The Test of the Ideal in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By Maria Stromberg
This work was published in the Fall 2013 issue of The Lost Country. You may purchase a copy of this issue from us or, if you prefer, from Amazon.
Critics who read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight find themselves in disagreement on nearly every possible object of interpretation. This is partly because the poem itself is a combination of so many elements. William Vantuono observes that “[i]n combining fantasy and realism, Gawain is a romance with anti-romantic elements, it praises court life with an undercurrent of satire against a declining chivalric ideal, it calls up from the mythic past the shadows of archetypal figures, yet inspires modern psychoanalytic interpretations, and it entertains while teaching a moral-religious lesson.1” The characters in the poem have been interpreted in wildly opposite ways, either lauded for perfection and utter goodness, or derided as absurd, evil, or childish. Everything in Gawain presents the reader with a double possibility; but the real question is whether this possibility was intended by the poet, or whether modern criticism, rising from ideas and philosophies unthought of in the Middle Ages, has introduced into the poem an ambiguity that is anachronistic.
That the poem is not intended to portray an idealized knightly figure in the character of Gawain is fairly obvious. Both the knight and the reader are aware that he has somehow failed to uphold the virtues for which he is lauded at the beginning of his adventure. Whether this failure is trivial or not is a question that must be the subject of its own critical inquiry. Our interest, at any rate, lies in the realization that, as J.R.R. Tolkien expressed it, “in terms of literature, undoubtedly this break in the mathematical perfection of an ideal creature, inhuman in flawlessness, is a great improvement.2” Vantuono suggests that “the theme of Gawain is like life on earth, a combination of bright silver and dull bronze…Perhaps the poet deliberately developed ambiguity in his characters to show a human condition that is closer to life than any idealized creation could be, for no mortal is either all good or all bad.3” J.A. Burrow gives the clearest definition of this literary approach to the imperfect human condition when he says that, like Everyman, where the “hero’s confrontation with sin, death and judgment ends happily, thanks to his penance and God’s mercy,4” Gawain is a comedy. “[I]ts version of the Everyman experience is such that the hero can survive it bodily as well as spiritually, returning from it with honour and being reincorporated into his society—a more human kind of happy ending.5” “[T]he notion of comedy seems by its very nature to include all aspects of human life, the darkest as well as the brightest elements…6” This quote from Louise Cowan seems to mirror Vantuono’s image of Gawain as “bright silver and dull bronze,” and it suggests that by applying a theory of comedy to the poem, the ambiguities may be, if not resolved, arranged into a meaningful literary pattern.
I would like to focus, in this essay, on the most problematic and elusive figure in the poem, whose importance in the poem is no less that Gawain’s, if we are to judge by the title. The Green Knight is puzzling because he does not appear to be human; therefore, the ambiguities in how he is presented cannot be explained simply by assuming a fallen and imperfect nature. Instead, by his most obviously nonhuman aspect, his green skin and hair, he appears to be associated with one, or all, of three non-human realms, as Burrow points out: “according to medieval tradition, the colour green…was the colour of fairies, the colour of the dead, and the colour of the devil…Suggestions of the otherworld, the afterworld and the underworld are all appropriate enough in the context.7” On this point, as on many others, critics take wildly divergent stances, identifying the Green Knight with a number of historical figures, or with the devil, Merlin, Thor, a Christ-like figure or divine messenger, a ‘wild man’ or a Green Man.8 The interpretation accepted in the poem by the characters, however, is that he is a “fay-man,9” and this is borne out by later references to Morgan the Fay. Rather than clarifying the issue, however, this solution makes it more difficult; or rather, it allows the Green Knight to remain ambiguous, instead of reducing him to an allegory of pure good or evil. The world of Faerie in medieval folklore did not fit smoothly into the Christian world, in which heaven or hell were the only two possible origins for the supernatural. The inhabitants of Faerie could be good or evil, apparently at random; like human beings, they are morally unpredictable, but unlike humans they have unearthly powers. Like most figures of pre-Christian mythology, they represent, I would argue, forces and elements in human experience, seen apart from moral considerations.
In Gawain, however, the fay-man and his world intersect with the clearly moral and Christian world of Arthur’s court. Gawain, as representative of that world, is endowed with all human and knightly virtues, a figure of moral perfection. The poet’s intention, however, as represented above by Tolkien, Vantuono, and Burrow, is to bring this ideal perfection into contact with imperfect, lived, reality. In spite of his inhuman appearance and powers, then, the Green Knight is the representative of that imperfect reality, drawing Gawain out of his ideal courtly life into a journey that will test his ideals in less-than ideal circumstances. As Green Knight he embodies that force in experience that jolts the human being into action; and as Bertilak, in his human form as master of the castle, he is also the one who creates the circumstances of Gawain’s most difficult test of character. Finally, as the Green Knight once more, he makes Gawain aware of his imperfections, but does not punish him according to a strictly ideal sense of justice. Let us take these three moments and examine them in turn, to see how the Gawain poet has transformed the world of Faerie into an image for the imperfect world of human experience.
When the Green Knight first appears, he is described in conflicting terms. He is “half a troll” and “the largest man alive,10” and yet he is also “the seemliest for his size that could sit on a horse.” His green skin and hair are a cause for fear and astonishment, but he is dressed beautifully and like a courtly knight. Burrow remarks that “the whole of the following description hovers in a similar way between the monstrous-supernatural and the merry-human.11” In the same paradoxical vein, he wears no armor and carries in one hand a “holly-bundle,12” but in the other hand he carries an axe, “ugly and monstrous”. “It is as if the Green Knight offers peace with one hand and war with the other.13” The explanation that he gives for this, of course, is that he does not want a battle, but a game. He is dressed without armor to show his vulnerability for the blow that he will receive. The axe is not to be used by him, but by the knight who will choose to take up the challenge. In hindsight, the reader understands that the Green Knight is deliberately confusing the issue. If he were to appear in full armor, for example, his chances of surviving a blow might be higher, and the knights would be less likely to take up a challenge against a giant who would certainly have no difficulty in lopping off their heads. Although he speaks in a perfectly straightforward manner, the Green Knight has knowledge that he does not impart to Arthur and his knights. The test begins with a deliberate concealment—a deception that is not an outright lie. This element of deception is a characteristic part of the figure of the Green Knight, both in his gigantic and in his human form, until Gawain’s test is over. For this reason many critics find it impossible to see the Green Knight as a good or benevolent character. The natural modern reaction, as I see it, is to cry “foul.” Gawain did not know he was being tested. Or rather, he did know: I think too little is made of the fact that a normal human being, however knightly, might experience some difficulty in cutting a giant’s head at one blow. What he saw as a test of strength, however, turned out to be something far more subtle.
Rather than cry foul, let us consider the Green Knight as a figure of real experience intruding into the ideal world. He operates by the rules of Arthur’s world, presenting himself in clear terms as a challenger, a man who understands the courtly rules and virtues. He knows Gawain, for example. Gawain, on the other hand, and all the knights in fact, do not know the Green Knight, in spite of his declaration when he leaves: “I am known to many.14” In spite of abiding by the courtly rules, however, the Green Knight cannot, or rather, does not, disguise his difference from what an ideal knight should be. He is a giant, his hair and skin color are unnatural, and these facts betray the unexpected nature of real experience. It does not appear to abide by the rules of what should or should not exist. It is unintelligible, irreducible to intellectual categories. For this reason, Arthur and the knights are understandably terrified. They are not cowards; but their perfect world has been shattered by the intrusion of something imperfect, something that does not fit, that is too large and vivid for understanding. The Green Knight’s deception, then, is not a sign of his deliberate malice, but a natural result of what he is—an experience that is too immediate, too opaque, to be understood directly. Consider Denton Fox’s statement that “the poem is unusually solid and opaque.15” This is the nature of experience, as a brief moment of recollection is enough to convince any of us. The consequences of our actions often prove to be far other than we had expected; and every situation which requires action becomes a test of our ideals in ways that we only understand much later. Gawain, expecting a test of strength, cuts off the Green Knight’s head, and only then discovers that the real test is one of truth and valor. He must keep his word and travel outside of Arthur’s court, in order to have his own head, quite probably, cut off in turn.
Earlier versions of the beheading story apparently existed in which “the hero, after surviving the token return blow and thus proving his courage and fidelity, is asked by the giant challenger to strike off his head for the second time. The hero complies, and the giant by this act is unspelled.16” The Gawain poet, however, changes the story by making the Green Knight capable of shifting his form without the intervention of the hero. The reason for this very significant change must be found in the central part of the poem, which constitutes Gawain’s second test. Clearly, the poet was not satisfied by the simple test of truth and bravery involved in seeking out the giant and accepting his blow. Gawain would have aced that test, or at any rate passed with a very high grade, as in fact he does at the end of this poem, flinching only once at the blow. In such a straightforward situation, the courtly knight knows what to expect and his ideals are tested by his own standards. However, if, as I am arguing, the Green Knight represents the opaque and often deceptive nature of human experience, the Gawain poet needed to present Gawain with a more difficult situation. This occurs in the castle of the knight whose name is eventually revealed as Bertilak de Hautdesert, but only after he has been revealed to be the Green Knight himself. In the world that Gawain enters after he leaves Arthur’s court (call it the world of Faerie if you like), things are not quite as clear-cut and perfect as he would like them to be. The castle itself seems like an exact image of Arthur’s court: there is a noble master who is jolly and engaged in active sport, a beautiful lady whose most pressing interest is courtesy; there are feasts, and laughter, and Gawain is received and treated as the finest of guests, with the same honor that he is accorded in Arthur’s court. Here, however, it becomes clear that something is different.
For the lady, courtesy is an element of appearance, and not of inner worth. Bertilak’s jolly welcome, although sincere enough, is motivated by facts that Gawain does not understand; namely, Bertilak’s knowledge of Gawain and satisfaction that he has taken up the challenge. The friendly exchange that he proposes, of everything that the two of them have gained in the day, is explicitly designed to test Gawain, and the Green Knight later admits that he had deliberately set his wife to tempt her guest. That test, however, Gawain passes easily enough; he is sufficiently aware of the lady’s intentions that his innate virtue warns him and keeps him on guard. The real difficulty of the situation lies, not in the hidden motivations of his host, but in the fact that two of his virtues have been set at odds with each other: courtesy and chastity. He is forced to act with courtesy while refusing the advances of the lady, and the difficult balance which he keeps between the two, quite well, we might add, nonetheless distracts him from the other virtue that he needs to keep in mind: truth, or loyalty to his word. Just at the moment when he has successfully navigated every trap, as he thinks, the lady offers him her girdle with the tempting statement that it is magical and will save him from harm. Gawain immediately accepts it, and he fails to tell Bertilak about it, naturally, since if he were forced to return it it would do him no good. Thus he fails in his promise to Bertilak. This is Gawain’s one moment of imperfection, apart from the reaction of fear at the Green Knight’s blow.
The Green Knight, even though he is given as much time in this part of the poem as Gawain is, does little more than provide the poet with opportunities to create some very fine hunting scenes. Only on later knowledge that he has orchestrated the entire situation of Gawain’s temptation do we realize that his importance has been undimmed. What is significant about his presence as Bertilak, however, is that he is quite clearly human, in spite of his occasional shape-shifting skills. This makes his character in some ways even more ambiguous. He lives an ordinary life, with a wife and servants, sleeps under a roof, hunts and eats to live, and is in all ways an embodied human, not simply a fay who is imitating the appearance of a human. Nonetheless, his world, for all intents and purposes like the ideal world of Camelot, is a place as ambiguous and imperfect as his own appearance in the form of the Green Knight. It is a place that challenges Gawain, embroils him in a experience in which the virtues, beautifully equal in the pentangle that he wears, seem to become relative to each other and to his situation. In the end, the peril of his situation takes precedence over his fidelity to his word, but only after he has become wearied by the constant struggle between courtesy and chastity. Like the Green Knight, Bertilak’s castle is a less-than-ideal experience, something that happens too quickly and intensely to allow for clear reflection before a choice is made. The choice that Gawain thinks he makes, here, is to save his life at the expense of his virtue. The real outcome of his choice is that his life is spared only because of his virtue, and his one lapse in virtue is the cause, not of salvation, but of the only wound that he receives.
When the Green Knight reappears, the test is completed and he speaks with utter clarity. He reveals that he has been enchanted by Morgan la Fay, but he does not seem to be under any compulsion to act. Instead, he acknowledges the tests that he has laid on Gawain, and rejoices at the fact that he has passed them. Let us not, therefore, fall into the trap of thinking that Gawain has failed utterly. The virtues of Arthur’s court have held up quite well in the unexpected situations to which he has been exposed. His failure has been slight, and caused by fear of death, which the Green Knight understands as perfectly natural.
As a pearl than white pease is prized more highly,
so is Gawain, in good faith, than other gallant knights.
But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, not for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.17
Although, ideally, love of life should not take precedence over virtue, human experience teaches us that situations of peril overwhelm us with the same unintelligible force that emanates from the figure of the Green Knight. It is sometimes impossible not to flinch in action, even if the mind would tell us to do otherwise.
My interpretation of the Green Knight, then, is that he is messenger of experience, invading the world of pure thought and ideal, testing the perfect Christian knight against an imperfect, fallen world. Whether one calls him devil or angel seems to be irrelevant: his motivations are not the subject of the poem, and from what he says we can only gather that he is delighted at Gawain’s virtue, even though Morgan, whose power he uses, appears to have purely evil motives. In any case, this mixture of possible good and evil in his motivations is simply another expression of the ambiguity of human experience. The medieval Christian believed it possible for God to work through the temptations of the devil, just as he allowed Job to be tempted by Satan. Louise Cowan says of comedy that “deception and disguise are undertaken to make bad situations work out better.18” Although in this case, the Green Knight appears to make a good situation worse, his deceptions and disguises have the effect of bringing virtue, through Gawain, out of the ideal realm, and into the imperfect realm of human experience. Gawain’s virtues shine all the stronger when they have been tested in the darkness, and that darkness is made all the brighter for them.
- Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1966.
- Cowan, Louise. Introduction. The Terrain of Comedy. By Cowan. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18.
- Friedman, Albert B. “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays. Ed. Robert J. Blanch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. 135-158.
- Fox, Denton. Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Fox. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968. 1-12.
- “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. 19-97.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. Introduction. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Tolkien. 1-17.
- Vantuono, William. Introduction. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Vantuono. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. xiii-xxxviii.