In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This is from an English lit. class; it was written on February 10, 1993…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

What makes a man a hero? Where lies the line which when crossed changes a mortal man into a legend? Is it at the altar at Canterbury? in the Minotaur’s labyrinth? or is it an age or a time? Does a man become a hero when he transforms from a boy to an adult? or when he stops being a man and becomes a martyr? Where are the heroes of 1993? In whom do the children of this age believe? Like whom do they strive to be? Kennedy, Lennon, and even Superman are dead. World leaders are mockeries of real men, more like Pilates than Thomas Mores. Pop culture’s icons change daily. It is interesting that nearly 600 years ago someone was writing about heroism in a way that can be understood today. The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells a tale in which a man is proven to be a hero through the seemingly un-heroic decisions made in the course of numerous tests. Sir Gawain is a hero for the 21st century. He is tried and trapped, he is inundated with opportunities to fail and yet he does not lose. More importantly though, in the end he learns an essential, inescapable fact about himself and human nature.

What makes a man a hero?

What makes a man a hero? Just before he leaves Camelot in search for the Green Knight, Sir Gawain gives perhaps the best possible answer to this question:

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Tests and decisions are as numerous in any man’s life as are the beats of his heart. The consequences he incurs follow him forever; he is judged by them and they affect his entire existence. Gawain’s statement is not merely profound sentiment, useful even today as a measure of a man’s mettle. It is also, coming as early as it does in Part II of the poem, a harbinger of how Gawain’s tale may end. It tells a reader that Gawain means to do his level best in his grand endeavor and if in but one small way he should fail, do not persecute him until considering how a different man may have fared.

Gawain, similar to most of the characters in the tale, is tested on several occasions. In the poem, as in real life, judgment should not be passed on a man’s single decisions individually, but only by observing how he has chosen to live his life. And consideration must be given to the circumstances under which each choice has been made. A man’s better judgment is often understandably clouded in dire situations.

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Gawain made more than a few decisions in the poem and from the start he was facing not only the ruination of his pride, his good name, and his spirit, but also almost certain death. When all of Arthur’s court was challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain alone offered to take the cup from Arthur’s hands. Gawain could have just as easily been content to let Arthur have his go. But he showed pride and courage greater than all by coming forward. (Arthur really had no choice in the matter; he had to accept the Green Knight’s dare or be shamed in front of all his court.)

The poem is replete with instances in which Gawain inevitably was forced to face difficult decisions. At the beginning of Part II Gawain could have simply left Camelot never to return. But he chose the option of keeping his word and searching for the Green Knight even though he knew his head would be on the block when he reached his goal. During his travels he had every opportunity to turn around, especially when the rain and cold and desolation became fierce. Gawain, however, continued on his way. Thrice the knight was tested by a fair temptress and twice he managed to neither offend her with discourteousness nor accept her amorous advances and defile his chastity.

How often is a man made to choose between Scylla and Charybdis?

Gawain was once again tested by the Green Knight at the end of the poem. This was the true test of Gawain’s bravery. He was required to bare his neck to the Green Knight and finish their trading of blows. Even with his ‘magic’ girdle, Gawain flinched when the Green Knight feinted the first time. The second and third times, after being chastised for his flinch, he was able to hold steady and accept fate. In fact he was quite perturbed that the Green Knight was having so much fun with him. Of course after the ordeal the Green Knight ridiculed him for his weakness and fear. But the Green Knight didn’t seem to think that Gawain was an absolutely worthless coward. He told Gawain that he had “lacked” a little, but only because he loved his own life; and that in itself is not a damnable offense. Gawain’s conscience punished him more than the Green Knight’s teasing. The Green Knight, who was, in reality, Bercilak, along with Morgan LeFay’s help, taught Gawain an important lesson: There is no shame in being imperfect. All mortals are… even heroes.

How often is a man made to choose between Scylla and Charybdis? Should he be damned for choosing? or should he be admired?

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

Gawain does not fail in this poem. When he was tempted a third time by the fair lady, Gawain chose to accept her ‘magic’ girdle in the hopes of triumphing against the Green Knight. Is it correct to consider this as an act of cowardice on Gawain’s part? Here Gawain was presented with the opportunity to appease the incessant mistress, beat the Green Knight at his own game, and return to Camelot with his torso intact. And what price the prize? One lie to the lady’s lord and one lie to the Green Knight and Gawain could be free. In the heat of the moment, under pressure, with his courteousness, pride, chivalry, and (not least of all) life on the line, wouldn’t two venial sins seem like a bargain price to pay? What was Gawain’s alternative? He would have had to offend the lady, and then offer himself defenseless to a seemingly immortal figure bent on taking a slice at his head… as a game.

It turned out of course that the girdle was of no use to Gawain in his adventure, except to remind him of his own mortality. And in the end and down deep, what more can be expected of a hero?

“In destinies sad or merry, True men can but try.”

2024-01-28: Broken links in this post have been removed and/or updated.

There are 36 comments on this post

  1. Enjoyed your essay. Thought you might enjoy my poem.READING “BEOWULF”Sometimes without sleep, you wait out the darkAnd marvel that fatigue finds so little rest.Dead of night is far from silent;Car-hungry highways roar and hum,Transcontinental trains unstoppableOn their straight and narrow from here to there.Our lives are ringed with freewaysAnd we can but wonder
    If these circuits bring us anythingBut short cuts, other opportunitiesOr open roads within us?Wide awake, amazed by your banishmentFrom the horizontal country of dreams,You stretch out on a couch of cold,And read the story of a sword-servantBattling the deeper, longer dark
    Of the north. Reader and hero wait togetherFor dawn’s quiet dazzle from the eastThe candle of the world bringing comfort.

  2. You made some very good points – I appreciate what you had to say. I think you could have said it better, though, with half the words. So many words gave it a somewhat melodramatic effect. My own opinion. I’m a bottom-line person. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. – H

  3. Make a complete story about Sir Gawain from the time he was born to the time he died.

    The essay was good.

  4. Enjoyed the essay. The repetition was effective and the reading was quick and painless!

  5. Good essay. I will use this essay in my research paper. Give you the credit of course

  6. Great essay!!!!!! It will help me with my paper for my graduate course which is focusing on Sir Gawain at the present moment. There is so much to analyse in this book and you lay it out well.

  7. Enjoyed the essay. Good points throughout and an entertaining read.

  8. I was very impressed with your essay. It was effective and thought provoking. You made some excellent points and organized the information nicely.
    Great job!

  9. Short but effective , however there is no mention of the great spiritual impact the green knight had left on Gawain

  10. avatar
    hazellet joyce valencia

    i really enjoyed ur essay. ur straightforward and easy. its a good read, the organization of ur thoughts is admirable. indeed, in destinies sad or merry, true man can but try. u not just tried, u suceed! love and peace!:)

  11. Good essay pointing out the most strategic points…

  12. Thanks! This is a meaningful myth to me, and you’ve added even more to it for me.

  13. that storie made me ichy all over (#_#)

  14. I like the color green. And why are you itchy tac? Do you have Chikin Pox? I dont like chikin pox. Please don’t give me chikin pox.

  15. I really enjoyed your essay and it helped me to understand the story better as we are reading it in my english class and i didnt understand it. It helped me be more ready for my test coming up THanks!

  16. I was sifting through pages and found yours. You made points that will be useful for my exam/test on this. Cheers!!

  17. I really enjoyed your essay. It was clearly stated and it evident that you understood the topic. Good Work!:D

  18. Wow…just WOW
    Thanks for the help!

  19. Wonderful…I believe I’ll use it as a reference in my research paper on imperfect heroes on “Gawain.” Thank you…you will be credited.

  20. Thanks for the essay, It very much helped me in terms of framing an approach to a Mid-Term essay I am working on!

    I love the internet for exactly this reason!

  21. ur essay pwnz! i like really like enjoy-ed it, yno.

  22. ı really find your essay marvelous .please never give up writing surprisingly perfect essays .good luck

  23. well, as an article, or a comment, I can see how it encircles all that is important in SGGK. But can you be a little more specific, you never completely answer the question and leave the reader right back where they started from, but you did approach a very important piece of literature in an original way.

  24. Describe him in detail so it paints a pictue for us
    good essay though lots of great points

  25. really enjoyed it…..keep up good work!

  26. great essay!!!

  27. Thanks for writing this it really helped me get a understanding of the poem because its not easy reading to follow.

  28. I am a senior in high school and would like to use your essay to help write a research paper that can determine if I graduate or not. I was wondering if you could e-mail me your credentials, so that I might give complete credit to you or whoever it is that deserves it. All help is much appreciated. Thank you.

  29. Good Job. thanks for the help pal!

  30. just to put it simply, BEAUTIFUL

  31. Nice usage of language. Several structural/conceptual problems. Where’s the thesis? You aren’t defending anything or arguing anything. In the last line, when discussing his two venial lies (very well put!) I feel like you missed out on the underlieing message. The point is that a hero can not compromise. That is the message. I don’t understand, is it a plot summary? Is it a critical arguement? Is it a thesis driven opinion paper? I don’t get it, the language and opinions are there, just not the structure.

  32. I am writing a position paper on whether Gawain was immoral for using the green girdle. I would greatly appreciate your permission to reference a few quotes from this, and I would like your credentials to give you proper credit. Also, if you have any thoughts you would like to add, that would be very appreciated. Thank you.

  33. I am writing an essay about the thoughts on man during this time period compared to current day society. Could I have all your information so I can cite part of your essay.


  34. I thought it was an awful essay. Though actually, to define it as an essay is extremely kind. It’s just plot summary, written for effect. Where’s the close-text analysis? How do your ideas specifically relate to the text? Don’t just assume that it can be ‘made modern’ like this – your essay is based on a Medieval manuscript alliterative poem, treat it as such. Why do you ignore its historical context? Why do you keep reiterating that one quotation, which you haven’t even bothered to unpack? Why do you quote that one quotation in modern, rather than middle, English? It’s not helpful, it’s lazy, and it just fails on all counts to engage with the poem itself.
    This essay lacks any point, any thesis, any statement of intent. What the bloody hell are you actually achieving with such loose and airy musing? It’s not a good essay, it’s a very bad case of unstructured waffle.

  35. Wait a minute, oh Miss High-and-Mighty Katherine of the Bitchbane clan. Your trashing of this work does no one credit. Your point dealing with modern translation can be addressed to the editors of the Norton Anthologies, a RECOGNIZED literary leader in all things written. As for depth of insight into unpacking…Have you considered you have no idea as to whom this essay was written? Audience analysis is a critical part of the writing process and you as a phantom reader bear no right to subjugate such a critical and hasty response to this analysis. I enjoyed the writing style, I found fault in some things and praise in others. I am pleased that it inspired other fledgling writers to grow- as noted by the responses in comments above. If you find pleasure in deconstructing the writer along with the work, then the fault lies solely in you. You alone, my dear, are the worst off for such hasty and helpless accusations. What a better world it would be if we were encouraged to grow and thrive than to tear down and destroy.

  36. Just had to thank Thomas above for what he wrote. It’s easy to criticize something with no bearing on its purpose.

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