t’s Chivalric Attributes
Loyalty, courage, honor, purity, and courtesy are all attributes of a
knight that displays chivalry. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is truly a story
of the test of these attributes. In order to have a true test of these
attributes, there must first be a knight worthy of being tested, meaning that
the knight must possess chivalric attributes to begin with. Sir Gawain is self
admittedly not the best knight around. He says “I am the weakest, well I know,
and of wit feeblest; / and the loss of my life will be least of any” (Sir
354-355). To continue on testing a knight that does not seem worthy
certainly will not result in much of a story, or in establishing a theme.
Through the use of symbols, the author of Sir Gawain is able to show that Gawain
possesses the necessary attributes to make him worthy of being tested. He also
uses symbols throughout the tests of each individual attribute, and in revealing
where Gawain’s fault lies. The effective use of these symbols enables the
author to integrate the test of each individual attribute into a central theme,
or rather one overall test, the test of chivalry.
To establish the knight as worthy, the author first shows Gawain’s
loyalty to his king.
The Green Knight challenges anyone in the hall to the
beheading game and no one takes him up on it. Arthur, angered by the Green
Knight’s taunting, is about to accept the challenge himself when Gawain steps in
saying “would you grant me this grace” (Sir Gawain, l. 343), and takes the ax
from Arthur. This is a very convenient way for the author to introduce Gawain
and also to show Gawain’s loyalty to Arthur, but it seems almost too convenient.
There is an entire hall full of knights, why does Gawain alone step up? Why is
it that a superior knight such as Lancelot does not step up? The Green Knight
is big and of course he is green, which might explain some of the delay in
acceptance of the challenge, but these knights are warriors. The color green is
not a frightening enough color, even combined with the Green Knight’s size, to
scare a true warrior.
The possible reason for the hesitation by the knights
could lie in the description of the Green Knight’s eyes. The author points them
out in line 304, “and roisterously his red eyes he rolls all about” (Sir
Gawain). The critic Robert B. White Jr. says that “one need not look far to
discover the general symbolic significance of red when it appears in early
literature; it is generally associated with blood, cruelty, and violence”
(224). The Green Knight’s eyes display just how sinister he is and provide the
reason that the other knights are hesitant to accept the challenge.
willingness to accept definitely sets him apart from the other knights. The
author uses this symbol to reveal that Gawain is not only loyal, but also
courageous, and worthy to have his attributes put to the test.
The author goes on to reveal yet another very important attribute of the
loyal knight, his moral goodness. This is done in the description of the shield
that Gawain arms himself with to undertake his journey to the Green Chapel. The
shield is adorned “with a pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (Sir Gawain, l.
This pentangle symbolizes Gawain’s “faith in the five wounds of Christ
and the five joys of the Virgin Mary, and his possession of the five knightly
virtues. . .” (Howard 47). This display of Gawain’s moral perfection, or purity,
reinforces his worthiness to undergo the test of his chivalric attributes.
Honor is another very important attribute that a knight must possess.
Gawain has given his word while accepting the beheading challenge that he will
meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel in one year’s time. This journey is
not an easy task by any means. The author tells us “many a cliff must he climb
in country wild; / far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride” (Sir
Gawain, l. 713-714). This journey is also taking place in winter and “near
slain by the sleet Gawain sleeps in his irons / more nights than enough, among
the naked rocks” (Sir Gawain, l. 729-730).
The author’s vivid description of
what Gawain must go through to get to the Green Chapel is symbolic in testing
Gawain’s honor. It .