGK l. 354-357). He asks to be granted the privilege to claim the Green Knight's challenge because it does not befit a king. Proof of Gawain’s character is substantiated by his noble acceptance of the Green Knight’s beheading game in order to “release the king outright from his obligation”(SGGK l. 365). It shows courage and loyalty that even among famed knights such as Sir Bedevere and Lancelot, both worthy of exultation, Gawain is the only one to accept the Green Knight’s terms.
More proof of Sir Gawain’s chivalrous and courageous character is evident when he arrives at Bercilak’s court. The people are honored that their guest is Sir Gawain, the most honored of all the knights on earth, even though Gawain describes himself as young and untested. They whisper to each other that Gawain, whose “courage is ever-constant” and “custom-pure,” will demonstrate and teach them his “command of manners” and “love’s language”(SGGK l. 912, 924, 927). The conversation of the household serves to provide proof of his Gawain's fine character.
The next test of his character comes during his three-day stay at Hautdesert castle. His courtesy and honor are tested when the host’s lady pursues Gawain in order to fool him into action that will destroy his knightly ideal. She tempts him with “bosom all but bare”(SGGK l. 1741). With another man’s wife pursuing him, Gawain must be courtly and polite to the lady yet must deny her advances. She claims that since “he won her favor, he should claim a kiss from her as accords with the conduct of courteous knights” (SGGK l. 1489-1491). Gawain must abide by his morals and abstain from adulterous actions, while being a courteous knight. He is forced to make a choice to be courteous to the lady, thus dishonoring his host, or be discourteous and honor his host by not committing adultery with his wife. By choosing to return each of the successive kisses received, Gawain is able to pass the first test posed by Morgan le Fay. Yet even the passing of this test induces a conflict within Gawain, revealing that his knightly courteousness is of no use when truly tested.
On the third day of Gawain's stay at the castle, his honesty is put to the test. Realizing that his death at the hands of the Green Knight is inevitable, Gawain’s thoughts of self-preservation dominate his actions rather than thoughts of honor. His acceptance of the girdle from his host’s lady exposes Gawain’s fear for his life. Were he a perfect and ideal knight, he would not have kept the girdle in order to save his own life, because his host has asked Gawain for an exchange of all things won during the day. At the same time, Gawain must obey the host’s lady. Therefore, Gawain is trapped in an unavoidable situation, in which taking or refusing the girdle will result in discourtesy towards his hostess, or loss of his honor or his life. So he keeps the girdle because it will “keep him safe”(SGGK l. 2040). But along with keeping the girdle comes another consequence. By not giving it to his host, Gawain fails to uphold his pact with Bercilak, thus leading to his failure of the test of honesty.
In another test, this time at the Green Chapel, Gawain’s cowardice is shown when he is forced to receive a blow by the Green Knight’s axe. Even though he possesses the girdle of invincibility, he still “shrinks a little from the sharp iron” and “flees for fear”(SGGK l. 2267, 2272). This action is cowardly because he is in no danger at this point, yet he flinches at the sight of the axe. His cowardice mocks his code of chivalry and knighthood, and it is in accordance with Morgan le Fay’s plan to make a fool out of Arthur and to destroy his knights’ ideals.
Although some of Gawain's actions are not entirely chivalrous, Gawain learns a lesson from his action. When Bercilak reveals Morgan le Fay's plan, Gawain becomes enraged at himself for his failure, calling himself "cowardly and covetous"(SGGK l. 2374). By taking responsibility and regretting his actions, Gawain deserves forgiveness. Bercilak shows understanding for Gawain's lack of loyalty and honesty by explaining that the cause of his actions is Gawain's love for his life. Thus Gawain deserves less blame for his misdemeanor minor transgression.
Although Gawain, like most us, is prone to evil thoughts of selfishness and dishonesty, and takes a cowardly action, "men still hold him dear" in Bercilak's castle as well as in Arthur's Camelot (SGGK l. 2465). His friends are not as disappointed with him as he is disappointed with himself. He holds himself in contempt, "rages in his heart and grieves" for the shame in his actions and the green belt that he must bear (SGGK l.251-252). He wears the girdle as a badge to remind him of his faults and to lower his pride when it becomes inflated. But he has learned from his mistakes and becomes an even better knight.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7th ed. vol.1. Abrams, M. H et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 157-210.
© 2002 Stella Abdiy