Literary heroes in Middle English romances often go on great quests, which can be both internal and external tests. The heroes often face many obstacles before their final tests. In Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain's external quest to find the Green Chapel is complicated by harsh weather and "met with many mishaps and mortal harms" (725):
Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves,
Now with wild men of the woods, that watched from the rocks,
Both with bulls and with bears, and with boars besides,
And giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps. (720-723)
These obstacles that Gawain faces are not described, which emphasizes the obstacles complicating Gawain's internal quest. The greatest obstacle Gawain faces is a woman, who he will blame for causing his downfall, which results when he fails his internal quest to be a courteous and loyal knight.
Gawain begins his internal quest when Bercilak proposes a game, "'Whatever I win in the woods I will give you ate eve, / And all you have earned you must offer to me...'" (1106-1108). This game will test Gawain's morals by challenging his duty as a courteous knight to do as a lady wishes, even though this violates his loyalty to Bercilak. Gawain is tested for three days as the lady of the house attempts to seduce him, while her husband is in the woods hunting. The lady blatantly states:
'My body is here at hand,
Your each wish to fulfill;
Your servant to command
I am, and shall be still'. (1237-1240)
While it is clear that the lady wishes to give her body to Gawain, he does not accept her, thus she appeals to his courteius knighthood and asks for a mere kiss. Gawain responds, "'Good lady, I grant it at once! / I shall kiss at your command, as becomes a knight, / And more, lest you mislike, so let be, I pray.'" Gawain happily upholds his knightly duty to do as the lady requests, as well as enjoys listening to her constantly praise him. In his A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J.A. Burrow states, "...the poet makes us aware-though only vaguely as yet-of the moral issues stirring beneath the surface of the dialogue....The knight faces a challenge in the lady's compliments." (83). That night when Bercilak gives Gawain the ribs from the days hunt, Gawain gives Bercilak the kiss that he received from the lady. While it seems that Gawain has past the test, it can be argued that he did not give Bercilak the praise that he received from the lady. Because Gawain does praise the game Bercilak killed, failing to praise Bercilak further may be viewed as a minor mistake, which does not deflect from Gawain's moral character.
In both the first and the second temptation scenes, the lady presents sex as her objective. As in the first scene, Gawain resists sexual temptation the second day and merely kisses the lady. As Burrow states, "Notice that there is no question...of Gawain's being wrong to accept the lady's kisses. They are not in themselves adulterous, and-always providing Gawain pays them over at the exchange-they do not, apparently, involve any breach of faith with his host" (85). That night, Gawain kisses Bercilak, but fails to return the praise that he gained. This ethical shortcut does not concern the poet because he writes:
Thus she tested his temper and tried many a time,
Whatever her true intent, to entice him to sin,
But so fair was his defense that no fault appeared,
Nor evil on either hand, but only bliss they knew. (1149-1153)
Once again, an ethical shortcut allowed Gawain to pass the moral test by being courteous to the lady and remaining loyal to the lord.
The obstacle becomes more difficult in the third seduction scene when the lady changes her strategy. She no longer offers love or sex, instead she offers life with the green girdle, "'If he bore it on his body, belted about, / There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down, / For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.'" Gawain accepts the girdle and promises the lady that he will not tell the Bercilak about the gift. That night when the men exchange gifts, Gawain kisses Bercilak three times, while the girdle hides under his bed. Burrow explains that "...in the third temptation scene, the lady gives up trying to seduce Gawain, she is not conceding defeat in the main battle-which, indeed, after a tactical withdrawal to better ground, she goes on to win. The main point is that Gawain should be faithful" (96). Although Gawain is unaware, he has just failed his moral test of remaining "faithful" to his lord.
Gawain remains oblivious of his failure until after he completes his external quest to reach the Green Chapel. Gawain reaches the chapel where the Green Knight fails to behead Gawain in three attempts. After realizing that the Green Knight is Bercilak, it is possible to infer that he did not touch Gawain with the ax the first two times because Gawain passed the first two moral tests. The Green Knight's third attempt results in a small nick, which is a physical reminder that Gawain failed to be loyal in the third seduction scene. The Green Knight tells Gawain how he is a fallen man because he failed to give the girdle to Bercilak:
'She made trial of a man most faultless by far
Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;
As pearls to white peas, more precious and prized,
So is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.
Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,
But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.' (2362-2368)
The Green Knight emphasizes the fact that Gawain failed the test in order to save his life, not to purposefully defy his host. Burrow states, "...the poet devotes a good deal of attention, once Gawain has 'fallen', to ensuring that the reader understands what, morally speaking, he did and why he did it; and he insists, among other things, that his hero was quite unmoved by the costliness and beauty of the girdle" (102-103). Gawain's deception did not result from materialistic selfishness, rather it results from a sincere attempt to save his life. While the poet and the Green Knight justify Gawain's actions, Gawain cannot forgive himself for being unfaithful to his host.
Although Gawain accepts his failure, he does not accept responsibility for his actions. Instead, our hero blames his imperfection and downfall on the lady. Gawain continues by comparing himself with other great men who also suffered at the hands of women:
...And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty-
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter
Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress;
For these were proud princes, most prosperous of old,
And one and all fell prey
To women that they had used;
If I be led astray,
Me thinks I may be excused. (2415-2428)
Gawain considers himself the fifth great man to fall because of an evil seductress. As Burrow explains, "...Gawain refers to Solomon and the rest not as famous sinners but as great men beguiled by women..." (147). While Gawain believes this, one must question whether Gawain is actually the fifth fallen man or if it is in fact King Arthur. Since the scheme was constructed by Morgan le Faye in attempt to show the self-delusion of Camelot, perhaps King Arthur is the fifth fallen man. Like Gawain, King Arthur believes that he is a perfect king who rules a court that compares to no other. The people in Camelot celebrate with songs, dance, and story telling, instead of adventuring beyond their society to do noble deeds. When Morgan le Faye reveals Gawain's imperfection, she also proves that King Arthur's court is not a perfect society.
Another question that must be addressed is whether Gawain and those in King Arthur's court are bettered by these events. Gawain proves to be the greatest knight in the court because he is the only knight who volunteers to fight the Green Knight. Gawain leaves the court to fulfill his obligation as a brave and noble knight, while the others remain in the safety of the court telling stories about others' noble deeds. Gawain is bettered by Morgan le Faye's plan because the quest ends his self-delusion. Gawain also realizes that like himself, King Arthur's court is not a perfect society. Gawain explains how his quest failed to the court upon his return:
'This is the sign of sore loss that I have suffered there
For the cowardice and coveting that I cam to there;
This is the badge of false faith that I was found in there,
And I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last.' (2507-2510)
The scar from the Green Knight's ax, as well as wearing the girdle, will remind Gawain of imperfection or reality. While Gawain is bettered by his failure, the court remains oblivious to reality. They are unaware of Gawain's sadness as they
...Agree with gay laughter and gracious intent
That the lords and the ladies belonging to the Table,
Each brother of that band, a baldric should have,
A belt borne oblique, of a bright green,
To be worn with one accord for that worthy's sake. (2514-2518)
When Gawain adopts the girdle in the end, it is apparent that he is the only one who realizes the court's shortcomings. Although Gawain views his internal quest as a failure of his perfection, Gawain successfully completes each quest. He successfully completes his external quest by reaching the Green Chapel and living to complete his internal quest. Then he fails to be a courteous and loyal knight, which reveals that even those in King Arthur's court are human.
In the English tradition of the Arthurian Legend, particularly during the Alliterative Revival, it is common for Gawain to be the principal hero and the exemplar of courtesy and chivalry, as he is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Le Morte Darthur pose as striking contrasts to this tradition. Although, in these three works, Gawain upholds the virtue of loyalty, he falls short on being a chivalrous knight.
While King Arthur is the principle hero in The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Gawain emerges as the King's greatest knight. In this story, as well as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot's absence allows Gawain to rise up and protect King Arthur's honor. Gawain's character begins to change from that in Sir Gawain, when we first meet him during a battle. Sir Luscius accuses Gawain of wanting "Work for your weapon" (2223), implying that Gawain can be rather hot-headed, reaching for his sword and killing without first considering that he might grant his opponent mercy. Acting on Luscius' sarcasm, Gawain lunges at Sir Lionel, striking him "so hard on his head that he shatters his helm,/ And laid open the skull a good hand's breadth" (2228-2229). Contrasting the chivalrous and courteous Gawain of the Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain the good emerges as a vicious warrior. In fact, throughout the story, Gawain only appears on the battlefield.
The anonymous poet of The Alliterative Morte Arthure glorifies
Gawain and the other knights through his strange, exaggerated descriptions
of their superhuman assaults and victories over great obstacles. This is
evident in the description of Gawain's attack on Sir Lionel:
He whipped out a long sword, and like lightning lunged out, Like a lord in that glade at Sir Lionel he strikes, Smites so hard on his head that he shatters his helm, And laid open the skull a good hand's breadth. He pitched into the press and highhandedly served them, Wondrously wounded worthy knights, Fought with Florent, the finest of swords, Till the foaming blood flowed clear over his fist. (2226-2233)
It seems that having lightning lunge from one's sword, as well as being able to cut through one's head armor and through one's skull with that sword, portrays superhuman strength. Reality interrupts these fantastic elements when Gawain the good, Arthur's greatest warrior, is killed by the sword of another.
When Gawain and his men fight Sir Mordred and his "band of outlaw
men" (3780), Gawain's forces are wounded and tired. Gawain inspires them
through his glorious words to take all risks and fight "in the glory of
For our dear Lord's sake, dread no weapon now; We shall finish our fight as faultless knights, And go on to endless bliss with angels unblemished. Though we have unwittingly wasted ourselves, We shall turn it all to good in the glory of Christ.(3799-3803)Even in these desperate circumstances, Gawain continues to fight like a man possessed:
Lashing out like a lion, he slashes them through, Lords and leaders, who are left in the dust. Still Sir Gawain wavers but little with woe, But fells the foe with fearsome strokes, As if he willfully wished to do away with himself. Wild and bewildered, he was out of his wits, And, mad as a wild beast, he rushed on those nearest, Till all wallowed in blood wherever he went.... (3831-3838)Although Gawain the good fights like a lion, he cannot withstand the might of Mordred. After mortally wounding Gawain, Mordred explains who this great knight was that had destroyed their troop:
"He was unmatched on earth, sir, on my oath. He was Gawain the good, most gracious of men, And the greatest of knights who lived under God, The man boldest of hand, most blessed in battle, And the humblest in hall under all the wide heavens; In leadership the lordliest as long as he lived, And lauded as a lion in lands far and wide; Had you known him, sir king, in the country he came from, His wisdom, his valor, his virtuous works, His conduct, his courage, his exploits in arms, You would weep for his death all the days of your life." (3875-3885)It says a great deal for Gawain's character that his enemy and killer cries over his death. Mordred gives Gawain the credit that he deserves for being such a great knight. The description of the state of Gawain's body when King Arthur finds him, prompts us to grieve for Gawain as well:
And Sir Gawain the good, in his glorious arms Sprawled face down and clutching the grass, His banners struck down, emblazoned with scarlet, His blade and his broad shield all bathed in blood. Never was our goodly king so heavy at heart.... (3943-3947)While Mordred's words, as well as the sight of Gawain are meant to persuade us to mourn this knight, King Arthur's praise of his greatest knight show the importance of Gawain's death to the Arthurian legend.
"...Here lies my promise of ease, my prowess in arms; My heart and my strength hung wholly on him. My counselor, my comfort, who carried all my hopes, King of all knights that lived under Christ, You were worthy to be king, though I wore the crown. My good and my glory throughout all this great world Were won through Sir Gawain, through his wisdom alone." (3958-3964) ........................................................ "Oh great, righteous God, look down on this grief! See this royal, red blood run over the ground! It is fit to be shrouded and enshrined in gold, For it is unstained by sin, so save me our Lord!" (3989-3992)In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, King Arthur obviously values Gawain's service a great deal, enough to deem him worthy of being king. This role for Gawain's character shifts in Malory's Le Morte Darthur, when Lancelot assumes the role of King Arthur's most trusted and valued knight. Of course we know that Lancelot has an affair with the Queen; however, Lancelot is the most popular knight until this information emerges in Book XX, The Piteous Death of Arthur.
Although Gawain plays a lesser role compared to Lancelot in this story, they both play significant roles in the fate of King Arthur's Court. Lancelot's character embodies the courtesy and chivalry that Gawain once exhibited in Sir Gawain. Here, Gawain does not possess any manners or a code of ethics. Gawain's main concern is being a great warrior as he is in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. While Gawain values his lineage, Lancelot values courtesy. Lancelot's character is incapable of valuing lineage because he sleeps with the Queen. These character differences lead to the fall of the Round Table.
Once Lancelot mistakenly kills Gawain's brothers, especially his brother Gareth, Gawain declares them to be enemies: "'The king may do as he will,' said Sir Gawain, 'but wit thou well, Sir Lancelot, thou and I shall never be accorded while we live, for thou has slain three of my brethren; and two of them ye slew traitorly and piteously, for they bare non harness against thee, nor none would bear.'" Gawain does not want to address the possible affair between Lancelot and the Queen because he does not recognize the romantic world. Gawain defends Lancelot, explaining that the Queen has a special relationship with Lancelot because he has saved her life numerous times. It is only when Lancelot threatens his family that Gawain must seek revenge for his blood lines. Being a chivalrous knight, Lancelot cannot understand why Gawain will not accept that it was a mistake and that he is sorry in order for them to be friends again.
When Gawain and Lancelot attempt to fight several times, the extremes of their characters are comic. Lancelot consistently wounds Gawain; however, he explains: "'I will no more do than I have done,' said Sir Lancelot, 'for when I see you on foot, I will do battle upon you all the while I see you stand on your feet; but for to smite a wounded man that may not stand, God defend me from such a shame!'" Even though Gawain orders Lancelot to finish the job, Lancelot's courtesy will not allow him to kill a fallen man. As for Gawain, each time Lancelot wounds him, he heals, then returns to fight all over again: "'Wit thou well, Sir Lancelot, when I am whole I shall do battle with thee again, for I shall never leave thee till that one of us be slain.'" Finally, in the end, Gawain dies at the sword of Lancelot.
Like The Alliterative Arthure, Gawain experiences moments of
superhuman power. Each time he fights Lancelot, his might increases to
that of a lion for three hours; however, he cannot overcome the mental
might of Lancelot. Thus, in both The Alliterative Arthure and Le Morte
Darthur, Gawain has unconditional loyalty for his family and King Arthur,
as well as immense determination to fight and win. Despite Gawain the
good's strengths, he cannot overcome the physical might of Mordred and the
mental might of Lancelot. In both works, King Arthur's Court dissolves.
Gawain could not protect Arthur by killing Mordred in The Alliterative
Morte Arthure. The division between Gawain and Lancelot in Le Morte
Darthur, divides Arthur's Court, thus decreasing its ability to defend
against Mordred in time. In the final analysis, it is clear that Gawain's
character evolves from a courtly knight to a warrior knight who plays a
significant role in the fate of the Round Table.