I really enjoyed reading Le Morte d’Arthur in high school, but the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was something different, and not nearly as fun to read. There’s a 65% chance I didn’t actually read the poem before writing this paper, which might prove evident after reading this.
Click here to read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.
Virtuous Men and Unscrupulous Women
In the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Gawain’s life can be paralleled to the lives Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David. Each of these men believed that they were loyal to God, but they were seduced by women who made their flaws apparent. The men then realized that they were not perfect, and their understanding made them better people and better prepared to enter heaven.
In the beginning, God created Adam, and Adam was faithful to God and all of His creations. According to the Anglo-Saxon belief, Adam had comitatus with God. God would create many animals and plants for Adam, and Adam would take care of these creations in return. It was a bond between God and his people. This relationship is similar to the one between King Arthur and his knights. The knights would be loyal to Arthur and protect him while Arthur would provide for his knights’ needs. The castle at Camelot, with its exquisite tapestries, silk curtains, and fine food, is the equivalent to the beautiful and abundant Garden of Eden.
However, God created woman, and she was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit. Eve then seduced her husband and convinced him to eat the fruit as well. By doing this, Adam was no longer loyal to God, and they were banished out of the garden:
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto
the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree…
in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
Gawain was tempted in a similar way by the woman in the castle. For three days, she attempted to seduce Gawain, but he politely refused her requests. On the third day, she gave Gawain her green girdle so he would not be killed during his confrontation with the green knight. By accepting her gift, Gawain let his faith rest on the power of this girdle and not on the power of God and Mary. The green knight shows Gawain his fault, and Gawain realizes that he is not the perfect Christian. He also understands that many virtuous men have failed the test presented to them by other women:
But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder,
And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter
Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress;
Gawain knows that, like himself, each of these men have failed the challenge presented by a woman, and he feels that his faults should be excused by the green knight and by God. It is at this point in the story that Gawain recognizes his faults and is elevated to a higher divine status.
In the beginning, Gawain believed that he could remain loyal to Mary, and he was reminded of his loyalty by the pentangle on his shield, “a token of truth.” He also had the portrait of the Virgin on the inside of his shield, a constant reminder that he should not fear death as long as he remained faithful to Mary.
However, despite these reminders, Gawain allows himself to be seduced by the woman in the castle, and she convinces him that her green girdle will protect him from danger. By accepting the girdle from her, Gawain is admitting that he puts more faith in this belt than he does God or Mary. This is what makes him a faulty Christian.
When Gawain finally meets the green knight, the knight takes three shots at Gawain’s neck, which is similar to the three days he spent with the lady at the castle. At the third swing, the knight nicks Gawain on the neck, a wound that is equivalent to the girdle that wounded his faith. The points out that by receiving the girdle, Gawain has marred his faithfulness towards Mary and God. Gawain, realizing his mistake, rips the girdle off in great haste and says:
Behold there my falsehood, ill hap betide it! Your cut
taught me cowardice, care for my life, and coveting came
after, contrary both to largesse and loyalty belonging to knights.
Gawain now knows that he feared death and that this fear made him an imperfect Christian. He hopes, though, that since virtuous men like Adam, Solomon, Samuel, and David were also tricked by seductive women that his actions will be forgiven by God and the green knight. Gawain feels that it is very hard for a man to remain loyal to Mary when there are seductive and tempting women out there.
The knight, however, refuses to take the girdle back. Instead, he makes Gawain wear it forever so that he will be constantly reminded that he is not a perfect human being. Gawain must ride back to King Arthur’s court with a cut of shame across his neck and a symbol of humility around his waist. Now that he must wear this green girdle, the color of rebirth and renewal, he can become a better person and be more prepared to enter heaven. Now he will constantly be reminded by the girdle to be loyal to God, and he will be a better Christian. In fact, Arthur believes that this idea will make all of his knights faithful, and he makes each knight wear a green girdle to remind them of their loyalty to God and to Mary.
This is how the adventures of Adam, Solomon, Samuel, and David can be related to Gawain to show that throughout history, man has fallen under the spell of seductive women and have been prevented from being perfect Christians. When the men realize that they are not perfect, they become more divine and move a step closer to heaven.