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In medieval times, a knight’s worth was not simply determined by their battle prowess. The code of chivalry brought a set of virtues which shaped their followers’ words and actions. Among the values of the code of chivalry was loyalty and righteousness. Loyalty was crucial since a knight lived to serve and protect their lord and others who depended on them in order to maintain the social order. Righteousness was another key trait of a medieval hero as knights strives to live by their promises and do what is right,devoting themselves to their lords and abiding by their every command.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the tale of one of the noblest of knights from the round table, Sir Gawain, who epitomizes these traits. Although some may argue Sir Gawain is most definitely not a medieval hero due to him lying to his host later on, Gawain undoubtedly exemplifies the traits of a medieval hero as demonstrated by his unwavering loyalty to his lord and his sense of righteousness.
Sir Gawain displays his loyalty and righteousness by sacrificing himself when he volunteered himself in Arthur’s place in the Green Knight’s game and his sense of righteousness by fulfilling his deal with the Green Knight at all costs.
The poem begins with the Green Knight, later known as Bertilak, barging in on King Arthur’s Christmas celebration to propose a challenge to test the honor of the infamous knights of the Round Table. Initially, none of the court was willing to accept the challenge.
Arthur prepares to do it himself, but is quickly intercepted by Gawain who offers himself in Arthur’s place by saying, “My only worth is you, my royal Uncle, all my virtue is through you. And this foolish business fits my station, not yours: let me play this green man’s game,” (356-359). One of the core values a knight must hold themselves to is their devotion to their lord. None of the Arthur’s court was willing to step up and take on Bertilak’s challenge, their infamous courage was for naught. The knights’ fears far outweighed their knightly duties. Gawain cannot allow the pride of the court be stained by refusing Bertilak’s challenge, even though he might not be the best knight to undertake the challenge as he says, “this foolish business fits my station” as he is limited in strength compared to his peers Gawain steps up to the challenge anyways, propelled by his loyalty and devotion to Arthur.
Even though Bertilak came under the guise of peace, they know that the “game” is a death sentence. Despite this knowledge, Gawain volunteers, therefore exemplifying the loyalty a knight should have for their lord as Gawain was voluntarily giving up his life to defend Arthur. Additionally, a medieval hero must also stay loyal to the ideals they choose to live by and the promises they’ve made. By doing so, they keep their morals in check in order to not lose sight of themselves. Later on in the poem, after facing countless trials and tribulations, Gawain finally approaches Bertilak’s chapel. The servant only brings Gawain up to a certain point and begged Gawain to turn back and run, even by saying that he’d lie on Gawain’s behalf. Yet, Gawain refused, saying, “. . . If I rode away, fled for fear, as you tell me, I’d be a coward no knight could excuse. Whatever happens, I’m going to that chapel . . . it will happen . . . as fate decides;” (2129-2135).
The plot gives Gawain many chances to back out of before his final journey to the chapel, the instance with the servant being the last possible chance Gawain had, but in the end, even certain death cannot deter Gawain from his task. Essentially isolated in the forest, Gawain is influenced by no one, his reputation would remain secure no matter what he decides. Nethertheless, he acts righteously by upholding the commitment he has made, even when offered an out by the servant. Gawain’s fear of death did not stop him from keeping his word which was propelled by his strong sense of righteousness. He refuses to back down on his promise he made as Gawain strives to live up to his word as sincerely as possible. He is not doing this for any personal gain or to further glorify his reputation, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
He remarks how ‘whatever happens’, he will see this through till the end. However, some may say Gawain is not a medieval hero as he exhibits disloyalty towards the end when he lies to the Bertilak about receiving the green belt from his wife.At face value it may seem that Gawain turned against Bertilak. However, one must consider the context in which this act was committed. Born out of the innate desire to survive, Gawain shows himself to be a human by accepting the belt from the lady. Understandable, considering Gawain most certainly cannot put his head back after being decapitated. Above all else, Gawain is a human being, capable of error like any other. Gawain took the green scarf primarily because it would’ve protected him once he faced Bertilak. He didn’t accept the belt with the intent to deliberately go against his host. After Bertilak exposes himself as the host whom Gawain has betrayed, Gawain swears to him that he will serve penance by wearing the green belt for the rest of his life. And by doing so, he is atoning for his mistake. He realizes he cannot be this perfect righteous knight. Coming to this realization was crucial in allowing gawain to grow. Despite the high expectations he has for himself, he is still bound by his human limitations.
Realizing his humanistic flaws, however, only empowers him. Because recognizing his humanity, he can now go forth and learn from it and grow to be a better knight, thus a better hero. The belt serves as a symbol of his failure, but also of his humility. By wearing it, he has embraced his weakness and holds tight to his humility because these are what make him human. In the end, Bertilak spares Gawain, since he passed his test. Although he did not overcome it cleanly, his confession and atonement for his sins far outweighs his wrongdoings. Because Gawain repents for his sins in such an honorable manner, the symbol of his one failure in the poem actually becomes a defining symbol of his loyalty and righteousness.
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