How is the importance of honor and reputation demonstrated in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Honor and reputation are important values in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and are emphasized repeatedly throughout the work.  Among the examples of such emphasis are the following:

  • When the Green Knight arrives, he deliberately challenges the reputation of Arthur and his court, as when he speaks to Arthur and notes (in the Marjorie Boroff translation) that

. . . the praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high,

And your court and your company are counted the best . . . (258-59)

The Knight will pose a severe challenge to the reputation of Arthur’s court.  In process of doing so, however, he will help both the king and the court learn the value of true humility, thus teaching them a very valuable lesson indeed.

  • Later, seeking to respond to the Green Knight’s challenge, Gawain presents himself with false humility (354-55).Gawain knows that his claims are true, but by the end of the poem he will learn the difference between false humility and true humility, between a reputation that is merely claimed and a reputation that is genuinely earned.
  • The episode in which Gawain is prepared for his journey (619-69) emphasizes the importance of the kind of honor and reputation genuinely founded in true Christian ideals.  Real honor and a truly valuable reputation must be rooted in sincere Christian belief and practice, according to the teachings of this poem.
  • When the lady of the castle later tries to prey upon Gawain, she tempts him by emphasizing his great reputation for honor and courtesy (“Sir Gawain you are, / Whom all the world worships” [1226-27]). Gawain, however, skillfully fends off her efforts to play on his pride and reputation, asking her to “acknowledge me your knight, in the name of Christ” (1279; emphasis added).
  • Throughout most of his dealings with the woman, Gawain is careful to protect his own honor and his own reputation for virtue by adhering to the Christian values of his day. Only when he accepts the offered green girdle (which he thinks can protect his life) does he violate those values and thus put his own honor and reputation at risk.
  • Later, as he is making his way to the Green Knight’s “chapel,” Gawain is tempted, by the servant accompanying him, to renege on his pledge to journey there. The servant promises that if Gawain does renege on the pledge, the servant will not inform on him and will thus try to protect Gawain’s honor and reputation. Gawain, however, says that his honor and his trust in God will not allow him to take the servant’s advice (2118-39).  He does not mention, of course, that he is secretly and hypocritically wearing the protective green girdle.
  • Later, after the Green Knight reveals that he knows about Gawain’s attempted deception, Gawain returns, deeply ashamed of his dishonor, to Arthur’s court. There he claims that once one’s honor has failed and one’s reputation has been damaged, no remedy is possible (2511-12).

Gawain has forgotten, however, the true meaning of Christmas and the true message of Christ: every person sins, and all sins can be forgiven. Every person violates his or her own sense of honor and potentially stains his or her reputation, but Christian mercy can repair both kinds of damage. Indeed, Arthur and his courtiers decide to wear green girdles themselves in order to share in Gawain’s shame, thus showing that they still honor him, and also showing that they willingly bin up own reputations with his.


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