Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The code of chivalry, in particular, shapes the values and actions of Sir Gawain and other characters in the poem. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.
The ideals of Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Gawain’s symbolic shield. The pentangle represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem examines more than Gawain’s personal virtue; it asks whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. What is really being tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be the chivalric system itself, symbolized by Camelot.
Arthur’s court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur is introduced to us as the “most courteous of all,” indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances hold too much power over the company. The members of the court never reveal their true feelings, instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.
On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot into the wilderness. In the forest, Gawain must abandon the codes of chivalry and admit that his animal nature requires him to seek physical comfort in order to survive. Once he prays for help, he is rewarded by the appearance of a castle. The inhabitants of Bertilak’s castle teach Gawain about a kind of chivalry that is more firmly based in truth and reality than that of Arthur’s court. These people are connected to nature, as their hunting and even the way the servants greet Gawain by kneeling on the “naked earth” symbolize (818). As opposed to the courtiers at Camelot, who celebrate in Part 1 with no understanding of how removed they are from the natural world, Bertilak’s courtiers joke self-consciously about how excessively lavish their feast is (889–890).
The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawain’s adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host’s wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight’s challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain’s time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knight’s axe, and his acceptance of the lady’s offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.
Though the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a “game,” he uses the language of the law to bind Gawain into an agreement with him. He repeatedly uses the word “covenant,” meaning a set of laws, a word that evokes the two covenants represented by the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament details the covenant made between God and the people of Israel through Abraham, but the New Testament replaces the old covenant with a new covenant between Christ and his followers. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul writes that Christ has “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The “letter” to which Paul refers here is the legal system of the Old Testament. From this statement comes the Christian belief that the literal enforcement of the law is less important than serving its spirit, a spirit tempered by mercy.