Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Principles

By Anonymous

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Sir Gawain adheres to a strict code of knightly behavior whereby he always keeps his promises, honors and obeys his liege lord, and engages in feats of arms to demonstrate his bravery and skill. Yet he also has a reputation for what medieval romances call courtoisie - courtliness, or courtesy. This code of conduct requires him to have perfect manners, give delight to all with his conversation and, in particular, treat ladies with almost worshipful respect.

These two codes - that of knightly conduct and of courtoisie - come into conflict when Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Gawain. Gawain must find a way to avoid becoming romantically involved with her without seeming rude, or risk behaving dishonorably toward Bertilak, her husband, to whom he owes knightly respect. Complicating matters still further, a third code to which Gawain adheres - that of Christian virtue - values repentance and humility, teaches that a man may be absolved and forgiven for his misdeeds, and, most importantly, that men are all inherently sinful. Part of Gawain’s challenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to reconcile these three codes of conduct within himself.

Questions About Principles

  1. What are the principles of good knightly behavior, and how does Gawain attempt to follow them?
  2. What are the rules of courtoisie, or courtesy, and how does Gawain embody them?
  3. What does the pentangle on Gawain’s shield represent?
  4. When do we see Gawain practicing the five virtues discussed in the pentangle section?
  5. How does Lady Bertilak’s attempt to seduce Gawain throw his codes of courtoisie and knightly behavior into conflict? How does Gawain reconcile them?
  6. How does the Christian belief in sin, forgiveness, and absolution conflict with Gawain’s despair at his failure? What might Gawain have to learn from the Christian system that he can apply to his other codes of conduct?

Chew on This

Gawain’s decision to withhold the green girdle from Bertilak represents the power of the animal instinct for survival over all of the civilizing codes that attempt to control it.

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