Last Updated 25 May 2023

The Test of Honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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During the course of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is presented with a number of choices, and must, as a result of these options, make difficult decisions. In most instances, his choices trap his natural self-interest in preserving his own life against his sense of honor. Honor was a major factor in the Age of Chivalry - commanding a much higher priority than it does in our society today.

Gawain made more than a few decisions in the poem and from the start he was facing not only the loss of his pride, his good name, and his spirit, but also death. When the Green Knight challenged all of Arthur's court, Gawain was the only knight that offered to take Arthur's place. He could have easily stood back and let Arthur have his go at the Green Knight. He showed to have more honor and courage than the rest of Arthur's Court by coming forward. "Would you grant me the grace,' said Gawain to the King, 'To be gone from this bench and stand by you there." (Gawain, lines 343-344) "I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any." (Gawain, 355-356).

The poem is full of instances in which Gawain was forced to face difficult decisions. Gawain could have simply left Camelot never to return. He instead chose the option of keeping his word and searching for the Green Knight, even though he knew he had to take what was coming to him. "Now, liege lord of my life, my leave I take; / The terms of this task too well you know / to count the cost over concerns me nothing. But I am bound forth betimes to bear a stroke / From the grim man in green, as God may direct." (Gawain, lines 545-549). During his travels he had every opportunity to turn around. Gawain, however, showed honor and courage and continued on his way.

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The Green Knight at the end of the poem once again tested Gawain. This was the true test of Gawain's honor as a Knight. He was required to bare his neck to the Green Knight and finish their trading of blows. His flinching at the Green Knight's first feinted blow cost him a little pride, but it was certainly an understandable reflex, and he did not allow it to happen again. The second and third times, after being chastised for his flinch, he was able to hold steady and accept fate. As Bercilak said, "You lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,/ But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,/ But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame" (Gawain, lines 2366-2368). Although it seems unlikely that Bercilak ever intended to kill Gawain, the fact that Gawain believed that he was doomed to die and returned to face his fate anyway meant he had already won. Had he failed to return, he would have also failed the test of true knighthood.

But does Gawain pass the test of an honorable knight? He has, throughout the poem, shown courage far above the call of duty. If Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a moral, it would seem to be that if a "Knight" behaves as honorably and decently as he can under even the most difficult of situations, he has proven to be considered an honorable knight.

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