Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain

I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom, I know, And my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly. Only through your being my uncle, am I to be valued; No bounty but your blood in my body do I know. And since this affair is too foolish to fall to you, And I first asked it of you, make it over to me; And if I fail to speak fittingly, let this full court judge Without blame.

In his first words in the story, Gawain shows how he earned his reputation as a paragon of knightly virtue. Even while volunteering to take on the Green Knight’s challenge in place of King Arthur, Gawain humbly claims not to be worthy to do so. Although he may feel the humility he expresses, everyone else at court understands he exemplifies a great knight—in part because of his humility.

Gawain gripped his axe and gathered it on high, Advanced the left foot before him on the ground, And slashed swiftly down on the exposed part, So that the sharp blade sheared through, shattering the bones, Sank deep in the sleek flesh, split it in two, And the scintillating steel struck the ground.

Here, the narrator describes the moment when Gawain performs the Green Knight’s challenge and strikes him once with an axe. Despite Gawain’s previous insistence that he is the weakest knight, the fact that he cuts the Green Knight’s head off with a single blow demonstrates his great strength and power. The task would be difficult to achieve on a normal human and the Green Knight stands abnormally large and strong.

Said Gawain, gay of cheer, ‘Whether fate be foul or fair, Why falter I or fear? What should man do but dare?’

After a year of anticipation, Gawain prepares to leave to seek the Green Knight. He and everyone else at court believe he travels toward certain death, as he agreed to receive an axe blow without fighting back. Based on Gawain’s words, he seems cheerful and unafraid. However, readers might infer that he merely acts this way to help the mournful court feel better. In fact, when he says good-bye, he believes he’ll be gone “forever.”

Ever faithful in five things, each in fivefold manner, Gawain was reputed good and, like gold well refined, He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying In the field. Thus this Pentangle new He carried on coat and shield, As man of troth most true And knightly name annealed.

The narrator expounds on Gawain’s many virtues, which can be summed up as faithfulness or truth. Gawain lives true to his word and true to the laws of chivalry or knightly virtue, which include Christian virtues. He also puts his skills as a knight into service for good. Thus, the pentangle or five-pointed star, devised by King Solomon to represent truth, appears as the new symbol put on his shield before he leaves to seek the Green Knight.

Fearing lest he should fail, through adverse fortune To see the service of him who that same night Was born of a bright maiden to banish our strife… sighing he said, ‘I beseech thee Lord, And thee Mary mildest mother so dear, That in some haven with due honor I may hear Mass And Matins tomorrow morning: meekly I ask it[.]’

On Christmas Eve, Gawain still seeks the Green Knight in the wilderness, with little knowledge of where to look. As a good Christian, he wants to attend a Christmas Mass, and he prays to God and Mary for that opportunity. When he suddenly spies a castle nearby, Gawain believes that his prayer has been answered. In light of his faith, he feels no suspicion of the castle or the people within.

In seemly enough style the servants brought him Several fine soups… and fish of all kinds. . . . The gentle knight generously judged it a feast And often said so, while the servers spurred him on thus As he ate: ‘This present penance do; It soon shall be offset.’

Gawain here demonstrates chivalric virtue: While being fed a fasting meal of fish—meat being forbidden during Advent—Gawain praises the food as a feast. The servants of the castle appreciate his kind words. Of course, having wandered in the wilderness for weeks, Gawain probably feels that several fine soups and fish of all kinds truly constitute a feast.

[T]he brave knight, embarrassed, Lay flat with fine adroitness and feigned sleep. . . . There she watched a long while, waiting for him to wake. Slyly close this long while lay the knight, Considering in his soul this circumstance, Its sense and likely sequel, for it seemed marvelous. ‘Still, it would be more circumspect,’ he said to himself, ‘To speak and discover her desire in due course.’

Gawain finds himself in a predicament: Lady Bertilak has entered his bedchamber. At first, he tries to avoid the situation by pretending to be asleep, but eventually he realizes that he will have to deal with the matter directly. Gawain understands that he must muster all of his wits and his understanding of his chivalric duty to get through this situation without offending either his host or his hostess.

[T]hat peerless princess pressed him so hotly, So invited him to the very verge, that he felt forced Either to allow her love or blackguardly rebuff her. He was concerned for his courtesy, lest he be called caitiff, But more especially for his evil plight if he should plunge into sin And dishonor the owner of the house treacherously. ‘God shield me! That shall not happen, for sure,’ said the knight.

Lady Bertilak continues to push her sexual favors on Gawain. Given the choice between offending her or offending his host, Gawain knows that he must choose honoring his host. However, the idea of being considered discourteous pains him. Gawain asks God to shield him and then uses his wits to get out of the predicament. Readers later learn that he succeeds thanks to the help of St. Mary, who takes particular care of him.

Then the prince pondered, and it appeared to him A precious gem to protect him in the peril appointed him When he gained the Green Chapel to be given checkmate: It would be a splendid stratagem to escape being slain.

The narrator explains why Gawain accepts Lady Bertilak’s girdle, a gift that she claims will protect him from death. Interestingly, she insists that he keep the gift a secret from her husband. Although Gawain felt reluctant to take a “love token” from the lady, he changes his mind when he thinks the gift will protect his life. The fact that he has to keep the girdle a secret does not bother him—his survival trumps all other concerns now.

[H]e shrank for shame at what the chevalier spoke of. The first words the fair knight could frame were: ‘Curses on both cowardice and covetousness! Their vice and villainy are virtue’s undoing . . . I was craven about our encounter, and cowardice taught me To accord with covetousness and corrupt my nature And the liberality and loyalty belonging to chivalry.’

Gawain expresses shame and self-disgust after others call him out for using Lady Bertilak’s gift to protect his life and for keeping the gift secret from her husband. He deems his cowardice and lack of truthfulness in the face of death unforgivable. Everyone else, including the Green Knight and King Arthur, forgives his faults easily, however, as he only did what he did to survive.