On the surface, the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears to be a simple tale of a knight who accepts a difficult quest and, fulfilling it, returns to the court at Camelot, victorious. However, upon further exploration of the poem, much about its meaning becomes increasingly ambiguous. For example, the poem’s fourteenth century poet could have had a very different intent concerning ideas of chivalry and temptation than a modern reader may assume after reading the poem. Literary scholars argue over the meaning of Sir Gawain in terms of ideas about chivalry, temptation, the role of women, and the place of Christianity in the poem. What is clear after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the critical views of scholars is that there are multiple possibilities concerning the meaning of the poem in terms of its focus on chivalry and temptation. The biggest differences in scholarly interpretations appear to come between those who believe that Sir Gawain should only be seen in terms of fourteenth century views, while others believe that modern interpretations hold merit.
The poet informs us in the beginning that “of earnest adventure I aim to show;/ that astonishes sight as some men do hold it,/ an outstanding action of Arthur’s wonders” (2:8-10). It is easily imagined that fourteenth century audiences were most likely listeners to the poem in general, rather than readers of it. These words promising a tale of adventure sets the original audience up for the idea that they are about to be entertained by depictions of “wonders;” in other words, a poem of entertainment and perhaps also of miracles and exaggeration which were associated with Arthurian legend and the romantic genre. The poet also writes, “With all that’s well in the world were they together,/ the knights best known under the Christ Himself,” lending the idea that this is a Christian poem (3:14-15). That the Christian aspect of the court is noted by the poet suggests that there may be a moral element to the poem. These lines in stanzas two and three suggest that there is a literal adventure tale to be told as well as a figurative one based on Christian morals.
How a fourteenth century audience would view the poem is one of the most interesting queries. Scholar C. Stephen Finley argues that a fourteenth century audience would not be as anxious for concrete meaning and closure in the poem’s story as a modern audience is (445-46). In other words, Finley believes that the original audience of Sir Gawain would be perfectly comfortable that there are questions unresolved or moral implications left open to interpretation. Scholar Edward Wilson takes a more specific look at the poem in terms of Gawain’s temptations and English law that was current around the time the writing of the poem. In his discussion of The Great Statute of Treasons of 1352, he states that this statue “distinguished high treason as any crime against the king’s person and regality—compassing or plotting his death . . . violating his wife or daughters, etc.” but distinguishes high treason from petty treason (423). Since Sir Gawain was likely written after 1352, Wilson writes that historically, because Lord Bertilak is a lesser liege and not the High King, there is no legitimacy behind the claim that “there are presumptive grounds for a charge of . . . treason against Gawain in the kiss pressed upon him by the lady” (424). In other words, if there is a morality tale included in the poem, the original audience was likely to be familiar with The Great Statute of Treasons and to view Gawain’s temptations by Lady Bertilak not as a temptation into treason, but one of a more personal nature.
Scholar Catherine Batt agrees with other medieval scholars that in order to produce a proper reading of the medieval Sir Gawain text, the mindset of the poet must be understood (937). For example, in the fourteenth century, the pentangle, which features prominently in Sir Gawain, is “a symbol of human (that is, a relative rather than an absolute) perfection” (Batt 937). Interestingly, Batt’s 1993 article, concerning a book written by Gerald Morgan, poses many questions which Morgan himself provides some of the answers to in his 2002 Modern Language Review paper, “Medieval Misogyny and Gawain's Outburst Against Women In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.” What both scholars agree upon from the outset is that interpretations of the poem based on historical factors are superior to those that are subjective and modern.
Some critics have compared Sir Gawain to even earlier texts, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Gawain. Scholar Richard Moll believes that fourteenth century audiences would understand that Gawain was not a simple character, but a multifaceted man. In other literature, Gawain is not the epitome of courtly manners and chivalry, but “something of a hothead” and a military man (Moll 795-96). While other critics have poised Gawain as being the most chivalrous knight of the round table, Moll appears to believe that fourteenth century audiences would be familiar with earlier depictions of Gawain by earlier writers such as Geoffrey that present Gawain as less a man of courteous behavior and more a man of military (794). This multifaceted view appears to present Sir Gawain as a tale of redemption that allows the audience to understand one way in which Gawain earned his redemption and reputation as a knight of ultimate chivalry. Moll’s view correlates with the idea that Sir Gawain is a Christian tale of temptation and redemption and not simply an epic adventure tale.
Scholar Marjory Rigby compares Sir Gawain to The Vulgate Cycle, written circa 1215-1235 (Jones). Rigby’s comparison is an effort to understand the literary influences of the author of Sir Gawain. Rigby believes that conversation between Morgan’s damsel and Lancelot in Lancelot are very similar to the situation occurring between Gawain and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain (258). Within Lancelot and Sir Gawain, as both knights prepare to take on an enemy, their guides offer to swear by Christian saints to keep their secret if they should choose not to engage their dangerous foes (Rigby 259). Specifically, in Sir Gawain, his guide says, “I shall swear by God and all his good saints --/ so help me God and the Holy things, and oaths enough --/ that I shall loyally keep your secret” (85:5-7). Although some of the order of events is different in Lancelot than in Sir Gawain, Rigby believes that the Sir Gawain poet was aware of the event in Lancelot “and selected and rearranged details to suit his own narrative” (259). Rigby attests this to the Sir Gawain poet’s desire to emphasize a knight’s chivalric fear of lacking faith and the importance to a knight of telling the truth (259). This use of this sort of trial and dialogue should not be seen as plagiarism, but as the Sir Gawain poet’s means of abiding to romantic conventions expected by a fourteenth century audience of an Arthurian legend (Rigby 266).
Medieval English literature scholar Manish Sharma disagrees with Rigby and views the introduction of Morgan le Fay as a convenient deus ex machina, a “gratuitous intrusion” into the poem’s text (177). Sharma admits that Sir Gawain does not deviate altogether from romantic convention because he “fulfills audience expectations by decapitating the intruder,” but sees inconsistency in the text because by doing this, Gawain declines to practice good Christian options of mercy in dealing with the Green Knight’s challenge, and Arthur’s court is a Christian court (169). The crux of Sharma’s argument relies on this failure of the Sir Gawain text to truly adhere to Christian morals in which, if Gawain were an ideal Christian knight, he would offer mercy to the Green Knight instead of beheading him. He cites another scholar, David Aers, who comments on Gawain’s failure to consider “the holy way, the crusades on which Lancelot’s own brotherhood die in Malory’s work” (183-184). However, Sharma and Aers’s arguments appear to take a view of chivalric and Christian behavior that is not compatible with the Sir Gawain text or even of history. Although the Crusades were ostensibly attempts to bring the Holy Lands controlled by Muslims to Christian Papal control, “To the highly civilized and peaceful states there, the crusaders were marauders who left behind in their wake little more than bloodshed, turmoil, ashes and a well-earned hatred, an animus subsequently extended to all Europeans” (Damen). The example of Lancelot’s role in the crusades and the holy way of Christian mercy are not best exemplified by comparison to the bloodshed of the crusades or the mercy that Sharma believes Gawain should have been capable of offering. It seems likely that Sharma’s argument is invalid and that the intention of the Sir Gawain poet was more likely to adhere to romantic conventions and the expectations of fourteenth century audiences to ultimately find King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s long-time foe, Morgan le Fay, as the mastermind behind an evil plot to disrupt the peace of Arthur’s chivalric court.
While most critics highlight the importance of keeping fourteenth century views and values in mind when attempting to understand Sir Gawain, Harvard University medieval scholar Derek Pearsall sees merit in two New Critical analyses of the poem. These two approaches include focusing on “the tension between courtly and civilized values . . . and the rude powers of natural impulse” and the subversion of “the genre [of romance] through the disturbance of moral and chivalric assumptions appropriate to romance and the age of chivalry” (Pearsall 249-50). Pearsall makes a distinction between uncertainty and ambiguity; to him, ambiguity is an acceptable duality of choice in interpretation in the poem, whereas uncertainty is a matter of simply having no idea about the poet’s intentions (250). Although Pearsall appears to find Sir Gawain to be a poem of merit, he appears to lean in the direction that Sir Gawain is a poem of uncertain and not ambiguous meaning.
Pearsall may be correct in that a modern audience that attempts to look at Sir Gawain as more than a mere Arthurian adventure tale will be confounded as to its meaning. After all the adventure and temptation that Gawain experiences in the poem, he returns to Arthur’s court having succeeded in his quest. Rather than striding in with pride to brag of his exploits, Gawain is full of humility and shame. “This is the belt of blame I bear at my neck,/ this is the hurt and harm that I have learned/ through the cowardice and covetousness I caught there” he tells Arthur and the court (101:2-4). A modern audience may wonder whether Gawain’s words are what he truly believes of himself, that he is not an honorable knight and deserves no respect from Arthur and the court from his quest, or if these words are simply lip service and part of a modesty expected of any chivalric knight. It could even be construed that both of these options are true. For example, Gawain may truly feel shame at all he has experienced in his quest and as a chivalric knight, must appeal to a higher authority for judgment, in this case King Arthur. Indeed, Arthur and the court do judge Gawain. The poet writes, “The King comforts the knight, and all the court also,/ laughing loudly thereat, and lovingly agreeing,/” they all decide to wear a bright green baldric just like the one Gawain wears that Lady Bertilak gave to him (101: 9-10). The question remains whether the court’s decision to wear a similar baldric to Gawain means that they believe his shame is completely unfounded or that they want Gawain to understand that the temptations and trials he experienced are normal for everyone and therefore he should accept the honor he is due for a successful quest. If the latter is true, the court’s assumption of the green baldric can be interpreted as a decision on their part to show Gawain that the honor he brings in successfully completing his quest belongs not to himself alone, but also to the entire court.
However, many literary scholars emphasize the role of temptation in Sir Gawain, so it appears that a modern interpretation in which the court completely discards Gawain’s trials as trivial invalidates that viewpoint. Although the Green Knight’s appearance in Arthur’s court appears to be the impetus leading Gawain to begin his quest, scholar Paul Battles emphasizes Morgan le Fay’s responsibility for the action of the poem and is the poem’s true antagonist, versus the common idea that the Green Knight is the antagonist (331). Battles believes that modern interpretations of the poem have not paid enough attention to the role of women as being central to its action, largely because translators and editors have chosen to erase or obscure the feminine element in the poem (323). As an example, he discusses a translations in which within the final stanza of the poem, ladis is changed to ledes (Battles 337). The implication of this is that it suggests that only the ledes, or lords, decide to wear the green baldric, therefore negating the role women have at court. Battles believes that “there is a persistent strain in Gawain scholarship that minimizes [Lady Bertilak’s] role in testing the hero” (330). The Kline translation of Sir Gawain, however, includes both “lords and ladies that belonged to the Table,” appearing to support Battles’s idea that women do indeed play an important role in the text, and therefore that temptation is also an important aspect in the poem (101:11).
Scholar Gerald Morgan agrees with Battles that women play a central role in Gawain. To Morgan, the interaction of knights and ladies are an inseparable part of chivalric behavior (266). He explains that “A knight is not a terrorist but a warrior who has been civilized by the life of courts and above all by the company of ladies” (267). Morgan warns against imposing modern ideas about penitence on a fourteenth century poem and the actions of Gawain. It is Gawain’s chivalric values causing his refusal Lady Bertilak’s overt sexual advances, his acceptance of her chaste kiss, and his decision not to say from whom he received a kiss (273, 275). Lady Bertilak’s temptations are important not only because they reveal Gawain’s human struggles with temptation, but also his triumph as a chivalric knight and his successful avoidance of the deceit authored by Morgan le Fay. When Gawain makes his speech in stanza 96 comparing himself to Adam, Samson, and David, Morgan warns against viewing Gawain as simply an “embittered male” and misogynistic (277). Gawain says he will wear Lady Bertilak’s green sash, “remembering/ the fault and frailty of perverse flesh,/ how it tends to entice to the tarnish of sin” (96:46-48). Notably, Gawain does not state anything about the fault and frailty of perverse female flesh, but appears to apply this fault of temptation to succumb to sin to all of humanity.
For readers who assume that Lady Bertilak, Lord Bertilak, and Lord Bertilak’s alter ego the Green Knight can be considered nobility and therefore equals to the chivalric members of Arthur’s court, critic Catherine Batt questions why “the Green Knight, a proven terrorist, should be acceptable as Gawain’s moral judge” (937). When Lord Bertilak says, “I truly think you/ the most faultless man that was ever afoot” and “I hold you absolved of that sin, as pure and as clean,/ as though you were never at fault since first you were born” it appears that he has truly taken it upon himself to be Gawain’s moral judge (95:5-6, 96:4-6). However, considering what Morgan has writes about knights not being terrorists, there should be a distinction between the knights of Arthur’s court and self-styled knights such as the Green Knight. The Green Knight, also known as Lord Bertilak, may offer words of forgiveness, but it is notable that Gawain does not accept them from him because he still returns to Arthur’s court feeling his shame. Because Bertilak is not a true chivalric knight or a higher authority than Gawain, his words mean little to Gawain. Batt is mistaken in believing that the Green Knight is the moral judge of Gawain, because it is not until Gawain reaches Arthur’s court and receives his King’s and higher authority’s opinion on his actions that he finds any relief from the shame of his temptations.
A great deal of critical literature exists concerning the meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the scholarly works included here represent only a cursory sketch of literary interpretation concerning the poem. It is unsurprising that the scholars find much to argue about and little consensus concerning the role of ambiguity, temptation, chivalry, and other important factors relevant to understanding of the poem. A novice reader of the poem is likely to come away with a feeling of satisfaction at Gawain’s successful resolution of his quest. However, it appears that scholars and historians will never come to an agreement about what the details of Sir Gawain mean. For example, the idea of whether any modern interpretation of the poem is appropriate or whether it can only be viewed through the eyes of its fourteenth century writer and audiences seems to be a problem that will never find resolution. Overall, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an enjoyable and entertaining poem in which ambiguity plays a role that has captured audiences and scholarly criticism for centuries, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Batt, Catherine. "'Sir Gawain And The Green Knight' And The Idea Of Righteousness." Modern Language Review 88.4 (1993): 937-938. Print.
Battles, Paul. "Amended Texts, Emended Ladies: Female Agency And The Textual Editing Of "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.." Chaucer Review 44.3 (2010): 323-343. Print.
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Klein, A.S., Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2007. PDF.
Martin, Carl Grey. "The Cipher Of Chivalry: Violence As Courtly Play In The World Of "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.." Chaucer Review 43.3 (2009): 311-329. Print.
Moll, Richard J. "Frustrated Readers And Conventional Decapitation In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight." Modern Language Review 97.4 (2002): 793-802. Print.
Morgan, Gerald. "Medieval Misogyny And Gawain's Outburst Against Women In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight." Modern Language Review 97.2 (2002): 265.
Pearsall, Derek. "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight": An Essay In Enigma." Chaucer Review 46.1/2 (2011): 248-258. Print.
Rigby, Marjory. "'Sir Gawain And The Green Knight' And The Vulgate 'Lancelot'." Modern Language Review 78.2 (1983): 257-266. Print.
Sharma, Manish. "Hiding The Harm: Revisionism And Marvel In "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.." Papers On Language & Literature 44.2 (2008): 168-193. Print.
The New Covenant of the Green Girdle: 4.ii. Hony soyt qui mal pence. University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, n.d. Web. < http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/ras/ gawain/fra4twog.htm>
Wilson E. 'Trawthe' and Treason. The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered: A Thematic Study of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. Modern Language Review [serial on the Internet]. (1983, Apr), [cited March 18, 2013]; 78(2): 423-424. Print.