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Faith Alone Won't Sustain Gawain

Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, many symbols play off of one another, the weather and death, faith and honesty, armor and symbolic garments, which create a very concise story. The weather sets the mood while honesty saves our hero. Knights of the Round Table have historically been, in texts, chivalrous; Gawain proves his worthiness by acting honorably in the face of adversity.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the weather plays a central role in setting the scene, as well as duping the reader into thinking certain doom awaits the hero:

The clouds in the cold sky cast down their snow With great gusts from the north, grievous to bear. Sleet showered aslant upon shivering beasts; The wind warbled wild as it whipped from aloft, And drove the drifts deep in the dales below. (2001-2005)
The action here seems to direct everything downwards. The wind blows from the north to the south, from heaven to hell. Similarly, the weather also sets an ominous tone in the beginning of Part Twp, when Gawain initially sets off to meet his fate. This false foreshadowing effectively leads the reader down the wrong path and creates an almost surprise ending.

It seems certain that Gawain will lose his head to the Green Knight when he is being adorned with his armor. The description from lines 2015-2046 sounds like he is being prepared for his funeral. He is dressed in “his richest raiment…lined warmly and well with furs of the best.” His armor has been “polished with pains” and the pièce de résistance is the green girdle. This sounds like a Viking burial, where a warrior would be buried or pushed out to sea with his armor, weapons and gold. The armor would have served him well, if he was entering battle, but Gawain is simply laying his head on a block and awaiting the axe. Doom seems inevitable for our hero.

Gawain’s saving grace,however is not the lord or the Virgin Mary, but his acceptance of his wrongdoings at the castle. The text tells us that “Gawain for his own good, forgot not that…twice with that token he twined him about” (2031-2033). The fact that the girdle is, in fact, “for his own good” is truly significant in that Gawain seems to believe what the lady has said that all the prayers in the world hold less power than that girdle. The author then details the reasoning behind why Gawain wears it:

Yet he wore not for its wealth that wondrous girdle, Nor pride in its pendants, though polished they were, Though glittering gold gleamed at the end, But to keep himself safe when consent he must To endure a deadly dint, and all defense denied. (2037-2042)
By wearing the girdle, Gawain is accepting its magical power as a talisman and rejecting his faith in the Virgin Mary to save his life. On the third day at Bertilak’s castle, Gawain is not forthcoming with the girdle. Instead of presenting Bertilak with the girdle, he chooses to conceal it and kiss Bertilak three times, breaking his word and bond with Bertilak. Although Gawain is said to have been very noble and chivalrous, his actions in Bercilak’s castle can be considered less than honorable.

The setting for Gawain’s final encounter seems to symbolize deeds that Gawain committed and has never accepted or taken responsibility for. The idea that the Green Chapel is a subterranean cavern could symbolize what is hidden within Gawain. The setting is in a cave on a hill, which implies that it is both below the surface of human life, as well as moral conduct. This indicates that it may be where the devil resides:

Well may the grim man mantled in green Hold here his orisons, in hell’s own style! (2191-2192)
Although the man is green, Gawain suggests that this is in fact as close to hell as he can imagine. Regardless of his fears, he continues on to meet the Green Knight and faces his destiny.

Everyone has secret whether he is a knight of the Round Table, a peasant, or a governor of New York State, for example. What is important is how we all deal with secrets when they come to light. Or, better yet, like Gawain we might take responsibility for our actions before they are buried within ourselves to later cause great shame. No one is perfect or is expected to be. We can only attempt to live fearless, virtuous, honest lives.