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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, how and where does Gawain show generosity?

Quick answer:

Both friendship and generosity appear throughout the text as this is important to Gawain as a character and to the story itself.

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The generosity in this poem is more generally held to be on the part of the Green Knight, Bertilak, who takes Gawain into his home, forgives him his errors, and helps him understand the reasons for his quest. However, we can also see in Gawain the "virtues" and "purity" that have been bred into him as a good knight and which exhibit themselves as generosity and a reluctance to step outside the bounds of courtesy.

When Bertilak's wife comes to visit Gawain in his bedchamber, Gawain is understandably uneasy. However, he is reluctant to do anything that might displease the lady. On the contrary, he tells her "I will do your will" and "I will yield me readily." When she asks for a kiss, therefore, he delivers it, although obviously torn. Later in the poem, he gives that kiss again to Bertilak, in the spirit of openness. While Gawain quite obviously worries about the kisses exchanged, his redistribution of them to Bertilak seems to wash them clean in his mind and make his dedication to the lady something of knightly purity rather than something adulterous kept behind his host's back. If he is generous with his kisses to the lord as well as to the lady, his chivalry is upheld. Of course, Gawain later missteps in keeping the final gift of the green girdle from Bertilak; it is Bertilak's generosity in this instance that saves Gawain's life, and Gawain never forgets it.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the meaning of "generous" is important to note.

1. liberal in giving or sharing; unselfish; 2. free from meanness or smallness of mind or character; magnaninous

The first example of generosity I see on Gawain's part is his willingness to take up arms for King Arthur; he begs permission to stand rather than having Arthur defend the court against the Green Knight's challenge.

In the first book (section 15), during the Christmas feast, when no one else stands except the King, Gawain offers himself, which I see as a generous gesture.

Gawain, sitting by the queen,
could tell the king his mind:
"Lord, hear well what I mean,
and let this match be mine."

Gawain requests permission to take the match with the Green Knight from Arthur, and fulfill the challenge himself.

In Book Two (section 24), Gawain speaks to the knights who are so worried for them. Instead of feeling sorry for himself or making a fuss for his own fate, he generously comforts those around him, telling them not to worry on his account:

But Gawain said with cheerful face:
"Why shrink back from the quest?
Though fate bring glory or disgrace 
A man must meet the test."

In the second part of Book Two (section 35), Gawain is generous with his praise to those who have so kindly welcomed him to Bertilak's castle, and helped him out of his armor:

He nobly acknowledged each of those knights, 
proud men close-pressed to honor a prince.

At the end of the same passage, Gawain meets his host and is generous of spirit, calling down blessings on the man, and joining him in a friendly embrace:

"God bless you," said Gawain then, 
"And Christ repay your grace." 
They met like joyful men
in open-armed embrace.

As a "true and gentle knight," Gawain is generous in his manner with King Arthur, and down to the lowliest of servants at Bertilak's castle. While everyone looks to see if he will be a honorable a man as the Arthurian knights are rumored to be, Gawain is true to his oath to chivalry and Arthur's court.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, what lines in the poem show friendship and what lines exhibit generosity?

Both friendship and generosity ("free-handedness") appear within the fifth five of the pentangle on Gawain's shield. Thus, these two qualities have vital importance to the main character of the story and, by extension, the whole of the story. There are several examples of where these two characteristics are displayed in the text.

The earliest example of both can be seen through Gawain's uncle, King Arthur. Arthur has thrown a party and "would not eat till all were served, so full of joy and gladness was he." The reader is also told that "each helped himself as he liked best, and to each two were twelve dishes, with great plenty of beer and wine." The fact that this party is so bountiful and that Arthur looks to please those in attendance demonstrates both his friendship and generosity to those in attendance.

Another strong example of these qualities being paired is at the end of Part 4 when the Green Knight is revealed to be the lord who has been hosting Sir Gawain. Upon Gawain's realization of the lord's identity and his own failure to keep his promise, the lord generously offers to host Gawain at his home once again. "But Sir Gawain said nay, he would in no wise do so; so they embraced and kissed, and commended each other to the Prince of Paradise, and parted right there, on the cold ground." Thus, although they start off as enemies at the beginning of the story and become joking rivals under a layer of deception in Parts 2 and 3, they end as friends who dedicate each other to God's protection.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, what lines in the poem show friendship and what lines exhibit generosity?

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines that denote friendship are:

Yet he lingered with Arthur past All Saints Eve
who set up a feast to send his knight off
with revelry rich as the Round Table offered.


So much secret sorrow swept through that hall
that one so good as Gawain must go forth doomed
to bear the brunt of a blow and let his own blade

In both of these quotes, it is the friendship that the king feels to have a feast in Gawain's honor, and it is sorrow in the hearts of his friends—his fellow knights—that cause them to fear for Gawain's safety when he leaves them to travel to the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight.

"By Peter," said the porter, "be perfectly sure
that you, Lord, are welcome as long as you like!"
Then swift-paced the porter moved to approach him,
and others came with him to welcome their guest.
They dropped the great drawbridge, then drawing near proudly,
they bowed, their knees bent upon the bare earth
to one whom they welcomed as worthy of honor.

In the example above from Book Two, those who work at Bertilak's castle, as well as the lord himself, offer Gawain friendship and hospitality.

Generosity is seen with the following:

And then a rich robe was thrown around him
of brilliant, gaily embroidered silk
filled out with fur: the finest of pelts, 
and every bit ermine, even the hood. 
Thus he sat, relaxed and in lavish splendor, 
till he felt far better in the fire's warmth.


And Gawain, I give you this belt, / As green as my gown...Keep this token for chivalrous / Men to know your adventure at the green Chapel.

Generosity is seen at the hands of Bertilak, his wife and his servants. They welcome Gawain gladly and care for him as a guest, as a friend of the castle.

Friendship is seen primarily with Gawain and his friends at Arthur's court, though I would suggest, too, that the Green Knight's forgiveness and admiration offer friendship as well.



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