Notes on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Themes

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Topic Tracking: Chivalry

Part 1, lines 250-490

Chivalry 1: Sir Gawain presents an interesting human portrait of how a people might react to certain strenuous situations. However, this is always investigated in relation to an ideal, here the notion of chivalry, or how a medieval knight is supposed to act. According to the ideals of bravery and service to their lord, the knights should have leapt at the chance to give their life for their lord, in battle or in sport. There are several places in the text, such as here, where that ideal seems unattainable, even by a group of knights billed as the greatest ever known. The knights are ashamed because they cannot seem to live up to the ideal they have set before themselves; human nature is perhaps at odds with the ideals of "perfection" which it sets as a standard for itself.

Chivalry 2: This passage said by Gawain is full of chivalrous idealism, and most pertinently the idea that the vassal should subject himself to his lord. There is another antagonistic force playing at the same time, for even while Gawain says what everyone wants to hear at the prodding of the Green Knight, whether he truly believes what he is saying is questionable, as is the motivation of the other knights' agreement that he should undergo the ordeal. Do they agree with what he says, or are they relieved that they themselves do not have to receive an axe blow from the Green Knight?

Part 2, lines 491-810

Chivalry 3: The Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as feeling something like shame in the wake of the incident with the Green Knight. Perhaps they are disappointed at their apparent inability to live up to the ideal of what a knight should be; perhaps they are not the men they had convinced themselves (and the world), that they were.

Chivalry 4: Again, there is a separation that the poet points out between what is felt in the heart and what is said out loud in the spirit of expectation, and the possible disunity between the two.

Chivalry 5: Although the poet has taken to singing Gawain's knightly praises once again, we have seen that the Knights of the Round Table are not impervious to failure from the ideal. Indeed, it is exactly these virtues that will be tested in Gawain during the coming journey, and he, too, proves that he is not incapable of sin.

Part 2, lines 811-1125

Chivalry 6: There is inconsistency between the language used by the knights in the court to describe Gawain and the coming events that are meant, as is revealed in the end, to test the very knightly virtues that Gawain is assumed to already possess. Again, the ideals of knighthood and expectation are placed next to human reality in this passage, which could be explicitly ironic foreshadowing, or simply deliberately inconsistent.

Part 3, lines 1126-1557

Chivalry 7: The exchanges between Gawain and Bercilak de Hautdesert's wife are full of what could be considered "knightly courtesy," or "courtly speech." In fact, it is made plain that all these two are doing is "juggling words" (l. 1217) in their talks. It becomes clear, however, that what is really passing between them are untruths: Gawain repeatedly pretends certain things (like feigning sleep), and rarely says what he actually thinks. The lady, as it later becomes clear, is pretending everything, for her husband put her up to seducing Gawain. "Chivalry" becomes synonymous here with deceit and pretension, a kind of wall behind which the truth is never uttered.

Chivalry 8: Even though chivalry seems to be presented somewhat ironically by the poet in the exchanges between Gawain and de Hautdesert's lady, it is nevertheless held up as an ideal. When the Green Knight is recounting Gawain successes and failures at the end of the poem, he applauds Gawain for refusing his wife in the way that he does here, and repeatedly does afterward.

Chivalry 9: Part of the key to the "chivalric" discourse presented in the poem is the game of words that goes on between the participants, a sort of intellectual besting process, as if the men and women are fencing with language. Much of the story surrounds the idea of language duels, holding up the notion of courtly goodness and virtue with those who can speak eloquently. It is always pointed out when someone is intimidated by words, or when they are not, such as when the Green Knight first appears in Arthur's court. In addition, any time a person is not capable of speaking (such as when Gawain gets drunk), the poet points it out. Here, there is an example of this give-and-take game: Gawain greets the lord's wife with a "warm welcome," and she gives it back to him "as good as she got" (l. 1477-1478).

Part 3, lines 1558-1997

Chivalry 10: Here is a case in point example of Sir Gawain's internal struggle against an ideal that becomes the center of the story as the poem progresses. What he should do according to the code of knightly conduct is not clear; he is left in the middle, between offending the lord and offending the lady (he thinks - for in the end it is all clear the this was a setup to test his will). Gawain becomes decidedly human in this passage - the poet leaves the façade of chivalric sparring aside and in that act, Gawain changes from a hero on a quest in the name of honor to a complex character struggling with his own morality and the expectations that peers have placed upon him to be "good" and "courteous."

Part 4, lines 2309-2530

Chivalry 11: While its ideals were in question at points, and the voice of the poet point toward ironic overtones, it is clear in the end that the ideals of chivalry are meant to be upheld. Gawain is forced into perfecting his notion of the chivalric code, and Gawain's brothers at the Round Table are brothers in courtesy, offering to share the burden of Gawain's perceived sin.

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