Sir Gawain Analysis Essay, Research Paper
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains many themes. Some of these themes are more obvious than others. Love, lust, loyalty, deceit, trust, courage, virtue, and righteousness are most of the themes within the poem. There are some more that are hidden within the concepts of the ideas that the poem presents. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by John Gardner, many different themes are addressed throughout the story. The translation by John Gardner portrays these themes by using specific characters, medieval symbolism, and various settings within the story.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great work of medieval literature. The story is considered to be verse romance. There are not many solid facts on the story. The story was composed in the second half of the fourteenth century. It is likely that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written around 1375. The author of the piece remains unknown, but we do know of the northwestern dialect of Middle English with which he wrote the poem. The unknown author also consciously wrote in an old-fashioned style. The author is usually referred to as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet. Three poems were included with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. “Pearl”, “Patience”, and “Purity” were all with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the same manuscript. This is the reason the author is named as the Pearl poet, in addition to the Gawain poet. All four poems were uniquely named Cotton Nero A.X. This is due to the manuscript’s previous owner, Sir Robert Cotton. Cotton supposedly acquired the manuscript from Yorkshire bibliophile Henry Savile (1568-1617), but its whereabouts before then are unknown (Grolier).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first edited and published in 1839 by Madden, whose entire name in uncertain. He called the untitled poem Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyyt. The poem did not receive much attention at all until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1916, George Lyman Kittredge’s ongoing study of the poem contained extremely valuable research of the sources and analogues of the poem. Many other authors focused on the text, language, and possible authors of the work. In the 1930s and ‘40s there was a rise of mythic criticism of the poem, as many scholars sought to interpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with new knowledge of medieval folklore and mythical traditions. Moreover, it was not until the 1950s that criticism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight became strictly literary. Unfortunately, even then the poem was read incorrectly as a straight-forward and very prototypical medieval romance. Finally, in the 1960s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reached a climax; and it welcomed an extraordinary flow of criticism. Since then, critics have steadily been writing about the poem, maintaining and proving the modern understanding that this intriguing poem is one of the best and most difficult of all medieval works (Galenet).
John Champlin Gardner, Jr. was born in Batavia, New York. He was raised right outside of Batavia in Alexander, New York. He went to school through eleventh grade in Alexander but ended up graduating from Batavia High School in 1951. Gardner earned a Ph.D. at Iowa State University and began his influential teaching career. In addition to teaching, John Gardner wrote many scholarly works. He focused mainly on medieval translations and editions. He wrote a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1965. This well respected translation is considered one of the finest and most accurate among the literary world. John Gardner was extremely talented and continuously wrote works of all different genres. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, criticism, and fiction, including Grendel in 1971. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. Unfortunately in 1982, the great and exciting John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. He lived a thorough and wonderful life, influencing many people throughout it (Grolier).
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author uses many specific characters to imply the several diverse themes. The first character, also the main character, is Sir Gawain. The unknown author proposes many themes through this one character alone. Sir Gawain is introduced as a Knight of the Round Table in King Authur’s court in Camelot during the fifteen day Christmas and New Year’s celebration. Gawain is the definition of a knight. With his every step, he continuously represents the pinnacle of loyalty, honor, integrity, and chivalry. Though these immortal themes are a part of Gawain, he remains a mortal man. Gawain’s character is as good as it can be, considering the circumstances. Sir Gawain is extremely courteous throughout the poem. He has only two flaws for which he should not be looked down upon. He flinches, knowing of the blow he must receive. He also falls into the temptation of saving his own life. He accepts the green sash but lies to Bercilak about it. He fails to give Bercilak the green sash and only gives him innocent kisses. These flaws only show that Gawain is human and therefore makes mistakes. He lets himself down by falling into these mistakes, which goes to show how high his expectations have always been. The theme of Sir Gawain’s character proves to be righteousness. As Gardner said, “…he is the nephew of Authur himself and Mary’s own” (Gardner 163). He is associated with chastity, the sun god, and Christian morals, all of which are themes that intertwine with righteousness. Sir Gawain basically becomes an adult through the course of the story. He is the ideal knight, maybe not flawless, but no where near sinful (Samuels).
In addition to Gawain, Bercilak de Hautdesert, the Green Knight, is introduced during the Christmas celebration in Camelot. From the moment the Green Knight is mentioned, he is portrayed as the enemy of the ‘good’ knights. He offers a proposal that is at first only accepted by King Authur. Suddenly, Gawain jumps into the picture and makes a respectful speech to take the place of Authur in the contest with the Green Knight. The Green Knight lets Gawain take a blow, only agreeing that Gawain take a hit from him one year and one day later. The Green Knight’s character is the perfect mentor. The Green Knight was never the enemy of King Authur or of Gawain. He was only portrayed this way so the themes could be analyzed more correctly and well understood. The Green Knight puts Gawain through a tough test, and near the end says to Gawain, “I’m convinced you’re the finest man that ever walked this earth” (162). He proves that he is Gawain’s friend more than anything else. He pretends to be Bercilak and help Gawain find the Green Knight, who is actually Bercilak. The Green Knight and his beheading, hunting, and temptation tests Gawain’s courage, virtue, and chastity. Bercilak teaches Gawain an important lesson that sticks with him for the remainder of his life (Gibbons 1).
Lady Bercilak plays a mentor for Gawain, also. She is introduced during the complications of the poem. Gawain is extremely attracted to her and finds her very hard to resist. Lady Bercilak is no saint either. She constantly makes moves and hints towards sexual activity with Sir Gawain. For example, she once says, “It’s surely a shameful thing if you’ll lie with a lady like this yet not love her at all” (168). The reader comes to find out that this is all a set up. The Green Knight has been planning these events the entire time. Lady Bercilak is merely a part of this plan, and she may very well be the most important part of his plan. Sir Gawain is supposed to be a flawless knight. He proves that he is not at all flawless when he lies to the Green Knight. Gawain also is more intimate with Lady Bercilak than he shows. Gawain only exchanges a few innocent kisses with the Green Knight knowing there was more. Lady Bercilak becomes a very important character as the story evolves. She obviously represents a certain theme within the story. Lustful greed penetrates Gawain’s shield during the time with Lady Bercilak. His pride reaches far beyond that when he takes her sash only for his own survival reasons. He takes the green sash with the understanding that it represents the relationship he had with Lady Bercilak. She offers it to him, knowing he will only take it with the incentive she adds to it at the end their conversation. She promises him it will protect him from any man, and that no man on earth shall kill him (Gibbons 2).
In addition to specific characters, The Gawain poet also uses medieval symbolism to portray the many diverse themes. The poem begins within a symbol. It opens within the Christmas season, which is inevitably followed by New Year’s. This concept of a year and a day is rhetorical and symbolic throughout the poem. As the Green Knight once says, “…for well you deserve to be readily requited on New Years morn” (162). In fairytales, legends, and mythology this concept tends to represent the same idea. This idea of birth, re-birth, new beginnings, end of one cycle, and the beginning of a new cycle creates the concept of one of the symbols in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Samuels). There is also another symbol in the beginning of the poem. The challenge offered by the Green Knight is symbolic of King Authur’s court being tested. The test symbolizes Authur’s court maturing from an age of early innocence to the reality within experience. Courage, virtue, and chastity of the ideal knight are being challenged by beheading, hunting, and temptation from the Green Knight (Samuels).
Besides the many symbols in the beginning, there are many more that follow the introduction. One is the Virgin Mary. Gawain is completely devoted to her; he is known by the translator, Gardner, as “Mary’s Knight” (Galenet). She represents chastity, honor, and Christian protection. Also in Gawain’s favor, he possesses the pentangle on his shield. This symbol looks like an infinite knot. It represents the five Stations of the Cross, the five wounds of Christ, and the five virtues of a knight. Respectfully, this means virtue, faith, and completeness. Another symbol is the arming of Gawain. He takes this very seriously, and he begins to think of what could happen. He shows his first signs of fear during this scene. Lastly, there is the fierce weather. It becomes very cold on Gawain’s journey to find the Green Knight. Celtic belief suggests that demons, satan, and evil are associated with the cold (Samuels).
Lastly, the color green is possibly the deepest and most meaningful symbol of the entire poem. First of all, there is the Green Knight. Every article of clothing he has is green, which is shown by his words: “For the cloth is as green as my gown” (168). His skin and hair are also colored green. He greatly resembles a fertility god. He also symbolizes hope, which is extremely ironic considering the situation. Next, there is the green chapel. This is actually a gravesite, which is very significant since this is where Gawain has come ostensibly to die. However, in the paralleling chapel at the Castle, he confesses and begs for forgiveness for keeping the girdle. He has done wrong, but it is a small sin. He comes out of the situation unknowingly being successful. He matures and learns from his experience. The color green is finally understood. It represents hope, and that is what Gawain needs (Samuels).
Furthermore, Gardner shows the various themes through the different settings he uses during the poem. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens in King Authur’s court at Camelot. The opening of the poem in Camelot sets the basis for the themes revealed throughout the story. Camelot is a large and very respected kingdom. This shows the significance of the poem before it actually starts. By using such a strong setting in the introduction, The Gawain poet creates the meaningful atmosphere for the entire story. Camelot represents the future capability of the morals the story may teach and of the lessons it may touch upon. Camelot shows the strength of the piece without literally beginning the poem. This setting is not very important considering the time that the story spends there, but its true significance is very meaningful to the story when looked at from a more in depth perception (Galenet).
In addition to King Authur’s court in Camelot, a very important setting is Bercilak’s castle. Sir Gawain stops here while he is on his journey to fulfill his obligation to the Green Knight. The lord of this castle is Bercilak de Hautdesert, the Green Knight. As Gardner translates, “One day he (Gawain) comes upon the most beautiful castle he has ever seen” (166). Gawain does not know this is the Green Knight and proceeds to accept the hospitality from Bercilak. The castle has a much more obvious purpose than Camelot. The castle challenges the virtues of Gawain. His chastity is challenged by temptation, and his loyalty is challenged by deceit. Within the castle, Gawain succeeds with part of the test. However, he deliberately makes one of his mistakes in the castle. He lies about the girdle that was given to him. Not to mention, he takes the girdle in the first place. The castle represents the flaws Gawain makes and the mindset Gawain has created by being the ideal knight (Gardner).
Of course, there is the Green Chapel. This also has a very obvious meaning to the themes of the poem. At the Green Chapel, the poem is at its best. Here Gawain unconsciously says, “May fire and fury befall this fiendish Chapel” (166); this is before he understands the righteous advances he will make because of the Green Chapel. The contemplating, teaching, and learning take place here. Gawain realizes that the Green Knight is Bercilak and therefore understands the requests from Bercilak at the castle. The Green Knight gains more and more respect for Gawain as he analyzes Gawain’s reasons for the mistakes that were made. Gawain grows tremendously during this time. The Green Chapel shows the bright future that Gawain has ahead of him. It also shows the hope for the moment he takes the blow. The Green Knight is also seen differently. He is now seen as a mentor rather than an enemy. The ending can then be seen as completely brilliant, considering the outcome of the inevitable situation (Galenet).
In conclusion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent piece of literature. Today there is still much more the story offers that has yet to be found. The poem remains to be an intricate puzzle that people cannot quite conquer. It is fascinating and intriguing due to the elusive story line it presents. The Gawain poet is considered to be one the finest medieval poets. Richard Hamilton Green sums it up perfectly: “Sir Gawain is the most skillfully made of the English romances, and the most complex in intention, exhibiting a subtlety of presentation and density of implication which we have only begun to appreciate.” In other words, we have only skimmed the thoughtful and meaningful intentions of the Gawain poet. We have only started to appreciate and understand the poem. All in all, there is so much more to find within the piece, more lessons to be learned, and morals to be taught.
Gardner, John. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Elements of Literature. Orlando,
Florida: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997: 161-172.
Gibbons, Frances Vargas. Sir Gawain’s Mentors. London, England: Landmark Press,
1998: articles 1-2.
Samuels, Jonathan. The Gawain Poet: Criticism and Symbolism in SGGK. Ed. Harold
Morgan. New York, New York: Johnston Press, 1987.
“Gardner, John Champlin, Jr.” The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Dallas,
Texas: Grolier Inc. CD-ROM. Disc 1.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Galenet. Gale research 1999