ts Chivalric AttribSir Gawain and the Green Knight: Test of One Knight’s Chivalric Attributes
Loyalty, courage, honor, purity, and courtesy are all attributes of a
knight that displays chivalry. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is truly a story
of the test of these attributes. In order to have a true test of these
attributes, there must first be a knight worthy of being tested, meaning that
the knight must possess chivalric attributes to begin with. Sir Gawain is self
admittedly not the best knight around. He says “I am the weakest, well I know,
and of wit feeblest; / and the loss of my life will be least of any” (Sir
Gawain, l. 354-355). To continue on testing a knight that does not seem worthy
certainly will not result in much of a story, or in establishing a theme.
Through the use of symbols, the author of Sir Gawain is able to show that Gawain
possesses the necessary attributes to make him worthy of being tested. He also
uses symbols throughout the tests of each individual attribute, and in revealing
where Gawain’s fault lies. The effective use of these symbols enables the
author to integrate the test of each individual attribute into a central theme,
or rather one overall test, the test of chivalry.
To establish the knight as worthy, the author first shows Gawain’s
loyalty to his king. The Green Knight challenges anyone in the hall to the
beheading game and no one takes him up on it. Arthur, angered by the Green
Knight’s taunting, is about to accept the challenge himself when Gawain steps in
saying “would you grant me this grace” (Sir Gawain, l. 343), and takes the ax
from Arthur. This is a very convenient way for the author to introduce Gawain
and also to show Gawain’s loyalty to Arthur, but it seems almost too convenient.
There is an entire hall full of knights, why does Gawain alone step up? Why is
it that a superior knight such as Lancelot does not step up? The Green Knight
is big and of course he is green, which might explain some of the delay in
acceptance of the challenge, but these knights are warriors. The color green is
not a frightening enough color, even combined with the Green Knight’s size, to
scare a true warrior. The possible reason for the hesitation by the knights
could lie in the description of the Green Knight’s eyes. The author points them
out in line 304, “and roisterously his red eyes he rolls all about” (Sir
Gawain). The critic Robert B. White Jr. says that “one need not look far to
discover the general symbolic significance of red when it appears in early
literature; it is generally associated with blood, cruelty, and violence”
(224). The Green Knight’s eyes display just how sinister he is and provide the
reason that the other knights are hesitant to accept the challenge. Gawain’s
willingness to accept definitely sets him apart from the other knights. The
author uses this symbol to reveal that Gawain is not only loyal, but also
courageous, and worthy to have his attributes put to the test.
The author goes on to reveal yet another very important attribute of the
loyal knight, his moral goodness. This is done in the description of the shield
that Gawain arms himself with to undertake his journey to the Green Chapel. The
shield is adorned “with a pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (Sir Gawain, l.
620). This pentangle symbolizes Gawain’s “faith in the five wounds of Christ
and the five joys of the Virgin Mary, and his possession of the five knightly
virtues. . .” (Howard 47). This display of Gawain’s moral perfection, or purity,
reinforces his worthiness to undergo the test of his chivalric attributes.
Honor is another very important attribute that a knight must possess.
Gawain has given his word while accepting the beheading challenge that he will
meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel in one year’s time. This journey is
not an easy task by any means. The author tells us “many a cliff must he climb
in country wild; / far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride” (Sir
Gawain, l. 713-714). This journey is also taking place in winter and “near
slain by the sleet Gawain sleeps in his irons / more nights than enough, among
the naked rocks” (Sir Gawain, l. 729-730). The author’s vivid description of
what Gawain must go through to get to the Green Chapel is symbolic in testing
Gawain’s honor. It would be very easy to not search out the Green Knight and
stay home where he can be warmed by a fire and sheltered from the harsh
environment. Gawain, however, has given his word and he is bound and determined
to follow through with his end of the bargain, thus proving that he is indeed an
Gawain’s arrival at the castle of Bercilak begins the test of Gawain’s
purity and courtesy, two more very important knightly attributes, as well as
continues the test of honor. Bercilak is going hunting three days in a row
while Gawain remains at the castle and rests. He makes a deal with Gawain
saying “whatever I win in the woods I will give you at eve, / and all you have
earned you must offer to me” (Sir Gawain, l. 1106-1107). Gawain accepts and
each day while Bercilak is hunting, Gawain is tempted by Bercilak’s wife.
Gawain is torn between his purity (he must not commit adultery), and his
courtesy (he cannot offend a lady by not honoring her request). The author sets
up a very interesting parallel in his description of each day of Bercilak’s hunt
and each day of Gawain’s temptation by Bercilak’s wife. The animal killed on
each day of the hunt is symbolic of what happens in the bedroom between Gawain
and the lady. The animal hunted on the first day is a deer which can be
described as “noble game- wise, politic, tactful, quick to foreknow his hazards
and adroit in avoiding embarrassing situations. These are precisely the
qualities Sir Gawain displays in the face of his temptation on the first day.
Anticipating trouble, he pretends to be asleep; and when he finally is engaged
by his hostess in conversation, the tone is gay, delicate, and bantering”
(Zesmer 157). The second day Bercilak hunts a boar, which “is renowned for
boldness and ferocity in conflict. Gawain, like the boar, faces his pursuer
directly on the second day. He abandons his pretense of sleep and discards his
light tone, preferring to speak more resolutely and to resist more directly”
(Zesmer 157). The third day the fox is hunted. The fox is an animal known for
its slyness. This slyness “bears close affinity with Gawain’s sly, fear-
inspired behavior of the third day” (Zesmer 157). The first two nights Gawain
lives up to his end of the deal with Bercilak by kissing him, which is what he
gains in the castle form Bercilak’s wife. The third night, however, Gawain
kisses Bercilak but he does not give up everything he earned in the castle that
day. Bercilak’s wife has given Gawain a green girdle as a gift for use in
saving his life, and asked that he not let Bercilak know about it. Bercilak’s
wife was not able to get Gawain to fail in his test of purity or courtesy to her,
for he did not sleep with her and he was at all times courteous while avoiding
her advances. She did, however, succeed in setting him up to fail in his honor
and courtesy to Bercilak. Gawain did not reveal that he had received the girdle
and did not give it to Bercilak in keeping his end of the deal. The green
girdle thus becomes a symbol of Gawain’s lack of honor and courtesy.
The green girdle is not just used as a symbol of Gawain’s dishonesty to
Bercilak. It is also symbolic of what Gawain chooses to put his faith in.
Donald R. Howard explains “Gawain has taken the girdle, then, not to own it for
its value or wear it for its beauty, but simply to save his life. It is as
worldly an object, and used for as worldly an end as the shield; but unlike the
shield, it is magical, it is used solely for a selfish reason. . . . He is
guilty not because he desires to save his own life but because in order to do
so he uses worldly means in the wrong way” (49). The shield that Gawain arms
himself with as he sets out on his journey is symbolic of his faith in God (“The
five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin Mary” (Howard 47)
mentioned previously). The girdle, which he “arms” himself with when he leaves
Bercilak’s castle for the Green Chapel , is “a convenient symbol for
worldliness” (Howard 48). Gawain puts his faith in the girdle, instead of God,
to save his life. This faith that he placed in a worldly object to spare his
life is where Gawain fails the test of his knightly attributes.
Gawain’s fault is not actually revealed until he meets the Green Knight
at the Green Chapel. At Gawain’s arrival to the Green Chapel he hears a noise
“as one upon a grindstone grinds a great scythe” (Sir Gawain, l. 2202). We
find out that what is being ground is actually an ax, but the mention of a
scythe is symbolic in that a scythe is a harvesting tool. This can be related
to the harvest of the earth which is mentioned in the Bible. “So he that was
seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was
harvested” (Rev. 14.16), is a passage that occurs just prior to the Judgment Day.
Judgment is precisely what Gawain undergoes at the Green Chapel with the Green
Knight as the judge. It is this judgment that reveals to us that the test of
Gawain’s attributes was all the Green Knight’s scheme. It also reveals that
Gawain’s true flaw is in his desire for “self preservation, the central,
involuntary worldliness of fallen man, through which even the best is easily
tempted” (Howard 50).
Gawain is placed in many different situations in which he must
demonstrate that he does, in fact, possess the attributes of a worthy knight.
Though Gawain is not flawless, he does prove that he is an exemplary knight.
The author relies heavily on the use of symbols throughout the entire work in
showing just how exemplary Gawain is. These symbols show that Gawain is in fact
loyal, courageous, honorable, pure, and courteous, but also human and, therefore,
imperfect. The knightly attributes of loyalty, courage, honor, purity, and
courtesy are all components of the term chivalry. The author skillfully puts
the individual tests of these attributes together into one central theme, or
overall test, the test of chivalry.
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