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The Enlightenment of Sir Gawain

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  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  2. The Green Knight's appearance at the court of King Arthur
  3. Gawain's spiritual education
  4. The beheading of the Green Knight
  5. Gawain's arrival at Sir Bertilak's castle
  6. The use of the word 'gaze'
  7. As in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is a model knight in all things material; he excels in his physical prowess as well as the arts of conversation and courtly love. Although he also exhibits outward signs of devotion and piety, his spirituality is called into question through the challenge of the Green Knight. The latter's greenness is a thematic trap that reveals the temptation to experience the spiritual and eternal in physical terms. The Green Knight, who may at first seem to represent the pagan Green Man, is actually a Christ figure who uses his natural image to entice Sir Gawain into the beheading game that is ultimately about the salvation of Gawain's soul, which is effected by teaching him to convert green into the gold of spiritual immortality through Christ's sacrifice.
The Green Knight appears at the court of King Arthur, significantly during the Christmas festivities. The initial description of him establishes him as within the realm of the supernatural while deceivingly arrayed in natural guise: ?Great wonder grew in hall/ At his hue most strange to see,/ For man and gear and all/ Were green as green could be? (Gawain 147-150). John Speirs and other critics have thus seen him as the Green Man, an old vegetation god, but this interpretation seems to be inconsistent with his role in the poem and the Christian environment which he inhabits. The Green Knight may very well be renewed like vegetation, but taking this to define his identity is falling into the trap of the natural green.

[...] knight be in harmony as well as out of harmony with the court on which he intrudes? (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 16). This reading, however, confuses the symbolism of the two colors in aligning the green with the supernatural and the gold with the worldly. The Green Knight is both green and gold as Jesus was simultaneously man and God or as humans on earth have both a physical body and a soul. Gawain, then, in entering into the agreement with the knight, consigns himself to the difficult process of learning to forget his concern for the worldly body and focus instead on the eternal soul. [...]

[...] There is perhaps a larger point in this that Gawain, who is first displayed as humanly perfect, is actually seriously flawed and that our salvation then relies on the mercy of a forgiving God, just as Gawain is exonerated by the Green Knight/Sir Bertilak after his confession and the penance of the axe stroke: hold you polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright/ As you had lived free of fault since first you were born? (2393- 2394). This line calls to mind the question of original sin, which is also referred to several lines later when Gawain appears to revert to his pride a little in attempting to excuse himself for having been tempted by the lady since such other noble men of the past as Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David had been as well. [...]

[...] There appears to be a temptation in modern times to consider the challenge of the seductive lady as frivolous or at least incidental to, as a means of setting up, the challenge to Gawain to detach himself from his body in the form of the girdle. Clearly there is a difference of religious and moral sensibility here that makes it difficult for the modern reader to invest such action with the seriousness that they deserve. In the same way Davenport compares the temptation of Gawain to fabliau, and observes that choosing the wiles of a woman as the means by which Gawain's honour and self-command are tested, the poet indicates a basically comic view of Gawain's failure, and introduces a note of parody into the poem' (The Art 139). [...]

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