Can anyone remain entirely chivalrous? The medieval institution of knighthood had only one answer for this; to live and die by a code of chivalry that included courage, honour, loyalty and consideration of others was indispensable. The influences of noble love and Christianity expanded the code of chivalry to include complete devotion to the church followed by impeccable etiquette and social talent. Despite its respectable nature, this knightly code of honour, as seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, can be deceitful and may alternately bring many issues. These said issues can evolve from a knight’s sense of pride and feeling of necessary obligation to religious duties and the eternal longing for honour. The authorial knight, Sir Gawain, is the spitting image of the loyal and dutiful knight that was strived for in Medieval times. However, Gawain faces multiple hardships; he struggles to choose between temporary and eternal love. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author uses different characters to assess Gawain’s honour to the chivalrous code he is expected to attain. In doing so, the author illustrates the significance of hardships and their role in fully understanding one’s sense of maturity to embrace inevitable imperfection.
The author uses the actions of King Arthur’s character as a means to contrast the expectations Gawain has for his own standard of chivalry. Although he has a very minor role, King Arthur is crucial in the description of Gawain’s character. In many early medieval romances, Arthur is described as an ideal king who’s court of knights were prototypes of said perfection, free of corruption:
￼But because your name, my lord, is so renowned— Your castle and your court—and your knights known
As the hardiest on horseback, in armour the most Formidable, the fiercest at mêlées and tournament,
The bravest and best in the wide world,
And because they say the bright crown of courtesy
Itself sits here—these things have brought me by. (258-264)
Because of this high reputation Arthur withholds, the green knight is intrigued as to how true this code of chivalry truly is. Being the nephew of Arthur as well as a knight in his court, it is understandable that Gawain feels he must attain this level of perfection. However, it is soon understood that king Arthur may not be as perfect as assumed to be. The author showcases these impurities in part one of the book when Arthur refuses to eat until “someone had told him a strange story or a splendid adventure” (92-93). This action alludes to the immaturity of King Arthur and his petulant mindset. When faced with the challenge from the Green Knight to strike his neck, King Arthur is shocked by this request and reveals a side contrary to his renowned reputation, cowardliness. Arthur remains silent when the Green Knight says his request: “All the pageantry and power of the Round Table made nothing by the words of one man? You’re all white with fear, and not a whack fallen!” (313-315). In revealing this controversial side to King Arthur’s character, the author is proving that imperfections remain inevitable; even the most praised for the code of chivalry have slight moments of fear and childishness.
Lady Bertilak is used by the author to show the hypocrisy behind Gawain’s values and his loyalty to the code of chivalry. Amid Lady Bertilak’s sexual advances, Gawain becomes tempted by the choice between temporary and eternal pleasure. At first, Gawain remains true to his chivalric duty:
￼“Delighted in each other’s bright company, and in the deft dalliance of courtly conversation. No innuendo darkened their delicate speech;” (1011-1013). Behind closed doors, Lady Bertilak begins to entice Gawain to kiss her. She attempts to manipulate Gawain and twist the rules of courtly love, implying that to deny her request would be to disappoint one’s beloved and thus rejecting a rule of the chivalric code. Knowing his chivalric code restricts him from sleeping with a married woman, Gawain realizes this manipulation and takes on the role himself, outsmarting Lady Bertilak. When Gawain uses his knowledge of the true rules of the chivalric code to escape the uncomfortable situation, he manages to maintain his chivalry however, in doing this he becomes the manipulator. This shows that Gawain will remain loyal to the code, even if it means lowering his morals. However, in Lady Bertilak’s final attempt, she manages to trick Gawain into accepting her green girdle and satisfies her goal to force Gawain to fail in following his code of chivalry: “No one will know except themselves, no matter what the price.” (1864-1865). In the end, Gawain could not outsmart Lady Bertilak or manipulate the system of chivalry. The author uses this as a way to illustrate that no one can truly be chivalrous nor outsmart the system of imperfection.
Bertilak Of Hautdesert also found out to be the Green Knight, is used to represent a level of standard of which should be accepted: He is used as a foil character against King Arthur. Rather than the standard of the Arthurian knight, the author reveals there should be a level of leniency when it comes to the code of chivalry and ultimately the moral standard one has for themselves. Bertilak shows an extensive amount of generosity to Gawain while staying in his castle: “Indeed as long as I live, I’ll be the better for it, That Gawain has been my guest at God’s feast.” (1035-1036). Bertilak represents a sense of power, bravery and goodness which is ultimately what the author believes Gawain should aspire to be instead of his uncle. Even though Gawain goes against the code of chivalry by hiding the girdle underneath his armour, the Green Knight chooses to only wound and not kill him. This shows the author believes in forgiveness and that it should be accepted to make mistakes:
“You’re the most faultless warrior who walks on foot! As a pearl is more precious than a snow-pea
So is Gawain, upon my oath, among other knights.
Yet here you lacked a little your loyalty
Was wanting—not out of greed, not out of wantonness,
But because you loved your life—and I blame you much less For that” (2364-2369)
The Green Knight’s initial challenge to Arthur’s court to test the accuracy of his honour alludes to the author’s criticism of the formulaic code of Christian chivalry that Camelot follows. Showing forgiveness of Gawain’s imperfection, the author confirms his belief of forgiveness; perfection is unattainable.
The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays characters to illustrate their belief that it is impossible to escape imperfection. Different characters are used to challenge Gawain’s character and allow him to realize the truth about his chivalric code. Throughout the adversity that Gawain is faced with, he is able to mature and forgive himself for his past mistakes. The challenges he fails allows him to realize the unattainability of his past expectations. What used to be fear and self-doubt is now forgiveness and strength.