illustration of a green shield with an ornate design

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

Start Free Trial

How does Sir Gawain represent society?

The Green Knight is a creation of Sir Gawain's own mind, and his explanation to Arthur, that he was responsible for the deaths of two of Gawain's brothers, serves as a terrible warning to the hero.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On a basic level, Gawain can be said to represent society in that he embodies all the weaknesses of society, and the difficult choices one sometimes has to make as a member of society. As a Knight of the Round Table, Gawain is a representative not only of Arthur’s authority but of the principles the Round Table stands for: chivalry, honor, and duty. Yet Gawain struggles to live up to these ideals. His acceptance of the green girdle, and his use of it to protect himself from the Green Knight, is a violation of the ideals he supposedly upholds.

If we understand Gawain to be a hypocrite, then one way we can understand his connection to society is that individuals, when faced with danger, will always subvert or bend the rules of society to try to stay alive. I prefer to think of Gawain, however, not as a hypocrite, but as someone who is incredibly naive. He does not realize until the end that he has, in effect, been “played” by Sir Bertilak; the effect of Sir Bertilak’s ruse is to show that the Arthurian values will always be second to the instinct to survive. In this way you can understand the poem as a gloss on the relationship to the individual to society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Your question concerning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a bit vague, but I'll try to interpret it and answer for you.

The poem is not in any way supposed to be realistic.  It's a medieval romance, a fantasy.  As such, it supposedly takes place around the sixth century, when King Arthur supposedly lived, according to myth. 

Medieval writers did, however, actually write the Arthurian legends as if they were set in the Medieval world.  Knights did not exist, for instance, in Celtic England. 

That said, one would not want to assume that Gawain represents what people were actually like in the time of the writers.  No one is as ideal as Arthurian heroes are.  At the same time, what we can learn from the character of Gawain is what society valued:  honesty, honor, bravery, humilty, responsibility.  We can assume that these qualities were valuable in a medieval world, though again we cannot assume people like Gawain actually existed.

Ironically, though, Gawain does commit wrongs in the poem.  He fails to share the magic girdle or belt he receives from the Green Knight's wife, and he flinches as the Green Kinght's blade descends toward his head (considered dishonorable in the poem).  And these mistakes actually do make Gawain more human-like, although he's still a long way from being realistic.  It is these flaws in Gawain's character that serve as an important step in literature toward eventually, and I do mean eventually, presenting realistic characters that actually do represent actual people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team