Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an Allegory

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an Allegory

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an Allegory

An allegory is a narrative in which the agents, action, and setting are contrived not only to make sense in themselves, but also to signify a second, correlated order of persons, things, concepts or events. The events of the narrative continuously refer to another structure of events of or ideals. There are to principal types of allegory–historical or political, and moral, philosophical, religious or scientific allegories. Abrams calls the second type of allegories as allegories of ideas in which the characters represent abstract concepts and the plots serve to communicate a doctrine or thesis.

Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel is an example of historical or political allegory. Here King David stands for Charles II; Absalom represents the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of the King; Achitophel is the Earl of Shaftesbury who tempted the prince.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spenser’s Faerie Oneene, the morality play, Everyman, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are the illustrations of moral, philosophical and religious allegories. In such allegories we come across the personifications of abstract qualities such as virtues, vices, states of mind or types of character.

It would not be out of place to explain ‘Exemplum’, which may also serve our purpose in analyzing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an allegory. “An exemplum”, says Abrams, “is a story told as a particular instance of the general text of a sermon.”

In a moral allegory there is always a serious and didactic tone. The fiction provides entertainment to the readers, and allegory instruction. From this point of view Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may be called a moral allegory. The story is well-conveyed

Francis Berry, however, does not consider Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to be an allegory. “The poem is not an allegory, and we cannot advise the mental substitution of a concept such as the Life force’ whenever the Green Knight appears in the poem. The Green Knight is himself (in fact, Bertilak de Hautdesert), but he has also the unlimited energy of a symbol. All we can say is that the poet’s awareness of the generic forces of life and growth and richness and energy-all seemingly independent of men’s choice or desire, and able to mock these realizes itself in the image of the Green Knight. He testifies to an assumption that moral behaviour, though of vast importance, is subservient to and dependent on something even more primary Creative energy.

“In the poem, Gawain and his ‘society’ humbly come to terms with the Green Knight. They had been in danger of forgetting their own sine qua non…”

Most of the medieval romances in France were love romances. The knights were essentially lovers. To the heroines and the knights Chastity, Celibacy, and physical purity were distasteful. That explains why Sir Gawain, the symbol of Chastity, considerably lost his popularity in France. But in England the picture was different. To Englishmen, particularly to the lower classes, chastity was the cardinal virtue that knight should inculcate. They had a strong vein of Puritanism, and therefore, Sir Gawain became immensely popular with them. Sir Gawain’s character appeared to have been taken from the pages of the Bible. In England, Sir Gawain inspired poets to write ten romances about him, while Lancelot could inspire only one. There is a basic difference between the French and English.

Sir Gawain, in spite of his chastity, loyalty and profound reverence for truth, was “gay, good, and generous, jolly and gentle and fully chivalrous.” In Sir Gawain, the poet holds up a “mirror of knighthood.” “Truest of speech and fairest of form”, he has the ideal knight. In “cleanness and courtesy was he never found wanting,” It is quite likely that Chaucer’s Knight, “verray parfait, gentil knight” was modelled upon Sir Gawain. The adventure, undertaken by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Sir Gawain, was not for its own sake, or for a lady’s sake. “The poem Paul Christopherson, “is concerned with a code of conduct, the ideal knighthood, and the interest hinges on the extent to which Gawain is able conform to this ideal under singularly trying conditions.”

Unlike the heroes of the French romances, Sir Gawain was not a philanderer or lady-killer. He stood for moral earnestness and integrity, chivalry and loyalty, courage and honour.

King Arthur was holding Christmas festival for fifteen days. Suddenly a knight emerged at the hall door. He challenged any among the assembled Knights of the Round Table to give him one stroke with the axe, and to receive a similar blow in a year and a day’s time. All the knights remained speechless. The Green Knight sharply rebuked them all for their cowardice. He laughed and Arthur blushed, Sir Gawain stepped forward to accept the challenge Here he illustrated his physical and moral courage, and his undivided loyalty to his King and the Round Table.

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After a year Sir Gawain, strictly according to the stipulation proceeded to the Green Chapel by strange paths, hazardous cliffs, infested with wolves and serpents. Yet he remained undeterred. This was a clear indication of his physical courage and love of truth. Whatever be the consequences, he must not go back upon his work. He was not the Knight-errant, seeking joyous and exciting adventures with the glowing prospect of a hug and kiss. He was, on the other hand, a high-principled knight lacing death. He would never even dream of breaking his knightly pledge and disgracing his honourable calling. This adventure brings into sharp focus his valour and fidelity.

Si Gawain passed three days in a strange castle. The host’s young and beautiful wife tempted him thrice, and thrice did Sir Gawain refuse the offer of love. She visited him in his bed-chamber in the most alluring possible manner. The test of loyalty and chastity was arranged by the host and his wife. The host made Sir Gawain promise that he would give him at the end of each day whatever he would receive. Sir Gawain’s sense of honour was so strong that he never took advantage of the absence of the host. He received kisses when pressed. It was, however, not a passionate kiss, but inspired by courtesy. On the last day he received from the lady a girdle, which, she had assured him would preserve him from wounds and death. He returned the kisses to this host, but not the girdle, He withstood sensual temptation, but not the fear of death. He continued to suffer from the pricks of conscience. The pentangle on his shield was “a token of trawthe.” i.e. truth. Truth became the chief issue in the tests to which the hero was submitted. If the poem were to be called any such thing.” says J.A. Burrow, “it should be called Truth”. If there is a hierarchy of moral issues, Truth is certainly at the top, although the other issue cannot be set aside.

For a time Sir Gawain had a momentary aberration. Sir Gawain had a hitter conflict in his mind. He lamented his lapse from knightly conduct, although he was totally exonerated by the Green Knight and Arthur. In fact, the knights of Round Table resolved to wear a green girdle as a mark of honour to Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain thought his act to be an example of “trecherye and untrawthe”, while the court unhesitatingly accepted it to be an illustration of “grete travthe. The lapse, if it is one, has made the hero more alive, convincing, and human.

Sir Gawain in this respect, is in the blessed company of Adam and Solomon, Samson and David,

Pour tests were there-tests of courage, courtesy, chastity and truth or fidelity to knightly bond. “Since, of course,” says A. B. Taylor, “chastity test is concerned with a married woman, even this poet may have primarily aimed at showing him free from adultery, rather than from all sexual intercourse, but since it is also stated that he has no lady-love, it may be inferred that Gawain was intended to symbolize absolute chastity.”

According to G.K. Anderson Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful and serious double exemplum of the two great ideals of knighthood – physical valour and moral courage, personal courage and personal chastity.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has also been represented as a vegetation myth. Francis Berry suggests that the main contrast is between the social joys of the court, its games and revelry at yuletide and the savagery of Nature’s writer, careless of mankind.

The Green Knight, according to John Speirs, bears an unmistakable relation to the Green Man -the Jack in the Green or the Wild man of the village festivals of England and Europe. The Green Knight is the descendant of the Vegetation or Nature God, whose death and resurrection of nature are the myth-and-ritual counterpart of the annual death and rebirth of nature.

Miss Weston in both her The Quest of the Holy Grail and From Ritual to Romance suggests that Sir Gawain is the hero who brought back the Spring, “The winter landscape”, says John Speirs, “through which Sir Gawain rides on his quest for the Green Chapel, where on New Year’s Day he is to renew his acquaintance with the Green Knight is the northern European Waste Land, the land that has been…frozen up.”

The green beard of the Green Knight heightens his vegetation aspect. Even after his head was chopped off he was alive. And that shows the vitality and dynamism of Nature. The roar and flash of the Green Knight’s departure indicate that one of his aspects is that of the god of thunder and lightning.

The struggle between the Green Knight and Sir Gawain is the struggle between winter and spring. What applies to Nature is equally applicable to human life.

The winter landscape through which Sir Gawain had to pass is, as pointed by Speirs, not mere decorative background. It is the northern European Waste Land, the Utgard of Norse mythology, Miss Weston’s comment on the quest for the Green Chapel is relevant. She suggests that the succession of test which Sir Gawain would undergo has already commenced. “The test preceding and qualifying for initiation into the secrets of physical life, consisted in being brought into contact with the horrors of physical death”

The Pentangle of Sir Gawain is the symbol of life, and has a Christian significance. According to Weston, it gives power over the other world.

Sir Gawain was subjected to various tests as have already been pointed out. In two minor points of the tests he slightly failed. He shrank a little when the Green Knight’s axe fell on his neck. Secondly, he accepted and concealed the Green Girdle. This has a deep Christian significance. Human nature, is according to Christian doctrine, imperfect. Sir Gawain was made conscious of his imperfection-imperfection which could be removed only through Grace and the Christian virtue of humility.

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