Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines three recognizable stories from the fourteenth century – the beheading game, the temptress and the exchange of winnings – into a new story which takes place in the familiar setting of King Arthur’s court. The main character is the courteous Christian Sir Gawain who is challenged by the contrasting pagan character of the Green Knight. The Green Knight is a challenge to the courtesy of the court and gives Sir Gawain a reason to leave this cultured environment. As Sir Gawain moves further from the created structure towards a natural setting, he is first challenged in the court King Arthur, moves to the hybrid world of Sir Bertilak then finally to the fully natural world. This challenge in the court of King Arthur is essential to bringing about a change because the courtesy of the court is a barrier which prevents Sir Gawain from revealing his true self. Through these trials he is tested and the audience learns that he values his self-preservation above the false courtesy of the court.
King Arthur’s court is where civilization has reached its pinnacle and courtesy reigns as the crutch upon which this civilization is built. The story begins when the castle is in the midst of celebrating Christmastide and the castle is described with adjectives such as “gaiety and glee” (Gawain 46). The King and Queen’s culture and wealth is shown when the dais is described as “duly arrayed/ with costly silk curtains, a canopy over/ of Toulouse and Turkistan tapestries rich,/ All broidered with the best gems” (75-78). The richness of the court is not a contrast to the descriptions of the Green Knight because he is also described in terms of wealth, as in the case of the gold spurs and silk that decorate his armor (158-159). It is his attitude however, that sets him apart from the court, and he is loud and rude even disrespecting towards the King by claiming not to know which man is the King. This lavish description stands out against the first description of Sir Gawain where he is just introduced as “Gawain the good knight” (109). Sir Gawain calls himself weak so as to be able to accept the Green Knight’s challenge without offending the King or Queen. The authors of the Norton Anthology Donaldson and David argue that “The court of King Arthur is presented in the most grandiose and laudatory language as the place where the ideal of chivalry has reached its zenith, where all is courtesy and martial prowess in defense of the right” (Norton 231). The built castle represents the courtesy of the court and their extravagant way of life, when the Green Knight enters he breaks the façade of the excessive courtesy and exposes the weakness of the court. As Sir Gawain accepts the terms of the beheading game he must now leave the court in one year’s time to receive his blow from the Green Knight and therefore must leave the built environment of King Arthur’s castle. When Sir Gawain is surrounded by the polite court of King Arthur he is forced to be chivalrous and accept the terms of this challenge.
On Sir Gawain’s journey to find the green chapel; he transitions from the built environment to a mixture of civilization and nature where he will no longer be surrounded by the courteous world and therefore must rely more on his internal morality instead of the pressures of the court. During this transition he faces trial in the natural environment of the forest and is unable to find any information pertaining to the location of the green chapel. He eventually finds, “A wondrous dwelling/ within a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs/ […] A castle as comely as a knight could own” (764-767). This castle is described in a similar way to the castle of King Arthur with, “Heavy silk hangings hemmed all in gold” (854). This castle is not built in the city of Camelot; rather it is built in the intermediary setting of the forest. In King Arthur’s court he spent a lot of effort in the way he presented himself as to not offend the King and Queen whereas in this court of Sir Bertilak he allows himself the indulgence of being presented as possessing “courage ever-constant and custom’s pure” (912). In the environment of Sir Bertilak’s castle his courtesy is diminished and he enjoys the gifts and praises of the Sir Bertilak. Although his courtesy is greatly tested in this castle, Sir Gawain tries to remain true to his courteous ways and succeeds until the very last day when he accepts a green girdle and does not exchange his gift with Sir Bertilak as he had promised to do. In accepting this girdle Sir Gawain reveals that he values his life more than his courtesy and this exposes his imperfections.
The culminating scene that fully removes Sir Gawain from the built environments is the scene at the green chapel. The green chapel provides a contrast of setting because it is a fully natural environment “High banks on either hand hemmed it about/ with many a ragged rock and roughhewn crag, […] yet he saw some way far off what seemed like a mound” (2165-2171). While the first beheading scene took place in a lavish castle, the second beheading scene occurs in a place where “the landscape is wild” (2163). The second half of the beheading game is also a contrast to the first half because the two parties are not surrounded by the lavish court and extravagant courtesy and this lack of support serves to show how Sir Gawain has evolved from a character that is simply described as good to a character that has been tested and forced to leave the courteous build world. By being singled out in this way the character of Sir Gawain is forced to show his true self who cannot be wholly courteous without the backing of the court. Even though Sir Gawain has failed to be courteous and accepted the green girdle that is meant to protect him from death he still flinches when the Green Knight is about to deliver his blow with the ax. This shows that even though Sir Gawain has accepted means to evade death, he still fears for his life rather than fearing the implications of his misdeeds. When it comes to light that Sir Gawain has accepted the girdle of the temptress, Sir Bertilak reveals his identity as the Green Knight and how he has been testing his courtesy all along. Sir Gawain has failed this test because he accepted the gift of the green girdle and did not trade his gift with Sir Bertilak; the fear of dying superseded his desire to be courteous because he felt that courtesy would not save him when he left the built environment. Because Sir Gawain has failed this test of courtesy he brings back the green girdle to the built environment as a symbol of the natural environment and a lesson to all that he had failed in a test of courtesy. Sir Gawain learns that his natural self is not courteous, but at his very core, he places his life above all else, including the values of the court and it is only in this natural setting where this realization could take place.
The descriptions of setting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are included with the purpose of highlighting the difference between the natural and built environments as well as highlighting that as Sir Gawain moves further from the built environment it becomes increasingly difficult to remain courteous. In King Arthur’s court the character of Sir Gawain is given a superficial description and it is only as he moves forward in his journey that he is able to show his true self and develop as an individual.
Borroff, Marie, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.
Donaldson, E. and David, A., “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. New York: Norton and Company, 1986. Print.