Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
What’s Up With the Ending?
In our humble opinion, the ending of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most heart-wrenching and poignant endings of any medieval romance. You see, Gawain returns to King Arthur’s court all ashamed and sad that he’s failed a test of honor by withholding the green girdle from Sir Bertilak out of a desire to preserve his own life. He feels like he’s failed in his duty as a knight and let everyone down. Perhaps, more importantly, he’s learned that he’s not perfect and never will be. He explains to the whole court that he plans to wear the girdle forever as a reminder of his failing, because "a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it, / for where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted" (2511-2512). But instead of being properly sobered, the whole court laughs at Gawain’s words and agrees that everyone in court will wear a similar girdle for Gawain’s sake.
Can you imagine what Gawain must feel like now, forced to see his "failing" paraded before him every day on the bodies of all of Arthur’s knights? On the other hand, it’s probably not the intention of the court to humiliate Gawain. Their laughter might indicate that they think Gawain is being too hard on himself and furthermore, as the narrator tells us, they and the generations that come after them regard the green girdle as a symbol of honor.
So what’s up with this ending? Why do Sir Gawain and King Arthur’s court have such completely opposite interpretations of the meaning of the green girdle? Well, on the one hand, Sir Gawain’s opinion, that he possesses the green girdle because of his very human failings, is technically correct. But on the other hand, isn’t it a good thing to be able to recognize your mistakes? To acknowledge that you’re not perfect, that, in fact, you’re even sinful? In a Christian worldview, this kind of humility is definitely a good thing. That might be why the people in the story come to regard the green girdle as an honorable thing to wear.
Of course, on the other other hand, some scholarly types think that King Arthur’s court is just misguided and misses the point of Gawain’s story entirely. They choose to regard his encounter with the Green Knight as a grand adventure in which he demonstrates his bravery rather than what it actually is – the moment in which Sir Gawain fails most completely. In this last interpretation, everybody’s decision to wear the green girdle represents the way human beings are just not very good at figuring out the meaning of a story. On that note, go ahead and prove that last interpretation wrong and tell us: what do you think is going on with this ending?