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The Theme of Natural Urges in "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight"

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The idea that humans succumb to natural urges is a literary topic that has been written on for hundreds of years. Authors have often pitted human urges against a higher code, like the knightly code from the days of King Arthur. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one such literary work, in which Sir Gawain is pitted against various natural urges on his journey to fulfil a bet with the Green Knight. By alternating the use of imagery in both the civilized court and disordered wilderness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight parallels the human conflict that Gawain faces between the knightly code he is sworn to and the natural urges he feels, such as a survival instinct. This alternating use of imagery is how the moral of the story becomes evidently clear to the audience.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight civilized court imagery and disordered wilderness imagery is used to parallel Gawain’s transition from the pure civilized world of Arthur and the round table to the wild natural world where Gawain is forced to fight for his life and attempt to maintain his knightly virtues. At the very beginning of the poem, the author describes the “Noble knights after day rode in tourneys, jousted gallant and well, then galloped to court, and sang, and danced-“ (40-44). The purpose of this description is to provide a basis for the audience’s understanding of knightly life. From this passage, the audience takes away that knights were noble men who competed for their king and then came back to court to relax while enjoying some song and dance. After this description of knightly activities the poem moves on to mention the appearance of the knights and their court. “Guenevere the gay, seated in their midst: arranged around that priceless table fringed with silk, with silk hung over their heads, and behind them velvet carpets, embroidered rugs, studded with jewels as rich as an emperor’s ransom” (74-79). Again from this, the audience grasps the extent of luxury that the knights live in. It is these images of fine silk and jewelry that suggest the court is a civilized place with only men of high standing within. The courtly imagery in the beginning of the poem provides the audience a base line for comparison for when Gawain ventures out into the wilderness. The images brought about in part one of the poem are generally of high class, nobility, and luxury suggesting to the audience that the world of King Arthur and his Knights is a civilized one.

After the festivities of part one are finished the poem’s imagery takes on a different feeling; one of a cold wilderness and a less structured world. This is first noticed directly after Sir Gawain rides off from King Arthur’s court. “He found himself facing enemies so foul and wild that they forced him to fight for his life. He met so many marvels in those hills it is difficult to tell a tenth of it-dragons attacked him, and sometimes wolves, and satyrs, and forest trolls, running out of rocks, and bulls, and bears, and ivory-tusked boars” (716-722). The poem has transitioned from painting elegant pictures of silk and jewelry to describing the despondent wilderness that Gawain quickly finds him in. The purpose of this contrast is for the audience to realize that Gawain is no longer in the comforts of a civilized world. A few lines after the initial shock of the wilderness, the poem explains “And the fighting was hard, but the foul winter was worse, so cold that rain froze before it could fall to the earth; sleeping in his armor, sleet came close to killing him, lying on open rock where icy rivers charged from mountains and over his head icicles hung, sharp and hard. In danger and hardship Gawain stated alone, riding until Christmas Eve” (726-735). The second passage about the wilderness illuminates the austere conditions that Sir Gawain put his body through. The audience feels that Gawain is venturing outside of his comfort zone resulting from the imagery of the freezing rain, foul winter, and icy rivers that he must overcome. There is a large contrast between the initial images of extravagance and what Gawain has now fallen into, this is meant to have a bigger effect on the play. The use of both civilized and uncivilized imagery in the earlier parts of the poem parallels the conflict that Gawain finds within himself. As seen later in the poem, Gawain must attempt to resist the lady of Sir Bercilak even though she insists that he is only being a gentleman. “Laughing, she teased him with a flurry of words. “Good Morning, lady,” said Gawain gaily, “Whatever you please will please your servant here: I surrender at once, I beg for mercy-the best I can hope for now.”” (1212-1216). It is clear to the audience that the lady is flirting with Gawain. On the other hand, it is also apparent that Gawain is flirting back by making a joke of the situation he is in. This is the first time that we see Gawain give up his knightly code for a natural urge. In this scene Gawain succumbs to the natural urges of attraction, even though nothing physical happened between the pair, it is against Gawain’s code to flirt with a woman of another man.

Later in the poem, Gawain does not give up the belt to Sir Bercilak and once he is called out on it he tells the Green Knight of his failure; “I’ll keep it, gladly, not for its gold, nor its lovely silk, nor its polished stones, not its cost, nor for honor, nor the glorious craft that made it, but to see it, often, as a sign of my sin: if I ride in glory, to remember the weakness and error of this feeble flesh, how easily infected with the filth of sin-” (2430-2436). Here Gawain realizes that he fell to survival instinct, he makes amends with the Green Knight and decides to keep the belt as a reminder of his failure.

The poem of Sir Gawain uses contrasting imagery to parallel an inner conflict that sends a message to audience. Through the use of civilized and disordered imagery, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight parallel the inner conflict of Sir Gawain against the natural urges he encounters and sends the message to the audience suggesting that humans are slaves bound to their natural urges.

Works Cited

  1. Raffel, Burton, and Neil Isaacs D. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 28 Sep 2016. Print.

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The Theme of Natural Urges in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. (2018, April 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from
“The Theme of Natural Urges in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.” GradesFixer, 30 Apr. 2018,
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