Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight The Supernatural

By Anonymous

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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.

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