“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the classic romances from the Middle Ages, detailing the quest of King Arthur’s nephew Gawain after his acceptance of a stranger’s challenge. It is not a straightforward adventure story, however, and the oddity of the details and the ambiguous ending have left open endless avenues for literary critics. Feminist critical approaches are popular, whether viewing women as the controllers of men’s destiny or focusing on Gawain’s misogynistic speech about Lady Bertilak. Others look at the poem for the homosocial relationship between Gawain and Lord Bertilak, or possible colonial interpretations, or the endless possibilities with the symbols (hunting, the green girdle, Gawain’s shield, and so forth.) And of course, it is near impossible to talk about this poem without discussing chivalry or Christianity.
My paper will synthesize those two subjects and discuss the tensions between the Christian religion and King Arthur’s court. Gawain is presented as both a brave knight and a devout Christian, but he ultimately fails his trial. The court’s shallowness contrasts with Gawain’s growth throughout the poem. The court’s expectations for his behavior are not as high as his own are for himself, and this shows the discrepancy between the Christian moral code and that of chivalry. I would like to draw from Richard Newhauser’s and most particularly Phillipa Hardman’s discussion of Christian morality in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Newhauser discusses precisely what sin Gawain committed in accepting the green girdle from Lady Bertilak and its seriousness, to clarify the situation and Gawain’s moral lesson. Hardman’s discussion shows the shallowness of Gawain’s and the court’s Christianity, especially in reference to their superstitious devotions. In my discussion of Arthur’s court, I would like to draw from Wendy Clein’s book, which discusses chivalry in detail. I would particularly like to draw upon a medieval account of a knight’s contradictory obligations and extend that discussion, since it is glossed over in Clein’s work. I might also draw from Victoria Weiss’ essay about medieval chivalry as a pretense.
I would like to use this project to synthesize two large subjects in this field of
study. Both Christianity and chivalry are integral to the work, and I would like to examine
the interplay between the two. Gawain accepts the knight’s challenge at the beginning,
which takes him away from Arthur’s court and allows him to grow as a person, away from
the court’s stifling rituals, which do not allow serious moral reflection (as seen by Arthur’s
insistance on moving past the mysterious knight’s interuption.) While Gawain grows,
Arthur’s court does not and dismisses his lesson about his moral failure as
inconsequential. Through this story, the Pearl Poet shows the court’s shallowness and
chivalry’s failure as a moral code.