The poem begins with a history of famous founders of countries out of Greek and Roman myth, and explicitly connects and compares King Arthur to those heroes. In doing so, the poem establishes the theme of reputation and begins to explore its impact on those who achieve it. For Gawain, when he takes his king’s place and faces The Green Knight, he suddenly transforms himself in the eyes of the court from one of the weakest of the knights to its champion in bravery. He is dressed with an elaborate costume of battle and rituals are arranged for him before his journey begins, but none of these things eliminate his pure human fear about the ordeal he faces on his quest. Fame and reputation almost seem to separate a man from his true self, to transform him in the eyes of others, but that transformation only goes skin deep. And yet, that reputation makes it impossible for Gawain to voice his true fears or anxiety. Gawain becomes a symbol of Camelot’s bravery, and therefore must hide his own real self.
The knights of Arthur’s court are ordered in a hierarchy based on fame and reputation. But this method of ordering men is contrasted by what Gawain finds when he reaches Bertilak's court in the wilderness—there he encounters a similar set of men and women, but they are described and valued for their physical attributes rather than by their reputations, and somehow they seem more earthly, more real. They do not hide behind their reputations. They are their true selves. Ultimately, in his failure to reveal the green girdle to Bertilak and his subsequent showdown with The Green Knight, Gawain recognizes the dangers of acting in such a way as to protect one’s reputation at all costs—it leads to dishonorable action. And by then insisting upon wearing the green girdle upon his armor, Gawain is making clear that he failed in his quest, is embracing the imperfections beneath his reputation, and becomes all the stronger for it.
Legend, Fame, and Reputation ThemeTracker
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
After Britain was built by this founding father,
a bold race bred there, battle-happy men
causing trouble and torment in turbulent times.
And I’ll tell it as it's told in the town where it trips from,
and as it has been inked
in stories bold and strong,
through letters, which, once linked,
have lasted loud and long.
Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.
I'm spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I'd ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn't last a minute.
But it's Yuletine – a time of youthfulness, yes?
So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
By Guenivere, Gawain
now to his king inclines
and says, "I stake my claim.
This moment must be mine.
The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.
So it suits this soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –
devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal
so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.
He rides the path and prays,
dismayed by his misdeeds,
and signs Christ's cross and says,
"be near me in my need."
No sooner had he signed himself three times
than he became aware, in those woods, of high walls
in a moat, on a mound, bordered by the boughs
of thick-trunked timber which trimmed the water.
The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,
for when tales of truthful knights are told
in both title and text the topic they describe
is how lords have laid down their lives for love,
endured for many days love's dreadful ordeal
then vented their feelings with avenging valor
by bringing great bliss to a lady's bedroom –
and you the most notable of all noble knights,
whose fame goes before him ... yes, how can it follow
that twice I have taken this seat at your side
yet you have not spoken the smallest syllable
which belongs to love or anything like it.
"Call yourself good Sir Gawain?" he goaded,
"who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur's castle?
But no wonder if a fool should fall for a female
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
it's the way of the world. Adam fell for a woman
and Solomon for several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.
Since fearless Brutus first set foot
on these shores, once the siege and assault at Troy
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.