Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Themes

Nature vs. Human Society

This is the central conflict which Gawain must deal with in his quest. He is forced to confront the forces of Nature ­ both external and internal -- in the form of the Green Knight, the winter landscape, his own sexual desire, and ultimately, his own fear of death. Throughout, Gawain counters this with his own faith in God and in chivalric values. But in the end his natural fear of death overcomes his sense of human morality, causing him to accept the green girdle. And when Gawain returns to human society at the end of the poem, it is with a sense of unease, having realized the power of Nature in comparison to his human beliefs. Throughout the poem, we see natural settings and impulses constantly opposed to those of human society and civility. And while humans shy away from their inevitable death, it is Nature which can continue to restore and regenerate itself, as seen in the indestructible Green Knight and the passing and resurrection of the year.

The Futility of Human Constructions

The poem is full of detailed descriptions of human constructs, like armor, clothing, food, architecture, even the cutting of hunted deer. There is a ritualistic, overly technical sense to these descriptions, where the poet seems to be hinting at the superficiality of these human constructs and questioning their purpose. For example, the concept of Courtly Love is one such elaborate human construction, but in Fitt III, it is essentially parodied in the conversations between Gawain and Lady Bertilak. And Gawain's sumptuous armor, no matter how well-forged or polished, will be of little use to him when he receives the exchange stroke from the Green Knight. In comparison to the powerful descriptions of natural forces, these human constructions appear silly, excessive, and ultimately futile.

The Viability of Chivalric Values

Perhaps the most significant of these human constructions is chivalric code which forms such an essential part of medieval literature and of Gawain's belief system. Gawain is the very embodiment of chivalric values, yet his encounter with the seductive Lady Bertilak forces a crisis in the chivalric value system: should he honor the requests of the noble lady or remain faithful to his lord? Upon his return to Camelot, King Arthur does not even detect the moral crisis within Gawain. And most unexpectedly, the "test" of Gawain's chivalric values have been in fact a game engineered by Morgan le Fay for a less-than-noble purpose. Disillusioned, the once-idealistic Gawain finds that the code of chivalry which once formed his moral core has now been shaken.

Faith in God

In contrast to the questionable nature of the chivalric code, the poet upholds Christian faith as the ultimate, saving grace for humanity. Ever pious, Gawain continuously finds guidance in God: from the image of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield to his prayers while journeying alone, to his narrow escape from the adulterous temptations of Lady Bertilak. It is, in a sense, faith in God which enables mankind to negotiate between the dangers of human society and the dangers of the natural world. To affirm this, the poem concludes with a supplication to Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Celtic Pagan Sources and Christian overlay

Despite its Christian message, the poem has strong roots in Celtic pagan myth. There are many elements common to pre-Christian Celtic mythology, such as the waiting period of twelve months and a day, the Beheading Game, and the Temptation Game. The Green Knight himself is a strongly pagan character, similar to the Green Man or Wild Man of the Woods who symbolizes fertility in folklore. Gawain's journey can even be seen as the hero's archetypical encounter with the Otherworld, an essential theme in pagan belief. The Pentangle is often a pagan symbol; thus Gawain' s shield, with the Pentangle on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other, comes to represent the dual pagan/Christian nature of the poem.

Questioning the Romance

The poem contains many conventions of the medieval romance tradition, but in many ways it does not celebrate the genre. Many elements verge on parody; others seem deliberately excessive. The conversation between the seductive Lady Bertilak and the diplomatic Gawain satirizes the language of Courtly Love, the descriptions of armor and clothing can be over-the-top, and the poem does not conclude with the resolution of the typical romance. Instead, there is a sense of unease, as the poet concludes what seems to be a subtle questioning of the romance genre.

The Fall of Man and Loss of Innocence

Biblical parallels can be found in the appearance of Bertilak's castle (Paradise) and the role of his wife as temptress (Eve). Accordingly, Gawain loses his moral innocence when his value system is shattered by the end of the poem. Such an allegory emphasizes once more the poet's Christian message, and the relationship between mankind and the divine.