The Poet’s Quiet Attack
Throughout modern and ancient literature, much has been discussed about the culture of knightly chivalry, particularly that of King Arthur’s Court. Some of these pieces praise the principles of this culture, while some seek to critique or attack them. One example of the latter is the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an author known as the Pearl Poet. In this 14th century classic, popular views on knighthood are challenged by the testing of a knights virtues. In a subtle attack on the romanticism of knighthood, the Pearl Poet exposes the flaws, fallacies, and falsehoods of chivalry through the characteristics and experiences of Sir Gawain.
In the beginning of the book, the author subtly attacks chivalry in the poem through the circumstances and experiences Gawain endures. Two of these circumstances come near the beginning of the book. The first comes when the poet introduces the Christmas festivities of King Arthur’s Court. As all are gathered round the table, the king insists on hearing outrageous, stories of knighthood, whether they are true or not: “he would never sit and eat before someone told him a new story of some great adventure,” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2006, pg. 5). This seems normal on the surface, but when one looks deeper, they may realize that the Pearl poet points out a hypocritical falsehood in the code of knighthood. As honesty is one of the core components of chivalry, these dishonest stories show an inconsistency between the surface image of a stereotypical Arthurian knight and what one is actually like. Another such example is shown at the start of the main conflict, when the Green Knight comes riding into the court, asking if anyone is brave enough to accept a decapitation agreement. There is an almost awkward silence, and no knight is willing to step up: “If they were astonished at first, they grew even more silent, all the warriors in the hall, greater and lesser,” (Sir Gawain…, 2006, pg. 11). Finally, King Arthur, in defense of the dignity of his court, stands up and accepts the deal. Sir Gawain then reluctantly decides to stand in for the king, but he is still the only knight to do so. This is completely inconsistent with the image of every brave sixth-century knight, willing to step up to any challenge. The Pearl Poet does not only criticize chivalry through Gawain’s surroundings, however. He even makes his point through the inner struggles of the protagonist himself.
One of the biggest conflicts of the book, and also one of the main scenes of the author’s attack on chivalry, comes when Gawain is tempted by Bertilak’s wife, who sneaks into his room and attempts to seduce him. Gawain is presented with an impossible dilemma, as he cannot be unfaithful, breaking his vow of chastity and going against his God and his faith, but he cannot simply follow the Biblical advice of fleeing from...