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Isaac Carranza
LM-1485 British Literature Survey
Professor Juan Carlos Saravia
20 September 2016
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Ironic Anti-Romance
Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has generally been considered a
Romance, the undermining of heroic ethos and religious chivalry makes it an anti-Romance.
Specifically, by means of situational and dramatic irony, the poet undermines heroic values,
masculinity, and religious chivalry. According to Roberts, situational irony is the gap between
what is expected and what actually occurs whereas dramatic irony is when a character or the
reader himself has more information than other character (179-180). These two types of irony
are present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the poet juxtaposes the idealized
behavior of a truly heroic and chivalric knight to that of a decadent Camelot. Given that
during the time the poem was written, late 14th century, chivalry and its social value were
declining (Boyd 77), it is not strange that a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
stands as an anti-Romance. In point of fact, the poem may be considered a parody with a
strong and admonishing religious message.
Firstly, the poet undermines the principles and behaviors that are expected in a heroic
knight such as bravery, valor, and pride. While Camelot is known for their bravery, they do
not seem to be as brave as expected, and Camelot's renown seems to be more hearsay than
facts. Contrary to what should be expected, all, including Arthur, are petrified and afraid
when the Green Knight arrives. Therefore, Camelots pride and renown are ridiculed, for had
they been as bold and legendary as they claimed, they should not have been afraid of the
Green Knight. Precisely, the Green Knight is aware of this contradiction; hence, the rhetoric

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that he uses to lure Camelot into his game appeals to their pride. Thus, it is not to prove his
valor that Arthur accepts the game, but rather it is to dissimulate his lack of valor. Thus, the
poem presents a contradictory image of King Arthur. For example, at the beginning of the
poem, King Arthur is compared to the most epic warriors who, forged England (Aeneas,
Romulus, and Brutus). In such description, a hint of dramatic irony can already be perceived
because the story is a surpassingly strange tale (I. 28). Certainly, considering the
description just provided, the story will prove strange and will evidently contrast with the rest
of Romances. Not only is Arthur compared to Aeneas, Romulus, and Brutus, but he has
surpassed them as a king and has become the most glorious of the kings (I. 26). However,
the rest of the poem provides a contradictory image of Arthur that does not match his first
description. For example, Arthur's physical description and behavior are completely
incongruous, for such description is not whatsoever that of a glorious king like Arthur.
Contrary to the expected attributes of a glorious king such as serenity, wisdom, moderation,
and composure, Arthur is depicted as an immature and restless boy who lacks self-control.
Thus, situational irony can be found in this description, for it is completely incompatible with
the one that the poet provides at the beginning. The vow he had taken is also ironical, for
instead of behaving as expected, Arthur behaves like a capricious and spoiled little boy. It is
certainly difficult to imagine a glorious king who, as though a little boy, refuses to eat until
he is told a story. Moreover, besides being compared to an immature boy, Arthur's authority
as a king is also questioned: What king has ever allowed such games, / Playing such stupid
sport at Christmas! (II. 680-684). As can be perceived, the language employed by the rest of
the court is overtly recriminating towards Arthur. Because the game was address to him, and
because he allowed Gawain to take his place, Arthur is thus responsible for whatever happens
to Gawain. Therefore, it is ironical that a glorious king like Arthur behaves foolishly and

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irresponsibly with his knights, but it is even more unexpected that the rest of the court
recriminates him and questions his authority so harshly. How can a king of such grandeur be
questioned? It seems as if the court had suddenly lost all its respect for Arthur. Yet, the
questioning of Arthur's authority implies an undermining of the heroic ethos as well. Both
kings and knights strive for glory and recognition as legacy. They both have to show off their
bravery and pride in battle because chivalry and the heroic ethos demand so. However, the
rest of the court questions this heroic ethos; as they see Gawain departing, the rest of the
court thinks that the whole situation is pitiful, sad, and even stupid. Why would Arthur put in
risk the life of a knight like Gawain, who at the same time is his nephew, only for the sake of
pride? Is not that a stupid game? Moreover, Gawain also takes part in the stupid game
with the sole purpose of proving his bravery and honor. According to the poem, because
Gawain was not as renowned as the rest of the court, he volunteered for the game, for he
wanted to prove his heroic ethos to the rest of the court. Yet, the rest of the court questions
why Gawain would be so stupid as to put his life in danger for the sole reason of pride and
honor. To add more irony, Arthur even seems satisfied because his wish for a game has been
fulfilled, or at least so he pretends, for he knows that he would be in Gawain's position had he
accepted the challenge. Thus, instead of being satisfied, Arthur feels actually relieved because
he knows he saved his own skin, though cowardly disregarding whatever may happen to
Besides undermining the core of the heroic ethos, the poet also undermines
masculinity. Even though the attributes of a hero such as valor, pride, and bravery are related
to masculinity, the poet belittles the Camelots masculinity. First, by addressing Arthur's
boyish physical description and immaturity, the poet belittles Arthur's masculinity, for then
Arthur is not a completely grown man but a teenager. Thus, Arthur is not a fully developed

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man, neither physically nor psychologically, so his masculinity is still incomplete. Therefore,
if Arthur's masculinity is still incomplete, he cannot behave as a truly heroic king, for he
lacks attributes associated to masculinity and to the heroic ethos. Similarly, the undermining
of masculinity also occurs when the Green Knight ridicules Camelot's masculinity by
comparing them to little boys: These benches are filled with beardless infants. / Wearing my
armor, riding to war, / Theres no muscle in this hall to match me (I. 280-282). Thus, similar
to the undermining of Arthur's masculinity, the Green Knight belittles the rest of the court by
comparing them to infants whose masculinity is still incomplete. Besides comparing the court
to infants, the Green Knight appeals to their lack of strength in order to undermine their
masculinity. It is important to remember that strength has generally been considered an
attribute associated to virility, which at the same time is associated to masculinity. Therefore,
just like Arthur, the rest of the court is not masculine enough to compete against the Green
Knight, neither physically nor psychologically. Additionally, the description of the Green
Knight is particularly juxtaposed to that of the other knights, for the beard stands as a symbol
of masculinity. In contrast to the rest of the knights, the Green Knight does have a beard,
indeed a thick beard, to prove his masculinity. Furthermore, Bertilak, who at the same time is
the Green Knight, has also a beard that stands as the main symbol for his masculinity: And
strong and experienced, in the prime of life: / His beard was heavy, all beaver colored, (II.
844-845). As opposed to the rest of the knight in Camelot, Bertilak is described as a really
masculine figure. Contrary to the knights from Camelot, Bertilak possesses a developed
physical strength, and though he is also young, he is still experienced. These are all qualities
that the knights from Camelot lack, for their masculinity is still incomplete. Yet, besides
being strong and experienced, Bertilaks beard is heavy. As the beard stands for
masculinity, in this case, one may argue that Bertilaks masculinity is too heavy whereas

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Camelots masculinity is light and incomplete. Furthermore, by means of homoerotic scenes
with Bertilak, the poet undermines Gawain's masculinity. For instance, the relationship
between Gawain and Bertilak is overtly homoerotic, for since the moment Gawain arrives at
Bertilaks castle, both of them exchange kisses in a seductive way. Moreover, Bertilaks
treatment towards Gawain is clearly seductive: And how happy all of them were! The lord /
Babbled all for love of Gawain / Like a mad man never knowing what he said (II. 10851087). Thus, as the tone suggests, Bertilak clearly feels erotically attracted to Gawain. Yet,
the most explicit scenes are the ones of the hunting exchange. One the one had, the way in
which Bertilak reacts to Gawains kisses is ironic, for he already knows how Gawain earned
them, yet he pretends to ignore it. On the other hand, Bertilaks reaction to the kisses is also
overtly homoerotic: I cant compete: / Theres nothing you wont afford / If you always
trade so sweet (III. 1645-1647). In addition to the ironic tone, Bertilak, indeed, seems to
enjoy Gawains kisses in a sexual way while Gawain, too, seems comfortable. Thus, these
homoerotic references undermine masculinity, and consequently, they undermine attributes
that are considered masculine and that only a worthy knight could have.
Another ironic inconsistency that makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight an antiRomance is the undermining of religious chivalry. Though the characters seem to be religious
and committed to religious chivalry, their actions actually show the opposite. Ironically, in
times of Christmas, the most important and sacred celebration of Christianity, Camelot is not
precisely celebrating Christs birth. Based on the poets description, Camelot holds a feast
with references to overindulgence, drinking, and even orgies. In point of fact, it is ironically
possible to identify many deadly sins in Camelot's celebration. For instance, lust can be found
when the poet describes the feast that was taking place before the Green Knight appeared:
Dancing nights, lords and ladies / Rejoicing in their rooms, and in Arthurs castle, / Coming

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together in the height of delight (I. 48-50). Evidently, the language used by the poet in this
description is sexual, suggesting lecherous activities. The image of lords and ladies enjoying
themselves in maximum delight alludes to sexual activities, and these sexual activities are
described like intersexual orgies. Yet, the ironic part is that such sexual practices are not
allowed in a devout Christian; moreover, those sexual practices should not take place in a
celebration for Christmas as these are sinful acts. Besides lust, gluttony is another deadly sin
that can be identified in Camelot's feast: All ate as they pleased / And as much as they
wanted, / A dozen dishes apiece, / And beer and wine flowed free (I. 126-129). Thus, firstly,
the poet makes clear that Arthur and his knights were celebrating with overabundance of food
and luxurious dishes. Then, gluttony can be perceived, for even though the food was
abundant, all ate as much as they could without any consideration. Thus, the abundance of
food and gluttony is ironic, for a devout Christian as they claim to be should practice
asceticism. Furthermore, beside lust and gluttony, greed and avarice can also be found in the
feast: And shouted and sang, and nobles ran / With New Years presents in their hands,
noisily / Passing in a crowd, calling Presents / Presents! and loudly disputing gifts, (I. 6468). Instead of being interested in the actual reason of Christmas, Arthur and his knights
celebrate Christmas in a materialistic way; therefore, they are more interested in disputing
gifts and having materialistic satisfaction rather than celebrating Christs birth. Thus, the poet
presents a materialistic perspective of Christmas that is completely antithetical to its authentic
meaning, thereby undermining religious chivalry. Additionally, besides the contradictions in
Camelot's feast, the faltering of Gawain's faith is also ironical. For instance, at the beginning,
whether for authentic reasons or fear of his life, Gawain seems much religious and full of
faith. Yet, Gawain's faith was not as honest as it appeared, for he willingly took the girdle for
protection, and even though he claimed to have faith in God, he still took the girdle to play

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safe. Moreover, taking into account his armor, it is definitely ironical the fact that Gawain
accepts the girdle, for his armor was full of Christian symbolism and imagery. Gawains
armor was supposed to hold a heavenly protection, but it became a mere adornment for which
Gawain did not have any faith. In fact, Gawain only claims to have faith like he who starts
trusting God only in difficult situations. Suddenly and strangely, Gawain becomes concerned
about attending Christmas mass and honoring Jesus. Yet, why was not he concerned about
Christmas a year before when he participated in the sinful feast at Camelot? Furthermore, the
faltering of Gawain's faith leads to his double-discourse, for he uses religion hypocritically
and at his convenience. For instance, every time after kissing the lady, Gawain dresses and
goes to mass. Thus, he commits sin, and then conveniently goes to ask for forgiveness.
Similarly, after accepting the girdle, Gawain attends mass and has his confession. Therefore,
it seems that, for Gawain, it is a convenient deal to sin and then make it up at mass. Likewise,
even after taking the girdle, Gawain claims to have faith in God. Thus, Gawain maintains his
double-discourse, for he claims to have his faith in God, but he still carries the girdle. Hence,
conveniently, Gawain uses his double-discourse to play safe. Gawain, ultimately, hopes that
he will survive either due to his faith in God or due to the girdle.
As previously stated, though at first glance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may be
considered a Romance, the undermining of the heroic ethos and religious chivalry actually
makes it an anti-Romance. By means of unexpected and ironical situations, the poet
undermines heroic values, masculinity, and religious chivalry, thereby showing a satirical
version of a decadent Camelot. Therefore, the poem may be considered a parody of other
actual Romances; however, it is a parody with a strong religious rebuke. Historically, the
value of the poem is that it reflects the falling of chivalry and its social value in medieval
times. However, perhaps the most interesting fact about the poem is its contemporaneity.

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Problems such the double-discourse in regards of religion, ideology, or any other set of values
are still prevalent nowadays. Hence, it seems that human nature has hardly changed since
medieval times.

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Works Cited
Boyd, David. Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in 'Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight. Arthuriana, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 77-113. JSTOR, Accessed 05 September 2016.
Raffel, Burton, translator. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Signet, 1970.
Robert, Edgar. Writing About Literature. Pearson, 2010.