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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The poet begins his work by reminding us that the history of Britain is both ancient and glorious; Aeneas, whose deeds in the Trojan War are legendary, whose exploits in war are recorded in Virgil's Aeneid, and who is legendary for having founded the city of Rome after the Trojan War, was the ancestor of a man named Felix Brutus who founded Britain ("Britain" comes from "Brutus"). The most noble of the kings that followed Brutus was Arthur; the poet says that he intends to tell one of the wondrous tales of Arthur.
One Christmas at Camelot, the king, his queen Guinevere, and the court gather for fifteen days of celebration. The best and noblest of people and activities are there: brave and famous men who compete in military games, beautiful and gracious ladies who play kissing games with the men. There is the most wonderful entertainment-dancing, feasting, singing. On New Year's Day, there is a tremendous feast at which all gather together.
Arthur, young and impulsive, has a feast-day tradition, though, which has to be observed before the meal. He would not eat on such an occasion until he observed something marvelous: the telling of an amazing story, the fighting of a glorious battle, or the like. Arthur presides over the feast at the high table with Guinevere and Gawain and other famous knights as music plays and the food is brought in-so many delicacies and elaborate dishes that the poet says it would be impossible to describe them all. In the midst of the preparations for the feast, and as Arthur waits for a marvel to take place so that he can eat, a huge and terrible man bursts into the hall-a giant of a man, his chest and limbs are massive even while his proportions show him to be fit and attractive. The most shocking thing about him is that he was completely green.
The poet spends most of the next three stanzas describing the Green Knight in detail; first, we learn of his clothing, trimmed in fur and embroidery, all green and gold. Then we learn that the horse he rides, the saddle, and the stirrups are all green. The man's long hair matches that of the horse, and he has a great, thick beard, also green.
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Fitt 1 part 1 Commentary
This poem begins with the common trope of tracing the lineage of the rulers of Britain all the way back to the only other magnificent civilization known to the West, the Roman Empire. By tracing back the royal family tree to Aeneas, a soldier who escaped from the fallen city of Troy and who founded Rome, the poet is making the claim that the English rulers have just as good a pedigree, and lead a civilization just as important, as those associated with glorious Rome.
The function of the high table is worth noting. The high table was a feasting table that was raised on a platform so that all who were eating below it could see those seated up higher, and those sitting on the platform could see all those down below. The purpose was clearly to elevate the most prestigious of the feasters so that they could see and be seen. The arrangement of guests is also useful to notice; the guests seated most closely to the king and queen were those who were esteemed most highly. Because Gawain sits at this table near the queen, we know that (no matter what modest things he says later) he is an important member of this court.
Exposition and description are among the chief beauties of this text. Don't rush through the descriptions of the ornate clothing, furnishings, food, and courteous manners-these are all centerpieces for the story. Imagine what it must be to live in medieval culture in the midst of plagues, wars, and famine, and then you can begin to understand the appeal of stories whose overarching tone is of peace, subtle thought, and courteous interactions between civilized people. Note too that in a poem such as this, superlatives are common. The poet insists on the superiority of all the material items he describes-food, clothing, serving ware, goblets, and the like. He intends to stress that this was the height of British perfection, and therefore all the physical objects in that time must have been perfect too.