What are some purposes of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The famous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to have a number of related purposes, including the following:

  • To remind its readers that earthly life is mutable – that nothing earthly will last or can be depended upon (see lines 16-19 of the Marie Boroff translation).
  • To remind its readers that the true meaning of Christmas does not involve self-indulgent celebration but rather genuine religious thankfulness for the birth of the savior (20-84).
  • To rebuke the pride and immaturity of King Arthur and his courtiers as they are described in the opening section of the poem.
  • To remind us of the moral and religious virtues to which we should all be dedicated (at least according to the author of this poem; 619-69).
  • To contrast the shallow life Gawain was leading during the first Christmas described in the poem with the true meaning of Christmas, which becomes apparent to him a year later (750-62).
  • To show us how easy it is to forget spiritual lessons, even when they have been learned through recent and difficult experience (875-900).
  • To show us how tempting earthly, physical pleasures can be (875-900).
  • To remind us that physical beauty may have nothing at all to do with spiritual beauty (941-69; 1236-40; 1472-1475; 1531-34).
  • To show us that even a man as good as Gawain is capable of succumbing to temptation (1859-69).
  • To show us that even a man as good as Gawain is capable of lying (1940-41).
  • To show us that even a man as good as Gawain is capable of hypocrisy (2138-39; 2156-59).
  • To show us that forgiveness is a great Christian virtue (2389-94).
  • To show us that self-forgiveness is also a worthy thing – that we should not expect perfection from ourselves or others, since we are all imperfect (2505-10).
  • To show us that Gawain is wrong when he proclaims, concerning his own faults, that

“ . . . one may keep a deed dark, but undo it no whit,

For where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore.” (2512-13)

  • To remind us that the whole point of the birth of Christ and of the Christian religion is precisely that faults can be forgiven and that sins need not be “fixed evermore.”
  • To show us how much more mature and truly Christian Arthur and his court have become by the end of the poem than they were at the beginning. Their decision not simply to forgive Gawain but to embrace him in love reveals that they are truly practicing the religion to which they earlier gave mere lip service (2513-21).




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