Barbara Tuchman a historian and author, once said, “More than a code of manners in war and love, Chivalry was a moral system, governing the whole of noble life” (Tuchman 62). Tuchman was talking about how chivalry to a person was more than just the passion of love and war, but also the morality of being true to your word, yourself and your way of life. Chivalry is a large theme in the epic poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight; the poem’s author is still unknown, but is dubbed as the “Gawain Poet”.
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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , and according to Bartleby “Sir Gawain continuously proves his knightly virtues and code of honor. Chivalry includes bravery, honor, and courtesy. He proves that he is, in fact, a “real” knight. He shows his bravery by going to the Green Knight and keeping his promise to him. He proves his honor and courtesy to everyone, he meets by showing respect to all whether he receives it back or not” (“The Code” 1). The poet allows the unfolding of the story to lead us to look beneath even the surface of chivalry. Although in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight The Green Knight is a symbol of Paganism, he has the same sought for the same qualities as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table have, so The Green Knight is also considered a Christian hero.
Sir Gawain is not the only one that proves his chivalry in this epic poem, the Green knight also shows that even though he might be considered the villain or the main obstacle for Sir Gawain, he has honor. When the green Knight arrives ad King Arthur’s court he was seen as a “fae” creature because everything around him, himself included, was green, even his horse. He had the essence of a warrior but also the nature of the new earth, spring. The Green Knight is seen as a pagan symbol because of otherworldly aura and physique. And to Christian belief, those that are not of their order must not be capable of morality.
“…thy castle and courtiers are accounted the best, the stoutest in steel-gear that on steeds may ride, most eager and honorable of the earth’s people, valiant to vie within other virtuous sports, and here is knighthood renowned, as is noised in my ears: ’tis that has fetched me hither, by my faith, at this time” (Gawain Poet Line 260-264). The Green Knight was drawn to King Arthur’s court because of the tales he heard of the common chivalry and honor of the people within his court. The Green Knight can acknowledge the great sense of honor within King Arthur’s court because he can recognize that honor within himself. Another reason the Green Knight came to the King’s court was to challenge the honor of one of the knights within the court, he heard about the greatness of the Knights of the Round Table, but he wanted evidence of that for himself.
In history, other cultures and religions are seen as unholy, sinful, or barbaric, by the Christians. And because the Green Knight is seen as a pagan symbol for nature and magic, he is automatically seen as the villain and evil but the Green Knight is also a knight in his own way. “…you have traveled and toiled from afar, and then I’ve kept you awake: you’re not well yet, not cured; both sustenance and sleep ’tis certain you need. Upstairs you shall stay, sir, and stop there in comfort tomorrow till Mass-time” (Gawain Poet Lines 1093-1097). This shows that the Green Knight has the qualities of a Christian hero. Christian heroes usually have the characteristics of knights. Sir Gawain has a symbol on his shield, which is a five-pointed red star or a pentacle. “Religiously, the pentacle’s five points have been known to represent the five wounds of Christ, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, the five virtues of knighthood: “generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety” (Gawain Poet Line 663). It was unknown to Sir Gawain at the time, but the one hosting him, Bertilak Of Hautdesert, was actually the Green Knight. It is a part of being a knight to be able to provide other people with everything he can offer. Even though the Green Knight is parading as someone else he still shows generosity to others. Christians believe generosity is a key way to live because one must be kind to all, and the Green Knight shows that he is capable of being kind to others.
Another quality of a knight is to show mercy and the Green Knight shows his ability of mercy when Sir Gawain meets the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.
“Thou hast confessed thee so clean and acknowledged thine errors, and hast the penance plain to see from the point of my blade, that I hold thee purged of that debt, made as pure and as clean as hadst thou done no ill deed since the day thou wert born ” (Gawain Poet Lines 2391-2394).
The Green Knight showed his ability in giving mercy by only nicking Sir Gawain’s neck, instead of going completely through with his swing. The Green Knight held his word by letting Sir Gawain take a swing at his neck and him taking one at Sir Gawain. Unlike Sir Gawain, the Green Knight did not decapitate him; he gave Sir Gawain a chance to confess. And after the Green Knight scolds Gawain for keeping the protective girdle, a gift from Lady Bertilak, which was a secret, Gawain admits his sin, expressing shame and remorse. However, the Green Knight understands that he took the girdle to protect his life, not as a love-token (“Sir Gawain” 1). So Sir Gawain did not go against one of the virtues, chastity. He explains that he views the deception as understandable and because he confessed that means it is also forgivable. In the end, the Green Knight forgives Gawain more easily than Gawain forgives himself (“Sir Gawain” 1). The Green Knight understands the need in confessing in order to cleanse the soul of sins and bad deeds, which is common practice within the Christian church. The Green Knight is showing piety, which is one of the five virtues of the knights. Throughout the epic poem, the Green Knight has shown multiple characteristics of a Christian hero.
It is said that Sir Gawain proved that he is an amazing Knight of the Round Table because he kept his word to the Green Knight and held onto the virtues of the knights, But the same can be said for the Green Knight too. Although the Green Knight is a symbol of paganism and is thought of as enemies to the Christians at this time, he has the same sought for the same qualities as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table have, so the Green Knight is also considered a Christian hero. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both follow the “five virtues of knights; friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety” (Bcbringardner 1). The Green Knight recognizes the need for confession in order to cleanse one’s soul, which is a Christian concept. As Tuchman said about chivalry, “governing the whole of noble life” and how it is a part of one’s lifestyle and heart. The Green Knight might be seen as the villain of this epic poem, but he has similar characteristics as the hero of the story, and those common characteristics are what define a knight.
“Gawain Poet”. “Sir Gawain And The Green Knight Translated By JRR Tolkien.” JRR TOLKIEN ONLINE, 4 Oct. 2018, tolkien-online.com/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/.
Tuchman, Barbara W. (2011) . “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century”, p.62, Random House
Bcbringardner. “The Nature of Chivalry in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'” Early English Literature, 29 Jan. 2014, chaucernow.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/the-nature-of-chivalry-in-sir-gawain-and-the-gre en-knight/.
“The Code Of Chivalry By Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.” Bartleby , 18 June 2017, www.bartleby.com/essay/The-Code-Of-Chivalry-By-Sir-Gawain-PKUZW9TYAEPF.
“‘Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.'” SparkNotes , SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/quotes/character/the-green-knight/.