Arthurian Knight Legend: Sir Gawain And The Green Knight

Arthurian knight legend, a revised version of my college essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain is a part of the Authurian Legand of British folk lore.

In a time that most consider the dark ages, we see a light that outshines the gloom of the day. That light is the honor of man. One man's honor could decide the fate of a nation. It was his honor that could decide the end of his life. How is this possible? A line from Beowulf may help us to understand.

'[T]hen the watcher sleeps, the soul's guardian; that sleep is too sound, bound in its own cares, and the slayer most near whose bow shoots treacherously. Then is he hit in the heart, beneath his armor, with the bitter arrow - he cannot protect himself - with the crooked dark commands of the accursed spirit."

When a man is secure in himself and in his world, the soul rests in its comfort. The conscience sleeps. While man's conscience sleeps, the human nature, the nature of pride, lust, and greed rises up and strikes at his heart. That man is destroyed by his own spirit, from within the confines of his own soul.

There is an example of how one's mans honor saved his life and the reputation of a kingdom. Sir Gawain was an upright man in all his ways; there was not found a flaw in his heart. He was as "pearls to white peas, more precious and prized." He was held "as a polished pearl, as pure and as bright." So it was thought of him by other men.

Gawain received a test of his honor. In the midst of the New Year's celebration at King Arthur's Camelot, a man of mighty stature comes to challenge the Knights of the Round Table. This mighty man of stature, this Green Knight, comes to prove the honor and reputation of King Arthur's Court. He had heard of their valiant deeds, their truthfulness, and of their masterful swordsmanship. The Green Knight considered their reputation as presumptuous, and he came to pierce their pride.

The challenge that this Green Knight offers is that one be given the occasion to remove his head. If, by chance, the Green Knight lives, he would be given the same occasion to remove the head of the man that accepted the challenge, one year later. The only stipulation is that the knight must find the Green Knight in his territory, thus staying true to his word. Gawain accepts the challenge and they rehearse the terms of the contract.

The Green Knight gives Gawain his ax and prepares to be struck. He removes his helmet to "bare his flesh." Gawain strikes the Green Knight with such force "that the shock of the sharp blow shivered the bones and cut the flesh cleanly and clove it in twain." The head of the Green Knight fell to the floor and rolled by the feet of the Round table Knights. A surprise beyond belief did the Knights receive.

The Man of Green rose to his feet and went to fetch his head. He then mounts on his horse, "his head by the hair in his hand." He lifts his head and "looked with wide eyes and said as much with its mouth as now you may hear." The Knight again tells Gawain the terms of the contract. The Green Knight tells Gawain where he would be found and if he did not come, he would "be counted as a recreant knight." The Green Knight "hurtles out at the hall-door, his head in his hand."

All is well until November when Gawain, true to his word, sets out to find the Green Knight. For two months, facing cold and dangers all around, he travels to the castle of the Green Knight. One week before the imposing date, Gawain discovers a castle in which to spend Christmas. While he is abiding there, the lord of the castle proposes a challenge to Gawain. The challenge is that the lord would go to a hunt and Gawain would receive the rewards and whatever Gawain would attain, the lord would receive.



For three days this game continued. Gawain keeps his word true to the lord. He stands strong against the temptation of the fair lady of the castle. He receives a kiss from her each day and he returns it to the lord of the castle. Yet on the third day of the game, the fair lady temps him again, he withstands the temptation of the woman. He cannot, however, withstand the temptation of the magical scarf that will bring protection to the one wearing it. When the lord of the castle returns from the hunt, Gawain returns to him the three kisses he had received, yet did not mention the scarf.

Now the day of reckoning had arrived. A guide and Gawain leave the castle early New Year's morn. The guide temps him with the notion of retreat, without anyone being the wiser. Again, being a man true to his word, Gawain would not retire from the challenge. Gawain rides toward the Green Chapel, which was not at all what he expected. "Can this be the Chapel Green? Alack!" said the man, "here might the devil himself be seen saying mantins at black midnight!'" As he looks forlorn over the Green Chapel, he hears the din of the grindstone whetting the gisarme for battle. Each whir of the ax against the stone made his heart tremble; yet he was the more resolute.

The decisive moment had indeed arrived. The Green Knight had come from his grindstone to give Gawain his reward. Gawain stands ready to receive the blow. The Green Knight prepares himself in valiant display. He strikes, yet he stops short, so to spare Gawain's life. Gawain had flinched, his courage retreating momentarily. The Green Knight prepares once more. Again the Knight stops short. This infuriated Gawain. He gives the Green Knight one more chance to strike him. This time, the Green Knight cuts Gawain, yet not mortally.

Each blow was for the price of Gawain's honor. The first missed blow was for returning the kiss he had received from the fair lady. The second missed blow was for returning the two kisses of the fair lady on the second day. The third blow that had cut Gawain was for accepting the scarf. The Green Knight had found Gawain's price. He coveted his life.

This game, the challenge, was all a scheme to prove the integrity of Gawain. The Green Knight thought it not a reproach to covet one's life. The Green Knight said, "Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there, but the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, but that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame."

Yet to Sir Gawain, man of valor and honor, this was to him a great shame, a sign of cowardice. "Behold there my falsehood, ill hap betide it! Your cut taught me cowardice, care for my life." He had failed to stay true to his word, to honor the contract, for fear of death. Because of this failure, he vows to wear the scarf as a constant reminder of his weakness.

"When I ride in renown, and remember my shame. The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse,

How its tenderness entices the foul taint sin;

And so when praise and high prowess have pleased my heart, A look at this love-lace will lower my pride."

In speculation, if Gawain had not accepted the scarf, he would not have received the cut. The cut represents a minor flaw that lies within the heart of every man. Every man has a price. Whether it be his life, riches, or fame, every man can be bought if the price is high enough. No man is perfect. Our hearts condemn us all. Even though we may be as Gawain in others' eyes, "as a polished pearl, as pure and as bright," we have been pierced by the sword of our own appetite, from beneath the armor.

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