Arthurian Legends!!



Version 1 (Irfan Bandoo):


Character Analysis of Sir Gawain - A Knight among Knights


The Knights of the Round Table are known throughout many Arthurian stories. They are revered and respected by many. Their tales of heroism and courage are passed down from generation to generation. However, throughout these tales one knight has stood out among the others. He has earned the respect of his fellow knights, his king, women and the common people. He is the noblest of all the knights that resides in King Arthur’s court and is undoubtedly the most famous and well loved of all of Arthur’s knights. His name is Sir Gawain. Gawain is known throughout many Arthurian stories for his loyalty, humility, honesty, integrity and chivalrousness. His character and persona stand out among the other Knights of the Round Table and make him the most revered and most respected knight of Arthur’s court. Evidence of Gawain’s character is revealed to us throughout many Arthurian texts. Gawain’s near flawless character can be analyzed through the reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.”


Medieval knights have distinctive characteristics and qualities. First to be a knight one had to be appointed the title by a monarch. Secondly one had to swear allegiance to a liege lord. In addition, a knight had to follow a strict set of rules of conduct. “These were the knightly virtues. The virtues included: mercy towards the poor and oppressed, humility, honor, sacrifice, fear of God, faithfulness, courage and finally show the utmost graciousness and courtesy to ladies” (Susan Carroll-Clark.) These knightly virtues were encompassed in an oath which the knight had to take and pledge to uphold for the rest of his life. The knightly oath is seen in Malory’s The Morte Darthur where Arthur, makes his knight swear by the oath:


[…] never to do outrage nother murder, and always to flee treason, also by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of king Arthur for evermore: and always to do ladies, damsels and gentlewomen and widows succour; strength them in their rights and never to enforce them upon pain of death. Also that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no love ne for no worlds goods. (Derek S. Brewer).

Here we see that this is the oath which all knights took and vowed to up keep for the rest of their lives. They were never to commit murder or treason, never to be cruel but rather be merciful and to serve their king. I addition they are also supposed to be courtly to women. Gawain’s character and persona embody these knightly virtues and exemplify the oath of knighthood. Gawain’s virtuous nature makes him truly worthy to be part of the Knights of the Round Table. An example of Gawain’s nature is seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the Green Knight interrupts Arthur’s New Year’s feast and makes his presence felt when he challenges any member of Arthur’s court to an unusual contest, The Green Knight says:


If any in this house such hardihood claims, be so bold in his blood, his brain so wild, as stoutly to strike one stroke for another, I shall give him as my gift this gisarme noble, this axe, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes, and I shall bide the first blow as bare as I sit. If there be one so willful my word to assay, let him leap hither lightly, lay hold of this weapon; I quitclaim it forever, keep it as his own, and I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor, so you grant me the guerdon to give him another, sans blame. In a twelvemonth and a day he shall have of me the same; now be it seen straightway who dares take up the game (Norton, p. 168, lines 285-300).


Here we see the challenge made by the Green Knight. He challenges any of the knights of Arthur’s court to a contest in which they will exchange one blow for another with the Green Knight’s axe. The Green Knight says that he will not alter nor move but will stand still and receive the blow. The knight continues to say that when it is his turn to strike, he shall repay the blow in a year and a day. The knights of Arthur’s court are puzzled by his request and stare at the Green Knight in astonishment. Finally Arthur himself takes up the challenge. However, before Arthur can strike the Green Knight, Gawain intervenes and requests that he be the one to play the game:


I beseech, before all here, that this melee may be mine. Would you grant me the grace, to be gone from this bench and stand by you there, if I without discourtesy might quit this board, and if my liege lady misliked it not, I would come to your counsel before your court noble. For I find it not fit, as in faith it is known, when such a boon is begged before all these knights, though you be tempted therto, to take it on yourself while so bold men about upon benches sit, that no host under heaven is hardier of will, nor better brothers in arms where battle is joined; I am the weakest, well I know and of wit feeblest; and the lost 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, p.169-170, lines 342-361).


Here we witness Gawain’s true character. He is willing to take up the challenge and give up his life for his king. Gawain humbly intervenes and asks Arthur to allow him to be the one to strike the Green Knight. Gawain explains that Arthur is brave and is a good king by taking up the challenge himself; however, Gawain says that this should not be the work of a king and so he will gladly accept the challenge made by the Green Knight. Gawain humbly and modestly says that he is the weakest and feeblest of Arthur’s knights and that the loss of his life would not mean much. Gawain finally tells Arthur that were it not for Arthur’s blood running through his body he would not be worth anything and would be worthless. Gawain’s response illustrates his loyalty towards his king – he would rather sacrifice his own life than see his king die. It also shows his bravery and courage as a knight and his humility even though he is faced with impending death. Additionally because Gawain offers to take up the challenge “the collective honor of the Round Table is invested and lies with him, and when he promises to fulfill the terms of the Green Knight’s contest, his word of honor carries with it more than his own personal reputation for integrity” (J.A. Burrow). This further exemplifies Gawain’s character because we see that the meaning of his words or rather the promise which he vows to upkeep is more honorable than his actions.


            Another example of Gawain’s near flawless character is evident in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.” In this story, Arthur goes hunting and meets a knight – Gromer Somer Joure who threatens to kill Arthur because he has given all of Gromer Somer Joure’s  lands to Gawain. The knight agrees to spare Arthur’s life if he can answer a question, “what is it the women desire most.” The knight gives Arthur a year and a day to come up with the answer. Arthur tells Gawain of his meeting with the knight, and Gawain tells Arthur that he will help him find the answer. They both collect various answers but none of them seems right. Arthur later continues his search and comes across an old and hideous woman:


She was an ungodly a creature as evere man sawe witheoute measure. Her face was red, her nose snotid withalle, her mouithe wide, her teethe yallowe overe alle, with blerid even gretter then a balle; her mouithe was not to lak; her teethe hing overe her lippes; her cheekis side as wemens hippes; a lute she bare upon her back. Her neck long and therto great; her here cloterid on an hepe. In the shoulders she was a yeard brode; hanging pappis to be an hors lode; and like a barrelle she was made, and to reherse the foulness of that lady, there is not tung may telle, securely; of lothiness y-noughe she had. There was an unseemly sighte;so foulle a creature witheoute mesure (“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,” lines 228- 249).


The grotesque nature of the old hag is revealed to us here. she is described as an unsightly creature. Her face red and her mouth wide, she has yellow teeth and hangs over her lips. She carries with her a hump on her back and her shoulders are broad and wide. It is said that she is a foul creature without any measure. However, it is this old hag that tells Arthur she knows the answer that will save his life but he can only get the answer if Gawain agrees to marry her. Arthur tells Gawain of his meeting with the ugly, old hag and what she desires. On hearing this Gawain cheerfully replies:


I shall wed her and wed her again, thoughe she were a fend, thoughe she were as foulle as Belsabub, her shall I wed, by the rood, or elles were not I your frende, for ye ar my king with honour and have worshipt me in many a stoure. Therefore shall I not let. To save your life, lorde, it were my parte, or were I false and a great coward and my worship is the bet” (“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,” lines, 342-353).


Here Gawain tells Arthur that he will wed the old hag even though she is as ugly as Arthur describes. He says it is his duty to do this because Arthur is his king and he would gladly save his life, and if he did not, he would be seen as a coward. Here we see that although after hearing the description of the old and ugly hag Gawain still decides to marry her which illustrates Gawain’s unwavering loyalty to his king – Gawain will marry a hideous, old creature in order to save his lord from imminent death. This story further illustrates Gawain’s chivalrous nature as he looks at the hag not with disgust as others do but as an equal and treats her as he would any other beautiful woman – he will wed the hideous old hag and take her as his bride as he would any other woman. Furthermore even Ragnell says she wishes she were fair because Gawain is so willing: “Godhavemercy, for they sake I would I were a faire woman; for thou art of so good wille” (“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,” lines, 536-538).



Among the many knights that reside in King Arthur’s court none was as famous and well loved as Sir Gawain. He is the noblest of all the knights and has earned the respect of his fellow knights, his king, women and the common people. Gawain is known throughout many Arthurian stories for his loyalty, humility, honesty, integrity and chivalrousness. Evidence of Gawain’s character is revealed to us in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.” In these Arthurian texts, Gawain is depicted as the perfect knight, the most noble, who is brave, true, loyal, kind, courtly and humble. His character makes him truly worth to be called a knight. He is indeed a knight among knights.



    Home                        Next