Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Themes
by Pearl-Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Themes

The main themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight include the relationship between chivalry, courtesy, and Christianity, sinful nature, and the importance of truth.

  • The relationship between chivalry, courtesy, and Christianity: Gawain must choose between honoring the codes of chivalry, courtesy, and Christianity in his decisions. These codes are sometimes at odds with each other.
  • Sinful nature: Humbled by his failure to return the girdle, Gawain realizes that he isn’t as perfect or faithful as he once believed.
  • The importance of truth: Gawain is ashamed to realize he has failed to maintain “trouthe,” a Middle-English word connoting faithfulness and promise. 

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)