Sir Gawain and Satire: A story of subtlety

It seems that much of the discourse revolving around Sir Gawain pertains to the moralistic conflict our protagonist faces by the story’s end. Although this conversation is significant in context of our typical understanding of knighthood and the tales preceding Sir Gawain, I think the author potentially produced this document in resistance to the chivalric narrative. In a way, the author takes the advantageous circumstances awarded to the preceding narratives and throw them away, sort of saying “okay, Knights of the Round Table, what now?”

It’s important to understand this form of satire as one which aims not to parody the chivalric value of the knights, but instead aims to test their chivalry when their “gaming” mentality is turned against them. In Sir Gawain’s case, he is completely at the mercy of the Green Knight, who seems to possess abilities which strip Sir Gawain of the types of agency normally afforded to knights in other tales.

The most obvious type of agency taken from Gawain is his ability to control through physical force. Gawain could be the biggest, strongest, fastest knight with the most effective weapons and armor in the game, but it would serve him no purpose against a man who survives decapitation of all injuries, and it does not bode well for him as a character whose archetypal victory should be “slaying” the enemy. We most notably see where this becomes an issue toward the end of the story, where Sir Gawain’s moral dilemma to take the green belt coincides with his dilemma over whether to accept the Green Knight’s evaluation. Moral issues aside, Sir Gawain’s survival comes at his dismay when he realizes the green belt was given as a part of the Green Knight’s grand design. It would have been one thing for Gawain to endure his enemy’s physical strike by his own cleverness, but for the “magic” to come from that very enemy only buttresses the level of control the Green Knight.

Although this sort of “bracketing” of control may not fit our notions of satire, I think there is something to be said of the truths our author reveals through the Green Knight. When Gawain goes back home, his fellow knights cannot help but to celebrate his return within the context of chivalric victory. Because they haven’t been subject to the control Gawain was subject to, Gawain is just left to think, “dude, you guys totally don’t get it.” I’m not sure if you can call that satire, but it’s pretty hilarious in my mind.


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