The Part Played by Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Saturday, 17 June 2017
Chivalric test - Lady Bertilak tests the limits of knightly virtue to bring Gawain down
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is justifiably famous for many things; one of the most unusual is the way that it ends. Here, written in another hand, is the famous motto of the Knights of the Garter, Honi Soit Qui Mal Pense (missing the “y” of the full version). Founded by Edward III, the Order of the Garter was one of a number of chivalric “orders” established in the Middle Ages; arguably it is one of the most famous. But what is the significance of this line at the end?
Duty and honour
In his masterful work, Chivalry (New Haven & London, 1984), Maurice Keen defines chivalry as “an ethos is which martial, aristocratic and Christian elements were fused together”. Typically, a knight – a chevalier or horse rider – was expected to be an expert at arms while at the same time being pure in motives; in particular towards women. It was part of the chivalric code – depending on which contemporary texts a knight followed – to seek always to be better, accruing greater virtue as a consequence. His honour meant there could be no going back.
So it is that when accepting the Green Knight’s ghoulish challenge Gawain is honour bound to seek him in a year’s time – knowing well that death will be the only outcome. Despite the dangers facing him, he must proceed with his task both for honour’s sake and to improve himself as a knight bound by his code.
Ritual and religion
Ritual, akin to a religious ceremony in itself, is key to the carrying out of his task and to his eventual success. The poet tells us in great detail about the virtues ascribed to Gawain as exemplified in the points of his heraldic device, the interlocking star on his shield. The beautiful tapestry of tulips on which he is ritualistically armed almost represents paradise – the destination for every true and virtuous knight. This is important of course because he is also deeply religious. We see this later when Gawain must find harbour to pray on Christmas eve, harbour which he finds at Hautdesert. He also appears to ascribe to the contemporary cult of Mary, having her image painted on the inside of his shield for protection.
Sexuality and virtue
But the biggest challenge facing Gawain is not the mortal danger he faces in the form of the Green Knight. Contemporary readers would well have understood that a chivalric knight was also duty bound to protect women; so when he confronts Lady Bertilak he is bound also to respect and to honour her. Yet in Lady Bertilak we have the opposite of the fair maiden so typical of the genre; we meet a married woman who is sexually provocative, flirtatious and seductive. Although it is never said, the poem is so tightly written that we assume that she is actually seeking relations of a sexual kind. This is highly dangerous, as contemporary audiences would well have understood.
Of course, despite her predations, Lady Bertilak ultimately fails to get Gawain between the sheets. Yet what she does achieve is getting our hero to take from her the Green Girdle which will protect him from any danger. It is Gawain’s failure to confess the ownership of this as part of his contract with Lord Bertilak which highlights his ultimate failure in achieving chivalric bliss: the quest always to be better than before.
Pride comes before a fall
This explains the level of Gawain’s anger when the Green Knight reveals that the whole episode was planned as a test of his honour. The wound of the great axe, in just nicking Gawain’s flesh in the Green Chapel, is deliberately slight. It is the great shame brought upon him by becoming disloyal which is the far greater wound; chivalry has been exposed as a poor substitute for religious virtue.
The “surquedry” of the chivalric order of the Round Table, its overweening presumptive pride, has been exposed as a group of knights whose obsession with betterment has come at the expense of honesty. Chivalry is a game played by a martial nobility who pretend to have the ethics of the clergy.
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