Medieval poetry is filled with literary meanings, the interpretation of which is an essential step of artistic analysis. Often the characters in the author’s works are endowed with incredible powers, magic, or superpowers, which, at first glance, can be used to attract more reader attention. However, a deeper analysis of such artistic tools makes it clear that behind the endowment of such powers are real human problems, namely the imperfection of personality and the desire to prove power. This is precisely why, in the medieval textbook poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, magic was bestowed upon King Arthur’s knights by an unknown author. This literary essay seeks to analyze the magical abilities of the poem’s characters as descriptive elements of their imperfection.
The work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight raises essential issues of human relationships in light of the medieval life of the knights. The poem tells the story of the promise of Gawain, who, during King Arthur’s New Year’s celebration, made a wager with the Green Knight (Weston, 1999). It is widely known that the critical characteristics of the classical knight were valor, courage, and honesty. Thus, a true knight should not try to turn from his path but rather should go all the way, even knowing that death awaits him there. For this reason, it was impossible for Gawain to refuse his oath, which required the Green Knight to strike back at the protagonist. It was no surprise to Gawain that the result of such a confrontation would be his death, for knightly combat rarely ends with an alternative outcome.
Gawain was partially able to fulfill the knight’s promise, but the use of the magical protection belt revealed new sides to his personality. For the medieval hero, accepting death meant cleansing his life of sins and serving as examples for the generations to come. However, instead of heroically giving his life as the knight’s wager bequeathed him, Gawain finds a trick that can protect him. The magical belt prevents external physical attacks from harming its master and realizing this, Gawain decides to use it against the Green Knight (Weston, 1999). It seems evident that this decision is entirely due to the protagonist’s fear for his own life. To the modern reader, such a strategy would hardly seem dishonest since the value of human life has critically increased: on the contrary, for the knight, such an undertaking was stigmatized by disgrace. To put it another way, instead of accepting the fate of fate, Sir chooses to use magic as a defense of his safety, which is not worthy of a true knight. This tool can be seen as a metaphor for the stratagems and tricks to which one strives throughout life to refuse to keep one’s promises.
The theme of magic as a demonstration of a knight’s imperfection is not a one-off for the entire poem: on the contrary, there are several illustrative descriptions of this problem in the medieval work at once. Even the same receipt of the belt — not just its use — describes Gawain’s failure as a valiant knight. Thus, the code of chivalry compels the protagonist to do whatever the lady asks of him: the gift of the belt was an explicit confirmation of this. However, realizing the magical effect of this gift, Sir Gawain is in no hurry to give it to Lord Bertilak, as the terms of their bargain demanded. Considering that the Green Knight and the Lord are the same characters, it can be generalized that Gawain deceived his future friend twice, when he did not give the belt and when he used magic.
Another metaphor for the impossibility of complete human perfection is the profound conflict between chivalrous valor and the knight’s code. On the one hand, given all the classical qualities of the personality of an exemplary knight, it should be noted that he should not enter into a romantic relationship with another man’s wife. It is unethical and unworthy of the man. On the other hand, as a knight, Gawain cannot refuse the lady’s request, and so he agrees to kiss. As a result, there is a conflict between the two sides of chivalry, which finds its climax in a battle between the Green Knight and Gawain. The cut on his neck contradicts the effect of magical protection and shows perfectly that no amount of cunning can protect a man from the consequences of his misdeeds. Gawain is scarred as a sign of his mistake and as an affirmation not of his strength and courage in battle but of his cowardice and imperfection.
In conclusion, the central theme of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an allegorical representation of courage as an essential principle of the classical knight. Rather than creating another poem about the valor of chivalry, however, the unknown author shows that even the best men of this world are quite imperfect in their human nature. Sir Gawain has not accepted the doom of fate and has failed to fulfill his promise completely. Moreover, the protagonist twice deceived the Green Knight when he did not give him the magical belt and when he used it to protect himself from physical damage. Finally, Sir entered into a romantic relationship with a married woman, which is entirely contrary to the principle of the valiant knight. All of the metaphors of human imperfection described in work were realized through magic and magical tools, so it is reasonable to conclude that the author deliberately introduced this technique to demonstrate the human propensity for error, trickery, and deception.
Weston, J. L. (1999). Sir Gawain and The Green Knight [PDF document].