The Five Knightly Virtues in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Dangerous foes, an unfulfilled promise, the perilous wilderness, and the threat of death. All of these and more are part of one of the most amazing poems in history. This is a poem that deals with the forces of good and evil and deciding between right and wrong. In this poem, one young knight must prove himself through virtue and chivalry. He faces the unforgiving wilderness, the temptations of lust, and even death.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by an unknown author is an amazing adventure. It is filled with knights, ladies, and nearly unsurpassable challenges. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain, the youngest knight, departs on a perilous adventure, where he must maintain the “five knightly virtues” (Champion, 421). These virtues are: fellowship, purity, courtesy, pity, and franchise (Champion, 421). On New Year’s Day in King Arthur’s court, a knight dressed in green arrives and proposes a challenge. Gawain accepts this challenge, and then he must leave several months later to complete it.
The next November, Gawain sets out to do what he promised. After spending many nights in the wilderness, he finds a castle belonging to Sir Bercilak, who welcomes Gawain in until he must leave to face the Green Knight. Here, he faces many challenges, not all of which he succeeds in. Several days after he arrives, he rides to the Green Chapel, where he meets the Green Knight. Here, he finds that the Green Knight is actually Sir Bercilak, who makes Gawain face his failure of the tests in the castle. But during this time the Green Knight also has mercy on Sir Gawain and does not kill him, for his failure “was for no artful wickedness, not for wooing either, / but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame / you” (Gawain, verse 95). His mistakes are not evil, but human. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain strives to practice the five knightly virtues while he is in Arthur’s court, while he stays in Sir Bercilak’s castle, and after he takes the green sash.
During the first scene in Sir Arthur’s court, Sir Gawain is having fellowship (one of the five knightly virtues) with the other knights and accepts the Green Knights challenge “so that I without discourtesy might be excused from the table” (Gawain, verse 16).This is an example of when Gawain succeeds in maintaining the five knightly virtues of fellowship, franchise, pity, purity, and courtesy (Champion, 421). When Gawain is seen at the beginning of the poem, he is already involved in fellowship with the other knights as they eat and drink to celebrate the new year. Additionally, as King Arthur is originally going to accept the challenge, Gawain’s choice to accept the challenge also exhibits courtesy.
He is obviously striving for courtesy through making this choice, as the reason he gives for accepting this challenge is “so that I without discourtesy might be excused from the table” (Gawain, verse 16). One way it is courteous is in the polite language that Gawain uses to express his desire to accept the challenge. He does not discuss how much more worthy he is than King Arthur to accept the challenge, nor does he use crude language to express his desire. In fact, later on in verse 16 he says, “I am the weakest, I am aware, and in wit feeblest, and the least loss, if I live not, if one would learn the truth…I boast of no virtue” (Gawain, verse 16). This shows that Gawain knows his place as the youngest and weakest. He is not prideful, but humble, through which he additionally exhibits purity.
Gawain’s attitude at Arthur’s court in the end “denies hope and faith, the effects of charity, and the efficacy of true confession, but it reaffirms Gawain’s humanity” (Berger, 101). This shows that while Gawain’s behavior is not perfect at the end and does not show all five knightly virtues, it is only because he is human. When Gawain returns to King Arthur’s court in the end, he is ashamed, as any person would be. Berger writes that Gawain shows humility at the end of the poem, but not the right kind of humility (Berger, 100-101). His humility seems to be forced, more as the result of being humiliated than having a change of heart (Berger, 100-101).
This, however, does not define Gawain. In reality, many people would be tempted to behave the same way that Gawain does. He is ashamed of his sinful actions and that is what he focuses on. The other knights, however, see past the sin that Gawain commits and recognize that he is, along with all of them, merely human. He is overcome by his emotions, but that does not stop him from having successes. He could choose to hide his sin and instead only tell of his victories. But he does not do this. He is honest, which is a part of purity. He also returns to fellowship with the other knights. He is a true knight, and a true knight is determined to uphold virtue. Gawain does strive to maintain the five knightly virtues at King Arthur’s court, and, while he does not always succeed, it is not because he is evil, but because he is human.
Gawain also strives to maintain the five knightly virtues in Sir Bercilak’s castle. The hunts have a spiritual symbolism that relates directly to what Gawain faces each day in the castle (Spiers, 93). Courtesy, one of the five virtues, must be used to vanquish the struggles (Spiers, 93). Gawain succeeds in the first two of these struggles (Spiers, 93). According to John Spiers, each of the hunts in the hunting scenes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight progress in order. The deer, which is what is first hunted, represents “timidity or cowardice” (Spiers, 93). This would make sense, as when Lady Bercilak first enters Sir Gawain’s room, he is taken aback (Gawain, verses 48-49). He lays beneath the covers for a while to try and decide what to do, and finally decides to ask Lady Bercilak what she wants (Gawain, verses 48-49).
After a seemingly short conversation and a single kiss, Lady Bercilak leaves. In this scenario, Gawain exhibited courtesy towards Lady Bercilak by being hospitable. He also exhibited purity, as he abided by the rules of courtly love, but not so much to make him sexually immoral in character. The deer, which represents timidity, would make sense to be the first animal to be hunted, as it is the first emotional barrier that courtesy needs to fight in order to reach the others (Spiers, 93). Spiers also discussed how the second challenge is that of ferocity, which is represented by the boar and Lady Bercilak’s second visit to Gawain. This is because, when Lady Bercilak visits Gawain the second time, she “invites him to violate her forcefully” (Spiers, 93). She does this by accusing Gawain of being a knight and obeying the rules of courtly love but still not showing her any love. Additionally, she asked Gawain to teach her love.
This did not mean for him to teach her how to love others, but for him to show affection towards her and thus show her and “teach” her his love. Gawain, however, was firm in his resolve not to be immoral. This is shown in verse 61, “Thus she tested and tried him, tempting him often, / so as to allure him to love-making, whatever lay in her heart. / But his defense was so fair that no fault could be seen, / nor any evil upon either side, nor aught but joy they wist” (Gawain, verse 61). Gawain and Lady Bercilak kissed briefly before she left, and Gawain again returned the kiss to Sir Bercilak that night. Spiers said that through courtesy, Gawain also overcame this challenge (Spiers, 93). One of the reasons that courtesy is so important to handling these scenarios is that without courtesy, Gawain could have yelled at Lady Bercilak to leave his room or have chosen to do something that she did not like.
He, however, had excellent manners and was quite chivalrous and courteous. Because of his excellent ability to display courtesy, he was able to kindly talk his way around the immoral things that she tempted him to do and lead her to other things. His refusal to engage in sexual immoral activity also showed that he was striving for purity, unlike many other knights. Pity also related to courtesy, as without a soft and compassionate heart, Sir Gawain could not successfully display such kind courtesy. These things show that, during the first two hunting contests, Gawain definitely strove to display the five knightly virtues. The hunts have a spiritual symbolism that relates directly to what Gawain faces each day in the castle. Courtesy, one of the five virtues, must be used to vanquish the struggles.
While Gawain does well on the first two, he does not fully succeed the last time (Spiers, 93). The last hunt is the fox, which represents cunning (Spiers, 93). The hunt for the fox took place during the same time as Lady Bercilak was offering the green sash to Gawain. Even in the first part of this test, however, Gawain succeeds. In this first part, Gawain expresses his desire to give Lady Bercilak a gift before he departs on his journey. This fulfills the virtue of franchise, as many knights seem to have a duty to leave a gift with their lady before leaving them. Gawain, however, has nothing to give. In response, Lady Bercilak says that she will give him a gift: a beautiful ring.
Gawain refuses, stating that he has nothing to give in return and therefore will not accept it. This also upholds the virtue of franchise, as he does not want to be unfair. Even when Lady Bercilak offers him the girdle, he does not accept and conceal it until he hears that it has the power to protect him from the Green Knight. Even though he remains courteous throughout the entire exchange and stays strong in the first part of the challenge, more is needed to pass the test than just one or two virtues. While courtesy and franchise are some of the key components to succeeding in all three tests, the other knightly virtues of pity, fellowship, and purity are all needed to fully succeed.While Gawain does not succeed in all the five knightly virtues, he still does his best and falters only when his life is at risk.
Finally, Gawain strives to maintain the five knightly virtues in the events following his taking the sash .After he takes the sash, Gawain confesses his sins (Berger, 96-97). He does not, however, mention the sash in his prayers, which shows the true condition of his heart. (Berger, 96-97). Sidney Berger writes that Sir Gawain is not truly repentant of taking the green sash in the events immediately following his action. She writes that directly after Gawain accepts the green sash from Lady Bercilak, he leaves to see a priest at the chapel. Here, he confesses his sins. During this time, he begs for mercy, confesses his sins, and prays for cleansing from them (Gawain, sec. 71).
Berger points out that Gawain does not, however, even mention the green sash in his prayer (Berger, 96-97). If he does not even admit his sin to God, then he cannot be truly repentant of it (at least, not at that moment) (Berger, 96-97). In succession, Gawain leaves immediately after his prayer to socialize and have fun. This is entirely unlike those who are truly repentant—they confess their sins fully, turn away from their sins, and do not try to ignore them by socializing. Gawain, however, does not do any of these things. This shows that he does not accurately uphold purity in this scenario, for Gawain, although he is declared the most faithful knight, allows worldly things to come between him and God (Berger, 87).
It is also a failure in fellowship, as Gawain has fellowship not for godly nor virtuous reasons, but to bury his own sin. As for the virtue of pity, he begins to have pity on himself instead of pity for others, so this is not a success in upholding the virtue of pity, either. Another way that Gawain may be trying to push down his sin is by referring to himself as a “servant of God” (Berger, 98-99). He can not, however, be a true servant of God during this time, for he is not relying on God, but the sash (Berger, 98-99). While these things are all true, they are things many people do today. Often, when people pray, they do not address everything that needs to be addressed in their prayers, and try to push down their guilt and sin.
There are different ways of pushing down guilt and sin. Some turn to alcohol and drugs, while others do things such as Gawain does by doing fun things and trying to think good things about themselves. But even when people sin, that does not mean that that is the end for them. If they turn back to God and stop relying on themselves, then they can all be servants of God and live virtuous lives. Gawain makes his share of mistakes, but he eventually stops relying on the green sash instead of the Lord. In fact, he goes from relying on his green sash for help to wearing it as a reminder that he needs help from God. His repentance shows that he displays purity. This clearly shows that while Gawain strays for a while, he still comes back to God and is able to uphold the knightly virtues once more.
“Gawain, with every reason to fear that the struggle will end his life, must confront his adversary at the Chapel of the Green Knight. As he goes to his fate, he is faced with the conscious choice between the dictates of self-interest and Christian honor—between faith in Christ and Mary that he will be saved by grace, or at least granted the courage necessary to end his life with dignity and moral perseverance, and faith in himself that he will be able through his own wits either to prepare himself in such a way as to be invulnerable to the knight’s ax blow or to avoid the confrontation altogether. Succumbing to the temptation to save himself, he accepts the protective girdle, and, despite the violation of his Christian honor, he vows to conceal his action from the hospitable Sir Bercilak” (Champion, 416).
Gawain’s temptation comes when he arrives at Bercilak’s castle. He is given the choice between relying on himself and relying on God. He chooses his own way to save his life. This, again, does not show Gawain as being intentionally evil and abandoning his faith. On the contrary, Gawain only chooses to place his faith in himself as a last resort. The Green Knight even has mercy on Gawain to spare his life, for he did not lie out of “artful wickedness, not for wooing either, / but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame / you” (Gawain, sec. 95).
The Green Knight, despite his rough, emotionless appearance, is able to understand that Gawain is only human, and that he, like everyone, makes mistakes. He sets an example for everyone to believe the best about Gawain. Therefore, while Gawain does fail to uphold all five knightly virtues after taking and concealing the sash, it is only because he fears for his life and struggles with trusting God. That does not mean, however, that he does not still strive to uphold the five virtues. One example of him striving to uphold the five knightly virtues is found in the fact that, despite his guide’s discouragement and urging Gawain to turn back, Gawain still decides to depart on the journey to face the Green Knight. While he does have the supposedly magic sash, he has no way of knowing if it really is magical, and it would be easier to turn around and pretend to have faced the Green Knight. But Gawain, a true knight, does not do this. He still chooses to do the right thing and meet the Green Knight to fight him.
In conclusion, in all three main areas of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which include: Arthur’s court, Sir Bercilak’s castle, and the events immediately following him taking the sash, Gawain does his best to maintain the five knightly virtues. Gawain, however, is only human. Despite all that he does, he ends up relying on himself, which is quite possibly the most human sin of all. As a result of relying on himself, his behavior in the same main three areas is affected negatively. This, however, does not define him. What defines him is that no matter if he is relying on himself, he still tries. He still goes to the Green Knight, still journeys back home, and still tries to maintain the five knightly virtues throughout everything.
Even at the end of the poem, when he is overcome by his hurt pride and shame, he still acknowledges his sin. The Green Knight himself acknowledges that Gawain has succeeded in upholding at least some of the five knightly virtues through saying, “As a pearl than white pease is prized more highly, / so is Gawain, in good faith, than other gallant knights” (Gawain, sec. 95). The Green Knight says this during his last encounter with Gawain, which is after Gawain had taken the green sash. Through these words, the Green Knight is telling Gawain that even though he stumbled because he feared for his own life, he still succeeded and is a success in his knighthood. Despite his faults, he is still a faithful knight. A hero is not defined by the times that number of times that he falls, but the number of times that he gets back up. Gawain is a hero, and, while he may have fallen hard, he continued to get up again.