Gawain is one of the greatest of King Arthur's knights, famed for both his bravery and his courtesy. While the other knights remain tongue-tied with fear, Gawain alone volunteers to take Arthur's place in the beheading game proposed by the Green Knight, thus becoming a representative both of King Arthur and of the ideal Arthurian knight. The poet presents Gawain as a paragon of virtue, praising his chastity, generosity, kindness, and Christian faith. Gawain dreads the encounter with the Green Knight in which he expects to lose his life, but he carries through with their agreement anyway, demonstrating his honor and his courage.
However, by taking the silk belt and keeping it secret, Gawain proves himself to be less than perfect. When finally confronted with his failing, Gawain accepts responsibility for his actions and shows remorse, indicating that he grown spiritually and morally. Many readers feel that Gawain is too hard on himself in wearing the belt as a reminder of his guilt, and that the standard of perfection he wants to uphold is simply unattainable. Despite having failed in one crucial area, Gawain remains an appealing figure, embodying everything that is most attractive about the chivalric ideal.
Gawain's overriding quality throughout the poem is what the Gawain-poet calls "trawthe," or truth. Truth in this sense includes many things: honesty, faith, loyalty, uprightness, purity. Gawain condemns himself for untruth at the end of the poem, but Gawain's imperfections make him a more interesting character than the perfect model of virtue he first appears to be. He is brave, yet he fears death. He is chaste, yet he is attracted to his beautiful hostess. He is courteous toward women, yet he repeats a standard piece of misogynistic rhetoric. He is loyal and honorable, yet he deceives his host and tries to gain an advantage in his match with the Green Knight.
The characters of medieval literature are often flat; mere types who serve a specific function within the plot or personify a single quality. However, the poet adds many subtle touches that give depth to Gawain's character. Besides his interesting imperfections, he displays a surprising range of emotions. His anger and defensiveness when he realizes his fault, his fearful imaginings as he approaches the Green Chapel, and his obvious attraction to his hostess hint that his character has an inner life, not merely a stock role to play.