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As is the case with almost every example of romantic epics, and certainly every story concerning King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the characters carefully observe a strict code of ethics, or chivalry. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain and his peers hold values such as courtesy, loyalty, and honor in high esteem. This respect for the chivalric code is apparent in many instances throughout the poem, such as when King Arthur accepts the dangerous challenge from the Green Knight to save face in front of his knights and the strangers, as well as to live up to his name as a brave man. It is even more obvious in Sir Gawain’s wish to take his king’s place in the Christmas game that the knight has great veneration for honor and loyalty. Sir Gawain attempts to live his life morally, humbly, and in accordance with Christian teachings. Such reverence for civilization and society’s order falls apart in the second half of the story when Sir Gawain visits the castle of Lord Bercilak.
Although Sir Gawain attempts to adhere to society’s standards, the atmosphere of the castle causes the basic needs for food, sex, and a will to live to overcome the desire for structure and civility. The castle of Lord Bercilak is the appropriate setting for this struggle and slackening of chivalric code since it serves two main purposes: one good and one evil. On the positive side, the castle and Lord Bercilak’s court are the answer to Gawain’s prayer as they appear to him in the middle of the wilderness and provide for him a haven to rest before his battle. In reality, however, the castle is a fabrication of Morgan le Faye, and exists only to deceive Gawain and cause him to stray from his noble ambitions to live up to his word and meet the Green Knight.
The events of the three days before Sir Gawain travels to the Green Chapel illustrate the struggle between a want for a strict code of ethics and instinctual urges. Each day the lord of the castle sets out to hunt and Sir Gawain rests and attends Mass in preparation for his upcoming battle. The agreement that the two men make to share their winnings at the end of each day gives readers the sense of rules and civility, yet what goes on during the hunt, or hunts, is reduced to basic human urges. This hunt is presumably out of entertainment and politeness to his guest, but essentially, the act of hunting is very barbaric in nature. It involves one animal killing another for food (and clothing in the case of humans) and is a task necessary to survival. The hunting party engages in fierce chases and battles to kill the prey, emphasizing their brute manliness. Despite the uncivilized aspects of the hunt, much show and pageantry surrounds the daily hunting, especially when the lord is preparing to leave and upon the party’s return. This wildness acts as a setup for the action to follow and could also be foreshadowing the fall from chivalry and order that Gawain later experiences.
One might expect such primal adventures to take place in the wilderness of the surrounding forest, yet inside the castle another hunt is taking place. When the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Sir Gawain every morning, she initiates a second battle between chivalry and basic instincts, namely the knight’s morality and the basic urge for sex or procreation. Sir Gawain begins the first of these daily encounters by suggesting that he dress himself and get out of bed, saying, “I should quit this couch and accouter me better, And be clad in more comfort for converse here”? (1220-1). This modesty shows that Gawain is concerned with behaving morally and in the proper fashion as it would not be suitable for a noble lady to converse with a man in his pajamas sitting in a bed. He tries to obey this social norm, but the lady of the house convinces him to stay in this most improper position. This is most likely because it is a more intimate situation and would allow the knight to obey her request for sex, telling him that “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill” (1236-7). He talks his way out of having sex with Lady Bercilak, but in the end must give her one kiss. This concession shows that Gawain’s noble will to always do the right thing is imperfect. The next morning, when she enters his bedchamber again, Lady Bercilak plays on the knight’s wish to be polite and chivalrous to get him to have sex with her again. She uses the very virtue that should be a deterrent to promiscuity to attempt to convince him to be immoral. The lady tries to persuade him by saying that “A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed” should feel it his duty to be polite and do what she asks of him (1483). At this, Gawain allows her to kiss him again, and once more before she parts Ã¢Â?” one more step away from upright chivalry and one step closer to giving in to desire.
On the third morning, the battle between the lady and Sir Gawain takes on a different air when she offers him the green girdle. Before, it was a struggle between chivalry and desire, but with the introduction of the girdle, the element of survival comes into play and makes it even harder for Gawain to resist his urges to accept the lady’s offers. While Gawain was able to fend off sexual advances and only broke down slightly to accept the lady’s kisses, when he accepts the invincible girdle, the knight’s fear of death proves to be more powerful than his wish to be honorable towards his host. He tries to deny the gift, but once the lady tells him that it is a magic, invincible girdle, it does not take long for Gawain to give in after he “began to muse , and mainly he thought/ It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come/ When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:/Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!” (1855-8). All it takes is for the lady to ask him one more time and Sir Gawain readily accepts the garment and promises to keep it a secret from everyone, especially the lord of the house. Even though he knows that he should give it over to Lord Bercilak at the end of the day, his will to survive in battle against the Green Knight makes Gawain keep the garment secret. Later, he regrets giving in to his instincts rather than following his conscience when he realizes that it was a test of his loyalty, one of the most important aspects of chivalry. The Green Knight, Lord Bercilak in disguise, forgives this breach of promise and loyalty when Gawain meets him to fulfill the rest of the contest by saying, “But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame” (2369). Gawain, however, still feels horrible about betraying his word to the lord of the castle. He calls his desire to live cowardice and hands the girdle back to the Green Knight while Gawain continues to berate himself for his misdeed. That the Green Knight forgives Gawain, but Gawain cannot forgive himself, illustrates the difference between the two men as noble knights. The Green Knight, who is in the service of the evil Morgan le Faye, believes that it was permissible for Sir Gawain to betray his morals to save his own life, yet the righteous knight of King Arthur’s court does not accept this as an excuse. True chivalrous knights were not supposed to fear death, but to live and battle bravely and in accordance with court and Christian morals, no matter what the consequences.
Sir Gawain’s struggle between chivalry and instincts is in some ways as basic as the struggle between right and wrong, yet more intricate in others. The relationship between good and evil deeds gradually becomes more complex as Gawain’s visit at the castle wears on. Obviously, when the lady of the castle tempts him with the desire to have sex with a beautiful woman (and another man’s wife), the correct, moral choice is clear” that the knight should stand by his ethics and the chivalric code and not give in to his lustful thoughts. When she tempts him with the girdle, however, more is at stake than pleasure and wish-fulfillment. When Gawain sees a way to spare his life in the upcoming battle between him and the Green Knight, he hardly puts up a resistance and abandons his morals and loyalty to Lord Bercilak. Gawain is supposedly the most virtuous and chivalrous knight in all of Arthur’s court and, therefore, all of Britain, so readers should take his judgment of his morality more seriously than the opinions of other characters. While most common people would find no harm in this act, once Gawain realizes what he has done, he is ashamed of himself, no matter what the Green Knight or Arthur’s own court thinks about the act. Ultimately, most of society, even in medieval time, would expect someone to do whatever he or she could to save their lives, and not have any qualms about justifying it as a necessary act of self-defense. The noble Sir Gawain, however, cannot accept this excuse since he has a higher order of ethics to uphold as a knight of the Round Table. This difference between societal norms and chivalric code is an important distinction since the original purpose of the poem was most likely to entertain nobles at court, and the poet would want to flatter his employer and his virtues as much as possible.
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