Gawain And Green Knight As a contemporary American reader, it is all right to assume that the first scene in which the particular character is involved drastically shapes our opinion of characters in a particular novel or poem. Immediately we jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. In fact, once we get an initial impression from a character, it is unlikely that this opinion will change as we continue to read on, unless of course some drastic events take place. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent example of a poem where first impressions may not be the most important to the reader. As the opening scene unfolds, we are introduced to a Green Knight who seems extremely high on himself and Gawain who seems full of confidence and is ready to take on any challenge. However, the events that take place later in the poem will most definitely have an impact on the way we view each character individually. We are automatically forced to take sides, one of the characters is bad and one of them is good.
It is absurd for someone to think that this not be the case when two people confront each other in such a dramatic opening scene. By looking at the incidents that happen throughout the course of the poem, you can begin to see just how binary opposition can be reversed. Charles Bressler, in his book entitled Literary Criticism, defines binary opposition by saying that “for each center, there exists an opposing center (God/humankind, for example)” (125). In this case, the opposition revolves around the moral character of both Gawain and the Green Knight. The two characters themselves can be said to be binary opposition. Bressler expands by saying that “Western philosophy holds that in each of these binary operations or two opposing centers, one concept is superior and defines itself by its opposite or inferior center” (125).
The most common binary opposition that one thinks of is good versus evil and it is unfortunate that the first few pages of text often draw the lines for us, thus limiting the amount of influence we are susceptible to throughout the rest of the novel. Like the famous line says, “you only have one chance to make a first impression.” But the fact is the first impression that the Green Knight gives the readers could not be further from the truth. In fact, everything that he stands for in the opening scene is basically a front that he puts on in order to lure Gawain into his scheme. However, the audience becomes captivated by the changes that occur after the opening scene. No longer are their previous dispositions correct and their ideas that were once so firmly planted in their minds is not totally reversed.
Gawain is the unknowing victim and falls prey to the Green Knight who proves that he has the upper hand. By looking at Gawain’s actions, and comparing them to the hunters who went out each day, there is a definite similarity. Finally, we must examine what the author’s ultimate purpose is when he shows how the two characters undergo such a dramatic transition. So why exactly are we so quick to put Gawain in the category of evil? It definitely can be contributed to his disrespect for the ceremony that is going on in King Arthur’s court. The Green Knight simply rides in and disrupts the feast, demanding that someone challenge him to a beheading contest. At this time, royal feasts are one of the most highly treasured events in the castle, and for someone to ride in on a horse and provoke such a ridiculous challenge is unthinkable.
“Yet he had no helm, nor hauberk neither, nor plate, nor appurtenance appending to arms, nor shaft pointed sharp nor shield for defense” (206). So here is the Green Knight, no invitation to the feast and just out to look for a challenge from another night. Obviously, there is a problem in the way he is conducting himself. The person that would answer to this beheading challenge would be Sir Gawain, a knight who made King Arthur proud. It seems to me as though Gawain was a little reluctant to participate in the game (that was really all it was at the time), but he saw it as a way to gain the respect of Arthur and that was the goal of every knight. In fact Gawain seems worried that Arthur himself might accept the challenge of the Green Knight.
“Though you be tempted thereof, to take it on yourself while so bold men about upon benches sit, that no host under heaved ins hardier of will” (209). So immediately after reading this exchange between Gawain and Arthur, everyone is quick to apply the label hero to Gawain. And you would not be wrong to think that since he is standing up to the challenge and defending his court. Considering the events that happened in the opening scene as discussed above, the reader has obviously drawn the line in the sand dividing the two characters. Gawain is seen as good and truthful, while the Green Knight is seen as bad and deceitful.
After all, the Green Knight was already aware that he would not die because of the beheading contest. He would simply lure Gawain into his game and get him to visit him at his castle so he can put his plan in full effect. As the reader turns the pages and begins to divulge himself in Part Two, it becomes clear that these assumptions may have been a little off in terms of what group to put the two main characters into. When Gawain embarks on his voyage to find the castle of the Green Knight, he has no idea that the tide is going to turn and his worst qualities are going to become exposed at the hands of the Green Knight, the man who he had beheaded just a couple of months ago. Gawain was greeted at the Green Knight’s castle (he was not immediately sure he was at the right place) by a festive atmosphere where a feast has been going on for some time. He is immediately attracted to a woman he sees and thinks about the idea of possibly pursuing her in a sexual manner.
Unknown to Gawain at the time, he was actually attracted to the Green Knight’s wife, but of course he was oblivious to him since he did not even know if he was in the right castle or not. It is Christmas time and the people of the castle treat Gawain like a king, giving him a nice place to rest and all the food he can eat (it was customary for knights to be shown this sort of hospitality). “When Gawain had gazed on that gay lady, with leave of her lord he politely approached” (222). The attraction to the lady was just all part of the Green Knight’s master plan. As Gawain begins to fall for the Green Knight’s wife, his status in the minds of the readers begins to decline. He is secretly trying to have an affair with a lady who he knows is married.
“To the prize of your praise-’twere a pure joy” (228). When the lady comes to wake Gawain up in the morning, this is the first hint he gives to her that he might be attracted to her in some way. He is pleased that she has come to wake him and wants to spend some time with her so the two can get to know each other. Meanwhile, while the men of the court are out hunting for food that will be served at the feast that night, they come across a dear and shoot it with arrows. The goal of this was to show a sort of sexual innuendo, hunting with arrows and killing a female deer. The actions of the hunters were similar to the actions of Gawain. He was …