All heros, in fact, all people have character, but what separates the common-folk from the great heroes of our time is a hero’s ability to maintain moral character. In Susan Thompsons’ rendition of “Gawain and the Green Knight”, Gawain not only proves this time-tested quality, but he also portrays why it is optimal.
One of the more commonplace and notable characteristics of heroes, is their bravery. When Gawain volunteers to take Arthur’s place in the challenge, he shows great courage. This ties into morality because courage is required for action when one has doubts or fears about the consequences, and by disregarding his fears, he manages to do the right thing. Ultimately he knows that to be dutiful, there must be no question as to whether or not he should set off on this quest, as unpleasant as it is.
Heros usually happen to develop or illustrate an obligation to be loyal and respectful to their common man. As is expected, the Knights’ code of conduct explicitly outlines decency and comradery as necessary qualities of a knight. These qualities help maintain one’s level of respect, which, in turn, helps to maintain relations and trust in society. While staying at Sir Bertilak’s castle, Gawain is forced to choose between courtesy and respect when his host’s wife insists that he try to win her heart. Gawain did not wish to “anger or insult his host by making amorous advances toward his wife, but neither did he wish to hurt the lady’s feelings” (3). Eventually Gawain compromises to receive the kisses of the lady with discretion and return them to the king in the evening, thereby keeping his promise (other than with the exclusion of the green girdle). Here, making respectful decisions is quite literally the right thing to do, therefore, to be respectful, is to be moral.
Heroes often make decisions to prove their worth in order to improve their honor. As Gawain made his way to the chapel, his guide “swear[s] that [he] will tell no one that [Gawain] fled from this confrontation” (3). Instead of evading his death, Gawain risks his life in order to prove he is an honorable knight. In another aforementioned situation, Lady Bertilak tries to question Gawain’s virtue by pursuing him. Gawain honorably and respectfully decides not to have an affair with King Bertilak’s wife. However, by making a compromise that maintains relative respect to both parties, he commits a morally contemptuous act (he fails to tell the truth about keeping the girdle). After his encounter with the green knight he is allowed to keep the girdle as a gift, which he wears around his arm to humble himself. Here Gawain learns his greatest lesson, this is that one can strive to the best of his ability to uphold one’s own moral code but one must also be aware of one’s weaknesses and inhibitions. While Gawain may have overcome great tests and challenges, he is still capable of making mistakes because they are part of human nature. Yet, the deeds and promises that he upheld proved him to be an honorable man.