From the British Library’s MS Cotton Nero A.x folio of The Pearl.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes as its subject the struggle between temptation and virtue. In the tale, Sir Gawain’s adherence to his values and to the code of chivalry is repeatedly tested and, in the end, he emerges a veritable paragon of knightly virtue—despite having succumbed briefly to temptation. As such, the text can be read as a celebration of the triumph of the chivalric code and the society it defines, presenting Gawain’s story as a quasi-parable about the importance of adhering to the values of chivalry.
In the tale, the Gawain Poet presents the reader with a Gawain “as good as the purest gold” (633), a paragon of chivalry and prowess, whose virtue and purity are symbolized both in his connection to the Virgin Mary and in his association with the “endless knot” (630) of the pentangle, which represents his unending, infallible allegiance to the five main tenets of chivalry: friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and courtesy. Gawain himself is thus a symbol of all that aristocratic culture values and aspires to be. Thus, it appears that when he succumbs to temptation in accepting the lady’s girdle, not only has Gawain failed, but the code and culture he represents have as well. But the tale does not end here; rather Bertilak as the Green Knight teaches Gawain to see his fault and seek to repair it. “I am found to be flawed and false, / through treachery and untruth I have totally failed” (2382-3) laments Gawain, immediately resolving to “bear the blame” (2386) and determining to wear the girdle evermore as a “symbol of sin” (2506) and a reminder to himself never to forsake the code of chivalry and succumb to the temptations of “cowardice and covetousness” (2508). He returns to Camelot a man chastened and matured, ready to impart his lesson to his fellow knights, thus saving them from falling prey to the same errors he did. Gawain is absolved of his sin in the acknowledgement of it and in his lesson to his fellows—a lesson they heed and decide to honor through the adoption of bright green belts as reminders of their duty forever after. And thus order is restored and chivalry and the courtly culture which values it have triumphed.
Yet—have they? Gawain does indeed impart the lesson he has learned to his fellow knights, but do the other knights really understand it? The Gawain Poet recounts that, following Gawain’s story and his transmission of his lesson, “the whole of the court” decided to adopt the symbol of the bright green belt “as they laugh in lovely accord” (2514), implying by their laughter that they do not actually take Gawain’s lesson seriously, viewing the whole episode instead as a great joke. The green belt, then, is not an equivalent symbol to Gawain’s green girdle, but a reminder of a rollicking good story, worn not as a symbol of sin, but “for the sake of this man [Gawain]” (2518) and the good story he’s furnished them with. The poet does not actually say that the wearing of these belts brought about any increase of honor or chivalry among Arthur’s knight, merely that each knight who worse the sash “was honored ever after” (2520). This detail of the knights’ reaction is indicative of a larger purpose within the text: rather than depict a triumph of chivalry, the Gawain Poet has sought to examine and question the workings of chivalry and the courtly society which depends upon it, not by testing chivalry against sin, as in the earlier interpretation, but by testing the elements of chivalry and its culture against themselves.
While Gawain is at Hautdesert, he is not faced with the choice between adhering to his chivalric code, the code of the aristocracy and the court, and forsaking it. Rather, he is caught between its elements—between courtesy and friendship, between purity and politeness. Though, at first glance, it seems as though these elements cannot possibly do anything but work together, the tale reveals that their relations to one another are fraught. This is reflected in their symbol, the pentangle, which, though it superficially appears to represent simply the wholeness and infallibility of Gawain’s values, actually holds complex implications. In the pentangle, each chivalrous characteristic is given equivalency with the others and they are inseparable, interdependent. However, this intertwining of meanings does not lead to unity, but confusion: the pentangle has five separate points so when one is thrown into conflict with another, what is to be done? There is no hierarchy in the symbolism of the pentangle and no way to untangle the problem—the “endless knot” of a knight’s code takes on a new meaning.
Of course, this would not be problematic if these elements were never thrown into conflict with one another, but that is precisely what confronts Gawain at Hautdesert. When Bertilak’s wife enters his bedchamber for the first time, Gawain is caught between his duty to friendship and fellowship, which demands that he respect Bertilak by not dallying with his wife; his duty to courtesy and politeness, which prevents him both from being rude to the lady and from denying her what she asks; and purity, his duty to himself and to his patron, the Virgin Mary. Gawain is neatly “trapped” (1210), as the Lady observes, his literal immobilization (obligated to stay beneath the bedclothes as he is by the fact of his nudity and her presence) indicating his moral and mental immobilization. Through tact, Gawain is able to survive the encounter, though he feels obligated to acquiesce to her request of a kiss as she appeals to the requirements of politeness and his reputation as the “embodiment of courtliness” (1298). Gawain, though, clearly does not feel that this delicate middle course was enough of a solution to his quandary and “marches off to mass” (1311), presumably to appeal to Mary for understanding and a solution.
Gawain maintains this balance through the lady’s second visit, but on her third, he succumbs, not directly to courtesy, but to the impulse to preserve his own life, directly contradicting his knightly duty to faith—symbolized in the pentangle (642). However, it is not this failure for which he is condemned by the Green Knight, but instead his failure to uphold the friendly agreement he’d made Bertilak to give him everything he acquired throughout the day. In opting to prioritize courtesy (in observing his promise to the Lady not to tell her husband about the gift) over loyalty to friendship and fellowship, Gawain strays from his promise to Bertilak. And yet, if he had been truthful to Bertilak, he would have betrayed the promise he made to the lady out of courtesy. Gawain, again, is trapped, unable to untangle the pentangle’s knot and resolve the contradiction in his values.
Thus, through Gawain’s dilemma, the Gawain Poet points out the contradictions present in the culture’s conception of the values and duties of a knight. However, in examining the poet’s portrayal of the two courts in the text, it becomes apparent that he does not believe that these contradictions are inherent, but that they arise as a result of a culture’s misinterpretations of them. In the opening of the tale, Arthur’s court is described largely in terms of youth: his court is full of “folk with their futures before them” (54). This is a court in the full bloom of youth, where laughter and good-humor reign and all is possibility. Arthur himself is “almost boyish / in his love of life” (86-87), which is further emphasized by his childish impatience and inability to sit still as well as his love for the “tallest of tales” (94). The youth of Arthur and his men is a literal youth as well, as the Green Knight ridicules their lack of beards, calling them “bum-fluffed bairns” (280) and then proceeds to stand “there stroking his beard” (334) (which has previously been awarded its own line in the Gawain poet’s description of the knight) as he waits for Arthur to deliver his blow of the axe, mocking their youth.
It is significant, too, that all of this takes place at the New Year, when the year is “so young it still yawned and stretched” (60)—as the Green Knight says, “a time for youthfulness” (283). Arthur’s court is a straightforward, uncomplicated place, where the values of chivalry can coexist unproblematically because it is a court in its first stage and innocence prevails. Hautdesert, on the other hand, is more complicated. It is no mere chance that it is in twelve months’ time that the Green Knight bids Gawain seek him, so that when Gawain sets out, it is the waning of the year when “all which had risen over-ripens and rots / and yesterday on yesterday the year dies away” (528-9). It is in this aged season that Gawain enters Hautdesert, a castle kept by a lord “with a bushy beard” (845), a detail which immediately contrasts him with the boyish, beardless Arthur.
Courtly life at Hautdesert is not in the least straightforward and almost immediately Gawain is plunged into a complex moral situation by the lady of the house who, far from sitting statically as Guinevere does in Arthur’s court, plunges headlong into Gawain’s bedchamber. The intricacy of the games played at the courts is emblematic of their respective complexities as well: at Camelot, the game is the simple contest of skill in the joust, whereas at Hautdesert, the games played have moral implications, as Gawain soon discovers. But perhaps most importantly, at Hautdesert there is a ceaseless preoccupation with “courtly love,” amongst all the nobles, which is set up in contrast to the single-minded concern at Arthur’s court for the straight-forward pleasures of jousting, tall-tale telling, and carousing. It is this preoccupation which the poet questions and credits with the introduction of contradiction into the chivalric code, as the Lady reproaches Gawain for not having spoken “the smallest syllable / which belongs to love or anything like it” (1523-4), and presses him to live up to his reputation of “courteousness,” stretching the definition of “courteous” as behavior befitting the court to include a connotation of courtly love. It is the belief at Hautdesert that the highest value “in chivalry, the chiefmost aspect to choose, / as all knights acknowledge, is loyalty in love” (1512-1513) that initiates the conflict in the chivalric values which the poet condemns.
That the text intends to throw into question the values of the aristocratic system which so relies on the code of chivalry is thrown into high relief by the end of the poem. All along, the poet has presented the reader with a particularly self-reflective hero, constantly seeking to understand and examine his own thoughts and motives and often articulating them to himself and to the reader in full, as in the scene of the Lady’s first entrance into his bedroom where Gawain lies pretending to be asleep, puzzling out the situation to himself in fully rendered thoughts. Without this tendency of Gawain’s toward self-analysis, much of the conflict of the poem would be null—with no conscience comes no quandary—and there would certainly be no lesson at the end. Gawain’s self-condemnation and vow to forever bear the girdle as a symbol of his sin arise from his self-examination, which the poet lauds with the detail he gives in his recount of it. And yet his serious self-critique is met with laughter from Arthur’s court. They do not see the value in his self-examination, nor do they appear to internalize the implicit warning in his story. For the moment, Arthur’s court is safe and its values can coexist in harmony. But the poet, through Gawain’s self-reflection and his depiction of the knights’ reception of Gawain’s story, questions the values of a system which can so easily become contradictory, encouraging self-reflection and examination in imitation of Gawain, lest Camelot head the same direction as Hautdesert.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 186-238. Print. Vol. A of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.