The poem


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The poem

  1. 1. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late 14th century by ananonymous poet. This poem focuses on the values of chivalry and courtesy; which refers tothe societys idea of polite behaviour and appropriate conduct particularly expected fromknights. This is a narrative poem that tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthurs nephew,who takes a journey to find the Green Knight who visits King Arthurs court to test thenoblest knight. The poem is not just a literary journey as it also focuses on the testing of SirGawain and his values, along with the values of his society. Furthermore, this poem alsofocuses closely on Gawains experiences as an individual, allowing the reader to enterimaginatively into the difficulties that he faces. As this poem is divided into four parts, I willcritically analyse how Sir Gawains experiences change his expectations of himself, focusingon each part at a time. This will help us understand how his values are tested as he takes hisjourney.The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is divided into four equally significant partscalled fits, and they discuss the trials that Sir Gawain undergoes in stages. The first part of thepoem introduces King Arthurs court filled with only "splendid men" (Sir Gawain and theGreen Knight, 38), and the King himself is described as one "who was the greatest incourtesy", (SGGK, 26). Already, the narrator is putting a lot of emphasis on courtesy andchivalry, which are very important values of a knight. The arrival of the Green Knight intoKing Arthurs court is to test if they deserve their "fame [that] flies through the remotestregions" (SGGK, 310 ); which means the Knight has heard of their reputation and has cometo find out if they can live up to it. The challenge this Knight (a man whose posture isdescribed as "half-giant" (SGGK, 140)), poses them is quite unusual and overwhelming.Although these men are noble knights, what we are told is that all in this court are "beautifuland young" (SGGK, 54), suggesting how inexperienced and untried they are. They are notready for such a bizarre challenge. This does not stop the Green knight from looking at theKnights "to find whose fame stood high" (SGGK, 231) amongst all. The court is marveled bythe Green Knights rude remarks and mockery as he refers to them as "beardless boys" and"milk-sops" (SGGK, 280-282), which means they are all too young to challenge him. Theseremarks, however rude and impolite, confirm the simple truth said before, that they are allinexperienced and untried.Although Sir Gawain (King Arthurs nephew) is among these young knights and is "theweakest and least in wit" (SGGK, 354), he takes the opportunity to develop outside this court.
  2. 2. He is brave enough to accept the bizarre challenge of "strik[ing] on stroke for another"(SGGK, 287), which no other man in the court can do. Sir Gawain proves to be very brave,sacrificial, courteous and ready to fight; all aspects that mark a true Knight. Although SirGawain agrees to the terms of the game, he does not have all the details about his opponent.He does not know anything about the Green Knight, especially about his supernaturalpowers. When Sir Gawain chops off the Green knight‟s head, he simply "pick[s] it up"(SGGK, 433), and exits the court, expecting Sir Gawain to go look for him when the timethey agreed on arrives. This is not what Sir Gawain expects, he probably expected to give thehardest blow, kill the Green Knight and end the game right there. He has been tricked toagree to make a deal when he did not have all the facts. Nevertheless, the promise has beenmade, the game field has been set and Sir Gawain has to go look for the Green Knight so hecan get his "blow" (SGGK, 453) as promised. This marks the beginning of a journey in whichhe proves to what extent he can meet his societys expectations and live up to their valuestogether with his own values. The fact that he has to go searching for someone he does notknow by name and a place he has never heard of shows that this journey is going to be amysterious and uncertain; this could also represent the uncertainty of Gawains in the societyhe finds himself in. This part of the poem prepares us to partake on a journey we have no ideaon its final destination along with Sir Gawain as he is tested.The second part of the poem focuses on the challenges Sir Gawain faces in the wilderness.He is anxious about his journey as he is walking towards his unpleasant "fate" (SGGK, 565).The choice of word the poet uses here is effective as it makes us realise that Sir Gawainactually has no choice but to do what the Green Knight expects him to do. This also remindsus as the readers that sometimes we do things we do not really wish to do, but we do themunder invisible compulsion, as the knight finds himself doing. Sir Gawain finds himself in adangerous place alone, in winter, with many physical and spiritual fights to win. Life haschanged for Sir Gawain as he is cold, both literally and figuratively; he shivers at the thoughtof losing his life to the Green Knight in not so many days. As he carries his pentangle, "a signand token of truth" (SGGK, 625-626), he is clearly still aware of the virtues he stand for as aKnight in society and as an individual. Honesty, truthfulness, bravery and keeping a promiseare values that are being tested at this point. Sir Gawain seeks shelter, protection, warmth andfood as he is in the wilderness "companionless" (SGGK, 693); here he is also tested of howmuch he can survive alone without any back up and insufficient resources. We see Gawainsheroic characteristics start becoming invisible as he is alone and has no one to save but
  3. 3. himself. This shows how Knights are also human and need to pay attention to their interestsand not focus on society all the time forgetting about their own needs.Despite all he goes through on his journey, Sir Gawain still keeps his faith, which is one ofhis values. He depends on "Mary" (SGGK, 738 ) for guidance as well as "Christs cross"(SGGK, 762 ) for haste; by so doing, Gawain proves that he still holds on to his values evenin the wilderness. His faith does not fail him as his request is grantedwhen he is welcomedinto Bertilaks castle where he finds shelter and food, as well as good company. Here Gawainis observed for good behaviour by each and every member of the castle as he is well knownand is referred to as "the prince of the castle" (SGGK, 919); and they expect him to be aliving example of what courtesy should look like. Although Gawain finds a place a lot likeKing Arthurs court, with games, good food and association; he still thinks about his duty andagreement to meet the Green Knight. However, this Knight does not know that most of histests are going to take place in this castle where he receives such great hospitality. Onceagain, Sir Gawain has to make a promise to Bertilak and “settle a bargain” (SGGK, 1105) toexchange their gains of the day every time they meet. We see how the issue of promises,vows and bargains is consistent in this poem as they keep re-appearing in Sir Gawain‟s life.This shows how important living up to them will determine whether he passes his main testor not. Unfortunately the noble Knight does not notice the coincidence of the games he isasked to play and what they have in common; keeping a promise. This means that Sir Gawainis completely unaware that he is being tested on this aspect, which will make his response tothe test, more realistic.In the third part of the poem, we meet Sir Gawain in his bedroom being hunted the same wayBertilak hunts for animals in the woods. The narrator highlights that Bertilak has “a hundredmen of the boldest hunting blood” (SGGK, 1144-1145); which is in opposition to KingArthur‟s court, where we are not told of any activity they do outside the court. This is wherethe theme of realism and romance collide as King Arthur‟s court is one world of artificialperfection, where else Bertilak‟s castle is filled with men who have a more realistic view oflife as they hunt for food. This is another great experience for Sir Gawain as he finds himselfamong such men with an authentic view of life. While the lord of the castle continues withhis hunt, Sir Gawain is faced with a challenging situation with the lady of the castle, as shevisits him in his bedroom and flirts with him. Sir Gawain finds this position uncomfortableand awkward and makes „the sign of the Cross” (SGGK, 1202) to escape this trap; once again
  4. 4. we see Sir Gawain hold on to his faith during hard times. As if Sir Gawain has not madeenough agreements already, the lady of the castle asks him to “strike a bargain”, (SGGK,1210) with her. Clearly there are a lot of agreements he has to abide to before he can get tothe final promise made to the Green Knight. His ability to overcome the temptations from thelady of the castle by dismissing her sexual advances politely, with “tact and care” (SGGK,1260), shows that he is indeed a true Knight. However, the lady accuses Sir Gawain of notliving up to his reputation as he “dall[ies]” (SGGK, 1299) and does not take the chance to askfor a kiss. At the return of the lord of the castle, he exchanges his hunt with Sir Gawain aspromised, and Sir Gawain in return gives him the kiss from the lady of the castle. Theiragreement is successful on the first day.On the second day of the game they make the same agreement to exchange their winnings.Bertilak goes out hunting again and Sir Gawain is still hunted figuratively by the lady of thecastle, only this time she is “expecting to change his attitude” (SGGK, 1474-1475); whichsuggests that she has a better strategy for him this time. Her persistence is quite exasperating,allowing the reader to feel Gawain‟s pain and anger at this point as he has to deal with her.Although she accuses the noble Knight of having “no patience with the ways of politesociety” (SGGK, 1483), he is able to deal with her cautiously and resist her temptation,showing how he is willing to hold on to his chastity and cleanliness despite her persistence.She also expects him to talk about love and war as she believes that is what Knights shoulddo. Sir Gawain does not agree with this notion or idea of a Knight as he believes talkingabout love and war “would be stupid” (SGGK, 1545); clearly Sir Gawain‟s values clash withthat of his society. This shows how a Knight is also an individual with different opinions tothe rest of society. On this day, we are told that when Bertilak returns, they exchange theirgains as per “contract” (SGGK, 1636); which gives the reader a strong sense of obligation todeliver that Sir Gawain is under. The choice of words the poet uses allows the readers to enterimaginatively into Sir Gawain‟s world and experience his difficulties on a certain level.Although Sir Gawain has given heed to the terms of the game, we spot a particle ofdishonesty in his dealings with Bertilak, as he refuses to tell his game mate how he gets hisgain, reasoning that it is “not part of the pact” (SGGK 1395). This shows how he feelsdisloyal to the lord of the castle to kiss his wife in his absence and feels like a subject topunishment; another humanly characteristic he displays.
  5. 5. On the final day of Bertilak and Sir Gawain‟s game, Bertilak has a new rule for the game andthat is “third time, winner takes all” (SGGK, 1680), and to show how this new rule isessential, Sir Gawain is expected to keep it in mind for the following day. As the day arrives,Sir Gawain is a lot uneasy as he must finally go and meet the Green Knight and accept hisstroke; he also still has to pass the last test by the lady of the castle as she brings moretemptations to him. Sir Gawain is stuck between courtesy and sin, for these two seem to be inconflict at this point. It would be ill-mannered for him to decline the lady‟s obvious sexualadvances and offend her, at the same time it would be a bigger issue should he err the lord ofthe castle and commit adultery with his wife. Sir Gawain has to decide now what he valuesmost, being courteous to the lady or being loyal to Bertilak. When the lady gives him a girdleas a “love-token” (SGGK, 1805) to remember her, he hides it from Bertilak, which goesagainst their initial agreement for the game. At this point we meet Sir Gawain very anxious tothe point of consulting the priest to find out how “his soul might be saved when he leaves theearth” (SGGK, 1879) as he has admitted his shortcomings and has accepted the certainty ofdying. On the final test, Sir Gawain fails to keep up with the rules of the game. This showshow the games he has been involved in have tired him out and the conflict of interests fromsociety leave him without a certainty of which one is right. He makes a promise to bothBertilak and his wife and he cannot keep both these promises at the same time. This alsoshows that being a Knight does not mean being a supernatural being that can do a lot ofthings at the same time.On the fourth and last part of this poem, Sir Gawain is faced with the last and primary duty hehas to carry out; to look for the Green Knight and accept his blow. However, he still has twomore test to pass first, both concerning his courage. Bertilak‟s servant tells him that it wouldbe really unwise for him to have the meeting with the Green Knight, as he “the worst man inthe world” (SGGK, 2098), and the servant also promises to keep his secret should he decideto go back home. This is meant to scare him, and see if Gawain will still keep his word if noone else knows what he is doing. In other words, the question at hand is if Gawain sticks tohis values to seem heroic in everyone‟s eyes, or if he does it simply because he values thevirtue at hand. It is evident in Sir Gawain‟s response that he truly values the virtue ofpromises as he is determined to “keep [his] word and not despair” (SGGK, 2159), and not letthe servant to influence his decision anyhow. Gawain is more terrified when he encountersthe Green Chapel, and it also terrifies the reader as it is said to look like a place where “theDevil says morning prayer” (SGGK, 2188), which suggests how awful and evil this place
  6. 6. looks. To make this terrible look even more horrifying is the sound of a blade beingsharpened from within that Sir Gawain has to witness, giving him even more reasons to runaway. At this point Sir Gawain is ready to die and fulfill his promise; nothing can stop himnow, not even his own fears. The Green Knight teases Sir Gawain for flinching and calls him“lily-livered” (SGGK, 2273), which is a serious insult to a Knight of Gawain‟s reputation. Atthe end, Sir Gawain gets a stroke for not being completely honest with his gains as he did notgive Bertilak the girdle. Sir Gawain feels like he has failed his Knighthood and feels like acoward. Contrary to that, Bertilak assures Sir Gawain that he is the “most faultless warrior”(SGGK, 2363) as he did all he did to save his own life. Although Sir Gawain is ashamed anddisappointed, Bertilak respects him even more for his humanly qualities and trying to save hislife. Sir Gawain wishes to “cleanse [his] name” (SGGK, 2388), from all his misdeeds andfaults as he has betrayed what he stands for as a Knight. He keeps the girdle to wear it as a“sign of [his] fault” (SGGK, 2433) as he has been disloyal to Bertilak. When he does this, SirGawain acknowledges that he is human and is bound to make mistakes. What he and us asreaders learn is that, in as much as we are proud of our achievements and display them inpublic for people to see, we should also accept the fact that we will make mistakes from timeto time and we should learn from them. The little mistakes we make in life might cost us thebig things, but if we learn, like Gawain, that we are limited in life and to what society expectsfrom us, we will accept our shortcomings.In conclusion, although Sir Gawain values his virtues as a Knight, he realizes that he cannever live up to all of them, especially when his life is at stake. His encounter with the GreenKnight and his experiences makes him understand that he is human and will make mistakesfrom time to time; letting the values of his society down. He also learns that some things arecontrolled by supernatural authority beyond human powers and there is nothing he can doabout it.
  7. 7. Reference listHarrison, K. (translator). (1998). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.New York: OXFORDUNIVERSITY PRESS.