Philosophers and theologists have contemplated morality and its role in the lives of men for centuries. It is hard to define what constitutes a moral life and an amoral life when the very definition of those words are subjective; being moral is often compared to being virtuous or simply “good”. Often what is called moral is what mimics societal standards. This is an issue that has been tackled in a plethora of ways, from the establishment of religion all the way to the bed-time stories repeated to us as children. Defining morality is difficult to do because of the vast range of human action and thought, which also makes it very difficult to decide if people can truly change or develop a new moral code. Stories and tales are often used to describe the trials humanity undergoes in an effort to explain morality, and whether the human condition does let men learn and grow from their experiences. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s knightly virtue and fidelity are tested throughout the course of his journey, and it is questionable if he learned anything from his experiences. His failure at the end of the poem sparks the more general question of whether it is possible for a man to live a perfectly chivalrous life, which is something humanity has strove to answer for centuries.
What makes Sir Gawain’s trials and the issue of whether he learns note-worthy is the well established reputation he has at the start of the story. Our first impression of him takes place in lines 343-361 where Gawain persuades Arthur to let him undertake the Green Knight’s challenge. By doing this he not only restores the round table’s reputation, but he willingly puts himself in harms way to protect King Arthur. As Gawain prepares for his journey, he is depicted as “devoid of all vice” (634), as well as “fairest-spoken” (639) among the knights of Arthur’s round table. These descriptions are especially significant because of Gawain’s social status; he is “reputed as virtuous” (633) among the most elite knights of the land. He is considered the best of the best. His shield serves as a strong symbol of his fidelity and virtue: it is a pentangle with five knots and has a picture of Saint Mary on the back: “For it is a figure consisting of five points… Was generosity and love… purity and courtesy… and surpassing the others, compassion” (627-654). Throughout the story Gawain has each of his virtues tested, and fails in nearly every regard.
In Fitt 2 Sir Gawain accepts the hospitality offered to him at Bertilak’s castle. He very quickly becomes a celebrity among the house once his identity is revealed: “To make the acquaintance quickly then of the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs… now we shall enjoy seeing displays of good manners…” (910-916). This is an important description of Gawain as his reputation is established outside his own territory; it becomes clear that the way he interacts with people have led to him being a respected knight. During his stay, Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Gawain several times. Gawain manages to withstand Lady Bertilak’s advances, and even manages to compliment his host in the process: “…you have chosen much better, but I am proud of the esteem that you hold me in” (1276-1277). Gawain is consistent in upholding his virtue on the second day as he continues to refuse the Lady: “…made trial of him, tempting him many times to have led him into mischief, whatever her purpose; but he defended himself so skillfully that no fault appeared” (1549-1551). Gawain’s consistency is important in this passage because it shows his struggle. It is important to note how much effort he puts into upholding his virtue: he does try to live up to his reputation as the fairest knight of the land and is successful to a degree. However, on the third day Gawain falters. He attempts to remain true to Bertilak by refusing his wife’s advances, yet he accepts the gift of the green girdle without returning it: “As long as it is tightly...
Cited: Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 1992
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