The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by John Gardner, is a prime example of a romance in literature. The story focuses on three elements of romance: the quest, bravery, and chivalry.
The first element represented in the story is the quest. It is during the quest that the hero undertakes a perilous journey in search of value. In this case Sir Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s test because he is always in search of a challenge due to his knightly call to chivalry. In this quest Gawain has to overcome danger for love of a high ideal. He is tested several times by the Green Knight first at the castle and then again during the second part of his challenge. Gawain, like all true heroes, overcomes every obstacle thrown at him and if he cannot overcome it then he redeems himself for it later on in his journey. He takes on this challenge to uphold his high ideal of how a knight should act. Though at the end of his quest he learns that he cannot always live up to such high ideals since he, like all others, is human and capable of making mistakes.
The second element represented in the story is bravery. During Sir Gawain’s quest he remains courageous and brave at all times. He feels that honor and valor are the most important qualities in a knight and always strives to uphold them. The first evidence of Gawain’s bravery is demonstrated when he accepts the challenge put forth by the green knight. He is truly brave since he is the only knight to step up to the challenge. “Gawain accepts the challenge—no other knight has dared to, and Gawain refuses to let the king give up his life.” His bravery never falters and he commits to the first part of the challenge by cutting off the knight’s head. He shows more bravery by actually returning in a year for the second part of the challenge. He also proves his honor by setting out to find the Green Knight a year later; even though he does not know where he lives and is certain his death will come about from the meeting. Only once does his bravery decline when he flinches at the green knight’s first stroke of the axe. “But you! You tremble at heart before you’re touched! / I’m bound to be called a better man than you, then, / my lord” (118-120). But he regains his bravery and survives the knight’s axe. Afterwards even the green knight congratulates him on his bravery, calling him the worthiest of Arthur’s knights and forgiving his actions.
The final element represented in the story is chivalry. Throughout the story Sir Gawain’s chivalry is constantly being tested. The ideals of chivalry come from the Christian concept of morality. When Sir Gawain sets off on his journey his morality is tested at the castle. He agrees to give the lord whatever he wins but his morality fails him and he does not live up to his word. He was tempted by the lord’s beautiful young wife and succumbed to her. However, it wasn’t just that he was kissing the lord’s wife but he also kept the green girdle from the lord, going against their agreement. “When the lord returns from the hunt, Gawain gives him the kisses but keeps the sash a secret.” Although Gawain was un-chivalrous in kissing his wife he still maintained some morality by not sleeping with her. Sir Gawain now posses the magical green sash and also a guilty conscience, though he is able to redeem his earlier actions by confessing to the Green Knight, who was lord of the castle. Sir Gawain shows this time that he is truly chivalrous by admitting his wrongdoings; he has regained his sense of morality, and asks for the knight’s forgiveness. “I can’t deny my guilt; / My works shine none too fair! / Give me your good will / And henceforth I’ll beware” (256-259). From this Gawain learns that he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of common ideals towards which one strives to achieve, however, a person must still remain conscious of his or her own morality and weakness. When Gawain flinches from the knight’s axe and accepts the green girdle it shows that even though he may be the most chivalrous knight he is still human and capable of error.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight focuses on three elements of a romance: the quest, bravery, and chivalry. In the end Sir Gawain realizes his weakness after completing his quest, upholding bravery, and remaining chivalrous.
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Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the text and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Powerful Female Figure : The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Many of the characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, just as in the case with other works of medieval literature featuring women characters are endowed with powers that seem to be supernatural. One of these characters is Bertilak’s wife. At first, Bertilak’s wife seems to be simply coquettish and clever in her ploys to wrangle kisses out of Gawain. Over time, however, it is revealed that she has a certain degree of magical powers, and she provides Gawain with the green girdle, the object that will save his life. In this essay, it will be argued that Bertilak’s wife is the most powerful character in the tale, an argument that will be built with textual evidence. For more on this topic, consider how women were perceived during the time of Gawain and reflect on their dubious roles in the story.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Gawain’s Likeability : A Character Analysis of Gawain
Gawain must undergo a journey to find the Green Knight, and true to the epic tale, Gawain’s journey is filled with obstacles and challenges. The reader is easily caught up in Gawain’s dramatic adventures and finds him to be a likeable character. Although Gawain tells a lie through omission, he remains a likeable character, and one who, at the same time, can teach the reader an important lesson about the value of truth telling.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Role of Games in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Much of the action in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight revolves around games that involve challenges between competitors. These games serve to propel the plot forward, creating both intrigue and conflict in order to engage the reader. In this essay, the writer will explore the different types of games that are played in the story and the ways in which they are used to promote specific ideas and actions.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Morality Tale
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of adventure, a story of a journey, and a story about games, but it is also, and at its heart, a morality tale. Sir Gawain is a chivalrous and mostly upstanding character who is concerned about the protection and promotion of his honor as a knight. However, because he is embarrassed or ashamed about having acquired the girdle of Bertilak’s wife, he suppresses this information from with his host. This omission of the truth violates the rules and spirit of the terms of the game as the two men established and agreed upon, and as such, tarnishes Sir Gawain’s character slightly. In the end, Sir Gawain is injured slightly because of this omission of the truth. Though prevented from the worse fate—death—this injury is intended to reinforce the importance of honesty.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic # 5: Symbolism of the Color Green
Color plays an important symbolic function in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One of the most important colors is, of course, the color green. There is the green knight and the green girdle. Both the knight and the girdle have magical powers: one to threaten to take life, and the other to protect life. By examining the use of the color green in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the writer will describe how this color functions symbolically to reinforce the value of life.
A couple of helpful articles on themes and meanings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be Representations of Women in Medieval Literature and The Role of Hospitality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Odyssey
This list of important quotations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by, as explained earlier, allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
“…Sir Gawain… was… a full gallant knight." (para. 6)
“[H]e was clad in all green… all his vesture was verily green. Hose had he of the same green, and spurs thereon—birds and insects in gay gauds of green and gold….Even the steed on which he rode was of the same hue, a green horse…. The knight was thus gaily dressed in green…." (para. 8-9)
“Then Gawain…leaned forward to the king and spake, ‘I beseech ye, my lord, let this venture be mine.’" (para. 12)
“Then the Green Knight spoke to Gawain, ‘Make we our covenant ere we go further. First, I ask thee, knight, what is thy name? Tell me truly, that I may know thee." (para. 14)
“‘Sir knight,’ quoth the host, ‘we shall make a covenant. Whatsoever I win in the wood shall be yours and whatever shall fall to your share, that shall ye exchange for it. Let us swear, friend, to make this exchange, however our hap may be, for worse or for better.’" (para. 30)
“‘Good morrow, Sir Gawain,’ said that fair lady; ‘ye are but a careless sleeper…. Now are ye taken unawares I shall bind you in your bed; of that be ye assured!’" (para. 34)
“‘Now He that speeds fair speech reward ye this disport, but that ye be Gawain my mind misdoubts me greatly." (para. 41)
“‘Why are ye so unlearned who art otherwise so famous? Or is it that ye deemed me unworthy to hearken to your teaching?" (para. 47)
“‘Lo, lady… this is the bond of the blame that I bear in my neck, this is the harm and loss I have suffered, the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught…." (para. 70)
“Many a venture herebefore/Hath fallen such as this/May He that bear the crown of thorn/Bring us unto His bliss." (para. 72)
Reference: Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Jessie L. Weston, translator.http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/sggk.htm