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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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How does the poet's diction create human and supernatural elements in the Green Knight?

Quick answer:

In parts 7 and 8, the Green Knight makes his first appearance and is described in detail. The speaker refers to him as “dreadful” and as a “half giant” but also emphasizes that he is fine and great. Most startling, he is deep green in hue. He is also elegantly dressed in furs and silks, with gold accessories. Alliteration, used frequently and applied to specific aspects of the description, contributes to the extreme impression the Green Knight makes.

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In part 7 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight enters the great hall where King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and their guests are enjoying their New Year’s feast. The speaker’s description of the knight—who is a stranger, not an invited guest—occupies most of parts 7 and 8. The most significant initial impressions of this knight are his size and color. The speaker emphasizes his tremendous size, providing details about different parts of his body. He is called “a dreadful man,” and the speaker can only conclude that he is “half giant.” Nevertheless, they quickly qualify this description and state that the knight is “the finest in his greatness,” with a small waist and clean, well-made features.

The other outstanding quality, that he is green, contributes even more than his size to the supernatural aspects of this man. The speaker emphasizes the “wonder” that all the guests show in seeing a gigantic man who is “over all deepest green.”

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. It is used throughout the poem but is especially notable in the description of the knight. The poet uses it to emphasize the knight’s giant stature and green color. The line that immediately follow this observation, and begins part 8, makes extensive use of the initial g:

And all garbed in green this giant and his gear.

The remainder of the description of his elegant, elaborate clothes and accessories continues to use alliteration, including the s, m, p, and b sounds as well as further use of g.

A straight coat full tight that stuck to his sides,

a magnificent mantle above, masked within

with pelts pared pertly, the garment agleam

with blithe ermine full bright.

As the rest of the descriptive passage continues with ample alliteration, it emphasizes the wondrous quality of the strange knight’s appearance and his effect on the assembled guests.

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