Faith and Loyalty: Sir Gawain as a Medieval Man
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as scholars have pointed out, contains several contrasting aspects, including Christianity versus Paganism, Salvation versus Temptation, Court versus Nature, Gold or Red versus Green, and so on. However, if we are to see the work essentially as a Romance centred on a Christian knight, then Gawain's worldly experiences and growth, his making errors and repentance, and final forgiveness and reconciliation would be central themes of the work. The meaning of the work can ultimately be found somewhere around these themes, which are quite close to the Medieval Christian view of human beings.
Medieval Christian view of this world and the human beings can be summed up as Augustinian dualism: this world is an unreliable place where no meaningful thing can possibly reside, and so one must look forward to the next world. False felicity, Boethius asserts in his Consolation of Philosophy, is what human beings blindly pursue in this world. Man is searching for fame, honor, and glory of this world without realizing that those things belong to this sub-lunary world and subsequently are bound to be illusory. Wisdom, therefore, comes from an ability to see the vanity of human glory and to accept falsehood as an ultimate human condition. Indeed, the theme of "Contemptus Mundi" and human beings as sinners, who cannot save themselves if not for God's mercy and benedictus on, can be found most often in Medieval works of literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is certainly no exception.
Faith and loyalty are the two most significant virtues that Gawain represents at least at the outset of the work. His fame as an ideal Christian knight is based upon the two virtues―faith signifies one's relationship with God while loyalty has to do with associations among human beings. The meaning of the work derives mainly from Gawain's final realization of his limited moral condition that he, as a man, cannot achieve either faith or loyalty for himself and that his salvation is entirely up to God's forgiveness and mercy. In this paper, I will examine how Gawain confronts the world by trying to maintain what he believes the essential qualities of chivalric hero―faith and loyalty― and how he fails so as to become a true Christian in the Medieval sense.
Camelot at Christmastide represents life in bliss. Like Paradise before man's fall, the people in Arthur's court are happy in feasting. The central figures in this "pre-lapsarian" world are, of course, Arthur and Guenevere his queen. Arthur is: "so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered: / His lif liked hym lyʒt, he louied Þe lasse / AuÞer to longe lye or to longe sitte, / So bisied him his ʒonge blod and his brayn wylde" (86-89), and Guenevere is "ful gay, grayÞed in Þe myddes, / Dressed on Þe dere des, dubbed al aboute, / Smal sendal bisides, a selure hir ouer / Of tryed tolouse" (74-76). All the participants are joyous as though they were merry children of God, until an outsider intrudes. When the Green Knight rudely claims that he is sent by God Himself to try the fame and power that the knights of Camelot are known to possess, we can see that the blissful happiness of Arthur's court is shattered.
Arthur's juvenile or rather childish reaction to the Green Knight's challenge, although it is not moral blemish in itself, is clearly juxtaposed with that of Gawain's. Gawain's courteous, perhaps too courteous, offer that he meets the challenge is quite proper according to his Christian faith and his loyalty to the King. Gawain contends:
For me Þink hit not semly, as hit is soÞ knawen,
Þer such an askyng is heuened so hyʒe in your sale,
Þaʒ ʒe ʒourself be talenttyf, to take hit to
Whil mony so bolde yow aboute vpon bench sytten,
He believes that one of Arthur's knights must take up the challenge because that is the way his faith teaches him. Here, Gawain is not only loyal to his king but also quite faithful to his belief. Moreover, an extreme humility, an essential quality for all Christians, is obvious in his attitude:
I am Þe wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest,
And lest lur of my lyf, quo laytes Þe soÞe--
Bot for as much as ʒe ar myn em I am only to prayse,
No bount bot your blod I in my bod knowe; (354-57)
Gawain's speech resembles Christian confession of faith if we regarded "you" as God, instead of Arthur. Well, at least here faith and loyalty are seen as one Christian virtue. Gawain, full of sincerity and courage, becomes publicly an ideal knight.
The narrator's warning in the last wheel of Part One, however, foreshadows the hardships that Gawain must go through to live up to his fame―the faithful and loyal Gawain:
Now Þenk wel, Sir Gawan,
For woÞe Þat Þou ne wonde
Þis auenture for to frayn
Þat Þou hatz tan on honde (487-90)
Gawain is confident of himself. He does not hesitate to seek the danger because he gave his word and, furthermore, that was within God's will. He is willing "to sech Þe gome of Þe grene, as God wyl me wysse" (549). His belief in his own faith and loyalty makes him proud and even boastful about his future:
Þe knyʒt mad ay god chere,
And sayde, "Quat schuld I wonde?
Of destins derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?" (561-65)
More than one hundred lines are provided to describe his attire, which epitomizes what he is supposed to be rather than what he really is. He is presented as a symbol of Christian faith. The pentangle "depaynt of pure golde hwez" (620) that he bears in his chest seems to suggest that the knight is as truthful and fortitude as the symbol signifies:
He ber in schelde and cote,
As tulk of tale most trwe
And gentylest knyʒt of lote. (637-39)
But is Gawain indeed truthful and courteous, quite up to the standard the pentangle signifies?
It is interesting to note that the hardships Gawain goes through in the wilderness come immediately after the elaborated description of his appearance as he sets out from Camelot. Critics point out that Camelot and the wilderness are juxtaposed here, one symbolizing civilization and artificiality while the other suggesting nature and rudeness. But nature, as opposed to civilization, cannot pose a real threat to Gawain because, it seems, he is physically strong and is on God's side: "Nade he ben duʒty and dryʒe, and Dryʒtyn had serued, / Douteles he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte" (724-25). Furthermore, the physical hardships―the "peril and pain and predicaments dire"―can be overcome, rather easily, as Gawain gives his sincere prayer. As soon as he says his prayer and signs cross three times, a great castle appears in front of him as if God has prepared this already to answer his prayer.
When the lord of the castle praises God for sending Gawain that way, his praises are literally true, that is, God indeed guides Gawain to the Green Castle:
God hatz geuen vus his grace godly for soÞe,
Þat such a gest as Gawan grauntez vus to haue,
When burnez blyÞe of his burÞe schal sitte
and synge. (920-23)
Now Gawain has to prove himself to be a true Christian knight here. This is not Camelot, where his lord Arthur and his fellow knights and ladies look up to him. This is not wilderness, either, where he might get harms without necessarily losing his honor. This is another court in nature where wilderness and civilization, paganism and Christianity, deceptions and fairness exist together.
Gawain did not hesitate to leave Camelot to keep his part of the bargain with the Green Knight. He was not only loyal to his king, but also loyal to his promise. Therefore, when he accepts the game the lord of the castle offers, we can presume without difficulty that this Christian knight will be loyal to the rule of the game.
However, this game is different from the beheading game at Camelot in several respects. When Gawain proposed to take up the game with the Green Knight, his action was publicly justifiable. As he said himself, his action was necessary to maintain Arthur's and Camelot's honor. His action in Camelot was just in terms of faith and of loyalty. Gawain had to risk his own life when he took up the game, but he at least had a worthy cause. That is why he did not hesitate to volunteer. Gawain was and is an honorable knight, who is not afraid of losing his life when the cause is just. This time, however, he makes a deal as a private person. Gawain does not know the necessity of the game, nor does he inquire about it. Moreover, he does not understand the risk he is taking. Simply, he takes up the offer out of courtesy, considering the whole affair lightly, without understanding how serious the consequence might be to his soul. Larry D. Benson explains the challenge that Gawain is to face:
. . . the loyal knight is one who is not only faithful to an ideal but who faithfully keeps his plighted word, the contracts he has made, whether with a host or his liege lord. It is to a series of such definite contractual obligations that Gawain must be faithful if he is to remain the "tulk of tale most trwe." (227)
While Gawain appears to be quite confident in himself, the game is in fact too tricky and subtle for Gawain to get out without a blemish in his honor. He is, after all, only human.
The temptation in the form of a game proceeds in two ways: the game with Bertilak is a test for Gawain's loyalty, and the game with Lady Bertilak is a test for his faith. The temptation of the Lady is in fact very powerful, particularly to a knight in Romance. But Gawain seems to defend his virtue and honor successfully (quite timidly though it may be) so as to keep his Christian faith, which commands not to commit adultery. The Lady, after emphasizing that Gawain is honorable among the people of the world, suggests that they are in perfect privacy to do anything without being noticed by anyone alive:
... Sir Wowen ʒe are,
Þat alle the worlde worchipez quere-so ʒe ride;
Your honour, your hendelayk is hendely praysed
With lordez, wyth ladyes, with alle Þat lyf bere.
Gawain's defense, however, is based on his Christian faith: "ʒe haf waled wel better,.../And yowre knyʒt I becom, and Kryst yow forʒelde" (1276-79). As W. A. Davenport points out, as the story goes on, Gawain's heroic quality is reduced and his nature and behavior as a private person are emphasized (183). And now it is Gawain's Christian faith, when he holds on to it firmly, that enables him to keep worldly loyalty as well. As long as he keeps his faith, Gawain is also able to maintain his loyalty to Bertilak.
However, whereas Gawain succeeds in not committing the sin of adultery, he fails in maintaining his Christian faith when he accepts the girdle from the Lady. By depending on the magic power the girdle is said to have, he yields at least part of his belief that God will not only protect him from mishaps and mortal harms (he knew this by heart when he wandered in wilderness before) but also save his soul when he has to leave this troublesome world. Yes, the temptation was too strong for a man to refuse:
For quat gome so is gorde with Þis grene lace,
While he hit hade hemely halched aboute,
Þer is no haÞel vnder heuen tohewe hym Þat myʒt,
For he myʒt not be slayn for slyʒt vpon erÞe.
And it is easily understandable that Gawain, who cannot possibly put his head back after it is cut from his body, almost desperately wants to have it as a security for his life:
Þen kest the knyʒt, and hit come to his hert
Hit were a juel for Þe jopard Þat hym iugged were:
When he acheued to Þe chapel his chek for to fech,
Myʒt he haf slypped to be vnslayn, Þe sleʒt were
The fact that Gawain takes the girdle as a pearl shows how desperately he wants it, since the word reminds the reader of the pearl in the New Testament―that a man sells everything he has in order to buy a rich pearl (Matthew 13:45-46).
Gawain's failure in holding on to his faith causes other failures as well. That evening when he goes to the chapel with good cheer and has a hypocritical confession, we can see how nave the knight really is:
Preuly aproched to a prest, and prayed hym Þere
Þat he wolde lyste his lyf and lern hym better
How his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld
seye haÞen. (1877-79)
It is ironical that he prays not to "be among the lost" when he must leave this world while he actually believes that he will not leave this world soon. If his "private" meeting with a priest means a confession, and I cannot think otherwise, Gawain is now committing a transgression because he does not confess all the truth, particularly about the girdle. Gawain's failure in holding on to his faith goes one step further and forces him to tell a lie, or rather not to tell the truth, to Bertilak. As Robert J. Blanch points out, here Gawain is guilty both of breach of contract and of chivalric disloyalty (3). He fails to be loyal to the game and his own promise. As he fails to sustain his faith in God, he is bound to be disloyal to the worldly promises.
At the last confrontation with the Green Knight, Gawain appears to keep his initial promise to search for the Green Chapel. Despite the servant's temptation to run away, Gawain faces his foe with courage and boldness. Although he shrinks a little with his shoulders at the sharp iron, it cannot be considered an evidence to prove his weakness because such an action is impulsive and therefore cannot construct a fault or sin. Gawain's weakness lies, as the Green Knight conclusively explains, in his lack of faith and loyalty:
As perle bi Þe quite pese is of prys more,
So is Gawayn, in god fayth, bi oÞer gay knyʒtez.
Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewt yow
Bot Þat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauÞer,
Bot for ʒe lufed your lyf; Þe lasse I yow blame.
The Green Knight both praises and accuses Gawain here: he praises that Gawain successfully defended himself from worldly temptations from the Lady; he accuses Gawain of being weak when his life was at stake.
Regarding to the forgiveness Gawain receives from Bertilak and not from God or a priest, critics have questioned its validity. P. J. C. Field asserts that according to Aquinas Gawain commits a sin against both his neighbor and God, without receiving any divine forgiveness (256). But it is hard to assume that the Green Knight, who was initially sent to Camelot by God, is now not functioning as God's scourage. If one is to see a problem in the fact that Bertilak is not a priest, the problem should be resolved in the strange (yet common in Medieval and Renaissance literature) mixture of Christianity and pagan mythology in the work.
Gawain's serious reaction to the final revelation makes a sharp contrast to the Green Knight's frolicsome treatment of the whole affair. The description of Gawain returning to Camelot suggests what his worldly experience really means:
Wylde wayez in Þe worlde Wowen now rydez
On Gryngolet, Þat Þe grace hade geten of his lyue;
And Þe blykkande belt he bere Þeraboute
In tokenyng he watz tane in tech of a faute.
Gawain finally realizes that he cannot be a perfect Christian. As a matter of fact, a perfect Christian is not possible to achieve for a human being. That is what the Medieval Christian doctrine asserts: everyone is weak, and no one should boast his faith or loyalty. Donald R. Howard contends that Gawain's ultimate lesson can be found in the general "theme of pride and humility" (277-78), and John Leyerle explains it further:
Gawain is too much aware of his excellence; no modest man would employ the pentangle with its symbolism on his shield as his public, heraldic device. Because of his pride he feels disgraced at the end of what is, after all, a trivial fault, a failure to keep all the rules of just one of the many games he plays. . . . What he learns in Bertilak's domain is some humility. (58)
What Gawain learns, he learns it well. The Gawain in the last scene of the work is a different person from the one we saw at the outset. As Benson points out, he "has undergone a kind of rebirth, a new initiation into life" (235). The fancy armors with the significant pentangle on them did not really help him to keep his faith. It is noteworthy that there is no description of Gawa