The Test of Sir Gawain’s Chivalry
by Gayane Piliposyan
One of the main themes of the romantic mystical poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is to show the rise of one of King Arthur’s knights, Sir Gawain, from his status as just one of many noble Knights of the Round Table to that of a legendary figure. The unknown author, who is believed to be the contemporary of Chaucer, skilfully develops this idea by putting Sir Gawain through a series of events and adventures designed to test his courage and devotion to the knightly code of chivalry. During the course of these he demonstrates his loyalty to the King and Queen, and the other chivalric qualities of a knight such as his courage, honesty and courtesy. In circumstances where he experiences strong temptation his human weaknesses are exposed and his behaviour does fall short of the standards demanded by strict adherence to the code of chivalry. However, his failures are fairly minor and only serve to make him appear more of a human character rather than a mystical one.
Sir Gawain is introduced in the poem at the very beginning when the New Year celebrations at Camelot are at their very height. He is the King Arthur’s nephew and “a ful siker knight” (110)† of the Round Table. Nothing seems to be able to disturb the feast which has been going for fifteen days “with alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse, such glaume and gle glorious to here, dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes” (45). Suddenly the Green Knight appears in the celebration hall and issues his strange challenge. Although there are many knights present in the hall, at first nobody dares to accept, causing the Green Knight to mock the Round Table knights questioning their courage: “Where is now your sourquydrye and your conquests, your grydellayk and your greme, and your grete wordes?” (310). Finding the situation intolerable, King Arthur takes the axe “and the halme grypez, and sturnely sturez hit aboute, that stryke wyth hit thoght” (330). These events serve to emphasize the subsequent loyalty and courage of Sir Gawain, who steps forward and takes on the dangerous challenge, realising that he is likely to face to certain death. From this point onwards Sir Gawain’s portrait as a noble knight of the order starts to take shape. He is modest and does not appear to believe highly in himself, saying that he is “..the wakkest and the wyt feblest” (350). This may be an expression of his chivalric courtesy that makes him put himself lower than other knights, though he does also show that he is ambitious and wants to be regarded as a knight in his own right and for his own virtue and not just because of his kinship to Arthur.
From the very beginning of the story we can see his loyalty and chivalric courtesy to his lady the Queen. Good manners are extremely important for him and he demonstrates them on many occasions. For example, before leaving his seat next to Guinevere, he asks Arthur’s permission to rise, saying “Bid me bowe fro this benche, and stonde by yow there, that I wythoute vylanye myght voyde this table, and that my legge lady lyked not ille….” (345).
As the story develops Sir Gawain demonstrates many other acts of chivalry, though the most significant of all is his courage in his determination to find the Green Chapel and fulfil the challenge according his covenant with the Green Knight. Everyone, including Sir Gawain, was well aware that he was likely to face to certain death and “wel much watz the warme water that waltered of yghen, when that semly syre soght fro tho wonez” (685). He rides through the unknown land of North Wales, reaches the wilderness of Wirral and has many hardships and dangerous adventures on the way. “Sumwhyle with wormez he werrez, and with wolves als, sumwhyle with wodows that woned in the knarrez, bothe with bullez and berez, and borez otherquyle, and etaynez that hym anelede of the heghe felle” (720). Had it not been for his courage and trust in God, he would surely not have survived.