Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English chivalric romance, which depicts the adventures of Sir Gawain, a knight of Round Table, who accepts the challenge of the Green Knight. As a bright example of its genre, the poem demonstrates the traits and virtues that an honorable knight should have. In this paper, special attention is given to courtesy and how it is expressed in romance. Sir Gawain uses courtesy as his weapon during all his adventures, which saves his life. He proves that despite his deceitful behavior, courtesy may outweigh minor human sins. Through the characters’ description and the analysis of the poem’s most important scenes and symbols, this paper aims to discuss why courtesy can be a defense against evil.
To better understand the message of the poem, it would be appropriate to describe its key characters. Sir Gawain is presented as an honorable man and the bravest knight of Round Table, whose creed is to serve for the benefit of people. When the Green Knight offers any of the men to strike him with his ax only to take a return blow in a year and a day, Gawain accepts the challenge. Despite the fear for his life, Sir Gawain keeps his promise and demonstrates courage and courtesy in all his actions.
The Green Knight is presented as the evil in this story since he issues such an impious and cruel challenge to the Knights of Round Table. Even the green color of his skin and clothes suggest that he is a supernatural character. Even though his appearance at King Arthur’s court is terrifying, he is later presented as an honorable man who forgives Sir Gawain. Even despite the deceitful behavior of the latter, the Green Knight, who is later revealed to be the lord of the castle Bertliak de Hautdesert, respects him for his creditable bravery and honesty.
Gawain’s courtesy is one of the reasons why he survived in this dangerous adventure. According to Nicholls, “the principle of good manners” and the exchange of winnings are the essential parts of the story (176). The hero’s adherence to the host’s commands is what saves him from death. In lord Bertliak’s castle, Gawain was treated with hospitality, to which he wished to respond. For example, he did not go hunting, because as a conscientious guest, he had to remain loyal and respectful towards the host.
Courtesy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also expressed in how Gawain treats lord Bertliak’s wife and how he solves his moral dilemma. On the one hand, if Gawain fails to overcome temptation, he may become the “prey of the husband” (Stone 120). On the other hand, he has to follow the knight’s code of honor and do whatever the damsel asks. It is possible to notice an analogy between the Green Knight’s truth challenge and the Lady’s love-talk, which are both used to test the knight and distract him from his adventures (Stone 120). However, his courtesy allows him to resist the physical temptation, and he only receives kisses from the Lady. He is loyal to his agreement with lord Bertliak, and even despite the damsel’s attempts to seduce him, remains a gentleman.
Finally, Gawain’s courtesy is also reflected in how he keeps the promise he gave to the Green Knight when the latter appeared at King Arthur’s court. Even though the challenge puts Sir Gawain’s life in danger, he remains faithful to his decision and confronts the Green Knight at the agreed time. On the contrary, the Green Knight is depicted as ignoring the rules of courteous behavior when he interrupts the New Years’ celebration in Camelot (Nicholls 177). At the same time, he appreciates Sir Gawain’s loyalty to the virtues of Round Table. Even though Gawain does not fulfill his promise to Bertilak by leaving the green belt, the latter forgives him for his bravery and courtesy. Therefore, the examples mentioned above prove that courtesy can indeed be a weapon against evil.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in an expressive way with special attention to the signs and symbols. The round table is one of the most significant symbols of this romance, representing the world (Lupack para. 2). Indeed, at this table, knights and from all around the world gathered together.
In addition to this meaning, the round table can also be considered the embodiment of the knighthood and the knights’ code. Every person sitting at the table is supposed to embody all virtues of knighthood: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Another opinion about the meaning of this symbol is that the shape of the table may symbolize the equality of knights. Since the table is made in the form of a circle, knights are in an equal position at the table (Lupack para. 1). Therefore, the symbol of the Round Table is mostly associated with the literal roundness of the world and the overall equality.
Another important symbol in the poem is the truth challenge, where truth is associated with a weapon or protection. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the notion of truth is not only limited to being honest. It implies purity and the ability to follow the principles of honor. When the knight becomes lord Bertliak’s guest, the two agree that they will exchange whatever they gain during the day. On the first two occasions, Gawain kept his promise, and therefore, was not wounded (Arthur 121). However, on the third day, Gawain did not tell lord Bertliak about the green belt given to him by the lady of the manor. Therefore, he is wounded by the third blow, which is presented as a punishment for his deceit. The symbol of the truth challenge demonstrates the importance of keeping promises. The knights’ code of honor requires being loyal to their own word, which is an essential part of courtesy.
In conclusion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best known chivalric romances of Medieval England. The use of symbols demonstrates the expressive language of the poem and the role of details in presenting various concepts, such as equality and honesty. Courtesy is another notion, which is developed in the poem in detail. Sir Gawain’s adventures prove that his courtesy can be a weapon in confronting the enemy. Indeed, treated as a guest in the lord Bertliak’s castle, he remains loyal to the host and the code of chivalry. At the same time, despite the Lady’s attempts to seduce him, Gawain treats her in a polite way according to the principles of knights’ honor. Therefore, even though Sir Gawain fails the truth challenge, the Green Knight expresses his respect for the knight’s loyalty, bravery, and brilliant manners. Gawain’s courtesy results in a positive outcome of the Green Knight’s challenge, which proves that it can indeed be a weapon against evil.
Arthur, Ross Gilbert. Medieval Sign Theory and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ In Parentheses, 2002.
Lupack, Alan. “The Round Table.” University of Rochester. Web.
Nicholls, Jonathan. “The Testing of Courtesy at Camelot and Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes, W.W.Norton, 2010, pp. 173-194.
Stone, Brian. “The Common Enemy of Man.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Brian Stone, 2nd ed., Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 116-128.