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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet
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What is the Code of Chivalry, and how does it influence Sir Gawain? In what ways does the Code of Chivalry remain influential today?

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The Code of Chivalry is an unwritten and informal set of standards which arose towards the end of the twelfth century, though it has much earlier roots that reach back to the Homeric Code. The word "chivalry" originally refers to horsemanship and is related to the French word "chevalier." The...

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The Code of Chivalry is an unwritten and informal set of standards which arose towards the end of the twelfth century, though it has much earlier roots that reach back to the Homeric Code. The word "chivalry" originally refers to horsemanship and is related to the French word "chevalier." The concept is highly dependent on social class. It applies only to knights and the top level of society and dictates the way they should behave to members of their own class. A knight must be chivalrous when dealing with high-born ladies or with other knights. Interactions with the peasantry are not subject to the same standards.

Sir Gawain exhibits all the qualities of the perfect knight. He is courageous in facing the Green knight—and particularly in claiming the honor of doing so when others are afraid. He is honorable in keeping his word. He is virtuous in resisting temptation. However, the poet seems to be pointing out that even the perfect knight can be placed in a dilemma to which there is no perfect solution. This is what happens to Gawain when he accepts and keeps the Lady's girdle, thereby honoring the Lady but failing to honor his obligations to Sir Bertilak.

The poem itself, therefore, demonstrates that the Code of Chivalry is a counsel of perfection. Its influence today lies in the standards citizens expect from politicians and other people in public life. The media reveals sexual and financial scandals with a mixture of prurience and Puritanism, making it clear that those involved have failed to live up to a standard but never making it quite clear what the standard is. It cannot be the law, since marital infidelity, for instance, is not against the law. It is an unwritten code of conduct which goes back to the Code of Chivalry, demanding continence and strength in resisting temptation.

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