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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Analysis of Character

Updated on August 3, 2017
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Ali graduated with high honors from Columbia College in 2014 with a BA in English. Her focus has been in literature and literary criticism.

As it seems literature and the leisurely sport of reading have taken a backseat in today’s modern world of entertainment, often times an audience is instead presented with incredible stories, myths and legends in a manner that requires less work. However, one is sorely mislead to believe that the intense feeling of awe he walks out of the movie theatre with or the “based on a true story” television series he sees was the original thing. Time and time again, people are drawn to stories that have an underlying sense of truth, test of human character and morality. Deep down, these are the adventures and quests of which every human desires to be triumphant and the only way he can experience it is vicariously through, most commonly, movies and television. One can fail to remember that some of the original legends and stories originated anonymously hundreds of years ago, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and became distorted and exaggerated as they were told, re-told, made into television miniseries’ and signed on actors such as Sean Connery. The essence of a legend such as Sir Gawain is the quests and tests of character he undergoes that can only be found in literary form. This Hub will explore the significance of these and analyze the reflection they have on modern society.

Author Andrew Bethune states, “The folk motif of the beheading game is used to test a warrior’s honor” (par. 1) and is a primary theme in the poem of Sir Gawain. In summary, the poem of Sir Gawain is about a knight from King Arthur’s court who takes on a supernatural challenger when presented with an opportunity to not only test his chivalric code but also to establish himself in Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain lost the challenge to the supernatural Green Knight and was faced with a choice between maintaining his honor and saving his own life. Sir Gawain chooses to keep his honor and undertakes the journey to find the Green Knight to maintain his end of the challenge. During this time, he is presented with numerous other tests of character at the court of King Bertilak. “Critics have long suggested that Gawain’s initial response to the Beheading Game is both apt and courageous,” (Cornelius par. 8). During the medieval era, a person, especially a knight, had only a code of conduct of which to live by to confirm their true character. Even one’s own life took second place to this chivalric code as Sir Gawain demonstrates when he knowingly forsakes his own to undertake his journey.

The fifth of the five fives followed by this knight

Were beneficence boundless and brotherly love

And pure mind and manners, that none might impeach,

And compassion most precious—these peerless five

Were forged and made fast in him, foremost of men. (651-655)

As one can see from the lines above, the author reveals part of this chivalric code that dominated the decision making process of Sir Gawain and his fellow knights. Although doomed to failure, Sir Gawain adhered strictly to the knightly values ingrained in him until mere human weakness finally overtook them.

“In failure, Gawain finds only imperfection and the stunning recognition that he is only human” (Cornelius par. 3). Modern society continues to remind its inhabitants of just such a thing, whether it is through religious sermons of sinful behavior or big screen flicks when the happy ending never comes. Too often people use the weakness of being human as an excuse for morally wrong behavior, which is a gross distortion of what the Sir Gawain author’s intentions were. In the end of the poem, Sir Gawain accepts his failure and incorrect choices when presented with the true identity of the Green Knight, who explains the purpose of the entire ruse as a test of character which Sir Gawain failed miserably. Maintaining the chivalric code, he owns up to his behavior to redeem himself and acknowledges that he will carry it with him forever. Today’s society cheers on individuals who have these epiphanies but in true 21st century fashion, it reminds them that none of it was real. Great works of literature like Sir Gawain balance out this dismal outlook by serving as a reminder itself that yes, people like that really do exist and adventures like that really can happen. Although lacking an air of supernatural beheadings and intense green, modern society offers its own heroes in the form of servicemen and women who maintain an ethical code, educators who bend every rule and still fail when trying to keep kids on the right path and even politicians that finally own up to their own deceptions for the greater good of the people.

It can be far too difficult to find similarities between the people of the world today and those from 600 years ago. Those that herd sheep are considered third world and loyalties to societal leaders change as quickly as the wind does but the elements that matter, like honor, truth and courage still remain albeit sometimes only seen on the big screen. Tests, and failures, of character linger on and when true remembrances are needed, literature will always be there.

Works Cited

Bethune, Andrew. “Beheading Game.” The Facts On File Companion to British Poetry before 1600 (2008): Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. n. pag. Web. 10 November 2010.

Cornelius, Michael G. “Sir Gawain’s Unfulfilled/Unfulfilling Quest.” The Hero’s Journey. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. n. pag. Web. 10 November 2010.

David, Alfred and James Simpson, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.


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