Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Sir Gawain Faces Temptation
Sir Gawain was known as a noble and honest man who was willing to stare death in the face to protect King Arthur. However, the courtly Sir Gawain is submitted to the unexpectednot to the test he expects, but to one he does not expect (qtd. in Spearing). The underlying theme throughout the entire poem is temptation, which, is Sir Gawain’s greatest challenge because he is not aware of it.
He faltered not nor feared
But quickly went his way,
His road was rough and weird,
Or so the stories say. (qtd. Stone 47)
Sir Gawain stands up just as the Green Knight challenges King Arthur. Gawain saves his uncle from the humiliation the Green Knight imposes on the King from his badgering; for this Gawain is very brave. He has no fear in approaching the Green Knight and accepting the game. Sir Gawain was a man who was held in high esteem before the people at Camelot. Thus, he was given the title Sir Gawain, which sealed his noble existence. A knight is a man who, for some achievement, is given honorary rank and thus entitling him to use Sir before his given name (qtd. in Webster’s pg. 747).
King Arthur was a very honorable man, one with boyish spirits and youthful persona. The King also displays his humble nature when at the table, he refused to begin eating before any of his guests. However, when the Green Knight confronts him he does not cower before him.
He raged as roaring gale;
His followers felt the same.
The King, not one to quail,
To that cavalier then came.
The Green Knight was described as a handsome, muscular man. Because every article of clothing the Green Knight wore was green, including his skin and hair, he is reminiscent of a fertility god. This idea of a fertility god plays a role when introducing the theme of temptation on the behalf of the Lord’s wife. He was very confident and witty.
Green and huge of grain,
Mettlesome in might
And brusque with bit and rein-
A steed to serve that knight!
The opposition between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight began when the knight entered the kings hall on New Years Eve. He challenged anyone present to strike him with an axe, providing that he could do the same one-year later. Gawain, not wanting the King to partake in such a game, takes up the challenge and cuts off the Green Knight’s
head. The knight then, picks up his head, and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in one year.
Gawain goes searching for the Green Chapel ten months later. He stays at a nearby castle for Christmas and New Years, entertained by the Lord’s wife. At the end of each day Gawain was to exchange with the lord whatever he had gained.
While the Lord is off hunting, his wife, “attempts his Gawain’s chastity” (Stone 11). However, the wife can do no more than kiss Gawain, for he would not allow it. The wife of the Lord tries one more time to seduce the noble knight in his bed. This time she is dressed much more provocatively. Gawain, amazed at her appearance, says: “God love you gracious lady” (Norton 234). Further, he is happy that a very beautiful woman like the Lord’s wife spends time talking with him: “it is a pleasure surpassing it comforts my hurt” (Norton 234). Afterwards she tries to kiss him again, but Gawain is very defensive so that no fault appears but only complete happiness. She kisses him for a second time: “They linger and laugh awhile and she departs without more ado” (Norton 234). But the during the third, and final attempt to seduce Gawain, she persuades him to accept her girdle, which she convinces him will protect his life. Gawain conceals this gift from the Lord because he cannot exchange it.
Gawain is hesitant to be involved with the Lady for three equally important reasons. First, she is the Lord’s wife and, being a noble gentleman, he would not want to dishonor him. Second, if he sleeps with her, he has to exchange it with the Lord. Finally, he is afraid to commit sin before he faces God because his death is almost certain once he
meets with the Green Knight. This shows what an important role religion played in the lives of men at this point in time. The fear of god far exceeded that of any mortal man.
When Gawain finally meets with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel the Knight give him three feinted blows, just barely cutting him on the third. The Knight then explained that he was Gawain’s host and that the first two blows were for his honesty in giving him his wife’s kisses and the cut was for Gawain’s failure to reveal the gift of the girdle. “After hearing the story Gawain’s peers judge that he has brought honor to the Round Table” (Stone 12).
“We are placed on the side mortality itself, and can thus, with the Green Knight, forgive Gawain for his single act of cowardice: what he did was done not out of sensual lust but for love of lifethe less, then, to blame.’ In the context of this affectionate sympathy, Gawain’s own violent anger at the revelation of his fault must itself be viewed with amusement, as part of his human fallibility.” (Borroff, Introduction)
He expects (and we expect with him when we first read the poem) that the real test he has to nerve himself for is meeting the Green Knight at the Green Chapel and receiving a presumably mortal blow from his axe. But when, after a tremendous effort of will, he does bring himself to face the Green Knight and accept the blow, it turns out that this is not the test itself. This test is only the symbol of a previous test which was carried out by the Green Knight’s wife, and which Gawain has already failed, marked by the girdle he accepted as a gift.
Abrahms, M.H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967.
Spearing, A.C.. “Patience and the Gawain-Poet.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. F. Denton. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Stone, Brian. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Penguin Group. 1959.