Self Expression Magazine

The Reality of Chivalry: Satire of the Chivalric Code in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Posted on the 28 November 2013 by Eternalmusing @HanaMuses
I plan on writing a series of essays about this epic poem, as I saw a lot of themes I want to address. Besides, I adore this piece very much. If you are not familiar with the poem, you might want to read a summary before diving in. 


          Looking back at world history textbooks of elementary school, we were taught the basics of the Middle Ages from the social status hierarchy to the chivalric code. We learned about the courting way of marriage and the bravery that was the knights’ order, and thus, while growing up and accustoming the world around us, we already began look back on those times and feel nostalgic for the eras of these dashing knights in shining armor, where ladies swooned over men who had a love of poetry and romance. Our minds start to churn fantastic tales of highly romanticized gentlemen, and many of us are unaware stories like these were also fantastic tales churned by medieval people living through that time period. It seems that even in their fictional texts, they were nostalgic about their past, of knights they thought (or hoped) existed in their histories. Though, in the text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the writer not only romanticizes a knight as many other texts do, but also acknowledges what could be the flaws in knighthood and chivalry through satirical contrasts. These elements occur with the silence of the court before the Green Knight, the game played with the host’s maiden, and the mocking of Gawain in the final scene.            When the Green Knight arrives, he challenges valor, one the aspects of chivalry. The Green Knight begins by honoring the many great feats he has heard about Arthur and his court and then explains a little game he wishes to play that a show of valor and a sacrifice. The court falls silent, to which the Green Knight scans the crowd and bellows, “‘What, is this Arthur’s house…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!’” (L. 309-315). The Green Knight accuses the court of being cowardly to the degree that Arthur feels the need to step up to defend his knights’ honor. This embarrassment portrays a possible alternative to the bravery that should be a typical quality of a chivalrous knight, and yet not a single one of the men decide to defend their king except Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain. Gawain is written to appear as the only honorable one in the court. In his brief speech, he humbly says he is the “weakest of them” and the “dullest-minded” (L. 354). He gracefully moves to kneel before Arthur and takes the weapon from him. The descriptions of Gawain’s actions show valor and strength, a much-need contrast (for the nostalgic reader) to the disgrace the court shows in the face of the Knight. This satire plays in with the idea that knights are often portrayed to often fight each other for the honor of representing their king, and to be announced as valiant for the deeds committed in his name, but yet the court remained silent.          Aside from valor, the text also satirizes the code of love that knights allegedly hold, though the main point being the romantic aspect of speaking to a woman more than protecting their honor, although that plays a great role in Gawain’s choices. His chivalry is put to the test with the game of exchanges when he stayed at the castle as a guest. On the second day, the maiden is astonished at Sir Gawain’s lack of love-talking, a courtly manner of flattering women to which knights are expected to excel in. Earlier on in the text, the host is delighted by the coming of Sir Gawain, and tells his court, “This man has expertise; I think that those who hear him, Will learn what love-talk is” (L. 925-927). This is a foreshadowing to the game following, in which the host’s maiden continues to provoke Gawain into bedding her.                    “I would learn from you, sir,” said that gentle lady,                    “If the question was not irksome, what the reason was          1510 That someone as young and valiant as yourself,                      So courteous and chivalrous as you are known far and wide—                     And of all the aspects of chivalry, the thing most praised                      Is the true practice of love, knighthood’s very lore;                     For to speak of the endeavors of true knights,          1515 The written heading and text of their deeds is that:                     How nights have ventured their lives for true love,                     Suffered for their love-longings dismal times,                     And later taken revenge on their misery through valor,                     Bringing joy to their ladies through their personal merits—          1520 And you are the outstanding knight of your time,                      Your fame and your honor are known everywhere,                     And I have sat by you here on two separate occasions                      Yet never heard from your mouth a solitary word                     Referring to love, of any kind at all.  (SGGK, 1508-1520)          This speech by the maiden illustrates one of the key features romanticized in the chivalric code. Though Gawain seems to be the only knight in the story who is following the code, the maiden claims that he is dishonoring it by not bedding her. The word “lore” used in line 1513 is a strong word, one that would imply much more than a basic idea, but a doctrine or law. It creates a deeper sense of the meaning and elevates the importance of love-talk to knights. Moreover, her description of knights taking “revenge on their misery through valor” is a common trope in many medieval tales written in our time period, and to see a reference of it in a medieval text confirms that they took pleasure in such romanticizing the angst of the knight much as we do in modern texts set in medieval times, so in a sense, the maiden could have been nostalgic about such tales and wished to witness it herself. The maiden’s speech touched Gawain and he allows her another kiss to keep her content while stealthily avoiding giving in to her request. Thus, Gawain uses his love-talk to avert a lady away from bedding him instead of sleeping with her despite her persistency, “but he defended himself so skillfully that no fault appeared,” (L. 1551). The way he used his “love-talking” is a satire to the use of that knightly skill, that, instead of using it to gain a woman’s favor, he is artfully using it to keep her away.           Towards the end of the piece, the codes of unity and honor are satirized upon Gawain’s return to the castle. Gawain returns wearing across his chest the green girdle that the host’s maiden gives him. He decides to wear it as a reminder of his cowardly actions, which is an honorable gesture that runs very special to him. Upon his return, he shamefully recounts the tale and explains, “‘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’” (L. 2506-2512). He vows to wear it as a form of penance for being dishonest, but following his honorable speech, the knights and the court laugh at him, and Arthur proposes that all lord and ladies who belong to the Round Table should wear a green belt like Gawain’s and be honored much the same. Thus, while Gawain attempted to add a statement dress to his attire to stand out among his knights, he in turn is rewarded with a downplaying of his gesture in the name of unity and honor.

          The use of satire throughout the text made jest to the nostalgic glories of medieval fiction. By taking apart the aspects of the code, it was made laughable, and the end of the joke was directed at Gawain, who seemed to follow the code the most. By looking at valor, in which Gawain stepped in when no true threat was truly prevalent; love-talking, where he needed to use his skills to keep away from bedding a woman; and unity and honor, to which were used to downplay the trueness of the act that Gawain performed all illustrate how the code was put to laughable use. Besides that, it played upon a text that is part of the Arthurian Legends, tales that constantly implied the grandeur of the medieval times. Instead of this being simply another flourishing tale, it jabbed at the code and even the idea of being nostalgic to a time that, contrary to popular fiction, was not all polished armor and glorious banquets. **Other essays:Fiction in the Schooling SystemAnalyzing Lyrics: "Something More"

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