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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the epitome of the Romantic genre in the Middle Ages, one that features both chivalry and courtly love and emphasizes that a knight’s most important duty is to serve God. While most chivalric tales focus on the physical strength and the impressive battles fought by fearless knights, this tale focuses on the strength of a knight’s faith. Sir Gawain’s faith is tested by the beautiful Lady Bertilak, who offers him her green girdle. The silk belt is the perfect utility to tie the two elements of chivalry and courtly love together. Throughout the poem, the Pearl poet shifts the nature of the girdle and how it is perceived by Gawain. The girdle seems like an insignificant, inanimate piece of cloth. However, because Gawain invests all of his faith in it, the girdle’s function, value, and overall connotation become progressively more significant.
The presentation of the girdle by Lady Bertilak first tests Gawain’s faith. The Lady first offers Gawain a “rich ring, wrought all of gold…worth a king’s wealth, you may well believe” (ll.1817-20), which makes her second gift – the girdle – seem all the more mundane. When Gawain refuses the gift, the Lady questions his choice: “‘Because it seems in your sight so simple a thing?’” (l.1846). The Lady hints that perhaps Gawain’s senses are not sharp enough to realize the value of such an object, which intrigues Gawain. Still, he argues that “‘Before God, good lady, I forego all gifts’” (l.1822), for earlier in the day he and Lord Bertilak had agreed that anything that either man gains during the course of the day is to be given to the other. Until this point Gawain had held to his personal oath, rejecting both Lady Bertilak’s seduction and her offer of the ring. But once the lady reveals to him the girdle’s powers, he accepts it – and conceals it even though, under terms of the pact with Lord Bertilak, it rightfully belongs to the lord. He gives the lord the three kisses he had received earlier as gifts and then lies to him, saying that “all that I owe here is openly paid” (l.1941). He sins by lying, placing the value of the girdle above his Christian virtues.
The girdle also challenges Gawain’s commitment to serve God by becoming a more powerful symbol of faith than any Christian symbol. The girdle, a simple garment worn by women, ordinarily would have no relevance to a knight. Lady Bertilak explains to Gawain that by carrying this girdle, however, “There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down/ For he could not be killed by any craft on earth” (ll.1852-54). The emphasis on “under heaven” and “on earth” gives the girdle an unearthly, supernatural quality. Whereas earlier in the poem Gawain turns to Christianity for guidance – praying, for example, “that Mary may be his guide” (l.738) – he now holds the girdle to be “a pearl for his plight” (l.1856). His trust in the girdle replaces his trust in God to save him from the Green Knight, transforming the girdle from a simple silk belt to a supernatural protector. This development is most significant because Gawain’s knightly duty is to serve God, but he has now placed his faith in a simple object.
Gawain’s acceptance and faith in the green girdle deeply challenge his reputation of virtuousness. Gawain prominently displayed his pentangle, a religious symbol that represents the five virtues, on his shield “in purest gold” (l.620). He was esteemed to be “faultless in his five senses” and his great fidelity was “fixed upon the five wounds/ That Christ got on the cross” (ll.642-43). The knight also claimed the attributes of being a “most courteous knight” (l.639) and of a “pure mind” (l.653). Giving into Lady Bertilak’s temptation and lying to Lord Bertilak corrupt Gawain’s seemingly perfect chivalry. They show that Gawain is not without fault. First, he is tricked by the girdle’s false promises of the girdle and distracted by its magical powers. Second, he appears greedy and selfish, wanting to possess a valuable object only to save his own life. Third, Gawain is unfaithful to both Lord Bertilak and God, accepting the Lord’s loyalty in their game of exchange but failing to return this loyalty. Finally Gawain lacks the faith to face the Green Knight alone; instead, he puts his faith in an earthly object.
Gawain recognizes his downfall and begins to repent immediately after he conceals it from Lord Bertilak. Straight “to the chapel he goes” (l.1876) after the temptress leaves “to cleanse his soul” (l.1882). He chastises himself: “‘Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low!” (ll.2374-75). By the end of the poem, the experience of the girdle helps Gawain to recognize his faults and leads him to become an even more virtuous knight. He says, “‘I hold you polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright/ As you had lived free of fault since first you were born” (ll.2393-94). Because Gawain fully confesses to the Green Knight, he is completely absolved of his sins.
The sin of the girdle humbles Gawain’s pride as well as King Arthur’s court but ultimately becomes an important reminder of the importance of humility and virtue. The green belt becomes a “badge of false faith” (l.2509) that serves as a constant reminder of the “cowardice and coveting” (l.2508) that Gawain came to find on his plight. Without this experience, Gawain and his court would never have realized their faults in character because their virtues would never have been tested. In the end, the green girdle becomes a symbol of virtuousness worn by the entire court.
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