Term Paper: Chivalry in Sir Gawain

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[. . .] She tell him she wants something to remember him by, as this is his last day at the castle. Gawain has nothing to give her and that prompts her to offer him her green silk sash. He refuses to accept it until she tells him that whoever wears it cannot be killed. Of course, this appeals to Gawain's basic desire to live and he accepts the sash along with the lady's wishes not to tell her husband. She kisses him three times that morning and the day comes to an end as the two previous days, with the lord of the castle exchanging his catch of the day with what Gawain gained during the day. As promised, Gawain gives the lord three kisses as the lord gives Gawain his catch.

During these days, the poet illustrates two very different hunts taking place. One is the lord hunting animals and the other is the lady hunting Gawain. This is an important analogy, and by comparing the artful pursuit of Gawain to the primal pursuit of animals, the poet has reduced the chivalrous nature to the very basics. The lady is counting on Gawain to fall victim to a very basic human emotion, which is lust. Though she exhibited extreme talented in her attempts to seduce him and even though they had engaging dialogue, it still all came down to something very basic.

Gawain is able to resist the lady's very cunning behavior through his system of beliefs. It is Gawain's strength that allows him to make the right choices, which are very complicated. An honorable knight does not reject the wishes of the lord or his lady, but Gawain had never encountered such a situation before. It is his strong sense of morality and his faith in God that saves him.

However, Gawain does not escape the temptation completely. When he accepted the lady's sash, he in essence broke the agreement he had with the lord. That in itself was a violation of the code of chivalry Gawain was so used to following. Granted, it is not adultery, but it still violated Gawain's moral code.

The lady may not have been able to seduce him with lust but she was able to seduce him with the desire to live. This refers back to aforementioned reduction of chivalry being reduced to a basic instinct and it tells the reader that while Gawain can fight one form of seduction, he may not be able to fight another. This is critical because Gawain will have to face this reality about himself.

The next morning finds Gawain preparing himself for the exchange with the Green Knight, for which he does not forget the green sash. He sets out to meet the Green Knight and they encounter each other in the ominous woods. It is with the Green Knight's three strikes that Gawain must face the truth about his actions. Not only is the knight the lord of the castle, but that the entire thing was arranged. The lord, however, isn't angry; he is rather understanding and tells Gawain that he has "great good faith" (287). The lord invites Gawain back to the castle for New Year's celebrating, but he declines and reflects upon his weakness. It is then that the lord reveals who he is, Bertilak, servant of sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who masterminded the whole scheme from the very beginning, to make fools of Arthur and his court.

Gawain travels back toward Camelot feeling very disappointed in himself. He had fallen into a no-win situation because accepting or rejecting the sash would have resulted in an insult to either his host, his honor, or his life. Perhaps for the first time, Gawain faces his own humanity, or mortality. The realization of his humanity instilled fear within him and fear is not a characteristic of a noble knight. In fact, his fear is cowardly and plays right into Morgan's plan.

He is greeted cheerfully when he arrives and he tells the story to Arthur, Guinevere and the others. He feels shame when he recounts the part about the green sash but the others see the sash as a token of honor. He calls his own heart "cowardly and covetous" (287).

Even though Gawain is perceived as a hero, he still feels shame about himself. The entire situation makes him out to be a puppet of sorts and he is troubled from that point on. He remains in a moral crisis, while he is admired by the others. Is this another example of the shallowness of people of Camelot? They never seem to grasp the conflict of deciding which is more important, his knightly virtues or his life. But Gawain is fully aware of the lesson that was to be learned.

Obviously, Gawain is changed. Though he may not have lost any favor from those around him, he did lose respect for himself and his faith. Could the poet have intended for the reader to come to the same conclusion? By showing the reader that the best of men is not perfect, the poet is able to show the balance between morals and selfishness can surely be fractured -- sometimes beyond repair.

Although the poet is successful at illustrating the fallacy within the code of chivalry, Gawain does not end up being a failure. Gawain represents the best human characteristics, whether they are attainable or not. His character was real and transparent, and also made a fool of, which is much like how it happens in the world. Trickery cannot be avoided and sometime decisions are not always choices between a clear right and wrong but rather choices between shades of grey.

It is true that the poem does shine an ironic light on chivalry, however, it does not suggest that Gawain abandon his -- after all, that is the only thing that stops him from sleeping with the lady of the castle. The poem identifies Gawain's true weakness, which is forgetting to remain aware of his mortality. Perhaps he had too much faith in himself and didn't realize the extent to which they could go. Perhaps he was a perfectionist and was bound to encounter a similar situation at some point. Either way, he learned that his humanity will always come between him and his code of conduct.

Gawain, in conclusion, is certainly not the perfect knight he wants to be. However, it can be noted that no one held Gawain to this standard but Gawain. The reader can understand Gawain and the decisions he makes. Although Gawain can see himself only as a failure, the reader sees what he is first, a man who is going to make mistakes. Even though he is mocked, he is certainly the only main character in the poem worthy of any respect. His honesty and goodness set him apart. The reader is able to relate to Gawain on many different levels and this makes for a powerful poem. Gawain changes, but he doesn't change so much that the reader begins to dislike him -- instead, the reader has more respect for him for trying to do the right thing in the worst situation. Despite what happened to him, Gawain is still a noble, honest, and courteous knight.

Works Cited

Abrahms, M.H. ed. Sir Gawain and the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Chivalry in Sir Gawain.  (2002, December 17).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/chivalry-sir-gawain/5089066

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"Chivalry in Sir Gawain."  Essaytown.com.  December 17, 2002.  Accessed July 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/chivalry-sir-gawain/5089066.