Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

Text Analysis: Passages 203-278

Summary

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place early in the career of King Arthur. Young and naive, Arthur presides over a court that has great wealth and few problems. The Green Knight is a mysterious and magical character who presents a challenge to the pride and wealth of Arthur's kingdom. However, this challenge is not to the battle-strength of Arthur's court, but to its values.

The Green Knight disrupts a Christmas celebration taking place in Camelot, and offers a contest: an exhange of ax-strokes. Gawain takes up the contest and chops off the head of the Green Knight who survives through magical means. Gawain sets forth to accept the return blow which is to take place a year and one day from the first. While Gawain is searching for the Green Knight's chapel, he is taken in by a great lord named Bercilak who puts Gawain's honesty and integrity to the test. In parrying Bercilak's wife's attempts at seduction with gentlemanly skill, Gawain passes this moral test. Finally, we discover that the lord is in fact the Green Knight himself. Instead of being killed at the Green Knight's hands, Gawain returns to Arthur's court with a green girdle: representative of Gawain's only failure. By accepting the girdle from Bercilak's wife and not surrendering it as the wager demanded, Gawain fails in his promise. With love for his own life as his only failure, Bercilak and Arthur find little fault with Gawain, and Gawain's reputation as the most virtuous of the Knights of the Round Table remains unblemished.

The following analysis is of a passage early in the story. The Green Knight has just made an impressive entrance into Arthur's court, and is ready to issue his challenge.
Passage Synopsis:

Passages 203-207:
The Green Knight is on his horse in Arthur’s court, and his appearance is being described. He is not wearing battle-gear, and has no armor or shield for defense. He is holding a holly bob which is a symbol of peace.

Passages 208-220:
He is carrying one weapon: a huge green ax. Many lines are used to describe this awesome looking ax. It’s wound with iron and lace, and tassels and buttons of bright green hang from it.

Passage 221-232:
The Green Knight rather rudely ignores all the guests and goes directly to look for Arthur, referring to him as "The captain of this crowd.

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" (225)

Passage 232-249:
The character of the Green Knight is so strange with his green outfit, green skin, and green horse that the entire court is in awe. They have no idea what to make of him and think he could be a phantom or faerie. They are so wonder-struck as to be "slipped into sleep, so slackened their speech" (Norton, 244). Everyone in the court waits for Arthur to speak first, some out of dread, but some also out of courtesy.

Passage 250-278:
Arthur, who doesn't appear to be afraid, greets the knight with courteous words as if nothing is amiss. The Green Knight hails Arthur with somewhat rude words—"the praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high" (Norton, 258)—and comments on the great renown of Arthur’s court. He assures Arthur that he has not come for battle, "by the branch that I bear in hand" (Norton, 265), and by the fact that he is not dressed in battle gear. He says he is there for a "game," i.e., some kind of contest. Arthur responds that if a "contest bare you crave, You shall not fail to fight" (Norton, 277-278), and calls him "Sir courteous knight" (Norton, 276). While sounding somewhat facetious, it is more likely that Arthur is following a code of formal speech. Here, Arthur is telling the Green Knight that his court will not back down and will respond to any challenge the knight wishes to offer.

Difficult Language
Line 203: "no helm, nor hauberk":
A hauberk is a medieval coat of armor, usually of chain mail.

Line 204: "nor appurtenance":
An appurtenance is apparatus or equipment, i.e., accessories. It refers to the fact that the Green Knight is wearing no battle-gear.

Line 210: "The head on its haft was an ell long":
An ell is a measurement equal to approximately an arm’s length. Another definition says it is a former English unit of measure equal to 45 inches.

Line 214: "Stout was the stave":
A stave is a stick or a staff, in this case, the staff of the Green Knight's ax.

Line 270: "And other weapons to wield, I ween well":
Ween means to "think, to suppose, to imagine." In this context, it means "I believe," as in: "I have other weapons to wield, I believe."

Important Symbols
The Green Knight is holding a holly bob. Holly, an evergreen, is a pagan symbol used by Christians to celebrate Christmas. An evergreen was brought into the house on the winter solstice as a sign that greenery, i.e. spring, will come again. In this context, the holly bob is used by the Green Knight as a symbol of his peaceful intentions.
That the story begins on Christmas and ends on New Year’s is also significant. As holy days, they are a symbol of the portentous nature of the actions that are taking place.
The Green Knight himself is a symbol. With every article of clothing, skin, and hair colored green, he is reminiscent of a fertility god, perhaps related to wall paintings of The Green Man still found today in English churches.

Citations

Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Gawain image. Online. Internet. April 1997. Available HTTP://calvin.stemnet.nf.ca/~djohnsto/arthur/gawain03.gif
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