The Morals of a Knight: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Essay

To be covetousness is to have a great desire for wealth and possessions, either of your own or belonging to someone else. In the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Gawain, bound to chivalry, is torn between his knightly edicts, his courtly obligations, and his mortal thoughts of self preservation” (2). Thus, a main theme of covetousness versus being a noble and honorable knight is developed as Gawain moves through northwest Britain in search of the Green Knight. The idea of “temptation is an ancient Celtic theme, and retains its purpose to test the worth of the Christian knight” (1).

This conflict becomes very evident when Gawain is given three tests by Bertilak (the Green Knight). Bertilak gives these tests to Gawain in accordance with him staying:

Within a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs

Of many a tree great of girth that grew by the water –

A castle as comely as a knight could own,

On grounds fair and green, in a goodly park. (ll. 765-769)

At this castle, Morgan le Fay (the host’s lady) tries to tempt Gawain with her “bosom all but bare” (ll. 1741) in order to “fool him into actions that contrast the knightly ideal” (2). However, when Gawain realizes that she is trying to persuade him:

The fair knight lay feigning for a long while,

Conning in his conscience what his case might

Mean or amount to-a marvel he thought it.

But yet he said within himself, “More seemly it were

To try her intent by talking a little.”

So he started and stretched, as startled from sleep,

Lifts wide his lids in likeness of wonder,

And signs himself swiftly, as safer to be, (ll. 1195-1202)

Gawain is then made to decide between being chivalrous or committing adultery. Never the less he returns the three kisses that were given to him by the lady and therefore passes the first test. However, even though Gawain has passed this test a morality conflict has developed within him, “revealing that his knightly edicts and supposed courtliness are of no use in a situation of adversity” (2).

Gawain then approaches a second conflict between self-preservation and honor, when he is presented with the third test. He has begun to worry about his life, and the more he thinks of it being in the hands of the Green Knight he wonders what he will do to help himself. When he at first is offered a gold ring by Morgan le Fay he denies it, “Before God, good lady, I forgo all gifts” (ll. 1822).

Then Gawain is presented with Morgan le Fay’s girdle “I shall give you my girdle; you gain less thereby” (ll.1829) he continues to state that he can’t accept any gifts, though when he learns that “the man possesses this piece of silk, / If he bore it on his body, belted about, / There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,” (ll. 1851-1853) he gives in and accepts the gift. Thus when the host returns from fox hunting Gawain fails to give him what he as gained during that day – which is apart of the deal for him staying at the castle – and therefore fails the third test. Thus we see the most obvious example of being covetousness, “by not upholding his pact, Gawain disrespects the court that he represents” (2).

All Gawain’s dishonorable actions come to his reality at the Green Chapel where he is supposed to meet the Green Knight. When the Green Knight reveals that he is really Bertilak the host of the castle in which Gawain stayed, Gawain realizes his “cowardice, care for my life” (ll. 2379) by not giving up the girdle. Gawain however confesses his sins to the Green Knight and begs to be pardoned, Bertilak states to Gawain “your failings made known” (ll. 2391); thereafter he voluntarily wears the girdle as a symbol of his sin.

Gawain sees how covetousness has over come him, and he allowed for the power of wealth and possessions to become more important than honor, and nobility. Gawain comes to acknowledge the problematic nature of courtly ideals. “Due to him repenting his sin however in such an honorable manner his one imprudence in the poem actually ends up being an example of his basic goodness” (3).

In conclusion, covetousness has played a huge theme in Sir Gawain’s actions, and therefore lessons which are learned through the poem. The idea of a Knight being noble, honorable and chivalrous is societies applied pressures and conformations, thus the importance of upholding these traditions is very important. We see the commitment made by Gawain when he confesses his sins, “Be hold there my falsehood, ill hap betide it!” (ll. 2378), and thus he has learned to not let covetousness take over his courtly obligations.