An unknown author in the 14th-century wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. “Arthurian” stories. It takes place during the Christmas holiday that King Arthur and his subjects are celebrating. It’s a celebrating that is taking place in the prime of their life, “the happiest under heaven.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) This mood is interrupted when a strange visitor, The Green Knight Arrives riding a green horse. The purpose of this essay is to establish is the Greene Knight is an evil character, or villain as will be the term used throughout this analysis.
We will try to understand now the Knight’s character based on what evidence can be attained from the primary source. Questions of meaning come before questions of understanding. Before looking at instances of The Green Knights behavior, it is important to establish a measure by which to judge someone a villain or not. Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as having the following characteristicsd: A villain is cruel, malicious, involved or devoted to wickedness and uses others as a means to benefit himself (Random House, 2007). "
Also important is the intention of the author in the story. There is a governed code of behavior that those in the story must adhere to. These stem from the ideals of Christianity, where there are clearly defined lines of good and evil (Morgan, 770).
We should look then at the context of the place when judging good and evil. I.e., what constituted good and evil for people living at the time. In that period, there were seven deadly sins one could be capable that would were of the highest evils. The question this essay strives to answer then is whether or not the green not was guilty of any of them. The Seven Deadly Sinces were Gluttony, fornication, avaraice, hubris, sorrow, wrath, vainglory and sloth. (Pontico).
The Green Knight is introduced to the reader during a dramatic entrance at King Arthur and his knights and subject’s Christmas feast. The knight by his appearances, physical prowess and green horse is a daunting character. “There was a looking at length the man to behold” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
Physical stature does not entail villainess, but it is clear that The Green Night is a powerful man, at least in physical strength. He is larger than life. Going off the axiom that with great power comes both the ability to render large degrees of good or evil, it can be said that the Green Night is either of great good or great evil, since his personage is far from neutral.
The first person to mention a fight is the king Arthur, who says, Hhere fails you not the fight” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 12). But this was in response to an enigmatic thing said by the Green Knight. That he wishes “no war” and wears the “softer” ” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 12).
This Green Knight speaks tauntingly to the knights, saying he doesn’t seek a fight. He says, “Nay, follow I no fight, in faith I thee tell. /About on these benches are but beardless. . . From thee I crave in this court a Christmas gift, for it is Yule and New Year, and here many young men.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 13). This gives the Green night what while maybe not a villainous characteristic, shares in a trait often employed by villains, or antagonists, a sharp wit that could be used to set a trap. Is this, however, a trap?
The game the Knight wishes to play, from a modern reading seems strange, but given the context of the story, one can assume that there are hidden meanings behind the literal happenings in the story. The “Christmas game” that the knight devises is for someone to strike him once with his axe. He attaches a condition to the game. In a year and a days time he will reciprocate.
The Knight entices Arthur and his knights with his axe as prize for whoever plays the game. The ax is described as splendid. At first it seems that none of the knights will participate, and King Arthur is on the verge of accepting the challenge to the game himself. But then Sir Gawain, who we should consider the protagonist in the story, begs for the honor of playing the Green Knight’s Christmas game. “I beseech in plain speech / that this mêlée be mine,” he tells the king. This draws the attention of the whole court, “Nobles whispered around and give Gawain the game” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 15).
The Green Knight then kneels and allows Sir Gawain to strike. “flesh he uncovers; his long lovely locks he laid over his crown.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 19).
The poem makes a departure from real to surreal when the Giant, despite having been struck by Sir Gawain with his own acts, does not fall. “Yet nevertheless neither falters nor falls the fellow, /but stoutly” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ,19)
In normal circumstances, a man would not be able to be beheaded and still remain alive. This adds an element of magic that is at work within the story. Though a rigorous look at the context is beyond the scope of this essay it is important to note that magic in the time and place the story was first written, by an unknown author, that the religion of the time, 14th Century Catholicism, forbid the use of magic and categorically opposed it as evil. This is not enough to conclude that the Green Night is evil, but it certainly lends itself to that interpretation.
After he leaves King Arthur’s court, the Green Night drops out of the story and the focus becomes on Sir Gawain in the events leading up to his return to the green chapel where his honor compels him to make good on the promise that if he were allowed to render a blow upon the Green Knight, then a year and a day from then the Green Night will be able to reciprocate it. The assumption here is that the Green Knight should have been killed, nullifying the agreement between them, but to the shock of Gawain, Arthur and the other knights, he has not been killed. Establishing Gawain’s role as protagonist, on the road to The Green Chapel a number of adventures and battles are mentioned in which Gawain had participated. He travels until he runs out of food and nearly starves to death and then arrives at a castle called Bertilak. After the events that occur in the castle pass, Gawain learns that the Green Knight reveals himself as the lord of this castle.
Everything that happens to Gawain there, including the temptation of Gawain by the Green Knight’s wife, could be viewed as part of the elaborate game begun a year ago when The Green Night came to Arthur’s castle.
Gawain is essentially going to meet his own demise. But still he “made no delay” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 29). Herarrives after much struggle at Bertilak, which is the castle where the Green Knight is actually a lord. He says, “You are welcome to dwell as you like. What is here, is all your own, to have at your will .” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , 29)The Greene Knight is displaying deception by this. Most would agree that deception is in its harshest interpretation, evil, and at best it is an undesirable quality. So the real question to ask, as this essay endeavors to answer, is whether or not the ends justify the means in the Green Knights employing deception.
The Green Knight’s welcoming of Gawain is friendly. He treats him as one would family. They “sparred and parried in precious style” (t38). There is some description of the Lady of the house’s attempts at tempting The Green Knight, but he succeeds in resisting. “Her body was short and thick, her buttocks big and broad.” He has entered into another game with the Lord of the House (The Green Night) in which he goes hunting and gives to Gawain all that he gains on the hunt so long as Gawain gives him what he profits off the day. The first day it is a kiss from the Lady, but Gawain does not divulge the source. The second day it is two kisses. The third day she gives him three kisses and a green girdle. The knight gives the three kisses to the Lord, but does not mention the girdle.
The next day Gawain goes to fulfill his promise and sets out to The Green Chapel to find the Green Night. Gawain is not thrilled about meeting the Green Knight. Though it is of his own free will, seemingly, the covenant he has made is treated with sacredness.
He does not feel sorry for himself, and it could be said that he faces his fate bravely, “‘By God’s self,’ quoth Gawain, / ‘I will neither weep nor groan; / to God’s will I bend again / and I am sworn as His own.’ (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)
He meets the Green Knight who is engaged in sharpening his axe. He bows to received his blow, and flinches as the ax draws near, ‘his shoulders shrank a little from the sharp edge.” The Green Knight criticizes him for this weakness He goes so far as to call him a coward, “‘You are not Gawain,” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 91).
Threat of death can be considered a form of psychological torture, torture certainly being considered in and of itself as an object evil. Gawain asks “‘Be brisk, man, by your faith, and bring me to the point. / Deal me my destiny and do it out of hand,” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 91).
But a second time the Green Knight only pretends to be about to kill Sir Gawain. Again, he does not at which point Gawain entreaties him to be quick in his work.
The third blow he does deliver, injures Gawain, but does not to kill him. “The Knight saw his blood blotting the snow . . . his shoulders his fine shield under.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
The Green Knight defends himself against any form of treason in his actions and appeals to the code that governs Gawain to demonstrate his correctness. “No man here has mistreated you, been unmannerly, nor behaved but by covenant at King’s court made. I hit you with a stroke and you have it, and are well paid.” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 91)
With this The Green Knight absolves Gawain of any requirement or duty from that point on. He is a free man who owes him nothing.
Then the night claims the whole trial, spanning back to the last Christmas celebration was for the appraisal of the honor of Author’s Knights, “As it is green as my gown, Sir Gawain, you may /think upon this same trial when you throng forth /among princes of price, and this the pure token/ of the test at the Green Chapel to chivalrous knights.
Certainly, the Green Knight is an enigmatic character. He appeared at the time when the king was requesting that tales be told and in the process a new tail was created. Arthur seems to certainly not think it a situation to be ashamed of, as he has Gawain where the Green Sash as a reminder.
Revisiting the definition of a villain, it is necessary to dicern the Green Knights intention and whether he caused any lasting harm to anyone. In the end Gawain specifically and Arthur’s Knights be extension, have only gained from their interaction with the Green Knight. They now have one more story to tell that demonstrates their valor and honor.
The Green Knight Certainly had opportunities to be cruel. He had Gawain in his castle and could have done what he wanted with him. Sir Gawain is better off for having come. The Green Knight could have taken Sir Gawain’s life but chose instead to spare him. Given this, and weighing this against the definition of a villain, the Greene Night does not appear to be a malevolent character.
In terms of the seven deadly sins, he does not seem guilty of any. He could even be considered a virtuous character that actively wants to improve the lot of the Knights of Arthur in order to test their honor and valor, something highly prized within the story.
Catchism of the Catholic Church.1856. See also nn.1854–1864.
Kline, A. S. Translator. (2007). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Morgan, G. (1979). The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". The Modern Language Review, 74(4), 769-790.
Random House Webster's college dictionary (2nd ed.). (1997). New York: Random House.
Sherborne, J., & Tuck, A. (1994). War, politics and culture in fourteenth century England. London
portal, z. E. (n.d.). Christianity in the 14th century - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 30, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in
[u.a.: Hambledon Press.
Evagrio Pontico,Gli Otto Spiriti Malvagi, trans., Felice Comello, Pratiche Editrice, Parma, 1990, p.11-12.