Before inquiring into the notion of a social critique or personal morality, one needs to be aware of the beliefs of that society. Furthermore, if the society believes something, so too do individuals. The world of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is ruled by well-defined codes of behavior, namely the code of chivalry. This convention shapes the values and actions of the characters in this poem. However, sometimes not for the better. The epitome of a chivalric action is seen through the behavior of Sir Gawain at Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge presented by the green knight, not letting his King perform it, which is to give him a blow to the neck and a year later meet again to receive the return-blow. Sir Gawain lives up to these conventions through the chivalric characteristics of bravery and courtesy. Furthermore, for a failure to act in a chivalrous manner is to bring about shame, as chivalric deeds are a religious duty. Therefore, with this understanding, it is clear to see that if one does not act in accordance with the law, one may feel a sense of guilt as an individual towards society and furthermore towards god.
When analyzing how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be seen as a social criticism of medieval society, one must focus on society as a whole. The social critique can be heightened through the comparison between society and Sir Gawain. I believe that Sir Gawain is a character, which emphasizes medieval societies ignorance and lack of virtue. However, he is not a character, which encompasses these characteristics, he does the opposite. Through his chivalric actions, one can notice the difference between his intentions and beliefs to those of others.
‘Then forth was brought a feast, fare of the noblest, multitude of fresh meats on so many dishes that free places were few in front of the people to set the silver things full of soups on cloth so white. Each lord of his liking there without lack took with delight: twelve plates to every pair, good beer and wine all bright’
This extract from the first fitt is a part of a long description of the lavish, intricate details of the feast including the copious amounts of food and descriptions of the guests. This excerpt indicates the over-consumption and lack of reality within medieval courtly society. Furthermore, going against the chivalric virtues. This feast seems restricted to those of noble and power stature, which challenges the chivalric duty of generosity in the form of the poor or less fortunate.
Furthermore, the poet describes the guests as “fair folk in their first stage,” indicating their youthfulness. However, upon arrival the green knight suggests that Arthur and his guests are “beardless children”. This compares the court to humankind in its “first stage”, before the fall in the Garden of Eden, emphasizing their lack of experience and ignorance. This furthermore indicates how King Arthur fails to allow his people to experience life for themselves as he provides them with a life too extravagant and out of touch with reality.
The poem presents an underlying criticism of the role of women in medieval society. In this society, women are seen to encompass romance and love and nothing more. However, it is understood that in order to fully comprehend their role, one needs to accept their place in that society as only of representing love. I believe the presence of a woman in the poem is a critique in itself to send a message of the power that women are not allowed to hold.
‘Thus she tested and tried him, tempting him often, so as to allure him to love-making, whatever lay in her heart’
This extract proves the abovementioned as it shows Bertilaks’ wife who appears to have great power. She is operating unassisted against Sir Gawain in the bedroom as an aggressor. Without Gawain’s knowledge, Bertilak’s wife is being used to test Sir Gawain’s chivalric duty of honesty, in which he fails. The power was intended to be in her hands, to fool him. However, this power is taken away from her when Gawain does not give in, ‘his defence was so fair’. This scene, in the third fitt, proves the lack of power women hold. However, it shows their ability to have status but men take it away from them.
Furthermore, a social critique is present at the end of the play. This critique proves the importance of a quest. It is seen in the final fitt, when Sir Gawain returns from his adventure of the green chapel. He returns wearing his failures on his sleeve, being the girdle he did not exchange with Bertilak as was the agreement.
‘”But for your girdle,’ quoth Gawain, “may God you repay! That I will gain with good will, not for the gold so joyous of the cincture, nor the silf, nor the swinging pendants, nor the wealth, nor for worth, nor for workmanship fine; but as a token of my trespass I shall turn to it often when I ride in renown, ruefully recalling the failure and the frailty of the flesh so perverse, so tender, so ready to take taints of defilement.’
The critique present is through the actions of the people upon his return, in which they wear a girdle as well, copying Sir Gawain and are seen similar to that of sheep in a herd. They are unaware and do not care to know why Sir Gawain is wearing the girdle. They simply follow in oblivion, emphasizing their immaturity. Their lack of proper actions proves the fulfillment of the behavior of Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain returns having learnt the ways of chivalry. However, the people are stagnant, their beliefs and virtue still the same. They cling onto any belief without knowing its true meaning. I believe that is the most important critique of medieval society present in the poem.
In conclusion, the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents a social criticism of the people, the way of life of King Arthur and the role that women play in this society. The duty of chivalry threads itself through the fabric of the poem. However, the chivalric attributes of Sir Gawain prove the opposite for the society. He encompasses all but honesty, which he acknowledges and wears permanently as a reminder of this failure. However, the ways of the people prove their ignorance and immaturity. I believe King Arthur is to blame for this as he provides his people with what they want. Therefore, resulting in a further criticism of people in power.
Arkin, L. The Role of Women in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. 1995. http://www.shss.montclair.edu/english/furr/arkin.html
Benson, Larry. Art and Tradition in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
Kittredge, G.L. A study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gloucester, MA: Smith, 1960.
Spearing, A.C. The Gawain-Poet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ballantine Books: New York, 1975.