The Duality of Man in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


The Duality of Man in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
An Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

Fig. 1: The Full Work
Artist’s Remarks

Themes of honour, chivalry, and knightly integrity take center stage in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Yet, the text offers many contrasting instances where the eponymous hero’s knightly valor is first affirmed, and then seemingly undermined by the comments of those around him. Alongside having his chivalric values called into question by others, Gawain struggles with his knightly identity in his own mind, often experiencing the tension between his personal identity and the knightly comportment that is expected of him, and belittling himself for his lack of experience as a knight. In this way, Gawain’s internal struggle with his dual nature serves as a source of anguish and shame for him, as he is constantly troubled by what he perceives are his shortcomings in not being able to act in a manner consistent with that of an upstanding and honest knight.  My project explores how Gawain’s struggle influences his actions in what is arguably the most pivotal point of the romance – when Gawain offers his head to the Green Knight to uphold his end of the contract from the Christmas Game.  

My work portrays the interaction just before Gawain is struck on the head with the Green Knight’s axe. I was inspired to choose the medium of sculpture (through 3D printing), because it allows for a tangible visual depiction of the scene in question. Furthermore, tangible objects allowed me to unlock more layers of complexity and symbolism in the work – for example, I was able to experiment with the positioning and orientation of the figures alongside manipulating their size and colour to serve my narrative better. Specifically, my work displays two contrasting imaginations of the same scene – on the left (Fig 1), Gawain is portrayed as courageously standing up to battle the Green Knight with his sword and shield aloft; on the right, however, Gawain is shown to be submitting in fear to the power and awesomeness of the Green Knight. By juxtaposing two of Gawain’s diametrically opposed behaviours in close proximity to each other, I hope to evoke further investigation into Gawain’s struggle in behaving like a righteous knight.

In constructing the figure of the Green Knight, size, colour, and material were at the forefront of my considerations. In the romance, the Green Knight is described as “a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips…”, (lines 136-138). To replicate this, I had to deliberately scale up the figure of the Green Knight from an initially meagre height of 50mm. Unfortunately, I was limited by the constraints of the 3D printer, and so I could not make the figure “immeasurably high”, although I was satisfied with the resulting height of 200mm (Fig 2), allowing the Green Knight to tower over both iterations of Gawain (Fig 1). It was also prudent for me to emphasize the size of the axe that the Green Knight brandishes, as it serves as a source of amazement for characters in the romance, and more importantly, contributes to Gawain’s fear which precludes him from wholeheartedly acting in accordance with knightly virtues like bravery and courage. The axe is described as “the mother of all axes” (line 208) and “a cruel piece of kit” (line 209) with a “skull-busting blade” (line 212). Towards the end of the poem, Gawain himself judges the axe to be a weapon for “doling out death…with a brute of a blade” (lines 2233-2234). In keeping with the description of the Green Knight’s weapon, I scoured the internet for a figure of an axe-wielding knight until I found the figure seen in Figure 2. In this figure, the length of the axe from tip to handle is more than the height of the knight itself. Such an exaggerated depiction of the axe contributed to the fearsome appearance of the Green Knight, which adds to Gawain’s trepidation in keeping his bargain.

As regards colour, the Green Knight is described “entirely emerald green” (lines 149-150), wearing clothes with a “background of gold” (line 167), and with an axe “forged in green steel” (line 211). Similarly, I painted the figures of the Green Knight in my work such that they would also sport armor and an axe that are almost entirely emerald green, save for certain elements such as the Knight’s belt, pauldrons, and axe-blade handles which are painted gold. In contrast to this, I elected to leave the figures of Gawain white (see Figs 3(a)&(b), to mimic his spotless armor with “hinged and highly polished plates” (line 576) and to symbolically evoke his purity and virtue, which Gawain does try to uphold throughout the poem, despite his internal struggle.

Though not visually apparent, I distinguished between the material of the filaments used to create the respective figures. The figures of the Green Knight were created using a specially sourced polycarbonate filament, which is highly resistant to heat and impact. Contrary to this, I used the standard acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) filament to create the figures of Gawain. In doing so, I hoped to establish a parallel between the stronger material used to create the figure of the Green Knight and his invulnerability in the poem. In the same vein, choosing a weaker material to make Gawain’s figure represents his fallibility and humanness, even in his attempts to be a valorous knight.

Symbolic Interpretations

Much of the inspiration for my work comes from the contradiction between others’ perceptions of Gawain’s fortitude and his own self-conception. Throughout the poem, there are many occasions where Gawain’s reputation precedes him, such as when he enters the Green Knight’s castle as a guest, whose occupants recognize him as a “person famed for prowess and purity, whose noble skills were sung to the skies.” (lines 912-913). Yet, Gawain describes himself to King Arthur as the “weakest of your (the King’s) warriors and feeblest of wit.” (line 354). While this description could be dismissed as excessive humility, readers are afforded more instances where Gawain struggles with the onerousness of upholding a knightly bearing as opposed to giving in to his personal feelings. One of these instances can be seen from lines 1661-1663, where Gawain returns the attention of his host’s wife, although “tongues might wag”, simply because “to snub a noblewoman was not in his nature.” In fact, the dichotomy between being himself and behaving appropriately as a knight has such a grave effect on him that it “muddled his mind and sent him half mad” (line 1660).

As the fateful day approaches, Gawain grows more and more paranoid about his impending doom, losing sleep and becoming restless. Yet, despite partaking in morally questionable acts (like accepting the magic girdle to save his own life), Gawain demonstrates his commitment to chivalric ideals when he refrains from taking the easy way out to “ride another road and be rescued by Christ” (line 2120). His conflicting impulses are most visible when the Green Knight himself berates Gawain by calling him a “namby-pamby knight” (line 2274) when the latter “shrank at the shoulders” (line 2267) out of fear from the impending axe blow. In response to this, Gawain steels himself to receive the blow despite his fear lingering, and “stood stone-still, or as still as a tree stump anchored in the earth by a hundred roots” – demonstrating an ability to act completely opposite from his behaviour just a moment earlier. (lines 2293-2294).

From the above episode, the Pearl Poet demonstrates that even Gawain, despite being a bold knight, is still susceptible to the same fears, temptations, and feelings that all humans are affected by, and at its crux, this is what my work attempts to encapsulate. The scene in question is deliberately laid out lengthwise on a piece of wood with another piece of wood separating the respective figures (Fig 1). This is done so that if anyone were to look at the work while aligning themselves to the breadth of the wood, they would only be able to see one particular scene unfold (either Gawain attempting to bravely fight the Green Knight, or Gawain surrendering to the Green Knight, depending on which side of the wood they are). However, the true meaning of the work only emerges if the viewer looks at both scenes at the same time – just as both identities (knightly and personal) exist in Gawain at the same time, and not in isolation.

On the left side of the work, Gawain is displayed as bravely trying to fend off the Green Knight (see Fig 1). Here, he is a personification of the ideal knight that he always attempts to be – he is endowed with “spotless armour” (line 631), a magnificent sword and his shield which is shaped in a pentangle. Despite the figure of the Green Knight looming over him, Gawain does not shy away from the seemingly insurmountable challenge in front of him. In stark contrast, on the right side of the work, Gawain is shown to be assuming a submissive position by kneeling with his head bowed in front of the Green Knight (Fig 1). Here, he is bereft of his knightly effects, and holds his empty arms outstretched in a gesture of subservience and an appeal for mercy to the Green Knight, who is about to swing his axe down and behead him. In contrast to the scene on the left, Gawain here is imagined to be giving in to his fear and allowing his personal feelings to overtake his knightly sensibilities.

One of the more striking contrasts between the two Gawain figures is that the figure on the left possesses the magic girdle which protects its wearer from harm, while the figure on the right does not (Fig 3a). I made this distinction because it simultaneously creates a sense of irony but also authenticity in the work. It is ironic that Gawain is pleading with the Green Knight for mercy despite being protected by the girdle. At the same time, it is authentic, because Gawain is finally and unabashedly not precluded from showing his true fear, regardless of whether or not he is protected by the girdle. In this reimagination, Gawain preserves his life, but at the cost of his knightly valor and integrity being called into question. Relatedly, a closer look at the Gawain figure on the left (Fig 3b) reveals that Gawain has seemingly already been beheaded by the knight, as his head is absent. I achieved this by deliberately breaking off the head of the figure after it was created. In this reimagination of the poem, I reinforce the narrative that Gawain’s conscious decision to uphold his morality (as indicated by the absence of the girdle around the figure) and prioritize his knightly courageousness has eclipsed his fear of death or harm. In this reimagination, Gawain may not have escaped with his life, but he upheld his knightly valor till the end.

Ultimately, this project aims to explore the duality of humankind using Gawain as an example. By juxtaposing two versions of the same scene and attributing drastically different results to each, I attempt to illustrate how dual natures exist at the same time and within the same place, in our thoughts and actions. This project does not invalidate Gawain’s bravery (or lack of), but rather objectively celebrates his dilemma as being a distinctly human problem, that all of humankind should be able to empathise with.