Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Themes

There are many themes in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The anonymous author explores them throughout the poem in various ways. Nonetheless, chivalry and honor can be seen as the most dominant Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s themes.

Themes in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
Contents

Chivalry

Sir Gawain is a young knight, a nephew of King Arthur, whose devotion to the code is tested in this chivalric poem. Due to Gawain’s imperfections and human weaknesses, he is unable to withstand all of the challenges. Gawain falls short of the impossible standards dictated by the code. However, it makes him more humane in the eyes of the reader. 

Gawain demonstrates essential chivalric qualities from the very beginning. When he accepts the Green Knight’s challenge, it shows that he is brave in his heart and loyal to his King. He also has good manners, and his speech is mild and courteous. A scene of dressing up, which happens almost a year after accepting the challenge, is described in detail. With all the symbols, emblems, and signs that appear on Gawain’s armor, the poet emphasizes how good a knight Gawain is. He also shares a special bond with his horse, one of the markers of chivalric poetry.

There are three prominent figures regarding the chivalry theme in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Gawain, Bertilak (and his court), and King Arthur (with his court). King Arthur’s court represents a chivalric code of conduct. Bertilak (with his alter ego—the Green Knight) ultimately means opposition to this values system. As the protagonist of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight chivalry poem, Gawain will be judged by Arthur’s and Lord Bertilak’s courts.

First, the Green Knight tests Gawain on the merit of his bravery and honesty. Accepting the challenge and keeping his word, the protagonist passes. Second, Lord Bertilak tests him in regard to his truthfulness and chastity. 

Gawain’s inability to pass all the tests deeply hurt and shame him. By hiding the green girdle, which Lady Bertilak gave him, Gawain proves that a desire to live can be stronger than any artificial set of rules. However, in the eyes of Bertilak/the Green Knight, this omission does not make him a complete failure. While in the eyes of Gawain himself, he is a coward because he compromised his high chivalric and catholic standards. When Gawain comes back to Camelot, the readers see that Arthur’s court does not view Gawain as a coward at all. In return, they try to comfort him. They even suggest that they will wear a similar green girdle as a symbol of respect and support. 

There is a hint of criticism in this last scene. Arthur’s court demonstrates a very shallow outlook on things. They do not want to listen about shame, and they laugh at Gawain’s story. The truth is more critical for Gawain and the Green Knight than for the round table’s knights. That is why the poet sets Gawain apart from the rest of the court.

There is a clear distinction between this social chivalry, focused on symbols, gestures, festivals, and the Gawain’s one. The latter becomes unattainable because of his idealistic views that leave no way out for weakness. There is also a third type of chivalry in the poem (after all, Bertilak is also called the knight). It values truth but accepts the possibility of failure. 

Quotes about Chivalry

  1. “Would you grant me the grace,” said Gawain to the king,
    “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”. (Chapter 1, Verse 340)
  2. “The good king and Gawain, and made great feast,
    With all dainties double, dishes rare,
    With all manner of meat and minstrelsy both,
    Such happiness wholly had they that day 
    in hold.
    Now take care, Sir Gawain, 
    That your courage wax not cold
    When you must turn again
    To your enterprise foretold”. (Chapter 1, verse 485)
  3. “When I ride in renown, and remember with shame
    The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse,
    How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin;
    And so when praise and high prowess have pleased my heart, A look at this love-lace will lower my pride”. (Chapter 4, verse 2435)
  4. “The king comforts the knight, and the court all together
    Agree with gay laughter and gracious intent
    That the lords and the ladies belonging to the Table,
    Each brother of that band, a baldric should have,
    A belt borne oblique, of a bright green,
    To be worn with one accord for that worthy’s sake.
    So that was taken as a token by the Table Round,
    And he honored that had it”. (Chapter 4, verse 2510)

Honor

The theme of honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is closely related to chivalry. Nevertheless, these two concepts and themes are slightly different. The primary difference between them comes from the fact that chivalry is more of a social construct. It’s a code of behavior, an outside institution that dictates how one should be. Honor is something innate, a personal quality that can be guided by moral principles and laws. Gawain is a character that is acting based on both. However, throughout the poem, Gawain learns that social and private can contradict one another.

At the beginning of the poem, Gawain is the one knight that offers himself to save King Arthur’s life and his honor. He is the youngest and the least experienced member of the chivalry present at the table. But this action sets him aside from the rest of the round table’s knights. He also shows Christian-like humility in seeing other knights superior to him. He calls himself “the weakest” and says that his life is worth the least.  As a loyal knight, Gawain accepts the challenge. One year later, he goes to the Green Chapel, expecting to face death. During his journey, when facing difficulties, Gawain prays continuously to God, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus.

Lord Bertilak’s exchange game vividly demonstrates a contradiction between the chivalric code and Gawain’s moral code. As a knight, Gawain was under an obligation to show courtly love to the lady. As a Christian, not to covet with the neighbor’s wife. In this challenging situation, Gawain chooses the latter.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the theme of honor is also connected with religion. However, even though the chivalric code heavily relied on Christian ideas, those were not identical. It is important to note that Arthur and his court in the poem represent chivalric views, a perfect appearance. At the same time, Bertilak demonstrates a Christian-like attitude even though he is not portrayed as a Christian. Gawain strives to be the ideal knight and a devout Christian. However, he faces the reality that he is simply a man with weaknesses and flaws. He fears for his life, yet he accepts the challenge. He trusts God when he needs shelter, but he relies on magic for protection before his encounter with the Green Knight. He sins and lies continuously throughout the poem. His honor is stained as both the knight and God’s worshipper. When Gawain learns that the Green Knight knows about the girdle, he feels ashamed. It is peculiar to see that Gawain is unable to forgive himself for his imperfection. The Green Knight commends him and shows mercy to him.

Despite lying and sinning, Gawain strives for perfection anyway. The readers see it in Gawain’s intention to wear the green girdle all his life as a sign of shame. However, the rest of the characters see him as an honorable man and a good knight. He managed to withstand most of the challenges, including the test of temptation. The Green Knight’s challenge and Lord Bertilak’s challenge allowed Gawain to embrace that he is just an imperfect human.

Quotes about Honor

  1. “Would you, my worthy lord,’ said Gawain to the king,
    ‘bid me abandon this bench and stand by you there,
    so that I without discourtesy might be excused from the table, and my liege lady was not loth to permit me,
    I would come to your counsel before your courtiers fair.
    For I find it unfitting, as it is held,
    when a challenge in your chamber makes choice so exalted, though you yourself be desirous to accept it in person,
    while many bold men about you on the bench are seated:
    on earth there are, I hold, none more honest of purpose,
    no figures fairer on the field where fighting is waged.
    I am the weakest, I am aware, and in wit feeblest,
    and the least loss, if l live not if one would learn the truth”. (Chapter 1, Stanza 16)
  2. “’In good faith,’ quoth the good knight, ‘I Gawain am called
    who bring thee this buffet, let be what may follow;
    and at this time a twelvemonth in thy turn have another
    with whatever weapon thou wilt, and in the world with none else 
    but for me.’
    The other man answered again:
    ‘I am passing pleased,’ said he,
    ‘upon my life, Sir Gawain,
    that this stroke should be struck by thee.’” (Chapter 1, Stanza 17)
  3. “For which cause the knight had in comely wise
    on the inner side of his shield, her image repainted,
    that when he cast his eyes thither his courage never failed. The fifth five that was used, as I find, by this knight
    was free-giving and friendliness first before all,
    and chastity and chivalry ever changeless and straight,
    and piety surpassing all points: these perfect five
    were hasped upon him harder than on any man else”. (Book 2, Stanza 28)
  4. “’ Upon my word,’ said Gawain, ‘that is well, I guess; though I’m not now he of whom you are speaking­ to attain to such honor as here you tell of
    I am a knight unworthy, as well indeed I know­ 
    by God, I would be glad, if good to you seemed
    whatever I could say, or in-service could offer
    to the pleasure of your excellence-it would be pure delight.” (Book 3, Stanza 50)
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