Sir Gawain and the Code of Chivalry
Date written: November 30, 2001
Class: ENG 303 / Medieval Literature
University of Michigan-Flint
Professor: Dr. Judith Kollmann
If you try to plagiarize this essay in any way, I shall slaughter. Plagiarism
The unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight brings to life the character of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s court who saves the life of his king by accepting the challenge of the Green Knight. Throughout his adventures in the story, Gawain discovers, develops, and demonstrates his own chivalric qualities. He makes a few mistakes along the way, but strives to settle for nothing less than perfection in loyalty, courage and courtesy.
The chivalric code that Gawain strives to live up to is one of loyalty (to his king, Arthur; to his lady, Guinevere; and to God), courage, and courtesy, a code of behavior expected of knights in the Middle Ages. These aspects of the code of chivalry stemmed primarily from “traditional warrior values (cf. Homer); others are Christian additions, aiming for the ideal of a noble, gentlemanly warrior.” (Black, 2) The demonstration of these qualities proved the mark of a true knight. Knights were expected to be loyal to the king or overlord that had dubbed them as a knight. They also had to be loyal to their lady—usually the wife of the king or overlord, but the lady could have also been the wife or love interest of a knight. They were also expected to be loyal to God, and to observe all of their religious practices. Knights were also expected to be courageous in all situations, and help the less fortunate that were in need. They were courteous to everyone they met, regardless of class. Whether it was a king or a peasant that they encountered, knights showed their courtesy to all.
Gawain showed his loyalty to Arthur from the start of the story, when he accepted the challenge of the Green Knight in Arthur’s place. Even when the decision was left to the other knights, so Gawain could obtain their opinions, they decided “that the crowned King should be relieved of the challenge, and Gawain given the game.” (Medieval Romances, 336) His loyalty to Guinevere, wife of the king, was evident when he asked Arthur, “Bid me rise from my seat and stand by you, so that without discourtesy to my liege lady the Queen I can leave her side….” (Medieval Romances, 336) Throughout the story, his loyalty to God and Christ prevailed. The pentangle on his armor showed that he “put all his trust in the five wounds that Christ bore on the cross.” (Medieval Romances, 343) It was also “seen both as the cognizance of Gawain, the perfect knight, and as a magical symbol used to ward off evil.” (Hardman, 248) During his search for the Green Chapel, Gawain stopped his journey on Christmas Eve to seek a proper place to worship God on the religious holiday—and he found Hautdesert, where the true tests of his character would occur. Although there is no evidence that there are any flaws in Gawain’s loyalty to God, there is “evidence of the elementary nature of his faith” throughout the story—Gawain only does what he is absloutlely obligated to do in order to keep that loyalty to God flawless. (Anderson, 351)
Gawain’s courage was most evident, again, when he accepted the challenge of the Green Knight. None of the other knights in the hall accepted the challenge right away—so Arthur, “embarrassed by his knights’ lack of response… accepted the challenge himself.” (Neininger, 1) It can be argued that Gawain’s behavior in this case was either courageous or lacking in tact. Anderson’s article suggests that he lacks tact by offering “himself in place of Arthur” and possibly “running the risk of slighting the king and the court by implying that he is better able to meet the challenge than they are.” (Anderson, 350) However, his courage was demonstrated throughout the rest of the story in the undertaking of the journey to search for the Green Chapel, knowing he would be away from his castle and his loved ones during Christmas, and in his determination to fulfill the promise that he made with the Green Knight. The only flaw in Gawain’s courage occurred when the Green Knight brought the axe down upon Gawain’s neck for the first blow, and Gawain flinched and turned away, after promising the Green Knight that he would stick his neck out and take the blow fearlessly.
The courtesy that Gawain shows to Arthur when he accepts the challenge from the Green Knight is the first demonstration of his courtesy in the story. Gawain’s elaborate and polite speeches to Arthur, Bercilak, and the lady of the castle emphasize “how devoted Gawain is to ‘cortaysye’,” even though it can be argued that this also implies that Gawain “is more words than actions.” (Anderson, 344) Gawain does not take very many actions in the story that demonstrate his courtesy, but his words are enough. Gawain’s first speech in the story demonstrates his courtesy through the language he uses with Arthur:
I pray you, my lord, in plain words, let this combat be mine. Bid me rise from my seat and stand by you, so that without discourtesy to my liege lady the Queen I can leave her side; and I will give you my counsel before all this noble company. In truth it is not seemly, when such a challenge is thrown out in your hall, that you yourself should be so eager to take it up, when there are sitting around you so many of your knights…. I may be the weakest of all of them, and the feeblest of wit…. But since this business is so foolish, and beneath your dignity as King, and since I have made my request first, grant it to me. Whether I have spoken fittingly or not, I leave to this company to decide…. (Medieval Romances, 335-36)
Gawain disproves his “feeblest of wit” in this speech, and shows that he is in fact strongest of all of the knights in the King’s castle.
Gawain’s biggest mistake lies in showing courtesy to the lady of Bercilak’s castle. Gawain concentrates “so hard on being courteous and remaining true to Bercilak that he is tricked into taking a girdle of green silk from her and thus betraying Bercilak.” (Neininger, 2) Gawain does not want to disappoint the lady by refusing this keepsake from her, and she convinces him “for her sake never to reveal it, but to keep it loyally hidden from her lord.” (Medieval Romances, 372) This girdle, in the end, becomes a “badge of honor” to Arthur and the other knights, although Gawain considers it a “badge of shame” throughout the story, even to the end, that is symbolic of his failure to completely live up to the chivalric code. (Carruthers, 67) Gawain is unaware that this is one of the many tests of his character that he is subjected to during his stay in the castle—which is “perhaps the best test there is, since the individual cannot prepare for it.” (Neininger, 2) He remains courteous to the lord of the castle, as well as all of the other residents (including the older lady that kept the lady of the castle company, even though Gawain found himself unattracted to her) during his entire stay at the castle. His downfall is his failure to exchange his winnings with Bercilak on his third day in the castle, demonstrating a flaw in his otherwise perfect courtesy. In failing to tell Bercilak about the girdle, Gawain “betrayed his host, lied to him, and compromised his own standards.” (Neininger, 2)
In striving to perfectly live up to every standard of the code of chivalry, Gawain discovers that no man could ever do it, because no man is perfect. Like any other man, Gawain has his weaknesses. His utter humiliation in regards to the incident with the girdle shows that the code of chivalry, “however apparently honorable,” can have “a dehumanizing effect on those who practice it.” (Anderson, 348) To completely live up to the code of chivalry would mean to be the perfect man. The events of the story “prove Gawain’s aspirations to have been impossibly high.” (Anderson, 350) Gawain’s flaws are shown “in his morality (lying about the girdle) and in his physical courage (flinching).” (Black, 2) Each of the blows that Gawain is dealt is symbolic of each of the flaws in Gawain’s character that he demonstrated in the story—the first of the flaw in his courage, and the second of the flaws in his courtesy and loyalty. The second blow was the one that caused Gawain injury, a permanent reminder of that moral flaw in accepting the girdle, which turned out not to be “an apparently magical protection against being hacked to death.” (Hardman, 253) It also served as a reminder of the flaw in his loyalty towards the lord of the castle where he was allowed to stay and treated with so much hospitality. He failed to tell Bercilak about the green girdle, thus betraying him and the promise they had made to exchange their winnings.
Gawain does not live up to every standard of the code of chivalry perfectly, but this shows that he is only human, like any of the other knights of King Arthur’s court. The standards that he set for himself were hopelessly high, but the standards that he did meet made him one of the most chivalric of all the knights portrayed in literature. Although he considers the girdle he accepted to me a mark of his failure, Arthur and the other knights see it as “a part of the glory of the Round Table,” and any man that wore a “slanting baldric of bright green, just like Gawain’s,” was considered to be honorable. (Medieval Romances, 388-89) Any character flaws that Gawain possessed were considered to be only human, and quickly overridden by his otherwise stellar performance in displaying the qualities of the chivalric code—loyalty, courage and courtesy.
“The Three Judgments and the Ethos of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review. 24, no. 4 (1990): 337-355. J.J. Anderson.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medieval Romances. Random House, 1957. Edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis.
“A Character Analysis of Sir Gawain as Presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Internet web site: http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/proj2b/gawain.html. Pace University, 1996. Kim Neininger.
“Gawain’s practice of piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medium Aevum. 68, no. 2 (1999): 247-267. Phillipa Hardman.
“The Duke of Clarence and the earls of March: garter knights and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medium Aevum. 70, no. 1 (2001): 66-79. Leo Carruthers.
“From Gawain to Conkers: Is Chivalry Dead?” Lecture. Internet web site:
http://www.mala.bc.ca/~black/gawain.asc. Malaspino University College,
British Columbia, Canada. John Black.
“The Green Knight’s Challenge: heroism and courtliness in fitt I of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review. 32, no. 2 (1997): 111-128. Greg Walker.
Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990. Richard Kieckhefer.
The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton University Press, 1991. Valerie I.J. Flint.