“The Taint of a Fault”: Purgatory, Relativism and Humanism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain & the Green Knight“The Taint of a Fault”: Purgatory, Relativism and Humanism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Bill Phillips

Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, No. 17 (2004)


Far from being a poem about the chivalric code, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is essentially concerned with religion. The Romance genre is used to reveal the shortcomings of the Church in the late fourteenth century, just as it begins to feel the first effects of early Ren- aissance humanism, and of religious reformers such as John Wyclif. Early and medieval Church doctrine, like the chivalric code, imposed a set of conditions which were effectively impossible to fulfil, and it must have seemed to many people that however strenuously they strove to comply, they were inevitably doomed to hell. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, possibly influenced by the teachings of John Wyclif, is a religious allegory in which the intractability of the chivalric code stands in for a Church assailed both for its corruption and intransigent absolutism. The doctrine of purgatory, which became orthodox only by the late thirteenth century, symbolises the kind of relativist development envisioned by the Gawain author in his/her critique of obsolete and unworkable codes.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight leaves the reader with “a whole series of interrelated queries”. (Barron, 1984: 23) The poem is clearly not a conventional Ro- mance, written as it was long after the fashion for the genre had waned, and its meaning and purpose defy easy explana- tion. Its protagonist, Sir Gawain, is faced with an impossible task, the sole purpose of which, by the end of the poem, is apparently to discredit the chivalric code itself. The use of an outdated literary form to disparage an obsolete code (assuming that the chivalric code was ever taken seriously) does not sit easily with the poem’s long-held reputation as an important and serious work of literature.

Click here to read this article from Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses

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