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Discuss the Theme of Perfection in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The unknown Gawain-poet’s famous alliterative romance centres around the festive Christmas games in the Arthurian court. The mysterious figure of the Green Knight challenges the knights of the round table to a Beheading ‘gomen’ or game, a game that the courteous figure of Gawain takes on. Gawain, a figure with a long history in chivalric romance, is considered in the poem to be the paragon of courtliness and a knight who aspires to perfection, symbolized by the pentangle on his shield and armour. The Green Knight’s challenge is, in effect, a test of this aspiration, though disguised through the seemingly innocuous temptation of Gawain by Sir Bertilak’s wife rather than the physical challenge of finding the knight himself.

Although the protagonist and antagonist disagree on how well Gawain achieves his task, at a basic level, the poem explores and tests the idea of perfection embodied in the five chivalric ideals of the pentangle, which Gawain upholds with varying degrees of success. The theme of perfection in the poem is symbolized in the form of the pentangle, a five-pointed star with magical and pagan associations, often believed to give protection against magical spirits and demons, but more commonly in the medieval era with Christianity. It first appears in the poem around the beginning of the second fitt, on the shield of Gawain, gold against the red of the shield.

The poet tells us that “Hit is a syngne that Salomon set sumquyle/ In bytoknyng of trawthe”1 (SGGK line 625/6); the pentangle is therefore associated with the Jewish king who was noted for great wisdom and also the idea of “trawthe.” Truth in the medieval era could have many different implications; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “trawthe” in the fourteenth century, when the poem is believed to have been written, could mean faithfulness, loyalty, honesty or without deceit, one’s pledged word, religious belief, virtue and integrity2. Since the poet, like many medieval authors such as Chaucer, challenged his readers or listeners to work out challenges or puzzles without explicit explanations, it is unclear which aspect of “trawthe” the pentangle symbolises. However, it could potentially symbolise all these interpretations.

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With the symbol on his shield, Gawain stands for “trawthe,” commonly stated in medieval literature as a chivalric virtue to aspire to. Chaucer, for example, describes “trawthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe” through the medium of the Franklin in his Canterbury tale, and it is also found in the figure of the knight in the General Prologue, who is described as loving “chivalrie,/ trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie”3. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, “trawthe” can be subdivided further, as the poet describes by listing Gawain’s individual virtues.

The poet refers to Gawain as “faithful in fyve and sere fyve sythes” (ln 632), meaning that he is virtuous in five ways with each of the five ways containing five separate points; each of the five wits, the five fingers, the five wounds, the five joys and the five ‘social virtues’ is symbolized by one side of the pentangle. The bob and wheel at the end of the stanza emphasize Gawain by using the shorter lines and the alternate rhyme as the “gentylest knight of lote” (ln 639).  This is mentioned more explicitly in the following stanza, with references to the “fyve wyttes,” “fyve fyngres,” “fyve woundes,” “fyve joys” (ln 640, 641, 642, 646) and then finally to the ‘social virtues’ which are expanded on in more detail. The poet describes these virtues as “fraunchyse,” “felawschyp,” “clannes,” “cortaysye” and “pite,” but what is most important about this passage is the geometrical shape of the pentangle, which the poet calls the “endeles knot,” tying all five social virtues together.

They support each other, and yet the idea of the continuous knot also implies that “a failing at one point may bring about a failing at others too because then the knot will no longer be endless”4. Taking this further, should Gawain fail in one virtue and break the pentangle he would fail in his specific kind of “trawthe” and therefore since the Gawain-poet has made “trawthe” a fundamental quality for chivalry, Gawain would cease to be chivalric – a serious failing for one of Camelot’s premier knights. Whilst Gawain’s courage and strength are tested in his search for the Green Knight, having to endure “peryl and Payne and platys full harde” (ln 733), fighting off both “wormes” (ln 720), meaning dragons and the cold winter, his real test resides in the apparent sanctuary of Castle Hautdesert.

It is here that Gawain enters into another festive game, this time with his host Sir Bertilak. The game involves the exchange of whatever the two men achieve during the day, implying that, since Gawain is resting and Bertilak is hunting, this is a harmless and humorous game with the host merely being generous once more. However, Bertilak’s wife, who spends time with Gawain whilst her husband is out hunting, hunts Gawain in turn, as shown by the paralleling between the three hunting scenes and the three-bedroom scenes, with hunting “commonly used in literature as a metaphor for sexual pursuit”5. In the first seduction scene, the lady is playful and teasing and demands Gawain only one kiss, which Gawain duly gives up to his host.

In the second, she appeals to his pride, how his “worde and your worship walks acquire” and also refers to his reputation in the medieval tradition as a courtly yet philandering knight (ln 1521). Yet, he only yields two kisses which he once more relinquishes to his host. Finally, the lady becomes aggressive on the third day, dressing provocatively in a “mery mantyle… that was furred full Fyne” (ln 1736/7), leaving her throat and back bare. The poet makes it clear that Gawain is in “great perile” here (ln 1768) since “Joye warmed his hert” (ln 1762) and that he is in danger of succumbing to her advances. This test of his “clannes,” which can be taken to mean chastity, but also sinlessness and innocence generally since it “glosses honestas, mundicia, puritas, sinceritas”6, is important in relation to Gawain’s moral perfection. As J.A. Burrow points out, “if he goes on refusing the lady’s love, he must offend her (“lodly refuse)… [or] break loyalty to his host”.

Offending the lady would be a violation of “cortysye” but committing adultery would be a violation of “clannes” but also of the unspoken relationship between guest and host in relation to “felawschyp” and also Gawain’s word or quite literally his “trawthe” since he could not exchange such earnings with his host at the end of the day. Gawain chooses to offend the lady, though he does so in a characteristically wordy and disguised manner, refusing to give her a gift and refusing her offers of a “riche rynk of red golde werkes” (ln 1817). The poet’s emphasis on the monetary value of the ring and the quality of the girdle in “grene sylke and with golde shaped” (ln 1832) combined with Gawain’s subsequent refusal of “nauther golde ne garysoun” (ln 1837) implies that Gawain is not tempted by greed or covetousness.

Though he refuses all gifts at first, Gawain is tempted by the supposed magical qualities of the girdle and accepts since “might he haf slypped to be unslayn, the sleght were noble” (ln 1858), and this implies that it is his fear of death rather than his courtesy or desire towards the lady that leads him into sin. It would seem as though Gawain does not view this acceptance or give it to Bertilak as a prize as a sin. He attends confession directly after the final seduction scene and it is claimed that he was so absolved of sin that “domesday schulde haf ben dight on the morn” (ln 1885). Since he makes no reparation of the girdle to Sir Bertilak, he cannot have declared it as a sin at confession, for the priest would surely have ordered the return of the gift had he done so. Gawain also wears a “bleaunt of blwe” (ln 1928) for the final exchange of winnings, blue being “the traditional colour of faithfulness, occurring here and nowhere else in the poem”7, again implying Gawain’s belief in his moral perfection.

Although Gawain does not notice, the Gawain-poet leaves a subtle clue where Gawain’s moral failing lies in mirroring the arming scene from the first fitt. Here, the knight’s armour is as “fresch as upon fyrst” (ln 2019), but the stanza’s emphasis is clearly upon the girdle. The pentangle, Gawain’s symbol of perfection is not mentioned despite being printed on both his shield and armour. It is implied that “in wearing the green girdle over his red surcoat (lines 2035/6), Gawain gives it pride of place over the pentangle (the symbol of his “trawthe”)”8, symbolizing Gawain’s fault-masking or breaking his moral code.

When Gawain’s fault is revealed to him by Bertilak, disguised as the Green Knight, he becomes enraged, accusing himself of “cowarddyse and covetyse” (ln 2374) and being “faawty and falce” (ln 2382), a slightly exaggerated and strange reaction to the praise that Bertilak dealt him. There is a touch of a tantrum in his accusations towards the “wyles of wymmen” (ln 2415), specifically Bertilak’s wife and Morgan le Fey, Gawain conveniently forgetting the role of the Green Knight in his quest. Bertilak merely laughs at this reaction and, by drawing a parallel between the “perle bi the quite pese” and Gawain “bi other gay knyghtes” (ln 2364/5), establishes Gawain as the “fautlest freke that ever on fote yede” (ln 2363). In describing Gawain in this way the poet establishes Gawain as perfect “relatively, in comparison with other men” not “absolutely, like refined gold or a perfect pearl”9, humbling Gawain since no man can claim to be perfect.

Gawain takes this badly, his aspiration to perfection ruined and what he views as his reputation tarnished. There is a touch of pride in his adoption of the girdle as his new symbol “in tokenyng he was tane in tech of a faute” (ln 2487), advertising his fault instead of wearing a hair shirt in penance. However, even this gesture is ruined when he returns to Camelot; the laughter of the court and their adoption of the green girdle as a form of honouring Gawain’s achievement adds comedy to the final stanza when contrasted with Gawain’s morose seriousness. It also reminds Gawain that “he is not alone in his imperfection” which also prevents him from being “outstanding” instead “indistinguishable among them, not the notorious sinner he takes himself to be”10, his pride in his fault as comically broken as his pride in his perfection.

The theme of perfection in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or more specifically how man can never achieve perfection, is represented in the protagonist Gawain who admirably achieves much in his quest to seek the Green Knight but ultimately fails, his fear of death and love for life defeating the idea that a good Christian knight should have no fear of death since he shall go to heaven. His failing in “trawthe” proves that “no-one, not even a knight of Arthur’s court, can justly claim the pentangle as his emblem”11, since the perfection that it stands for can never be achieved by man. The humbling of the proud Gawain who resisted all temptation only to be defeated by an innate fault truly shows the Gawain-poet’s “understanding of man… that gives his poem its power”12.

Bibliography

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.J. Anderson, London: Everyman (2005)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.R.R. Tolkein and E.V. Gordon, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1967)
  • Spearing, A.C, The Gawain Poet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1976)
  • Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, London: Routledge (1966)
  • The Riverside Chaucer Ed. Larry D Benson, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1988)
  • http://dictionary.oed.com/entrance.dtl
  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.J. Anderson, London: Everyman (2005)
  2. http://dictionary.oed.com/entrance.dtl
  3. The Riverside Chaucer Ed. Larry D Benson, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1988) pg 187, 24
  4. Spearing, A.C, The Gawain Poet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1976)
  5. Ibid.
  6. Notes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.R.R. Tolkein and E.V. Gordon, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1967)
  7. Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, London: Routledge (1966)
  8. Notes to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.J. Anderson, London: Everyman (2005)
  9. Burrow, J.A.
  10. Spearing, A.Ck
  11. Burrow, J.A.
  12. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Ed. J.R.R. Tolkein and E.V. Gordon, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1967)

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Discuss the Theme of Perfection in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (2021, Sep 07). Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/discuss-the-theme-of-perfection-in-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/