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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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What are the temptations of Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

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The temptations Gawain faces are more multifaceted than they may seem at first, particularly given the modern light through which we view the story. It is not clear what game Bertilak's wife is playing with Gawain when he stays with the couple at their castle, nor how much her husband knows about it. It could be argued, given what we later discover about Bertilak's true identity, that he and his wife are working together to "tempt" Gawain and see how far he can be swayed.

But what are they tempting him to do? The promise Gawain has made is that anything he is given, he will give back to Bertilak. So, Bertilak's wife is tempting Gawain in a basic erotic sense by kissing him, but the more important element of the temptation is that she (and possibly Bertilak) is tempting him to break his honor and lie in order to save himself from embarrassment or disrepute. She is tempting him, we might argue, not to give the kisses to Bertilak. But Gawain kisses Bertilak for the first two days, in clear indication that Gawain not only is abiding by his word but also is not viewing the kisses as a sexual act. By honestly giving Bertilak the kisses Bertilak's wife has given Gawain, Gawain is demarcating them as simple tokens exchanged between host and hosted. At the same time he is proving he has not been tempted to conceal anything in order to protect himself.

Unfortunately, Gawain is eventually tempted by something greater than kisses. When he is given the green girdle, he is tempted to lie to Bertilak in order to ensure his own safety. This is where Gawain has stumbled, placing his personal security above his honor due to fear.

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In addition to the obvious temptations in Berkilak's castle with his wife (all of which involve erotic temptation and the temptation to violate hospitality for personal pleasure), more significant spiritual temptations frame this story. First, Gawain displays an element of pride when he agrees to participate in the initial contest. While Arthur is more to blame and Gawain offers to take his place, it certainly is not prudent to participate in this contest with a character whose appearance suggests that he is not a normal, mortal man. The first part of this bargain therefore involves the temptation of pride.

Later, the temptation that most condemns Gawain is the desire to continue living even if one will live a life compromised by deceit. While it is understandable that Gawain would hide the garter and flinch at the blow of an ax, the temptation to focus on his mortal rather than his spiritual life is the cause of his wearing the garter as a mark of shame.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , Gawain is tempted three times. After his long journey to find the Green Knight, Sir Gawain arrives at the palace of an unnamed Lord and Lady. The Lord makes a deal with him—he tells Gawain...

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that he may have a bed, the run of the palace, and the game that the Lord catches each day if Gawain promises to give him whatever he receives as well.

The first day, Gawain wakes to the Lady in his bedroom and is startled. He asks to put clothes on, but she ignores him and moves in. What follows is tense banter in which Gawain retains his position as a pure courtly knight by politely refusing her advances while still managing to hold her up on a pedestal as a proper lady. She finally relents and leaves him a single kiss. That evening, when the Lord returns and offers Gawain the meat, Gawain gives the Lord a single kiss in return.

The Lady returns the second day and a similar scene ensues, with the Lady finally relenting and offering Gawain two kisses. Again, when the Lord returns from his hunt, Gawain gives him two kisses in return.

On the third day, the Lady does not relent. She gives Gawain a green girdle (belt) and promises that it will protect him from any danger. She also gives him three kisses. When the Lord returns Gawain gives him three kisses but conceals the green girdle.

Here, Gawain has been tempted three times and failed the third. He chooses to withhold the belt from the Lord, which breaks his promise and therefore his honor as a knight. Gawain's failure is, then, forever carried with him as he bears the green girdle on his armor and the scratch on his neck back to King Arthur's court.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is tempted throughout the action of the text. By far, the most important temptation of Gawain's is that of his own desire to live.

Gawain knows that the only way that he will survive a blow by the Green Knight is to keep the belt given to him secret. Gawain has upheld his promise to the Green Knight on all other instances- the kisses given to him did not guarantee his life.

Gawain is able to be a true knight- he worships both God and his lord (Arthur), holds courtly love for both Guinevere and the wife of the Green Knight. (Courtly love does not mean romantic love, typically.)

Therefore, the temptations that Gawain must face are:

-the calling of a true knight in the taking of the challenge (refusal shows weakness)

-the holding of the promise to meet the Green Knight in one year (refusal shows dishonor)

-the promise to give the Green Knight all he receives while staying at the castle (shows honor to ones lord)

-the exchange of the blow (shows knightly honor)

-the sexual temptation of the Green Knight's wife (shows willingness to accept both God's law and respect of ones lord)

In all but one, Gawain is able to overcome the temptations that he faces- the inability to give up the belt.

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