Chivalric Code in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Life during fourteenth century England was woven with traditions and rituals. Court life was extravagant and plentiful. A man’s honor and virtue were among the most significant aspects of his life. Although there was not a precise list of codes, which composed chivalric code, many lists coincide and provide a good idea of what was considered important during those times. Chivalric code was indwelled in knights. This code was composed of virtues that the knightly position must possess to prevent bringing shame on the knight or the court he defended. One list of codes is as follows: To fear God and maintain His Church; To serve the liege lord in valour and faith; To protect the weak and defenceless; To give succour to widows and orphans; To refrain from the wanton giving of offence; To live by honour and for glory; To despise pecuniary reward; To fight for the welfare of all; To obey those placed in authority; To guard the honour of fellow knights; To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit; To keep faith; At all times to speak the truth; To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun; To respect the honour of women; Never to refuse a challenge from an equal; Never to turn the back upon a foe. (Alchin, 2012) Many of these codes were inspired by Christian or Biblical influences. In fact, faith and Christianity are entwined throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A young boy could not simply aspire to become a knight; he would have to be born into a noble family. “It is essential for knights to come from a noble family because such families have an established tradition of chivalric virtue going back generations” (Phillips, 2008, p.37). Knight training began at an early age. Sons of knights were cared for by their mothers until they were approximately seven years old. Then, they started their training, first as a page, then around the age fourteen they would become squires to a knight as an apprentice. A knight’s armor and weapons not only protected the knight, but also represented his duty to the church. For example, his mail tunic protected the body just as he should defend the church, the helmet covering his head symbolized how he should guard the church, the lance struck fear into men which represented his power to keep the enemies away from the church (Phillips, 2008). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem thought to be written in the fourteenth century. This theory is based on “the terminology used for the practice of hunting, descriptions of the layout of the typical fourteenth century English castle, and references to the routines of the servants of a castle household” (Puchner, et.al., 2012, p. 725). The use of King Arthur’s character and his Knights of the Round Table are additional indicators of the fourteenth century time frame. Very little is known about the author including his name. A great deal of speculation has been made based on his style of writing. Three other poems, Cleanness, also known as Purity, Patience, and Pearl, were found in a single surviving manuscript and appear to be written by the same author in the same penmanship. Information in the other three poems also led historians to deem the poems from the fourteenth century. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Gawain was the nephew of King Arthur. He was a well respected knight, who was known for his reputation of a fluent tongue in romance. The Green Knight, a huge yet handsome knight, was not only clothed in emerald green, but he also had green hair, a green beard, green armor, and a green horse. He was muscle bound and appeared to have magical powers. Other vital characters included the King of the castle of Hautdesert and his overly affectionate wife. The king was extremely gracious and generous, where his wife, while beautiful and seductive, was aggressive with her affections. During the New Year’s feast in King Arthur’s court, an enormous green man came galloping in to present a challenge. He was the Green Knight. Initially, King Arthur accepted the knight’s challenge. However, Gawain, being a chivalrous knight, would not allow the King to accept the dare. The challenge consisted of each knight giving a single strike to the neck of the other. Gawain would give the first blow. In the time frame of one year and one day, Gawain would meet his challenger to receive his blow. Gawain would accept the swing of the axe at the Green Chapel as described by the Green Knight. The knight refused to provide directions to the chapel and insisted Gawain seek him out. With the agreement sealed, the Green Knight confronted Sir Gawain, who chopped off the head of the Green Knight with a single swing. Gawain and the court gazed with astonishment as the knight picked up his head and rode away. After most of the following year passed, Sir Gawain embarked outside the court of King Arthur to keep his word. Although Gawain believed he was doomed, he knew he must depart the protection of King Arthur’s court to protect his honor and receive his axe strike. While the poem begins in King Author’s court, most of the poem took place in the castle of Hautdesert. Hautdesert is where Gawain was persuaded to stay in a life of luxuriously until the appointed time for his meeting with the Green Knight. Gawain stumbled upon the castle when he was seeking the green chapel. After much searching in the bitter cold and wet terrain, he was overjoyed to find such a wonderful refuge. The final challenge took place only two miles from Hautdesert castle. The King told Gawain when the time came; he knew exactly where to find the green chapel. He further promised to assign a guide to take him. Gawain expected to find a Green Chapel, only to discover something that looked like a cave overgrown with green moss and grass. In a remote area at the bottom of a gorge, Gawain found the Green Knight. When Gawain met his challenger for the conclusion of their agreement, he was faced with his own dishonor, the realization that the Green Knight was actually the King of Hautdesert. He and his seductive wife were in on a ploy to find the true nature of the Knights of the Round Table. Although Gawain refused numerous times to be tempted by the King’s wife, he ultimately gave into to accepting her girdle or sash. She promised this sash would protect him from harm. Although Gawain used chivalric code and Christianity from beginning to the end of this poem, one can deduce that attempts to be flawless are unattainable. Slips in virtue are often made without realization. In fact, Sir Gawain stood speechless after the Green Knight said “it was loyalty that you lacked: not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse, but you loved your own life; so I blame you less” (Puchner et.al., 2012, p.777). He knew he had not gone against chivalric code with regards to his host and lady, but was astonished by the realization that taking the girdle gift to protect his own life displayed dishonor. The King or Green Knight presented the sash to Gawain in good faith and explained his sins were forgiven. Gawain accepted the green sash as a reminder of his sin and returned to Camelot. At first glance, the poem appeared to be a quest, but takes an unexpected turn to virtually a pending love story. During his time at the castle with the queen, it is easy to anticipate the story will become about true love. Ultimately the quest is on again, leading to Gawain’s destiny with the Green Knight and the morals of the story are revealed. In this poem numerous references to chivalry are made. One would have to complete an in depth study to find all the direct and indirect references to chivalry. Never refuse a challenge from an equal was addressed when the Green Knight appeared at King Arthur’s court. “So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge” (Puchner et.al., 2012, p. 733). Gawain accepts the challenge in place of King Arthur, also displaying chivalry as it is described to serve the liege lord. There are frequent references to fear God and maintain his church including “Yet for all that metal he still made it to mass, honored the Almighty before the high altar” (Puchner et.al., 2012, p. 379). Also when he was making his perilous venture in pursuit of the Green Knight the author states “Then at the time of tiding he prayed to highest heaven. Let Mother Mary guide him towards some house or haven” (Puchner et.al., 2012, p. 743). Respecting women was a very important code for knights. Reference of respect is made when Gawain happened upon shelter and met the ladies of the castle. He saluted the elder woman with a long bow and then kissed the younger respectfully and spoke to them with courtesy. In addition, after the queen of the court visited Gawain’s bedroom the second time, she made outward glances and smiles in a public forum toward Gawain, which he described would anger a man. Due to respect towards women, Gawain did not address her behavior as indicated by Puchner (2012), “but his breeding forbade him rebuking a lady.” Equally important is to never turn your back upon a foe. The Green Knight struck Gawain with the axe only nicking him. Gawain leapt forward, thrusting on his helmet, grabbing his shield and then his sword. He maintained what was allowed in their agreement was finished and he was not going to permit his enemy any more attempts. Lastly, Gawain displayed the code ‘to live by honor several times. Gawain was an example when his guide gave him opportunity to run from meeting with the Green Knight. Gawain replied “I’d be christened a coward and could not be excused” (Puchner, et.al. 2012, p.772). He also intended to die with honor as he swore not to flinch when the Green Knight delivered the fatal blow. Another example of Gawain displaying honor was during the initial refusal of the host’s wife in Gawain’s bedroom. He would have not displayed honor to his host’s generosity committed fornication with the Queen. Coincidentally, after reading the poem various similarities are noted. One such similarity is the repetition of numbers. The use of five is found in multiple descriptions. The poet lingers on a description of Gawain’s shield; painted red, with an image of the Virgin Mary on the inside, the shield bears a golden pentangle. Gawain’s device, we learn, alludes to five different sets of fives: faith in the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary, faultlessness in the use of his five fingers and his five wits, and his adherence to five particular virtues. (Larrington, n.d., p. 5) There were three temptations described by three visits from the queen, three days of hunting, followed by three attempted axe strokes from the Green Knight. Conversely there were two treacherous journeys. Howard (1964) describes the first journey with physical danger of giants, beasts, and cold and the second with spiritual danger as he is tempted to flee. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is riddled with interrelated imagery. Chivalry played the most important role in this poem. Without chivalry Sir Gawain would have made appalling choices. Since Gawain was a chivalrous knight, he avoided consequences which would have led to immorality and dishonor to Camelot.
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