Faith and Loyalty: Sir Gawain as a Medieval Man
Medieval English Studies, vol. 8 (2000)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as scholars have pointed out, contains several contrasting aspects, including Christianity versus Paganism, Salvation versus Temptation, Court versus Nature, Gold or Red versus Green, and so on. However, if we are to see the work essentially as a Romance centred on a Christian knight, then Gawain’s worldly experiences and growth, his making errors and repentance, and final forgiveness and reconciliation would be central themes of the work. The meaning of the work can ultimately be found somewhere around these themes, which are quite close to the Medieval Christian view of human beings.
Medieval Christian view of this world and the human beings can be summed up as Augustinian dualism: this world is an unreliable place where no meaningful thing can possibly reside, and so one must look forward to the next world. False felicity, Boethius asserts in his Consolation of Philosophy, is what human beings blindly pursue in this world. Man is searching for fame, honor, and glory of this world without realizing that those things belong to this sub-lunary world and subsequently are bound to be illusory. Wisdom, therefore, comes from an ability to see the vanity of human glory and to accept falsehood as an ultimate human condition. Indeed, the theme of “Contemptus Mundi” and human beings as sinners, who cannot save themselves if not for God’s mercy and benedictus on, can be found most often in Medieval works of literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is certainly no exception.
Faith and loyalty are the two most significant virtues that Gawain represents at least at the outset of the work. His fame as an ideal Christian knight is based upon the two virtues―faith signifies one’s relationship with God while loyalty has to do with associations among human beings. The meaning of the work derives mainly from Gawain’s final realization of his limited moral condition that he, as a man, cannot achieve either faith or loyalty for himself and that his salvation is entirely up to God’s forgiveness and mercy. In this paper, I will examine how Gawain confronts the world by trying to maintain what he believes the essential qualities of chivalric hero―faith and loyalty― and how he fails so as to become a true Christian in the Medieval sense.