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The poem on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is romance poem which was written in the middle Ages in late 14th century. This poem represents values and beliefs of middle ages in a big way. The poem illustrates the role of a man in the society. A man was to perform certain things, have a particular look, and act in a particular fashion. Ways which demonstrated masculinity included battle, sexual activity and pleasing ladies with deeds and words. But, these demonstrations were Christianized shadows of Gallo-Celtic ideals of heroism and godhood. Within the poem Christianity stands strongly against heroic ideals and poet describes its passage in the period.
Sir Gawain, can be said to be a good Christian by the virtue of him having been knighted by King Arthur. He is valiant, pure and chivalrous. The poet describes him as pure as gold. Gawain begins with a symbolic shield, as opposed to having acquired it in his adventures. Gawain took up his shield seeking out for the Green Knight and faced the tradition culture with one of its five symbols and given new meaning, and was backed by the new acquired culture's faith.
Now Green Knight stands almost in a fatherly position to Gawain. Green Knight, is seen referring Arthur's knights as beardless children, and says he will be playing a game with them rather than battling with them. This appears as a cruel taunt, implying that Arthur's knights have childlike innocence, perhaps being their young cultures innocence. When knight was in shock at the Green Knight's stiff challenge, Arthur was to leap to accept it, but Gawain strongly denied him because was not supposed to accept it. To them he was a parent like figure, and it was they, who were young, be tested, not he, proved his worth.
Arthur, in that instance, was almost a mother figure to those knights of his caliber. The sooner he realized that knights were not going to defend the honor of the court, he leapt to do it by himself, as mother bears to defend her cubs. This seems to be a ruse on his part so as to shame the knights. Gawain realized that the test had turned into a rite of passage, but not actual challenge, and stepped up so as to take it upon him. Arthur argued with Gawain, so as to be sure that he knew what he was getting to himself, and after Gawain appealed that it was him supposed to accept the challenge, Arthur moved to him, handing to him an axe, which was the tool to help him meet challenge.
The appearance and challenge of the Green Knight were not only rite of passage in which new Christian culture was to get wisdom and knowledge of Gallo Celtic culture that preceded it, but also as a reminiscent of older Celtic story about the passing tradition of the Holly King and the Oak King. In the story, the Holly King, here identified as the Green Knight, challenges the Oak King into a mocking battle during the New Year eve so that, in being beheaded, he shall pass on kingdom. In the course of the year, Oak King grew older and wiser, and was beheaded by Holly King at the end of summer, and the cycle restarts.
In the Third Fit, Gawain gets involved in a game with Lord Bertilak who was the castles lord in which stayed awaiting the confrontation between him and the Green knight. They traded for three days he stayed inside the castle, what they gained during the day. He did not realize, though, that that the game was a part of Green Knight's tests gainst him. The first two days, the game proceeded well, with Bertilak being the meat deliverer, and Gawain delivering the kisses Lady Bertilak bestowed upon him faithfully.
In the third day, Gawain was trading the Lady's kisses for Bertilak's fox meat, but not girdle she had earlier given him, because he had vowed to her that he would not. This happened to be Gawain's only mistake, as we see in the Fourth Fitt. Which concludes his trials when he faced off against the green knight for what he was thinking was the second time, but later discovered it was the third. In Gawain's meetings with Green Knight, it is noted that two of the three trials were also the three part trials unto them (Besserman).
These were the three nights which were in the castle, and the three blows with an axe at the end. The sets of the three were considered to be magical in nearly every culture of the world, because they usually were the representatives of a basic family unit. However it was strange that there were to be only two sets of the three sub-trials instead of three, which required that I might have missed something in the first fitt, but I could not have found even a hint that trial of beheading the Green Knight, had three divisional parts.
In the last trial, Green Knight swung for three times at Gawain's neck and finally nicking him during the third swipe. By having given the three blows, Green Knight revealed that he was Bertilak, and explained to Gawain that each blow was representing every night spent in the castle. Gawain's only mistake was not that of mentioning the girdle to Bertilak, for which he had been nicked with the axe. Gawain would not accept that he had passed the three tests, and that, in Bertilak's eyes, was even a further proof that he had passed. Gawain's perfect honesty and humility rendered him worthy to receiving wisdom that Bertilak had to offer (Greenblatt).
Although it seems certain that the poet did not have the intention to intend the allegory, the poem embodied on the medieval idea that a great culture has to pass its knowledge and wisdom to the next. The story placed Arthur as a protector of a yet unproven Christian heroic ideal while it built itself up to confront the older Gallo-Celtic hero and in so doing, to learning the universal wisdom of heroes.
Nature verses the human society is seen as the main conflict which Gawain had to deal with during his time. He was had to confront the forces of nature which were against him. These natural forces were in the form of Green Knight, sexual desires, winter landscape, and ultimately, fear of dying. Throughout his life Gawain countered this with faith in God and chivalric values he had. But in the end, fear of death he has overcomes his senses of morality and led him to accepting that green girdle (Hahn).
At the time when Gawain returned to his natural society of humans at the end, there was unease sense, when he realized the power of nature compared to his personal beliefs. In the poem, natural settings and impulses constantly oppose those of human. While human beings shy away from their natural inevitable death, it is Nature which only can continue in restoring and regenerating it, as it is seen in indestructible Green Knight and passing and resurrection of a year.
This poem is enriched with constructs descriptions of human, like architecture, food armor, clothing and the cuttiing of hunted deer. This implies that there was a ritualistic, overly technical in-depth sense to those descriptions. There are areas where poet seems to be hinting at power of those human constructs. For instance, concept of Courtly Love is one such an elaborate of human construction, but in the third fitt, it is based mainly on the conversation between Gawain and Lady Bertilak.
Viability of chivalric values is seen to be the most significant of the human constructions which forms a crucial part in medieval literature and Gawain's belief system. He is a very embodied being of chivalric values, but his encounter with a seductive lady, Bertilak inputs a negative crisis to the chivalric value system. Should he have honored the requests of a noble lady or remained faithful to the lord?
On his return to his homeland, Camelot, King Arthur did not detect the moral crisis of Gawain at the time. The test of the Gawain's chivalric values was a game that was engineered by Morgan le Fay for less than praising purpose but rather to bring him down. Having been disillusioned, Gawain a once-idealistic finds out that the code of chivalry which had formed his moral inner core has now been distracted.
Contrary to the nature of the chivalric code that is questionable, poet uphold Christian faith as an ultimate, saving grace for humanity. Gawain always found guidance in God: from his symbolic shield where there was the image of the Virgin Mary mother of God on the inside helped him to his prayers while on journey alone, to a narrow escape from t adulterous temptations of Lady Bertilak. It is through sense that faith in God enables a man to differentiate between the dangers of the natural world and those of human society.
Despite the poems Christian message, it has strong roots to the Celtic myth of paganism. There exist many elements that are common to pre-Christian Celtic mythology; such include the waiting the period which runs for twelve months and a one day, beheading, and temptation game. The Green Knight is himself seen to be a strong pagan, similar to Green Man or Wood's Wild Man who symbolized fertility in folklore. Gawain's journey cannot be seen as a hero's archetypical encounter with the otherworld, which is an essential theme in paganism belief. The pentangle is a pagan symbol; thus Gawain's shield, represents pagan and Christian nature of the poem.
The poem contains a lot of conventions which are of medieval romance tradition, but in some ways does not seem to celebrate the genre. Many elements seem to verge on parody; others seem to be excessive. The Conversation between a seductive lady, Bertilak and Gawain satirizes language of the love of courting. The clothing and armor descriptions can be over the top, and poem failed to conclude with a resolution to a typical romance. Instead, there is an unease sense, as poem concludes with what seems to be an unclear questioning of a romance genre.
There is a thematic meaning of the poem describing fall of men and loss of innocence in the poem. Biblical parallels are found in the turning up of Bertilak's castle and role of his wife as a temptress. Accordingly, Gawain lost moral innocence when his chivalric value system is shattered off by the end of poem. An allegory as such seems to be emphasizing more on the poet's message of Christianity, and relationship between the divine and mankind.