Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Time

By Anonymous

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Part 1, Lines 1 - 36

And when Britain had been founded by this noble lord,
Valiant men bred there, who thrived on battle.
In many an age bygone, they brought about trouble.
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.
(20 - 26)

This passage sets Arthur (and the story) in the "age bygone" in which more wondrous events have occurred than in any other. This "bygone age" is a little like "once upon a time" - we know to expect a universe similar to ours, but one in which anything - like fairies, ogres, and giant green men - is possible.

When the siege and the assault were ended at Troy,
The city laid waste and burnt into ashes […]
(1 - 2)

The narrator of Sir Gawain begins his story after the fall of Troy - approximately 2000 years before the action begins. Why might he do this? Well, in order to get to Arthur, he has to go through a "history lite" version of the founding of Britain and the kings leading up to Arthur, which allows him to locate Arthur as part of a prestigious and long-lasting tradition of bravery, making him (and the stories surrounding him, like the narrator’s) seem very important, since they form a part of this tradition.

Part 1, Lines 37 - 249

For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days
With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised:
Such sounds of revelry splendid to hear,
Days full of uproar, dancing at night.
(44 - 47)

Sir Gawain opens during the Christmas season at Arthur’s court, which, in the traditional church calendar, lasted a full fifteen days. During that time, the court gathers for the length of the whole celebration.

When New Year’s was so fresh that it had hardly begun,
Double helpings of food were served on the dais that day.
(60 - 61)

Now the narrative becomes more specific about when we are - New Year’s day. This day will be important to the rest of the story, since it’s the day on which Gawain will need to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.

Part 1, Lines 250 - 490

And I shall stand his blow unflinching on this floor,
Provided you assign me the right to deal such a one
        in return.
    And yet grant him respite
    A twelvemonth and a day.
(294 - 295)

"A twelvemonth and a day" is a very traditional period of waiting in fairy tales and romances. In this particular case it’s an effective strategy to make the knight in question wait this long to receive his return blow. What could be a better test of honesty than forcing a knight to meet you (on his honor) in a year and a day, after he’s had all that time to think about what’s coming (and to consider backing out)?

Part 2, Lines 491 - 690
Sir Gawain

Yet until All Saints’ Day he lingers in court,
[.  .  .]
And after the feast, sorrowfully he addressed his uncle,
Raised the matter of his quest, and openly said,
"Liege lord of my being, I must ask for your leave;
You know the terms of this matter, and I have no wish
To bother you with them, saving one small point;
But tomorrow without fail I set out for the blow,
To seek this man in green, as God will direct me."
(536, 543 - 549)

By setting out right after All Saints’ Day (on Nov. 2), Gawain gives himself a full two months to reach the Green Chapel. This seems like lots of time, but keep in mind that Gawain doesn’t know where he’s going.  He has to go on horseback, a much slower method than by car, plane, or train.

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.
And flowers bud and blossom
In hedgerows rich with growth,
And many splendid songs
From woodlands echo forth.
(504 - 515)

The poem’s description of the summer contains a lot of personification - in other words, it attributes human actions to non-human things. The weather does "battle" with winter, like a soldier, and "open fields and woodlands" dress themselves in green like someone preparing for a ball. The emphasis here is on the new life that the rain unleashes. The imagery engages four of the five senses: touch with "warm showers," hearing with its references to birdsong, smell with the suggestion of blossoming flowers and sight with the image as a whole.

And winter comes round again, as custom requires,
        in truth;
    Until the Michaelmas moon
    Brought hint of winter’s frost;
    And into Gawain’s mind
    Come thoughts of his grim quest.
(530 - 535)

The turning of the season from fall to winter is what causes Gawain to remember this quest.  In this way, his life is made to seem bound up with that of the natural world.  The seasons dictate what he must do, like they do for flowers, birds, or harvest plants

For though men are light-hearted when they have strong drink,
A year passes swiftly, never bringing the same;
Beginning and ending seldom take the same form.
(497 - 499)

This passage is basically a reverse of the maxim "time heals all wounds." The point is that, in time, people’s moods can change. In this case, people who were merry and celebrating at the end of one year will be somber when the next one rolls around, for then, Gawain will embark on his death-march.

And so that Yule went by, and the year ensuing,
Each season in turn following the other.
After Christmas came mean-spirited Lent,
That tries the body with fish and plainer nourishment.
(498 - 501)

These lines and the ones that follow describe the seasons mostly in terms of what happens in the natural world. The season of Lent, however, is characterized by the deprivation it forces men to endure - the fasting and abstention brought on by the Church’s Lenten fasting.

Then comes the summer season with gentle winds,
When Zephirus blows sofly on seeding grasses and plants,
Beautiful is the growth that springs from the seed,
When the moistening dew drips from the leaves
To await a joyful gleam of the bright sun.
(516 - 520)

Like Spring’s, Summer’s description focuses on new growth.  In this case, though, the growth probably refers to that of food crops, in anticipation of the autumn harvest. Here, the wind is the power behind the transformation rather than the rain.

This wonder had Arthur as his first New Year’s gift
When the year was newborn.
(491 - 492)

Characterizing the Green Knight’s challenge as a gift for the day "when the year was newborn" means that it kind of sets the tone for the year to follow. And sure thing, we read the next section with anticipation of Gawain’s impending challenge very much on our minds.

But then autumn comes quickly and urges it on,
Warns it to ripen before winter’s approach.
Dry winds of autumn force the dust to fly
From the face of the earth high into the air;
Fierce winds of heaven wrestle with the sun,
Leaves are torn from the trees and fall to the ground,
And all withered is the grass that was green before.
Then all ripens and rots that had sprung up first,
And in so many yesterdays the year wears away.
(521 - 529)

Here again, wind is the precipitating factor for the defining events of autumn: it causes dust storms and falling leaves. Here, however, the focus is not on new growth but upon decay: "all ripens and rots that had sprung up first." This idea echoes the one with which the passage began, of time bringing change in its wake.

Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

Great joy filled that day and the one following,
And a third as delightful came pressing after;
The revelry on St John’s Day was glorious to hear,
And was the end of the festivities, the people supposed,
The guests were to leave early the next morning.
(1020 - 1024)

Many things come in threes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, there are three days of feasting, followed by three days in which Gawain rests in the castle while lord Bertilak hunts. Gawain also gives and receives three blows on the third day of his rest, and finally, receives three blows from the Green Knight on New Year’s Day.

Where dinner was finished and Gawain had risen,
The time had drawn almost to night:
Chaplains made their way to the castle chapels,
Rang their bells loudly, just as they should,
For devout evensong on that holy occasion.
(928 - 932)

Gawain has reached Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve. Another calendar that structures the tale, in addition to the cycles of the seasons and the Church’s feast calendar, is the cycle of sunrise and sunset and the different calls to prayer – matins, prime, nonce, evensong, etc – followed by the monastic orders.

Part 2, Lines 1046 - 1125
Sir Gawain

Then the lord politely enquired of the knight
What pressing need had forced him at that festive time
So urgently from the royal court to travel all alone,
Before the holy days there had completely passed.
[.  .  .]
"I have now for my business only three short days,
And would rather be struck dead than fail in my quest."
(1046 - 1049, 1066 - 1067)

Lord Bertilak seems to find it strange that Gawain has traveled away from Arthur’s court alone on the holidays, so entrenched is the custom of celebrating that feast at the court of one’s liege lord. But Gawain feels an increasing sense of urgency as New Year’s Day draws nearer.

Part 3, Lines 1412 - 1560

By the time cock-crow had sounded three times
The lord had leapt out of his bed and each of his men,
So that breakfast and mass were duly done,
And long before daybreak they were all on their way
        to the chase.
(1412 - 1416)

The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain are bookended by a reference to the time they begin and end. The lord and his men rise and are on the path before dawn, a necessity when the winter days are so short. They are usually on their way home before sunset, although the foxhunt that follows this boar hunt is so long and difficult that they don’t start home until it’s almost dark.

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