The Five Knightly Virtues of Gawain
“In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, how does Gawain represent the five knightly virtues? During this book Gawain is faced with many temptations to test his honor after he takes King Arthur’s place in a game with the green knight. On Christmas in Camelot, the green knight rides into King Arthur’s court on a green horse, just wanting to play a game. The challenge is Gawain will chop off the green knight’s head in exchange for blows. If the green knight survives, Gawain will have to meet him a year later to receive his axe blow. When it is time for Gawain to meet the green knight a year later, on his journey to find him he encounters a man by the name of Bertilak. Bertilak puts Gawain in many tempting situations with his wife, Lady Bertilak, in order to test his honor. Throughout the story Gawain is at a constant battle between upholding his virtues or saving his life. In the end, Bertilak ends up being the green knight and Gawain doesn’t get his head chopped off because he passes all of the tests to Bertilak’s liking. The five knightly virtues Gawain represents are generosity, chastity, friendship, courtesy and piety. In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, it is important for a knight to be loyal to his duty by upholding the five knightly virtues. Gawain did this by treating his people and his virtues as his number one priority even when his own life was at stake, and not letting greed and lust get the best of him.
One of the most obvious knightly virtues Gawain portrays is generosity. The green knight wanted to test the virtue of the knights in King Arthur’s court because of their reputation. Their reputation is of high standard and they always stay true to their word. The entire story of Gawain’s encounter with the green knight begins when he performs the generous act of taking King Arthur’s place in the game with the green knight. Gawain knew that there was a chance that his consequence from chopping the green knight’s head off could be death, but he would rather take the consequence than King Arthur. Gawain claims that he is the least of all of the knights and that is why he is worthy of the challenge. Gawain says to King Arthur, “were I not your nephew my life would mean nothing: to be born of your blood is my body’s only claim. Such a foolish affair is unfitting for a king” (356-358). This quote is not only evidence of Gawain’s generous act but it also show’s he did not step in for King Arthur in order to gain something for himself, it was just part of his duty to the king. Another example of Gawain portraying generosity is when he is getting ready to go find the green knight and a group of people called the courtly committee are worried about him and showing signs of sadness and sorrow. Instead of shying away, or having a bad attitude about the possible consequence, he is generous to the people and shows them comfort through his optimism. Gawain responds to the courtly committee by saying, “Why should I shy away. If fate is kind. or cruel, man still must try” (562-565). This quote solidifies that Gawain will accept whatever happens with a brave heart because that is part of upholding his honor.
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Throughout Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Lady Bertilak is constantly testing Gawain’s chastity by trying to seduce him. While Bertilak goes hunting during the day Gawain is alone with Lady Bertilak. Although he has every opportunity to break his honor he remains loyal to his virtues. The first time Lady Bertilak comes into Gawain’s room to seduce him she says, “And we are left alone, with my husband and huntsmen away in the hills and the servants snoring and my maids asleep and the door to this bedroom barred with a bolt” (1230-1233). She is trying to paint a picture in Gawain’s head to make him believe no one would find out if he were to break his honor. It would be wrong of him to love Lady Bertilak especially after all Bertilak has done for him. Also, at the end of the day whatever Gawain and Lady Bertilak exchange, he has to exchange the same with Bertilak. Every time Lady Bertilak visits Gawain she tries to sweet talk him into going farther with her, “For that noble princess pushed him and pressed him, nudged him ever nearer to a limit where he needed to allow her love or impolitely reject it” (1770-1772). This quote supports the claim that Lady Bertilak is testing Gawain’s vow to chastity but she is also telling him that he is impolite and rude for not asking for more from her. In order to not violate one of his other knightly virtues, he kisses her so she doesn’t think he is being discourteous. Although Gawain kisses Lady Bertilak he does not go farther in order to remain chaste and keep up his end of the deal with Bertilak. Not only does he want to resist temptation out of respect for Bertilak, but he also still needs Bertilak to help him find the green chapel to meet the green knight on time.
When Gawain first arrives at Bertilak’s castle the lord and the servants offer Gawain a warm welcome and friendship. Bertilak says to Gawain, “Behave in my house as your heart pleases. To whatever you want you are welcome, do what you will” (835-837). During Gawain’s stay at Bertilak’s home, they also form a friendship through their agreement. Their agreement was whatever Bertilak catches during his hunt he will share with Gawain, and whatever Gawain receives from Bertilak’s wife he will share with Bertilak. Friendship is another one of the five knightly virtues Gawain is tested on. Gawain’s friendship is tested by his battle between falling into Lady Bertilak’s seduction and being truthful to Bertilak whenever they exchange their earnings at the end of the day. It is safe to argue that if Gawain would have went any further than a kiss with Bertilak’s wife it could have violated him and Bertilak’s friendship, or if he would not have been honest about his earnings he would have failed his testing. Another example of Gawain’s portrayal of friendship is through King Arthur and his friends at the Round Table. What Gawain did for King Arthur is a prime example of friendship that runs deep. This shows that Gawain values his friendship with King Arthur and the other knights so he felt compelled to face the consequence by standing in for them for the green knight’s challenge.
In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Gawain portrays the knightly virtue, courtesy. Throughout the text, Lady Bertilak is constantly tempting Gawain by saying all of the right words, but he still remains courteous towards her and never disrespects her.”