Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Man and the Natural World

By Anonymous

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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.

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