“For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean;/once sin is entwined it is attached for all time” (2511-2512). By the time Sir Gawain comes to this realization about the perpetuity of sins of humans, he has already been through series of tests with nature and dark magic. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the important scenes, such as Christmas feast in Camelot court, and Gawain’s way to the burrow of the Green Knight, prove that he changes both internally and externally through his emotions, appearances, and accessories.
The appearance of the Green Knight suddenly disturbed the merry air of the lavish party celebrating Christmas inside the Camelot court under the young kingship of King Arthur. The knights are challenged to decapitate this giant Green knight, and then exactly one year later whoever accepts the challenge will receive the same strike from the Green Knight.
No one is “big or bold or red blooded enough” (286) until King Arthur starts answering the request from the Green Knight.
However, Gawain smartly takes over the pact from his king when he belittles his values by calling himself “weakest of your warriors and the feeblest of the wit” (354), and by recognizing the pact as such ” a foolish affair” (358). Therefore, Gawain, with this clever stratagem, could be more adored by the King. After the remarkable winter, spring comes and makes “cold shrink[s] earthward” (505) while “sun-warmed, shimmering rain” (506) bring life to green trees and beautiful flowers. Then, the “west wind” (517) of summer takes over the earth with dazzling sunlight helping drips of dew “sparkle and glitter” (519).
Next, autumn cannot wait but bring “drying airs” to the crops and blows earthly particles up to the heaven (523-524) when “wild sky wrestles the sun with its wind” (525). These seasons swiftly push against one another off the surface of the earth, so the ground can be thickly coated with winter snow. They contain exquisite pictures of living creatures that salvage the earth from the dreary and bleak air of winter. The beautiful time never lasts long as happy time is relatively short in human minds. Gawain is not an exception. The coming of winter means he has to leave his beloved land for the lethal pact.
Even though fear “sorrowfully” (543) evades the farthest corners of his mind, he is still covered with finest clothes on earth, such as “his helmet… embroidered and bejeweled with brilliant gems” (605, 609), “diamond diadem (615), “shining scarlet shield” with the image the perpetual “pentangle in pure gold” (619-620). Again, society is obsessed more with what they see than the actual feelings and real needs. Brilliant clothes and accessories can mislead people about the path Gawain is about to take, but they can never obliterate the deeply rooted “fear” (669) in his mind.
After saying good-bye to the court, Gawain departs and starts looking for the Green Knight in darkness with all human refinements of the his mind and body processing toward the true definition of a human being. Just as a blind man seeks for his stick dropped in a river, Gawain is hopeless, “unloved and alone” (693), “foraging to feed, finding little to call food” (694). Through “bleak terrain” (709) and “steep slopes” (713), he fights with inferior creatures, such as “serpents”, “wolves” (720), “wodwos” (721), “bulls. . .bears[, and even] the odd wild boar” (722). He is almost killed by cold of winter (724). In his struggling with nature, “his mood and manner change at every twist and turn” (710-711), and then at the moments of despair he asks God to hear him out (753) and “Mother Mary [to] guide him towards some house or haven” (738-739).
After being tested by the harshness of nature, Gawain is “dismayed” and considers the current quest as “his misdeeds” (760). Fortunately, those two divine beings answer to his call. They guide him to magic castle where he confronted with lustful temptation thrice. Inside the castle, he is treated well and “giddy with gladness” (1079) when being informed where the Green Knight is. Gawain is tired this quest and obviously glad that it is almost over. During his days in the castle, Gawain experiences a transient release. He “[snoozes] contentedly at home” (1731), and “dozes in a daze, dreams and mutters” (1750). He is also tested by the lady when she intrudes into his bedroom and offer him her love: “You’re free to have my all” (1237), but Gawain is well aware of the task waiting to be fulfilled, “the strike he must receive” (1286).
Therefore, he “acts graciously and remains on guard” (1282) even though the lady becomes more forward every time. If on the first bedroom scene the lady “[sits] down softly at the side of his bed . . . [, and awaits] his wakening for a good long while” (1193-1194), on the third bedroom scene she wears less clothes with “her shoulders. . . bare to both back and breast” (1741), and “wakes Gawain” (1743), and “rouses him” from his deep slumber. At the end of third visiting, he takes the “green silk girdle” (1832) from the lady when she tells him it will keep him safe. In facing death, Gawain, like other humans, does every thing to keep them alive or help them stay optimistic even though he knows it goes against common morality by betraying the lord of the magic castle.
When Gawain arrives “Green Church” (2185) “matted with weeds and moss” (2181), he reluctantly receives the strike from the Green Knight. “Glimpsing the axe at the edge of his eye” (2265), “and sensing [the axe’s] sharpness” (2267), Gawain “[shrink]s at the shoulders” (2267). Even though he is famous for “prowess and purity” (912), “whose noble skills were sung to the skies” (913), “whose life was the stuff of legend and lore” (914), he cannot refrain the physiological instincts of a human body from escaping death. Fear occupies his mind and body. He loses faith in the girdle and God, and gives in to human instincts.
When the Green Knight lets him live, he quickly runs from the axe, “[grabs] hold of his helmet and [rams] it on his head” (2317) “because never since birth, as his mother’s babe,/was he half as happy as here and now” (2320-2321). Then, shame takes over his mind from fear because a great knight is not supposed to be afraid of death: “A curse upon cowardice and covetousness./ They breed villainy and vice, and destroy all virtue” (2374- 2375). Gawain fully acknowledges his fear of mortality and decides to wear the girdle, “the symbol of sin” (2506), to remind him a lesson about his true self.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more a critique of human instincts because Gawain’s change before and after he meets the Green Knight indubitably proves it. This poem shatters the image of a perfect knight in middle age and clarifies the true values of a human being.