Sir Gawain No Green Weenie


A carved oak table,

Tells a tale
Of times when kings and queens sipped wine from goblets gold,
And the brave would lead their ladies from out of the room
to arbours cool.

A time of valour, and legends born
A time when honour meant much more to a man than life
And the days knew only strife to tell right from wrong
Through lance and sword.[1][2]

gawain tlkn            Such could be crooned of Sir Gawain and his testing by the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Honor, loyalty, chivalry and love – the air which medieval nobility breathed, and the virtues tested and found in Sir Gawain.  The legendary New Year’s Day challenge to King Arthur’s court, valiantly taken up by Sir Gawain of the Round Table, demonstrates just such a test, but it was a test with a distinctly Christian cast on courtly virtues.  Authored by a poet whose identity has been lost to time, from the English West Midlands likely around 1400 AD, the tale shows Gawain as a faithful Christian Knight, in contrast to the less faith-imbued image of the medieval Knight so popular in medieval literature.

“Sir Gawain in God’s care, though no game he found it / Off forlorn and alone”[3]  Gawain scoured the realm of Logres in search of the Green Knight, his debt to repay. A debt of honor; the Green Knight had offered a blow for blow exchange. Gawain had given the first blow, lopping off the Green Knight’s head, upon which event the Green Knight promptly picked up his head and rode off, but not before reminding Gawain that he expected to give Gawain his blow next New Year’s Day, once Gawain managed to find the Green Knight’s domicile, the Green Chapel.


Plausible Green Knight’s Chapel in Luds Church, Leekfrith Staffordshire UK


Gawain’s virtues, symbolized as a pentagular ouevre on his shield, spoke of his deep Christian commitment.  Five sets of five symbols spoke of Gawain’s fidelity regarding his five senses, his use of his five fingers, his regard for the Five Wounds of Christ on he cross, as well as “the Five Joys (whence) all his valour he gained.”[4] But it was the fifth set of five, scribed on the inside of his shield “that when he cast his eyes thither his courage never failed”[5] that spell out his chivalrous code: “free-giving and friendliness first before all, / and chastity and chivalry ever changeless and straight,/ and piety surpassing all points.”[6]


The testings and temptations of Gawain prove Gawain’s virtuous Christian mettle. Three times Gawain refuses unchaste, adulterous advances by the the lady of the lord in whose castle he stayed before his re-encounter with the Green Knight.  Such chastity of Knights “was in the original tradition of amour courtois or ‘courtly love,’ “[7] though the sense of the comment leads one to believe that aspect had fallen away to some extent in the artifices of courtly games of love. Gawain’s knightly virtues are also on display as he engages in courtly conversation and games while at the castle. But while Gawain remains loyal to his oath to the lady of the castle, he shows himself overly distraught and self-humiliating upon his keeping his oath to take from her a scarf that will save him in his ultimate encounter.  The charges of cowardice he endures upon his revealing the salvific scarf cause Gawain to offer to amend, showing his true knightly and Christian humility and sense of wrong, however overplayed by Gawain.

The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers a redeemed account of courtly and chivalric honor, love and other virtues.  As the author had penned other epic poems exhibiting the redemption of medieval life by Christian virtues and hope, such as Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight extend the  transformation to courtly and chivalrous life.  The virtues brought to King Arthur’s court by Gawain, free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry and piety to name a few, served to enrich all as “To His bliss us bring Who bore / the Crown of Thorns on brow!”[8]


[1]    Genesis, Trespass (album cover image), MCA Records, 1974.

[2]    Genesis, “Time Table,” by Anthony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and Michael Rutherford, recorded 1972, on Foxtrot,  Gerling Ltd , 33 1/3 rpm; Atlantic, CD.

[3]    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 30. trans. J.R.R. Tolkien, in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975).

[4]    Ibid., 28.

[5]    Ibid., 28.

[6]    Ibid., 28.

[7]    J.R.R. Tolkien,  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), 5.

[8]    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 101.

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