Writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Rick Godden argues that a key suggestion in the poem is that Gawain’s identity is based upon a reputation he has not earned (150). At the same time, however, he writes that, “he could do nothing but fail” (150), pointing out that the game requires Gawain to either betray the Lady Bertilak or violate his oath to Lord Bertilak. What Godden seems to be suggesting, therefore, is that while Gawain fails to live up to his reputation, that failure is at least in part because it is a reputation impossible to live up to.
The early sections of the poem set Sir Gawain up as the perfect knight, establishing his fame by telling the reader of his reputation. It states that “Gawain was reputed good and, like gold well refined, / He was devoid of all villany” (45). These lines suggest that to be as good as he is “reputed” to be, he must live up to these high standards. However, Gawain holds this reputation only through repute – what others say of him – the poem also makes clear that as the youngest knight he has yet to have these virtues tested in any meaningful way. The poem’s comparison of him to “refined gold” moreover, foreshadows his failure: gold may shine like fame, but it is a soft metal, and is likely to be spoiled or damaged when put to any hard use. The simile suggests that his fame is all show, with little substance behind it.
In the later sections of the poem, Gawain’s true identity is revealed as being far from the ideas set up at the beginning. When he fails to reveal his bargain with Lady Bertilak, he reveals himself as an oath-breaker, and when he flinches at the Knight’s blow he reveals himself to be a coward. The poem thus seems to be suggesting that fame without real action to back it up, such as Gawain started the poem with, is meaningless. However, the poem also suggests that such fame can never be lived up to: Gawain could only ever choose to be either an oath-breaker or uncourtly towards the lady, and his cowardice is therefore at least in part a product of his new awareness of his own fallibility.
The poem therefore ultimately suggests that fame as offered by the chivalric code is an impossible goal, and one which will not bring joy.
- Stone, Brian (ed). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Penguin Books, 1974.
- Godden, Richard H. “Gawain and the Nick of Time: Fame, History, and the Untimely in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthurian: The Journal of Arthurian Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, 2016, pp. 150-171.