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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Research Papers

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight students witness a product of the medieval mind that dates from the 14th century. Therefore, this can be one of the more challenging research papers to write due to the language and meaning behind the story. Have Paper Masters custom write your research paper on Sir Gawain and receive a model project that illustrates exactly how to interpret the story.

It is to be noted that there is to be found in the poem a neat moral symmetry.

  1. The Green Knight makes two passes with his axe at Gawain and then wounds him slightly in the neck.
  2. The two passes represent bargains with the lord of the castle made and kept by Gawain, the kisses from the lord’s wife returned to his host.
  3. The cut is delivered because of a bargain made and not kept, Gawain’s retention of the girdle.

Everything is exactly proportional.

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Sir Gawain and the Green KnightIn Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we see two views of fatalism that are placed side by side at the beginning of the second part of the poem. The first instance of a fatalistic outlook is seen in the lovely nature poetry that describes the cycle of the seasons. Here there is an elegiac tone to be seen in some of the lines, e.g. “Soon the year slides past, never the same twice;/ There is no foretelling its fulfillment from the start”. Note the sense of helplessness expressed in the second line. The requirements of the plot dictate that if an account of the four seasons is to be placed at this point in the poem, it will begin with winter and end with fall. But consider what would be the case if this account had been placed somewhere and some way so that it began with summer and ended with spring. The whole meaning would change and the note struck would be light-hearted rather than expressive of fatalism. In reading medieval literature it should always be born in mind that people were enormously dependent on what the seasons brought. So when the poet says that there is “no foretelling” what the years will bring he is saying something very important. If the crops fail, there is no supermarket where you can go to get the produce of a place where they did not fail. This account of the seasons by the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poet is, like the image of Fortune’s Wheel, deeply fatalistic.

Themes within Sir Gawain

The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Night is unknown. However, the text of this fourteenth-century romantic poem centers on Sir Gawain's promise to the Green Knight, Sir Gawain's errors, his eventual fall due those errors, and his subsequent redemption. In many respects, the heroic ideals of Sir Gawain are opposite those of the Green Knight. While Sir Gawain views himself as a hero because he is a member of the Round Table, he also questions his heroism by those same standards of knighthood and chivalry. In many respects, the standards of heroism that Sir Gawain uses are religious in nature. That is, they promote his duty to religious ideals, rather than to his ability to save other people from a natural evil, such as a dragon. Moreover, Sir Gawain is an imperfect hero, who has many adventures but also makes moral mistakes. In one case, he recalls biblical characters as he notes his errors with the Green Knight's wife:

And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by Solomon by many more, and Samson the
mighty –
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter.

The above passage demonstrates the tradition of heroes who have acted improperly, yet remain religious heroes. This expresses a different heroic ideal than the Green Knight, who is noble, strong and acts out of personal courage rather than religious duty. Earlier in Sir Gawain, when the reader is told of Gawain's many virtues, we learn that "all his fealty was fixed upon five wounds/That Christ got on the cross". The heroic virtues that Gawain possesses are very Christ-like, including boundless beneficence, brotherly love, pure mind and manners, and compassion. The Green Knight, on the other hand, is more like the wild man who is prepared to accept any challenge. While the heroic standards of Sir Gawain reflect moral and religious ideals, the Green Knight's heroic standards reflect the laws of nature. Deeds and compassion may demonstrate Gawain's heroism. The Green Knight must express his heroism through powerful actions, such as slaying a dragon or standing motionless while his head rolls at his feet.

The similarities and differences of the two character's views of heroism are apparent in Part IV, when Sir Gawain suffers the perils of nature to reach the Green Knight's castle deep in the forest. Sir Gawain has come to receive the beheading that due from the Green Knight, according to their earlier agreement. For Gawain, it is duty that drives him to meet with the knight, not heroism. In fact, Sir Gawain appears genuinely afraid as he first comes upon the Green Knights castle, which he describes as "hideous, half-covered with grass…in hell's own style!". In other words, Sir Gawain is fearful, yet because he is doing his moral duty, he views himself as a heroic. On the other hand, the Green Knight views Sir Gawain's arrival as the fulfillment of a duty, which is quite different from his definition of an act of courage or heroism.

Later in Part IV, when Sir Gawain offers "His bare neck to the blade,/ And feigned a cheerful face:/ He scorned to seem afraid". In this passage, Sir Gawain is attempting to be courageous, and truly wants to appear as though he is prepared to die because it is his duty as a knight to keep his word. However, because the Green Knight is such an imposing figure with such a huge ax, Sir Gawain can not hide his fear:
         

But Gawain at the great ax glanced up aside
As down it descended with death-dealing force,
And his shoulders shrank a little from the sharp iron.  
When the Green Knight notes that Sir Gawain has cringed beneath the blow of the ax, rather than stayed still like a hero should, he did not behead him. Instead, the Green Knight stopped before the ax fell:
"You are not Gawain the glorious," the green man said,
"That never fell back on the field in the face of the
foe,
And now you flee for fear, and have felt no harm:
Such news of a knight I never heard yet!".
In the above passage the Green Knight views Sir Gawain as a coward. He notes that he "moved not a muscle," when Sir Gawain beheaded him one year earlier. The Green Knight adds:
My head fell to my feet, yet steadfast I stood,
And you all unharmed, are wholly dismayed –
Wherefore the better man I, by all odds, must be.

By challenging Sir Gawain's courage, the Green Knight has humiliated him, and Sir Gawain feels he cannot be judged a coward and must regain his image as a heroic knight. To do this, Gawain pleads with the Green Knight to "Strike once more; I shall neither flinch nor flee". When the Green Knight obliged and Sir Gawain did stand still as stone when the ax began to fall, the Green Knight withdrew the ax again before it did any damage, and mocked Sir Gawain: "So now you have your nerve again, I needs must strike". When the Green Knight brought his ax down the final time he barely scratched Sir Gawain. When Gawain saw his own blood on the snow, he leaped away quickly and presumed a defensive posture.

Now Gawain is restored and prepared to defend his life. The Green Knight had delivered one blow, according to the agreement, and the Sir Gawain had survived. Rather than view Gawain as a coward, the Green Knight explained:

  1. The first blow was missed due to his "frolicsome mood"
  2. The second missed blow was for the time Sir Gawain had kissed his wife

The Green Knight placed the green bridle on Gawain to remind him of "the wooing of his wife". However, because the Green Knight believed that "True men pay what they owe," and Sir Gawain had now paid all that he owed, the Green Knight pointed believed he was now more heroic than other members of the Round Table:

As pearls to white peas, more precious and prized,
So is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.
You lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,
But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to
Blame.

Gawain curses himself for having a cowardly and covetous heart, and confesses that now he is "faulty and false…most dire is my misdeed;/ Let me gain back your good grace". The Green Knight accepts his confession and tells Gawain that he holds him "polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright/ As you had lived free of fault since the day you were born" . In this way, Sir Gawain is forgiven, but he still feels remorse for the misdeeds he has committed. Even after he returns to King Arthur's Round Table, he shows his scar and the belt, and tells his them, "This is the badge of false faith," that he received for the "the cowardice and coveting" that he was responsible for at the Green Chapel. In this way, the Green Knight, who perceived Gawain as cowardly in the beginning of Part IV, had come to view Gawain as a hero after he had paid what was due to him. Gawain, on the other hand, began Part IV feeling heroic for going to the Green Chapel, as he had promised, and ended by viewing himself as cowardly and covetous, for wooing the Green Knight's wife and cringing beneath the ax blade.  As the above discussion demonstrates, Sir Gawain viewed his actions much differently than the Green Knight viewed Gawain's actions. Gawain viewed his actions according to the moral and religious standards of the Round Table, while the Green Knight viewed Gawain's action from the perspective of natural consequences. Because they viewed Sir Gawain's heroism from different perspectives, they would never view Sir Gawain's actions in the same light. When he confessed to the Green Knight and gained forgiveness, Sir Gawain was doomed to carry the green belt and remember his immoral actions. The Green Knight's standards of heroism were based on natural consequences and courage, while Sir Gawain's idea of heroism was based on moral principles of duty and morality.

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