Essay: Testing Morals Green Knight Style

Testing Morals Green Knight Style

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 520 Fall 2014}

Gawain discovers he is two miles from his destination of the Green Knight’s castle and decides to take his host up on the offer of hospitality. Gawain’s host offers unusual stipulations for his knight – excluding Gawain from the hunt so as to allow him rest and relaxation with the lady of the house. The hunt itself is seen as means to avoid sin by partaking in the natural thrill of the chase of man versus animal instead of man versus woman. These are moral tests: will Gawain give in to his lovely hostess and take advantage of his position of the unsupervised guest? Will he succumb to the seduction of a married woman? Gawain appreciates the beauty of the lady – but once he realizes that she is the host’s wife, the desire is removed. The lady wishes for Gawain to school her in the art of love as knights are deemed to do, but Gawain relents to only a kiss: “Watz neuer freke fayrer fonge / Bitwene two so dyngne dame, / Pe alder and be zonge; / Much solace set bay same” (Pearl Poet 1315-18). The crone and the coquette are Gawain’s company while the men continue the hunt – the Green Knight has left Gawain in temptation’s domain in samplings of his moral fiber.

The motivation of the Green Knight is to see if Gawain is morally astute. While the two continue with the hunt/bedroom activities during the day, the prizes are dealt out at the end – with Gawain receiving feasts of food and the host receiving secondhand kisses from his wife. All the while, the wool is pulled over the head of the knight as the host is the Green Knight, and the lady is Morgan la Faye…the tests of the Green Knight begin long before Gawain realizes that he is in peril. Fortunately, for Gawain, he is a good person who wishes to follow the love and light of Christ. The last gift of the lady, the magical girdle, is dual purposed. The girdle protects the wearer from any mortal damage, and the girdle is symbolic of purity of self as it protects the soft underbelly of the wearer. As the girdle is worn against the skin it is related to the lady’s susceptibility and tenderness; the fact that Gawain gives his host a kiss instead of the girdle expresses his guilt for accepting the gift from the man’s wife as such an intimate piece of clothing may have been removed pre-coitus.  Gawain’s acceptance of the magical item also diminishes his faith in God by replacing deity with a supercharged piece of Pagan lore, he said, “Lo! ber be falssyng – foule mot hit falle! / For care of by knokke, cowardyse me tazt / To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake: / Pat is larges and lewte, bat longez to knyztez. / Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben euer / Of trecherye and vntrawbe – bope bityde sorze / And care!” (Pearl Poet 2378-84). Gawain’s faith was placed in the belt not in the strength of God; his confession wipes the slate clean and the two are still friendly with one another.

This exchange of kisses and underwear happen during the day while the host and the other men are on the hunt. Gawain is left with the women to lounge around the castle: “Pe lorde is lyzt at be laste at hys lef home, / Fyndez fire vpon flet, be freke perbyside, / Sir Gawayn be gode, pat glad watz with alle – / Among be ladies for luf he ladde much joye” (Pearl Poet 1924-27). The host places Gawain in the lair of temptation to test his mettle – Gawain succeeds with modesty, accepting the meats and pelts for harmless kisses. This suggests that Gawain does not require the distraction of the hunt to resist sexual digression because he is an honorable knight, in tune with the purity of Christ.

Works Cited

Pearl Poet. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript:

Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Malcolm

Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2011. pp.


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