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A significant figure in the Arthurian mythos, Sir Gawain was famed amongst the Knights of the Round Table as a quick-tempered and lusty warrior whose martial prowess was only equalled by his sexual one. In the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, this reputation is given a thorough test...
This particular piece of poetry only has one extant manuscript, housed in the British Library and illustrated with scenes from the tale. It is a key part of the medieval development of Arthurian literature, as it details the background to the courtly existence at Camelot, and as such extends the range of the legend instead of merely rehashing a previous tale. It was written by an anonymous poet in a style peculiar to the Middle English of a Northern tradition, as it has been crafted with much emphasis on alliteration1. It is written in 'fits', and each verse has a 'bob-and-wheel' structure. This means that each stanza ends with one short line (the 'bob') and four slightly longer ones (the 'wheel').
A Festive Challenge
It is the New Year celebrations at the court of Camelot, and the revelry is in full swing when a bizarre figure bursts into the feasting hall. It is a huge green knight, whose hair, skin, armour, mount and massive axe are all green in hue. He challenges the stunned knights to a contest of courage. Overwhelmed by the sight, the knights are reluctant to act, so Arthur steps forward, disgusted by the lack of bravery shown by his men. Before he can meet the Green Knight's challenge, however, Gawain volunteers, saving his King's dignity.
The Green Knight outlines his challenge: Gawain must behead the Green Knight with the axe, and then be prepared to have the same done to him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day's time. Bemused, Gawain carries out the first part of the contest, parting green head from green shoulders with a hefty swing of the giant axe. However, the Knight stands up, headless, and retrieves his sundered head from the floor. Placing it under his arm, he laughs and says he will see Gawain in a year and a day for a reciprocal blow.
The time passes, until Gawain has to journey forth to the Green Chapel. Unwillingly, he dresses in his armour, bearing a red shield with a pentagram (or 'endeles knot') emblazoned in gold upon it, and mounts his horse Gringolet in readiness for his quest.
Gawain reluctantly leaves Camelot and journeys for weeks upon end, travelling the length and breadth of the country searching for the Green Chapel. He fights wolves, trolls, beasts and the English weather, before coming to the distant Castle Hautdesert. In need of a rest, he enters and is greeted by the Lord of the castle, Bercilak, his beautiful young wife and a fearsome matronly companion of hers.
The Christmas festivities are in full swing, and Bercilak insists that Gawain must stay and recuperate before going to the Green Chapel, the location of which Bercilak promises to divulge. Whilst Gawain recovers from his arduous journey, Bercilak goes hunting with his men, leaving his wife to look after Gawain.
The Hunts and Seductions
These hunts are organised over three days, and Bercilak organises a kind of wager with Gawain, that they must exchange anything they manage to catch either on the hunt or in the castle. Gawain agrees. On the first day of hunting, Bercilak leaves with his men. His wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he doesn't do anything more than kiss her. Upon Bercilak's return, he presents Gawain with a magnificent deer, and the knight kisses his host in return.
On the second day of hunting, Bercilak leaves as before. Once again, his wife tries to seduce Gawain, only much more overtly than her previous attempt. However, the steadfast knight again takes nothing more than two kisses, despite the lady's jibes about his lack of prowess. When the Lord of the castle returns, he gives Gawain a huge boar. Once again, Gawain presents Bercilak with the kisses gained from his wife.
Finally, the third day of hunting begins with Bercilak and his men leaving the castle. Gawain is approached by the Lady of the castle for a final time, but when he rejects her advances this time, she gives him a token along with three kisses. This token is a green girdle or belt that ostensibly has the power to protect its wearer from any injury. Bearing in mind his upcoming confrontation with the Green Knight, Gawain gratefully accepts this present.
When Bercilak returns, he has only managed to catch a fox. Still, he presents it to Gawain, who conceals his new girdle and only gives Bercilak the three kisses.
The Green Chapel
Gawain rides out on the allotted day to the Green Chapel, clad in his armour but wearing Bercilak's wife's belt under his tunic. He arrives at the snow-covered heath where the Chapel stands, and is greeted by the sight of the Green Knight waiting for him, axe in hand. Gawain accepts his fate and kneels before the Knight, awaiting the stroke of the axe. Twice the Green Knight swings and misses Gawain's outstretched neck, but on the third occasion gives him a glancing blow. The nick bleeds into the snow, and the Green Knight explains why this is so.
The Green Knight explains that he is actually Bercilak, trapped in an evil spell cast by Morgan le Fay, who was the crone that accompanied his wife, in order to test the courage of Arthur's court. The wife's seductions were planned, and the first two blows represented the two failed attempts and Gawain's honesty with his host. The third glancing blow was due to Gawain's betrayal of his host's trust, in keeping the girdle a secret and thus putting his faith in a secular, sexual item instead of having true faith in himself and God. Bercilak's affliction is lifted by Gawain's bravery in facing the Green Knight, but the warrior from Camelot leaves Hautdesert a chastened man. The fundamental tenets of his beliefs and faith have been cruelly exposed, and the Pride of Arthur's Court revealed as hubris...
Interesting Motifs and Concerns
Number Symbolism and the Pentagram
For hit is a figure þat haldez fyue poyntez,
And vche lyne vmbelappez and loukez in oþer,
And ayquere hit is endelez; and Englych hit callen
Oueral, as I here, þe endeles knot.
Trans: For it is a figure that has five points,
And each line overlaps and locks into another,
And as such it is endless; and in English it is called
Overall, as I do here, the endless knot.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has many instances of symmetrical usage of significant numbers, such as the three hunts and the three seductions, but it is the pentagram motif on Gawain's shield which is the most interesting usage of numbers in the poem.
The pentangle, far from being a representation of Wiccan symbolism in this instance, represents how Gawain is strengthened by five five-fold virtues. He has five clear senses, has never failed in the usage of his five fingers, his faith built upon the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, amplified by the 'five joys' which represent the significant events in the life of Jesus (The Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption) and he demonstrates the five cardinal tenets of chivalry - truthfulness, fellowship, purity, courtesy and compassion.
The 'endless knot' also contrasts with the girdle, which is the emblem of Gawain's hubristic false faith, and is something that most definitely has 'ends'. It is also embroidered with lace and gold, and as such is 'unmanly' and represents cowardice.
Reality versus Fantasy
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is ostensibly set in the actual contemporary world of Medieval Britain, as Gawain's travels take him to the furthest corners of the land. The mundane world is presented in a very factual and unglamorous way - the weather on his journeys is atrocious, and the knights are too interested in their own well-being to meet the Knight's challenge, for instance. Gawain's garbing scene describes his and his steed's armour in more intimate and matter-of-fact detail than any other contemporary descriptions as well, which demonstrates the familiarity of the author with such concerns and his obvious enjoyment of the sheer descriptiveness of the verse.
However, introduced into this realm of the commonplace is a vein of fantasy typical of Arthurian myth. Gawain battles trolls and assorted beasts on his quest, and the whole conceit of the seemingly invulnerable Green Knight and Morgan le Fay's enchantments provides a suitably mysterious plot for the hapless Gawain to become ensnared by.
As with almost every depiction of Arthurian legend in literature, the action is firmly rooted in the contemporary world, as represented by the British landscape, but is given a timeless and mythic 'otherworldliness' by the introduction of magic and fantasy. The Arthurian world is at once both readily identifiable for the common man, yet utterly remote and esoteric.