The moral of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Tucson Traditionalist objects to me including the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the tradition of courtly love:

It’s a mistake to cite the case of Gawain without noting its outcome. Gawain is rebuked for having flirted with Bertilak’s wife and taken her favor, without disclosing this to her lord husband. As Tolkien said, Gawain represents a divorcing of the chivalric ideal from the notions of courtly adultery and obedience to a lady’s commands. He is commended for resisting her seductions, and chastised for yielding as much as he did.

So yes, chivalry *is* a good thing — all of it, from the code of honor to the pious brotherhood to the courtesy given to women — when it has been purified from the later Provencal tendency to delight in fornication, adultery, and the abasement of men. It was so cleansed in the greatest medieval literature (Gawain, Malory, Dante, etc.), and represents a point to which Christians in the 21st century should rally.

The reason chivalry is so pernicious is the inability of it’s proponents to spot the very obvious corruption. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a morality tale that teaches the moral primacy of courtly love.  When the obligations of masculine honor (keeping his word)  contradicts the morality of courtly love, our hero chooses courtly love as the higher morality.  As Infogalactic explains this is how he passes the test and ultimately is victorious (emphasis mine):

Temptation and testing

Knights of Gawain’s time were tested in their ability to balance the male-oriented chivalric code with the female-oriented rules of courtly love. (God Speed! – Edmund Blair Leighton 1900)

At the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain’s adherence to the code of chivalry. The typical temptation fable of medieval literature presents a series of tribulations assembled as tests or “proofs” of moral virtue. The stories often describe several individuals’ failures after which the main character is tested.[19] Success in the proofs will often bring immunity or good fortune. Gawain’s ability to pass the tests of his host are of utmost importance to his survival, though he does not know it. It is only by fortuity or “instinctive-courtesy” that Sir Gawain is able to pass his test.[20]

In addition to the laws of chivalry, Gawain must respect another set of laws concerning courtly love. The knight’s code of honour requires him to do whatever a damsel asks. Gawain must accept the girdle from the Lady, but he must also keep the promise he has made to his host that he will give whatever he gains that day. Gawain chooses to keep the girdle out of fear of death, thus breaking his promise to the host but honouring the lady. Upon learning that the Green Knight is actually his host (Bertilak), he realises that although he has completed his quest, he has failed to be virtuous. This test demonstrates the conflict between honour and knightly duties. In breaking his promise, Gawain believes he has lost his honour and failed in his duties.[21]

The hero originally feels ashamed for yielding to the woman and choosing deceit over honoring his word.  But he learns that this feeling of shame was his real mistake.  Again from Infogalactic:

Gawain is ashamed to have behaved deceitfully but the Green Knight laughs at his scruples and the two part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a token of his failure to keep his promise. The Knights of the Round Table absolve him of blame and decide that henceforth that they will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure.

What started as Sir Gawain’s reminder of shame turned into a badge of honor other knights chose to emulate.  This is the moral of the story.  For those who might have missed this quite obvious moral, the poem concludes with:

Honi soit qui mal y pense  (Shame on him who thinks evil of it)

This ties the tale back to St. George and the Order of the Garter. Tellingly, there is a longer version of the French expression the Order of the Garter is said to be founded on:

Honi soit qui mal y pense. Tel qui s’en rit aujourd’hui, s’honorera de la porter.

The latter part of the expression translates to:

Those who laugh at this today, tomorrow will be proud to wear it.

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This entry was posted in Chivalry, Courtly Love, Denial, New Morality, Sir Gawain. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The moral of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. Cloudbuster says:

    OT: I really would like to read Dalrock’s take on this article: https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2018/05/28/incel-advice-start-going-to-church/

    Seems it makes an assumption that churches will be friendly to incels, as opposed to enforcers of the feminist orthodoxy that has put the incels in their situation.

  2. Cloudbuster says:

    Followup: The commentariat at NR are predictably mocking and dismissive of incels, eager to take a couple extremely rare incidents and generalize them to innocent men:

    For much of human history (i.e., before the abolition of polygamy in certain parts of the world, declining rates of female mortality in childbirth, chastity, etc.), involuntary celibacy was the status of a significant percentage of the male population. They didn’t ride their camels through the casbah trampling people because of it.

    If you’re the kind of guy who thinks that your involuntary celibacy gives you the right to kill randomly, then there’s a really good chance that the reason you can’t attract a member of the opposite sex is because women don’t generally go for psychopaths.

  3. Cloudbuster says:

    Followup 2 (sorry):

    “You incels dial down your expectations and be damned thankful that a Christian woman gives you the time of day!”

    I would add to his advice that the young men in question should not expect the nice girl they meet at church to look like an anime character, a woman on a porn website, or even a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Those looks exist only in pictures, not in nature.

    Additionally, you’re probably not going to sell the prospect to the young lady if you tell her that marriage is a contract to have sex on demand for the rest of her life. She probably thinks she’s a beloved daughter of God, not a vagina-for-sale.

  4. Pingback: The moral of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | @the_arv

  5. earl says:

    ‘Additionally, you’re probably not going to sell the prospect to the young lady if you tell her that marriage is a contract to have sex on demand for the rest of her life. She probably thinks she’s a beloved daughter of God, not a vagina-for-sale.’

    So I guess marriage also means I’m not a paycheck on demand. I think I’m a beloved son of God after all, not an ATM.

  6. earl says:

    Seriously do most Christians hate sex in marriage or something?

  7. paddy says:

    I was incel in the past, *BECAUSE* of going to church.

  8. SJB says:

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a morality tale that teaches the moral primacy of courtly love.

    Nonsense in this case, which you present based on a single word, and your cite does not at all support your argument: honoring the host and honoring the hostess comes into conflict but is resolved by the reveal that the host created the conflict.

    Affective fallacy is precisely what undergraduates pound out in their “— Studies” papers. No need to follow their lead.

  9. SJB says:

    P.S. Probably a better place to start: https://infogalactic.com/info/Beatritz_de_Dia. If I recall, someone here wanted to talk about Dante — there you go; two birds, one stone.

  10. Pingback: The moral of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Reaction Times

  11. Cane Caldo says:

    SJB said:

    Nonsense in this case, which you present based on a single word, and your cite does not at all support your argument: honoring the host and honoring the hostess comes into conflict but is resolved by the reveal that the host created the conflict.

    And in the previous post Malcolm the Cynic wrote:

    The point of the story is that the knight was tempted and partially gave in, which is why he was injured, but did not fully, which is why he wasn’t killed.

    The point of the story is the superiority of Christianity (Gawain) to the old, pagan, world (Bertilak/The Green Knight). How the author chose to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity is by having Gawain–the best, truest, purest knight–walk the sword-edge* of courtly love with a pagan’s wife, and live to tell about it by chivalrously playing all her silly games, yet not offending her by outright refusal nor offending Christian virtues by adultery. Note that the pagan Bertilak is just (“I give you what I got, you give me what you got.”) and he is wise (his test is hard and he laughs at Gawain’s shame for “cheating” Bertilak’s Kobayashi Maru.)

    So, SJB, the host created the conflict specifically to test Gawain’s prowess at courtly love. To pass it, which Gawain barely did, was to prove his excellence (and therefore Christianity’s excellence) by achieving the impossible task of satisfying both courtly love and Christian virtue.

    Said another way: Dalrock was right and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” elevate the mastery of courtly love as the pinnacle of Christian behavior.

    Furthermore, none of us are the best, truest, purest knights of a medieval’s imaginary world among imaginary people who are beset by the old pagan belief systems in things like “justice” and “wisdom”. What that means for us is that chivalry–which is inextricable from courtly love–is only to be taken up by us and our sons if we really want us and our sons to be losers. If you’re an American such as myself you’re definitely not noble and you almost assuredly have no honor; honor being a thing bestowed by a community of honorable men. Only Gawain or a king can beat this game. No one else.

    *Lancelot had to perform this same feat literally in de Troyen’s “Knight of the Cart”. Lancelot has to cross the Sword Bridge on his bare hands and knees.

  12. SJB says:

    Unfortunately the text does not bear your conclusion. Recall the game is stroke-for-stroke; the sojourn at the castle is a game within the game yet is still the same game. Gawain is not seduced to la petite morte but yields to the temptation to avoid la morte.

    The woman really is a bit actor playing the part assigned by her husband—after all it is his garment she gave Gawain.

    The story is far more at how a man faces his death. Gawain flinched. That subsequent generations wore a green token, and how they interpreted that token, is irrelevant to the story.

    Again I find the thesis that courtly love is the basis for the St. George story and the Sir Gawain story to be completely unfounded. My reference above (ignoring the tongue-in-cheek Dante allusion) is a better starting point: courtly love is a girl thing to justify beta orbiters.

  13. Darwinian Arminian says:

    What started as Sir Gawain’s reminder of shame turned into a badge of honor other knights chose to emulate. This is the moral of the story. For those who might have missed this quite obvious moral, the poem concludes with:

    Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it)

    I couldn’t help but notice that the lesson pulled from this old story sounds suspiciously familiar to the line of reasoning you hear when someone today suggests that women should dress more modestly: “Don’t tell her to change what she wears, tell him to clean up his filthy mind!” It’s easy to understand why women would appreciate a message like that, but there’s no shortage of men who are happy to assent with them that this is where the change really needs to happen: Not in women’s actions, but in men’s thoughts. Some of those men will even be pastors. For one such example, just turn to this offering from one Ike Miller, who starts by informing us that he got the permission of his wife (hyphenated name noted) to write on this subject before he calls on the church to hold men accountable for the way that they make women nervous about being sexual in public:

    Immodesty and Lust: A Man’sPerspective

    Jesus cuts to the heart of it: The true seat of lust is a man’s heart, not a woman’s body. No doubt, there is truth to the statement that all men lust, but it is a truth about the condition of the heart, not a women’s clothing . . .

    On this issue we men are our father’s—Adam’s—children. On no other issue do we men so unabashedly play our father’s card: God, it was that woman you put here . . . Much like Adam, we often shirk our personal responsibility by shifting the blame and attention, in this case, to the secondary contribution of immodesty.

    To be sure, there is a place for conversation about modest dress, but to stop there is to treat only the symptoms of a much deeper sickness: we as men have not chastened our desires and disciplined our minds in accordance with the things of God

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Link for the story is here: https://sheworships.com/immodesty-and-lust-a-mans-perspective/

  14. Lost Patrol says:

    Some of those men will even be pastors.

    …he got the permission of his wife (hyphenated name noted) to write on this subject…

    Sharon and Ike run their church together, per a sensing of God’s calling, but it’s her website that offers the chance to get Sharon as a guest speaker at your own gathering. Both of them have PhDs in Divinity.

    http://brightcitychurch.com/

  15. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2018/05/13) - Social Matter

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