Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Quotes

  • Time

    Part 1, Lines 1 - 36

    And when Britain had been founded by this noble lord,
    Valiant men bred there, who thrived on battle.
    In many an age bygone, they brought about trouble.
    More wondrous events have occurred in this country
    Than in any other I know of, since that same time.
    But of all those who dwelt there, of the British kings
    Arthur was always judged noblest, as I have heard tell.
    (20 - 26)

    This passage sets Arthur (and the story) in the "age bygone" in which more wondrous events have occurred than in any other. This "bygone age" is a little like "once upon a time" - we know to expect a universe similar to ours, but one in which anything - like fairies, ogres, and giant green men - is possible.

    When the siege and the assault were ended at Troy,
    The city laid waste and burnt into ashes […]
    (1 - 2)

    The narrator of Sir Gawain begins his story after the fall of Troy - approximately 2000 years before the action begins. Why might he do this? Well, in order to get to Arthur, he has to go through a "history lite" version of the founding of Britain and the kings leading up to Arthur, which allows him to locate Arthur as part of a prestigious and long-lasting tradition of bravery, making him (and the stories surrounding him, like the narrator’s) seem very important, since they form a part of this tradition.

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days
    With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised:
    Such sounds of revelry splendid to hear,
    Days full of uproar, dancing at night.
    (44 - 47)

    Sir Gawain opens during the Christmas season at Arthur’s court, which, in the traditional church calendar, lasted a full fifteen days. During that time, the court gathers for the length of the whole celebration.

    When New Year’s was so fresh that it had hardly begun,
    Double helpings of food were served on the dais that day.
    (60 - 61)

    Now the narrative becomes more specific about when we are - New Year’s day. This day will be important to the rest of the story, since it’s the day on which Gawain will need to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490

    And I shall stand his blow unflinching on this floor,
    Provided you assign me the right to deal such a one
            in return.
        And yet grant him respite
        A twelvemonth and a day.
    (294 - 295)

    "A twelvemonth and a day" is a very traditional period of waiting in fairy tales and romances. In this particular case it’s an effective strategy to make the knight in question wait this long to receive his return blow. What could be a better test of honesty than forcing a knight to meet you (on his honor) in a year and a day, after he’s had all that time to think about what’s coming (and to consider backing out)?

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690
    Sir Gawain

    Yet until All Saints’ Day he lingers in court,
    [.  .  .]
    And after the feast, sorrowfully he addressed his uncle,
    Raised the matter of his quest, and openly said,
    "Liege lord of my being, I must ask for your leave;
    You know the terms of this matter, and I have no wish
    To bother you with them, saving one small point;
    But tomorrow without fail I set out for the blow,
    To seek this man in green, as God will direct me."
    (536, 543 - 549)

    By setting out right after All Saints’ Day (on Nov. 2), Gawain gives himself a full two months to reach the Green Chapel. This seems like lots of time, but keep in mind that Gawain doesn’t know where he’s going.  He has to go on horseback, a much slower method than by car, plane, or train.

    But then the weather on earth battles with winter,
    The cold shrinks downwards, clouds rise higher,
    And shed sparkling rain in warming showers,
    Falling on smiling plains where flowers unfold.
    Both open fields and woodlands put on green dress;
    Birds hasten to build, and rapturously sing
    For joy of gentle summer that follows next
        on the slopes.
    And flowers bud and blossom
    In hedgerows rich with growth,
    And many splendid songs
    From woodlands echo forth.
    (504 - 515)

    The poem’s description of the summer contains a lot of personification - in other words, it attributes human actions to non-human things. The weather does "battle" with winter, like a soldier, and "open fields and woodlands" dress themselves in green like someone preparing for a ball. The emphasis here is on the new life that the rain unleashes. The imagery engages four of the five senses: touch with "warm showers," hearing with its references to birdsong, smell with the suggestion of blossoming flowers and sight with the image as a whole.

    And winter comes round again, as custom requires,
            in truth;
        Until the Michaelmas moon
        Brought hint of winter’s frost;
        And into Gawain’s mind
        Come thoughts of his grim quest.
    (530 - 535)

    The turning of the season from fall to winter is what causes Gawain to remember this quest.  In this way, his life is made to seem bound up with that of the natural world.  The seasons dictate what he must do, like they do for flowers, birds, or harvest plants

    For though men are light-hearted when they have strong drink,
    A year passes swiftly, never bringing the same;
    Beginning and ending seldom take the same form.
    (497 - 499)

    This passage is basically a reverse of the maxim "time heals all wounds." The point is that, in time, people’s moods can change. In this case, people who were merry and celebrating at the end of one year will be somber when the next one rolls around, for then, Gawain will embark on his death-march.

    And so that Yule went by, and the year ensuing,
    Each season in turn following the other.
    After Christmas came mean-spirited Lent,
    That tries the body with fish and plainer nourishment.
    (498 - 501)

    These lines and the ones that follow describe the seasons mostly in terms of what happens in the natural world. The season of Lent, however, is characterized by the deprivation it forces men to endure - the fasting and abstention brought on by the Church’s Lenten fasting.

    Then comes the summer season with gentle winds,
    When Zephirus blows sofly on seeding grasses and plants,
    Beautiful is the growth that springs from the seed,
    When the moistening dew drips from the leaves
    To await a joyful gleam of the bright sun.
    (516 - 520)

    Like Spring’s, Summer’s description focuses on new growth.  In this case, though, the growth probably refers to that of food crops, in anticipation of the autumn harvest. Here, the wind is the power behind the transformation rather than the rain.

    This wonder had Arthur as his first New Year’s gift
    When the year was newborn.
    (491 - 492)

    Characterizing the Green Knight’s challenge as a gift for the day "when the year was newborn" means that it kind of sets the tone for the year to follow. And sure thing, we read the next section with anticipation of Gawain’s impending challenge very much on our minds.

    But then autumn comes quickly and urges it on,
    Warns it to ripen before winter’s approach.
    Dry winds of autumn force the dust to fly
    From the face of the earth high into the air;
    Fierce winds of heaven wrestle with the sun,
    Leaves are torn from the trees and fall to the ground,
    And all withered is the grass that was green before.
    Then all ripens and rots that had sprung up first,
    And in so many yesterdays the year wears away.
    (521 - 529)

    Here again, wind is the precipitating factor for the defining events of autumn: it causes dust storms and falling leaves. Here, however, the focus is not on new growth but upon decay: "all ripens and rots that had sprung up first." This idea echoes the one with which the passage began, of time bringing change in its wake.

    Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

    Great joy filled that day and the one following,
    And a third as delightful came pressing after;
    The revelry on St John’s Day was glorious to hear,
    And was the end of the festivities, the people supposed,
    The guests were to leave early the next morning.
    (1020 - 1024)

    Many things come in threes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, there are three days of feasting, followed by three days in which Gawain rests in the castle while lord Bertilak hunts. Gawain also gives and receives three blows on the third day of his rest, and finally, receives three blows from the Green Knight on New Year’s Day.

    Where dinner was finished and Gawain had risen,
    The time had drawn almost to night:
    Chaplains made their way to the castle chapels,
    Rang their bells loudly, just as they should,
    For devout evensong on that holy occasion.
    (928 - 932)

    Gawain has reached Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve. Another calendar that structures the tale, in addition to the cycles of the seasons and the Church’s feast calendar, is the cycle of sunrise and sunset and the different calls to prayer – matins, prime, nonce, evensong, etc – followed by the monastic orders.

    Part 2, Lines 1046 - 1125
    Sir Gawain

    Then the lord politely enquired of the knight
    What pressing need had forced him at that festive time
    So urgently from the royal court to travel all alone,
    Before the holy days there had completely passed.
    [.  .  .]
    "I have now for my business only three short days,
    And would rather be struck dead than fail in my quest."
    (1046 - 1049, 1066 - 1067)

    Lord Bertilak seems to find it strange that Gawain has traveled away from Arthur’s court alone on the holidays, so entrenched is the custom of celebrating that feast at the court of one’s liege lord. But Gawain feels an increasing sense of urgency as New Year’s Day draws nearer.

    Part 3, Lines 1412 - 1560

    By the time cock-crow had sounded three times
    The lord had leapt out of his bed and each of his men,
    So that breakfast and mass were duly done,
    And long before daybreak they were all on their way
            to the chase.
    (1412 - 1416)

    The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain are bookended by a reference to the time they begin and end. The lord and his men rise and are on the path before dawn, a necessity when the winter days are so short. They are usually on their way home before sunset, although the foxhunt that follows this boar hunt is so long and difficult that they don’t start home until it’s almost dark.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Part 1, Lines 1 - 36

    But of all those who dwelt there, of the British kings,
    Arthur was always judged noblest, as I have heard tell.
    (25 - 26)

    Part of the narrator’s strategy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to make his telling of the story sound very authoritative by referring to elements of it as things he has either heard, or read in books. That way, he has all the weight of legendary stories to back him up. Instead of just saying that Arthur is very noble, he says that Arthur has a reputation for nobility, which means that it’s not just the author but everyone that thinks so.

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490
    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "What, is this Arthur’s house?" said the man then,
    "That everyone talks of in so many kingdoms?
    Where are now your arrogance and your victories,
    Your fierceness and wrath and your great speeches?
    Now the revelry and repute of the Round Table
    Are overthrown with a word from one man’s mouth,
    For you all cower in fear before a blow has been struck!"
    (309 - 315)

    With this speech, the Green Knight goads Arthur’s court into playing his game or risk having their reputation for bravery besmirched. Yet he also reminds his audience of the fragility of a reputation if it can, in truth, be "overthrown with a word from one man’s mouth." Although what the Green Knight is referring to here is the way his challenge threatens their reputation, we can’t help but think of the way that other words from men’s mouths - for example, rumors - can have the same effect.

    "If you are as courageous as everyone says,
    You will graciously grant me the game that I ask for
        by right."
    (272 - 274)

    This is the Green Knight’s first reference to Arthur’s knights’ reputation for great bravery. He will use these references to great effect to goad the knights into playing his game, for if they refuse, they risk throwing that reputation in doubt.

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

    Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
    For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
    Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
    Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
    (631 - 635)

    Once again, the narrator makes use of a well-placed "everybody thinks so" to back up what he’s asserting. Rather than simply saying Gawain is virtuous, our narrator tells us he was "reputed" to be so. This means that not just the narrator, but everybody who knew of Gawain, knew him to be virtuous.

    Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

    When the lord of the castle heard who was his guest,
    He laughed loudly at the news, so deeply was he pleased;
    And all the men in the castle were overjoyed
    To make the acquaintance quickly then
    Of the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
    Whose refined manners are everywhere praised,
    And whose fame exceeds every other person’s on earth.
    (908 - 914)

    Gawain’s reputation has definitely preceded him to Lord Bertilak’s court. This is a reputation not only for knightly prowess (excellence and valour), but also for courtoisie (refined manners). Being the "man most praised on earth" for valor and good manners is certainly a heavy weight to carry, and it’s an identity that will catch up with Gawain later on, in the seduction scenes.

    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "Truly, God has been gracious to us indeed,
    In allowing us to receive such a guest as Gawain,
    Whose birth men will happily sit down and celebrate
            in song.
        In knowledge of fine manners
        This man has expertise;
        I think that those who hear him,
        Will learn what love-talk is."
    (920 - 927)

    The court of Lord Bertilak praises Gawain not only by remarking upon his excellent reputation, but also by suggesting that this reputation will only grow in time - that "men will happily sit down and celebrate" his birth "in song." Interestingly, it’s Gawain’s reputed skill at "love-talk" about which everyone is most excited, rather than his reputation as a skilled knight.

    Part 3, Lines 1126 - 1318
    Sir Gawain

    "Truly," replied Gawain, "I am greatly honoured,
    Though I am not in fact such a man as you speak of,
    To deserve such respect as you have just described
    I am completely unworthy, I know very well."
    (1241 - 1244)

    Some people think that Gawain’s modesty here is false - that he’s just saying he’s unworthy because it’s the proper thing to do, not because he really believes it. But on the other hand, maybe he’s just trying to reject his reputation - what everybody says - as the thing his identity depends on. It seems reasonable enough to not want to be defined by what others say about you. After all, that gives other people an awful lot of control over who you are.

    Lady Bertilak

    "So good a knight as Gawain is rightly reputed
    In whom courtesy is so completely embodied,
    Could not easily have spent so much time with a lady
    Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness,
    By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark."
    (1297 - 1301)

    As the Green Knight did before Arthur’s court, Lady Bertilak uses a particular reputation - here, one for courtesy - to force a desired behavior from her prey. Like Arthur’s court, who risked besmirching their reputation for bravery if they failed to comply with the Green Knight’s game, Gawain must comply with the lady’s wishes or risk damaging his reputation for courtesy. Yet Lady Bertilak takes it one step further by implying that Gawain is not Gawain if he fails to comply.

    Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "She sent me in this shape to your splendid hall
    To make trial of your pride, and to judge the truth
    Of the great reputation attached to the Round Table."
    (2456 - 2458)

    The Green Knight explains that part of Morgan le Fay’s motivation for sending him to Arthur’s court was her desire to judge the truth of the Round Table’s great reputation. Morgan le Fay sits apart from other characters in the tale because of her unwillingness to accept a reputation as fact without judging it for herself. Although to us this seems like a pretty reasonable policy, we can’t help but wonder what it means that Morgan le Fay also seems kind of sinister and evil in this story. In other words, maybe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays the willingness to believe in collective opinion as a virtue, and its opposite - skepticism - as something that can only lead to trouble.

    "For I know well, in truth, that you are Sir Gawain,
    Whom everyone reveres wherever you go;
    Your good name and courtesy are honorably praised
    By lords and by ladies and by all folk alive.
    [.  .  .]
    And since I have under my roof the man everyone loves,
    I shall spend my time well, while it lasts,
        with talk."
    (1226 - 1229, 1234 - 123)

    Lady Bertilak explains that her eagerness to talk with Gawain is due to her knowledge of his great reputation as "the man everyone loves." Since this reputation prompts her to trap him in his bedroom and attempt to seduce him, Gawain must certainly be wishing that he wasn’t quite so well-known.

  • Awe and Amazement

    Part 1, Lines 1 - 36

    And far over the French sea Felix Brutus
    On many broad hillsides settles Britain
            with delight;
        Where war and grief and wonder
        Have visited by turns,
        And often joy and turmoil
        Have alternated since.
    (13 - 19)

    The emotions that the narrator claims have alternated throughout Britain since its founding are "war and grief and wonder," and "joy and turmoil." The joy and turmoil capture the unique feeling brought about by wonders in this text. They cause both fear and uncertainty in the face of the unfamiliar, but also a kind of elation, or joy.

    More wondrous events have occurred in this country
    Than in any other I know of, since that same time.
    But of all those who dwelt there, of the British kings
    Arthur was always judged noblest, as I have heard tell.
    And so an actual adventure I mean to relate
    Which some men consider a marvellous event,
    And a prodigious happening among tales about Arthur.
    (23 - 29)

    This passage frames the story we are about to hear as a "marvellous event," a "prodigious happening," and one of the many "wondrous events" that have occurred in Britain since its founding. The story of Gawain will bring both pleasure for its entertainment value and angst as we empathize with Gawain during his plight so that, like a wondrous event, it will cause both joy and turmoil.

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    And another habit influenced him too,
    Which he had made a point of honour: he would never eat
    On such a special day until he had been told
    A curious tale about some perilous thing,
    Of some great wonder that he could believe,
    Of princes, of battles, or other marvels;
    Or some knight begged him for a trustworthy foe
    To oppose him in jousting.
    (90 - 96)

    Arthur has a custom of waiting to eat on a feast day until he has witnessed a wonder, which the poem defines as a story "of princes, or battles, or other marvels." Apparently, a wonder need not be something miraculous, just something entertaining, like the joust that’s also acceptable for Arthur’s pre-feast amusement.

    All those standing there gazed, and warily crept closer,
    Bursting with wonder to see what he would do;
    For many marvels they had known, but such a one never;
    So the folk there judged it phantasm or magic.
    For this reason many noble knights feared to answer:
    And stunned by his words they sat there stock-still,
    While dead silence spread throughout the rich hall
    As though everyone fell asleep, so was their talk stilled
        at a word.
    (237 - 245)

    Another element contributing to the wonder the people feel is the fact that they have never before seen anything like this man. So the feeling of wonder seems to be caused in part by unfamiliarity, as much as by unexpectedness. The effect of wonder is silence, in part because no one is quite sure how to react when confronted with the unknown.

    His hue astounded them,
    Set in his looks so keen;
    For boldly he rode in,
    Completely emerald green.
    (147 - 150)

    The first mention we hear of the Knight’s entirely green appearance goes hand in hand with the wonder of the people at his color (the Middle English actually has "wonder of his hwe [hue] men hade," 147). So, although this man is practically a giant, it’s his color that really gets people staring.

    For long there was only staring at the man,
    For everyone marvelled what it could mean
    That a knight and a horse might take such a colour
    And become green as grass, and greener it seemed
    Than green enamel shining on gold.
    (232 - 236)

    Again, the major factor causing everyone’s astonishment at the Knight seems to be his complexion. We don’t know about you, but our first thought on seeing such a man would be "where’d he get the body paint?" But it could be that the unexpectedness of the greenness at this time and place causes just as much amazement as the color itself.

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490

    Then Arthur confronts that wonder before the high table,
    And saluted him politely, for afraid was he never.
    (250 - 251)

    It’s a mark of Arthur’s leadership that he, unlike all the other people, is not stopped short even by something unexpected. A leader has to know how to react in all situations, even the unfamiliar ones, if he’s going to be effective.

    "Now sir, hang your axe up, for it has severed enough."
    And it was hung above the dais, on a piece of tapestry,
    Where everyone might gaze on it as a wonder,
    And the living proof of this marvellous tale.
    (477 - 480)

    An event so wondrous needs living proof - something that can be seen and touched - in order to be believed. This passage resonates with one a few hundred lines later, when Sir Bertilak hangs his hood on a spear and invites his men to compete for it. In both cases, possessions belonging to this character (for we later learn that Sir Bertilak and the Green Knight are one and the same) are objects of display and desire.

    Seeing that green man go,
    The king and Gawain grin;
    Yet they both agreed
    They had a wonder seen.
    (463 - 466)

    The authoritativeness of Arthur and Gawain’s opinions means that there can be no debate about whether or not the Green Knight was truly wondrous. This passage sets Gawain and Arthur’s relief at the Green Knight’s departure with their desire to see the wondrous. Just like in real life, people can be simultaneously exhilarated and frightened by new experiences.

    And the man seated himself on horseback as firmly
    As if he had suffered no injury, though headless he sat
            in his place.
        He turned his body round,
        That gruesome trunk that bled;
        Many were struck by fear
        When all his words were said.
    (437 - 443)

    If the people of Arthur’s court think they have witnessed a wonder when the man in green rides in, they are definitely gobsmacked when he picks his head up off the floor and speaks to them with it. There’s an interesting contrast here between the silence of the awe-struck crowd and the talking head that can’t be silenced, even when severed from its body.

    King Arthur

    Although inwardly Arthur was deeply astonished,
    He let no sign of this appear, but loudly remarked
    To the beautiful queen with courteous speech,
    "Dear Lady, let nothing distress you today.
    Such strange goings-on are fitting at Christmas,
    Putting on interludes, laughing and singing,
    Mixed with courtly dances of ladies and knights."
    (467 - 473)

    The king’s speech here, "loudly remarked," is for the whole court’s benefit as well as the queen’s, all of whom must be frightened by what they have just witnessed. Arthur attempts to prevent their distress by lumping the Green Knight in with other Christmas doings like plays, song, and dance. We can’t help but think that this comparison rings a bit hollow, though.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490

    The king spent that Christmas at Camelot
    With many gracious lords, men of great worth,
    Noble brothers-in-arms, worthy of the Round Table,
    With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.
    (36 - 39)

    Holiday celebrations are a time for the king to bring all his vassals together under one roof. The point of the gathering wasn’t all fun and games: it was an opportunity for the king to solidify the feudal bonds to his vassals, affirming their continued loyalty.

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    And another habit influenced him too,
    Which he had made a point of honor: he would never eat
    On such a special day until he had been told
    A curious tale about some perilous thing,
    Of some great wonder that he could believe,
    Of princes, or battles, or other marvels.
    (90 - 95)

    The king has started a tradition of refusing to eat on a feast day until he has heard or witnessed a "wonder." In this, he’s fulfilling a duty as a host, for it’s up to him to make sure everyone under his roof has a good time during the celebration. He needs to provide entertainment, and his custom ensures that he will.

    Loud cries were uttered by the clergy and others,
    "Nowel" repeated again, constantly spoken;
    And then the nobles hurried to hand out New Year’s gifts,
    Cried their wares noisily, gave them by hand.
    (65 - 68)

    This passage demonstrates some of the holiday traditions enjoyed by fifteenth century revelers: the word "Noel" and the gift-giving are familiar to us.  What we might not recognize is the exchange of New Year’s gifts, but at that time it was traditional for people to exchange gifts from the 25th of December until the 6th of January, during the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas was actually a time period in the church year that lasted for two weeks.

    All this merry-making went on until feasting time.
    When they had washed as was fir they took their places,
    The noblest knight in a higher seat, as seemed proper.
    (71 - 73)

    We’re not very far into the poem and this is the second time the narrator has referred to people doing things "as seem[s] proper." This repetition betrays his concern with traditions and customs, and here, the proper hierarchy of people.

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

    And in so many yesterdays the year wears away,
    And winter comes round again, as custom requires,
        in truth.
    (530 - 532)

    This passage makes strange use of the word "custom," which we usually associate with traditions humans have instituted as part of culture. By contrast, here, custom is "requir[ing]"
    nature to repeat its cycle of seasons, almost as though this cycle is something humans have instituted. In any case, this strange use mixes nature and culture in an interesting way.

    Part 3, Lines 1319 - 1411

    Both the head and the neck they cut off next,
    And then rapidly separate the sides from the chine;
    And the raven’s fee in a thicket they threw.
    Then they pierced both sides through the ribs,
    Hanging each of them by the hocks of their legs,
    For each man’s payment, as his proper reward.
    (1353 - 1358)

    Every person and animal who participated in a hunt (and in the raven’s case, who is just waiting nearby) receives a designated part of the prey as part of his "fee." Here, the raven’s fee seems to be some part of the animal’s face, while the hunters are rewarded with the animal’s sides.

    So correctly they cut off all the offal in the spine
    Right down to the haunches, in one unbroken piece,
    And lifted it up whole, and cut it off there;
    And to that they give the name of numbles, I believe,
        as is right.
    (1344 - 1348)

    In keeping with hunting’s status as an art form, all of the different pieces of the animal had specific names that instruction-books could help the nobleman to learn. Here, the narrator gives us the correct name for the piece of meat or muscle torn from a deer’s spine, perhaps to show off his knowledge of hunting terminology.

    Then they slit the base of the throat, took hold of the gullet,
    Scraped it with a sharp knife and knotted it shut;
    Next they cut off the four legs and ripped off the hide,
    Then broke open the belly and took out the entrails
    Carefully to avoid loosening the ligature of the knot.
    (1330 - 1334)

    This and many lines to follow describe in great detail the proper method of skinning and butchering a deer. So precise was this ritual that the exact order of cuts the butcher made was prescribed. Hunting is really an art form; to break with its rules is to betray yourself as ill-educated in the art.

    The noblest pressed forward with many attendants,
    Gathered together the fattest of the deer,
    And neatly dismembered them as ritual requires.
    (1324 - 1326)

    This passage marks the beginning of the deer-butchering scene. Medieval hunting was an extremely complex ritual about which whole instruction manuals were written. There was a proper way of doing everything, from uncoupling the hounds to skinning the deer.  Part of being a good nobleman was knowing how to perform the ritual precisely.

    They put food for their hounds on a fine beast’s skin -
    The liver and lights, the lining of the stomach,
    And beak soaked in blood, mixed together.
    (1359 - 1361)

    One of the reasons the hounds enjoy hunting so much is that they know that they, too, will receive a portion of the butchered animal. In their case, it’s the animal’s guts, mixed with blood. The hunter lays this out on the deerskin, then calls the hounds to come eat it.

    Part 3, Lines 1561 - 1689

    Next he cuts out the boar’s-meat in broad glistening slabs,
    And takes out the haslets, as properly follows;
    Yet he fastens the two sides together unbroken,
    And then proudly hangs them together on a strong pole.
    Now with this very boar they gallop towards home;
    Carrying the boar’s head before the same man
    Who had killed it in the stream by force of his own
        strong hand.
    (1611 - 1618)

    The point of the boar-butchery ritual seems to be to create an object for display, with the two sides of boar fastened together so they can be "proudly" carried on a pole and the head kept intact as a trophy for the man who slaughters it.

    Then a man who was expert in hunting practice
    Skillfully begins to dismember the boar.
    First he cuts off the head and sets it on high,
    And then roughly open s him along the spine,
    Throws out the entrails, grills them over embers,
    And rewards his hounds with them, mixed with bread.
    (1605 - 1610)

    The order of butchery for every animal differed in medieval hunting manuals; here, the boar loses his head before any other part. The dogs are given their portion before the butchering has finished.

  • Appearances

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    Yet he had no helmet nor hauberk either,
    No neck-armour or plate belonging to arms,
    No spear and no shield to push or to strike;
    But in one hand he carried a holly branch
    That is brilliantly green when forests are bare,
    And an axe in the other, monstrously huge.
    (202 -207)

    Rather than being dressed as a real knight should be, in armor, the Green Knight looks more like a woodsman, since he carries an axe. The holly branch he carries in one hand further emphasizes his relationship to nature.

    Queen Guenevere [sat] gaily dressed and placed in the middle,
    Seated on the upper level, adorned all about;
    Fine silk surrounding her, a canopy overhead
    Of costly French fabric, silk carpets underfoot
    That were embroidered and studded with the finest gems
    That money could buy at the highest price
    The loveliest to see
    Glanced round with eyes blue-grey;
    That he had had seen a fairer one
    Truly could no man say.
    (74 - 84)

    The richness of Arthur’s court and the beauty of his queen both attest to his power and influence. In this passage, Guenevere plays the role of Arthur’s possession just as much as the gems and fine silk carpets and canopies that surround her.

    And all arrayed in green that man and his clothes:
    A straight close-fitting coat that clung to his body,
    A pleasant mantle over that, adorned within
    With plain trimmed fur, the facing made bright
    With gay shining ermine, and his hood of the same
    Thrown back from his hair and laid over his shoulders.
    Neat tightly-drawn stockings coloured to match
    Clinging to his calf, and shining spurs below
    Of bright gold, over embroidered and richly striped silk.
    (151 - 159)

    The Green Knight’s clothing indicates that he is very wealthy: fur, particularly ermine, was a very expensive material and embroidered, striped silk would have been costly and time-consuming to make. The lines following these go on to detail the embroidery, bead and metalwork of the Knight’s tack and saddle, all of which indicate a similar degree of wealth and time investment.

    .  .  .  .  .  There bursts in at the hall door a terrible figure,
    In his stature the very tallest on earth.
    From the waist to the neck so thick-set and square,
    And his loins and his limbs so massive and long,
    In truth half a giant I believe he was,
    But anyway of all men I judge him to be the largest,
    And the most attractive of his size who could sit on a horse.
    For while in back and chest his body was forbidding,
    Both his belly and waist were becomingly trim,
    And every part of his body equally elegant
            in shape.
        His hue astounded them,
        Set in his looks so keen;
        For boldly he rode in,
        Completely emerald green.
    (136 - 150)

    The Green Knight is both monstrous and beautiful: his great size makes him something of a giant, creatures which had fearsome reputations in medieval romances. Besides that, he’s completely green! But on the other hand, his body is elegant, and he appears to be in great shape if his large chest and back paired with a trim waist are any indication.

    Most attractive was this man attired in green,
    With the hair of his head matching his horse.
    Fine outspreading locks covered his shoulders;
    A great beard hangs down over his chest like a bush,
    That like the splendid hair that falls from his head
    Was clipped all around above his elbows,
    So that his upper arms were hidden, in the fashion
    Of a royal capados that covers his neck.
    That great horse’s mane was treated much the same.
    (178 - 187)

    This description of the Green Knight’s long hair and beard have led some people to compare him to the "wild man of the woods," a mythical medieval character whose hair and beard were similarly long. Yet unlike that character, the Green Knight has his hair trimmed at just the length to match his beard "in the fashion / Of a royal capados," or cape. And although the passage emphasizes the way the Knight’s hair matches that of an animal - his horse - both horse and man are meticulously groomed, as the passage goes on to emphasize.

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

    The brave knight steps on it and examines his armour,
    Dressed in a costly doublet of silk
    Under a well-made capados, fastened at the top
    And trimmed with white ermine on the inside.
    (571 - 574)

    Gawain’s clothing is similar to the Green Knight’s in its richness, with both silk and costly ermine making an appearance. Like the Green Knight, Gawain wears a capados, or cape, although his is made of fur and not hair!

    Then they fitted metal shoes upon the knight’s feet,
    Clasped his legs in steel with elegant greaves
    With knee-pieces attached to them, highly polished
    And fastened to his knees with knots of gold.
    Next fine cuisses neatly enclosed
    His thick muscular thighs, with thongs attached,
    And the linked-mail shirts made of bright steel rings
    Covered that  and his beautiful clothes.
    (574 - 581)

    This passage details how Gawain gets all decked out in the gear of a proper knight. The comparable richness of his gear with the Green Knight’s continues, but unlike that man, Gawain wears real armor, signifying that he plans to do battle at some time during his journey.

    By then Gringolet was ready, fitted with a saddle
    That splendidly shone with many gold fringes,
    Newly studded all over for that special purpose;
    The bridle striped all along, and trimmed with bright gold;
    The adornment of the trapping and the fine saddle-skirts,
    The crupper and the horse-cloth matched the saddle-bows,
    All covered with gold studs on a background of red,
    So that the whole glittered and shone like the sun.
    (597 - 604)

    In medieval romance, a knight’s horse is representative of his character. The finer the horse, the finer the knight.  Gringolet’s shining gold-adorned tack and saddle indicate the richness and rarity of this knight just as Guinevere’s beauty indicates the prestige of the man to whom she is married.

    Part 2, Lines 691 - 842

    Hardly had he caught sight through the trees of a moated building
    Standing over a field, on a mound, surrounded by boughs
    Of many a massive tree-trunk enclosing the moat:
    The most splendid castle ever owned by a knight,
    Set on a meadow, a park all around,
    Closely guarded by a spiked palisade
    That encircled many trees for more than two miles.
    That side of the castle Sir Gawain surveyed
    As it shimmered and shone through the fine oaks.
    (763 - 772)

    When the castle appears to Gawain, tired and cold after over a month of wandering through an enchanted wilderness, it’s a sight too good to be true. In fact, it shimmers like a mirage in the distance, probably indicating that magic has some role to play in its existence.

    Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

    Gawain studied the man who greeted him courteously,
    And thought him a bold one who governed the castle,
    A great-sized knight indeed, in the prime of life;
    Broad and glossy was his beard, all reddish-brown,
    Stern-faced, standing firmly on powerful legs;
    With a face fierce as fire, and noble in speech,
    Who truly seemed capable, it appeared to Gawain,
    Of being master of a castle with outstanding knights.
    (843 - 849)

    In medieval romance (and a lot of medieval literature more generally), a man’s appearance matters. The healthy, powerful appearance of the lord of the castle indicate his fitness as a lord, a capability Gawain notes approvingly.

    But very different in looks were these two ladies,
    For where the young one was fresh, the other was withered;
    Every part of that one was rosily aglow:
    On that other, rough wrinkled cheeks hung in folds.
    Many bright pearls adorned the kerchiefs of one,
    Whose breast and white throat, uncovered and bare,
    Shone more dazzling than snow new-fallen on hills.
    The other wore a gorget over her neck,
    Her swarthy chin wrapped in chalkwhite veils,
    Her forehead enfolded in silk, muffled up everywhere.
    (950 - 956)

    The portrait of the two ladies in Bertilak’s court highlights the contrast between youth and age. The rosy freshness of the young woman indicates her youthful energy, while her exposed breast and throat announce generous fertility. By contrast, the older woman’s body is completely covered, symbolizing that the time for the ready availability of her body to men has long since ended.

    [Attendants] took him to a fine bedroom with marvellous bedding;
    Curtains of pure silk with shining gold borders,
    And elaborate coverlets with splendid facing
    Of bright ermine on top, embroidered all around;
    Curtains on golden rings, running on cords.
    Walls covered with hangings from Tharsia and Toulouse
    And underfoot on the floor of a matching kind.
    (853 - 859)

    As do the decorations in Arthur’s court, the richness of the chamber in which Lord Bertilak places Gawain indicate his wealth and influence. The wall-hangings from Tars and France indicate the kingdom’s access to international trade, a strange detail in a palace that appears to be in the middle of nowhere.

    Part 3, Lines 1690 - 1892

    [She] rose from her bed quickly and hastened there
    In a charming mantle reaching to the ground,
    That was richly lined with well-trimmed furs:
    No modest coif on her head, but skilfully cut gems
    Arranged about her hair-fret in clusters of twenty;
    Her lovely face and throat displayed uncovered,
    Her breast was exposed, and her shoulders bare.
    (1735 - 1741)

    The care Lady Bertilak invests in her appearance on the last day of her seduction attempt is much greater than on any other day. The richness of her clothing and, in particular, her exposed breast, throat, and shoulders, indicate that she is upping her game today. And indeed, the seduction attempt that follows is the most aggressive one yet.

    Then Gawain seizes his helmet and kisses it quickly,
    That was strongly stapled and padded inside.
    It stood high on his head, fastened at the back
    With a shining silk band over the mailed neck-guard,
    Embroidered and studded with the finest gems
    On a broad border of silk with birds covering the seams -
    Popinjays depicted between periwinkles,
    Turtledoves and true-love flowers embroidered so thick
    As if many women had worked on it seven years
            in town.

    Like the Green Knight’s saddle-cloth, the silk band of Gawain’s neck-guard is embroidered with pictures of birds. But the narrator adds the important detail that his embroidery-work includes turtledoves and true-love flowers, perhaps representing Gawain’s reputation as a great lover. The narrative is not subtle about touting the richness of this work, suggesting that such detailed embroidery would take seven years for women working together on it to complete.

  • Rules and Order

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    There knights fought in tournament again and again,
    Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,
    Then rode to the court for dancing and song.
    For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days
    With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised.
    (41 - 45)

    The Christmas season traditionally lasted fifteen days, beginning on December 24th and ending with Epiphany, the feast of the three kings, on Jan 6th. Arthur’s court celebrates by jousting, dancing, singing, and playing games.

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490

    [. . . . . . . . . . . . .]"Where is," he demanded,
    "The governor of this crowd? Glad should I be
    To clap eyes on the man, and exchange with him
    a few words."
    [. . .]
    . . . . . . . . . "Sir, welcome indeed to this place;
    I am master of this house, my name is Arthur.
    Be pleased to dismount and spend some time here, I beg,
    And what you have come for, we shall learn later."
    (224 - 227, 252 - 255)

    Rules of courtly behavior dictate that a guest in someone’s hall must always seek out the highest-ranked person in the place to solicit their hospitality; accordingly, the highest-ranked person must offer it generously, as Arthur does here.

    Sir Gawain

    "I would offer you counsel before your royal court.
    For it seems to me unfitting, if the truth be admitted,
    When so arrogant a request is put forward in hall,
    Even if you are desirous, to undertake it yourself
    While so many brave men sit about you in their places
    Who, I think, are unrivalled in temper of mind,
    And without equal as warriors on the field of battle."
    (347 - 353)

    Here Gawain perfectly fulfills the role of a loyal, well-meaning vassal by offering counsel, or advice, to his liege lord. He also criticizes the rest of the knights in the hall for failing in their duty to their king. His point is that the king should not have to defend his own honor, for the rules of chivalry dictate that his knights should do it for him.

    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "Let us repeat our agreement before going further,
    First I entreat you, sir, that what is your name
    You shall tell me truly, that I may believe you."
    "In good faith," said that virtuous knight, "I am called Gawain,
    Who deals you this blow, whatever happens after,
    On this day next year to accept another from you
    With what weapon you choose, and from no other person
        on earth."
    (377 - 384)

    It’s important to the Green Knight to learn Gawain’s name so that he knows who to hold accountable to their agreement. This provides Gawain with an incentive to keep their agreement, too, because he knows his reputation will be sullied should he default on it. The Knight also insists that Gawain repeat the terms of the agreement, probably so that Gawain can’t claim ignorance as an excuse after the fact.

    .  .  . "You have fully repeated, in exact terms,
    Without omission the whole covenant I put to the king;
    Except that you shall assure me, sir, on your word,
    That you will seek me yourself, wherever you think
    I may be found upon earth, to accept such payment
    As you deal me today before this noble gathering."
    (392 - 397)

    The Green Knight further invokes the rules of chivalry when he asks for Gawain’s word that he will seek him out in one year to receive his "payment." The Middle English term translated as "word" here is "trawthe," or troth, a loaded term that refers to a knight’s oath, or promise, which he must keep as a matter of honor. Also important in this passage is the Knight’s reference to the blow he will give Gawain as "such payment as you deal me today." This characterizes their game as an exchange of payments, a concept that will become very important later on in the tale.

    Part 2, Lines 1046 - 1125
    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "Yet further," said the man, "let us make an agreement:
    Whatever I catch in the wood shall become yours,
    And whatever mishap comes your way give me in exchange.
    Dear sir, let us swap so, swear me that truly,
    Whatever falls to our lot, worthless or better."
    "By God," said the good Gawain, "I agree to that,
    And your love of amusement pleases me much."
    "If someone brings us a drink, it will be an agreement,"
    Said the lord of that company.
    (1105 - 1113)

    In this scene, Gawain gets roped into another game. As in the exchange of blows he has agreed to with the Green Knight, according to the terms of Lord Bertilak’s proposal, the two men will exchange their "winnings" at the end of each day.  Lord Bertilak will yield whatever he has hunted in the woods to Gawain in exchange for whatever Gawain has won in the hall. The two men seal their agreement with a drink.

    Part 3, Lines 1319 - 1411

    "And I give it all to you, Gawain," said the man then,
    "For by the terms of our compact you may claim it as yours."
    "That is true," said the knight, "and I say the same to you:
    What I have honourably won inside this castle,
    With as much good will truly shall be yours."
    He takes the other’s strong neck in his arms,
    And kisses him as pleasantly as he could devise.
    (1383 - 1389)

    The way that Gawain and Sir Bertilak fulfill the terms of their agreement has led a lot of people to speculate about what would have happened during this scene if Gawain had had sex with Lady Bertilak. For Gawain returns his "winnings" to Sir Bertilak exactly as he received them, and not in some way representative or symbolic of his winnings. So, if Gawain and Lady Bertilak had sex, then . . .

    Sir Gawain

    "It is excellent," said the lord, "Many thanks indeed.
    It could be even better if you would inform me
    Where you won this same prize by your cleverness."
    "That was not in our agreement," said he, "ask nothing else;
    For you have had what is due to you, expect to receive
        nothing more."
    (1392 - 1397)

    Naturally, Gawain is not eager to reveal the source of the kiss he has "won." And luckily, he finds a loophole in the rules that enables him to avoid doing so.

    Part 3, Lines 1412 - 1560
    Lady Bertilak

    "Sir, if you are Gawain, it astonishes me
    That a man always so inclined to good,
    Cannot grasp the rules of polite behaviour,
    And if someone instructs him, lets them drop out of mind.
    You have quickly forgotten what I taught you yesterday
    [.  .  .] about kissing," the fair lady replied,
    "To act quickly wherever a glance of favour is seen;
    That befits every knight who practises courtesy."
    (1481 - 1485, 1489 - 1491)

    The lady of the castle uses the "rules of polite behavior" to trap Gawain into kissing her. According to her, these rules dictate that a knight must always be quick to kiss a lady when her flirtatious behavior indicates she wants him to. Gawain has even less wiggle-room once the lady has stated this bluntly, however; were he to say no at this point he would really be rejecting her.

    Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
    Sir Gawain

        Sir Gawain met the knight,
        Made him a frosty bow;
        The other said, "Good sir,
        A man may trust your vow."
    "Gawain," said that green man, "may God protect you!
    You are indeed welcome, sir, to my place;
    You have timed your journey as a true man should,
    And you know the agreement between us."
    (2235 - 2242)

    The Knight’s statement that a man can trust Gawain’s vow must be sweet vindication for Gawain, since he’s so concerned with his code of honor and has worked so hard to make sure he finds the Knight in time for New Year’s. The Knight’s reference to Gawain’s knowledge of "the agreement between us" reminds the reader of the Knight’s care to make sure the terms of it are clear from the beginning.

    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "First I threatened you playfully with a pretence,
    And avoided giving you a gash, doing so rightly
    Because of the agreement we made on the first night,
    When you faithfully and truly kept you pledged word,
    Gave me all your winnings, as an honest man should.
    That other feint, sir, I gave you for the next day,
    When you kissed my lovely wife and gave me those kisses.
    For both occasions I aimed at you two mere mock blows
            without harm.
        True man must pay back truly,
        Then he need nothing fear;
        You failed me the third time
        And took that blow therefore."
    (2345 - 2356)

    Here the Green Knight reveals that he is also Lord Bertilak, and that he has combined the two games between himself and Gawain into one. The results of the beheading game are dependent upon Gawain’s behavior in the exchange-of-winnings game. Technically, the Green Knight fulfills the terms of the beheading game because he does strike Gawain with his axe – it’s just that he chooses only to wound him rather than sever his head completely. This is important because the Knight states that "true man must pay back truly."

  • Man and the Natural World

    Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

    It would be hard to describe even half the fine work
    That was embroidered upon his [clothing and saddle-gear], the butterflies and birds,
    With lovely beadwork of green, always centered upon gold.
    (165 - 167)

    The fact that the Green Knight is entirely green and that butterflies and birds are embroidered on his clothing suggests that we are meant to connect him to the natural world. He might represent nature and animal instincts, in contrast to the more civilized world of King Arthur’s court.

    The horse that he rides [is] entirely of that colour,
    in truth.
    A green horse huge and strong,
    A proud steed to restrain,
    Spirited under bridle,
    But obedient to the man.
    (173 - 178)

    In medieval romances, a man’s ability to control his horse is a symbol of his masculinity and his own self-control. The greater the horse he controls, the greater the man. So, the fact that the Green Knight’s horse is huge, strong, and spirited but obedient to him tells us that his character is very strong, masculine, and in control of himself, too.

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

    But then the weather on earth battles with winter,
    The cold shrinks downwards, clouds rise higher,
    And shed sparkling rain in warming showers,
    Falling on smiling plains where flowers unfold.
    Both open fields and woodlands put on green dress;
    Birds hasten to build, and rapturously sing
    For joy of gentle summer that follows next
        on the slopes.
    (505 - 511)

    This section, and the lines that follow it, detail the way that the seasons naturally give way to one another. We know that after a year passes and the winter arrives again, Gawain must travel to the Green Chapel to meet his fate.  So, the feeling we are left with here is one of man’s powerlessness to stop the turning of the earth and, by extension, his fate.

    Part 2, Lines 691 - 842

    […] Fighting troubled him less than the rigorous winter,
    When cold clear water fell from the clouds
    And froze before it could reach the faded earth.
    Half dead with the cold Gawain slept in hir armour
    More nights than enough among the bare rocks,
    Where splashing from the hilltops the freezing stream runs,
    And hung over his head in hard icicles.
    Thus in danger, hardship and continual pain
    The knight rides across the land until Christmas Eve
    (726 - 735)

    The fact that the cold winter weather troubles Gawain even more than the fierce beasts with which he battles emphasizes the precariousness of a man’s position when forced to endure the elements without the protection of walls and a fire. Gawain’s suffering in the open wilderness helps us to appreciate the contrast represented by the civilized and fire-lit halls of Arthur and the Bertilak.

    So many wonders befell him in the hills,
    It would be tedious to recount the least part of them.
    Sometimes he fights dragons, and wolves as well,
    Sometimes with wild men who dwelt among the crags;
    Both with bulls and with bears, and at other times boars,
    And ogres who chased him across the high fells.
    (718 - 723)

    The Middle English word this passage uses to describe the beasts with which Gawain meets, "mervayl," (translated here as ‘wonders’) is one often used to describe supernatural happenings. And indeed, some of the animals Gawain meets with, like dragons and ogres, might be considered part of the supernatural world. But intermixed with them are real animals like bears and wolves, suggesting that in the world of the poem, nature is just as alien and marvelous to the civilized world of King Arthur’s court as apparitions from the land of fairy.

    Part 3, Lines 1126 - 1318

    At the first sound of the hunt the wild creatures trembled;
    Deer fled from the valley, frantic with fear,
    And rushed to the high ground, but were fiercely turned back
    By the line of beaters, who yelled at them savagely.
    They let the stags with their tall antlers pass,
    And the wonderful bucks with their broad horns;
    For the noble lord had forbidden that in the close season
    Anyone should interfere with the male deer.
    (1150 - 1157)

    This passage focuses on the hunters’ dominion over the natural world by recounting how the sound of the hunt echoes throughout the whole valley sending animals scattering. As a counterpoint to the animal fear, however, is the orderly, rule-governed nature of the hunt itself. Lines of ‘beaters,’ basically people who guard a pre-determined boundary to hem the animals in, allow the male deer to pass through their line because the lord has ordered that stags cannot be hunted at this time of year. So the hunt becomes a set of civilized rules by which order is enforced in the natural world.

    By the time the first glimmers of daylight appeared
    He and his knights were mounted on horse.
    Then experienced huntsmen coupled the hounds,
    Unlocked the kennel door and ordered them out,
    Loudly blowing three long notes on their horns.
    Horns bayed at the sound and made a fierce noise;
    And those who went straying were whipped and turned back.
    (1137 - 1144)

    The medieval hunt was an event that depended upon the cooperation of animals to bring down other animals. Here, the huntsmen "uncouple," or loose, their hounds, inciting them to pick up the scent of the prey with their horn-blasts. Mounted, the huntsmen depend upon their horses to follow the hounds. This scene, then, emphasizes the close relationship between the hunters and their animals as they ride out in pursuit of their prey.

    Part 3, Lines 1412 - 1560

    An incredible wild boar charged out there,
    Which long since had left the herd through his age,
    For he was massive and broad, greatest of all boars,
    Terrible when he snorted. Then many were dismayed,
    For three men in one rush he threw on their backs,
    And made away fast without doing more harm.
    (1439 - 1444)

    In contrast to the deer, which are very easily brought down, the huge boar that the hounds scent out manages to give the huntsmen more of a run for their money, knocking many of them down and later, injuring them by goring them on his tusks. Because of the difficulty of his capture, the boar represents more of a prize even though he provides less meat than all the deer. He is a trophy-animal, whereas the deer are prized for their meat.

    Part 3, Lines 1561 - 1689

    And thrusts the sword firmly straight into his throat,
    Drove it up to the hilt, so that the heart burst open,
    And squawling he gave up, and was swept through the water
    (1593 - 1596)

    Recall that at the same time as Bertilak hunts the boar, Gawain faces his lady’s attempt to seduce him. This passage alludes to the sexual tension of that situation by portraying Bertilak’s slaying of the boar in language suggestive of sexual intercourse.  Bertilak drives his sword (in medieval romance a phallic object) up to the hilt into the animal’s throat (in Middle English, the ‘slot’) just as a penis might penetrate a woman’s vagina.

    The boar charged out, straight at the man,
    So that he and the beast were both in a heap
    Where the water was swiftest. The other had the worse;
    For the man takes aim carefully as the two met.
     (1589 - 1592)

    Sir Bertilak proves his valor by grappling with the wild boar from which everyone else backs away out of fear. He subdues him by taking careful aim, moreover, demonstrating the superiority of human rationality over even the brute strength of an animal like the boar.

    Part 3, Lines 1690 - 1892

    [The fox] scampers ahead of them, [the hounds] soon found his trail,
    And when they caught sight of him followed fast,
    Abusing him furiously with an angry noise.
    He twists and dodges through many a dense copse,
    Often doubling back and listening at the hedges.
    At last he jumps over a fence by a little ditch,
    Creeps stealthily by the edge of a bush-covered marsh,
    Thinking to escape from the wood and the hounds by his wiles.
    (1704 - 1711)

    The fox gives the huntsmen more of a run for their money than even the boar with his very human-like "wiles." Instead of running a straight race, he sometimes doubles back to confuse the hounds and runs for cover, perhaps planning to wait it out and escape when the time is right. The hunters’ ability to capture him, then, will represent the ultimate triumph of man over nature. The fox may also represent Gawain who, in his meeting with the lady on this day, must deploy rhetorical twists and turns to thwart her seduction attempt, which is more aggressive than ever before.

    Part 4, Lines 1998 - 2211

    Then he goes to the mound and walks around it,
    Wondering to himself what it could be.
    It had a hole at the end and on either side,
    And was covered all over with patches of grass,
    And was all hollow inside; nothing but an old cave,
    Or a fissure in an old rock, what to call it he hardly
        could tell.
    (2178 - 2184)

    The fact that the Green "Chapel" is little more than a mound of grass represents just how far Gawain has come from the civilized world both geographically and symbolically. Medieval readers might also have recognized this hillock as a "fairy mound" a place that was supposedly an entrance to the world of fairy and where strange supernatural events were thought to have occurred. The Green Chapel thus links this place, and its guardian, to both the natural world and the world of fairy, or the supernatural.

    They struggled up hillsides where branches are bare,
    They climbed up past rock-faces gripped by cold.
    The clouds were high up, but murky beneath them,
    Mist shrouded the moors, melted on the hills.
    Each summit wore a hat, a huge cloak of mist.
    Streams foamed and splashed down the slopes around them,
    Breaking white against the banks as they rushed downhill.
    (2077 - 2083)

    As Gawain and his guide get closer to the Green Chapel, the landscape appears progressively more wild, with sheer rock-faces, a moor (or high plain) covered in fog, and streams whose foaming and splashing appears aggressive and menacing. This wildness may represent the Green Knight’s wildness, his separation from the civilized world.

    Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
    Sir Gawain

    "I accept it gratefully, not for its wonderful gold,
    Nor for the girdle itself nor its silk, nor its long pendants,
    Nor its value nor the honour it confers, nor its fine workmanship,
    But I shall look at it often as a sign of my failing,
    And when I ride in triumph, recall with remorse
    The corruptions and frailty of the perverse flesh."
    (2430 - 2435)

    Gawain accepts the girdle as a sign of the frailty of the "flesh," or body. He failed to disclose his receipt of the girdle to Bertilak because he was too attached to his own life.  He gave in to an animal instinct for survival rather than following the rules of civilized society. Accordingly, instead of seeing the human ingenuity of the girdle, its monetary value, or the status it might confer in society, Gawain links it to the sins of the flesh.

  • Principles

    Part 1, Lines 250 - 490
    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "See, Gawain, that you carry out your promise exactly,
    And search for me truly, sir, until I am found,
    As you have sworn in the hall in the hearing of these knights."
    (448 - 450)

    The Green Knight reminds Gawain of his knightly duty to keep his promise. The fact that Gawain has sworn to do this in the hearing of all the other knights means that his reputation will be damaged if he fails to carry it out - it’s a matter of knightly honor.

    Sir Gawain

    "I am the weakest [of your knight], I know, and the dullest-minded,
    So my death would be the least loss, if truth should be told;
    Only because you are my uncle am I to be praised,
    No virtue I know in myself but your blood."
    (354 - 357)

    The idea that a person’s virtue might reside in their blood was a medieval one that justified systems of familial succession. It’s unclear if the modesty Gawain displays throughout the poem - calling himself the "least" of Arthur’s knights when he’s known as the best - is a false one or just another part of his virtue.

    Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

    The fifth group of five the man respected, I hear,
    Was generosity and love of fellow-men above all;
    His purity and courtesy were never lacking,
    And surpassing the other, compassion: these noble five
    Were more deeply implanted in that knight than any other.
    (651 - 655)

    It’s easier to understand the difference between some of Gawain’s virtues by looking at the Middle English: love of fellow-men is "felaghschyp," which refers to something more like dedicated friendship than love. Purity is "clannes," which usually refers to chastity. Compassion is called "pité" in the Middle English. This virtue, greater than any other, is probably Christian charity, the love of others and God before oneself.

    Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,
    Each one linked to the others in an endless design,
    Based upon five points that was never unfinished,
    Not uniting in one line nor separating either
    Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,
    No matter where the line began or ran to an end.
    (656 - 661)

    The pentangle’s design, with each line transitioning seemingly endlessly into another, emphasizes the way that the five virtues are similarly interrelated, each one depending upon the other. Similarly, Gawain’s ability to maintain his five virtues depends a lot on his devotion to Christ and Mary, two other ‘sides’ of his virtue-pentangle.

    Therefore [the pentangle] suits this knight and his shining arms,
    For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
    Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
    Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
    (631 - 635)

    The pentangle Gawain has painted on the front of his shield represents his characteristics in five areas, as the following lines go on to detail: the perfection of his five senses, the dexterity of his five fingers, his devotion to the five wounds of Christ, his focus on the five joys Mary had in Christ, and his devotion to five virtues.

    Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

    Each knight whispered to his companion,
    "Now we shall enjoy seeing displays of good manners,
    And the irreproachable terms of noble speech;
    The art of conversation we can learn unasked,
    Since we have taken in the source of good breeding."   
    (915 - 919)

    In addition to being a paragon of religious virtues, Gawain is a master of more secular virtue like the art of good manners, what in medieval romance was known as "courtoisie." The art of conversation depended upon providing delight to one’s companions with talk of matters entertaining but not so serious as to put a damper on the fun. For this reason the poem constantly refers to all the laughter and delight that occurs as Gawain converses with his hosts.

    In knowledge of fine manners
    This man has expertise;
    I think that those who hear him,
    Will learn what love-talk is.
    (924 - 927)

    As part of Gawain’s knowledge of "courtoisie," he has expertise in love-talk, meaning that he knows how to talk to a lady so as to delight her.

    Sir Gawain

    "I am at your commandment to act on your bidding,
    As I am duty bound to in everything, large or small,
        by right."
    (1039 - 1041)

    Gawain puts himself at the disposal of his host in everything, something which both of his codes of conduct - courtoisie, and chivalry - require him to do. Since he has accepted the hospitality of Lord Bertilak, in courtesy he owes him a debt of gratitude as a guest. And since Lord Bertilak outranks Gawain, he becomes a substitute liege lord of sorts in Arthur’s absence, to whom he owes the same obedience and loyalty.

    Part 2, Lines 1046 - 1125
    Sir Gawain

    "A verbal agreement was settled between us
    To meet that man at that place, should I be alive,
    And before that New Year little time now remains;
    And I would face that man, if God would allow me,
    More gladly, by God’s son, than come by great wealth."
    (1060 - 1064)

    Gawain’s eagerness to make his appointment with the Green Knight is quite striking. How often do you hear someone say that they’d much rather meet their likely murderer than strike it rich? This passage just goes to show how seriously Gawain takes his knightly honor.

    Part 3, Lines 1126 - 1318
    Lady Bertilak

    "So good a knight as Gawain as rightly reputed,
    In whom courtesy is so completely embodied,
    Could not easily have spent so much time with a lady
    Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness,
    By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark."
    (1296 - 1301)

    The lady’s implication here is that Gawain would be breaking the rules of courtesy not to seek a kiss from a lady who has asked for it with her flirtatious manner. Gawain is really in a bind now, because to reject the lady’s advance so overtly would certainly break the rules of courtesy, while to become romantically involved with her would be to betray Lord Bertilak and break the code of knightly conduct.

    Part 3, Lines 1690 - 1892

    [Gawain] approached a priest privately, and besought him there
    To hear his confession and instruct him more clearly
    How his soul could be saved when he leaves this world.
    There he confessed himself honestly and admitted his sins,
    Both the great and the small, and forgiveness begs,
    And calls on the priest for absolution.
    And the priest absolved him completely, and made him as clean
    As if the Judgment were appointed for the next day.
    (1877 - 1882)

    Gawain displays his great piety by seeking forgiveness and absolution for his sins at what he thinks is likely to be his last day on earth. This passage raises an interesting question, however: does Gawain confess that he plans to withhold the girdle from Bertilak, breaking the terms of the agreement? If he omits this, can he be forgiven? Is it ok to confess a sin you plan to commit, but haven’t yet? And is this withholding of the girdle even a sin, or is it just a breach of knightly conduct?

    Part 3, Lines 1893 - 1997
    The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

    "Everything I ever promised you I shall readily give."

    This is Lord Bertilak’s response to Gawain’s request for a man to lead him to the Green Chapel. It becomes ironic in light of the ending, when we learn that Sir Bertilak is also the Green Knight. Lord Bertilak might also be referring to his promise to return the stroke Gawain gave him in Arthur’s court one year ago.

    Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
    Sir Gawain

    The first words that the knight uttered there
    Were, "A curse upon cowardice and covetousness!
    You breed boorishness and vice that ruin virtue.
    [.  .  .]
    For fear of your blow taught me cowardice,
    To give way to covetousness, be false to my nature,
    The generosity and fidelity expected of knights.
    Now I am false and unworthy, and have always dreaded
    Treachery and deceit: may misfortune and grief
        befall both!"
    (2374 - 2376, 2379 - 2384)

    Gawain is disappointed in himself, and he identifies fear as the thing that caused him to covet, or want to keep, the green girdle. This covetousness, in turn, caused him to break the terms of his agreement with Bertilak, proving himself dishonest. Gawain identifies these vices as alien to his nature, suggesting that he has much higher expectations of himself than even an ethic like Christianity, which views sin as an inevitable part of a man’s character. In fact, part of the lesson that Gawain must take away from his encounter is that he is an imperfect being, as prone to failure as anyone else.

    Part 4, Lines 2479 - 2530

    "See, my lord,"  said the man, and held up the girdle,
    "This belt caused the scar that I bear on my neck;
    This is the injury and damage that I have suffered
    For the cowardice and covetousness that seized me there;
    This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing,
    And now I must wear it as long as I live.
    For a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it,
    For where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted."
    (2505 - 2512)

    The withheld girdle caused Bertilak’s axe to break Gawain’s flesh just as Gawain’s covetousness for it caused his dishonesty in the exchange of winnings. Gawain opts to wear it forever as a symbol of the deep-rootedness of misdeeds. Christianity believes that sins may be absolved and forgiven, but Gawain appears to have a much more pessimistic outlook, one that likely reflects his concern with the effect of a misdeed upon his honor and reputation as much as on his soul.

  • The Supernatural

    All those standing there gazed, and warily crept closer,
    Bursting with wonder to see what he would do;
    For many marvels they had known, but such a one never;
    So the folk there judged it phantasm or magic.
    For this reason many noble knight feared to answer:
    And stunned by his words they sat there stock-still.
    (237 - 243)

    The only explanation Arthur’s court can come up with for the Green Knight is that he must be a ghost, or magical. They may even think he’s an apparition from the land of fairy. Whatever the precise theory, they obviously fear being magicked themselves, for no one dares to speak when confronted with what appears to be obviously supernatural in nature.

    For he holds up the head in his hand, truly,
    Turns its face toward the noblest on the dais,
    And it lifted its eyelids and glared with wide eyes,
    And the mouth uttered these words, which you shall now hear.
    (444 - 447)

    If Arthur’s court (or we) need any more proof that the Green Knight is some sort of supernatural being, this is it. What else but magic could account for how the man picks up his own severed head and speaks with it? This is the stuff of Halloween nightmares.

    So many wonders befell him in the hills,
    It would be tedious to recount the least part of them.
    Sometimes he fights dragons, and wolves as well,
    Sometimes with wild men who dwelt among the crags;
    Both with bulls and with bears, and at other times boars,
    And ogres who chased him across the high fells.
    (718 - 723)

    As Gawain draws closer to Sir Bertilak’s castle, he encounters various supernatural creatures scattered among the more conventional wild animals he must battle: dragons, wild men, and ogres. We’re all pretty familiar with dragons and ogres from fairy tales, but what about wild men? Well, they are actually mythical man-like creatures who supposedly inhabited the woodlands. Their consumption of raw animal flesh, hairy, naked bodies, and lack of speech marked them out as totally alien to the civilized world.

    That side of the castle Sir Gawain surveyed
    As it shimmered and shone through the fine oaks.
    (771 - 772)

    The description of the castle Gawain sees certainly makes it sound appealing. But the fact that it shimmers and shines should clue us into the fact that it may be involved with magic somehow. That, and its location in the middle of a forest full of ogres, dragons, and wild men.

    "Bertilak of Hautdesert, I am called in this land.
    Through the power of Morgan le Fay, who lives under my roof,
    And her skill in learning, well-taught in magic arts,
    She has acquired many of Merlin’s occult powers -
    For she had love-dealings at an earlier time
    With that accomplished scholar, as all your knights know
            at home.
        Morgan the goddess
        Therefore is her name;
        No one, however haughty
        Or proud she cannot tame."
    (2445 - 2455)

    Here, Bertilak responds to Gawain’s question about his identity with a long description of Morgan le Fay, almost as if his own identity is swallowed up in hers. In a sense, it is, since Bertilak implies that he only holds power through her. Bertilak’s description of Morgan le Fay is somewhat ambivalent; although he calls her an "accomplished scholar," he also reminds Gawain of how she acquired her learning using sex, and implies that her aim is to "tame" people with her power.

    "She sent me in this shape to your splendid hall
    To make trial of your pride, and to judge the truth
    Of the great reputation attached to the Round Table.
    She sent me to drive you demented with this marvel,
    To have terrified Guenevere and caused her to die
    With horror at that figure who spoke like a spectre
    With his head in his hand before the high table."
    (2456 - 2462)

    If we’re on the fence about Morgan le Fay, this passage doesn’t necessarily do her any favors. For although testing the honor of the knights of the round table (and teaching them a valuable lesson) doesn’t necessarily seem so bad, Morgan also wanted to terrify Guinevere… to death. So, the portrait of the sorceress remains ambivalent, but we can’t help but feel that she’s abusing her power.

    That is she who is in my castle, the very old lady,
    Who is actually your aunt, Arthur’s half-sister,
    The duchess of Tintagel’s daughter, whom noble Uther
    Afterwards begot Arthur upon, who now is king.
    (2463 - 2466)

    The allusion to the legend of Arthur’s beginnings in this passage refers to the story of how Uther, in love with a beautiful married woman named Igraine, asked Merlin to change him into her husband for a night so he could sleep with her. On that night, the story goes, they conceived Arthur. Morgan seems to have taken a leaf out of Merlin’s book when it comes to her magic of choice, seeing as how she’s recently shape-shifted Bertilak into the Green Knight.