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In the famous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur and the members of his court exhibit a number of common human flaws before the Green Knight makes his appearance. These flaws include the following (as found in the Marie Boroff translation):
- The king and his courtiers seem somewhat immature. They delight in partying and seem to have forgotten the need for humility and for true Christian devotion. Little wonder, then, that they are immediately described, in the Boroff translation, as “bold boys” (21).
- The king and his courtiers seem to have forgotten the true purpose and meaning of Christmas, which should ideally be a time of offering thanks to God for the birth of Christ. Instead, they seem to think of it as a time of self-indulgent celebration, as when the poet says,
. . . the feast was in force full fifteen days,
With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise. (44-45)
- Admittedly Arthur and his courtiers do attend religious services during this period (63-65), but the attention devoted to religious worship is minimal compared to the attention devoted to having a good time in all the most worldly senses of the term (37-70).
- The court is described in ways that associate it, and especially the queen, with luxury (72-80).
- There may be some irony in the description of Guenevere as a “Fair queen, without a flaw” (81); certainly readers who knew the later history of Guenevere as an adulteress would be likely to find this description ironic.
- Arthur himself is described in ways that make him sound immature (“So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish” [85; see also 89]).
- More significantly, Arthur is associated explicitly with pride (that is, self-centeredness, the root of all sin according to Christians): “a point of pride pricked him in heart” (90).
In short, Arthur and his court seem to be in true need of the lessons the Green Knight eventually teaches, especially the lessons of humility, maturity, and the true meaning of Christmas and the Christian religion.
Certainly Gawain learns, by the end of the poem, that the elaborately false humility he displays when the Green Knight first appears (354-61) is nothing like the genuine humility he feels by the end of the work.
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