Sir Gawain is supposed to be chivalry personified, the ideal that every knight should strive to live by, and today, it is nearly impossible to find a man who possesses anywhere near the amount of chivalry that Sir Gawain has. It is extremely rare to find a man in today’s society who would persevere and go to the lengths that Sir Gawain goes to in order to prove himself and not be considered a coward of sorts. Now, granted, no one today would have to face quite the tasks that Sir Gawain must face, but there are tasks far less daunting than fighting off monsters and dragons that will send a grown man in the opposite direction, never to look back.
One of the prominent aspects of chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and during that time period in general, is showing great respect for women. One example from the story would be the instances where Sir Gawain politely turns down the advances of the lady of the castle while keeping the conversation’s tone as if she were granting him a favor, instead of taking advantage of the situation for his own pleasure. While there are many men today who still embrace this and will not hesitate to treat their female friends, wives, or girlfriends with the utmost respect and courtesy, today’s society as a whole tends to back away from this. There are some women who may view having a man open a car door for them as an insult to their worth, or that they might be perceived as helpless or weak because someone else opened the door for them, and this simple act of respect seems to have no value whatsoever, and it is not just acts like this one that garner such a reaction. There are some women who see any gesture of chivalry from a man, be it holding a door, pulling out a chair at a table, offering to pay for their meal, or offering any sort of favor, as degrading and refuse to take part in any of them, for fear that it may hurt their independence or that they may be perceived as a “damsel in distress” by the men around them. Sir Gawain shows a wonderful example of selflessness, which is another main component of chivalry, when he steps up to the Green Knight, asking King Arthur to let him take his place as the one to put his life on the line and receive the single blow from the Green Knight’s ax. While the reader generally understands that Gawain’s motives may not have been entirely selfless, they are perceived that way by the other knights and by King Arthur. Today, it would be a miracle to find someone, outside of couples or the like, who would be willing to throw their life in front of another person’s at any given moment out of sheer loyalty to that person. For the most part, what we find are people who are caught up in only doing what is best for themselves, with almost no regard others’ needs. As a society, selfishness has replaced selflessness as a major component of everyday life, where people simply have no time for each other, and are too selfish to make time. Concepts such as humility and loyalty, both of which are demonstrated by Sir Gawain as he steps up to face the Green Knight in Arthur’s place, have been nearly forgotten in today’s world which prides itself on independence and opportunity.
When Sir Gawain returns to King Arthur’s castle after his experiences with the Green Knight, he decides to wear the green belt that the lady of the castle has given him as a mark of shame, and understands that he has done something wrong by accepting it. This display of humility is something that is very difficult to find among people today. In many cases, if someone has done something wrong, instead of admitting their faults and accepting that they made a mistake, the person will try to cover up their mistake or wrong-doing or attempt to pass the blame onto someone else. Those who are able to accept that they have made and will continue to make errors throughout life, without trying to hide any part of them, are truly the types of people that others should strive to be like.
Courtly love between men and women is also a part of the chivalry that was practiced during medieval times, which is very different from what is typically seen in modern times. Unlike what most people of today’s society have grown accustomed to, in courtly love, the woman is the dominant partner in the relationship, and the man has to prove himself worthy of the woman’s affections by being polite, courtly, and chivalrous. Today, it is the male who is generally seen as the dominant one in relationships, and there are some instances in which the man feels the need to assert superiority over the woman, perhaps to make himself feel more masculine or more in control, or to keep from being seen as weak next to his partner. This was completely unheard of during medieval times, as the previously stated example of Sir Gawain making his rejection of the lady of the castle’s advances polite, and seem as though she were granting him a favor. Marriages were also quite different, as the concept of marriage today is a union of two people who are deeply in love, and want to spend the rest of their lives together, as opposed to the arranged marriages of King Arthur’s time, where they were more like a business deal than a relationship.
The presence of chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the lack thereof in modern times is definitely something to pay attention to. With so much selfishness coursing through today’s society, there is no doubt that a little selflessness would not do any harm, and that making time to appreciate small, kind gestures from others in order to put a little chivalry back into the lives of people is something that everyone could benefit from. With many women of today so intent on maintaining their independence and vehemently rejecting any sort of gentlemanly kindness, people putting their wants and needs before others’, refusing to accept responsibility for the mistakes that are made, and trying to show superiority over the other partner in a relationship, it is easy to see how the values of chivalry that shaped the way of life for Sir Gawain, King Arthur, and all other knights during the Middle Ages have, regrettably, come to mean so little to the people of today’s society.