How do humans respond to the marvelous in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Among the most marvelous events described in the famous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the sudden appearance (as well as the physical appearance) of the Green Knight and also his strange behavior after his head is chopped off. Reactions of the people present include the following:
- When the Green Knight first appears, he is greeted with “stares” from Arthur’s courtiers (line 232 in the Marie Boroff translation).
- They also “marvel” at his appearance and at what his appearance (in both senses) may signify (233).
- They are full of anticipation, curiosity, and wonder (237-38).
- They at first assume that Gawain may be a “phantom” or a “faerie” (240).
- Therefore even the boldest of them are nervous about answering the Green Knight’s questions (241).
- They are also “stunned”; they sit in “swooning silence”; they seem almost to be asleep because they are so quiet; and they are in “dread” (242-47).
- Arthur initially greets the Green Knight with conventional courtesy but soon assumes that the Knight has come to fight (a response typical of Arthur’s immaturity; [250-78]).
- When Gawain swiftly removes the Green Knight’s head, and when the Knight thereupon retrieves the head and begins talking with it, the response of the king and court is not at first described, but surely they must be astonished. (The poet, by the way, hints at the ultimate meaning of the story by subtly mentioning the traditional Christmas colors of green and red ).
- After the Green Knight departs, Arthur and his courtiers try to make light of what they have just seen, but clearly they consider it also “a wonder past compare” (464-66).
- Arthur himself is said to be full of “wonder” (467), but he tries to keep his composure (468). He considers the event a “marvel” (475).
- Part one of the poem ends, however, on a very ominous note. Clearly Arthur and the courtiers are very concerned about what may now happen to their friend. The poet closes the first part of the poem with the following bleak advice:
Now take care, Sir Gawain,
That your courage wax not cold
When you must turn again
To your enterprise foretold. (488-91)
Ultimately, then, the reaction of the courtiers to the marvels they have just witnessed is one of fear, apprehension, and foreboding.
And who can blame them? They are all about to learn a very valuable lesson.