Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Medieval Romance
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is universally acclaimed as the best surviving Middle English romance of the moral type. This is a significant departure from the traditional French romance, which is saturated with love. The French romance deals primarily with courtly love, romantic love, and even sexual love and adultery. That explains why Lancelot and Tristram were becoming increasingly popular in France, while Sir Gawain was fast losing his popularity. Yet Wace in his Chronicle wrote about Sir Gawain as “one of the best knights, and wisest of the world, the least mis-speaker, and no boaster, and best taught of all things that belong to worship or courtesy.“ Ranked by Chretien de Troves and Robert de Boron as supreme among the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain was not the hero of any of their romances. The reason is not far to seek. Sir Gawain was the symbol of chastity, celibacy, and physical purity and, therefore, was disqualified as a hero from the French point of view.
The troubadours of Provence composed and sang highly romantic love-songs and popularised the convention that every knight must have a mistress, and every married woman a gallant knight. Virgin Mary was gradually replaced by a woman. The Lady of the Castle was amazed to find that Sir Gawain was not at all susceptible to feminine charm. She sharply rebuked him as he did not have a mistress:
“Of all chivarly the chief part is love, the literature of charms; it is the title and text of their works, how men for their loved ones have endangered their lives, endured great hardships, avenged them with valour, removed their Sorrow, and brought bliss into the bower.”
This is, of course, a major deviation from the conventional romance. There are other differences too, which may be pointed out. “A medieval romance,” says Paul Christopherson
“as that term is usually understood, is a story of knightly adventure, sometimes told about a historical personage, but always fictitious in its action and usually characterized by extravagance, fantasy, and the frequent use of supernatural elements.”
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story of knightly adventure. Courtesy, chivalry, prowess, and a sense of honour are the distinctive traits of the hero’s character. He gladly accepted the challenge of the Green Knight to cut off his head. He was quite willing to submit to a return blow on New Year’s day at the Green Chapel. The elaborate account of the arming of the Knight is introduced. He went on a journey to search for his opponent. He had to travel for days along perilous paths. The forest seemed to be endless. The streams were cascading down the hillside. Icicles made the head hoary. The mighty oats, the hazels and hawthorns were overgrown with rough ragged moss. The slopes were haunted with wolves. Sir Gawain emerged from the forest on Christmas Eve and reached the gate of the Castle.
Sir Gawain was warmly received by the Lord and accommodated luxuriously. After the yule tide the Lord returned to the hut. Sir Gawain, however, should stay at the castle, and at the end of the day, the host and guest should exchange with each other the products of his winning. Sir Gawain, though fortified with chastity, had to yield to the lady of the castle and most reluctantly received a few kisses. He returned the kisses to host every night. The host also gave him what he had received as products of the chase.
The only thing that Sir Gawain witheld was a girdle, given by the lady. Sir Gawain left and returned on The New Year’s day to receive the blow. He flinched at the first blow. In the third blow he was slightly wounded. The Green Knight then explained that all that had happened at the Castle had been the test of Sir Gawain’s courage and chastity. He was slightly wounded in the third blow, only because he had concealed the girdle.
The story is one of adventure that excited the readers of the fourteenth century. Sir Gawain was told by the Green Knight: “So come, or be called recreant and coward.” The gruesome portent of the supernatural did not deter Sir Gawain in the least. The test that Sir Gawain undergoes shows his indomitable courage and his sense of honour as a knight. The medieval romance is the romance of chivalry. If a knight failed in the test, he was an object of shame and condemnation while receiving the customary sword tap on his neck, which was a sacred religious rite, the knight had to observe certain duties, namely, loyalty and courtesy. He had to cultivate humility and purity, but not necessarily celibacy. Chastity, as far as the English romances were concerned, was the supreme ideal.
When, therefore, the Green Knight taunted King Arthur in his own hall, it was incumbent upon sir Gawain as upon the other members of the Round Table, to vindicate the honour of the court by accepting the opponent’s challenge. This was a supreme expression of loyalty- loyalty to the King and the Round Table.
But Chivalry means Chastity as well. On his way to meet his opponent, Sir Gawain met Bertilak, who entertained him as his guest during the Christmas. Bertilak went out hunting, leaving his beautiful wife. Three things were put to the test, namely loyalty to the host the chastity of the guest, and his courtly manners. The lady, as we have already pointed out, teased him for his lack of gallantry, i.e. his attention to women. Sir Gawain parried her blows, i.e. attempted kisses for a while in spite of her amorous glances and seductive charm.
Sir Gawain exchanged everything with the host according to the terms of stipulation. The only thing he did not part with was the green girdle, received from the lady. Thus he violated the pledge as well as his honour, for which he got injury on the neck.
But the slip was venial, and that made Sir Gawain more human and lovable. Sir Gawain was penitent and could not exonerate himself. The King and the members of the Round Table, however, comforted him and adopted a green baldric in imitation of the green girdle as the badge of their brotherhood.
The poet has succeeded in making Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a courtly romance. The courtly life of the fourteenth century has been vividly delineated; King Arthur held the Christmas festival for fifteen days at Camelot his semi-legendary capital. Knights and beautiful ladies had thronged at the court to celebrate the New Year. Consistent with the Spirit of the Court, Arthur declared that he would abstain from eating and drinking till he had watched something marvelous or heard something strange. In deference to his wish, jousts and tournaments, drums and trumpets entertained the spectators.
The Green Knight threw his challenge:
“What is this King Arthur’s house, the fame of which has spread through So many realms? Forsooth, the renown of the Round Table is overturned by one man’s speech, for all tremble for dread without a blow being struck.”
Enraged, Arthur took up the axe to indicate that he had accepted the challenge. Later Sir Gawain came forward to vindicate the honour of his King. After his victorious return, the King and the knights comforted him for his venial slip and decided to wear a green girdle in his honour.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has the court as its background, and yet strictly speaking, it cannot be called a courtly romance. Nor can it be called a carbon copy of the French romance. The poet has undeniably used the story material and quite a few conventions of chivalrous romance.
The convention in Middle English romances was to present a picture of an April or May morning with birds warbling amidst fields and gardens full of multi-coloured flowers. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is a significant departure. The journey to the Green Chapel led Sir Gawain by perilous paths. The cold waterfalls were cascading down the steep hillsides. The icicles made his head hoary. The mighty oaks, hazels and hawthorns were overgrown with rough ragged moss. The picture of nature was bleak and dismal. We do not come across such a picture in medieval romances. It is presumed that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was influenced by Beowulf, where the hero had to go out in quest of Grendel and his dam in a haunted mere along bleak and cold wind-swept cliffs.
The Romancer has introduced contrasts in style and narrative technique. In the castle of Bertilak as well as in the court of Arthur there is an atmosphere of gaiety and merriment. It is in sharp contrast to the bleak and cold atmosphere Sir Gawain had to pass through. The contrast is between the festive games and banquets and the social joys a the court of Arthur and the horrors of Nature, red in tooth and claw. It heightens the dramatic elements of the romance.
Most of the medieval romances are replete with love and fighting. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight they are only casually referred to. There is, of course, an exchange of blows between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But the hero was not involved in a serious duel or a series of combats. He had to fight with a number of gruesome monsters on his way to the Green Chapel but they are not exhibited on the stage. The romancer does not think it worthwhile to pile up, in a melodramatic fashion, incredible and blood-curdling heroic exploits.
The poet has also scrupulously avoided courtly love as the prominent feature of the romance. There are neither spectacular battles nor heart-warming love and billing and cooing. The lady in the Castle behaved like a courtly lady and her speech and ways were demonstrably courtly. Her extravagant praise of love is a mere carbon copy of that of the conventional heroines of romances. The lady’s conception of knighthood and that of Sir Gawain are fundamentally different. The lady conforms to the style and pattern of the popular romances of France, while Sir Gawain embodies the spirit of the English romances, which set store by Chastity, physical purity, and even celibacy. There is no scope for extra marital love in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The hero refused to be seduced by the amorous glances of the lady. And yet he never behaved brusquely, for that would be incompatible with the ideals of knighthood.
Strictly speaking, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not written on the model of a French romance, nor even on an English romance. The hero is essentially a Christian knight, and, therefore, the religious aspect is very much pronounced. “It can be said”, says Dieter Mehl,
“that Gawain is seen above all as a Christian knight and that the ideal he embodies has very little in common with his traditional reputation as a great lover of women. It may even be that the poet consciously emphasized this contrast. For the ‘traditional Gawain, as he appears in many other romances, and as he is seen, incidentally, by the knights and ladies in Bertilak’s castle, it would not have been a mortal sin to return the lady’s favours in kind.”
The religious aspect and the Christian element in the poem have not, however, made the poem dull or monotonous, nor have they minimized its variety. The heroic atmosphere in the poem is unmistakable. As Brain Stone says:
“At a perfect moment in English literary development, when the spirit of the Middle Ages is fully alive but has not long to last, the poet has again brought to life the heroic atmosphere of Saga, with its grim deeds and threatening landscapes; has absorbed into traditional English poetic form the best of the finesse and Spirit of French romance; and thrown over all his elements, with their shadowy pagan base material, the shimmering grace of the Christian consciousness. The result is a Romance both magical and human, powerful in dramatic incident, and full of descriptive and philosophic beauty; in which wit, irony, and occasional pathos provide subtle variety”.