Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain wrestles with an unnecessary conflict of core values. As a man who values honor, Gawain desires to fulfill his contract with the Green Knight and meet him at the Green Chapel to face a blow from him. However, Gawain also cherishes his life and considers it endangered by his obligation to the Green Knight. Arthur’s court unanimously holds that Gawain’s honor and his survival are at odds, and Gawain absorbs this mindset. He vacillates, preferring one and then the other; when he departs Camelot, Gawain values honor over survival. However, when Gawain enters Bertilak’s castle, he honors his contract with his host only until an apparent opportunity to preserve himself from the Green Knight emerges. In accepting the green belt from Bertilak’s wife, Gawain chooses survival over integrity in honoring contracts.
As he approaches the Green Chapel, Gawain changes his mind again; this time, he pursues honor over survival, convinced that the devil has doomed him to die through his arrangement with the Green Knight. But Gawain’s true enemy is not the Green Knight: it is his own perceived false dichotomy between survival and integrity. Gawain learns the hard way that one can only have both or neither. To the extent Gawain honors his contracts, he is unharmed. To the extent that he breaks them, he suffers. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates that respect for contracts is the surest route to self-preservation, even when honoring a contract might superficially appear to endanger one’s survival. Furthermore, violating a contract irreversibly damages one’s life: Gawain suffers from eternal shame for having broken his promise to Bertilak. By violating this promise, Gawain endangers his life; he obtains both a physical scar and a permanent psychological one.
Gawain’s mindset and experiences prior to the Green Knight’s blow reinforce his mistaken conviction that survival and integrity comprise an either-or alternative. Gawain unquestioningly absorbs this survival-integrity dichotomy from those around him. Arthur’s court concurs: If Gawain upholds his contract with the Green Knight, he will inevitably perish. Displaying this mentality, the court addresses Gawain in unison: “What a pity indeed / That your life must be squandered, noble as you are!” (SGGK 674-675). This dichotomy offers Gawain no favorable alternatives: either he will live as a coward, or he will act honorably and die. Gawain first chooses honor, accepting the court’s assumption that it will lead to his destruction. He thus “[finds] it no pleasure” (SGGK 691) to journey in search of the Green Chapel, expecting only death at his destination.
However, Gawain does not consistently choose honor over survival; he vacillates between the two values, choosing survival over honor during his third day in Bertilak’s castle. When Gawain accepts the green belt from Bertilak’s wife, he does so considering that “[c]ould he escape being killed, the trick would be splendid” (SGGK 1858). Convinced that the Green Knight is both able and willing kill him, given the chance, Gawain sees no way to honestly adhere to all of his promises and remain alive. Instead, he perceives deceit as his sole option: he intends to trick the Green Knight by employing an unexpected magical means of protection. More grievously, he must, in keeping the belt, violate his promise to Bertilak to return his entire day’s winnings to his host. At the same time, Gawain-to be fully honorable-must abide by his promise to Lady Bertilak not to disclose his possession of the belt to her husband.
By accepting the green girdle, Gawain places himself in a double bind: if he keeps the belt, he will have betrayed his host. If he reveals that he has it, he will have violated his fidelity to Lady Bertilak. Gawain chooses to honor Lady Bertilak’s contract because of the belt’s perceived utility in preserving him from the Green Knight. However, in even accepting the lady’s contract in the first place, Gawain has already implicitly betrayed Bertilak and his own integrity. Now he has no way out of the situation without breaking a promise to somebody;hence, he figures that he might just as well cut his losses, display infidelity to Bertilak, and save his life in the process. He is bound to violate his honor, but he still wishes to survive. Thinking thus, Gawain establishes an implicit separation between honor and survival. For him, the two are distinct values that do not positively depend on each other; he thinks it possible to pursue one in the absence of the other and even at the expense of the other.
As Gawain approaches the chapel, his guide further reinforces his survival-integrity dichotomy: “you will deliberately bring harm on yourself, / And lose your life by your own wish…” (SGGK 2140-2142). The guide provides a set of “facts” that seem to fit with the dichotomy. He says of the Green Knight: “[N]o one passes that place, however valiant in arms, / Who is not battered to death by force of his hand; / For he is a pitiless man who never shows mercy” (SGGK 2104-2106). In listing a set of individuals-peasants and churchmen-who had fallen by the Green Knight’s hand, the guide endeavors to convince Gawain that the Green Knight is indeed able and willing to kill honorable, innocent men. Gawain’s belief in the guide’s description of the Green Knight would only reinforce his survival-integrity dichotomy by showing instances where other men of integrity had been killed by coming to the Green Knight. Gawain’s mind would then extrapolate this to mean that he, too, will meet such a grim end. By stating that Gawain’s choice to honor his contract is a choice to die, the guide repeats the “popular wisdom” that Gawain heard in Arthur’s court. Not once does Gawain question his presumption that the Green Knight intends to kill him. Yet the guide does not truly believe his own words; rather, he intends them as a test for Gawain. The guide serves Bertilak, the Green Knight: he knows that Bertilak does not seek Gawain’s doom. Bertilak does seek to ascertain whether Gawain’s vulnerability to the erroneous popular dichotomy will lead him to break his word.
By proceeding despite the guide’s urgings, Gawain passes Bertilak’s test, but not because he has rejected the dichotomy. Rather, he does so because he has again vacillated in which end-honor or survival-he favors most. Although Gawain now has the green belt-which is supposed to protect him from death, he remains uncertain of its functionality or of the manner in which it could preserve him. Lady Bertilak, after all, never told Gawain how the green belt would save his life; she only said that it would. Gawain’s doubts about the green belt’s powers eventually turn into a full loss of confidence in them. After witnessing the fearsome sight of the Green Chapel and the whirring noises emerging from it, Gawain again considers his death inevitable: “Although my life be lost, / Noise cannot make me fear” (SGGK 2210-2211). Had Gawain truly believed that the green belt granted him immunity from destruction, he would not have thought his life already lost. Despite his perceived inevitable doom, Gawain still suppresses his terror, since displaying it would indicate his cowardice and undermine his honor. Again, Gawain has set up an opposition between honor and life: he has chosen to compose himself and proceed with honor while considering himself doomed.
Gawain possesses the green belt, but he still anticipates that his undoing will inevitably follow from his very contract with the Green Knight: “Now all my senses tell me that the devil himself / Has forced this agreement on me, to destroy me here!” (SGGK 2193-2194). Gawain believes that his destruction was built into his initial agreement-and no green belt can save him from it. Yet he does not turn back because, for the moment, his valuation of honor exceeds his valuation of survival; he is willing to sacrifice life for integrity.
Gawain again does not question his assumption, even though it contains a core error. In fact, nobody forced Gawain to agree to the Green Knight’s contract in the first place. Had the Green Knight’s contract truly been an arrangement sealing Gawain’s doom from the beginning, Gawain would have perceived no reason to voluntarily take up the challenge in the first place. If Gawain had critically examined his premises, he would have recognized that logic excludes the possibility of survival and voluntary contracts being at odds: both Gawain and the Green Knight embraced their initial contract with the intention to survive. Gawain did not originally expect to perish from taking up the Green Knight’s challenge; the Green Knight knew that he, too, would not die, since he had magical means to preserve his life even after decapitation.
Even the Green Knight’s original intention in proposing the contract was not to bring about anyone’s death. Upon his arrival at Arthur’s court, the Green Knight, with a holly branch in hand, affirmed his lack of murderous designs: “You may be assured by this branch that I carry / That I approach you in peace, seeking no battle” (SGGK 265-266). The Green Knight’s contract, by the very premise of peace within whose framework it was constructed, excluded the possibility of Gawain dying as a result. Had Gawain thoroughly analyzed the nature of his own expectations and the Green Knight’s intentions, he would have recognized the falsehood of his expectation of inevitable doom.
However, Gawain has not conducted such an examination; he cannot even conceive of an existence in which survival and integrity do not conflict. Indeed, Gawain presumes the irreconcilable nature of the two values from the moment he accepts the Green Knight’s axe from Arthur at Camelot and listens to the king’s advice: “Take care, nephew… that you strike one blow, / And if you deal it aright, truly I believe / You will wait a long time for his stroke in return” (SGGK 372-374). Gawain acts on Arthur’s suggestion and tries to kill the Green Knight; by doing so, he implicitly concedes that honoring this contract will require somebody’s death. Since Gawain fails to kill the Green Knight and believes that the latter will return his blow to him, Gawain expects his own decapitation: he thinks that he must die because the Green Knight did not. Gawain, however, fails to consciously analyze his assumptions. He does not recognize that he has other options in his thinking and has had them from the beginning; even the very danger of death itself was introduced into Gawain’s dilemma by none but Gawain, acting under Arthur’s influence. Gawain is so mired in his survival-integrity dichotomy that he is unable to even explicitly recognize that he holds it, much less that it is false. He cannot see even the possibility of an alternative view of honor and survival as compatible.
Bertilak, however, is more conscious of Gawain’s dichotomist mindset than Gawain himself. After delivering a blow to Gawain’s neck, Bertilak comments on Gawain’s error: “Only here you fell short a little, sir, and lacked fidelity. / But that was not for fine craftsmanship, nor wooing either, / But because you wanted to live: so I blame you the less” (SGGK 2366-2368). Bertilak identifies the core of Gawain’s premise: that survival necessitates some degree of defaulting on one’s contractual obligations. Bertilak goes further to refute that premise in practice. The only physical injury dealt Gawain-the blow to his neck-stems from his violation of a contract: his acceptance of the green belt from Lady Bertilak and failure to give it over to her husband. Bertilak demonstrates that reality manifests the precise opposite of Gawain’s deeply-held dichotomy. Gawain had hitherto acted presuming that his life would be saved in proportion to his violation of contracts; Bertilak shows Gawain that the latter’s life was instead damaged to the degree that he failed to keep his word. Gawain had adhered to all his contracts but one, therefore receiving only a nick on the neck for his one violation. Bertilak shows Gawain that honor and survival do not clash: one’s actions can either favor both or neither. Gawain also learns that somebody’s death is not necessary in the course of adhering to a contract. Even when Gawain was punished for his infidelity, he was punished neither mortally nor even cripplingly: the degree of his punishment fit that of his transgression.
Bertilak furthermore seeks to show Gawain the positive consequences of viewing pursuit of survival and honor as compatible and mutually reinforcing practices. He spares Gawain as a reward for the latter’s generally honorable conduct. Because Gawain sought out the Green Knight as promised and because he honestly returned the kisses of Bertilak’s wife, Gawain obtains the rewards of continued life and Bertilak’s friendship. After Gawain repents before Bertilak and recognizes the error of the survival-honor dichotomy, Bertilak attempts to give him the means to a fresh start in life: “The wrong you did me I consider wiped out. / You have so cleanly confessed yourself, admitted your fault, / And done penance on the edge of my blade” (SGGK 2390-2392). Bertilak considers Gawain’s scar sufficient punishment for following a false premise; now that Gawain has recognized his error, Bertilak desires him to act on his new-found insight and live a life where survival and integrity reinforce one another. Gawain, however, is too psychologically damaged to absolve himself from his misdeed.
Despite Bertilak’s best attempts, Gawain’s one-time violation of a contract damages him permanently by imparting on him a sense of perpetual shame. Gawain now recognizes his error, but does not view its consequences as reparable. He justifies his wearing of the green belt:
This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing,
And now I must wear it as long as I live
For a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it,
For where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted. (SGGK 2509-2512) Gawain considers the quality of his life to have been permanently undermined through the one-time compromising of his integrity. Having once deceived Bertilak, Gawain no longer sees himself as a fully honorable man; he fears that his lack of full honor will also conflict with a consistent pursuit of survival in the future. However, Gawain directs his shame not only at his physical misdeed, but at its “root,” the survival-integrity dichotomy. He laments his past unthinking acceptance of such a grievous and obvious fallacy. Furthermore, he is ashamed that he-despite his reputation as the illustrious Sir Gawain-failed to know any better until his error in principle had already led to a breach of honor in practice. No external forgiveness can erase Gawain’s past defaulting on the use of his rational faculty. Gawain thus seeks to retain the green belt as a constant reminder of the damage that violation of contracts inflicts on one’s internal state. Ever aware of his one-time irreversible loss, Gawain will likely seek to fully harmonize the values of survival and integrity in the future, so as to avoid further damaging both.
Guided by the fallacy-popular in Arthur’s court-that survival and integrity are at odds, Gawain repeatedly vacillates from acting on one to embracing the other-at the expense of both. He violates Bertilak’s trust by accepting the green belt from his wife, and then proceeds to the Green Knight’s chapel to honor an agreement despite considering himself doomed. Bertilak shows Gawain the error of the survival-honor dichotomy through the blow to Gawain’s neck, which demonstrates to Gawain that physical suffering comes in proportion to one’s violation of contracts. Gawain can obtain the forgiveness of Bertilak and Arthur’s court for his misdeed, but he can never erase his own shame at not having recognized his error before it led to wretched consequences. Having survived the encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain now knows that one can secure and advance one’s life in proportion to one’s adherence to one’s word. His scar and perpetual shame, meanwhile, remind him that suffering comes in proportion to one’s flouting of promises. Gawain is damaged irreversibly, but not cripplingly. He can still act with honor in the future and reap the rewards of such activities in terms of his quality of life. His shame is not a hindrance to him, but rather a reminder to consistently abstain from his former dichotomist mindset.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. and trans. James Winny. New York: Broadview, 2004.