Evolution from a Shame Culture to a Guilt Culture in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the unknown author writes an Arthurian Romance about Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur and a knight of the round table. On the surface this appears to be a typical chivalric tale where Sir Gawain goes on a quest to find the Green Knight and fulfill his pledge; after having met foes and having adventures Sir Gawain returns to court and resumes his previous life. The ending of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to suggest, or perhaps demand a deeper analysis. On a deeper level the text provides an account of the transition from a world of strict law, where a man is judged by his strength and accomplishments compared to an absolute law, to a gentler world where forgiveness plays an important role in a man’s salvation. (Bullfinch 414).
The story begins at a Christmas banquet held at Camelot. Sir Gawain clearly holds a highly regarded position as he sits at the head with Guenever beside him table and is called “good Gawain” (Sir Gawain 9) The Green Knight tries to shame Arthur into participating in his contest. King Arthur agrees, but Sir Gawain intervenes between King Arthur and the Green Knight and accepts the challenge (Sir Gawain 23). Sir Gawain is modest, loyal, and brave. He is honest and keeps his promises, evidenced by his setting out to find the Green Knight shortly after All Saints’ Day. The author tells us Sir Gawain is “faithful in five things always, and in five ways. Sir Gawain was known as a good knight and as gold purified” (Sir Gawain 27, 39, 45). By all appearances Sir Gawain has worked hard to be a good person and always behaves accordingly. In fact it is because of his behaviors that he is found faultless. His station is based solely on what he, Sir Gawain has done.
Sir Gawain begins his quest and rides northward to North Wales. He has been unable to find the Green Knight; no one he asks has heard of the Green Knight or the Green Castle. He encounters and defeats dragons, wolves, bulls, and wild boars. Throughout these adventures he succeeds using his own skills of strength, bravery, and his skill with weapons. On Christmas Day Sir Gawain out of desperation prays to God to help him find a place where he might attend mass. Immediately he sees a large castle in front of him. There he is received and treated well. The host tells him that he need not search any longer and that he will easily find the Green Chapel on the appointed day. Sir Gawain promises he will “do whatever else you (the host) may ask. (Sir Gawain 49-63, 75).
Here Sir Gawain faces the first challenge of his quest that tests something other than his physical abilities. He faces a challenge to his character. The host makes an agreement with Sir Gawain that he and his men will go hunting every day. When they return they will exchange what they have gathered for what Sir Gawain has gathered staying in the castle. Each morning for the next three days the host’s wife tries to seduce him. On the first day she gives him a kiss; on the second day she gives two kisses; on the last she gives him three kisses and a belt or a girdle that will protect whoever wears it. Each night Sir Gawain dutifully gives his host what he was squired: one kiss the first day, two kisses the second day, and three kisses the third day. However Sir Gawain withholds the belt, presumably to protect himself in his upcoming altercation with the Green Knight (Sir Gawain 75-135). Sir Gawain has given way to temptation and not kept his pledge to the host. It is noteworthy that Sir Gawain suffered three temptations just as Jesus is claimed to have experienced in Matthew 4:1-11. Unlike Jesus, Sir Gawain fails the test and succumbs to the temptation to protect his life.
One New Year’s Day Sir Gawain leaves the castle with the lady’s belt. As he prepares to leave on of the knights suggests that Sir Gawain leave by an alternative route and he swears to “never tell anyone/That you ever fled for fear” (Sir Gawain 145). To his credit Sir Gawain refuses and sets forward to complete his quest. He appears before the Green Knight to honorably honor his promise. The Green Knight swings once and Sir Gawain flinches. This was technically a default of the contract that demanded he not react or flinch. The Green Knight feints a stroke that Sir Gawain does not flinch at. On the third stroke the Green Knight aims a blow that “barely broke the skin.” (Sir Gawain 157). It is revealed to the reader that the Green Knight and his host at the castle are one and the same. The Green Knight reveals that he has planned his wife’s attempts at seduction. He states that although Sir Gawain failed to keep faith “[t]hough not from treachery, nor my wife’s wooing either,/But for love of your life, and I blame you less for that” (Sir Gawain 161). Sir Gawain confesses that he has broken faith and throws the belt toward the Green Knight. Whereupon the Green Knight says, “I am thoroughly healed of any harm I suffered. You have confessed so completely . . . suffered your penance, and purged as clean” (Sir Gawain 163). The Green Knight reveals that his name is Bercilak and that he has acted under orders of Morgan le Faye who wanted to “deprive [Sir Gawain] of his wits/And to grieve Guenever and frighten her to death” (Sir Gawain 167).
Bercilak consoles Sir Gawain by relating the story of Adams’ fall due to a woman, Solomon “by several of them,” Samson and King David (Sir Gawain 163-165). He tells Sir Gawain that each of these men of God had erred because of a woman yet that didn’t affect their being a man of God. By forgiving Sir Gawain for his fault, Bercilak offers Sir Gawain reconciliation and forgiveness that does not depend on Sir Gawain’s efforts. Ironically this change from a shame culture to a guilt culture was the result of the evil and magic of Morgan le Faye, a woman.
When Green Knight forgives Sir Gawain he puts the belt back on and swears that he will wear the belt forever to remind him of his mistake and the fact that he is imperfect, but forgiven. Sir Gawain returns to Camelot where he confesses his wrongdoing before Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
This change in Sir Gawain symbolizes the change in the attitudes toward forgiveness from mankind has believed in. In the Old Testament where the law is strict people sough forgiveness by their own efforts by performing rituals and sacrifices. With the advent of the Christian Church the focus was to change. The Church proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God and had died so mankind no longer had to earn its salvation, but rather should admit errors and ask forgiveness. Salvation was not obtained by behaving in a spotless way such as Sir Gawain in the first part of the text, but by the genuinely humbled Sir Gawain at the end.
Bullfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable; The Age of Chivalry; Legends of Charlemagne. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913.
Putter, Ad W. (ed.) An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. London: Longman. 1996
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. Trans. W.S. Merwin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.