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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Stages of Learning

Example of a pentangle

Example of a pentangle

Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Only Makes You Smarter

In Donald Howard’s 1964 article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he stated that the green girdle given to Gawain became merely a substitute for his shield and that both served the same purpose, to protect. George Englehardt, however, stated in 1995 that Gawain was superstitious because he allowed himself to accept the green girdle, believing that it, instead of God, would protect him. I questioned why Gawain was criticized for wanting to protect his life, whether by shield, by God, or by green girdle. Ultimately I believe that Arthur’s court depended on the code of chivalry and when Gawain believed that physical objects over his faith would protect his life, he broke part of the code of chivalry. However, Gawain did not play the beheading game without learning that chivalry is just an ideal which a knight must strive to reach for with determination. Gawain goes through stages of learning in which he makes one mistake on top of another but it is these mistakes that he learns from.He learns that while a knight must try to attain a perfect adherence to the code of chivalry, they must also be aware of their own weaknesses and limitations as humans.

Gawain as a Knight

What does it mean to be a knight? Riding horses, attending feasts in King Arthur’s court, or saving damsels in distress? Yes, but what it really meant to be a knight was striving to abide by a code of chivalry. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield can represent the main ideals of this code: friendship, honor, chastity, courtesy, piety (Knights Code of Chivalry)1. We see the importance of following a knightly code in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Gawain offers to challenge the Green Knight so Arthur would not have to. In order to make an interesting story, to spark a quest with meaning, and to create a lesson for the hero, Gawain had to have some sort of flaw. Francis Ingledew, in her short article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight states that Gawain never thought of himself as a perfect knight, nor did the pentangle represent Gawain’s perfection rather it encompassed, “…a relative excellence and a limited human perfectibility.” (2007). Ingledew says that although Gawain carried the pentangle it did not mean he the perfect knight. It served as the ideal goal to strive for, and also juxtaposed the flaws or “limited human perfectibility” that was so natural to humans. Gawain’s specific flaw is that his standard of honor and courtesy conflict, yet this sets up a perfect learning opportunity for Gawain. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the boastfulness of Arthur’s court provides Morgan Le Fay with a perfect opportunity to test whether Arthur’s knights are as chivalrous as they are rumored to be. When the Green Knight is sent to challenge one knight he is in essence sent to challenge the integrity of the round table so it seems more appealing that Gawain should have a flaw or else there would be no story. It allows Gawain to work with his disadvantages and demonstrate that you can in fact be flawed, make mistakes, and most importantly, learn from them.

1The code of chivalry from story to story does not change. By this time the ideas and concepts it encompasses have been written about so much that such “textbook” definitions are available:

A Sam Smith's public house

A Sam Smith's public house

Gawain's Challenge

Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge to deal a blow, and receive one a year later in return. This sets him up for his quest and within a year he finds himself journeying in search of the Green Chapel, where he will find the Green Knight waiting for him. After some time in the wilderness Gawain comes to a Bertilak’s castle where he is welcomed to stay until he must meet with the Green Knight. The host, Bertilak offers to strike a deal with Gawain:

“Whatever I win out in the woods shall revert to you.

And whatever you gain, be so good as to give it to me.

Let this be our swap, my sweet friend, truly sworn,

Whichever way fortune falls, my partner—fair or foul.” (1106-1109)

When Bertilak returns from his hunting trip Gawain does end up keeping the promise he made earlier in the day: to exchange spoils. Bertilak’s wife had given Gawain a kiss while Bertilak was hunting and thus Gawain kisses Bertilak, thereby giving him the kiss the lady gave him. Bertilak gives Gawain the spoils of his hunt. If we quantify each of the three days into smaller promises all part of the larger one to exchange winnings then Gawain has already fulfilled a third of his promise to Bertilak. The second day Bertilak goes hunting and comes back Gawain gives him two kisses just as the lady gave him, thereby keeping two-thirds of his promise. To really tangle Gawain in a “trawpe”(Gross, Gregory 1994), the unknown author sets Gawain to make another promise to the lady agreeing not to tell Bertilak about the girdle he was given. The opportunity to accomplish such a feat gives Gawain a way of showing that his integrity and dedication to the code of chivalry could not be swayed. Gregory Goss comments on the lady offering her green girdle to Gawain. He says, in his 1994 article about sex, confession and truth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “…she offers him the silk girdle. Still, Gawain stands firm. Only when she tells him that the girdle possesses the power to protect him from physical harm, does he agree to accept it, putting aside whatever misgivings he had about its sexual suggestiveness. Yet the sexual suggestiveness of the girdle is heightened even further when the lady implores him to keep the gift a secret from her husband.” The lady was trying to find a way to prevent Gawain from keeping his promise to Bertilak. It poses a challenge where Gawian has options, some more important than others, he can refuse and be discourteous to the lady, he can accept and have to lie to Bertilak, thus breaking the code, and also breaking his piety, another part of the code of chivalry. Although Gawain was concerned with being courteous to the lady, he was more concerned of breaking his promise to the host, Bertilak, or breaking his faith.

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“He was concerned with courtesy, not wanting to be callous,

And even more with sinning or misbehaving, with standing

As a traitor to the man who controlled that territory.” (1773-1775)

This presents a problem for Gawain because he has already agreed to exchange the days winnings with Bertilak. Gawain accepts the girdle because the lady tells him it will save his life. At this point Gawain hides it and promises the lady not to tell Bertilak about it. When the time comes to exchange winnings Gawain only gives Bertilak the kisses he receives from the lady, but not the girdle. Gawain lies to Bertilak when he asks if there was anything else he won thereby breaking the code of chivalry, in order to save his own life. His biological want for self-preservation as a human which makes him accept the girdle also hacks him away from his faith in God. We see how Gawain’s faith shrinks as his scheduled beheading approaches. As un-knightly as Gawain may seem by this point it is important to remember that Gawain’s ultimate purpose, to meet with the Green Knight, is still a goal he is striving for, and honoring the promise to the Green Knight is also part of the code he must uphold. The mistakes he makes are just other opportunities for Gawain to learn from his flaws as a human being. Ryan Harper, who contributed to The Camelot Project by the University of Rochester wrote that, “Gawain may perhaps best be described as the Arthurian everyman, a character who often functions on a very human scale, failing and succeeding, but learning and progressing as well.”

Britton Harwood, in his 1991 article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight says that Gawain dreaded a loss of his honorable reputation more than he dreaded death itself. I agree with this statement. It seems like the exact opposite argument to Harwood’s statement when Gawain lies to Bertilak and therefore dents his reputation. That act makes it seem like Gawain valued his life over his reputation. I still agree with Harwood because Gawain is in conflict with himself, he is willing to go die under the Green Knight’s blade yet if there was a slim chance that he could also survive this blood hacking process while still keeping his promise, then he would surely take it even if it means relying on a superstitious object to save his life.

Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel to receive his blow. Their interactions are interesting. Gawain removes his helmet and awaits his beheading. Twice the Green Knight only pretends to strike Gawain. This can be paralleled to the two days where Gawain kept his promise to Bertilak and repaid his kisses (Wodzak, Vickie). The third blow that the Green Knight delivers graces Gawain’s neck and cuts him slightly. The Green Knight tells Gawain that he was the host back at the castle and that he received this last nick it for not fully keeping his promise and not revealing the Green Girdle to him. Accepting and concealing the girdle may have tarnished some of Gawain’s reputation as an honorable knight but it has not ruined it entirely. From the Green Knight’s point of view Gawain is an honorable knight. He says:

“You’ve confessed very freely, acknowledging your flaws,

And you’ve performed your penance at the point of my sword.

I consider you cleansed of your sins, as immaculate

As if you’d never fallen since your very first day.”

Harper writes, “Gawain may perhaps best be described as the Arthurian everyman a character who often functions on a very human scale, failing and succeeding, but learning and progressing as well." The Camelot Project by the University of Rochester writes, “It is this last that is perhaps most important in any overall consideration of Gawain as character. Sometimes he is the best knight, and sometimes not, but even as he fails he can learn from his mistakes, and sometimes becomes a better knight because of them.” Gawain’s rash promise set him up on a quest with temptations and an ultimate challenge which gave him an opportunity to prove himself a hero. I agree with Harper, Gawain does fail along the way, whether it is by failing to confess to Bertilak about the girdle, or whether he forgets to put his faith in God, but Gawain also learns from his mistakes. I also agree with Gross’s statement that Gawain, “upon his return home, he possesses a radically different sense of what it means to be a knight of 'trawpe.'” No matter what Gawain’s failures were due to the temptations he faced, he learned from them. His final challenge, in which he succeeded to keep his rash promise to the Green Knight, suggest to us that Gawain is, in all the 14th century definitions of the word, a hero.

Toward the end of the poem Gawain is declared to be the best of the Knights but his own opinion of himself if much different. I questioned what Gawain learned about himself that made him believe he was not worthy of the title. From the Green Knight Gawain learns that he must strive to follow the code of chivalry and from Bertilak and the green girdle he learns about his own weaknesses. Gawain could not overcome the fact that he did not uphold his promise to Bertilak fully. He ends his journey believing that he is a coward for accepting the green girdle and not giving it to Bertilak and because of this he vows to wear the green girdle as a symbol of what he has learned. Because of this self perception he learns that he is flawed but he also learns that while he failed in a smaller challenge he succeeded in a bigger one, keeping his promise to the Green Knight, which was his ultimate challenge to begin with.

Note: If you use material from this work, please cite accordingly.

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  • Englehardt, George J. “The Predicament of Gawain.” Modern Language Quarterly 16.3 (1955): 218-25. JSTOR. Web. 15 Oct. 2012
  • Gross, Gregory W. "Secret Rules: Sex, Confession, and Truth in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
  • Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 146-74. JSTOR. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.
  • Harwood, Britton J. “Gawain and the Gift”.PMLA 106.3 (1991): 483-499. JSTOR Web. 23 Oct. 2012
  • Howard, Donald R. “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain”, Medieval Academy of America 39.3 (1964): 425-33. JSTOR. Web. 15 Oct. 2012
  • Ingledew, Francis “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter.” The Review of English Studies 57.232 (2007): 795-796. Oxford Journals. Web. 15 Oct. 2012
  • "Knights Code of Chivalry." Knights Code of Chivalry. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
  • Ryan Harper. "Gawain." Gawain. Rochester University, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2012
  • Wilhelm, James J., and Laila Z. Gross. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Romance of Arthur. New York: Garland, 1984. 157-209. Print.
  • Wodzak, Vickie. "Mizzou OnlineEnglish 3200: Survey of British Literature: Beginnings to 1784." Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of Missouri, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

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