Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Appearances

By Anonymous

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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.

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