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"Hevys hys handys one heghte, and to the hevene lokes:
'Qwhythene hade Dryghttyne destaynede at his dere wille
That he hade demyd me todaye to dy for yow alle.'" p. 264
Awholly determined and brave commitment, mouthed by a gracious king. The Gawain poet, however approaches Arthur much differently in his tale. In stanza five, he describes the hot-blooded nature of the king, who makes rash demands as a rule before eating. Stanza twelve shows us a king who is overwhelmed in speech by the Green Knight, and who seems to have ignored the challenger's statement of peace completely. Finally, the court is utterly ridiculed, to a point at which Arthur accepts the challenge rashly in stanza fifteen, akin to a child taking a swing at another after so much urging. The usual grace and courtesy with which King Arthur is usually endowed is clearly subverted by these stanzas in Gawain and the Green Knight, seemingly to no purpose other than comedy. Here we shall discuss the elements of the three stanzas described above, with their uncharacterisitic treatment of Arthur, and take a deeper look into their purpose within the poem.
Stanza five elaborates on Arthur's desire to hear a marvelous tale before he joins in the feast. He appears to stand - "He stightles stif in stalle;" (104) he is not seated at the head of the feasting table, next to Guinevere as he should be. Instead, he is ready to listen to a tale "Of alderes, of armes, of other aventurus;" (95) or joust with a challenging knight - with the risk of losing his life. The wish of the king for deadly sport seems inappropriate in the Christmas setting of the poem, possibly even irreverent in light of the religious aspects of the holiday. Though the king's demands are childish or "child-gered" (86), he sets the scene for the appearance of the Green Knight, which effectively fulfills the request as Arthur "that aventure byholdes" (250) in stanza twelve.
The impression of Arthur delivered by the poet is not a dauntless, seasoned leader, but an impatient, belligerent boy. We already know of his strange pre-dining antics, and we are also told that, "His lif liked hym lyght, he lovied the lasse | Auther too longe lye or too longe sitte," (87-88). He is too restless to stay lying or sitting for long, and thus he stands at the the end of the stanza.
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Arthur's reaction to the slanderous words of the Green Knight is comparable to a fish taking bait; Arthur's image encompasses virtue, courtesy, and knightly honor, yet he can be tempted into foolish games with a few taunting words. Perhaps a step back from the verse itself is in order here, for a parallel situation is being illustrated silently by the author of the poem. The entire kingdom is doomed by its own pride, this Christmas game being a metaphor for its downfall. The famous king who upholds the chivalric ideals is taunted by the Green Knight, representative of the evils of overconfidence, gives in to embarassment and its resulting anger. The story goes on, nevertheless, as Gawain steps in to take the fall instead.
Arthur's uncharacteristic rage in stanza fifteen demonstrates his failure to live up to the "kydde cortaysye" (263) spoken of in stanza twelve. He has attempted thus far to remain dignified in his reception of the brutish Green Knight, but his pride has been so insulted that he must take action to defend the court's reputation. In previous stanzas, Arthur's movements have been described only minimally, whereas now we are exposed to the detail of motion more consistent with the Green Knight; Arthur leaps toward the Knight, grabs the axe and grips it harshly, sternly thinking to strike with it. In defying the challenger, Arthur seems to have stooped to the giant's level of speech, swearing "by heven" (323), "by Godes halve" (326), throwing out insults, "thou foly has frayst," (324) and boasts of "I schal baythen thy bone" (327). He then leaps forward and takes up the axe, the Green Knight "feersly" lighting upon foot (not alighting graciously, as Arthur asked). Larry Benson describes the effect perfectly:
"The courteous Arthur, who was never before "rad,"
has given way to "la fretta | que l'onestade ad ogni
atto dismagha" [the rashness | which deprives every
act of its dignity. Purgatio, III, 10-11]." (p. 305)
Gawain's interruption of Arthur at this point saves the king the indignity of his intended act, and the king's readiness to be relieved emphasizes the wrongness of the situation. This scene, however, parallels the beheading at the end of the story, where Gawain will have no one standing by to save him from abandonment of courtesy.
Arthur's harsh reaction to the Green Knight is demonstrated by more attention to his physical motions and his angered speech. The Green Knight at the moment of Arthur's rage becomes calm, subdued, and voiceless...as if the two personalities had crossed. The concept of the Green Knight being the complementary part of Gawain, presented in class, seems to be paralleled in this stanza, but in a different manner than Gawain's pairing. Arthur becomes Gawain's complement instead of the Green Knight at this moment, a situation which Gawain rejects by intercepting the game.
Each of the three stanzas plucked from the story of Gawain and the Green Knight contain elements that seem unfit for an Arthurian tale. Stanza five gives readers an impressive of an unsatisfied young boy, who makes ridiculous rules for himself regarding dining, and who has an over-abundance of physical energy. Arthur's request to hear of a marvel before eating, however, foreshadows the magnitude of the event about to occur shortly, the arrival of the Green Knight. Because of Arthur's dislike to "Auther too longe lye or too longe sitte," (88) he avoids being directly assaulted by the Green Knight's challenge before the court has a chance to take him in. As the Green Knight delivers his speech, "And here is kydde cortaysye, as I haf herd carp," (263) the poor reaction of the courtiers confirms that the court's fame is based more on words than deeds. The rude manners of the challenger become reflected in Arthur's reception of him, and tension rises over the validity of the court's reputation. With no one to speak for him, Arthur is forced to take up the action himself in stanza fifteen, now quite enraged by the insults of the Green Knight. None of these stanzas could be omitted from the poem without great loss - stanza twelve describes the theme that will reoccur through the entire work: can Arthur's court fulfill its reputation of bravery and courtesy? In general, Arthur's character seems to be shown here as more human than legendary, his emotions in reactions to certain situations being what many would consider normal. To interpret the strange representation of Arthur as comic, we must also see the ending parallel of Arthur as comic as well, thus lifting the seriousness of Gawain's failure, though not altogether forgetting it.
Larry D. Benson, The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight printed in Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 304.