From the first time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I have been troubled by the question of whether or not Sir Gawain was right or wrong in lying in order to keep the girdle and save his life. He was torn between honesty and his own life. The question he was forced to ask himself was “what did he value more: his honesty or his life? Many scholars have struggled with this question for centuries, as well as the questions of why Gawain made the decision that he did, how guilty he “really” felt for his actions, and what the poet is trying to tell the reader through Gawain’s ordeal.
When I was growing up I was told to always be honest. I was only “grounded” twice in my lifetime: once for not telling my mom where I went one afternoon and once for telling her a lie.
I was in Kindergarten and broke a candle (don’t ask me why or how). I blamed it on the cat. I couldn’t stand the pressure of my mother’s intense interrogation that consisted of simply asking me how the cat could possibly brake the candle which was surrounded by a hurricane lamp. My guilt was so overwhelming that I broke down and told her the truth. Thus, I was introduced to the concept of “grounding” and the importance of honesty. I was taught at a young age that the foundation of any relationship is honesty and without it, a friendship can only last so long and its roots go go only so deep.
But honesty is not everything. My mother would probably ground me again if I did not lie to someone to save my neck. There is another side to the question about Sir Gawain’s decision to not give Bertilac the green girdle. While honesty should be highly valued, it may be unwise to undervalue life itself. In almost every culture death, as well as Gawains’ culture, death is recognized “as a terrifying thing which men and animals alike try to escape by every device in their power, regardless of dignity or duty” (Burrow, ” The Third Fit” 37). It may be even more difficult to place an overriding significance on the value of honesty in light of life’s alternative: death.
“…images of death permeate the medieval world” (Clien. 55).
A modern reader of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should gain an understanding of what death means within the “cultural milieu” which surrounded the Gawain writer.
Wendy Clein in her book “Concepts of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” describes the chivalric approach to death as an uncomfortable and awkward marriage between the warrior’s code on one side and Christianity of the the antithetical side. The warrior code calls for the knight to “defy death in acts of heroism and thereby gain worldly fame” (55). However, the Christian doctrine demands that the knight surrender worldly fame and accept death as a “passage from this imperfect world to eternity” (55).
If knight is to gain fame and fulfill the warrior code that is so deeply engrained into the psyche of a warrior, he must play with death. This is what war and tournaments are all about. It is about looking death in the eye and not flinching.
Once a knight can do this he has fulfilled the warrior code of a knight, at least for the moment.
The Christian approach to death is much different from the warrior approach to death. While some parts of the poem may appear be simply “Christian in harmony with pre-Christian nature belief and ritual”, the issue of eternity and how to live life can be quite cacophonous (Speirs. 85). The Christian is called to reject the worldly glory that is offered by the world of the knight. However the knight who gives up worldly glory is not left without any honors or glory.
These temporal glories are replaced by the “spiritual rewards” that are enjoyed by the saints.
While it might appear that the two worlds of Christianity and the warrior are mutually exclusive, they can really compliment each other when human logic is applied. If warriors are supposed .