Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
The poet leads into his story by telling of the foundation of Britain and the line of King Arthur. The story begins as Arthur and his court are celebrating the Christmas holidays. There are contests and games. People attend Mass and exchange gifts. A feast is being prepared, and...
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The poet leads into his story by telling of the foundation of Britain and the line of King Arthur. The story begins as Arthur and his court are celebrating the Christmas holidays. There are contests and games. People attend Mass and exchange gifts. A feast is being prepared, and Queen Guinevere sits in a place of honor on a dais under a costly canopy with silk curtains and imported tapestries. On her left is seated Sir Gawain, and next to him is his brother Sir Agravain. The seat on her right waits for Arthur. The restless young king has vowed not to feast until either he has heard a tale of some wonder or else a challenge has been issued to one of the knights of the Round Table.
Suddenly a stranger, the Green Knight, appears in the doorway. He is at least a head taller than any of Arthur’s knights. He is also very well-proportioned, but his complexion and his clothing are green, with a few touches of gold. Even his hair and beard are green. His horse, similarly splendid, is entirely green as well.
The knights think what a formidable adversary the Green Knight must be, yet he wears no armor. He holds a strand of holly in one hand and an enormous battle-axe in the other. The Green Knight calls for whoever is presiding over the feast.
According to tradition, the crown of Arthur went all the way back to King Priam of Troy. The third stanza alludes to several stories connected with this origin. The Greeks had burned the city, but Aeneas, son of Priam, escaped, and his descendants had founded many kingdoms, including Rome and Tuscany. Felix Brutus, a great grandson of Aeneas, had founded Britain and started the dynasty of Arthur. The kingdom, the poet says, had seen many wonders, but the greatest of all may be the tale he is about to recount.
Though the opening may initially seem like the proud invocation of illustrious ancestors, it is actually more complex. By tracing the rise of Britain and the court of Arthur to the burning of Troy, the author is reminding us that earthly splendor does not last forever. Furthermore, he also reminds us that the rulers of mighty nations are fallible human beings, who may be destroyed by greed or pride. Aeneas, for example, was, according to some traditions, guilty of treacherously conspiring with his companion Antenor against the city of Troy.
Nations usually mythologize their origins, yet the myths of national origins often contain some crime by the founders which must be expiated. The ancient Greeks, for example, traced their origin to the Homeric heroes, yet they often felt these founders of the Greek nation showed both cruelty and dishonesty in their capture of Troy. The Hebrews traced their origin to the kingdom of David and Solomon, yet both these rulers sometimes behaved in ways that were less than worthy. In a similar way, the British, like the Romans, traced their origins to Aeneas, who was sometimes condemned for treason.
In America, a similarly ambivalent view is often taken of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed noble principles but kept slaves. King Arthur and his court were viewed as ancestral figures by many peoples, not only in Britain but in the rest of Europe. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we can see both their glory and their failings.
By invoking these mythic ancestors, the author establishes a mood of gravity. It is a bit like an American public official invoking George Washington at the beginning of a speech, in order to set a dignified tone. The Gawain-Poet (sometimes identified as the Pearl-Poet), however, is exalting Arthur and his knights in order to deflate them, or at least show them as human and fallible, in the scene that is to come. The portraits of Arthur and his knights are nearly always affectionate but often satirical.
There is some subtle criticism in the description of Queen Guinevere. She is set apart from the guests on a dais, surrounded by too much luxury. More significantly, she is glancing around flirtatiously, and all of the knights are overwhelmed by her beauty.
Arthur is young and restless. His vow not to eat until he has either heard a wondrous tale or a challenge has been issued seems to invite trouble. It is an indication that he has become bored. In spite of all the merriment, all is not well at the court.
The descriptions all emphasize the magnificence of the court, but they say nothing about the character of Arthur and his knights. In the Middle Ages, just as today, people had an ambivalent attitude toward displays of wealth. Christian moralists often condemned them as vanity, yet even the church constantly displayed jewels and precious metals. The poet seems to simultaneously admire the wealth and view it as a source of danger.
The Green Knight is so strange and so physically intimidating that, on arriving, he immediately dominates the scene. The holly branch in one hand, a plant that remains green throughout the year, is a symbol of life. The axe in the other hand, an implement used largely for executions, is a symbol of death. These cosmic symbols suggest he has a mission of enormous significance. That he should call for the person directing the festivities is a rebuke to Arthur for not providing serious leadership.