The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
On Christmas Eve, many knights and fair ladies gather in King Arthur’s banquet hall, there to feast and enjoy the holiday festivities. Suddenly a stranger enters the room. He is a giant, clad all in green armor, and with a green face, hair, and beard. He advances, gives his greetings, and then loudly issues his challenge. Is there a knight in the group who would dare to trade blows with the mighty Green Knight? He who accepts is to strike one blow with a battle-ax immediately. Then on New Year’s morning, a year hence, the Green Knight is to repay the blow, at his own castle in a distant land. Arrogantly, the Green Knight waits for an answer. From King Arthur’s ranks answers the voice of Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge.
King Arthur and the other knights watch approvingly as Sir Gawain advances, ax in hand, to confront the Green Knight. The stranger kneels down, bares his neck, and waits for the blow. Sir Gawain strikes, sure and true, and the head of the Green Knight is severed from his body. While all gape in amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head in his hands, leaps upon his charger, and rides toward the gate. As he rides, the lips of the head shout defiance at Sir Gawain, reminding him of their forthcoming meeting at the Green Chapel on the coming New Year.
The months pass quickly. Noble deeds are legion at the Round Table, and an atmosphere of gaiety pervades King Arthur’s castle. Then, when autumn comes, Sir Gawain...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Camelot. Site of King Arthur’s court. As the poem begins, attractive young lords and ladies celebrate the Christmas season at Camelot. Dressed in their best, the courtiers frolic in a charming atmosphere. Laughter and mirth prevail while a lovely Guenevere and a boyish Arthur sit on an attractive raised platform. The poem hints that the court, despite its superficial attractiveness, may be naïve and untried.
*Wirral (weh-REL). Forest in Cheshire, England, that Gawain enters from northern Wales during his quest through the wilderness. The weather is cold, and the woods are dark and full of wild men, giants, and monsters. The Wirral may symbolize the forces of nature as opposed to the civilized atmosphere of Camelot and Bercilak’s castle. The geographical closeness of castles and the forests surrounding them suggests that civilization is fragile and that the primitive forces of the forests are always ready to destroy what human beings have built.
Bercilak’s castle (BUR-ceh-lack). Castle of Sir Bercilak de Hautdesert, the good-humored knight who is Gawain’s host and who is disguised as the Green Knight by the arts of Morgan le Fay. Like Arthur’s court, Bercilak’s castle is a pleasant place. From a distance, its white silhouette looks as if it were cut from paper. The castle and its moat are set on a hill, near the Green Chapel. Gawain’s...
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The study of modern literature consists largely in the collection and interpretation of information about the authors. It is almost impossible, for example, to appreciate Byron without thinking of the author and his mystique. We do not, however, even know who the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (known as “the Gawain poet”) was.
We may view this as a restriction, but, in fact, it does not have to hinder our appreciation very much. We also know nothing substantial of Homer or Dante yet that does not prevent us from numbering them among the finest poets in history. Looked at from one perspective, our comparative ignorance of them and the Gawain poet could even be an advantage. It means there is more room for the imagination.
We should certainly take advantage of the knowledge that is available. Many people find they can enjoy Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with little or no knowledge of the author’s times. A more sophisticated appreciation, however, will require some understanding of the historical context. Above all, this will help us to respond to the poem not merely as a delightful fantasy but as part of a great tradition.
Only a single copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been preserved from the Middle Ages. The manuscript also contains three other poems, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. They are written in the dialect of the northwest Midlands, the area of England known today as Lancaster...
(The entire section is 2412 words.)
Part One, Verses 1-10, Lines 1-231 Questions and Answers
1. Who according to tradition, founded the dynasty of Arthur?
2. Where was the court of Arthur?
3. At what time of year does the story begin?
4. Why is Arthur not yet seated?
5. Next to whom is Gawain seated?
6. Next to whom, apart from Guinevere, is the seat of Arthur?
7. How tall is the Green Knight?
8. Is the Green Knight equipped to do battle?
9. What has the Green Knight in his hands?
10. For whom does the Green Knight call?
1. According to tradition, the dynasty of Arthur was founded by Felix Brutus, great grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas.
2. The court of Arthur was at Camelot.
3. The story begins at Christmas Eve.
4. Arthur has sworn not to eat until he has either heard a marvel or a challenge has been issued.
5. Gawain is seated beside Guinevere and by his brother Agravain.
6. Arthur is seated between Guinevere and Bishop Baldwin.
7. The Green Knight is almost a giant, far taller than any of Arthur’s knights.
8. No, the Green Knight is not wearing armor.
9. In one hand the Green Knight holds a branch of holly, in the other a battle-ax.
10. The Green Knight calls for whomever is presiding at the gathering.
(The entire section is 198 words.)
Part One, Verses 11-21, Lines 232-490 Questions and Answers
1. What is Arthur’s initial offer to the Green Knight?
2. Is the Green Knight wearing armor? Is he carrying a weapon?
3. How does the Green Knight taunt the Knights of the Round Table?
4. According to the bargain proposed by the Green Knight, what may an adversary who accepts his challenge do to him?
5. What must the adversary later do to complete the bargain?
6. What is the initial response of the knights of the Round Table to the challenge of the Green Knight.
7. Who first accepts the challenge?
8. Who finally beheads the Green Knight?
9. What does the Green Knight do on being beheaded?
10. By what name does the Green Knight say he is commonly known?
1. Arthur offers the Green Knight hospitality, and says the stranger may give his reason for coming at the appropriate time.
2. No, the Green Knight is not wearing armor and carries no weapon but the ax.
3. The Green Knight calls the knights of the Round Table “boys,” and states that they are too young to match him in combat.
4. An adversary may behead the Green Knight.
5. The adversary must then find the Green Knight and allow himself to be beheaded.
6. The knights of the Round Table initially sit in silence on hearing the challenge.
7. King Arthur initially accepts the...
(The entire section is 255 words.)
Part Two, Verses 22-34, Lines 491-810 Questions and Answers
1. When does Gawain leave Camelot to seek the Green Knight?
2. How do the lords and ladies respond to Gawain’s departure?
3. What is the last thing Gawain does before his departure?
4. What does Gawain have painted on the outside of his shield?
5. What is the design of a pentangle?
6. What does Gawain have on the inside of his shield?
7. What are the five virtues connected with the five points of the pentangle?
8. Is the journey of Gawain difficult?
9. What does Gawain do when he comes to the deep woods?
10. Who first greets Gawain when he comes to Haudesert castle?
1. He leaves on All Souls’ Day.
2. They grieve for him, since he may not return.
3. The last thing Gawain does before his departure is to hear Mass.
4. Gawain has a pentangle painted on the outside of his shield.
5. A pentangle is a five-pointed star, drawn in a single line without a beginning or end.
6. Gawain has a picture of the Virgin Mary etched on the inside of his shield.
7. The five virtues are generosity, kindness, continence, courtesy and piety.
8. Yes, the journey is extremely difficult. Gawain has to contend with adversaries such as dragons and wild men, as well as with loneliness and cold.
9. When he comes to the deep woods,...
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Part Two, Verses 35-45, Lines 811-1125 Questions and Answers
1. Where do the courtiers take Gawain on his arrival at Hautdesert Castle?
2. What color is the beard of Lord Bertilak?
3. Where does Gawain go after meeting Bertilak?
4. Who accompanies Lady Bertilak when she goes to meet Gawain?
5. Who is paired with Gawain at mealtime on the day after his arrival at Hautdesert Castle?
6. Who sits in the place of highest honor at mealtime on the day after Gawain’s arrival at Hautdesert Castle?
7. Why does Gawain, at first, not accept the invitation to stay longer at the castle?
8. How long does Gawain agree to stay at Hautdesert Castle?
9. What, according his agreement with Bertilak, will Gawain receive?
10. What, according to his agreement with Bertilak, must Gawain give in return?
1. The courtiers take Gawain into the main hall after he arrives at Hautdesert Castle.
2. The beard of Lord Bertilak is the hue of a beaver’s pelt.
3. After meeting Bertilak, Gawain goes to a splendid room to change clothes.
4. An old crone accompanies Lady Bertilak when she goes to meet Gawain.
5. Lady Bertilak is paired with Gawain at mealtime on the day of his arrival at Hautdesert Castle.
6. The old crone sits in the place of highest honor at mealtime on the day after Gawain’s arrival at Hautdesert Castle.
(The entire section is 273 words.)
Part Three, Verses 46-66, Lines 1126-1647 Questions and Answers
1. What sounds accompany the hunt?
2. Do Bertilak and his men kill all of the deer?
3. What does Gawain first do when Lady Bertilak first enters his chamber?
4. Why does Lady Bertilak tell the guest that he cannot really be Gawain?
5. What does Gawain say on seeing the game that Bertilak brought back after the first day of hunting?
6. What does Bertilak give Gawain according to their agreement when he returns from the first day of hunting?
7. What does Gawain give Bertilak according to their agreement after his first day in the castle?
8. Why can the huntsmen not kill the boar with arrows?
9. How and by whom is the boar finally killed?
10. What does Gawain give Bertilak in exchange for the boar?
1. Horns and the barking of dogs are some of the sounds which accompany the hunt.
2. No, Bertilak and his men leave the stags and kill only the hinds.
3. When Lady Bertilak first enters his chamber, Gawain pretends to be asleep.
4. She says that the guest cannot be Gawain, because a knight like Gawain would not have stayed with a lady so long with¬out claiming a kiss.
5. When Gawain sees the game that Bertilak brought back from the first day of hunting, he says that it is the finest harvest of game during the season that he has seen in seven years.
(The entire section is 314 words.)
Part Three, Verses 67-79, Lines 1648-1997 Questions and Answers
1. What is on Gawain’s mind when Lady Bertilak enters his chamber on the third day?
2. What does Lady Bertilak do after entering Gawain’s chamber for the third time?
3. After she has given up her attempt at seduction, what does the mistress of the house request of Gawain?
4. What does the mistress of the house offer to Gawain first after he has declined to give her a token to remember him by?
5. What does the mistress of the house say her green sash can accomplish?
6. What does Gawain do after he has taken the green sash?
7. What does Bertilak do after the fox has been killed?
8. What does Gawain give Bertilak in exchange for the fox pelt?
9. What final request does Gawain make of Bertilak?
10. What is the last thing Gawain does before going to bed?
1. Gawain is drowsing uneasily, troubled by dreams of his appointment with the Green Knight, when Lady Bertilak enters his chamber on the third day.
2. After entering Gawain’s chamber for the third time, Lady Bertilak bends over Gawain and gives him a kiss.
3. After she has given up her attempt at seduction, the mistress of the house asks Gawain for a token to remember him by.
4. After he has declined to give her a token to remember him by, the mistress of the house first offers Gawain a precious ring.
(The entire section is 346 words.)
Part Four, Verses 80-87, Lines 1998-2211 Questions and Answers
1. How is the weather when Gawain awakes to journey to the Green Chapel?
2. What does Gawain wear for the final journey to the Green Chapel?
3. How does Gawain travel to the Green Chapel?
4. Who sees Gawain off when he leaves Hautdesert Castle?
5. What does Gawain think to himself as he leaves Hautdesert Castle?
6. What does the guide tell Gawain about the Green Knight?
7. What does the guide urge Gawain to do?
8. What does the guide do after warning Gawain about the Green Knight?
9. Where does the path the guide pointed out take Gawain?
10. What does Gawain find after he dismounts?
1. The weather is bleak and snowy when Gawain wakes to journey to the Green Chapel.
2. The things Gawain wears for his final journey to the Green Chapel include armor, a coat, and the green sash from the mistress of the house.
3. Gawain travels to the Green Chapel on his horse Gringolet.
4. Only the porter sees Gawain off when he leaves Hautdesert Castle.
5. As he leaves Hautdesert Castle, Gawain thinks to himself how well the people there have treated him and that they deserve to be rewarded.
6. The guide tells Gawain that the Green Knight is mighty and has no mercy.
7. The guide urges Gawain to turn back and not go to the Green Chapel.
(The entire section is 260 words.)
Part Four, Verses 88-101, Lines 2212-2630 Questions and Answers
1. What does Gawain hear after he first arrives at the Green Chapel?
2. Where does the Green Knight first appear?
3. How does the Green Knight cross the stream?
4. What does Gawain ask after he has greeted the Green Knight?
5. What does Gawain do when the Green Knight first lowers the ax?
6. How does Gawain stand when the Green Knight lowers the ax a second time?
7. What does Gawain see after the Green Knight lowers the ax a third time?
8. For what does Gawain reproach himself?
9. What final request does Gawain make of the Green Knight?
10. What do Gawain and Bertilak do as the part company?
1. After he first arrives at the Green Chapel, Gawain hears the sharpening of an ax.
2. The Green Knight first appears above Gawain, on the opposite bank of the stream from him.
3. The Green Knight vaults over the stream on his ax.
4. After he has greeted the Green Knight, Gawain asks that the Green Knight cut off his head quickly with a single stroke.
5. When the Green Knight first lowers the ax, Gawain flinches and looks up.
6. Gawain stands still as a stump of a tree when the Green Knight lowers the ax a second time.
7. After the Green Knight lowers the ax a third time, Gawain sees his blood glittering in the snow.
(The entire section is 263 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, William. Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990.
Bechmann, Roland. Trees and Man: The Forest in the Middle Ages. Trans. from the French by Katharyn Dunham. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
Boroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1962.
Borroff, Marie, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Norton, 1967.
Briggs, Katherine. The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends. New York: Pasntheon, 1988.
Burrow, J. A. & Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.
Cartmill, Matt. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1993.
Clein, Wendy. Concepts of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Norman, Ok: Pilgrim, 1987.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: Braziller, 1976.
Davenport, W. A. The Art of the Gawain Poet. London: Athlone, 1978.
Dickson, Arthur. Valentine and Orson: A Study in Late Medieval Romance. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1929.
Ferrante, Joan M. and George D. Economy, eds. In Pursuit of Perfection: Courtly Love in Medieval Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1975....
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Anderson, J. J. Language and Imagination in the Gawain-Poems. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2005. Places Sir Gawain and the Green Knight within the context of the other poems of the manuscript, looking closely at religious concepts of humility, sin, God’s justice, and truth.
Barron, W. R. J. Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1980. Examines Gawain’s sin of deception, and the temptation and beheading games, in the context of medieval society and feudal law. Also examines the parallels between the hunting and temptation scenes.
Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965. Excellent background material and discussion of the sources, literary conventions, style, structure, and meaning of the poem.
Boroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. The noted modern translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight examines the confessional scene, noting that it is the Green Knight who pronounces judgment on Sir Gawain as opposed to a priest.
Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds....
(The entire section is 402 words.)