The Medieval Influence of Chivalry
All epic heroes in literature must be critiqued, in order to ensure the validity of their renowned praise. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author unknown), translated by Burton Raffel, is a classic English epic poem written in the late 14th century, that recounts the knightly life during medieval times. This renowned chivalric romance, in which a heroic knight uptakes a daring journey to prove himself as a member of King Arthur’s court, is known as one of the most momentous epic poems of the Middle English dialect. Upon the story’s opening, Sir Gawain accepts the challenge of an unknown man, who abruptly enters Arthur’s castle, known as Green Knight.
Upon this promise, Gawain self-initiates himself on a lifelong journey to discover the Green Knight’s hidden chapel. Furthermore, Gawain will inevitably face the universal phases of an epic hero, the initiation, separation, and return. In addition the governing factor of Gawain’s life, “a ritualized code of manners, called chivalry, would allow the Church to tolerate the warriors in good conscience and the warriors to pursue their own values in spiritual comfort” (Ackerman 1). However, many critics argue that Sir Gawain is not justifiably a valid representation of the perfect knight throughout the poem, based on the deficient conduct of his chivalry. While Sir Gawain is an eminent figure in literature, his lack of chivalrous qualities and knightly virtues become apparent upon the failure of his quest and his actions towards the ladies of the lord’s castle, which ultimately proves that he is truly not the perfect knight.
The inevitable failure of Gawain’s quest is exemplified through the common inaccuracies of his chivalry throughout the epic poem. From the moment in which Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and initiates his journey, he immediately begins to show a lack of chivalrousness, which ultimately portrays him as an imperfect knight. When Gawain accepts the knight’s quest, his absence of hubris, a Greek adjective meaning pride, shows his violation of the code of chivalry within the initial stanzas of the poem. Therefore, “Gawain’s lack of hubris at the moment of undertaking the challenge demonstrates” (Cornelius 3) his underlying cowardice and lack or self-confidence, which are crucial traits in any knight. In addition, Gawain is a famous, royal knight of King Arthur’s court; consequently, his expectations as a guard of Arthur are exponentially increased.
With that said, it is apparent that Sir Gawain doesn’t demonstrate the necessary qualities of the chivalric code so early on in the poem, which certainly capitalize on his imperfection as a knight of Arthur’s court. As Gawain begins his adventure to the green chapel, his pit stop at the benevolent Lord’s castle only serves to decrease his chivalrousness and knightly status. Furthermore, Gawain lies to the Lord of the kingdom and deceives him by meeting with his wife privately. Gawain’s breaking of the code of chivalry is shown thoroughly in this passage, due to his disrespect towards rightful lord of the castle. Sir Gawain violates the custom stating that “a knight’s word was his bond, breaking it was an act of treason” (Ackerman 1).
Therefore, Gawain has technically committed treason and mischievously broke his promise to the generous lord of the land. Based upon this statement, Gawain’s lack of knightly behavior is yet again depicted and made clear to the reader. However, the unfaithful knight goes even further and breaks another promise, except this time to Bertilak, the lady in which Gawain is secretly meeting with. Upon Gawain’s final departure from the castle, the lady of the house offers him the gift of a “gold ring,” which Gawain quickly replies, “in God’s own name there’s nothing i can take, not now, when I’ve nothing to give in return” (ll. 1822-1823). Consequently, Gawain swears this promise to not take anything from Bertilak upon God’s name.
On other hand, a couple stanzas after this incident, she offers Gawain an old, green belt and he willingly accepts. Further, “by accepting the girdle he gives into fear, and by agreeing to the lady’s request… he violates his sworn word” (Cornelius 4) once again.
Sir Gawain is evidently an inaccurate portrayal of the perfect knight, which eventually leads to the failure of his adventure. His frequent betrayal and breaking of promises diminishes his chivalric value, which he is losing progressively faster as the story goes on. Chivalry is a core value of all knights and Sir Gawain appears to evidently not contain this quality upon the failure of his challenge. The corrupted knight further displays his unworthiness during this detailed encounter with the women of the novel and the struggle of maintaining chastity. Sir Gawain struggles to maintain the balance between chastity and kindness during his encounters of woman in the poem. Specifically during Gawain’s stay at the lord’s castle, he demonstrates his severe lack of chivalric qualities that appear through his non-knightly actions.
Consequently, upon the Lord’s daily hunts in the woodland surrounding the castle, Gawain clandestinely meets with the Lord’s rightful wife. Furthermore, Bertilak deceivingly stimulates Gawain to desire love from her. But Gawain is yet to realize that Bertilak has been sent by the “Morgan Le Fay” to test Gawain’s abilities against temptation and prove his ultimate failure. In addition, Gawain must maintain his upmost priorities in staying focused on the discovery of the Green Knight and his chapel. For this reason, Morgana, the evil witch, directs the Greek Knight, which is the underlying Lord, to make sure Bertilak intrigues Gawain and seek sexual activity. Furthermore, Gawain is targeted by the “powers of evil which may corrupt even the most virtuous men and institution” (Green 123).
Based on this, Gawain’s unavoidable temptation and further breaking of the code of chivalry, yet again portrays him as a flawed knight. Unfortunately, Gawain is bound to give into the temptation caused by the beauty and seductiveness of Bertilak, which depicts him as a weak man. However, Gawain attempts to stop the alluring of the lady of the court, but her skillful language inexorably sways his inner knightly virtues, as expected. As seen in the epic poem, Lady Bertilak’s crafty words, “can you really be Gawain? …
Polite manners escape you; taught the truth you forget it” (ll. 1481-1484), cunningly serve to persuade the weak self-discipline of Sir Gawain. Subsequently, upon this statement from Bertilak, Gawain becomes intrigued in the woman and simply disregards the morals of his chivalric code and knightly virtue. Gawain advances to kissing the lady, therefore shattering the true love of his wife back at Camelot, and deceiving the Lord of the castle. Upon this action, Gawain has truly become the epitome of an imperfect knight and corrupted his inner morals.
In recent discussions of Gawain’s values and demeanor, a controversial issue has arisen, which questions if Gawain is truly chivalrous. On one hand, some critics argue that Sir Gawain is the embodiment of the perfect knight and possesses the chivalric qualities required. The author’s stance can be applauded for presenting a valid argument against the anti-critics critics. According to this view, one can readily agree that Sir Gawain is indeed chivalrous. However, “it is perhaps a bit unfair to suggest that Gawain’s quest is a resolute failure” (Cornelius 2). After all, Gawain does complete his adventure to the chapel and faces the green knight.
Also, as stated by the laws of courtly love, “sexual love is a noble passion that enhances and enriches the lives those who experience it” (Quinn 1), therefore proclaiming that sexual relations are allowed and encouraged for chivalric knights. While the essence of the Sir Gawain supporter’s argument is that Gawain is truly chivalrous and an accurate depiction of the perfect knight, such a stance is invalid. This is because, although Gawain may have completed his journey as expected, his performance and attitude were sloppy along the way due to his lack of chivalric traits and poor conduct of the knightly virtues. In addition, “the hero’s claim to perfection can only be confined by success of the quest” (Cornelius 3), which Gawain inevitably fails. Lastly, contrary to the idea stated by the opposing side, Gawain would indeed be regarded as not chivalrous or knightly if he had fully committed sexual actions with Bertilak, due to his praise and virtues of chastity.
Consequently, the primary premise surrounding this text states that Gawain is solely an imperfect knight who lacks chivalry. Sir Gawain’s ultimate failure of the quest and motives towards the women in the novel reveal the underlying results of his poor chivalric manner. The failure of Gawain’s quest to locate and clash with the Green Knight is maximized by his severe lack of chivalry during the expedition. Further, his poor virtue as a knight diminishes his renowned heroicness and additionally portrays Gawain as imperfect. Also, Gawain’s non-knightly attitude towards Bertilak, the lady of the court, capitalizes his now apparent flaws in chivalry and knightly conduct in the epic poem.
Therefore, Gawain’s absence of chivalric qualities in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows his underlying imperfection as a royal knight of King Arthur’s court. Epic heroes cannot justifiably be classified as perfect humans, unless they meet the fullest criteria of their persona.