Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Awe and Amazement
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Awe and Amazement
- Part 1, Lines 1 - 36
And far over the French sea Felix Brutus
On many broad hillsides settles Britain
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.
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