Gawain and Binary Opposition
As a contemporary American reader, it is all right to assume that the first scene in which the particular character is involved drastically shapes our opinion of characters in a particular novel or poem. Immediately we jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. In fact, once we get an initial impression from a character, it is unlikely that this opinion will change as we continue to read on, unless of course some drastic events take place. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent example of a poem where first impressions may not be the most important to the reader. As the opening scene unfolds, we are introduced to a Green Knight who seems extremely high on himself and Gawain who seems full of confidence and is ready to take on any challenge. However, the events that take place later in the poem will most definitely have an impact on the way we view each character individually. We are automatically forced to take sides, one of the characters is bad and one of them is good. It is absurd for someone to think that this not be the case when two people confront each other in such a dramatic opening scene. By looking at the incidents that happen throughout the course of the poem, you can begin to see just how binary opposition can be reversed.
Charles Bressler, in his book entitled Literary Criticism, defines binary opposition by saying that “for each center, there exists an opposing center (God/humankind, for example)” (125). In this case, the opposition revolves around the moral character of both Gawain and the Green Knight. The two characters themselves can be said to be binary opposition. Bressler expands by saying that “Western philosophy holds that in each of these binary operations or two opposing centers, one concept is superior and defines itself by its opposite or inferior center” (125). The most common binary opposition that one thinks of is good versus evil and it is unfortunate that the first few pages of text often draw the lines for us, thus limiting the amount of influence we are susceptible to throughout the rest of the novel. Like the famous line says, “you only have one chance to make a first impression.” But the fact is the first impression that the Green Knight gives the readers could not be further from the truth. In fact, everything that he stands for in the opening scene is basically a front that he puts on in order to lure Gawain into his scheme. However, the audience becomes captivated by the changes that occur after the opening scene. No longer are their previous dispositions correct and their ideas that were once so firmly planted in their minds is not totally reversed. Gawain is the unknowing victim and falls prey to the Green Knight who proves that he has the upper hand. By looking at Gawain’s actions, and comparing them to the hunters who went out each day, there is a definite similarity. Finally, we must examine what the author’s ultimate purpose is when he shows how the two characters undergo such a dramatic transition.
So why exactly are we so quick to put Gawain in the category of evil? It definitely can be contributed to his disrespect for the ceremony that is going on in King Arthur’s court. The Green Knight simply rides in and disrupts the feast, demanding that someone challenge him to a beheading contest. At this time, royal feasts are one of the most highly treasured events in the castle, and for someone to ride in on a horse and provoke such a ridiculous challenge is unthinkable. “Yet he had no helm, nor hauberk neither, nor plate, nor appurtenance appending to arms, nor shaft pointed sharp nor shield for defense” (206). So here is the Green Knight, no invitation to the feast and just out to look for a challenge from another night. Obviously, there is a problem in the way he is conducting himself.
The person that would answer to this beheading challenge would be Sir Gawain, a knight who made King Arthur proud. It seems to me as though Gawain was a little reluctant to participate in the game (that was really all it was at the time), but he saw it as a way to gain the respect of Arthur and that was the goal of every knight. In fact Gawain seems worried that Arthur himself might accept the challenge of the Green Knight. “Though you be tempted thereof, to take it on yourself while so bold men about upon benches sit, that no host under heaved ins hardier of will” (209). So immediately after reading this exchange between Gawain and Arthur, everyone is quick to apply the label hero to Gawain. And you would not be wrong to think that since he is standing up to the challenge and defending his court.
Considering the events that happened in the opening scene as discussed above, the reader has obviously drawn the line in the sand dividing the two characters. Gawain is seen as good and truthful, while the Green Knight is seen as bad and deceitful. After all, the Green Knight was already aware that he would not die because of the beheading contest. He would simply lure Gawain into his game and get him to visit him at his castle so he can put his plan in full effect. As the reader turns the pages and begins to divulge himself in Part Two, it becomes clear that these assumptions may have been a little off in terms of what group to put the two main characters into. When Gawain embarks on his voyage to find the castle of the Green Knight, he has no idea that the tide is going to turn and his worst qualities are going to become exposed at the hands of the Green Knight, the man who he had beheaded just a couple of months ago.
Gawain was greeted at the Green Knight’s castle (he was not immediately sure he was at the right place) by a festive atmosphere where a feast has been going on for some time. He is immediately attracted to a woman he sees and thinks about the idea of possibly pursuing her in a sexual manner. Unknown to Gawain at the time, he was actually attracted to the Green Knight’s wife, but of course he was oblivious to him since he did not even know if he was in the right castle or not. It is Christmas time and the people of the castle treat Gawain like a king, giving him a nice place to rest and all the food he can eat (it was customary for knights to be shown this sort of hospitality). “When Gawain had gazed on that gay lady, with leave of her lord he politely approached” (222). The attraction to the lady was just all part of the Green Knight’s master plan.
As Gawain begins to fall for the Green Knight’s wife, his status in the minds of the readers begins to decline. He is secretly trying to have an affair with a lady who he knows is married. “To the prize of your praise-’twere a pure joy” (228). When the lady comes to wake Gawain up in the morning, this is the first hint he gives to her that he might be attracted to her in some way. He is pleased that she has come to wake him and wants to spend some time with her so the two can get to know each other. Meanwhile, while the men of the court are out hunting for food that will be served at the feast that night, they come across a dear and shoot it with arrows. The goal of this was to show a sort of sexual innuendo, hunting with arrows and killing a female deer. The actions of the hunters were similar to the actions of Gawain. He was picking his target and moving in on it knowing he had the upper hand.
Gawain and the lady are know starting to have a more intimate relationship and the two even exchange a kiss in their next encounter. However, the next move for the lady is to propose that she and Gawain have an affair. Gawain answers this in a clever manner saying that he can not have an affair with a woman of the court, despite all the affection that he has shown her during his visit. As a result of this, the lady gives him a green girdle, which belongs to her husband, and instructs him to wear it and it will keep him from harm during the upcoming meeting with the Green Knight. “She gave him the belt, and besought him for her sake to conceal it well, lest the noble lord should know” (240). Now Gawain thinks he has it all. With this gift from the lady, he has the power to avoid getting his head chopped off by the Green Knight when it is his turn to face the ax. “Now peaceful be his pasture, and love play him fair” (214). He feels good because he did not have an affair with the lady, and he festively awaits his feast.
Gawain know is fully engulfed in his transition from good to evil, from truthful to deceptive. He has carried on an affair with a woman he knew was married and on top of that took a girdle which was supposed to protect him from all harm. One quality of a knight was to be brave, stand up to challenges especially when they seem to be overwhelming. Instead of doing this, Gawain thinks he can rely on some green girdle and all his problems will go away. As the exchange between Gawain and the lady is going on, the men are out hunting for the feast that night. This time they catch a fox, but the way they catch it is important because it mirrors the hoax Gawain was trying to put on with the Green Knight’s wife. The fox tries to backtrack so that the dogs will not pick up his scent, but instead he backtracks so well that he actually runs into the dogs and is killed. This is synonymous with the plan Gawain was trying to use, pushing the contact with the lady to the very edge. He wanted to do as much as he could without being caught in an affair. Ultimately, his slyness was detected by Gawain and this is what led to his downfall, just like the fox. They almost outsmarted themselves.
The reader becomes aware that the Green Knight is the person behind all of the things that are occurring, so what is the reader left to think about him? Obviously the opinion will have a great degree of variance. What should be clear to the reader is that Gawain is not really all that he was built up to be at the beginning of the novel. Although it might be hard for one to put the Green Knight in the category of good, it is easy to say that he can be taken out of the evil category. He was simply trying to show that knights are not this Christ-like figure that they sometimes want, and even appear, to be. From the middle of the poem on, Gawain undergoes a noteworthy transition from good to evil and it comes to a climax when he meets up with the Green Knight. “For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle, my wife it was that wore it” (250). However, it seems to me that Gawain does not react in the manner that he should. When the scheme is exposed to him, Gawain simply tells the Green Knight it has exposed his “cowardice” and he will strive to win his faith back.
The girdle itself is an interesting story in itself. Instead of asking for it back, the Green Knight lets Gawain keep it as a remembrance of his wrongdoings and his journey to the Green Castle. It is almost as though the girdle signals the transition of good to evil for Gawain. When he receives the girdle from the lady, he also becomes deceitful. So the girdle is the most symbolic piece in the entire poem. Gawain takes it to try and deceive the Green Knight, and perhaps even himself, into thinking that everything is alright. Meanwhile, he is trying to lie to cover up the affair that he is secretly having with the Green Knight’s wife. Therefore, when the girdle gets exchanged a transition of power takes place between Gawain and the Green Knight.
After looking at the important incidents involving the two main characters, it is time to look at the author and think about why he would do such a thing. Now although the author of the poem is unknown, I am willing to make one assumption about him. I believe that he was a Christian and believed God was the supreme being. Knights, as a whole, are supposed to be Christ-like figures once they accept the shield and this did not sit well with the author. He did not feel that any human being could be compared to Christ in any way shape or form. This is why the author had to expose the weakness of both the knights. In Gawain, the weakness is obvious. His love for women is uncontrollable and he is hopeful of a miracle girdle that will keep him from getting beheaded. For the Green Knight, who is seen as a positive figure throughout the poem, the attitude he exhibits in the opening scene is important to the author. He wants to let his audience know that nobody is perfect except for God and anyone who tries to be will always have some negative characteristics.
Gawain also exhibits some characteristics that can be compared to Beowulf. They both lived up to the idea of the Pagan hero and could not control there greed and lust. Beowulf wanted the dragon’s gold, while Gawain wanted the Green Knight’s wife. It is simply impossible for these two characters to be satisfied with what they have. Gawain, you would think, would be satisfied with becoming a knight and receiving the approval of King Arthur. Instead he goes out and strives for things he can not have, like the lady. It seems as though Gawain was trying to reach something that was unattainable to anybody and his motives for this are suspect. In this aspect, the author seems to be saying that knights are not God-like figures and they have a lot of work to do as a person. It is unfair for someone to call themselves God-like just by going through the process of becoming a knight. The quest through knighthood does not automatically make you invincible to the temptations and distractions that come with everyday life. It is unfair for these people to compare themselves to God.
There are two main points which the author wanted the reader to take away from this poem. The first is that nobody on earth has the right to act God-like except God himself. This goal is simply unattainable, even when one becomes a knight, which happens to be the most noble position in England at the time. The second message from the author is that once you become something (a knight), you must strive to keep becoming better as a person and do not think you are immune to the dangers that exist in the outside world. If you fail to do this, your perception may change to the exact opposite of what you want. This is the case with Gawain. He does not think he needs to further develop as a human once becoming a knight. The author assures us that development is a continuous process that must be built upon with each subsequent experience.
Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998.
“Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
New York: Norton and Company, 1993, 200-54.