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Sir Gawain: A New Hero

The subject of the romance in SGGK is romance itself. One of the central elements of the poems playing within the bounds of romance is it’s portrayal of character. While Pace has argued that Gawain’s fundamentally static character is less interesting than the Green Knight, the Gawain-poets depiction of his hero can be seen as a move away from the romance which cannot comprehend ‘the halftones of ordinary human nature’ as Everett says.

Bercovitch has argued that SGGK is written in a comic realist mode, and that its parody is a good-humoured investigation of its own genre as a way of validating and affirming its values, while including recognition of the conflict of different ethical systems romance idealises. In this context, the presentation of Gawain in his negotiating through the multiple requirements of the chivalric code can be seen as central to the creation of a new imperfect hero.

In its presentation of a fusion of the religious and courtly and heroic, the text emphasises the limitations of human nature in a way which both partakes in chivalry conventional tragic self-presentation and inverts that presentation with what can be seen as a celebration of fallibility as humanity. 

Gawain’s heroic character is presented in traditional terms as his armour is described, yet as Bisson points out in the series of tests Gawain goes through he never approaches a battlefield. As in Sir Orfeo, natural enemies, cold and rain as well as wolves, are fore grounded over the more traditional foes he encounters in the wilderness. The end of his journey in his encounter with the apparent representative of nature in the chapel is doubly false, in that it is revealed to be not a test but a paradoxical reward for failure, as well as in the final revelation of the Morgan plot. Gawain’s heroic journey is diminished in being placed within a larger, enigmatic but finally artificial plot. 

The test the hero has undergone was one which involved courtly manners where he is on a knife-edge between discourtesy and compliance in Everett’s words. As fine fader of nurture, Gawain is shown to be subject to human nature.

The religious element of his journey is strong and double sided as the presentation of the shield with Mary on one side and the pentangle, a pagan symbol on the other shows. Levy has argued that Gawain’s progress is an imitation of Christ, within the convention of the pilgrimage presenting spiritual growth through a worldly metaphor. In this reading Gawain’s turn from pride to humility is a rebirth which sees suffering as redemptive and the creation of a new character.

This argument which presents a character moving from traditional static hero to a chastened sinner can be seen within the idea of the creation of a new hero however it also perhaps elides the elements of irony and parody throughout the poem.

Seeing the green girdle as central to the poem’s presentation of Gawain Shaof argues that the point of the story is the placing of the hero in a situation where he recognises his own imperfection, and need for relativity and relationships. Gawain’s surquidre is revealed as the measure is measured, and his name the most essential chivalric sign is questioned ‘if ye be wawen’ and taken away ‘thou art not Gawain.’ This can be seen as part of the poem’s moulding of a new character for its hero, yet it also shows that rennes is dependent on relativity – the fact that Gawain is recognised by the court is dependent on his reputation which in turn depends on his relations with those around him. His surfet, excess of self-reliance, and his dependence on manners and formality is part of his idolatrous collapsing of the ideal he signifies with himself as its sign so that ‘being chivalry he forgets to practise chivalry’.

Shoaf argues that Gawain’s trawthe and pride in his perfection in withstanding the lady as temptress is itself the point at which his trawthe fails. ‘At the third thou fayleth’ is not a condemnation so much as the revelation of human weakness. Gawain cannot finally imitate Christ for he cannot accept death.

In contrast to this reading, Berger sees Gawain’s failure’s as pervasive, from the beginning in his elaborate arming and the futility and artifice emphasises in the extended ekhprasis, as well as in his prayer for harbour not as spiritual safety but physical comfort. In the parallels drawn between the hunt and the bedroom scenes, the deer’s shyness has been likened to Gawain’s feigning sleep yet Berger argues that this scene includes a double indictment, as sleeping is metaphorically a wandering and relaxing of vigilance on such a quest, while feigning sleep is doubly sinful as deceit. Accepting the subjective value of the girdle Gawain’s hiding it becomes a deeper sin in the confession which ‘sette hym so clene’. The silence about the girdle in the text can be seen as symptomatic, a linguistic parallel to Gawain’s silence yet the significant detail of Gawain’s choosing the way to confession emphasis his awareness. His prayer to be kept safe when he goes hence is also ambiguous while the guide’s advice to him to find a road ‘upon goddess halve’ can be seen as a sign that Gawain has wandered from the straight path. 

Gawain’s humiliation as his failure is revealed to him has been read both as acceptance of human nature and as Berger argues, the continuation of a pride which refuses the efficacy of confession. Baroff notes that we are on the side of mortality and in this sense Gawain’s anger is part of his human fallibility, and can perhaps be seen as an indictment of the superhuman demands of the pentangle’s universal and rigid code.

Failure leads to the creation of a new covenant, the replacement of green girdle for pentangle. Shaof reads this as allowing the plurality of meaning to take place of the rigid interpretative capacity which takes the literal over the play of possibility – in Berger’s argument Gawain fails to hear the subtleties of the guide’s words and takes it literally as an invitation to flee self-destruction. The depiction of Gawain as new unheroic hero can be seen as part of the movement of the medieval sinner figure from the periphery of the text to its centre, a movement which involved as Braswell says, and a new focus on the inner self. 

Kane’s statement that the classifications of romance are diminished by their failure to be true to form can be seen as particularly appropriate for SGGK which involves as Shoaf says a questioning of it’s own form which ensures, in its need for reinterpretation, it’s survival and continuance. Gawain’s quest is in this sense a movement from the hero as embodiment of ideals to in Berger’s words a picture of the solitary human in a difficult world. 

written: 2007
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