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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet
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What is Sir Gawain's quest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? How is he a near-perfect hero, and is Gawain a good or a bad knight?

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Gawain's quest is to fulfill the terms of the challenge he accepted from the Green Knight. At the start of the poem, the Green Knight visit's Arthur's court and challenges Arthur to deal him a blow, with the understanding that in a year, Arthur will travel to the Green Knight's...

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Gawain's quest is to fulfill the terms of the challenge he accepted from the Green Knight. At the start of the poem, the Green Knight visit's Arthur's court and challenges Arthur to deal him a blow, with the understanding that in a year, Arthur will travel to the Green Knight's castle and accept a similar blow.

Gawain is good Knight in the sense that he—mostly—does what is expected of knights. I think a larger question the poem poses for modern readers is whether these expectations are reasonable. Gawain is admirable in his acceptance of the Green Knight's challenge on behalf of Arthur, and in his honoring his pledge to seek out the Green Knight at the Green Chapel a year after he deals him what ought to have been a killing blow. His virtue is without question, but also suggests that he is a bit naive.

His encounter with with Lord Bertilak and his lady tests his virtue. Lady Bertilak's attempts to seduce Gawain are not successful, and in fact Gawain lives up to a promise to share with Bertilak anything he may have gained during the day, giving him kisses each evening. In fact, Gawain is hard-pressed to avoid betraying his host and offending Lady Bertilak. But he cannot resist the temptation of accepting her favor (a piece of green lace) which she says will protect him from harm in battle. Knowing that he must soon face the Green Knight, he accepts the token.

It is a matter of interpretation if we understand Gawain's weakness at this moment as a sign of his unworthiness as a knight. In the final lines of the poem, Gawain certainly feels that the lace is an emblem of his cowardice. Yet Arthur makes merry of this sentiment, and bids everyone at court to wear green in support of Gawain, and this suggests that Gawain's scruples are too great, or that, for Arthur, the whole adventure has been a kind of joke—one which Gawain did not get. Ultimately, it is Gawain's failure to live up to his self-imposed standards that humanizes him.

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Sir Gawain is, in many ways, the epitome of the good knight according to medieval standards. To begin with, he is willing to take on a quest in order to save his king from having to do it. When the Green Knight mysteriously comes to Arthur's court at Christmas and throws down his challenge, it is Gawain who accepts and strikes a blow at the knight. It is then for Gawain to find the Green Knight again; in a year, the Green Knight will be allowed to strike at Gawain in return.

Gawain's "pentangle" or five pointed star is displayed on his shield and represents his virtues. These are: generosity, chastity, fellowship, courtesy, and charity. Gawain displays all of these things during his sojourn with Bertilak: he promises Bertilak that he will give back to him everything that Gawain receives, which he does—even the kisses Gawain receives from Bertilak's wife. He does not want to be seen to be keeping anything from his host.

In the story, Gawain's one flaw is that he is afraid—he is afraid of the Green Knight and thus keeps the gauntlet which Bertilak's wife claims will protect him in the second challenge match. But although this is a slip-up on Gawain's part, it doesn't mean he isn't a good knight: on the contrary, he is able to learn from it and improve in the future.

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In the Green Knight's opinion, Gawain is a good knight.  Otherwise, his third strike would have hit its mark and Gawain would be no more. 

However, because Gawain confessed his weaknesses and his lie (the green sash was kept secret because he truly did not want to die), he is given another chance.  It is understood that he is to go back to Arthur and the round table to tell his story and teach the lesson the Green Knight has taught.

I would also say Gawain is a good knight.  He is human, so he has faults. However, he does not act on the temptation of the Green Knight's wife any further than a kiss.  Unlike the knight in the Wife of Bath's tale, he does not force himself upon her or harm her in any way.  His weakness is his love of life, and going back on the agreement to exchange everything he receives with his host upon his return from hunting.

 

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Sir Gawain's quest is to find the Green Knight in the Green Chapel.  It is not a quest which he really wants to embark on.  The Green Knight had visited Arthur's court on New Years Eve and had issued a challenge to Knights of the Round Table.  He would let one of them take a blow against him now and the Knight would them allow The Green Knight to take an equal blow against him one year from that day. When none of the knights jumped to the challenge, Arthur himself was going to take it so Gawain stepped up and took the challenge for him. 

Gawain is a near perfect hero because he is brave, strong, honorable, and willing to die to keep his word.  He even resists the temptation of the beautiful Lady Bertilak who throughs herself at him.  He does kiss her, but gives the Kisses to Bertilak in the evening as per his agreement to give him everything he gets during the day.  He is less than perfect however, because when Lady Bertilak gives him a sash she says will protect him from weapons, he keeps it and does not tell the Bertilak. 

I would definitely say that Gawain is a good knight, not perfect, but overall he is a good and honorable man which is why he survives his encounter with the Green Knight

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