After a long journey of travail and tribulation, the valiant hero returned to the arms of loved ones. Oh, Mr. Unknown Medieval Author, what a predictable ending, how you disappoint the readers of the twenty-first century! Is there is some artful insight that I am missing about this standard romance ending? Indeed, at first glance, the last fit of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to leave our protagonist blissful, unscathed and morally correct once again. However, delving deeper, one finds that the ending of the novel is a series of events and revelations that profoundly changed Gawain.
The conclusion informs the audience much about Sir Gawain’s self-perception. Before accepting the “splendid stratagem to escape being slain”, it is safe to assume that Gawain thought himself to be remarkably virtuous in his dealings thus far. In fact, even after he “swore outright” that Sir Bertilak should never know of the girdle, he did not seem to feel much guilt. This is because Gawain’s confidence in his own morality is so strong that it did not allow him to recognize his own blunders in judgement. It is only after the Green Knight jocularly reprimanded Gawain that he relialized his wrongdoing and “shrank from shame”.
The Green Knight and the audience can easily forgive Gawain, for after all, his failing was not due to lust, but “for the love of [his] life”. To readers, Gawain’s character has fallen from being “perfect” to “almost perfect”. Nevertheless, in his own eyes, Gawain has suddenly become “faulty and false” and has “found fearful ways”. Seeing the impossible expectations Gawain holds himself up to, the reader almost wishes to comfort him as the Green Knight did when he politely said, “In my view you have made amends for your misdemeanors.
Yet, it is doubtful that even our condolences could have prevented him for flying into his diatribe against women followed by further self-condemnation. In short, the ending of the story, although revealing a misdeed of Sir Gawain, further reinforces the description of his rectitude because it shows us just how much this “paragon of princes” expects of himself. But Gawain’s illusions about his own morality were shattered by the girdle incident – he cannot accept the fact that he is not perfect, and the last pages of the story leaves him a very disappointed man.
The ending, although generally predictable, does contain one unexpected plot twist: the poet exposes the Green Knight, once so mighty and proud, as nothing but a puppet to Morgan the Fay. This revelation causes Gawain to launch into a misogynic diatribe, complete with biblical citations, speaking of Adam, Solomon, Samson and David: “And all and one fell prey/ to the women they had used”. From these lines, one can see how Gawain, once so fond of lovely women, is beginning to see that not everything is what they purport to be.
Beauty is not morality, not is it integrity or purity, as chivalric beliefs may have suggested. Therefore, one cannot blame Gawain for his mad vituperation; the poor knight now had to re-evaluate his entire perspective on the opposite sex, for obviously, women are more than just innocent playthings to be adored and enjoyed. In addition to that realization, he had also discovered that his entire journey was an artifice, only the result of a spiteful woman’s machinations. Gawain’s experiences with The Lady and Morgan marred his esteem for dames, depriving him of another ideal he had long cherished.
After he bade farewell to his host, Gawain rode back to his beloved court, berating himself the entire way. And when he finally arrived, “quite unscathed”, he received a hero’s welcome. But even the kiss of his queen and the “general jubilation” is not enough to lift his spirits, and he “groaned his disgrace, unfolding his ill-fame”. But perhaps to his surprise, his court laughs the incident off, not understanding his deep shame. They even concluded that “each brave man of the brotherhood should bear a baldric.
The narrator never reveals how Gawain feels about having his cowardice celebrated as courage, but one can imagine that the morally serious Gawain, now made even more somber from his journey, could not have joined in the revelry. Once more, Arthur’s court is celebrating with lovely ladies, good wine and fine spirits, just like they were doing when Gawain’s troubles all begun: Evidently, they have not changed much over the course of a year. The shallowness of King Arthur’s court only served to further disillusion Sir Gawain, who was once a member of that decadent, glowing world, but now could not be for his newly-acquired wisdom.
To them, chivalry is but a game: they still hold the same debased, black-and-white notions of honor, death, and valor that Sir Gawain grew up believing in, but was now forced to reject. Gawain had been played by almost everyone he met on his journey, from Sir Bertilak to The Lady and most of all, Morgan the Fay, all of whom seemed to be noble, respectable characters. Young Gawain has finally learned that things are not what they seem, and needs someone who understands his sad wisdom and feelings of disgrace.
Arthur’s merry gang cannot provide such comfort to him, and only serves to add to his disillusionment with himself, women and ultimately, the chivalric values upon which his life was based. So, although the tale brought our hero back home without corporeal wounds, he bears scars of another kind: his knightly heart shall never be as innocent and tender as it was before his journey, when his ideals were intact, but the tissue that grows back will leave him stronger. Therefore, the ending of Sir Gawain could best be summarized with “… and so he lived wisely ever after. “