Gawain, noble or naïve?
Gawain, nephew of the famed Arthur of the Round Table, is depicted as the most noble of knights in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nonetheless, he is not without fault or demerit, and is certainly susceptible to conflict. Gawain, bound to chivalry, is torn between his knightly edicts, his courtly obligations, and his mortal thoughts of self-preservation. This conflict is most evident in his failure of the tests posed by the wicked Morgan le Fay. With devious tests of temptation and courage, Morgan is able to create a mockery of the courtly and knightly ideal, through Gawain's failure of these tests. By satirizing the effects of Gawain's inner conflicts, the unnamed Gawain poet reveals that even the best of men are innately selfish and subject to thoughts reprehensible to the chivalrous code.
In order to satirize Gawain's courtly ways, the poet must first convey a sense of chivalric quintessence in Gawain toward the reader, only to later mock that sense of perfection with failure. This quintessence is created in part through the diction used to describe Gawain throughout the poem. He is described as "noble" and "goodly" on more than one occasion, giving the reader a positive perception of the poem's hero (405, 685). This sublime view of Gawain is further substantiated by his noble acceptance of the Green Knight's beheading game, in order to "release the king outright" from his obligation (365). Even among famed knights such as Yvain and Agravain, both worthy of exaltation, Gawain was the first to accept the Green Knight's terms. His acceptance of the beheading game when no other knight would allows the reader to assume that Gawain represents the most noble of Arthur's court. Lastly, even the Green Knight compares him to other knights as "pearls to white peas" (2364), a sign of his elevated status among men.
By portraying Gawain as noble and honorable, the poet is able to shock the audience with actions that are uncharacteristic of a chivalrous knight. The first of these contrasting actions is apparent in the temptation of Gawain by his host's lady. This lady, the huntress, is a pawn of Morgan's, and seeks to pursue Gawain in order to fool him into actions that contrast the knightly ideal. She will do anything to accomplish these actions in him, even tempting him with "bosom all but bare" (1741). With another man's wife pursuing him as such, Gawain must be courtly to the lady, but at the same time must deny her advances. This unavoidable conflict creates a fear within Gawain. Upon discovering that the lovely lady was approaching him in bed, Gawain "lay feigning" sleep, in order to "try her intent" (1195, 1199). This action reveals Gawain's fear that his host's lady is pursuing him. This unavoidable fear causes his failure of courtliness, for Gawain, as courtesy calls, "would have claimed a kiss" from the lady, but did not (1300). The lady ridicules him for this, even though, for the following reason, the...