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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

- Identity of the poet is unknown / The Pearl-Poet/ The Gawain-poet

- He was probably a member of a court (familiar with court life, costumes, and entertainment)
- Composed some time between 1375-1400 in a Middle English dialect (Northwest Middlands)
- In a manuscript with three other poems: Pearl, Patience, and Purity (religious poems)
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance
- It is told in four parts, the poem weaves together at least three separate narrative strings
- The first plot, the beheading game - may derive from Celtic pagan myths/ related to the agricultural cycles of
planting and harvesting crops
- The second and third plots - the exchange of winnings and the hero’s temptations; both of these plots derive from
medieval romances and include testing the hero’s honesty, loyalty and chastity

-Important in literature because it represents three significant poetic genres:

 Arthurian romance poetry/courtly love poetry

 Medieval alliterative poetry (alliterative revival)
 Epic poetry

Arthurian romance

- the legendary King Arthur

- chivalric tradition = code of behavior - expected of knights/noblemen (from the French word cheval or “horse”)
- Chivalry derives from the Christian concept of morality
Proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals:
- Respect the king. Do nothing to bring him dishonor.
- Respect women. Do nothing to bring dishonor to any woman.
- Protect the poor and the weak.
- Honor God as a faithful Christian.


- stanzas
- brilliant alliterative verse
- a varying number of alliterative lines terminated by a "bob & wheel," = five short rhyming lines (ababa)

a word or phrase (two syllables) + a quatrain

- provides commentaries on what has happened,

- create suspense and
- serve as a transition to the next scene or idea


He was a fine fellow fitted in green --

And the hair on his head and his horse's matched.
No such horse on hoof had been seen in that hall,
nor horseman half so strange as their eyes now held
in sight. A
He looked a lightning flash, B
they say: he seemed so bright; A
and who would dare to clash B
in melee with such might? A

Epic poem

Characteristics of the Epic Hero:

1. He is a model of faith, loyalty, or bravery…
2. who makes a long, difficult journey… = quest
3. to do battle on behalf of another…
4. against an enemy who may have or be guarded by supernatural powers
Plot Overview
- During a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, a strange figure, the Green Knight, pays the court an
unexpected visit. ..
- Time passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain prepares to leave Camelot and find the Green
- For sport, the host strikes a deal with Gawain….
- New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain dons his armor, including the girdle, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the
Green Knight…
- He returns to Arthur’s court …

Character List

Sir Gawain
- He is a chivalric hero who is marked by absolute courtliness

- He is always courageous, honorable (he keeps his word), devout, loyal, and gracious toward all men and
(especially) women

- He prides himself on being a perfect Christian knight

- However he finds out that he is not perfect - he loves his own life so much that he will lie in order to protect himself
- At the end he is penitent and changed – he realizes that he will never live up to his own high standards

The Green Knight

- A mysterious, supernatural being; symbolizes the natural world, wilderness and fertility (killed and reborn)
- He is not evil, but is also not Christian
- He derives from Britain’s pagan past (Celtic mythology)
At the poem’s end - Bertilak, Gawain’s host, and one of Morgan le Faye’s minions
Clues in the text which connect the host with the Green Knight:
- both of them value the power of verbal contracts
- each makes a agreement with Gawain, and the two agreements overlap at the end of the poem

Bertilak’s wife:
- a beautiful young woman, an amazingly clever debater and an astute reader of Gawain’s responses
- flirtatious and intelligent
- she ultimately turns out to be another pawn in Morgan le Faye’s plot

Morgan le Faye - a powerful sorceress, trained by Merlin, as well as the half sister of King Arthur

Theme: Chivalry
- Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem examines more than Gawain’s
personal virtues
- it asks whether heavenly virtue, i.e. the chivalric system itself can operate in a fallen world
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth
- The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned
- Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals towards which everyone should strive

Symbols: Gawain’s Shield

In the poem, Gawain’s shield is very clearly described as a golden pentangle on a field of red.

The pentangle represents Gawain’s Five Fifths
Gawain’s well-known practice of the “five social graces”:
- generosity
- brotherly love (friendship)
cleanness (chastity)
- pure manners (courtesy)
- piety
Gawain faced 5 challenges
1. voluntarily confronted the Green Knight
2. stroke his blow properly
3. kept his vow to meet the Green Knight in a year and a day
4. survived the journey to the green chapel
5. resisted the lady’s temptations

More on Gawain’s fifth challenge

Gawain fails the FIFTH TEST
- His acceptance of the girdle is not a fault;
-Hiding it is his fault.
- The reality of his own mortality induces him to break the endless knot
- His nature as a man is asserting itself against his nature as a knight

Symbol: The Green Girdle

- The meaning of the host’s wife’s girdle changes over the course of the narrative
- It is made out of green silk and embroidered with gold thread, colors that link it to the Green Knight
- She claims it possesses the power to keep its wearer from harm, but we find out in Part 4 that the girdle has no
magical properties
- For Gawain the girdle represents his cowardice and excessive love of mortal life
- He wears it from then on as a badge of his sinfulness
- To show their support, Arthur and his followers wear green silk baldrics that look just like Gawain’s girdle
- The girdle shows that all mortals are imperfect.