Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Respect and Reputation

By Anonymous

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Respect and Reputation

Part 1, Lines 1 - 36

But of all those who dwelt there, of the British kings,
Arthur was always judged noblest, as I have heard tell.
(25 - 26)

Part of the narrator’s strategy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to make his telling of the story sound very authoritative by referring to elements of it as things he has either heard, or read in books. That way, he has all the weight of legendary stories to back him up. Instead of just saying that Arthur is very noble, he says that Arthur has a reputation for nobility, which means that it’s not just the author but everyone that thinks so.

Part 1, Lines 250 - 490
The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

"What, is this Arthur’s house?" said the man then,
"That everyone talks of in so many kingdoms?
Where are now your arrogance and your victories,
Your fierceness and wrath and your great speeches?
Now the revelry and repute of the Round Table
Are overthrown with a word from one man’s mouth,
For you all cower in fear before a blow has been struck!"
(309 - 315)

With this speech, the Green Knight goads Arthur’s court into playing his game or risk having their reputation for bravery besmirched. Yet he also reminds his audience of the fragility of a reputation if it can, in truth, be "overthrown with a word from one man’s mouth." Although what the Green Knight is referring to here is the way his challenge threatens their reputation, we can’t help but think of the way that other words from men’s mouths - for example, rumors - can have the same effect.

"If you are as courageous as everyone says,
You will graciously grant me the game that I ask for
    by right."
(272 - 274)

This is the Green Knight’s first reference to Arthur’s knights’ reputation for great bravery. He will use these references to great effect to goad the knights into playing his game, for if they refuse, they risk throwing that reputation in doubt.

Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
(631 - 635)

Once again, the narrator makes use of a well-placed "everybody thinks so" to back up what he’s asserting. Rather than simply saying Gawain is virtuous, our narrator tells us he was "reputed" to be so. This means that not just the narrator, but everybody who knew of Gawain, knew him to be virtuous.

Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

When the lord of the castle heard who was his guest,
He laughed loudly at the news, so deeply was he pleased;
And all the men in the castle were overjoyed
To make the acquaintance quickly then
Of the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
Whose refined manners are everywhere praised,
And whose fame exceeds every other person’s on earth.
(908 - 914)

Gawain’s reputation has definitely preceded him to Lord Bertilak’s court. This is a reputation not only for knightly prowess (excellence and valour), but also for courtoisie (refined manners). Being the "man most praised on earth" for valor and good manners is certainly a heavy weight to carry, and it’s an identity that will catch up with Gawain later on, in the seduction scenes.

The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

"Truly, God has been gracious to us indeed,
In allowing us to receive such a guest as Gawain,
Whose birth men will happily sit down and celebrate
        in song.
    In knowledge of fine manners
    This man has expertise;
    I think that those who hear him,
    Will learn what love-talk is."
(920 - 927)

The court of Lord Bertilak praises Gawain not only by remarking upon his excellent reputation, but also by suggesting that this reputation will only grow in time - that "men will happily sit down and celebrate" his birth "in song." Interestingly, it’s Gawain’s reputed skill at "love-talk" about which everyone is most excited, rather than his reputation as a skilled knight.

Part 3, Lines 1126 - 1318
Sir Gawain

"Truly," replied Gawain, "I am greatly honoured,
Though I am not in fact such a man as you speak of,
To deserve such respect as you have just described
I am completely unworthy, I know very well."
(1241 - 1244)

Some people think that Gawain’s modesty here is false - that he’s just saying he’s unworthy because it’s the proper thing to do, not because he really believes it. But on the other hand, maybe he’s just trying to reject his reputation - what everybody says - as the thing his identity depends on. It seems reasonable enough to not want to be defined by what others say about you. After all, that gives other people an awful lot of control over who you are.

Lady Bertilak

"So good a knight as Gawain is rightly reputed
In whom courtesy is so completely embodied,
Could not easily have spent so much time with a lady
Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness,
By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark."
(1297 - 1301)

As the Green Knight did before Arthur’s court, Lady Bertilak uses a particular reputation - here, one for courtesy - to force a desired behavior from her prey. Like Arthur’s court, who risked besmirching their reputation for bravery if they failed to comply with the Green Knight’s game, Gawain must comply with the lady’s wishes or risk damaging his reputation for courtesy. Yet Lady Bertilak takes it one step further by implying that Gawain is not Gawain if he fails to comply.

Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

"She sent me in this shape to your splendid hall
To make trial of your pride, and to judge the truth
Of the great reputation attached to the Round Table."
(2456 - 2458)

The Green Knight explains that part of Morgan le Fay’s motivation for sending him to Arthur’s court was her desire to judge the truth of the Round Table’s great reputation. Morgan le Fay sits apart from other characters in the tale because of her unwillingness to accept a reputation as fact without judging it for herself. Although to us this seems like a pretty reasonable policy, we can’t help but wonder what it means that Morgan le Fay also seems kind of sinister and evil in this story. In other words, maybe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays the willingness to believe in collective opinion as a virtue, and its opposite - skepticism - as something that can only lead to trouble.

"For I know well, in truth, that you are Sir Gawain,
Whom everyone reveres wherever you go;
Your good name and courtesy are honorably praised
By lords and by ladies and by all folk alive.
[.  .  .]
And since I have under my roof the man everyone loves,
I shall spend my time well, while it lasts,
    with talk."
(1226 - 1229, 1234 - 123)

Lady Bertilak explains that her eagerness to talk with Gawain is due to her knowledge of his great reputation as "the man everyone loves." Since this reputation prompts her to trap him in his bedroom and attempt to seduce him, Gawain must certainly be wishing that he wasn’t quite so well-known.

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