This is not the only instance where Sir Gawain has been said to place his King’s safety before his own. In ‘the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’, Gawain agreed to marry and ugly old hag to save Arthur’s life saying “Is this alle?/ I shalle wed her and wed her again,/ Thoughe she were a fend,/ Though she were as foulle as Belsabub,/ Her shalle I wed, by the rood,/ Or ells were not I your frende;/ For ye ar my king with hnour/ And have worshipt me in many a stoure” . As in the case of the challenge by the Green Knight, he too, Sir Gawain displays immense selflessness when called to perform his duty as a knight.
Gawain beheads the Green Knight and must hence seek the same fate a year and a day later. When the time comes for him to meet the Green Knight again, Sir Gawain shows no hesitation or fear and says “In destinies sad or merry/ True men can but try” . At this point in the poem, the author mentions that Gawain is given a shield bearing Solomon’s five point star that depicts truth, a symbol that Gawain is worthy of . The star has also been known to depict perfection and the ability to defeat evil . Despite undertaking the journey during the harshest time of winter, Gawain travels on horseback, fully armed and alone. This reveals his preparedness for battle and his dedication towards the fulfillment of the challenge.
When Sir Gawain enters Bercilak de Hautdesert’s castle, he does not reveal his identity as he does not wish to draw attention. However, when his hosts specifically enquire about his identity, the hosts realize that their guest is the famed Sir Gawain. The author shows the degree to which Sir Gawain is honored after his acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge when he narrates “And the men in that household made haste with joy/ To appear in his presence promptly that day/ That of courage ever-constant, and customs pure,/ Is pattern and paragon, and praised without end:/ Of all the knights on earth most honored is he” . It is important to note that these lines emphasize the magnitude of Sir Gawain’s reputation of being a good knight. However, it should also be mentioned here that this reputation has developed only after the episode with the Green Knight became a matter of legend. As discussed earlier, Sir Gawain did not hold any special renown and was not considered one of the prominent Knights of the Round Table before the challenge.
In these tests, Sir Gawain passes some and fails some. The Lady Bercilak not only tries to flirt with him, but plainly offers herself to him when she says “My body is here at hand,/ Your each wish to fulfill;/ Your servant to command/ I am, and shall be still” . Sir Gawain turns down her several advances saying “Lady, by Saint John,/ Lover have I none,/ Nor will have, yet awhile” . This reveals that Sir Gawain is a virtuous man who does not give in to temptation easily, even though he does not know that these tests are vitak in deciding his fate . Considering the fact that he is on a journey to meet his death and has just been through adverse travels, this seems exceptionally virtuous and reveals Gawain’s ability to overcome his manly nature . At the same time, not meaning to offend the lady, Gawain allows a kiss. This shows that Sir Gawain is not only courteous but chivalrous too. However, it can be argued that Sir Gawain may have taken the kiss so that he would have something to gift Lord Bercilak once he returned from his hunt. This would make Sir Gawain appear shrewd, if a little less chivalrous.
These actions on the part of Sir Gawain could make a reader doubt whether he is actually as noble, virtuous and honest as he initially seems to be. Does he selectively allow lapses in his knightly behavior when it is profitable to him? However, it should be noted that Sir Gawain commits these errors a day before he is to meet his supposed death. Although his actions go against the code of knights, it is perfectly human of Sir Gawain to want to protect and save himself. It should not be considered a mark of cowardice. The guide sent by Lord Bercilak to lead him to the Green Chapel tries to tempt him into abandoning the quest and promising to “conceal this day’s deed, nor say to a soul/ That ever you fled for fear from any that I knew” . However, Sir Gawain does not pay heed and continues on his journey to meet the Green Knight. This shows that, although Gawain is afraid of the end he will meet once he reaches the chapel, he is resigned to meet it. He may not be fearless, but he is not a coward either.
At the chapel, once the Green Knight has revealed himself to be Bercilak de Hautdesert and that he knows of the act of dishonesty committed by the good knight, Sir Gawain is filled with shame . However, as Bercilak points out, that his dishonesty was not the result of “cunning or courtship either./ But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame” . Yet, Gawain is profusely ashamed of his weakness and decides to always wear the green belt as a reminder of his act. Even when he returns, he is honest in narrating the events exactly as they happened, showing them the wound on his neck and belt around his waist, saying that they were “for cowardice and coveting” . It is at this point that Sir Gawain truly redeems himself and erases any doubts that may have lingered in the minds of readers about the goodness of his character. Had he committed his erroneous acts out of cunning or shrewdness, he would not have been sincerely regretful and would not have worn the belt as a sign of repentance. He would have tried to save face by lying to the other knights upon his return. However, he remains honest and willing to face the consequences of dishonesty.
Anonymous. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature - Sixth editiion - Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1993. 200-254.
Anonymous. "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell." Sands, Donald B. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1966. 323-347.
Arthur, Ross. Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1987.
Burrow, J. A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green KNight. London: Kegan Paul Ltd, 1965.
Kittredge, George Lymann. A study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Woods, William F. "Nature and the Inner Man in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Chacer Review 36.3 (2002): 209-227.