Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while overtly an exciting and humorous romance, is at heart a deeply religious work. Through the series of tests and games in the poem, the poet demonstrates Gawain’s growth as a human being. Like most humans, Gawain does not understand the real purpose of the tests to which he is subjected until after they are over. It is only in retrospect that he can understand that it is not his honor that is being tested, but his humility; not his lovemaking, but his truthfulness; and not his courage, but his faith in God.
The poem is both subtle and sophisticated as it presents the difficult choices that confront Gawain: He must choose, over and over, among the codes of chivalry, courtesy, and Christianity, codes that are often in conflict with each other. When he leaps to chop off the Green Knight’s head, he believes that he is demonstrating chivalric courage; what he demonstrates is rashness and a lack of Christian charity. When he allows Lady Bertilak into his bed, he believes that he is honoring the code of courtesy; he violates, however, the chivalric response to the hospitality of his host. When he accepts the green girdle, he believes he is saving his own life; but the gift marks his fear of death and his lack of faith. Finally, when he does not give the green girdle to Bertilak at the end of the day, he breaks his promise.
The story reveals the sinful nature of even the most perfect of knights. Gawain suffers from the sins of pride, lack of faith, and dishonesty. His confession to the Green Knight of his wrongdoings allows him ultimately to be redeemed by the Green Knight’s forgiveness. His return to Camelot is marked by his sincere contrition and repentance.
The heart of the poem, ultimately, is the notion of truth. In Middle English, the word “trouthe” had many more nuances of meaning than simply truth as opposed to falsehood. It also connoted a sacred promise and faithfulness. In modern English, this sense continues in the word “troth” as used in a traditional wedding ceremony or in words such as “betroth” and “betrothal.” Gawain’s real failure is not a failure of nerve but rather a failure to keep trouthe. Although he is the Knight of the Virgin Mary, he fails to keep trouthe with her, preferring to trust Lady Bertilak’s magic. In addition, his failure to act honorably in keeping his bargain reveals a failure of trouthe with both King Arthur and Lord Bertilak. Yet, in the court’s embrace of Gawain, the end of the story offers hope and redemption for all of flawed humanity.