Sir Gawain & the Green Knight
Written by an anonymous Christian poet in fourteenth-century England, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight relates a quest made by the titular hero, who is a nephew of King Arthur. A young knight in a well-established court, Gawain responds to a strange intruder who appears during a New Year’s feast, a knight who is completely green in his armor and his body. The intruder challenges any of the assembled knights of Camelot to an exchange of blows with the great green axe he carries. Arthur himself starts to step forward, but Gawain intervenes and accepts the challenge. He takes the axe and beheads the challenger. At that point, the Green Knight picks up his own severed head and reminds Gawain of the terms of his challenge: Gawain must seek him out and submit to an agreed-upon return blow in a year’s time.
Ten months later, Gawain sets out on his quest to find the Green Knight, eventually taking refuge in a castle he encounters on Christmas. While there, his merry host proposes that he will hunt while Gawain rests in the castle, and at the end of each day, he and Gawain will exchange whatever they have gained. Over three successive days, while the host hunts, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain, but Gawain submits only so far as to kiss her. So when the host surrenders the game he has taken in his hunts to Gawain, Gawain gives him kisses. On the third day, the hostess gives Gawain a magical green sash, but he does not surrender this to his host.
As New Year’s Day approaches, Gawain must leave the comfort of the castle to seek out the Green Knight and receive a blow from the mysterious axe. The confrontation tests Gawain’s virtue, but he survives, and the sacrifice he has made yields an unexpected result and a surprising turn of events when he returns to Camelot.
Chivalry & Manly Christian Values
Though the plot may seem straightforward enough, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates the nature of manly Christian virtues projected through the lens of chivalry. From the outset, Gawain demonstrates both courtesy and humility. After the Green Knight announces his challenge to the court, Gawain shows restraint. He does not immediately step forward, lest his volunteering seem either rash or prideful. When he does step forward, he does so in defense of his king, thus demonstrating selfless loyalty to his sovereign by taking on the danger himself.
When Gawain begins his quest, the poet emphasizes the full array of chivalric virtue and its Christian context. Gawain’s donning of his armor recalls St. Paul’s imagery of the armor of God in Ephesians 6, especially verse 16: “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Indeed, the great symbol that dominates the scene of Gawain’s departure is his scarlet shield emblazoned with a golden pentangle on its front and etched with an image of the Virgin Mary on its inside, facing him. Gawain is a young man whose life is founded on his Christian faith.
Each of the pentangle’s five points has a five-fold meaning. One point indicates that Gawain is “flawless in his five senses,” meaning that he perceives the world clearly and so understands its full reality in the light of faith. Another indicates that “his five fingers were never at fault,” a reference to his physical prowess, honed by training and devotion. The third point indicates that his “faith was founded in the five wounds Christ received on the cross,” underscoring his Christian fidelity and his willingness to die for his king as Christ willingly died for all. The fourth recalls “the five joys which Mary had conceived in her son,” pointing to Christ and Mary as the sources of Gawain’s courage. And the fifth point of the pentangle represents five virtues that further reveal what makes Gawain the perfect knight. They are generosity, fellowship, cleanliness (in both body and soul), courtesy, and pity (encompassing empathy, compassion, and mercy). With the pentangle’s full array of virtues, the poet sets a high bar for young men, a goal for lifelong striving.
Indeed, the entire adventure is designed to test Gawain’s virtue. In the castle he comes upon, seemingly in answer to prayer, the young knight finds a place to attend Mass and to receive comfort. Reliance on prayer and devotion to God pervade all of Gawain’s strengths.
But those strengths are tested. Before he must leave to meet the Green Knight, he faces the greatest challenge of his adventure. During those three days in the castle, the focus on Gawain’s virtue shifts from the symbols on his shield to the animals his host hunts. Each animal connects to a part of the Platonic soul: eros, desire, is represented by the deer; thymos, spiritedness, is represented by the boar; and logos, reason, is represented by the fox.
Gawain successfully resists the temptations of desire and spiritedness on the first two days but gives in to faulty reason on the third, when he accepts the gift of the protective green sash but does not turn it over to his host. His seductive hostess has told him that whoever wears the sash will be “safe against those who seek to strike him.” Gawain’s virtue fails him here because he places his temporal life above his eternal values.
Gawain meets the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, where he submits to the agreed-upon blow in the belief that the sash will keep him safe from mortal danger. Gawain’s virtue falters here, too, because he has placed his trust in a magic charm and yielded to earthly fear instead of holding fast to spiritual courage. The Green Knight (who is probably the merry host in disguise) knows what Gawain had received on the third day. However, in an almost priest-like manner, this knight, who is also the keeper of the Green Chapel, spares Gawain’s life and forgives the young knight’s cowardice.
Saint & Sinner, Role Model & Cautionary Tale
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, is a story of a young man filled with the ideals of his Christian faith that plays out in a tale of chivalry. He is brave, loyal, pious, strong, and courteous. Still, like every Christian, he faces temptation. While it would be easy to blame the seductive hostess who tempts Gawain each day while her husband is hunting, it is wrong to shift the blame away from Gawain himself. This tale demonstrates how a young man may train his body physically, live a life of devotion to God, and practice all the manly virtues but still remain subject to temptation and fall into sin. When Gawain finally faces the blow of the Green Knight’s axe, he does so as an act of repentance, in recognition of his sin. So must every young man recognize his own sin and repent.
When he returns to Camelot, Gawain learns that his peers recognize his failure but also his repentance. They adopt the green sash, the badge of his shame, and transform it into an emblem of their mutual humility. Like all the other virtues, humility is a key aspect of chivalry, a set of virtuous practices either ignored or held in contempt by those who believe equality negates this medieval code. All men will fall short of the ideals of Christian virtue, but no man should fail to aspire to them. As C. S. Lewis wrote in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”Rick Reed
is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #62, Fall 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo62/a-manly-knight-to-remember