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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle-English chivalric romance. “But what defines it as such?” one may ask. A chivalric romance tells the story of a knight who, while on a quest, learns about (and sometimes starts to question) himself, his culture, or his beliefs. On his quest to find the Green Knight, Sir Gawain leaves Camelot and enters a wild forest. Here, he is forced to abandon the codes of chivalry that he is used to abiding by and give in to his animal nature.
The world in which the story is set, that of a fictional England in the late 14th century, places great importance in behavior and appearance. The morals and deeds of the characters in the poem are shaped by the code of chivalry, which was, as Wikipedia puts it, “a moral system which combined a warrior ethos, knightly piety, and courtly manners, [thus establishing] a notion of honour and nobility” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
In chivalric romances, the hero has to follow a code of knightly conduct, which includes being loyal to his liege, being kind and generous, and helping others. Gawain himself is the example of a perfect knight. He is courteous and just, and never shies away from helping those weaker or less fortunate than him.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur’s court does not only follow the code of chivalry: it depends on it so heavily that when the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being afraid of words, saying that words and appearances hold too much power over them.
The members of the company choose to appear courteous and well-spoken rather than reveal their true feelings (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Main Ideas). However, despite the Green Knight insinuations that Arthur’s court cares more about words and beauty than honor and action, Sir Gawain, as always loyal to his king, steps up and accepts the Knight’s challenge.
The poem does not suggest that the codes of chivalry should be abandoned. In fact, Gawain’s determination to follow them is what keeps him from betraying his host and sleeping with his wife. Gawain does, however, learn a lesson from the Green Knight’s challenge: at a basic level, he is just a human being whose main concern is his own survival. Chivalry offers a noble set of behaviors and ideals to strive but one must at the same time be aware of their own flaws, weaknesses, and physical limits. Gawain’s time in the forest, his acceptance of the Lady’s girdle, his flinching at the Green Knight’s axe, teach him and us that chivalrous as he may be, errare umano est.
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