Gawain and the Green Knight: A Reflection of Medieval Society The story of “Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the most widely known stories of all time. It is the epitome of the medieval romance story, incorporating elements of chivalry, observance of moral standards, and religious faith. In addition to being a genre defining work, “Gawain and the Green Knight” presents a unique chance for readers to gain an understanding of the period that spawned it. Wilkie and Hurt list the defining qualities of the Middle Ages to be authoritarianism, comprehensiveness, and otherworldliness (Wilkie and Hurt 1283).
The qualities of authoritarianism and otherworldliness are relentlessly apparent throughout “Gawain and the Green Knight”, and their prevalence in the story provides a great opportunity to examine the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages was a period marked by intense authoritarianism. All people were forced to abide by strict feudalistic guidelines, and acceptance of the system was encouraged. In “Gawain and the Green Knight”, the authoritarian feudalistic mentality is clear from the very beginning through the author’s portrayal of the court.
In the story, King Arthur is clearly situated at the head of the table with his most alued lords at his side. Seated at tables on lower levels are the various retainers of the lords. This hierarchical representation of status from King to Lord to Retainer is the defining feature of Feudalism. The author’s acceptance of this hierarchy further strengthens the role of medieval culture in shaping the work. When Gawain takes the challenge for his lord, nobody in the court is surprised, and in fact, it is seen as the redeeming moment for King Arthur’s court.
In this manner, the complete subservience and acceptance of status that goes hand in hand with the authoritarian nature of the Middle Ages is further enforced. For Gawain to not take his King’s place would have been seen as the dishonorable thing to do, as “feudal duty requires Gawain to speak up and face this fearsome supernatural giant. ” (Leffert 12). Some aspects of feudalism were less tightly linked to authoritarianism, but still play a significant role in defining the age, as they are synonymous with the feudal system as a whole.
The concept of exchanging gifts was essential to feudalism. In order for a lord to defend his honor, he often presented another lord with a gift, so as not to seem as though he placed himself above the other lord. In “Gawain and the Green Knight” Gawain’s host convinces him to Join him in playing a gift-exchanging game. In the first two exchanges of this game, Bertilak comes away with more honor, as he has presented Gawain with great prizes he won from his hunt, while Gawain is only able to repay him with kisses.
However, “Bertilak is disgusted on the third evening to have no more than a foul fox skin to return for Gawain’s three kisses. ” (Harwood 486). This display of measuring one’s honor through the value of one’s gift was essential to the relationships between lords and knights in the feudal system. The Church and one’s dedication to their faith are unworldly concepts that oomlnatea mucn 0T tne e es I nls Is easily seen In “Gawain ana tne Green Knight”, as Gawain on multiple occasions turns to faith for comfort.
A good deal of attention is paid to his shield, upon which the pentangle and a picture of the Virgin Mary reside. Gawain is continually depicted as the pinnacle of courtesy, modesty, and chivalry throughout the story. Also, the author clearly states “fivefold they were fixed in the knight” when referring to the pentangle, meaning that all of the values expressed by the pentangle are possessed by Gawain (Wilkie and Hurt 1630). Several aspects of the pentangle are closely associated with religion, namely the five wounds and the five Joys of Mary.
Gawain’s close association to religion as expressed through his connection with the pentangle and the Virgin Mary are clear examples of the prevalence of the Catholic church in Medieval society. When Gawain is struggling with his internal conflict of not telling Bertilak of his wife’s gift to him, he goes to confession for comfort. Gawain going to confession is seen as a noble act, as it reinforces his dedication to God. The natural addition of the various religious lements in “Gawain and the Green Knight” that is taken for granted is another clear example of the obsession with otherworldy themes that resonated throughout the Middle Ages.
The preoccupation with unworldly values found in many aspects of the Middle Ages is shown not only through the strong religious presence in “Gawain and the Green Knight”, but also through the many magical elements in the story. The most prominent magical element in the story is the Green Knight. He is a man of supernatural power which, if not evident from his size and green hue, becomes so when the severing of his head causes him no harm. In the paper, ‘”The Taint of a Fault”: Purgatory, Relativism and Humanism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Bill Phillips states that “magic seems to be essential to the whole process… and that “it becomes clear that [Gawain]is not intended to be the victim of insuperable powers against which he has no defense – magic, in fact, appears to come to his aid in the shape of the green silk belt. ” (Phillips 16). In this way it can be argued that magic is one of the more crucial elements of the story. Magic is the cause of the problem (a normal man would never have survived the blow Gawain dealt), and magic is looked o as a potential solution, as when Gawain places his hopes in the green sash.
The use of magic throughout “Gawain and the Green Knight” provides a powerful tool through which to analyze the mindset that dominated the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages was a period of history defined by authoritarianism and otherworldliness. By revealing a definite preoccupation with feudalism, religion, and magic, “Gawain and the Green Knight” shows how these values dictated the mindset of the people who lived throughout this era. Works Cited 1 . Wilkie, Brian, and Hurt, James. Literature of the Western World Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. th ed.
Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print. 2. Leffert, Carleigh. “The chivalric Gawain. ” Graduate School Theses and Dissertations (2007) : 1-42. http://scholarcommons. usf. edu/cgi/viewcontent. cgi? article=3256&context=etd 3. Harwood, Britton J. “Gawain and the Gift” PMLA 106. 3 (1991) : 483-499. http://www. Jstor. org. gatekeeper2. lindenwood. edu/stable/462781? ps 3111. “Ine lalntoT a Fault”: Purgatory, Relatlvlsm ana Humanlsm In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Revista Alacantina de Estudios Ingleses 17 (2004) : 1-31. http://publicaciones. ua. es/filespubli/pdf/02144808RD21153986. pdf