Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Principles Quotes Page 5
How we cite our quotes:
The first words that the knight uttered there
Were, "A curse upon cowardice and covetousness!
You breed boorishness and vice that ruin virtue.
[. . .]
For fear of your blow taught me cowardice,
To give way to covetousness, be false to my nature,
The generosity and fidelity expected of knights.
Now I am false and unworthy, and have always dreaded
Treachery and deceit: may misfortune and grief
(2374 - 2376, 2379 - 2384)
Gawain is disappointed in himself, and he identifies fear as the thing that caused him to covet, or want to keep, the green girdle. This covetousness, in turn, caused him to break the terms of his agreement with Bertilak, proving himself dishonest. Gawain identifies these vices as alien to his nature, suggesting that he has much higher expectations of himself than even an ethic like Christianity, which views sin as an inevitable part of a man’s character. In fact, part of the lesson that Gawain must take away from his encounter is that he is an imperfect being, as prone to failure as anyone else.
"See, my lord," said the man, and held up the girdle,
"This belt caused the scar that I bear on my neck;
This is the injury and damage that I have suffered
For the cowardice and covetousness that seized me there;
This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing,
And now I must wear it as long as I live.
For a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it,
For where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted."
(2505 - 2512)
The withheld girdle caused Bertilak’s axe to break Gawain’s flesh just as Gawain’s covetousness for it caused his dishonesty in the exchange of winnings. Gawain opts to wear it forever as a symbol of the deep-rootedness of misdeeds. Christianity believes that sins may be absolved and forgiven, but Gawain appears to have a much more pessimistic outlook, one that likely reflects his concern with the effect of a misdeed upon his honor and reputation as much as on his soul.