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embodied virtue Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


One of the themes weaving in and out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that of virtue: Gawain’s shield proclaims his virtue, yet at the end of the Green Chapel scene, he exclaims vice has destroyed his virtue, leaving him “faulty and false.” This scene has troubled critics and students, however, for many consider his reaction excessive for his default on the rules of a courtly game. The present paper contends that the notion of virtue written for Gawain naturalizes embodied virtue. While both religious and lay writers tended to argue that one possessed predisposition to moral or political virtue at birth, both camps strenuously argued that the individual must choose to develop these virtues, often through disciplining the body and mind. This notion of virtue underlies what Danielle Westerhof calls “embodied virtue” associated with chivalry. Gawain’s version of virtue, however, often seems to omit the means of embodiment prescribed by chivalry: instead, he appears to treat it as wholly innate. He eliminates the possibility of viewing virtue as an embodied practice, the dominant model proposed by theologians and philosophers alike. In so doing, Gawain disallows both his own responsibility to choose virtue as well as the possibility of amendment. He is left with an absolutist construction of virtue that predicts his response to Bertilak at the Green Chapel.