this is a paper i just wrote for a class i'm taking on Arthurian Romances
. (ENGL 387; University of New Mexico
) i thought it might be thought-provoking enough to have its own node
The Passage to Christianity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In the Middle Ages, a man was expected to do certain things, look a particular way, and act in a specific fashion, or he would be considered, at best, boyish, and at worst, effeminate. Ways to demonstrate masculinity included sexual activity, battle, and pleasing females with words and deeds. Yet, these demonstrations were often Christianized shadows of earlier Gallo-Celtic ideals of heroism and godhood. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Christian shadow is given a chance to stand on its own against the earlier heroic ideal. The result of this juxtaposition is that the reader can see both the best and worst side of each.
Sir Gawain, by virtue of having been knighted by King Arthur, can be assumed to be a good Christian character. He is pure, valiant, and chivalrous. In fact, the poet describes him as "faithful in five and five-fold, for pure was he as gold, void of all villainy and endowed with all virtues", with the five-fold virtue symbolized by the pentangle on his shield. Gawain begins with this symbolic shield, as opposed to acquiring it in the course of his adventures. To the Medieval Christian mind, the number five was a symbolically rich number, bearing reference to the five wounds of Christ on the cross, the five directional referents (four cardinals and the center point), and also, in the form of the pentangle to man, himself. The pentangle also bears Celtic associations with the Earth. On its inner face, the shield bears the image of the "Queen of Heaven," from whom it is assumed that Gawain derives his power and authority. Therefore, when Gawain takes up his shield and seeks out the Green Knight, he faces the old culture with one of its own symbols, appropriated and given new meaning, and backed (quite literally, in this case) by the new culture's faith. It is, perhaps the first of the old wisdom to be transmitted, having taken place before this tale begins; the Earth as the beginning of a new quest, and perhaps the only thing these cultures hold common at the beginning of the story.
Now, the Green Knight, who represents the early Gallo-Celtic heroic tradition, stands in almost a fatherly position to Gawain, despite the reader's initial impulse to the contrary. According to the Green Knight, Arthur's knights are "beardless children", and he will only play a game with them, not battle with them. While this may appear to be a cruel taunt, it also implies that Arthur's knights have a childlike innocence, perhaps the innocence of their young culture. When the knights sit shocked at the Green Knight's challenge, Arthur leaps to accept it, but Gawain denies him because it is not his to accept. He is already a parent figure to these knights, and it is they, the young, who must be tested, not he, who has already proven his worth.
Arthur, in this instance, is almost a mother figure to the knights of his court. When he sees that none of his "children" can defend the honor of the court, he leaps to do it himself, as mother bears defend their cubs. This may be a ruse on his part to shame the young knights. Gawain, the young embodiment of the new Christian heroism, and also the cub closest to the "mother," realizes that the test is a rite of passage, and not an actual challenge, and steps up to take it upon himself. Arthur argues briefly with Gawain, to be certain he knows what he is getting himself into, and when Gawain eloquently explains that it is his place to accept the challenge from the knight, Arthur gracefully defers to him, handing him an axe, the tool with which to meet the challenge. This is similar to the scene in Chretien's Perceval in which Perceval's mother, upon finding that she cannot dissuade him from becoming a knight, equips him with knowledge and tools, that he would be able to seek his fortune in the proper fashion.
The Green Knight's appearance and challenge are not only a rite of passage in which the new Christian culture would receive the knowledge and wisdom of the Gallo-Celtic culture which preceded it, but are also reminiscent of an older Celtic story about passing tradition, that of the Holly King and the Oak King. In that story, the Holly King, here the Green Knight, challenges the Oak King, here represented by Gawain, to a mock battle at the New Year so that, in being beheaded, he may pass on his kingdom. Through the year, the Oak King ages and grows wise, and at the end of summer, the Holly King beheads him, and the cycle begins again. Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spans a full year, and Gawain winds up not being beheaded at the end of it, the First Fitt is nearly identical to the story of the Tree Kings.
During the Third Fitt, Gawain is involved in a game with Lord Bertilak, the lord of the castle in which he is staying while he awaits his confrontation with the Green knight. Each day, for the three days Gawain stays in the castle, he and Bertilak will trade what they gain during the day. What he does not realize, though, is that the game is part of the Green Knight's test. For the first two days, the game proceeds uneventfully, with Bertilak bringing back meat, and Gawain faithfully delivering the kisses Lady Bertilak bestowed upon him. On the third day, Gawain trades the Lady's kisses for Bertilak's fox meat, but not the girdle she has given him, because he promised her he would not. This is quite possibly Gawain's only real mistake, as is shown in the Fourth Fitt.
The Fourth Fitt concludes Gawain's trials as he faces off against the green knight for what he thinks is the second time, but later discovers to be the third. Of Gawain's meetings with the Green Knight, it should be noted that two of the three are also three part trials unto themselves: three nights in the castle, and, at the end, three blows with the axe. Sets of three are considered magical in almost every culture in the world, usually because they are representative of the basic family unit. It is strange, however that there are only two sets of three sub-trials instead of three, which suggests that I may have missed something in the First Fitt, but I cannot find even a hint that the first trial, beheading the Green Knight, had three parts.
In the final trial, the Green Knight swings three times at Gawain's neck, finally nicking him on the third swipe. After giving the three blows, the Green Knight reveals that he is Bertilak, and explains to Gawain that each blow was representative of a night spent in the castle. As I mentioned above, Gawain's only mistake was not mentioning the girdle to Bertilak, for which he was nicked with the axe. Gawain will not accept that he has passed the tests, and this, in Bertilak's eyes, is even further proof that he has passed. Gawain's humility and near-perfect honesty render him worthy to receive the wisdom that Bertilak has to offer.
While it is almost certain that the poet did not intend the allegory, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight embodies the medieval idea that each great culture passes its wisdom and knowledge to the next. This story places Arthur as the protector of the yet unproven young Christian heroic ideal while it builds itself up to confront the older Gallo-Celtic hero and in doing so, to learn the universal wisdom of heroes.