In the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, written in the mid to late fourteenth century, the unknown author connects good and evil through the forces of nature and human reasoning. Beginning on New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, with the visit of a green giant, a game starts which is to show who is the most obedient knight and what is the worth of obtaining one’s pride in the code of chivalry at any cost. Sir Gawain finds himself juxtaposed between the moral ideals of chivalry and the urge to protect his own piece of life.
Lord Bertilak first enters the poem as the Green Knight, a creature born out of witchcraft. Green is a symbol of nature and thus of its cycles too – Fertility, Birth, Life, and Death. The seasons in the poem change, creating the feeling of the passing stages of the story and life itself. As the fall ends and winter comes, the end of the year is close as well as the end of Gawain’s life. As nature knows it’s course the poem follows it but a resurrection prevails over death as in the philosophy of Christian Theology. The message of the poem coincides with the message of Christianity: Nobody is bigger than nature, and everybody will learn this one way or another.The Green Knight’s purpose is to give a lesson to people who think that they are divine by living according to the rules and regulations of the Order of the Knights. By ironically presenting it as a game he establishes the connection between life and death as a child’s play but at the same time, this is a well-structured and serious contract which must be obtained by both sides no matter what. At first glance, the game tests the strength of a man’s arm because the axe is very big and heavy. Gawain, as the least important member on the table of the royal family, wants to show he is brave enough to fight for the honor of the kingdom, and after all, he does not know that once the giant’s head is chopped off, it would be able to speak again. After that, Gawain has no choice but to live up to his word, which is the vital part of the game.
Lord Bertilak, proposes a second game. Unfortunately for Gawain, the two games are interrelated in a way that by failing the one, he fails the second one, as well. However, Bertilak’s intention is not of a killing knights, on the contrary, the ideology that a knight must be is more unrealistic than superb since one sometimes has the tendency of fighting and judging his own self because of imperfection. The moral stubbornness of chivalry may have the opposite effect of good on the knights. While aspiring for perfection they may crumble in their own game of illusions. That’s why Bertilak establishes the rules of both contracts in such a way that by having to make a choice of saving his own life, or losing it but with pride, Sir Gawain would be able to see through his own mistakes and imperfections and feel real humility, piety, integrity, loyalty, and honesty.
The green girdle first appears as a source of protection. As Sir Gawain decides to keep it and hide it Lord Bertilak, he believes it will save his life. He breaks the contract with his host but as a human being on the verge of being dead, he makes the conscious decision to lie this time. Nevertheless, there is a chance that Lord Bertilak never knows about the broken promise. When Gawain gets to know that the girdle is not actually magical, and he has been deceived, he realizes the real price that he has to pay for his mistakes and deceitfulness. Gawain is shames by Bertilak for not living up to his word. “He grieved when he had to tell it; he groaned for sorrow, and the blood rushed to his face for shame when he declared it”, “This is the evil and the loss that I have got from the cowardice and the covetousness that I showed there. This is the token of untruth that I am taken in, and I must needs wear it while I may last; for none may hide his shame without mishap,”(Neilson, 50) He swears that he will never take it off as a constant reminder of his great failure. Because though he is alive he has to wear the “stone” of shame forever on. Instead of being ashamed of him, The king and all the court comfort the knight. They laught loud at his tale and lovingly agree that the lords and the ladies that belong to the Table, each knight of the brotherhood should have a baldrick, an oblique band about him of a bright green, and wear that for the sake of the hero. And that emblem was accorded the renown of the Round Table, and he was ever after honored that had it.(Neilson, 50) So, all the knights and the king are more relieved than angry with him because when they see that someone has failed they are prone to more leniency towards themselves, as well. They will wear the same girdle in honor of the fact that the knights are not perfect, nor divine, but human as everyone else.
The original purpose of Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister and also his enemy, to humiliate Arthur’s court, turns into a life-threatening but nevertheless eye-opening journey for Sir Gawain and all the other knights. The evil which is presented by nature goes its course in order to maintain the needed balance. As in human doings, thus in human morality and consciousness, as well. The idea of the story about transformation shows us that even great heroes have to recognize their humanity.