Many scholars consider Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the anonymous “Pearl Poet” (or Gawain Poet) to be different from the Pearl Poet’s other attributed works Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience in that it seems to be primarily a secular romance and not a didactic, spiritually motivated work. Sir Gawain endures trials of his spiritual faith, his loyalty to his King and Lady, and his dedication to the code of knighthood. As a Spiritual Warrior, Gawain is deeply ashamed for failing what he perceives as a test of his vanity, yet the rest of the characters honor him for performing as well as he did. Drawing on dichotomous imagery from Christian & Pagan religious faiths, social mores, nature, and masculine and feminine literary archetypes, it’s clear this story is as spiritually instructive as its three counterparts.
Sir Gawain’s Function as Hero
Gawain is the champion of Camelot and its royals, of Christendom, and of the Code of Chivalry. Gawain shows courtesy and humility, acknowledging his brother knights before himself. Humbly describing himself as the least of Arthur’s knights, intellectually and as a warrior, he represents the best cultural values of all of Camelot.
As the King’s champion, Gawain’s vow of chastity is a service to his Knighthood and his King, but to the Queen as well. Gawain and Guinevere share the high table at Camelot’s New Year’s celebration, indicating he’s the Queen’s champion and represents the best values of knighthood.
Ideals of Chivalry Derived from Christianity
Chivalric ideals derive from Christian concepts of morality, promoting spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world. Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Sir Gawain, and symbolized by the shield he carries. The pentangle on the front of the shield symbolizes the virtues Gawain aspires to:
1) Faultlessness in his five senses
2) Never failing in his five fingers
3) Faith in the five wounds Christ received on the cross
4) Possessing five knightly virtues: friendship, generosity, courtesy, chastity, and piety.
5) Drawing strength in the five joys the Virgin Mary had in Christ (Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption)
The side of the shield facing Gawain bears the image of the Blessed Virgin, to ensure he keeps Christian faith and chastity. He is bound to Her in a similar manner to Queen Guinevere; he’s the Virgin Mother’s champion as well. His adherence to these values is tested throughout the poem, examining Gawain’s personal virtue, and questioning whether Christian virtue can function in a fallen world.
What’s tested in the poem may be the chivalric system itself, symbolized by Camelot. Gawain begins his quest on the Day of All Saints, a religious holiday for both Christians and Pagans. He’s a traveling representative of his King and Queen, of Christianity, and of the Chivalric values of his court. If Gawain fails, it represents a failure of all these social institutions.
Gawain wanders through the wilderness praying and fasting, looking for a sacred place to do battle with the Green Knight. After suffering many trials, near death from exposure and starvation, on Christmas Eve Gawain prays to the Virgin Mary that he might find a place to attend Mass. Repenting his sins, and crossing himself three times, he looks up and beholds a castle surrounded by a green park and a moat. Gawain fails to recognize the shimmering castle as a symbol of the Green Knight; he thanks God for saving him and approaches the drawbridge.
At this point in the poem, Gawain looks very much like a holy pilgrim. The castle looks “grand and fine” to Gawain, and to a Medieval Christian reader it might seem like the New Jerusalem of Revelations. In Christian tradition, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem provides an allegory for the spiritual pilgrimage of the human soul to heaven. The “fantastically pure towers” might seem to evoke the Holy City. It appears as place of refuge, a haven like the very city which Christian souls aspire to, but the poet writes that the castle looks as though it were “cut out of paper”, letting the reader know it is a mere facade. Gawain doesn’t realize his mistake and enters the castle.
The castle represents a Divine answer to Gawain’s prayer, but not in the way he assumes. Amidst the wilds of the land, he frequently calls upon Christ and the Blessed Virgin for aid, but once inside the castle of Hautdessert, his piety fades. As his physical and spiritual defenses falter, Gawain’s five knightly virtues undergo examination by his host, Bertilak de Hautdessert.
The Court de Hautdessert
Bertilak introduces Gawain to Lady Hautdessert, his young and beautiful wife. Elegantly dressed, with her firm neck and bosom exposed, she’s the opposite of another woman present; a stocky and hirsute crone whose clothing covers her entirely. The poet’s language suggests the women differ only in beauty, they share qualities of intellect in common. Describing the younger woman as “fresh” and the older woman as “faded” suggests the women form two ends of a spectrum. In medieval iconography, an old woman beside a young woman often allegorically represents vanity, suggesting that love of worldly beauty means neglect of spiritual life. It foreshadows Gawain’s sin as one of vanity, loving his mortal life over duty.
Bertilak’s wife is a clever debater and an astutely reads Gawain’s reactions as she attempts to seduce him on three separate occasions. She accuses Gawain of being discourteous when he refuses to submit to her sexually, pitting two knightly virtues against one another: courtesy and chastity.
The lady evokes a complicated system of religious and political imagery. As the host’s wife and a noblewoman, she exceeds Gawain’s rank; chivalry requires he obey the lady. Invoking religion at this passionate moment places Gawain’s spiritual education at odds with the traditions of courtly love. She begins by challenging Gawain’s name and reputation, claiming her guest cannot really be Gawain, because the champion of Camelot wouldn’t forget to be “gracious”, highlighting the tension between courtesy and chastity.
Traditionally, beloved ladies ideally work as an erotic teacher, demonstrating proper spiritual comportment, and also the artistry of “courtly lovemaking”. The courtly lady ennobles her knight by teaching him to be a proper lover and a gentleman. The courtly traditions add force to the lady’s attempts to persuade Gawain to forgo his chastity. By pitting virtues against each other she teaches Gawain about the traps inherent in dogmatic traditions.
On the third attempt, the lady asks Gawain for a love token, which he refuses to give. She then offers him her ring as a token, which he also refuses. A Lady’s love token is symbolic of her body and of her sexual gifts. Accepting such a token would betray loyalty to Queen Guinevere and to the Holy Mother. Bertilak’s wife then offers Gawain her green girdle, a sash she claims offers the wearer magical protection from death. The temptation to save his own life is overwhelming; Gawain accepts the girdle, betraying the Queen as well as his vow of chastity.
Gawain doesn’t notice the girdle’s silk is green and gold, like the Green Knight’s clothing; he disassociates the sash itself from the lady’s body, which it clearly symbolizes as a literary device, but also quite plainly according to the customs of Gawain’s era. The ethical dilemma represented by the girdle relates to self-preservation rather than to chastity. When the stakes shift radically from courtesy versus chastity, to honesty versus safety, Gawain’s resolve weakens.
Gawain wants to escape death but still honor his covenant with the Green Knight. Unfortunately, using the girdle means concealing it from host, thereby breaking honesty and gratitude for his hospitality. Though Gawain does not view concealing the magical girdle to avoid certain death, as big a crime as adultery; still, it serves to break his vow with his host. In desiring to find a loophole in his covenant with the Green Knight, Gawain fails his contract with Lord Bertilak, to exchange fairly whatever each man wins throughout the day.
The Green Knight’s challenge teaches Gawain that he’s, at a basic level, just a physical being who fears his own mortality. Chivalry serves as a valuable set of ideals to strive for, but above all a person must remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Accepting the lady’s green girdle teaches him that even he, the most chivalrous knight in the land, is merely human and capable of error.
In his book on performative criticism, Gerry Brenner suggests Gawain is prideful from the start, taking on his quest merely to impress the King, the Queen, and the court. Yet Gawain doesn’t fail a test of his pride, sharing the kisses he won from the lady, with Lord Bertilak in accord with their contract.
The Green Knight
The Green Knight phrases the terms of their game as a binding contract, making Gawain repeat the terms himself. By referring to the beheading game as a covenant between them, the Green Knight puts Gawain’s loyalty and honesty at stake on the outcome. Although the Green Knight tricks Gawain by hiding his supernatural abilities before the game, Gawain refuses to back out of their deal. As Bertilak, he similarly frames his hunting game with Gawain as a binding covenant, which Gawain strives to honor initially at the expense of his self image.
The Green Knight agrees that Gawain met the terms of their covenant. He feints his swing the first two times, because Gawain honored the contract he made with Bertilak the first two days, by trading the gifts he’d received. The nick from the third blow punishes Gawain’s for failing to be truthful about the green girdle. This may suggest that this story’s utmost concern is the importance of truth. In an essay on adapting Arthurian legend for children, Cindy L. Vitto suggests this, citing that the importance of truth and confessing to a lie is a common thread among five different children’s versions of the tale.
Ultimately, Gawain confesses his sin to the Green Knight. Realizing the Green Knight and Lord Bertilak are one and the same, he begs to be pardoned. Bertilak represents the unification of Pagan and Christian ideals, displaying a highly just and moral character, tempered with experience and forgiveness. He admits Gawain has flaws, but spares him the fatal axe blow, appreciating how well Gawain stood up to his trials. Because Gawain honorably repents his sin, his one indiscretion in the poem becomes an example of his basic goodness. Thereafter, he voluntarily wears the girdle as a mark of his sin, representing an excessive love of mortal life.
Realizing the Green Knight and Bertilak are the same man, Gawain deprecates himself as a coward who has fallen short of his chivalric code. He calls himself “faulty and false” and asks to regain the host’s “good grace”. He decides to wear the girdle as a visible mark of his fault, metaphorically equating himself with Cain. Gawain’s sin of lying to avoid death is less profound than Cain’s, yet his decision to wear the girdle as a “sign of excess”, and “the faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse” compares him to one of the Bible’s greatest sinners.
Arthur is touched by Gawain’s story, and chooses to wear a green sash on his arm, showing that he has learned from Gawain’s trial that even a King is fallible. For Gawain’s sake, all the knights and ladies take up the symbol, wearing green silk baldrics on their arms. One might read this moment as Camelot acknowledging that all men are sinners by sharing in Gawain’s misery and offering him comfort, but there’s something too lighthearted about this response; essentially, it turns Gawain’s mark of weakness into a fashion statement. Perhaps the Pearl Poet questions the value of wearing a holy icon such as a crucifix or even a pentangle if one has not earned it the same way Gawain has.
Morgan Le Faye, Gawain’s true opponent, provides a broader context for Gawain’s moral testing in her hatred of Camelot. The sorceress represents Pagan religion and customs, counter to the values of Christian society represented by Camelot court. She sends the Green Knight to test Camelot at Christmastime, a time of feasting which celebrates Christian faith. The courtiers of Camelot are youthful and innocent, capable of falling into traps of bad moral judgment. This description of Arthur’s courtiers as children in their “first age” implicitly compares them to humankind in its “first age,” before the fall in the Garden of Eden. Emphasizing the court’s youth and inexperience suggests they are fallible, and capable of sin just as Adam and Eve were.
After the Green Knight reveals himself to be Lord Bertilak, Gawain initially curses the girdle launching a tirade about the dishonesty of women who have led astray pious men such as Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David. This speaks to the thread of misogyny woven throughout Arthurian legend and the Bible. He accepts the girdle, though, as a badge of his sinfulness. Gawain avoids what could be Morgan’s true plan, that Camelot’s most gallant knight adopts the same misogyny implicit in the Bible and in Arthurian legend in the name of pride. Returning to Camelot he lays no blame on Morgan or Lady Hautdessert, accepting the sin as his own.
Gawain considers lying to save his life, sinful vanity and pride. Confessing his sins immediately after taking the girdle indicates he knew he’d broken his vow. Gawain’s opinion of himself is as important as his public reputation; he insists on wearing the green girdle as a mark of his human nature, and capability of sin, at the story’s end. He believes sins should be as visible as virtues.
Gawain as a Transformed Character
His encounter with the Green Knight teaches Gawain the problematic nature of courtly ideals. He emerges at the end of the poem, humbled by the realization of his own faults; he has to live with the truth that the standards of Christianity and Chivalry, his own chosen standards, are impossible to fully achieve. Bertilak and Lady Hautdessert use the pitfalls inherent in dogmatic religious and social customs against Gawain. By learning he cannot live up to these ideals all the time, Gawain is free of this trap.
Gawain learns truthfulness means knowing one’s own failings and limitations, not blind adherence to principles of just behavior, imagery, and ceremony. Taken in context with the Pearl Poet’s other works, it’s likely this is the poem’s moral message, and that the work itself is not merely an entertaining diversion from the poet’s religious examinations.
Joe Capristo studied English Literature at UNC Greensboro, has a North Carolina teaching license in English grades 9 -12, and is an ordained minister.