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 departs on his promised quest, and with much concern the other knights see him set forth. Sir Gawain, riding his horse Gringalet, goes northward and at last arrives in Wirral, a wild and uncivilized region. On his way he was often in danger of death, for he faced fire-puffing dragons, fierce animals, and savage wild men in his search for the Knight of the Green Chapel. At last, on Christmas Eve, Sir Gawain sees a great castle in the middle of the wilderness. He enters it and is made welcome.
His host offers Sir Gawain the entire facilities of the castle. In the beautifully furnished chamber that he occupies, Sir Gawain is served the finest dishes and the best wines. The lady of the castle, a lady more beautiful even than Queen Guinevere, sits with him as he eats. The next day is Christmas, and the lord of the castle leads in the feasting. Expressing the wish that Sir Gawain will remain at the castle for a long time, the host assures the knight that the Green Chapel is only a short distance away, so that it will not be necessary for him to leave until New Year’s Day....
(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 private bedroom and luxurious bed emphasize that the castle is one of the finest of its era. However, the poet contrasts this luxury with Bercilak’s hunt in the forest. By graphically describing the death and disemboweling of the deer, the boar, and the fox, the poet creates a realistic picture of the brutality of a medieval hunt.
Green Chapel. Moundlike chapel of the Green Knight, which Gawain approaches on New Year’s Day. The frightening-looking chapel stands in a wasteland; it is hollowed out, like a cave, and symbolic. It seems to connect with the tree worship of the pre-Christian Celts. On one hand, the castle seems like a tomb; on the other hand, because it is a chapel it reminds medieval readers that Christ left his cave-tomb and entered into everlasting life. Like many of the places described in the poem, the Green Chapel is rich with ambiguity.
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.
(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?
(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?
(The entire section is 234 words.)
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...
(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...
(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...
(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?
(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?...
(The entire section is 263 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
(The entire section is 402 words.)