Mighty Knights Are Men, Too

In the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain is a mighty knight of King Arthur’s court, who is found to be a mere mortal when faced with certain death. Gawain’s bravery is illustrated in the text, when he goes to battle with the Green Knight. Gawain’s Christian faith is also explored, or his lack thereof; when we see Gawain accept magic in order to level the playing field with the Green Knight. The magical element plays an integral role in Gawain’s development as a character. Through the character of Sir Gawain, the poet shows that even knights of King Arthur’s court have faults and are human.

Gawain’s bravery is illustrated when he chooses to exchange his life for King Arthur’s in the Green Knight's challenge. Gawain asks permission to take the Green Knight’s challenge. He also speaks humbly of himself,

I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any; …And for that this filly befits not a king, And ‘tis I that have asked it, it ought to be mine… (David 169-170)
Gawain thinks he less deserves of honor than his comrades, especially his uncle the King; hence he offers his life. While insulting himself, Gawain is actually observing the Anglo Saxon rule of comitatus. Gawain steps up and offers to challenge the Green Knight in order to spare his lord. The expectation is that the Green Knight will perish after one blow, and there will be no return battle.

Sir Gawain takes the challenge and lops the Green Knight’s noggin clean off onto the floor. With the challenge is seemingly over, one would think that Gawain can breathe a sigh of relief. This is not the case! Instead here is what happens:

The blood gushed from the body, bright on the green, Yet fell not the fellow, nor faltered a whit, But stoutly he starts forth upon stiff shanks, And as all stood staring he stretched forth his hand, Laid hold of his head and heaved it aloft. (David 171)
To everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight is not dead; he is quite the opposite – very much alive. The rules of the earth do not govern this knight, and now Gawain must meet his fate by the same axe a year and a day later. Gawain keeps his faith and remains optimistic or at least lighthearted when he says his parting words to Arthur's court:
‘…I am bound forth betimes to bear a stroke From the grim man in green, as God may direct.’ …Why should I tarry? …In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.’ (David 173-174)
Gawain believes that God’s will is in control of his destiny. He also knows his name will be remembered because he heroically stood up to a mastodon of a man in order to protect the life of his lord. Gawain believes he is going to die for a just cause and intends to die honorably.

In preparation for his departure for the Green Chapel, we are given a detailed description of the noble knight’s shield. On the outside is the pentangle, the five-pointed star, and on the inside is a picture of the Virgin Mary. This is significant because the shield has both Christian and Hebrew significance. The pentangle is described as the sign of King Solomon from the Old Testament. The five points on the star are the code to knighthood. The first of the five is to utilize the five senses - sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Second is to respect the five wounds that Christ suffered when he was crucified. The third is to observe the five joys of the Virgin Mary - annunciation, nativity, resurrection, ascension, assumption. The fourth is to use the five fingers – intrinsic strength. The fifth are the five virtues - fraunchyse, felawschyp, clannes, cortaysye, pité. So it seems that Gawain’s “courage is identified with Christian devotion [which] stems directly from the well-know five joys of Mary” (Allen 182). The religious symbols on the interior and exterior of the shield are significant because they show that Gawain has faith that the Virgin Mary will protect him and preserve his life. The emblems on the shield imply that “Gawain’s valor, literally lies behind his public emblem of knighthood” (Allen 187).

The intersection of faith and magic can be seen when Gawain asks the Virgin Mary for a place to pray on a snowy and icy Christmas Eve. Once he finished praying, a castle appears in the distance, some two miles off (David 178). Is it divine intervention or magic? It is not made clear; however, Gawain is welcomed into the castle.

Gawain asks the lord of the manor for a favor: directions to the Green Chapel where he is to meet his fate. Gawain’s honesty is then tested when a set of three challenges are set up by Bertilak, the lord of the manor.

On the first and second days of his stay, Gawain’s integrity is unwavering; he gives Bertilak exactly what he received during the day and vice versa. Not until the third day does Gawain’s fear for his life get the better of him. Gawain refuses the offering of a gold ring, but accepts a green belt which he is told:

For the man that possesses this piece of silk, ‘If he bore it on his body, belted about, There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down, For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.’ (David 199-200)
The idea that such a simple garment could save his neck tempts Gawain into accepting and withholding the gift from Bertilak. Had he honored the full terms of the game, he would have to relinquish the belt to Bertilak. Instead of surrendering the girdle, Gawain simply kisses Bertilak thrice. With his life on the line, we see Gawain’s desire for self-preservation overpower his word, which is the bond with Bertilak. Accepting and concealing the green girdle also shows a transition from faith in the Virgin Mary towards faith in the magic of the talisman. When Gawain accepts the girdle the author has created a situation that the audience can appreciate and sympathize with. There would be no story if Gawain were perfect; no person is or should be expected to be. Gawain’s imperfection is that he is human, not selfish or a coward, but a man.

Gawain enters the Chapel where the Green Knight awaits. The Green Knight prepares to deal Gawain a fatal blow, but withholds and taunts him instead. This unsettles Gawain, and Gawain asks that he be dealt his fate. The Green Knight again fakes a swing and continues the verbal abuse. Gawain is enraged at this point and demands that the Green Knight get on with it. The Green Knight grazes Gawain’s neck; Gawain then unsheathes his sword and draws upon the Green Knight, prepared to fight for his life. Again, we see the poet humanizing Gawain by displaying emotions that all humans are familiar with: fear, anxiety and anger.

The Green Knight explains what each swing of the axe represents, the third actually making contact because it is on the third day that Gawain’s honesty wavers. Gawain then apologizes for his indiscretion. The Green Knight “acknowledge[s], fear of death is perfectly natural” (Allen 191) and accepts his apology and appreciates his integrity. We all must come clean in our lives, whether we are in a life-threatening situation or not.

Gawain leaves with his life and his magic talisman. Gawain then wears the girdle as a badge to display his dishonesty. He returns to Camelot and explains to his comrades what transpired. There he was ridiculed for wearing such a silly sash. Gawain also explains that the gash on his neck is, “for the cowardice and coveting that [he] came to there” (David 213). Gawain’s fault is not that he was a coward or coveting another man’s wife, it is that he is human and feared for his own life.

Kings, knights, maids and freemen all share human characteristics which no one can flee: the desire to preserve one’s life as well as emotions such as fear, embarrassment and anger. The poet has made Gawain “more than a glittering symbol of perfection. He is a man…His acceptance of the Lady’s lace…illustrates his humanity” (Markman 578). In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet sculpts a character that is familiar and real for the audience as his humanity unfolds throughout the poem. With these qualities fully developed the author shows how the mighty knight, Sir Gawain, is merely a mortal with a soul just like you and me.

Works Cited

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