The passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from line 203 to line 278, sets the stage for the rest of the poem by introducing the Green Knight's challenge to King Arthur. The haughty and reckless Green Knight rides into Arthur's court, demands the attention of the knights and issues a challenge to exchange blows with his axe. The Green Knight's axe is a symbol of the judgment that is to come to men at the end of their time in this world. The confidence possessed by the Green Knight in riding thus into Arthur's court, is later shown to be due to the enchantment put on him by Morgan Le Faye. The Green Knight's confidence and his challenges to the court create a caricature of the bravery of knighthood and excessive pride is indeed the excess that this cautionary tale warns against. Sir Gawain meets the challenge but his actions show that even the bravest knight must not be too proud or sure of himself.
The Green Knight's Challenge!
The scene begins with the continuing description of the Green Knight as one who had come with "no helm, nor hauberk neither." The Green Knight has no helmet or armor. In his hands are a holly branch and an enormous green axe. The axe is described as having a head an ell in length. An ell is equivalent to forty-five inches. This is no ordinary axe. He claims that the branch shows he comes in peace but the axe belies his deadly mission. Although his green color may symbolize rebirth and the coming of spring, surely the axe is reminiscent of the executioner and the coming day of judgment.
The Green Knight rides directly up to the dais and demands the audience of the "captain of this crowd." At this point, no one has addressed him or tried to stop him. Surely go...
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...th. That judgment can come upon you in your finest hour, in the midst of a party. Sir Gawain ultimately learns the lesson that men must be mindful of their pride. Although he almost completely resists the temptations set before him by the Green Knight, he does falter slightly, although only for fear of his own life. He thus realizes that the flesh is weak, even in the most noble of men. He takes on the belt that saves his life as a symbol to remind himself of his own weakness. He becomes wiser for having faced death because he realizes that symbols, like the green belt he wears, like the cross of Christ, can be powerful reminders of lessons and ideas forgotten in the rush of daily life and human vanity.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Sixth Edition. Vol. 1. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton 1993 202-254
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