Some readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may think that the challenges Gawain faces are no more than tests to show off his knighthood. I believe that the Green Knight’s challenges do more than try to test a knight’s might, but instead challenges the institution of chivalry and knighthood. At first, the Green Knight’s proposition appears to be nothing more for him than a game, but the challenges that he sets up a part from the original beheading game alludes to a much more serious goal. These goals I believe are to challenge the court of Arthur and their supposed authority over all that is chivalric and masculine. By the decree of the Green Knight, Gawain and the court pass the tests, but in my view they do not “pass” the tests and instead fail to realize that the Green Knight was exploiting their views on knighthood.
Chivalry and knighthood are very similar in usage, though, they are not synonymous. Chivalry consists of the many qualities that make up the Arthurian knight and they include generosity, courtesy, and valor. Knighthood encompasses chivalry in addition to the many duties they must carry out such as fighting in battles or, in the case of Arthurian myth, help the king rule over a kingdom. These qualities are what attract the Green Knight to Arthur’s court which he discusses when he arrives at the court:
And your court and your company are counted the best,
Stoutest under steel-gear on steeds to ride,
Worthiest of their works the wild world over
And peerless to prove in passages of arms,
And courtesy here is carried to its height,
And so at this season I have sought you out (Lines 259-264)
The Green Knight notes that he has heard many things about the knights of Arthur’s court and the bulk of it being about how fearless and courteous they are. The Green Knight is drawn to these chivalric qualities of the court which appear to give them a sense of authority. Being the court of King Arthur, there is a responsibility to protect the entire kingdom, and to also keep up an image of chivalry.
The very act of the Green Knight challenging the court of Arthur serves as an assault on the institution of knighthood and chivalry and also brings forth Gawain into focus of the story. The Green Knight’s challenge is not one of absolute violence, meaning he did not arrive with the intent on fighting someone to the bloody death. Instead he came for anyone who was “so bold in his blood, his brain so wild, As stoutly to strike one stroke for another” (Lines 286-287). Regardless of his non-violent intent, he reassures the court had he come in full gear that he would have no match. The Green Knight, as other characters in this story do, subtly reinforces his masculinity because it is not enough that he came for a less than normal challenge. Acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge is not immediate and is only acknowledged when he vehemently challenges the very chivalric qualities that the court is suppose to be in possession of. Of the...