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The Construction and Complexities of Sir Gawain's Character

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In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Sir Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew and one of Camelot’s most famous knights. However, unlike other characters of medieval literature, Gawain is not ideal and static but human and real. Gawain is the epitome of virtues in fit one and fit two, but in fit three he conceals the green girdle from the host that was given to him by the host’s wife. This shows that Gawain values his own life more than his honesty. Sir Gawain, therefore, was doomed to fail from the beginning, starting out as the ideal knight and character to being tested and trapped in order for him to become real and human. These changes are observed from the challenge and the quest with the Green Knight, the stay at the castle, and the final meeting with the Green Knight.

Sir Gawain is introduced at the very beginning as the nephew of King Arthur sitting next to Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, at a feast. The Green Knight had come in, issuing a Yuletide game to anyone in the court. Anyone who accepted the challenge would be able to use the knight’s axe or any weapon he chose to swing at the knight’s head; however, a similar strike would be given to the striker a year and a day later. At first, nobody accepts this challenge. Eventually, Arthur himself stands up and agrees, but Gawain intervenes and requests that he take the place of Arthur. After completing the challenge, Gawain is left with the task of finding the Green Chapel to complete his quest. Even though Gawain is tricked by the Green Knight, Gawain refuses to back out of their deal. Even if supernatural powers are involved, Gawain is completely loyal to his word. He stands by his commitments even when it means jeopardizing his own life. He starts off his quest with all the knights seeing him off and with the pentangle all over, showing that he is faultless. This soon changes. On his quest to find the Green Chapel, Gawain is faced with many obstacles. “He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves, / Warred with wild men who dwelt among the crags, / Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times, / And ogres that panted after him on the high fells” (Gawain 48), and he must sleep through the winter nights, almost freezing and struggling to survive until Christmas Eve. This is ironic, in that he is straining to survive in order to die later on. He is trapped within his own quest since he cannot defend himself later.

When Gawain finds the castle, he is treated with great respect, like royalty. Everybody knows him and he is given everything he needs. However, this seems to be the turning point of Gawain’s character. He falters a little saying that the Lady, otherwise known as the host’s wife, is more beautiful than Queen Guinevere when earlier it was said that anybody who said that anyone was more beautiful than Guinevere was a liar. Also, during the final three days at the castle, it is noticeable that from the temptation of the Lady, Gawain is compelled to falter. These three days were meant to be full of fun. Whatever the host had hunted and caught would be given to Gawain while whatever Gawain earned at the castle would be given to the host. The first day, when the Lady had entered his room, he pretended to be asleep, essentially lying. However, after talking he receives a kiss and exchanges it for the doe that the host had caught. The second day, Gawain receives two kisses, one at the beginning and one at the end which is traded for a boar. On the third day, Gawain not only receives three kisses, but also receives a green girdle which is said to be magical. When it comes time to exchange gifts, however, he gives the three kisses and says, “Do not chop logic about the exchange…As I have properly paid over the profit I made” (Gawain 93). This reveals to the audience that Sir Gawain is more concerned with his own life than staying true and loyal to the pentangle.

As a result of his sins at the castle, he is given a parallel punishment by the Green Knight. He approaches a mound in the ground with two openings and hears the grinding of an axe. He immediately acknowledges this as the home of the devil. When the Green Knight finally appears, Gawain immediately shifts his hair and bends over, waiting for the blow from the Green Knight’s axe. As the Green Knight goes to strike, Gawain flinches and the Knight stops. He comments on Gawain’s cowardice and tries once more. This time Gawain does not move. The Green Knight stops and congratulates him on his courage. Finally, the Green Knight strikes and cuts Gawain’s neck. Gawain immediately rises up and draws his sword, challenging the Green Knight. However, he is told by the Green Knight to relax. He explains that the first and second strikes parallel the first and second day at the castle. Gawain had done nothing wrong and therefore received no punishment. However, on the third day, he falters and therefore receives the injury to the neck. Now all debts were repaid and the Green Knight told Gawain to keep the girdle as a sign of being successful and being the best person that the Green Knight had ever assessed. Gawain, however, does not keep the girdle as a sign of success, or because of the silk and gold upon it, “But as a sign of [his] sin…Remembering with remorse…The fault and faintheartedness of the perverse flesh, / How it tends to attract tarnishing sin” (Gawain 112). It is a reminder that Gawain is not the ideal character, but a real one.

In this medieval romance, therefore, Gawain is transposed from the ideal medieval knight to a real human being. He goes from being a perfect person to a human with a few imperfections. The author created Gawain to write a didactic story. The author wanted to tell a moral lesson: hony soyt qui mal pence, or shame to him who thinks evil of it. The author did not want people to judge. Sir Gawain should not be seen any differently because of his imperfections. He is the same person as he was before, only with a few more characteristics than before. Everybody has imperfections and everybody is different. A person should not be treated differently because of it just as all the knights wore green sashes in order to become identical to Gawain.

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The Construction and Complexities of Sir Gawain’s Character. (2018, May 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 26, 2021, from
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