In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet of the poem addresses the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Also, the poet addresses the sin of cupiditas. These are the obvious sins that Gawain is tempted with, and the focus will be on the seven main sins and cupiditas. Because sin is an ethical subject, the essay will focus on the tests Gawain undergoes. Emphasis will also be put on the poem’s overall structure, because a connection can be drawn from the structure and Gawain’s ethics.
There are four general parts to this poem; however, within each part there are intricate structures. In part one, the first line begins with a general history and aftermath of Troy, which the poet reintroduces at the last stanza of the poem. History frames the poem for a couple of reasons. First, it allows a general feeling of closure. Second, history is linear, which serves an important role in the structure of the poem. Third, it is important to note that the broad scope of history slowly funnels into a narrowed specific place by the third stanza. By the fourth stanza, there is a specific time given: “the New Year was new” (159). Fourth, this suggests that large, collective events, that are broad in scope, serve as a reference point to the smaller scale events that seem unimportant. These smaller events are the details of life. Because only the large events are recalled and individual details mean little in the future, one can conclude that this life is transitory.
The structure of the first part serves as a general map for the poem. For example, the Green Knight sets a specific goal in the beheading game. The goal is that Gawain must meet the Green Knight “in a twelvemonth and a day” (164). It is logical for the poem to keep consistent with this linear motion, and it does this by using the ecclesiastic calendar and the cyclic cycles of the seasons. The poem starts at Christmastide, and the next date is Michaelmas, which is September 29. Within the space of four lines, the poem is at All Saints’ Day, which is November 1. Gawain takes leave the next day. The poet mentions that Gawain suffered a few toils on his journey; however, there is not a full description. This moves the plot along, causing no distractions, and the next day mentioned is St. John’s Day, which is December 27. There are two predominant reasons for the use of the ecclesiastic calendar and the cyclic cycle of the seasons. First, it provides a strong grounding for the superhuman powers the Green Knight is equipped with. A balance is created between the known reality of life and the unknown reality of life. Second is the transitory nature of life. Each day passes and another begins.
Also, there is the initial meeting of the Green Knight in Arthur’s castle, and the first test is conducted to see if Gawain will sin. The Knight explains the game he wants to play, and no one responds. The Green Knight must question his location: “‘What, is this Arthur’s house,’ said the horseman then. ‘Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide? Where is your arrogance and awesome deeds, your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?’” (165). These words questioned Arthur’s authority in a delicate manner. After the Green Knight’s attempt at arousing a response, Arthur steps forward, willing to play the game. Eventually, Gawain is aroused and elects to switch spots with Arthur. Gawain has overcome the sin of sloth.
In part two, the poem passes though almost an entire year, and Gawain is now on his journey. His next sin is pride. Even though he is aware that the Green Knight owes him “a knock on New Year’s morn,” Gawain still retains his pride by never turning back on the journey (167). Before Gawain leaves, the people at the castle speak of his pride: “Beheaded by an elf-man, for empty pride” (172). The majority holds Gawain in high esteem, because he is willing to sacrifice his life for an ethical position. Also, in this part Gawain and Bercilak decide upon a trading game. Once again, Gawain’s future is being planned out for him in terms of a specific goal. The goal is the number of days he will stay at the castle and the rules of the game. Gawain has no objection to having his immediate future mapped out for him. This is, of course, an important aspect of how Gawain lives. He allows others to define the situation that he will encounter, and he does what is necessary in the situation.
The next sin is gluttony. Bercilak tells Gawain that “tonight you fast. . .tomorrow we’ll see you fed” (177). Although Gawain has been on a long journey, he does not seem to have an insatiable appetite the next day.
In part three, there is a structural parallel between the hunting scenes and the bedroom scenes; there is also a parallel between the animals hunted and the actions of Gawain. For every bedroom scene, there are two hunting scenes. The hunting scenes alternate. For example, there is a hunt scene and then a bedroom scene and finally a hunt scene. This structural mapping allows a gradual buildup of action, and it creates balance.
During the first hunting scene, a deer is killed. The attributes and actions of the deer are imitated by Gawain in the bedroom scene. Gawain “laid his head low again in likeness of sleep,” when the maiden entered the room (183). He is trying to hide himself by imitating sleep. The initial feeling that is associated with a relative stranger entering one’s room as one lie naked in bed would be disrupting. The poet offers three better words than disrupting: “dale, dazed with dread” (182). Bercilak captures the deer, and the maiden captures Gawain. The men slaughter the deer in a designated fashion outdoors, while indoors Gawain wooed the maiden. There were hunting manuals that described the correct way to slaughter an animal, and the unwritten rules of society determine how to woo a lady. Gawain speaks with the lady all morning, and he secures a kiss. It is interesting to note that both have certain rules to abide by in life.
The next animal killed is a boar. The boar meets the hunters in a fierce charge. It is said that Bercilak pursued “this wild swine till the sunlight slanted” (188). In the bedroom scene that follows, Gawain “thought it good to greet her at once” (188). Gawain is similar to the boar, because he is meeting the maiden with a fierce charge. The maiden’s response is to allow Gawain to use her in any way he desires: “I am yours to command, to kiss when you please; you may lay on as you like, and leave off at will” (189). The maiden tempts Gawain with the sin of lust in a straightforward manner; however, Gawain’s response is delicate and soft. He declines the maiden and uses reason to escape sinning. As the boar tests the hunters’ endurance and durability, the maiden tests Gawain’s ability to retain his fidelity.
In the last hunting scene a fox is killed. The hunters have a difficult time catching the fox: “Reynard was wily. . .he leads them a merry chase” (194). In the bedroom scene, the maiden attempts to give Gawain gifts. The first gift she offers is a “rich ring, wrought all of gold” (195). Here Gawain is tempted with avarice, and he declines. The next gift offered is the green sash. At first, Gawain does decline, but once he learns of the sash’s magical qualities, he changes his mind. The sash has powers that will not allow Gawain to “be killed by any craft on earth” (196). This sash causes Gawain to commit the sin of cupiditas—a love for any second good or an extravagant desire. Gawain calls the sash “a pearl for his plight” (196). He loves himself more than he loves God. Once Gawain receives the sash, he is trapped, because he promised to give Bercilak all goods he received during the day. Furthermore, the maiden does not want her husband, Bercilak, to know that she gave Gawain the sash. Gawain creates a form of moral relativism from this situation. He allows the situation he is in to define his ethical position. This is a subjective, changing process. It is a process that changes only to flee again. The choice that Gawain made reinforces the transitory nature of the poem.
In part four Gawain learns that the Green Knight and Bercilak are one and the same. Gawain also learns that Bercilak\ Green Knight was just testing his ethics. When Bercilak\Green Knight is ready to administer the blow to Gawain, he stops and uses an excuse. This happens twice. Finally, the third time Bercilak just allows “the blades end brush the bare throat” (205). Gawain rises in anger, because the game is over, and he is being toyed with. Bercilak tempts Gawain to one last sin, but Gawain, ready to fight, just watches him.
He lowers the long ax and leans on it there,
Sets his arms on the head, the haft on the earth,
And beholds the bold knight that bides there afoot,
How he faces him fearless, fierce in full arms. (206)
Gawain overcomes his anger by reading the Green Knight\Bercilak’s mannerisms. This is an example of how things are tentative.
Also, Bercilak holds the idea that Gawain is “polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright,” but Gawain holds the opposite view: he is “faulty and false” (207). The two characters do not fully understand each other. It seems that Bercilak has no quibbles with the ethical approach Gawain took; however, Gawain believes the opposite. However one looks at the situation, one will find that Gawain’s ethics are not understood by each other.
Finally, it can be concluded that the connection between Gawain’s ethics and the structure of the poem deals with the transitory nature of life. Ethics are subject to change over time or from situation to situation. There is no physical sign one can have with ethics. Gawain tries to find a physical sign–the green sash; however, he finds that the Round Table misunderstands why he wears the sash. The Round Table wears it in honor of Gawain. Ethics can only be witnessed by watching another’s actions or heard by the actions of other people passed down orally, but when they are passed orally, they begin to lose meaning and are misunderstood. Ethics deserve to be tested, yet they eventually pass as the cyclic cycle of the seasons pass or as history passes.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. M. H. Abrams et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.