Sir Gawain – A Study in Gentile and True Behavior.
Gentility, or politeness, along with honesty and truthfulness, was one of the noble requirements of knights in the middle ages.
The legendary King Arthur required high standards of ethics from his knights and refused to accept anything less that nobility, honor, truth, politeness, courage, and other similar values. Sir Gawain, a noted knight of the Round Table, was one such knight that exemplified these traits. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, notes the medieval era importance of keeping one’s word and of engaging in gentile behavior.Sir Gawain is given the opportunity to show his bravery as he accepts the Green Knight’s challenge in Arthur’s hall. After he delivers his blow, which does not prove to be fatal, he must seek the Green Knight in one year and one day to receive his blow.
Many lesser men would have refused, run away or only pretended to fulfill his part of the deal – not Gawain. He sets off as scheduled, asking “Why should I tarry?’ “? and smiled in tranquil eye;/ ‘In destinies sad or merry,/True men can but try’ (II, lines 562-565).Along the way he is taken into the home of a man and his wife. His host asks Gawain to promise to give him whatever he earns that day in exchange for whatever the host wins hunting in the woods. Gawain is then visited by the amorous lady and must remain polite to her while resisting her advances.
He cannot throw her out of his room, as that would be disrespectful to his host and his lady, but, of course, he cannot commit adultery with her either. Instead, he uses polite language, such as “It is a pleasure surpassing, and a peerless joy,/That one so worthy as you would willingly come/And take the time and trouble to talk with your knight/And content you with his company- it comforts my heart” (III, lines1536-1539).Each of the next two days, Gawain gives his “earnings” to the host – a kiss, then two kisses. Gawain struggles with maintaining his courteous distance while not angering the lady. This is shown in the following lines: “His courtesy concerned him, lest crass he appear,/But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin/And belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house” (III, lines 1773-1775).
He deftly avoids taking the ring by telling her he has nothing to offer in return that compares. Unfortunately, she produces the sash, worth very little, and claims it will save his life. Whether he cannot think of a refusal or bows to the temptation of saving himself, he accepts it and does not return it to the lord.Gawain’s very slight transgression in keeping the sash earns him only a slight injury instead of instant death, for the host is one and the same as the Green Knight. The entire ordeal was a test to prove the worth of Arthur’s Knights.
The Green Knight insists “I hold you polished as a pearl…” (IV, line 2393), but Gawain chastises himself: “Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart!/In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low!” (IV, lines 2374-2376). He feels that keeping the sash is a blemish on the honor of all knights and keeps his scar as a visible emblem of that weakness. He does not rationalize his behavior by noting that none of the other knights would accept the challenge or that he at least resisted her sexual advances, he accepts and admits his own shortcomings. Of the sash, Gawain insists that he “must bear it on my body till I breathe my last” (IV, line 2510) as a reminder of his own shortcomings.This polite and honorable behavior would be hard, if not impossible to find in the 21st Century.
However, life in the middle ages demanded more honor and trust among men. Sir Gawain is an example of these qualities and of the nearly impossible task of living up to the medieval code of honor. It is not any surprise that this chivalric age ends forever.