“In the earliest Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain was the greatest of the Knights of the Round Table. He was famed for his prowess at arms and, above all, for his courtesy. … Here Gawain is the perfect knight; he is so recognized by the various characters in the story and, for all his modesty, implicitly in his view of himself. To the others his greatest qualities are his knightly courtesy and his success in battle. To Gawain these are important, but he seems to set an even higher value on his courage and integrity, the two central pillars of his manhood. The story is concerned with the conflict between his conception of himself and the reality. He is not quite so brave or so honorable as he thought he was, but he is still very brave, very honorable. He cannot quite see this, but the reader can. “Gawain is, naturally, more fully drawn than any other character. Not only do we observe him ourselves, we are told how he impressed other people in the story and how he himself thought and felt. We see him behaving, as all expect him to do, with exquisite courtesy; but we also see what is not apparent to the other characters, that such behavior does not always come easily to him. All the time that he is parrying the lady’s advances, we are aware that he feels himself to be on a knife-edge between discourtesy and compliance.” In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the character of Sir Gawain is skillfully brought to life by the unknown author. Through the eyes of numerous characters in the poem, we see Gawain as a noble knight who is the epitome of chivalry; he is loyal, honest and above all, courteous. As the story progresses, Gawain is subjected to a number of tests of character, some known and some unknown. In this first meeting, through Gawain’s own words, we begin to see him as the noble knight he is. Gawain has cleverly chosen his most courteous words to release Arthur from this predicament and restore the reputation of the knights of the Round Table. We cannot imagine a more courageous action than Gawain offering his life for his king nor a more polite offer to take the game.We are able to draw further clues about Gawain’s character from the description of his armoring when he sets out a year later to meet the Green Knight. In this passage, we learn that Gawain’s shield has gold pentangle on it. The author tells us the pentangle “is proper to that peerless prince” because it is a “token of truth,” and he is most true to his word and a “most courteous knight.” Our next chance to understand Gawain occurs at Bercilak’s castle where the household is overjoyed that the holiday guest is Gawain of King Arthur’s court. They whisper to each other that Gawain has “courage ever-constant, and customs pure,” he is “the father of fine manners,” and his “displays of deportment” will dazzle their eyes. (Norton, 221) Through these words we see that Gawain is generally well respected for these characteristics; it is not just his fellow knights who feel this way. At this castle Gawain undergoes many tests of character, yet he is unaware that he is being tested. An unknown test is perhaps the best test there is, since the individual cannot prepare for it.
Bercilak’s wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he is able to dodge her advances with clever defenses. On the first day after being told she would marry him if she could he says, “You are bound to a better man, yet I prize the praise you have proffered me here.” (Norton, 228) On the second day, the author tells us “Thus she tested his temper and tried many a time, whatever her true intent, to entice him to sin, but so fair was his defense that no fault appeared.” (Norton, 234) As the days progress, we see how increasingly difficult it becomes for Sir Gawain. Throughout these tests, the author allows us to glimpse what Gawain is thinking, and we see that he sometimes works hard at being courteous and loyal. These scenes give us insight into how hard he tries to be as perfect as possible. A lesser man would have easily given in, yet Gawain holds himself to a higher standardOn the way to the Green Chapel, there is yet another test, and Gawain passes it easily. His guide offers him a last chance to avoid his meeting with the Green Knight. Gawain answers that if he were a coward, he could not be excused. He must go to the Chapel to test his luck for “The Lord is strong to save: his servants trust in him.” (Norton, 246) It is this never-ending quest to do what is right that enables us still to feel good about Gawain even after we know he has been untrue. Finally Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel and faces the Green Knight for the return blow. The Green Knight explains that he is Bercilak, and he has been testing Gawain all along. Gawain is embarrassed and reacts uncharacteristically brusquely. The Green Knight says, “She made trial of a man most faultless by far of all that ever walked over the wide earth” and “Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there, but the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, but that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame. (Norton, 250) It doesn’t matter to Gawain that the Green Knight forgives him or understands why he did what he did. In his own eyes, he has failedIn conclusion, through the Green Knight’s tests, we see that Gawain is not the perfect knight he strives to be. Neither we, nor the Green Knight, nor his fellow knights of the Round Table hold him to this standard of perfection. We read about the turmoil Gawain experiences thinking about his impending death at the hands of the Green Knight, and we understand why he accepts the girdle. We know he remains true until his fear of death overcomes him. All this proves he is only human. Yet Gawain only sees that he has been inconsistent in upholding the chivalric code, and this means failure to him. This is an indication of the standard Gawain has set for himself, and we see why he has the reputation he has. Despite all that has happened, Gawain is still a loyal, noble, honest and courteous knight.