Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Rules and Order

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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."

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