*I did not do too well with this – I need to use questions as less of a springboard – have I mentioned how much I dislike being given a question and not being able to make up my own?*
Describe Patterns of Similarity and Difference Which Lead to Thematic Conclusions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Courtly life, as it stands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, represses the existence of instinctive human experience by controlling it through the institution of chivalry, which I will argue is comprised of the ideologies of status through wealth, language, and identity. Chivalry, however, forces knights into situations in which instinctive, animal behaviour such as violence is encouraged, but the corresponding impulses such as fear and the desire to survive are deemed undesirable. Their contradictory natures mean that chivalry and courtesy act like a game, balancing courtly ideals with violent scenarios. However in Sir Gawain, the Green Knight’s games constantly challenge chivalric and courtly values with problematic situations, thus allowing the chivalric ideologies named above to be judged in conjunction with Gawain’s human experiences and feelings. I will therefore analyse the entrances of both knights with a particular focus on wealth and status; the temptations of the Guide and Lady, and Bertilak’s challenge with an emphasis on wealth and language; and the Beheading Games in terms of identity. It will become apparent that each example shows a further weakness in the tradition of chivalry.
I will begin my analysis by examining the entrances of both the Green Knight at Camelot and Sir Gawain at Hautdesert, both of which are ‘games’ because they play at legitimising chivalric violence through courtesy. The Gawain-poet doesn’t have the Green Knight enter and immediately show their weaknesses to them, what he does instead is present the knights with a better, stronger knight, who is as wealthy as the entire court seems to be. He is immediately described as an ‘aghlich mayster’ (136) who is ‘mesure highe’ (137) and ‘so sware and so thicke’ (138). But in addition to his status as a ‘mayster’ he is also deemed ‘the myriest in his muckel’ and so has the looks and bearing of a chivalrous, ideal, landowning knight, not to mention the wealth which is emphasised by his armour. He is only described as green close to the end of his first description as a shocking fact that loses much of its scandalous nature when his wealth is examined straight after. Yet after this revelation that made men ‘wonder’ (146) rather than fear him, we are given the description of his axe which is the real threat to his audience, and it is the first time that wonder is replaced by caution. His axe is ‘hoge and umete,’ (208) ‘spetos’ (209) and of a size that is quite terrifying. This, not his greenness, is what terrifies the court who sit and watch in fear as well as courtesy (246-7). The order of descriptions, with the Green Knight first being described as handsome, then as green, then as wealthy, and finally as a threat with a weapon, shows us that the Gawain-poet has already begun to unravel court-life here. There is the impression that the Green Knight has done little wrong up until now, perhaps he has breached a few rules of courtesy by this point by not dismounting his horse and not waiting to be announced, but he could have been excused had he not been carrying a weapon because he certainly looks the part of a wealthy, landowning nobleman. Therefore the poet draws attention to the fragile, artificial face of the court, which will accept discourtesy and otherness, but not a blatant and sudden expression of violence because it elicits a sudden, instinctive fear in the audience that belies their brave pretences.
We can now examine Sir Gawain’s entrance into Hautdesert with the above as a comparison. According to Nicholls, Gawain ‘journeys not as a knight ascetic, but as one who carries with him the symbols of courtly life in all its richness,’ (Nicholls 112). He, like the Green Knight, is dressed to look like the epitome of wealth, and as Nicholls says, this causes him to be a visual embodiment of Camelot’s wealthy, polite court. He is dressed head to toe in red and gold, in ‘a dublet of a dere tars’ (Gawain 571) and a cape with ‘bryght blaunner’ (573), which all serve to emphasise his status. We know that Gawain’s rank is that of a prince, but like Bertilak, great importance is placed on one being able to see his status and the wealth that comes with it. His status forms a large part of his identity, serving to cement his renown which is the driving force behind his accepting Bertilak’s challenge at Camelot. However, Gawain approaches with no unsheathed weapon and so is seen as more courteous, despite being dressed in armour and ready for battle, which Bertilak noticeably wasn’t. But where they differ most prominently is that Gawain is quickly divested of his war gear and is dressed in ‘ryche robes’ (862) that are courtly, and which further him both physically and symbolically from his violent chivalric duty. Bertilak, however, despite being invited to join the revelry and attend to business afterwards (Gawain 254-5), refuses to be distracted from his intentions. So despite Bertilak being disguised outwardly in green which conceals his human identity, his pretence is comparable to Gawain’s removal of armour which disguises his violent nature as a knight.
The Lady’s Temptation, the Guide’s Temptation and the Exchanging Game are all based on trades which force Gawain to choose between chivalry and his own life. The very act of choosing between the two forces us to consider the ‘value’ of each choice, equating them with wealth. In the Exchange game with Bertilak, it is important to note that the exchange is not based on any monetary wager – if either fails to produce ‘goods’ then it will be their ‘trawthe’ (1108) that suffers, not their wealth. This decision on Bertilak’s part devalues money, placing it below the scale of importance next to hard work and personal effort. It distances both him and Gawain from their ranks of landowner and prince, and equalises them as men who must work for their success.
The Lady’s Temptation works in a different way. Gawain, attempting to be courteous, refuses to give her a token of their time together because he says he has no ‘menskful thinges’ (1809) to give that would be worthy of her. The Lady interprets this as meaning that he doesn’t want anything too costly and so coaxes him into taking the girdle because it is ‘symple’ (1847). Gawain, on the other hand, accepts it because he thinks it may be a ‘juel for the jopardé’ (1856) that he faces and may save his life. The use of ‘juel’ alludes to the value of life in commercial terms. Gawain chooses the girdle over the more monetarily valuable ring, and thus we are invited to accept that wealth is worth less than life itself – despite how strongly a noble knight’s status might depend on it.
There is a similar sentiment echoed by the Guide as he leaves Gawain. He says, ‘For alle the golde upon ground I nolde/ go wyth the,’ (2150) and here the Gawain-poet once again compares wealth and status with the value of life. Money is repeatedly deemed useless if Gawain is dead and so the courtly emphasis on riches and status emphasised by wealth is undermined. The Gawain-Poet, by asserting the inequality of money and life with the Lady and Guide, and removing it entirely from the Exchange Game, takes away a layer of Gawain’s status, allowing a reader to see how he fares without a key stereotype of courtly life.
Language, in these games, also forms an integral part to the Gawain-poet’s exploration of the paradox between chivalry and real life. Firstly we must acknowledge that courtesy limits the language of a knight because it prescribes the boundaries of what he can or cannot say and to whom. Geoffrey de Charny wrote that, ‘while cowards have a great desire to live and a great fear of dying, it is quite the contrary for the men of great worth who do not mind if they live or die,’ (Charny 127). According to Charny, not only is the desire to survive seen as unchivalrous and cowardly, but merely admitting to fear is enough to condemn a knight as unworthy. This stands contrary to Marie Borroff’s belief that the Gawain-poet shows empathy to those who ‘instincively avoid pain and cling to life’ (Borroff 99). We can thus see the disparity between the perfect model of a knight and the Gawain-poet’s belief of the true nature of humans as creatures who desire to live. We see this in action when the Guide asks Gawain if he will flee and the knight responds that he would be a ‘knyght kowarde’ (Gawain 2131) if he ‘for ferde for to fle’ (2130). In doing so, Gawain is forced to verbally choose against his own survival and pick what he believes will be a certain death if he wants to be remembered as one of the ‘men of great worth’ (Charny 127). The desire to survive is integral to human nature, and the strongest link we have to the instinctive nature of an animal, and so it is no wonder that chivalry, which tries so hard to deny the animal nature of violence, condemns a knight’s love of his own life as unworthy.
In regards to Gawain’s courteous conversation with the Lady, Benson writes that the Gawain-poet needed to create a test to ‘distinguish a gentleman from a mere warrior’ (Benson, 42). But I do not believe that Benson’s analysis goes far enough. As I have previously asserted, the purpose of chivalry, and courteousness within that, is to affirm in a knight a higher status of being that doesn’t merely reflect his social standing, but his very difference from any ‘base’ or animalistic impulse, which can therefore legitimise their violence and paint it in the best light. I believe that Felicity Ruddy’s explanation is closer to the mark: ‘Courteous talk provides Gawain … with a means of defining himself as not merely animal, inescapably animal though he also may be’ (Ruddy 152). Here Ruddy explains how courteous language is used as a barrier that separates Gawain the courteous knight from Gawain the human with animal instincts and desires – but I believe that it also defines him as a thinking knight, rather than a feeling human, the latter being seen as weak compared to a knight without fear or desire. There is also a marked contrast between the Lady who constantly refers to courtesy as a way to achieve physical gratification, and Gawain, who in this story uses it to distance himself from desire and the risk of offending his hosts. The Lady, understanding that courtly language is generally engaged in with one of the opposite sex to fulfil a romantic desire, says:
So god as Gawayn gaynly is harden,
And cortaysye is closed so clene in hymselven,
Couth not lyghtly had lenged so long wyth a lady
Bot he had craved a cosse, bi his cortaysye,
Bi sum towch of summe tryfle at sum tales ende. (Gawain 1297-1301)
The Lady’s vocabulary heavily connects language and with physicality here. Gawain does not employ courtesy, he embodies it as it is ‘in hymselven’. She also believes that courtesy will cause him to crave a kiss, a strong impulse that often makes people feel physically compelled to act. Furthermore she associates speech (‘tryfle’) with touch (‘towche’), thus associating verbal communication with physical responses. The Lady therefore highlights the issue with courteous language in the chivalric tradition: for people who are so strongly connected to abstract qualities such as honour and renown, which is manifest in how they physically look and act, it is all but impossible to expect that language will not illicit as strong a physical response when used courteously as when used discourteously. Here then is where we come to the test: in order to succeed in his courteousness and chivalrousness, Gawain’s test is to separate his physical desires, fears, and instincts from his rational thoughts, use of language, and personal and public identity. William Ian Miller writes that people ‘want heroism to involve some amount of self-overcoming’ (Miller, 67), but the ‘self’ in Sir Gawain is the very essence of human nature, it represents instinct and emotion – in short, everything that is deemed unworthy of a gentleman at court, and of a worthy knight.
Lastly, I will examine both parts of the Beheading Game in terms of Gawain and the Green Knight’s identities. David Aers cites a difference between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ sides to Gawain’s identity in the Temptation scenes with the Hostess of Hautdesert (Aers 164-5). He argues that in having the Temptation scene occur indoors, in the privacy of his own room and in secrecy, Gawain is forced into a state of ‘self-division’ (164). The knight’s desires and internal feelings which he could admit in private are now pitted against his heroic reputation which will not allow him to show signs of weakness in public – public here referring not only to the Lady, but to the reading audience who are also subject to ideas of perfect knighthood like those of de Charny’s. Private and public however, can also be expressed as inner and outer, base and normal, animal and human, but in all cases the former will always be repressed by the latter because it is too weak or unworthy, thus the person’s emotional experiences are shunned.
The Green Knight uses this preference of outward identity to his advantage in issuing his challenge. He taunts the knights by calling them ‘berldles chylder’ (Gawain 280) and demands to know if any of them are so ‘bolde in his blod’ (286) as to strike him. Once again we encounter the physical aspect of language, but now being applied to one’s identity. He even goes so far as to ask ‘is this Arthurus hous’ (309), not only denying the bravery and honour of the knights present, but also the man they have sworn their allegiance to and their collective identity as the knights of Camelot. It should be noted that no one responds to this invitation to violence until their renown is challenged, at which point it seems that the beheading of a visitor in court is permissible. Gawain also makes his name known to the Green Knight, but this is more than a simple, informative act. In giving his name Gawain stakes his outward identity on his agreement to face his death in a year’s time, that means that if he fails for any reason his reputation, his chivalric honour, and his social status as a revered knight will fail. But as the one knight who has accepted the challenge, Gawain also acts as Arthur’s representative and the chosen man of the whole court of Camelot. As a direct consequence of this, when he flinches under the axe in the latter episode of the Beheading Game – which is a physical manifestation of an aspect of his internal emotions and hidden human identity – and Bertilak asserts that ‘the better burne me burde be called’ (2279), he is not only saying he is superior to Gawain, but to all of the knights of Camelot. Gawain’s persistence in completing the challenge without showing fear is therefore a wilful decision to place his own life in jeopardy to secure the reputation of his comrades as well as himself.
We can also examine the violence of the Beheading Game itself. Even though Gawain is the one who fully hacks off the Green Knight’s head, we still perceive the Green Knight to be the one who is most threatening. According to Miller, ‘It [violent force] is distinguished from more generalized force because it is always seen as breaking boundaries rather than making them,’ (Miller, 60). The very act of the Green Knight recovering so impassively from being beheaded is a breaking of natural law: he doesn’t simply come back from the dead like a mystical figure, he physically breaks all boundaries of sense by talking whilst his head is separated from his body (Gawain, 420-466). And yet the Green Knight behaves with noticeably more courtesy with his head off than when it as attached. There are no attempts to retaliate, he slanders no one’s name, and he leaves almost immediately – but this is when the Green Knight is seen as most inhumane. Conversely, in the second part of the game, we are told that the Green Knight ‘thagh he homered heterly hurt hym [Gawain] no more’ (2311). The knight rationalises this decision by explaining how he sympathises with Gawain ‘for ye lufed your lyf – the lasse I yow blame,’ (2368). We are shown the mercy of the violent monster, who is more understanding of the human instinct to survive and is clearly intelligent and rational, compared with the high-standing, courteous prince who is renowned, and yet disdains the cowardice implicit in the desire to survive. Ironically it is this intolerance to his own human nature, an intolerance driven by the institution of chivalry, that leads to Gawain’s chivalrous identity being undermined, and Bertilak rising in his renown as a wise teacher of sorts.
In Sir Gawain, rather than remaining a monster, Bertilak becomes the well-rounded knight who understands his own nature and uses it to his advantage. Gawain, on the other hand, still obsessed with perfection, cannot fathom how the double-standard of chivalry will only lead to failure because he cannot sustain such behaviour in private. Thus the Gawain-poet has in several different ways used chivalry’s own fundamental principles to show its own limitations as an ideal model for human beings. By using wealth, language and identity to assert the purpose of chivalry, which is to distance the knight from base human nature, the poet explores the flaw in then forcing knights into violent, animalistic scenarios which stimulate fear of death and the natural desire to survive.