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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale that was written in the fourteenth century. It is an intriguing tale including romance, magic, action, and betrayal. The story opens with a Christmas celebration in which King Arthur refuses to eat until he hears a knightly tale or receives a challenge. The Green Knight enters the scene, and King Arthur receives his challenge. The challenge is a strike for a strike, and the prize is the Green Knight's axe. Sir Gawain is the noble knight who accepts the challenge, so at the same time the following year, he must find the Green Knight and keep his word. Throughout the tale, there are a number of mystical references that foreshadow the ending of the poem. The mystical aura of the Green Knight is the first hint of magic in the poem, but there are also other events suggesting that there is more to this tale than meets the eye.
After a year, Sir Gawain begins his quest for the Green Knight. It is not an easy task, and he runs into a number of obstacles on his way. As Christmas Day nears, Sir Gawain "fear[s] for his default" (Norton 750) and prays that he can just hear mass on Christmas day. Almost instantaneously, he stumbles upon "a castle as comely as a knight could own, on grounds fair and green" (767-768), where he is welcomed kindly. The reader is given the impression that this is a magical castle because of its description and the fact that it appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, everyone in the castle appears to know that Sir Gawain is a great Knight of the Round Table, and he is welcomed heartily. Through these insignificant details, the author arouses suspicions within the reader, subtly hinting that this is not a normal castle.
Sir Gawain's prayers are answered in the passage beginning at line 928. It is Christmas Eve, and the chaplains are ringing the church bells as the humble knight attends mass with the lord of the castle.
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From the moment she sees him, the lady of the castle cannot take her eyes off Sir Gawain, and she is so dazzling that Sir Gawain thinks her beauty even exceeds that of Queen Guenevere's. There is an obvious attraction between Sir Gawain and the lady of the castle from the moment they lay eyes on each other. The author hints at the possibility of romance flowering between them but does not say more. He moves on to describe the beauty of the lady compared with the ugliness of the hag by her side:
For if one was fresh, the other was faded:
Bedecked in bright red was the body of one;
Flesh hung in folds on the face of the other;
On one a high headdress, hung all with pearls;
Her bright throat and bosom fair to behold,
Fresh as the first snow fallen upon hills;
A wimple the other one wore round her throat;
Her swart chin well swaddled, swathed all in white;
Her forehead enfolded in flounces of silk
That framed a fair fillet, of fashion ornate,
And nothing bare beneath save the black brows,
The two eyes and the nose, the naked lips,
And they unsightly to see, and sorrily bleared.
A beldame, by God, she may well be deemed,
She was short and thick of waist
Her buttocks round and wide;
More toothsome, to his taste
Was the beauty of her side
The hag is described as an older woman, "--an ancient … held in high honor by all men about" (948-949). This is strange since it is not common for an old hag to be held in such high honor, so this subtly implies that there is more to her than meets the eye. In many Middle English poems, sorcerers are depicted as old ugly women whose magical powers are not revealed immediately. This could be the case here since the hag holds such high honor in the court, but once again the author only suggests; he does not confirm these suspicions until later on in the tale. The comparison of the two women foreshadows the relationship that will evolve between Sir Gawain and the lady, and the true identity of the old hag that is revealed at the end of the story.
When Sir Gawain finally approaches the ladies, he does so with the courtliest of manners; he bows in homage to the elder and lightly embraces the maiden. Here he exposes the courtly manners that he is renowned for possessing. The ladies take him between them, talk, and drink good wine. The lord of the castle is in good spirits. He "leaps about in [a] light-hearted mood . . . takes his hood from his head and hangs it on a spear" (981-983), not needing headgear since he is among friends. Although this playfulness may appear insignificant at first, it is actually a vital part of this section as it foreshadows the game that the lord will later suggest to Sir Gawain. The section ends after the Christmas Eve celebrations are complete and everyone retires to bed.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of romance, magic, action, and betrayal and all of this is foreshadowed in lines 928-994. The Green Knight himself is the first hint that this is a mystical tale. The castle, which appears out of nowhere, is an obvious place of enchantment in which everything will be magical. The description of the hag implies that she is a sorceress giving her a magical aura common in Middle English tales. The portrait of the beautiful lady hints at the possibility of romance between herself and Sir Gawain, and the betrayal of either Sir Gawain or her husband because of this forbidden love. Finally, the playfulness of the lord foreshadows the action that is to come at the end of the tale.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton Company,1993. 221-223.
The Middle English passage was taken from: gopher://dept.english.upenn.edu/00/Courses/Lynch3/gawain
Front Page 98. Computer Software. Microsoft, 1998. Windows 95, CD-ROM.