Sir Gawain And The Green Knight Nature Vs Civilization
Nature vs. Civilization
In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, basic and natural urges are subliminated into sophisticated courtship or chivalry. The thematic concern that is raised by Gawain’s quest is the relationship between a civilized social group and nature or the wilderness. Through the description of naturalistic ideas being assimilated into chivalric social norms, the significance of nature and civilization in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be explained through this essay. Throughout the tale, nature and civility challenge multiple character’s, notably Sir Gawain’s, nature and social behaviours within the society through four events which are: the barrage of the Green Knight, the temptations of Bertilak’s wife, the hunt and the final encounter of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
During the opening of the tale we are introduced to Camelot, a utopian society where everything related to the court is first-class. The author devotes plenty of space to describe this utopian society. The focus of the introduction is to give the reader an idea that the foundation of the society within the court is completely civilized and follows a chivalric code. The court represents an orderly structure with laws and stability. The reader is introduced to the main character, Sir Gawain, with whom the main quest is concerned. Gawain is introduced in his normal social environment; he is a member of the elite in his society. Gawain prides himself on his performance of the five points of chivalry in all aspects of his life therefore he is a pinnacle of piety, loyalty, integrity, honesty and humility. Throughout the introduction the author sets the stage for the upcoming events. Gawain is a representative of Camelot, which is a representative of an ideal civilization. Through the author’s description of Gawain and beliefs established in Camelot, the reader is able to establish a central definition of the ideal civilization or civilized being.
During the Christmas feast and festivities the two main characters are further depicted. The Green Knight enters when the author describes “there hurtles in at the hall-door an unknown rider…” (Anonymous 136-140). The author uses clever hints such as the color green, the chaotic entrance, the barbaric game the Green Knight wishes to play and his ability to be re-born after the initial be-heading to establish that the Green Knight is a symbol of nature. The most prominent clue the reader can obtain that insinuates the Green Knight is a symbol of nature is the animalistic description of the author provides when he states “… broad neck to buttocks so bulky and thick… half a giant on earth I hold him to be…” (138 – 140). Sir Gawain is also described in this scene but as the opposite of the Green Knight. The author uses the foil effect to illuminate the differences between the two characters. Gawain wishes to be an ideal chivalric being that is faithful to his beliefs in any circumstance; he is the chivalric knight in Camelot who is the perfect symbol of the civilization in which he lives. The Green Knight devotes himself to his ideal, opposite to Gawain, the Green Knight is the perfect symbol of nature and natural urges expressed rather than suppressed. Through the two main characters descriptions the reader is introduced to the main contrast in the prose, which is the contrast between nature and civilization.
Gawain begins on his adventure to seek out the Green Knight. He comes to a new court where he meets Bertilak, the king of the court. During Gawain’s stay the men of the court hunt while Gawain is resting. During the hunting scenes nature is present all three killing events. The author expresses how the natural human instinct to hunt and kill an animal is being socialized; the hunt is now part of a socially acceptable practice. The boar hunt is the most prominent in the three day hunt for it engages Bertilak and the boar one-on-one. Through the Boar vs. Bertilak scene the author is once again alluding to the contrast between civilization and primitive ideas. After the kill, the huntsmen then conform the corpse as civilization does its members. The corpse is found, killed, brought back to the castle, processed and used. This is a parallel to how the court or society in general conform its members by applying chivalric social norms that contradict human nature. In both cases naturalistic beings are transformed or moulded to fit social ideals.
During the bedroom scenes Bertilak’s wife appeals to Sir Gawain’s most powerful human instincts (adultery). His artificial language must contain or restrain his most natural human urges, to commit adultery. As B.J. Whiting states “Gawain’s character, well-known and fixed, would not permit him to take part in an illicit affair…” (Whiting 73). Gawain would reject her “because he would remain faithful to his knightly ideal of truth” (Kittredge 9). Gawain continues to suppress these natural urges until he accepts the green girdle. He does not accept the girdle to please the lady, nor to please himself, but to live, for the girdle is said to protect the person who wears it. Accepting the girdle he is surrendering to the most natural human instinct, he is responding to his human nature instead of corrupting or suppressing his utmost desire, which is to live. The only thing keeping Gawain from achieving his ideal chivalric status is his inner natural desires, the most prominent to live, which all humans obtain.
Gawain meets with the Green Knight and it is explained that Gawain has been fooled when “he reveals himself as identical with Gawain’s host of the castle. He knew all about the actions of his lady” (Kittredge, 7). When the Green Knight strikes the axe, the scar that is left is supposed to be a reminder to Gawain of how something of his own natural conduct has revealed what is truly important to him (life) other than the virtues that he carried at the beginning of his quest. The girdle which Gawain puts on display should be a symbol of the importance of the human nature desire to live, but instead Gawain is so socially conformed that he sees the girdle as a symbol of humiliation, sin and impurity. Gawain is so intensely socially sculpted that he continually neglects his inner human desires to become an ideal citizen. The author uses Gawain as an example to portray an archetypal theme of human beings attempting to perfect themselves in order to measure up to society’s standards.
When Gawain returns to the court he is not looked down upon, instead he is honoured. The girdle which Gawain regards as a symbol of sin is transformed into an honorary garment; just as mentioned prior, a deer corpse can be transformed into clothing which, in both cases there is a parallel drawn which relates to the process of civilization conforming its members. Through these parallels, the author provides a vital insight into nature, which clearly can be transformed or moulded into a desired result. The ending of the poem directs attention onto an idea of an ideal chivalric code, which is being celebrated in Gawain’s honour. The reader finds that the civilization in which Gawain lives has learned nothing from Gawain’s experience for they are unable to accept or recognize this alien idea of human instinct. Arthur’s court closes itself off from seeing how the Green Night questions their cherished ideals and habitual practices.
The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is based on an archetypal idea of a clash between a sophisticated civilized societies against the forces of nature. What King Arthur’s society believes creates a gap between themselves and what ultimately they need most, which is nature, as all things have emerged from the wilderness. Throughout the poem the author continually expresses his views on the process of nature becoming irregular and the process of civility becoming the social norm. The author poses a question in the reader’s mind of: How legit is this system of suppressing natural human instinct and changing or conforming it into an unnatural need for perfection is?
Fox, Denton, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Kittredge, George. A study of Gawain and the Green Knight. Harvard University: Harvard University Press, 1960.