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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

English poem, c. 14th century.

The following entry presents criticism from 1960 to 1997 on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 2.

Critically acclaimed as a masterpiece and considered the best of the English...

(The entire section contains 197145 words.)

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

English poem, c. 14th century.

The following entry presents criticism from 1960 to 1997 on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 2.

Critically acclaimed as a masterpiece and considered the best of the English medieval romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an anonymous Arthurian romance, most likely from the fourteenth century, written in alliterative verse, comprising 2530 lines in 101 stanzas. The story incorporates elements drawn from several centuries of folklore and legend, Christian and Celtic symbolism, and portions from French and Latin versions of the tale. The narrative describes the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur's youngest knight, as his courage and vows of chastity and honor are tested by circumstances arranged by a giant of a knight, clad in green armor, with a green face and green hair. Because the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Middle English and in a particularly difficult northwest Midlands dialect, it is most familiar to modern readers in translation; nevertheless, the original language of the poem is highly praised for its beauty and richness. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exists in only one manuscript, following three other poems by the same author: Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness (also called Purity). No portion of these poems is known to appear in any other manuscript. The small quarto volume that contains these four works has been housed in the British Museum since 1753; it contains no titles or headings, although large blue and red letters set off the main divisions. The volume also contains several full-page illustrations. Scholars have had no success in identifying the Gawain-poet (also known as the Pearl-poet), although several suggestions and theories have been offered. For the genius he displays in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight through innovations in language, style, characterization, and plot, the Gawain-poet is considered by critics on the level of Chaucer, his contemporary.

Plot and Major Characters

Christmas Eve festivities at the court of King Arthur are disrupted when a green knight abruptly enters the room and issues a challenge: Is there a knight present who dares to trade blows of an ax with him? The Green Knight will take the first blow and the challenger will receive the second a year later at the Green Knight's distant chapel. Sir Gawain accepts and advances to the kneeling intruder, whose neck is exposed. With one strike Gawain severs the Green Knight's head from his body. The body, however, rises up immediately, picks up its head, jumps on its horse, and rides away. Months pass and on All Hallow's Day, Gawain rides off in search of the Green Chapel. After weeks of winter travel and dangerous adventures, Gawain reaches Castle Hautdesert. The lord of the castle, Bertilak, informs Gawain that the Green Chapel is very close and asks that he stay in the castle as his guest for three days. The two men agree to an Exchange of Winnings: Bertilak will give Gawain all the game he catches on his hunts, and Gawain will give his host all gifts he receives during his stay. The beautiful Lady Bertilak enters Gawain's bedchamber immediately after her husband commences his first day's hunt. She attempts to seduce Gawain, but he courteously refuses. The second morning is much like the first. The third morning Gawain accepts a gift from Lady Bertilak: an embroidered green girdle (or belt), which has the special power of making its bearer invulnerable to any mortal blow. When Bertilak returns that night and gives Gawain the results of the day's hunt, Gawain says nothing of the girdle. The following morning Gawain departs with a guide and finds the Green Chapel almost immediately. Gawain offers his neck. The Green Knight starts to swing his ax but Gawain flinches, earning taunts for his cowardice. The second swing is deliberately checked by the Green Knight—it was intended to test Gawain's steadfastness. The third blow only nicks him. The Green Knight informs him that the nick was punishment for breaking their Exchange of Winnings promise and reveals that he and the Lord Bertilak are one and the same. Gawain is ashamed and chastises himself, although Bertilak tells him his debt has been paid. He tells him that the test was devised by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, in order to prove that his knights are not so honorable as they appear. Gawain returns to King Arthur's court with the green girdle as a token of his failure. The other knights, however, find the adventure amusing, consider Gawain triumphant, and put on silk girdles of their own, as a symbol of “the renown of the Rounde Table.”

Major Themes

Scholars have traditionally regarded the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as ambiguous. Some view the poem as the tale of a noble knight who resists sexual temptation and so keeps his vow of chastity. Others interpret it as the unveiling of a knight's improper behavior: According to the second group, Gawain renders what he intends as a mortal wound to the Green Knight, not a sparing blow, as the chivalric code dictates. He also rejects the rules of courtly love by refusing Lady Bertilak's advances; he is disloyal to his host and their Exchange of Winnings Agreement in not giving Bertilak the girdle; and he is cowardly when he avoids the first swing of the Green Knight's ax. Critics consider the puzzle of the theme a major asset of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and they continue to debate whether the real test was what happened at Castle Hautdesert rather than the exchange of blows, as well as whether, finally, Gawain passed or failed the tests.

Critical Reception

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century and has received a tremendous amount of critical and scholarly attention since the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1980s Bill Moyers' Public Television series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” also introduced the story to millions of viewers. Campbell interprets the Green Knight's life after beheading as an example of vegetative myth, with life and death in an endless cycle. The Gawain-poet is universally praised by critics for his inventiveness. Larry D. Benson and Wendy Clein discuss how the author habitually played against the expectations of his contemporary audience, familiar with the conventions of oral literature. Sacvan Bercovitch, likewise, explains that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight runs counter to typical medieval romance tradition in so many ways that it is more fitting to consider it an anti-romance. W. A. Davenport examines the stylistic techniques employed by the Gawain-poet, particularly in characterization and the use of role reversals; numerous critics note that in many ways it is the Green Knight who is exemplary, not Gawain. Davenport writes that “Gawain's progress through the courtly maze of experience to a kind of bittersweet maturity seems, eventually, to be a fair enough fictional image of one part of life.” Joseph M. Lenz offers a structural study of the tale and writes, “Very few poems are more structurally sound than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Albert B. Friedman, while not disagreeing with Lenz, finds one flaw: Morgan le Fay betrays her roots in early folk tales and, as Friedman points out, remains a “thread imperfectly woven into the narrative.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides much material for the study of the medieval notion of courtesy and Derek Pearsall and Jonathan Nicholls analyze the Gawain-poet's questioning of its role in the chivalric code. Ad Putter focuses on the temptation scenes, while Anne Rooney focuses on those of hunting; while many critics believe that these scenes work effectively in juxtaposition, Rooney urges caution in making more of the hunting scenes than what they are—engaging descriptions inserted into the narrative to maintain audience interest. The symbolism displayed in the poem is studied by Piotr Sadowski, who discusses the meaning of the greenness of the Green Knight. The pentangle, a symbol on Gawain's shield which the Gawain-poet describes in very detailed fashion, fascinates numerous critics because of its melding of Christian and pagan elements. Arthur Lindley warns against too much searching for symbolism and meaning, however, asserting that ambiguity is integral to the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and that critics who seek to resolve its conflicting themes are misguided.

Principal Works

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Brian Stone] 1959

The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet [translated by John Gardner] 1965

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Marie Borroff] 1967

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Burton Raffel] 1970

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Pearl,” and “Sir Orfeo” [translated by J. R. R. Tolkien] 1975

Pearl Poems: “Patience” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” [translated by William Vantuono] 1984

The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet [translated by Casey Finch] 1993

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”: A Verse Translation [translated by Keith Harris] 1999

Albert B. Friedman (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Friedman, Albert B. “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” 1960. In “Sir Gawain” and “Pearl”: Critical Essays, edited by Robert J. Blanch, pp. 135-58. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Friedman examines Morgan le Fay's role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, presenting a comparative analysis of various critical interpretations of her importance in the story.]

“Le joyau de la littérature anglaise du moyen âge,” as Gaston Paris called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,1 is obviously flawed in one crucial passage. When the giant has brought his ax down for the third time and cut a token gash in Gawain's neck, the hero bounds away from the block, and, after his temper has cooled, hears in astonished relief the Green Knight's explanation of why he had come to court to challenge Arthur's knights. The ancient lady of the castle, now revealed to be Morgan le Fay, was behind the whole adventure. She it was who had sent the Green Knight (in human guise, Bercilak the Hautdesert) to Arthur's court, her purpose being to test the renown of the Round Table and to frighten Guinevere to death. “Every reader,” says Kittredge, “finds [the object assigned for Bercilak's visit to court] unsatisfactory. It is the one weak spot in the superb English romance.”2 For so elaborate an adventure, the initiating motive does indeed seem surprisingly slight and vague. In the result, Guinevere was not fatally shocked and Morgan did not succeed in humiliating Arthur by proving that his leading knight lacked the virtues of knighthood. Though Morgan's evil plans were defeated, her discomfiture is neither dramatized nor even made explicit. Once the reader has entered into the spirit of the fairy tale machinery and accepted with credulity the monstrous challenger who demonstrates his supernatural powers by speaking from his severed head, the remaining events follow conventionally. Kittredge calls Morgan “the moving cause … of the entire plot,”3 but here he is deferring tentatively to the Green Knight's statement. After considering her role more closely, Kittredge describes her rather as an intrusion, an attempt by the English poet to draw his story more solidly into the Arthurian tradition. Hulbert, whose analysis of the sources of the legend differs so widely from Kittredge's, also holds that Morgan is a substitution and excrescent.4

Recently the question of Morgan le Fay's function in the poem has been revived by Professor Denver E. Baughan, who argues that her role has been completely misunderstood.5 The Green Knight's explanation of the dynamics of the adventure is altogether valid. According to Professor Baughan, Morgan's plan to humiliate the Round Table and frighten Guinevere does in fact succeed. A high purpose of hers has been realized in Gawain's lapse from strict virtue. Indeed, she had foreseen the outcome. More important: Morgan's presence in the poem, far from being unnecessary or imperfectly worked into the narrative fabric, as Kittredge and many of the older commentators believed, is actually an ingenious device for giving thematic integrity to the poem. In support of these views, Professor Baughan has shown dangerous unfamiliarity with romance conventions in general and Arthurian romance in particular and has badly misinterpreted the poem. In this essay I shall combat his reading of Sir Gawain and his analysis of Morgan's part in it and then proceed to sketch what seems to me a far more tenable explanation for the poet's introduction of Morgan.


Arthur's humiliation, for Baughan, occurs in the first episode of the poem, the New Year's banquet at Camelot. Upon this splendid scene bursts the monstrous Green Knight and asks for the ruler of the company, all the while scanning the banqueters to see “quo walt þer most renoun.”6 The intent of this examination, says Baughan, is to embarrass Arthur, “for while the knights were turning their eyes toward” the king, “Bercilak's eyes were turning everywhere except toward Arthur” (p. 244). “Powerless to resist Bercilak's insults to the king, the knights become more and more afraid” (p. 244). The poet, however, less sensitive about Arthur's honor, does not feel that insults have been passed. He attributes the court's speechless fright to their absorption in the appearance of the monster; furthermore he excuses the knights' silence by saying it was not entirely fear that kept them silent but politeness somewhat: protocol demanded that only the king answer. Arthur welcomes the Green Knight, introduces himself, and hearing that the visitor wants to indulge in some game, assures him that he will not be disappointed if he craves battle. To Baughan Arthur's proposal is petulantly bellicose and inept: “Since the knights had been wondering how any man could survive the blows of such a giant and why he had not equipped himself for battle, the poet seems to have intended the beheading episode as an antidote to the follies of knight-errantry” (p. 245). To imply that our poet, for all his moral earnestness, could find anything foolish in the casual challenges and joustings, which are among the chief happenings in romances, is to foist upon him an Ariosto-like attitude that would have disqualified him from writing this poem. In a later passage, when Gawain is setting out from Camelot for the Green Chapel, the poet shows us courtiers of little faith lamenting the hopelessness of Gawain's undertaking by way of dramatizing its perils and Gawain's bravery, and it is clear that he regards such low-minded folk with disdain.

The Green Knight now divulges his peaceful Yule sport: he offers to allow any one of the knights present—not specifically Arthur—to chop off his head with the ax he carries, providing the knight will contract to seek him out a year hence to receive the same blow in return. The assemblage after hearing this proposal is depressed into even deeper gloom than before. The silence is broken by the Green Knight's taunts:

“What, is þis Arþureȝ hous,” quoþ þe haþel þenne,
“Þat al þe rous rennes of þurȝ ryalmes so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye and your conquestes,
Your gryndellayk and your greme, and your grete wordes?
Now is þe reuel and þe renoun of þe Rounde Table
Ouerwalt wyth a worde of on wyȝes speche,
For al dares for drede withoute dynt schewed!”

(ll. 309 ff.).

These words fire the king with shame and anger, but it is not the helpless shame he might feel if he were conceding the truth of the Green Knight's remarks, but rather angry shame that the court's momentary fright could discredit its long-standing reputation. Here called “dauntless by nature” and earlier “never afraid” (l. 251), Arthur steps from the dais and takes up the ax. His opponent has meanwhile alighted.

Now hatȝ Arthure his axe, and þe halme grypeȝ,
And sturnely stureȝ hit aboute, þat stryke wyth hit þoȝt.
Þe stif mon hym bifore stod vpon hyȝt.
Herre þen ani in þe hous by þe hede and more.
Wyth sturne schere þer he stod he stoked his berde,
And wyth a countenaunce dryȝe he droȝ doun his cote,
No more mate ne dismayd for hys mayn dinteȝ
Þen any burne vpon bench hade broȝt hym to drynk of wyne

(ll. 330 ff.).

According to Baughan's understanding of this passage, Arthur actually strikes the Green Knight two or more “great blows,” though they fail to make an impression on the giant. Gawain interrupts the proceedings to beg that the contest may be his, a request to which Arthur, with the advice of his nobles, consents. Gawain's blow of course severs the Green Knight's head from his trunk and sends it rolling along the floor.

The crux of the passage is whether Arthur in fact struck the blows. Baughan insists that he did:

In order to make assurance doubly sure regarding the second half of Morgan le Fay's plan, Arthur had to strike. Yet, through respect for the divinity that hedges a king, even a debased one (as Arthur was at this time), the poet gave to the account something of Morgan's magic so that it seems almost as if Arthur did not strike. Thus because of the deceptive wording (particularly þat stryke wyth hit poȝt), Tolkien and Gordon, Hulbert and Kittredge undoubtedly read mayn dinteȝ as “threats” or “threatened blows.” On the other hand, G. H. Gerould and B. J. Whiting both read the two words in question according to the definitions set down in [the dictionaries] and (curiously enough) Tolkien and Gordon's gloss, i.e., as “great blows” or the equivalent

(p. 246).

Citing the Green Knight's comment on Morgan's power late in the poem, he asks:

What would have been the point then of having Arthur merely prepare to strike? To achieve her purpose not only did the so-called greatest of all the knights have to strike with great strokes, but his great strokes had to avail him nothing. On the other hand, his nephew's one stroke had to do the task with what seems perfect justice

(p. 247).

But Arthur did not strike.

For the meaning of mayn dinteȝ, one need not ransack the dictionaries: the phrase means simply “great blows.” The authorities read “threats” or “threatened blows” because they are, with sound instinct, carrying forward the hypothetical overtones which reverberate from the poet's earlier þat stryke wyth hit poȝt. Gollancz's edition suggests that the mayn dinteȝ were blows that Arthur was “about to give.”7 If Baughan thinks that Gerould or Whiting stand with him, he is deceived. Gerould renders mayn dinteȝ as “strokes,” and his phrasing has the force of qualifying the dinteȝ into feints;8 and Whiting, who translates “great blows,” to be sure,9 has told me that if he had thought anyone could possibly have squeezed the meaning from his translation that Baughan has, he would have forestalled the error with an emphatic note.

Clearly—but apparently not so—the poet is saying that Arthur brandished the ax, making several test blows with it in the air to get the “feel” of the massive weapon. There are, further, overwhelming dramatic and semantic reasons for ruling out Baughan's interpretations. For one thing dinteȝ is plural: the contract called for a single blow. Would Arthur cheat? And in the presence of the whole court? Secondly, if one reads the lines carefully, he will observe that the Green Knight started pulling down his coat to receive the proffered blow after Arthur had made the troublesome mayn dinteȝ. Moreover, to have Arthur literally strike the Green Knight is dramatically impossible. Arthur's unavailing blow would have thrown the banqueters into another fit of amazement, which does not occur; and surely if the poet had intended to contrast the impotence of the physical Arthur with the efficacy of the spiritual Gawain, he would have spared at least a few lines (remembering the eighty lines on the Green Knight and his equipage) to point up the contrast and not fumble it away in a phrase. One must add that Arthur's granting the contest to Gawain is not to be taken as a sign of surrender or cowardice. He has demonstrated his bravery by his willingness to undertake the adventure; kings in romances were expected as a matter of course to delegate such tasks to their henchmen. Indeed, in one of the earliest analogues of this story, the king is expressly excepted from those allowed to take up the challenge.10

Another part of Morgan's plan was to “frighten Guinevere to death.” Guinevere does not die, but perhaps Bercilak is being hyperbolic. Did the monster even frighten Guinevere in any significant way? Baughan takes strong exception to Kittredge's observation that “there is no indication, in our author's own description of the scene at court, that Guinevere showed any particular alarm.”11 True, Arthur turns to comfort his queen once the Green Knight has withdrawn, gory head in hand, but he takes the time to frame his words elegantly, and from the cheerful style he adopts, it is plain that he is not dealing with a woman in a state of shock. In the Vulgate Lancelot there is a scene roughly similar to the beheading episode. A damsel sent by Morgan falsely announces Lancelot's death and says that he confessed before dying to adulterous relations with the queen. As a token of her veracity, the damsel tosses in Guinevere's lap Lancelot's ring—“cest anel par cui vous donastes a lui vostre cuer & vostre amour”—at which the queen shows great distress, swoons away, and is only with difficulty recalled to her senses.12 Our passage has nothing comparable, though Morgan supposedly intended Guinevere's fright to be fatal.

“Arthur's attempt to console Guinevere in her fear and his attempt and failure to behead Bercilak” impress Baughan as “two important pieces of internal evidence” that Morgan's plans for the beheading episode were successful (p. 248). I trust I have demonstrated that both these items of evidence are based on misreading of the text.


We now come to Baughan's major proposition: that Morgan's plan and its alleged success contribute vitally to the thematic integrity of Sir Gawain. If her plan, he insists, is to be “artistically successful,” that virtue which allows Gawain to succeed in beheading the Green Knight after Arthur failed must be the same as that he exhibits in the Temptation scenes. The unifying virtue, therefore, is chastity, and to accept chastity as the theme of romance, opens the way to understanding its moral content and the role of Morgan le Fay:

In a court where even the king himself, as portrayed in the secular romances, was guilty of moral looseness, the opportunity for the poet to capitalize on Gawain's essential goodness in this virtue, even at the expense of the king's humiliation, was without parallel. … In connection with [Morgan], this “only begetter” of the entire plot, as Kittredge calls her, it is inconceivable that the poet should have viewed her as a cheap enchantress. Except for her enmity toward Guinevere her plan and her fame as a healer are in the best traditions of the theurgic art as opposed to the goetic practices of that time. As Arthur would one day “fare to Avalun, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante [Morgan] the queen, an elf most fair …” who would make his wounds all sound, so here that same Morgan would send Bercilak to purge and heal the court of its moral corruptness. … Thus through Morgan le Fay's plan the beheading episode is no less an apotheosization of chastity than are the other parts of the romance

(p. 251).

A number of wonderful assertions are embedded in this statement. For convenience, I shall divide Baughan's remarks into two major sets of ideas and discuss each set separately. The first may be fairly summarized as follows: In the beheading episode Gawain succeeded where Arthur failed because Gawain represents the knight of chastity, but Arthur was guilty of moral looseness, specifically adultery. Arthur's failure was personally humiliating and shameful to his court.

Our analysis of the beheading episode revealed that the contest between Arthur and Gawain staged there by Baughan did not take place. There was no test for Arthur to fail and consequently no shame in his non-failure. But for purposes of argument, let us put this objection aside and also temporarily go along with the notion that the Gawain poet—like Spenser for each book of The Faerie Queene—intended the adventure he was narrating to illustrate the practical and moral force of a particular knightly virtue—chastity. How well actually does the Gollancz epithet “knight of chastity” apply to Sir Gawain?

For Tennyson, whose Gawain is a “light-of-love,” the faithless libertine who betrayed Pelleas, it would not do at all, and Tennyson's portrait is not far out of line with Malory's Gawain and completely in accord with the thirteenth-century French romances of the Round Table, especially the interminable Vulgate prose versions. In certain of them, as Whiting has fully shown, our hero is “painstakingly vilified,” and not least for suave amorousness.13 He is in and out of bed with so many complaisant damsels—not to mention his fairy mistresses—that it is surprising that more of his bastards, among whom are the hero of Wigalois and Gingelein of Libeaus Desconsus, do not turn up. One good mark in Gawain's favor is that, unlike Lancelot and Tristram, he does not participate in sustained adulterous connections, though Whiting finds it hazardous to say that he was never guilty of adultery “in view of the number of women with whom Gawain is intimate” (p. 203). That Gawain may well have had a reputation as a lecher in fourteenth-century England is suggested by the Wife of Bath's Tale, for pieces like the analogous romance of the Weddynge of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and the ballad of “The Marriage of Sir Gawain” (Child No. 31) imply that the “lusty bacheler” of Arthur's court who took the maiden “by verray force” was probably the degenerate Gawain, although Chaucer of course does not name him.

But whether or not Gawain's reputation was already besmirched in English romance or in popular story when the Sir Gawain poet wrote, he could not have been unacquainted with the Gawain of the French romances. Kittredge indeed assures us that he was thoroughly familiar with the “ins and outs” of the Arthurian saga (p. 132). It would be foolish of course to assert that the poet was required to reproduce the portrait of Gawain which tradition gave him, but it would be equally foolish of course to deny that the poet's invention was to some extent inhibited by the associations with which he knew his readers' minds to be furnished. Obviously the Gawain in our poem is not a “light-of-love,” yet it is still hard to see him as the champion of chastity. And surely it would have been perverse of our poet to select as his “knight of chastity” that one of the principal knights of Arthur's who was notoriously the least chaste!

If chastity is important anywhere in the poem, it is in the Temptation scenes, and it is extremely doubtful that chastity is being tested even there. Thanks to the poet's skill in reporting during the bedroom conversations not only the speeches of Gawain and the lady but also his thoughts and dreams, we come to know Gawain's processes of mind intimately, and for that reason can decide definitely what is at stake in the Temptation. The preservation of his chastity is clearly only a secondary concern to Gawain, if present in his mind at all. Hardly for a moment does he feel himself drawn toward his temptress in a passionate way. He kisses her with no greater fervor than he renders up the kisses to her husband in the evening. Under pressure he has acquiesced in becoming the lady's courtly servant, but it is only after the lady has appealed to his duty as her newly contracted knight and to his reputation as a past master of courtesy that he can be prevailed upon to bestow even perfunctory kisses. And though compelled to dally, he is scarcely in the mood for dalliance. As we are reminded at crucial points by the poet, Gawain's anxiety as to the outcome of the ordeal he must shortly undergo deprives him of all pleasure in the lady's flirtatious banter:

“Þaȝ I were burde bryȝtest,” þe burde in mynde hade,
“Þe lasse luf in his lode”—for lur þat he soȝt
                                        boute hone,
                    Þe dunte þat schulde hym deue,
                    And nedeȝ hit most be done

(ll. 1283 ff.).

And as if Gawain's tension were not already sufficiently acute to prevent the lady's teasing from arousing an answering ardor in him, there is the additional inhibition of the bond Gawain has contracted with the host to yield up each evening his earnings of the day. Even supposing that Gawain entertained no fears about the appointment at the Green Chapel and had found himself susceptible to the erotic wiles of his temptress, he would still have been severely inhibited by his loyalty to his bond and his sense of honor from taking his hostess. If a test of chastity was the poet's purpose, he has certainly managed to drain it of any challenge, for Gawain's temptation is accompanied by circumstances which make it singularly untempting.

The girdle or lovelace the lady forces Gawain to accept at their last session would seem on the surface the key prop in a chastity drama, but one must remember that Gawain accepts it only because of its alleged magical properties and to be quit of the nagging importunities of his hostess. But though Gawain wants the girdle as an amulet, it is not simply because it is an amulet that he cannot yield it up to his host as their bond requires. The girdle is also, of course, a sexual trophy; the lord would surely draw damaging inferences (so Gawain would naturally think) from Gawain's possessing it. Thus it could be argued that the poet wanted us to understand that Gawain failed to carry out his pledge not only out of fear but also in order to spare his host unnecessary hurt and to protect the lady's reputation, which as her knight and a man of honor he had promised to do. In this conflict of duties, chastity has no part. [Note also that chastity is not specifically mentioned in the long passage (ll. 619-699) which discusses the symbolism of the pentangle.]

Mr. Baughan's second body of contentions is even more curious. Morgan le Fay, he claims, is no “cheap enchantress”—she is a goddess doing the holy work of healing. She sends the Green Knight to Camelot not out of petty envy for the renown of the Round Table but to “purge and heal the court of its moral corruptness.”

Sycorax and Prospero, goetic and theurgic magic, have been strangely confounded in this interpretation. It is true that the chroniclers, who were most concerned with the twilight of British rule, with Arthur's battles, mysterious demise and afterlife, picture Morgan waiting to heal her brother when he is finally wafted to Avalon. Such is her role in the Vita Merlini, her first appearance in literature. But “in all other episodes of the romances in which she is associated with [Arthur] … except in late sources, she is the perpetrator of some malign scheme against him.”14 As Malory puts it, extending Morgan's persistent hatred of Arthur, the “ruling motive of her career,” to Arthur's knights, “And ever as she myght she made warre on kynge Arthure, and all daungerous knyghtes she wytholdyth with her for to dystroy all those knyghtes that kynge Arthure lovyth.”15 That the Gawain poet sees Morgan in the same light should be sufficiently evident from his references to her envy of Arthur's court and her hatred of Guinevere. By speaking of her as a goddess, the poet deepens the sinister gloom about her: a pagan goddess becomes automatically a Christian demon. One also notes that Morgan was instructed in magic by Merlin during a love affair between them. Here the poet associates Morgan with Niniane/ Viviane, the mistress who wheedled Merlin's secrets out of him and then used them wickedly against her instructor.16 Further evidence that the poet intends Morgan to be fixed in our minds as an evil enchantress is his stress on the ancient dame's ugliness, cruelly particularized in the passage which ends with the ironical exclamation

A mensk lady on molde mon may hir calle,
          For Gode!

(ll. 964-5).

Reminiscences of Morgan's earlier role as a beautiful fay skilled in the art of healing linger in the romances, for the romance writers cannot forget the part she is destined to play in the final act of Arthur's earthly career. Her beauty, however, is usually a guileful enticement to lust, and she uses her skill in medicine to drug inimical or unwilling knights or so to enflame the wounds of those she agrees to heal that they surrender to her to be spared further torment.17 Still the romance writers were troubled by the conflicting portraits of Morgan handed down by tradition: the beautiful healer, the beautiful witch, the ugly witch. The author of the Huth Merlin hit upon one explanation. When Morgan was a healing nurse she was beautiful, but as her knowledge of the wicked arts of sorcery grew, she became progressively uglier.18 From this we may reasonably infer that Morgan's ugliness in Sir Gawain is to be taken as an indication of her evil nature and sinful purposes.19

Granting for the moment that Arthur's court is sexually immoral or otherwise corrupt and in need of reform, is Morgan the proper agent for such a task? By nature fays are sexually insatiable, and Morgan is perhaps the most promiscuous lady, mortal or immortal, in all Arthurian romance. She is dimly identifiable in the deep backward of mythology as the fairy mistress of Arthur himself, which perhaps accounts for her unrelenting hatred of Guinevere, her supplanter in Arthur's affection.20 Another explanation of the feud between these ladies has it that Morgan was frustrated by the new queen in her love affair with Guiamor (Guigamor in Chrétien's Erec), a cousin of Guinevere's.21 If Miss Paton and Loomis are correct in equating Benoit de Ste-Maure's Orva with Morgan, in the second literary reference to her she figured as the spurned mistress of Hector.22 She was also flouted by the unnamed lover, perhaps Guiamor, who became the initial bespelled inhabitant of the Val des Faux Amants (Val sanz Retor), and when Lancelot finally broke the spell of this valley, over which Morgan presided from “vn lit moult bel & moult rice de fust,” it was a numerous company of lovers that was released from disenchantment.23 A liaison with Julius Caesar, chronicled in Huon de Bordeaux, produced Auberon; by Renoart of Bataille Loquifer Morgan has a son Corbon (“un vif diable, qui ne fist se mal non”); a son also resulted from her escapade with Guiamor.24

Married to Urien, Morgan nonetheless carries on a passionate affair with Accalon de Gaul in the Huth Merlin that leads her to attempt the life of her husband.25 Morgan's revenge pursues the hero through the pages of the prose Tristan for having slain her lover Huneson.26 To Floriant of Floriant et Florete she is a benevolent fairy mistress; Ogier the Dane, cited as Morgan's lover in Brun de la Montaigne, spent 200 years under her amorous protection; in Les Prophécies de Merlin Morgan is the mundane mistress of the worst of knights, Bréhus (Brun, Breunys, Breuz) sanz Pitié.27 At several points in the Vulgate Lancelot Morgan throws herself shamelessly at the hero, but she is no more successful in her attacks on him than she is in her pursuit of that minor Lancelot, Alisandre l'Orphelin, who protests that he would rather die than embrace the lustful harridan.28 Our own poet's mention of Morgan's illicit “dalt drwry” (l. 2449) with Merlin shows us that his Morgan is just as remote from Geoffrey of Monmouth's regia virgo as that of his fellow romancers. How Baughan can cast a lady with this unsavory reputation as the reformer of sexual immorality at Arthur's court is baffling.

And where has the poet said or suggested that Camelot is in need of reform? Baughan's charge of “moral corruptness” seems to be based on nothing more substantial than the fact that some unspecified romance fathers a bastard (Mordred?) upon Arthur. One must grant that in the course of romance literature, Arthur becomes progressively a weaker and less dignified person, but there is nothing in our poem to warrant the belief that the poet is picturing for us a morally degenerate Arthur or that his praises of the Round Table are perfunctory or grudging.

If the poet had wished to suggest general or specific immorality at Arthur's court, the French romances of the Vulgate cycle, particularly those passages devoted to Lancelot's exploits would have afforded him suggestive material, for in them Guinevere's adultery, swathed to be sure in the glow of courtly love, is patent. Arthur himself is degraded by Lancelot's admirers in order to palliate the sins of Guinevere and their hero. One recalls that in the Vulgate Lancelot on the night that Guinevere and Lancelot consummate their liaison, in a nearby castle Arthur is enjoying the ultimate favors of a Saxon lady Camille.29 In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, Lancelot is mentioned only once, and in an inconspicuous place in a catalog of knights (l. 553), no liaison with Guinevere is so much as hinted at, and the poet does not qualify his reverence for the king and queen in the slightest. But the coup de grâce to the reformation theory comes in the fact that neither Arthur nor his court show any change in character or behavior as a result of Gawain's adventure nor do they promise such a change in the future.


We open a more hopeful line of investigation, I think, by assuming that the explanation for Morgan's presence lurks somewhere in the toils of the plot. She bears all the signs and the numen of a dea ex machina, and in falling back upon such a device the poet betrays his difficulty in articulating the complex narrative framework of his poem.

From Kittredge's deliberate arranging and sifting of the analogues, it emerges that both the component tales, the Beheading Game or Challenge and the Temptation, at least in the forms that stand in the immediate background of the English poem, were disenchantment stories. In the developed version of the Beheading Game, the hero, after surviving the token return blow and thus proving his courage and fidelity, is asked by the giant challenger to strike off his head for the second time. The hero complies, and the giant by this act is unspelled, resuming his normal human size, appearance and disposition. The Temptation in the form the hypothetical Gawain[-poet] adopted was likewise a test to determine the worthiness of Gawain to be an agent of disenchantment. After the successful accomplishment of the last test, “the host bids Gawain cut off his head. He obeys reluctantly, and the enchantment is dissolved, the knight rising up in his true shape.”30 With good reason Kittredge conjectures that it may have been the common disenchantment theme which prompted the combination of the two tales in the first place (p. 109).

But though itself the product of two disenchantment stories, Sir Gawain rejects the dénouement. What we should expect if the poet had followed through with the plot to his supposed source and the analogues offered him is that Gawain, having weathered the ordeal of the Green Chapel, would have been asked by the Green Knight to repeat his performance at Arthur's hall and decapitate him again, and when the knight had been unspelled and had explained to Gawain the reason for the strange events in which Gawain had figured, he would have returned with the hero to become a member of Arthur's band. Instead we have the Green Knight's good-humored explanation of the Challenge and Temptation, and the protagonists part with mutual blessings, Gawain for Camelot, Bercilak for his castle.

Why did the Gawain poet reject the conclusion indicated to him by his source and implicit in so many versions of the two stories he was running together? In deference to the poet's abilities, we must suppose that there was some artistic reason behind so important a decision. Perhaps he feared that after the beheading at Camelot and the interrupted beheading of Gawain at the Green Chapel, another beheading would be just enough to make the whole proceeding ludicrous. It seems to me far more likely that the poet's difficulty with the disenchantment action grew out of his major structural problem, the combination of the two stories into a single plot. In those analogues of the Beheading Game which end in disenchantment, the bespelled creature retains his unearthly stature until deflated to common humanity by beheading. Similarly not until the unspelling blow does the tester in the Temptation stories which imply or actually result in disenchantment, The Carl of Carlisle, for example, lose his monstrous appearance and imperious tone. In combining the two strands, the English poet—or his French predecessor—made one radical change. The tester in Sir Gawain is no longer a giant carl or ogre but a genial, urbane castellan. Bercilak assumes supernatural stature and powers only for the challenge at Camelot and the encounter at the Green Chapel; at his castle he appears in normal human form. His normal appearance at the castle was necessary in order that Gawain detect nothing unusual in his host's behavior, and so could be tested without himself or the reader suspecting that he was undergoing a test at all, and certainly not a test that related to his perilous mission. Thus, in the combined plot, the Green Knight becomes a shape-shifter, changing of his own will apparently from monstrous ogre to genial human host to monstrous ogre again. Presumably on his return from the Green Chapel, he changed once more and again resumed human form.

Kittredge was quite aware of how great an innovation the shape shifting of the Green Knight was, and he proceeds to justify the procedure of the French Gawain poet, who, he assumes, was the originator of the idea, by saying that since the gigantic axman of the Challenge was “manifestly a being with strange powers … shape shifting might readily be credited to him” (p. 108). Unfortunately, Kittredge overlooked the artistic repercussions of making the Green Knight a shape-shifter. The Green Knight's ability to assume human form for carrying out the Temptation takes away the uniqueness and the climactic value from that resumption of this human form which Gawain might have secured for him by a final decapitation. Nor does Kittredge's guess that at the end of the French poem Gawain managed to unspell the Green Knight by some more plausible mode than decapitation really affect the case because we are still left with Gawain undergoing a long and anxious trial to achieve a result which the Green Knight can perform for himself at will (if he is a bonafide shape-shifter) or at a word from his mistress (if he is the servant of an enchantress). The poet's only recourse if he wanted to preserve the human host of the castle test and the pervasive suspense achieved by such a brilliant design was to discard the disenchantment motive in the last section of the poem.

Dropping the disenchantment dénouement naturally entailed major readjustments in the plot. In the world of märchen and marvelous romances a bespelled person is privileged, and regularly exercises his privilege, to seek out the champion who is destined to become his unspeller and supervise the tests that will qualify the champion for unspelling. This principle would account for the Green Knight's journey to Camelot in the disenchantment versions of the Beheading Game. But if there is to be no enchantment, some other motive for the journey and the initial action is required. The poet's solution was to make the Green Knight the servant of an enchantress determined to undermine the reputation of Arthur's court, and Morgan for many reasons is the inevitable choice for the role of enchantress. Her hatred for Arthur and Guinevere was notorious. The woods of Arthurian romance are thick with Morguenetes and filleules de Morgain and fearsome knights on embassies to Arthur's hall to stir up trouble or to entice heroes on doubtful adventures. It is not only in the horn and mantle pieces that Morgan plays the goddess of discord. Since the poet was altering the conclusion that folklore and popular story had conditioned his readers to expect, it was wise that the substituted motive and character accorded so well with the related body of lore on which his story depended, the Arthurian legend. Indeed, Kittredge goes so far as to suggest that the English author's “distinct desire to attach his narrative to the orthodox Arthur saga” (as shown by the chronicle passages at beginning and end) may explain the loss of the disenchantment motive (p. 133). In my opinion, the line of cause and consequence moved in the opposite direction: the loss of disenchantment led to the introduction of Morgan, not vice versa. Hulbert's thesis that Sir Gawain is ultimately derived from a tale in which the hero is tested for his worthiness to become the lover of a fairy mistress was long ago overwhelmed by Kittredge's superior genealogizing, but it is possible that the English poet knew certain legends in which Morgan, Queen of Fairies, enticed Gawain to undergo such tests, and that the Temptation story in his source had brought these legends and Morgan to mind.31


Kittredge's conception of how the plot of Sir Gawain evolved, on which the foregoing discussion is based, has been seriously questioned by the Loomis school of Celtic traditionalists. Miss Buchanan argues that The Carl of Carlisle, the text from which Kittredge deduced the form of the Temptation story taken over by the French Gawain poet, also embodies reminiscences of the Beheading Game.32 The two plots, according to Miss Buchanan, were combined thus long before the French romance writer took up the story. Her argument does not survive close examination, however. The Temptation, she holds, derives ultimately from a neglected episode of the Fled Bricrend which she labels “The Visit to Curoi's Castle.” But though Miss Buchanan has pointed out numerous resemblances between this episode and The Carl of Carlisle, it is precisely the Temptation scenes which are absent from “Curoi's Castle.” These she supplies by the liberal expansion of the Irish storyteller's bare remark that Curoi (Bercilak) “counselled his wife regarding the heroes” who were his guests and that “she acted according to his wish” (p. 326). Taken together with the fact that latterday folktales make Curoi's wife the mistress of Cuchulainn (Gawain's counterpart in the Irish saga), these phrases establish—for Miss Buchanan at least—that an amorous encounter occurred in some less inhibited Irish version of the story. The connection she draws between “The Champion's Bargain,” the ultimate source of the Beheading Game, and The Carl of Carlisle, is hardly less tenuous. In both stories the giant-host says, “Strike off my head or I'll strike off yours,” and in both “the giant is beheaded by his own weapon” (pp. 335-336). One scarcely needs remark that Miss Buchanan has read far too much significance into these two folktale commonplaces.

Professor Loomis supported his disciple's thesis in a lengthy and erudite article on “The Visit to the Perilous Castle,” parts of which, however, he has since conceded to be defective.33 Here he attempted to prove by the traditionalist methodology that the numerous Arthurian versions of the story in which a hero is tested by the sister, daughter, wife, or female dependent of his host at the Perilous Castle are all cognates, going back to a root story which included in combination the two episodes from the Fled Bricrend discussed by Miss Buchanan. What makes Loomis' argument not entirely convincing is the elaborate hypothesizing he must use in order to find elements of the Beheading Game in these Temptation stories. In some instances (pp. 1016, 1022, 1025), the mere fact that an ax-bearer interrupts the hero's assignation with dame or damsel seems to him evidence that the Beheading Game has entered the narrative, even though he is dealing with romances written in the period when the hache and guisarme, rather than the knightly sword, were the standard weapons for household guards and foot soldiers.34 But particularly in his ingenious reappraisal of the Guingambresil episode in Perceval and its German, French, and English relatives, Loomis has shown that Kittredge was much too summary in refusing these analogues a place in the Gawain story-complex.35

More recently, Loomis has changed his ground somewhat and has brought forward an episode in the mabinogi of Pwyll as a source of the Sir Gawain story.36 Since he employs this discovery to reinforce his argument that the combined plot had existed before Sir Gawain, as well as to offer a new explanation for Morgan's presence in the English romance, his discussion of the Welsh tale is doubly important to us. The Pwyll episode is summarized by Loomis as follows:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (Southwestern Wales), met in a forest glade a huntsman, clad in gray wool, on an iron-gray horse. He revealed himself as Arawn, King of Annwn (the Other-World or Faerye), and admitted that he had suffered defeat at the hands of Hafgan (Summer White), a king from Annwn. When Pwyll agreed to fight Hafgan in Arawn's stead at the end of a year at a ford, Arawn sent Pwyll to his faery palace in his own form. There Pwyll dwelt for a year, sharing the same bed with Arawn's most beautiful wife, yet turning his face resolutely to the wall. At the year's end, Arawn fulfilled his bargain, met “Summer White” at the ford by night in the presence of all their nobles. It was proclaimed that none should intervene between the combatants. Pwyll dealt “Summer White” one fatal blow, and then departed to his own dominion

(p. 171).

Now, despite superficial appearances and Loomis's extrapolation from them, there is really no Temptation in the Pwyll episode. Pwyll has been transformed into the appearance of Arawn. Neither Arawn's knights nor the servants at his castle are aware of the change. Pwyll sleeps in Arawn's marriage bed during his year of transformation in order to maintain the disguise. Though Loomis, by way of forcing the parallel with Sir Gawain, comments that Pwyll “spurns” the wife's embraces (p. 171), the Welsh says nothing about her offering embraces for him to spurn, unless her simple presence in the bed be so interpreted. Of key importance is the later conversation between Arawn and his wife on the first night he rejoins her, a passage which tells damagingly against Loomis's interpretation.37 In this scene the wife expresses her astonishment at Arawn's marital activity after a year's indifference, a speech which shows that she did not know her bedmate for a year had not been her husband. There was, therefore, no collusion between the host and his wife, the chief requirement for a Temptation story. Not only was there no collusion, there was no test, collusive or otherwise, for it is from his wife's conversation that Arawn first learns (and only incidentally) of Pwyll's continence. Clearly Pwyll's behavior toward Arawn's wife was not a test and had no bearing on his success in combat. If it had been a test, Arawn would have known of Pwyll's continence from his triumph over Hafgan. Instead, Arawn seems surprised that Pwyll did not enjoy his wife—he had explicitly invited him to do so—and interprets the hero's behavior as a gratuitous act of friendship.

After establishing to his satisfaction the Pwyll-Gawain and Arawn-Bercilak relationship, Loomis proceeds by further extrapolation to cast Arawn as the legendary Wild Huntsman, whose traditional mistress in medieval and later folklore was Morgan le Fay (pp. 181 ff.). Morgan, then, if one accepts Loomis's deductions, may have played some role in the story-complex from which Sir Gawain derives, a suggestion offered on the basis of other texts by Miss Weston and Hulbert.38 But to concede Loomis's point helps us only by suggesting yet another reason for the poet's hitting upon Morgan as a means to extricate himself from his plot difficulty; it does not cancel out the fact that in Sir Gawain she and her machinations, as Miss Buchanan admits (p. 330), are “feeble accretions.”

For though the poet, speaking through Bercilak, would clearly like us to think of Morgan as the “only begetter” of Gawain's adventure, effectually she is not. Her effective life in the poem is local, restricted to the few lines in which Bercilak tells us the reason for his journey to Camelot. If something had been said or insinuated about Morgan or an unnamed enchantress in the challenge scene or if the shriveled hag at the castle had acted in some sinister fashion, Bercilak's explanation might then have carried a measure of plausibility. As the poem stands, his words are inert. The old woman functions solely as a foil to enhance the beauty of Gawain's temptress; nothing of our image of her is altered by what Bercilak has said, no suspicions confirmed. It seems thus less than shrewd to speak seriously of Morgan as “the moving force … of the entire plot” when the plot has moved so sturdily to its conclusion without even an allusion to her.

Two lines of Bercilak's (2361-62) further badly undermine Morgan's right to be called the “only begetter” of Gawain's adventure: the speech in which he tells Gawain that he himself was solely responsible for the lady's testing of Gawain. The Temptation, thus, becomes Bercilak's private prank and is set apart from the Beheading Game inspired by Morgan. Presumably, even had Gawain succumbed to the lady's wiles, he would not have been fatally decapitated but would have only received a deeper wound, since Gawain's contract, so far as Morgan is concerned, is fulfilled when he fearlessly and bravely presents himself for the Green Knight's return blow. One would like to explain these lines away as the vestiges of a previous version of the story. They clearly belong to the new dispensation, however. They could not have come from a disenchantment story, for a bespelled creature would hardly jeopardize his chance for freedom by inventing gratuitous tests to hamper his prospective rescuer.

Try as we may to justify the poet's methods, we cannot get around the stubbornly solid impression that he fails to convince us that Morgan is organic to the poem. She is not, of course, the only thread imperfectly woven into the narrative. An overly literal-minded student may well be given even more trouble by the green lace which Bercilak's lady forces upon Gawain, for the possession of the amulet undoubtedly detracts from his display of courage. Fortunately these few loose threads do not vitiate the poet's achievement in any significant way. No sophisticated reader will be deeply disturbed to realize that Sir Gawain, like Gawain, is not quite perfection.


  1. Histoire littéraire de la France, XXX (Paris, 1888), 73.

  2. G. L. Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916), p. 136.

  3. Op. cit., p. 131.

  4. J. R. Hulbert, “Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyȝt,Modern Philology, XIII (1915-16), 454, 462.

  5. “The Role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,ELH, XVII (1950), 241-251.

  6. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, eds. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon (Oxford, 1936), l. 231. All quotations from Sir Gawain will be taken from this edition.

  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Sir Israel Gollancz, with introductory essays by Mabel Day and Mary S. Serjeantson, EETS, 210 (London, 1940), p. 102. Cp. G. J. Engelhardt, “The Predicament of Gawain,” Modern Language Quarterly, XVI (1955), 224 n.

  8. Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, transl. G. H. Gerould (New York, 1935), p. 141.

  9. The College Survey of English Literature, eds. B. J. Whiting et al. (New York, 1942), I, 118.

  10. Fled Bricrend; see Kittredge, p. 12.

  11. Baughan, p. 247; Kittredge, p. 132.

  12. Vulgate Versions of Arthurian Romances, ed. H. O. Sommer (Washington, 1908-16), IV, 140 ff.

  13. B. J. Whiting, “Gawain, His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale,Mediaeval Studies, IX (1947), 196 ff.

  14. L. A. Paton. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Boston, 1903), p. 13.

  15. Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1947), II, 597 (Caxton, X, 17).

  16. Lestoire del Saint Graal, Sommer, op. cit., I, 451-2; Livre d'Artus, Sommer, VII, 164; Paton, op. cit., pp. 62, 225 ff.; cp. Tolkien and Gordon, p. 115.

  17. Les Prophécies de Merlin, ed. L. A. Paton (New York, 1926-7), I, 413-414; Le Roman en Prose de Tristan, ed. Eilert Löseth (Paris, 1891), p. 360; Malory, ed. Vinaver, II, 641-643 (Caxton, X, 37).

  18. Merlin, eds. Gaston Paris and Jacob Ulrich, SATF (Paris, 1886), I, 166.

  19. On evil significance of colors used to describe Morgan, see J. F. Eagan, “The Import of Color Symbolism in Sir Gawain,Saint Louis University Studies, I (1949), 75-76.

  20. Paton, Fairy Mythology, pp. 25 ff.

  21. Ibid., pp. 60 ff.; cp. Livre d'Artus, Sommer VII, 135 f.

  22. Roman de Troie, ed. Constans, SATF (Paris, 1904), I, 434 f., ll. 8023 ff. Cp. Paton, Fairy Mythology, p. 21 and R. S. Loomis, “Morgain la Fée and the Celtic Goddesses,” Speculum, XX (1945), 183-186, 202.

  23. Sommer, IV, 117 ff.

  24. Huon de Bordeaus, eds. F. Guessard and C. Grandmaison (Paris, 1860), ll. 9, 10, 379-380, 382; Paton, Fairy Mythology, pp. 50, 61, 124.

  25. Merlin, eds. Paris and Ulrich, II, 189, 212-213; cp. Malory, ed. Vinaver, I, 149 f. (Caxton, IV, 13).

  26. Löseth, Tristan, p. 137.

  27. Brun de la Montaigne, ed. Paul Meyer, SATF (Paris, 1875), ll. 3253, 3399; Löseth, Tristan, pp. 96, 118; Paton, Fairy Mythology, pp. 17-18, 74 ff.

  28. Löseth, Tristan, pp. 191 ff.; Les Prophécies de Merlin, ed. Paton, I, 414; cp. Malory, ed. Vinaver, II, 643 ff. (Caxton, X, 38).

  29. Sommer, III, 409-411.

  30. Kittredge, p. 106.

  31. See J. L. Weston, The Legend of Sir Gawain (London, 1897), pp. 45 ff. and Hulbert, Modern Philology, XIII, 458 ff.

  32. Alice Buchanan, “The Irish Framework of Gawain and the Green Knight,PMLA, XLVII (1932), 315-338.

  33. PMLA, XLVIII (1933), 1000-1035. Professor Loomis has generously written me that he now realizes that “the Temptation then in the various stories owed little to the role of Bláthnat [Curoi's wife] in ‘The Visit to Curoi's Castle’ and far more to the Welsh traditions of Pwyll and Arawn's wife and the Breton traditions of Morgain.” His 1943 article cited below marks the shift of opinion.

  34. See Volkmar Bach, Die Angriffswaffen in der Altfranzösischen Artus- und Abenteuer-Romanen (Marburg, 1887), pp. 45-47, 127-130.

  35. PMLA, XLVIII, 1024 ff. Cp. 1009 ff., Loomis' notes to Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet, trans. K. G. T. Webster (New York, 1951), pp. 171-173, and his Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes (New York, 1949), pp. 417-420. The Guingambresil episode was put forward as the source of Sir Gawain by Miss M. C. Thomas, Syr Gawayne and the Green Knight (Zurich, 1883); Kittredge dismisses her work, p. 294.

  36. “More Celtic Elements in Gawain and the Green Knight,Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XLII (1943), 170 ff. Reptd. in Wales and the Arthurian Tradition (Cardiff, 1956), pp. 77 ff.

  37. Mabinogion, trans. Gwyn and Thomas Jones (London, 1949), pp. 6-8.

  38. See note 31.

Reprinted by Permission of the author and The Medieval Academy of America from Speculum, XXXV (1960), 260-74.

Larry D. Benson (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20435

SOURCE: Benson, Larry D. “Literary Convention and Characterization in Sir Gawain.” In Art and Tradition in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 56-109. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Benson explores the influence of common literary conventions from the romance tradition on setting, action, and characterizations in the Gawain-poet's works.]

The Gawain-poet's debt to romance tradition is most clearly and significantly evident not in his dependence on specific sources such as Caradoc but in his use of the general stock of literary conventions that were the common property of all romancers. We have already considered some of them in our discussion of the temptation episode, but their influence is not restricted to that part of the narrative; the poet drew on them for much of his settings, his actions, and, most important, his characterizations. Critics of Sir Gawain have seldom paid much attention to this fact, though it is just what one would expect of a poem written in so notoriously conventional a genre as romance; W. P. Ker speculated that when two romancers met to talk shop their first words must have been, “Where do you put your Felon Red Knight? Where do you put your doing away with the Ill Custom? Or your tournaments?”1 No doubt the Gawain-poet would have joined in the conversation enthusiastically, and certainly he could have given those romancers some pointers on the use of the “Potiphar's Wife,” the “Imperious Host,” and even the “Felon Red Knight.” The conversation might soon have turned to more technical and less obvious matters, for romance is such a conventional genre that a poet need not merely repeat the conventional patterns. He can play upon them, invoking them by allusion, modifying them by combination, and sometimes even redefining them by some obvious addition to or subtraction from the stock pattern.

However, this technique depends on an audience that shares the poet's knowledge of literary conventions. With such an audience the Gawain-poet can characterize Guenevere's ideal beauty by specifying but one detail: “Þe comlokest to discrye / Þer glent with yȝen gray” (vv. 81-82); the “yȝen gray” alone evoke the whole stock descriptio feminae pulchritudinis with the gray eyes, golden hair, snow-white skin, and delicate limbs that were the conventional marks of literary beauty, as familiar to the audience as to the poet.2 Without such an audience the mention of only the gray eyes, so unusual in real life, is simply puzzling, and the reader must either interpret the “yȝen gray” symbolically (one critic took them to mean “innocence accused”3) or ignore them. The second alternative is as gross an error as the first; it is as if a reader of the popular fiction of the 1950's invariably took “gray flannel suit” as only an article of clothing or “Madison Avenue” as only a place name.

The conventions that the Gawain-poet used to create his main characters are even less known today than the stock figure of the beautiful woman, and the conventional features of Gawain and the Green Knight therefore seem even more puzzling than the queen's eyes. The Green Knight is especially difficult for critics, and the many attempts to explain features such as his “rede yȝen” have made him more of a shape-shifter in criticism than he is in the poem. To one critic the Green Knight's strange appearance reveals his relation to folk ritual; to another it proves his direct descent from Curoi, and the ritualistic interpretation “must be assigned to limbo.”4 And to almost all it seems to place the Green Knight outside the conventions of romance, as if he were a character without a literary history who rushes as suddenly into medieval literature as he rides into Camelot. Gawain's character is somewhat less mysterious, but the range of critical disagreement has been almost as great.5

A knowledge of the conventions that the poet used to create the characters of Gawain and the Green Knight will not solve all the problems these figures pose, for the hero and his challenger are more complex than the conventions on which they are built. Yet even their complexity depends on our recognition of those conventions, which the poet could assume his audience knew and which he invoked to define his characters. Let us begin with the most difficult character in the poem, the Green Knight.


The Green Knight seems so completely mysterious that the modern reader is apt to overlook the fact that the Gawain-poet takes great care to make the conventions that the challenger embodies as clear as possible to his audience. When the Green Knight first enters Camelot, the action is suddenly suspended, and over ninety lines are devoted to a carefully detailed portrait. In this long passage the conventions are fully presented rather than evoked by allusion, and the characteristics that Bercilak displays both as challenger and as host are thus firmly established at the very beginning of the action. Of course, Bercilak remains a puzzling figure despite his obvious conventionality. The plot requires that the challenger be a mysterious character, and the Gawain-poet realizes that the most fascinating mysteries are those in which everything is obvious but the solution. He shows us the parts of which the Green Knight is composed, but he carefully maintains the challenger's essential ambiguity, and we are never sure whether Bercilak is a benevolent or a malevolent figure until he reveals himself to Gawain, and to us, at the end of the poem.

This ambiguity is part of the Green Knight's essential character, and his long opening portrait establishes this fact at the same time that it makes clear the conventions he embodies. This is because the portrait of the Green Knight presents not one but two conventional figures, distinct from one another in both appearance and implication. The description begins as if it were to be the usual romance portrait, the simple and unified head-to-toe descriptio of medieval poetics:

Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster,
On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe;
Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware and so þik,
And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete,
Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were.

(vv. 136-40)

To this point Bercilak is nearly a monster, fearful and gigantic, and the portrait is an ordinary straight-forward catalogue of his terrifying characteristics. Then, in the next line, the narrator abruptly abandons this catalogue and begins anew:

Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride;
For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,
And alle his fetures folȝande, in forme þat he hade,
                                                                                          ful clene.

(vv. 141-46)

This passage is not only parallel in structure to the previous one, it covers the same ground, going from the breast to waist just as the first went from neck to leg. But whereas the previous passage makes the Green Knight a grotesque figure, these lines make him the “myriest” of men by going back to list features that the first description passed silently over.6

This alternation between the beautiful and the grotesque appears throughout the rest of the long description. After the “ful clene” the description is again interrupted. The grotesque aspect returns, and we learn that this merry figure is “oueral enker grene.” Then the narrator turns again to the merry side of the challenger, who, we are now told, is “al grayþed in grene” in a lovely costume trimmed with jewels, ermine, and gold—an outfit that would do credit to Gawain. At this point the description apparently ends, for the poet now turns his attention to the Green Knight's equipment. But then the portrait is resumed. Again it starts at the top (the poet follows the top to bottom order of the rhetorical descriptio in each section), but this time it begins with the head, which had not previously been mentioned, and we discover that the handsomely dressed challenger has a great bushy beard and hair that covers his upper body like a cape:

Fayre fannand fax vmbefoldes his schulderes;
A much berd as a busk ouer his brest henges,
Þat wyth his hiȝlich here þat of his hed reches
Watȝ euesed al vmbetorne abof his elbowes,
Þat half his armes þer-vnder were halched in þe wyse
Of a kyngeȝ capados þat closes his swyre.

(vv. 181-86)

There is no exact repetition in these sections. Each describes features that were previously ignored, and each thus casts what precedes into a more complex, ironic perspective. As a result, our impression of the Green Knight is constantly changing. First we see him as a monster (vv. 136-40), then as a handsome knight (vv. 141-46), then as a completely green man (vv. 147-50), again as an attractive character (vv. 151-67), and finally as a grotesquely bearded churl. Each of these five sections presents a sharp and clear visual image, as one would expect in the work of a poet so justly celebrated for his power of visual representation. What is surprising in the work of such a poet is that the portrait as a whole is significantly blurred, and it is impossible to visualize a coherent figure of the challenger.

The first and last sections of the portrait present a complete description of an ugly old churl, the second and fourth an equally complete portrait of a handsome young man. These two descriptions are merely placed side by side, and they remain independent of one another. This is shown by one obvious inconsistency. In the fourth section of the portrait the poet describes the Green Knight's beautiful hood and mantle:

A meré mantile abof, mensked withinne
With pelure pured apert, þe pane ful clene
With blyþe blaunner ful bryȝt, and his hode boþe,
Þat watȝ laȝt fro his lokkeȝ and layde on his schulderes.

(vv. 153-56)

In the next section, which is quoted in the previous paragraph, we are told that the upper part of the challenger's body is covered by his great beard and grotesque head of hair that encloses his body like a “kyngeȝ capados.” The mantle would therefore have been covered by this hair. Of course, the poet could have resolved this difficulty merely by specifying that the mantle as well as the hood was thrown back over the shoulders, but he did not do so because his interest is not in smoothly combining the two figures. Alone, each is completely and accurately described. Together, they are contradictory, and what is a handsome hood and mantle in one passage becomes a grotesque, cape-like head of hair in the other.

That is why good critics have disagreed so widely in their interpretations of the Green Knight. Seen from one angle, he is an attractive character who, it seems, could have been patterned on one of the contemporary noblemen with whom he has been identified; from another angle, he is a frightening figure who does indeed resemble some of the supernatural “originals” that have been adduced to explain him. He is composed of contradictions; even his axe is at once a terrifying weapon, “hoge and vnmete” (v. 208), and a lovely work of art, engraved with “gracious works” and adorned with a rich lace (v. 216). In his actions in the plot the same contradictions appear, for he is both Gawain's threatening opponent and his jolly host, and he begins as the hero's unpitying enemy and ends as his indulgent friend, more comic than frightening. Yet the two figures that the poet combines in the Green Knight control and define his contradictions, because they are familiar and meaningful stock characters, rich in associations for a medieval audience.


In the handsome parts of the Green Knight's portrait the Gawain-poet reproduces almost all the characteristics he found in the challenger of Caradoc. Like Éliavres, Bercilak is a merry figure, richly dressed in a costume “verd fourre de erminnes” and decked out with the golden, bejewelled equipment that adorned the French challenger. Only the chaplet has disappeared, replaced, as we learn in the next section of the description, by the grotesque hair and beard, but even they still have some of the vegetative associations of the chaplet, for the beard is like a bush and the hair is green as grass. The Gawain-poet retains so many of Éliavres' features only partly because they provide a convenient framework on which to build the attractive aspect of the Green Knight. He does so mainly because they are more than merely physical features; they are conventional characteristics rich in implications of the attractive vitality that Bercilak, partly at least, represents. In Éliavres the poet recognized, as his own audience must also have recognized in the Green Knight, the handsome, richly dressed, and merry figure of the literary green man, the stock figure of the green-clad youth who so often appears in late medieval poetry.

In the earliest versions of Caradoc this conventional figure was merely invoked by allusion; the tall and handsome challenger is crowned with a golden chaplet that suggests the garland of flowers conventionally worn by the green man. Brief as this suggestion is, it was enough to lead the later redactor of Caradoc to expand the description slightly by adding an even more obvious feature of this stock character, the rich green costume. The Gawain-poet, whose more concentrated plot allowed him more leisure for description and whose purposes required that the challenger's vitality be emphasized, needed only to fill out the entire conventional pattern to which Caradoc alludes.

That this was the Gawain-poet's procedure is shown by the striking similarities between the handsome aspect of Bercilak and a fully described green man, Youth, the antagonist of Elde and Medill Elde in The Parlement of the Thre Ages.7 Youth's general characteristics—his green costume, his chaplet of flowers, his beauty—are the same as Éliavres' (he even sings a song, as Éliavres does in Caradoc). The particular details with which the author of The Parlement fills out this pattern are almost the same as those that the Gawain-poet uses for the Green Knight. Youth, like Bercilak, is a “ferse freke,”

A bolde beryn one a blonke bownne for to ryde,
A hathelle on ane heghe horse with hauke appon hande.
He was balghe in the breste and brode in the scholdirs,
His axles and his armes were i-liche longe,
And in the medill as a mayden menskfully schapen.

(Parl, 110-14)

Like the Green Knight (v. 170), Youth stands in his stirrups, and he does so in order to emphasize his height (vv. 115-16), but he is clad for peace rather than battle and, also like the Green Knight, he has “no hatte bot his here one” (v. 117). His equipment is as richly adorned with gems as Éliavres' or the Green Knight's, and he wears the same costume:

He was gerede alle in grene, alle with golde by-weuede,
Embroddirde alle with besanttes and beralles ful riche.

(Parl, 122-23)

The green costume is the most significant feature of his appearance, for in the balance of the poem the narrator refers to this character not as “Youth” but as “the gome gered alle in grene” (e.g., v. 194), a phrase that the Gawain-poet also uses to designate and characterize the Green Knight (e.g., v. 2227). Youth also shares the Green Knight's interest in fighting (he too tells the audience that he has armor at home), and he is an enthusiastic hunter, as expert in hawking as Bercilak is in the chase.

Such resemblances are probably not due to “borrowing.” There are major differences between Youth and Bercilak (Youth is a pining lover, for example), and the conventional figure they both embody was common enough that a poet need not have depended on specific works to learn the characteristics. One finds the same green-clad figure throughout fourteenth-century literature. In the romances there are innumerable “Maying” knights and ladies, richly clad in green and garlanded with flowers, and often, as in contemporary life, they carry boughs of greenery into the court (as the Green Knight brings in his holly).8 Perhaps because of its association with spring, the green costume also came to be symbolic of love, and sometimes (as in Gower's Mirour de l'Omme, vv. 17893 ff., and Dunbar's Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo) of love that borders on lechery. In The Flower and the Leaf, for example, the adherents of the flower (the faithless lovers) are dressed in a costume exactly like that worn by Youth and Éliavres, and, like Youth, they are fond of hunting and hawking. In all such figures, however, the basic implication is that of youthful, natural vitality. Thus, when Henryson in The Testament of Criseyde characterizes the youthful Jupiter as the admirable and vital opposite of the aged Saturn—“Fro his Father Saturne far different”—he draws upon the literary green man to define his qualities, providing him with a garland, burly face and brows, a hunting spear, and “His garmound and his gyis ful gay of grene” (v. 178).

There are two other late texts that explicitly show the youthful associations of the literary green man and that imply something of his earlier history.9 The first is the sixteenth-century Interlude of Youth, in which the main character announces in his first speech:

“My name is Youth, I tell thee,
I flourish as the vine-tree:
Who may be likened unto me
In my youth and jollity?
My hair is royal and bushed thick;
My body pliant as a hazel stick;
Mine arms be both big and strong,
My fingers be both fair and long;
My chest big as a tun,
My legs be full light for to run.”

(p. 6)

Here again appears the tall and jolly Youth (in a work with the same moral burden as The Parlement). The close relation to vegetation, reflected in the green costume and flowery chaplet of Youth in The Parlement and his fourteenth-century analogues, appears in the vine tree and hazel of this figure. Instead of a chaplet he has a bushy head of hair, as does Bercilak, and we should note that it is “royal,” like Bercilak's “kyngeȝ capados.” Probably the hair shows the relation of this Youth to the wild man, a more grotesque figure who is related to the green man and who is perhaps reflected in the concern with hunting shown by Youth in The Parlement and by many of the other green men in late medieval literature.

That these resemblances are not fortuitous is shown by the parallel between Youth in The Interlude and the character called Blue Breeches in the Revesby Folk Play. In his first speech Blue Breeches announces:

“I am a youth of jollitree;
Where is there one like unto me?
My hair is bush'd very thick;
My body is like an hasel stick,
My legs they quaver like an eel,
My arms become my body weel;
My fingers they are both long and small:
Am I not a jolly youth, proper and tall?”

(p. 116)

The folk play (which in the form we know it dates only from the eighteenth century) also contains a ritual beheading faintly reminiscent of that in Sir Gawain, although Blue Breeches is not involved in it.10 Leaving that aside, the general resemblances between Youth in The Interlude and Blue Breeches in the folk play do seem to indicate the existence of a less sophisticated tradition of portraiture in which “youth” is conventionally represented as a tall, jolly, and handsome character closely associated with vegetation and with the wild man. This character, with his bushy hair and association with nature, stands in about the same relation to Youth in The Parlement as the Irish bachlach, who has the “bushiness of a great tree upon him,” to the sophisticated challenger in Caradoc. In each case the relatively crude work contains a bushy-haired figure with explicitly arboreal associations, and the analogous sophisticated work contains a literary green man.

The ultimate original of such characters as Blue Breeches may well have been the “green man” or “May King” of folk ritual, for the folk play does seem to be a descendant of some ancient fertility ceremony. Furthermore, the ritual green man appears in folklore throughout the world, from the Aztec “Corn King” to the analogous figures of ancient and modern Europe.11 He is usually regarded as a vegetation spirit representing fertility, and the rite in which he takes part usually involves his sacrificial death, often by beheading. He customarily appears decked out in greenery, covered with leaves like a great bush. Often the leaves cover the entire body, but sometimes they cover only the head and shoulders, as is shown by a modern May King whose photograph appears in Christine Hole's English Customs and Usages.12 He is mounted on a horse, and he wears a covering of leaves quite similar in shape to Bercilak's hair and beard. Such facts as these have led many scholars to regard Bercilak as a ritual green man; indeed, Speirs goes so far as to claim that Bercilak “is the Green Man” (his italics), taken directly from a ritual that the poet “may have seen with his own eyes.”13

If the poet did see such a ritual, it is doubtful that he regarded it as much more than a country dance, for by the fourteenth century the pagan implications of this figure had long since disappeared. Naturally, fourteenth-century moralists denounce May dances and such festivities as the works of the devil, but the seventeenth-century pastors of Hawthorne's “Merrymount” did the same, and such denunciations should be taken with the same degree of literalness as a modern evangelist's denunciation of the cinema. Speirs, the most convincing advocate of the ritualistic interpretation of the Green Knight, believed that he had found concrete proof of the green man's paganism in the roof bosses of medieval churches photographed by C. J. P. Cave. Cave's photographs revealed in hidden and inaccessible places, visible only to searchlight and telescopic lens, the recurrent carving of a foliated face—“a face with leaves sprouting from its eye-lids, eyebrows and ears, the face of the Green Man.”14 This foliated face, which Speirs identified with the Green Knight, is hidden in these churches, he explains (following a theory very cautiously advanced by Cave, who in turn had it from Lady Raglan15), because it is a pagan charm that the stone-carvers felt free to use high above the prying eyes of ecclesiastical authorities.

However, the most orthodox authorities could have seen just as many of these foliated heads in the prayer books they were reading as they might have found hidden away on the roof, for it is a common decorative motif in medieval art, and it appears in both painting and carving throughout the period, from the twelfth-century Canterbury Psalter to Cardinal Farnese's Book of Hours in the sixteenth century.16 On some pages, such as the famous Beatus Page of the Windmill Psalter, they could have seen the full figure, foliated and taking its strange complexion from the leaves in which it appears.17 Originally the figure may have been a pagan charm, but by the poet's time it had become an amusing and theologically harmless grotesque, objectionable only to reformers like Bernard of Clairvaux, who objected to all worldly distractions.18

Such evidence of the peasant green man as does survive is useful only for showing how very far the literary green man is removed from the ritual figure. Even Blue Breeches in the crude folk play is only remotely connected to the original. He now represents not the forces of nature or the assurance of good crops but the vitality, here slightly comic, of youthfulness. Characters such as Bercilak or Youth in The Parlement are even more remote from the folk original. One may still detect the faint traces of the ultimate origin of these literary figures, but the original has obviously been refined and adapted to a courtly milieu.

The refinement was at least a century old by the time The Parlement and Sir Gawain were written, for Ulrich von Lichtenstein's autobiographical poem Frauendienst shows that even in the thirteenth century and even in Germany, where Mannhardt found the peasant green-man cults so strong, the figure of the green man could be used for a disguise like Bercilak's without ritual overtones. Ulrich's first real adventure was the tourney at Friesach, which began on May 1st in 1224. He met with such great success on the first day that he was hard put to find a way to make the second day as exciting. He wanted to do something at once original and noble—“daz niemen hete ê anderswâ / getân, und daz wære ritterlîch” (p. 81). His solution is to adopt a disguise, and the next morning he rides into the tourney with clothing and equipment “grüene als ein gras” (p. 83). His attendants are dressed in the same fashion, and even the horses are green (“Mîn knehte grüen, ir pferd alsam,” p. 83; Ulrich must mean only that the trappings are green).

The effect was all he desired. Not even his own brother recognized him, and everyone marvelled at his appearance, each knight asking the other:

“Waiz iemen wer der ritter was
der hiute grüen alsam ein gras
zuo uns her ab dem perg reit?
Sîn maienvarbiu wâppencleit
diu wâren dêswâr wunnenclîch.”

(p. 86)

[“Does anyone know who that knight was, the one who, green as the grass, came riding to us today down from the hill? His May-colored armor was indeed wonderful to see.”]

The emphasis on “grass-green” and the explicit relation of the color to the May season have led to the identification of Ulrich's disguise as that of the “May King”—the green man.19 It is this, but its connotations are courtly rather than popular. Ulrich wanted to do something unusual, but he was determined to maintain his high standards of chivalry—“und daz wære ritterlîch.”

By the fourteenth century Ulrich's disguise would not have seemed so unusual, for the green man had become thoroughly assimilated to courtly poetry. Le Songe vert, a fourteenth-century work that may have been written in England and that has been attributed to John Gower,20 shows that even the ritual of rebirth with which the figure was originally associated had been adapted to sophisticated verse. The poem begins on an Easter morning, with the narrator disconsolately mourning the death of his lady. He longs to join her in death, and he is about to drown himself when he suddenly swoons. He has a vision in which he meets Venus and her court. They urge him to cast off his black mourning clothes and become a lover once more. He refuses, and the debate becomes hotter until, without warning, he faints. “Alas,” cries Venus, “I have killed him.” Her attendants then revive him with water from the stream and a marvellously shining electuary, and they strip off his black attire and clothe him completely in green—“Entire de vert de color” (v. 961). The narrator's sorrow is gone; he accepts the new love that Venus offers him and he thanks her for restoring his life. She and her court then disappear, leaving him alone in a dry, wasted terrain. Then he awakes and discovers that he is still clothed in green, that the dry hedge is now covered with verdant leaves, and that the birds are singing joyfully to greet him. He returns home, where he is met by rejoicing servants and finds that his hall is miraculously decked with flowers and that all his black wardrobe has turned to green. By the skillful assimilation of the motif of love with that of the Wasteland (the return of vegetation) and the May Day rites implicit in the rejoicing of nature and the servants at the narrator's return, the usual lover of lyric verse, who conventionally dies and lives again for love, becomes in this poem the green man, who had originally died and lived again in peasant ritual.

Of course, the author of Le Songe vert probably did not draw directly on any ritual, for the green man's relation to Spring with its implications of rebirth were already well established, and it led to his connection with the Wasteland motif in several other poems. In the alliterative Death and Life, for example, Death is black and foul, whereas Life is a lovely figure “comlye clad in kirtle and mantle of goodliest greene that euer groome ware.” Gray grasses turn green wherever she walks, and singing birds and rejoicing beasts surround her as she brings in spring and restores life to all those whom Death has struck down. Perhaps the Wasteland motif is to be detected in all the literary green men, since all are associated with youth, life, and the kind of vitality these qualities imply. Certainly it must have been these associations, along with the arboreal characteristics of the Irish challenger,21 that led the author of Caradoc to make his challenger a green man, and that in turn must have influenced the author of Perlesvaus in his decision to connect the beheading with the redemption of a Wasteland.

However, the Gawain-poet chose not to develop this theme any further, and it is probably simple vitality that the handsome side of the Green Knight most immediately suggested to a medieval audience, for this is the basic implication of all green men in medieval literature, whether that vitality is expressed in love, youth, or the restoration of a Wasteland. Perhaps some members of the audience, recalling the associations of the figure with death and rebirth, would recognize in the Green Knight's attractive aspect the assurance that he would survive the beheading. Certainly all would have recognized the pleasing connotations of this stock figure, the attractive vitality that exists alongside and complicates the grotesque terror invoked by the other aspect of Gawain's strange challenger.


Éliavres may also have supplied the suggestion for the grotesque side of Bercilak's character. The later redactor of Caradoc, realizing that the challenger in the beheading tale is basically an opponent to chivalry, adds some hints of uncourtliness to Éliavres' appearance and actions. He gives him a beautiful sword decorated with green silk, but he also tells us that this is the sword “dont puis eust la teste couppee.” Likewise, he makes Éliavres handsome and courtly but he also provides him with a stern speech to Arthur, an abrupt refusal of the king's plea that he be “courteous” and spare Caradoc, and a brusque dismissal of Guenevere which suggest that his disguise conceals an anti-chivalric nature as well as his ordinary appearance. These are only hints, but they are hints that a romance audience could hardly overlook. The host in Sir Gawain is composed of the same mixture of courtly and uncourtly elements. Like Éliavres, he is usually courteous in speech but occasionally lapses into uncourtly forms. Likewise, his appearance has traces of a more threatening nature than his fine castle and hospitality would lead one to expect, and the description in which he is first presented is organized on the same principle of alternation between pleasant and grotesque elements as the portrait of the Green Knight:

Gawayn glyȝt on þe gome þat godly hym gret,
And þuȝt hit a bolde burne þat þe burȝ aȝte,
A hoge haþel for þe noneȝ, and of hyghe eldee;
Brode, bryȝt, watȝ his berde, and al beuer hwed,
Sturne, stif on þe stryþþe on stalworth schonkeȝ,
Felle face as þe fyre, and fre of his speche;
And wel hym semed, for soþe, as þe segge þuȝt,
To lede a lortschip in lee of leudeȝ ful gode.

(vv. 842-48)

Although Gawain does not notice the implications of his host's appearance, the audience cannot fail to recognize in the host the figure of the huge, bearded, and fiery-eyed Green Knight, in whom Éliavres' traces of churlishness have become explicit and fully developed. The Green Knight is invariably churlish in speech and action, and he is not just fierce-looking, he is a frightening “half-etayn” with a bush-like beard, a strange covering of hair, and a huge axe. This part of the portrait of the Green Knight and the allusions to it in the description of the host lend meaning to the later traces of churlishness in the host's conduct, for these are conventional features, so meaningful to a medieval audience that the author of The Grene Knight had to omit them completely when he revised Sir Gawain. He intended his Sir Bredbeddle to reform and enter the Round Table at the end of his poem. As he recognized, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain is hardly a suitable candidate for reformation, because in the grotesque side of the description of the challenger the Gawain-poet presents the familiar figure of the stock enemy of knighthood—the “wild man” of medieval romance.

This character is used even more frequently in medieval art and literature than the green man. As “wodwose,” “carl,” “wild man,” homme sauvage, or, most common, vilain, he appears in a great variety of contexts.22 He is always large, sometimes a giant, remarkably hairy, strange in color (black ordinarily), marked by a grotesque head and beard, and armed with a club or with a huge axe such as the “granz hace danois” carried by the gigantic vilain in Cléomadès (v. 2940). He is portrayed as a fierce fighter and mighty hunter, and he usually has a strange power over wild beasts. His natural habitat is deep in the forest, but in Arthurian romance he often appears as a bridgeward or porter with whom the knight must do battle. These characteristics were as widely known as those of the handsome knight or beautiful woman, and the briefest, most allusive description sufficed to imply the whole stock figure. In Hunbaut (where the wild man appears as a bridgeward who challenges Gawain to the beheading game), the romancer needs only to mention the fact that the challenger is a vilain who carries an axe and “Grans ert et noirs, lais et hideus” (v. 1473). In Sir Gawain we have the same figure, armed with an axe and “hideus” (“aghlich”), “lais” (“sware and þik”), and “grans” (“half-etayn”). He is also strange in color, fierce in manner, and crowned with the beard and hair that conventionally mark the vilain. Gawain clearly recognizes the stock figure of the wild man in the Green Knight, for later in the poem he describes him as a “Sturne knape / To stiȝtel and stad with staue” (vv. 2136-37), substituting a stick or club for the axe since, though wild men often carry axes, the club is their favorite weapon.23

The wild man is also a recurrent figure in folklore and myth, and he seems to have had the same sort of ritual origin as the green man. In popular belief the two figures are closely linked, and in folk ritual they are interchangeable.24 The crude Blue Breeches and Youth in The Interlude of Youth show how easily the great shock of hair could be substituted for the leaves or chaplets of flowers. In medieval art the wild man often wears both hair and leaves, and wild men were sometimes divided into “leafy” and “hairy” categories.25 It may have been this relation between the wild man and the green man that suggested to the Gawain-poet the vegetative associations and the green color that he gives to Bercilak's hair and beard. However, in literary works the two figures are quite distinct. A close association with nature is the only quality they share, and even this reveals a contrast. Spring and greenery are the natural phenomena associated with the green man; he develops from the pleasant aspects of nature, and in literature he becomes an attractive, youthful figure. The wild man seems to have developed from the sterner side of nature. Winter is the more suitable season for him, and, in folklore, he delights in storms and rides with the Wild Hunt. He is old rather than youthful, grotesque rather than beautiful, and he is usually a hostile figure, the enemy of the knight and the opponent of the values represented by the romance courts.

This literary development began long before the Gawain-poet's time. Indeed, the wild man seems to have entered romance, as the challenger did, from Celtic literature.26 Curoi was a “wild hunter” in Celtic tradition, and when he appears in the Fled Bricrend disguised as a bachlach—a “carl” or “herdsman”27—he has a black cloak, a huge and bushy head, and “an old hide next to his skin.” These same features reappear in one of the earliest romance wild men, the huge vilain whomm Calogrenant encounters in the forest of Broceliande in Chrétien's Yvain:

“Une vilain qui rassonbloit mor
Grant et hideus a desmesure. …
Si vi qu'il ot grosse la teste
Plus que roncins ne autre beste,
Chevos meschiez et front pelé,
S'ot plus de deus espanz de le,
Oroilles mossues et granz
Auteus come a uns olifanz,
Les sorciz granz et le vis plat. …
Barbe noire, grenons tortiz. …
Vestuz de robe si estrange
Qu'il n'i avoit ne lin ne lange,
Ainz ot a son col atachiez
Deus cuirs de novel escorchiez
De deus toriaus ou de deu bués.”

(vv. 289-90, 295-301, 305, 309-13)

[“A churl who looked like a Moor, exceedingly large and hideous. … I saw that he had a huge head, bigger than that of a horse or any other beast; that his hair was in tufts and his forehead bare for more than two spans; that his ears were big and mossy, like those of an elephant. His eyebrows were heavy and his face was flat. … His beard was black and his whiskers twisted. … He was dressed in a strange garb made neither of cotton nor of wool but of two newly flayed hides of bulls or beeves that hung from his neck.”]

Chrétien's wild man had a wide and lasting influence on romance, from works such as La Mule sanz frain to Le Livre d'Artus and Spenser's Fairy Queen.28 The tradition was so well established that when the author of the alliterative Wars of Alexander found a wild man mentioned in his source he added as a matter of course some of the details that first appeared in Yvain: “With laith leggis & lange & twa laue eres; / A heuy hede & a hoge as it a horse ware” (vv. 4748-49).29

However, Chrétien's portrait did not completely fix the character of the wild man. There seems to have been a progressive humanization from the half-animal, half-human creatures of Celtic myth to Chrétien's herdsman, in which the animal features are present mainly in similes, to the wild man of the later Middle Ages. A rich growth of hair replaced the animalistic head, and frequently the hair was used to replace even the hides worn by such early wild men as Curoi and Chrétien's herdsman. The vilain in Aucassin et Nicolette shows the beginning of this development. Like his ancestor in Yvain, he is “lais et hidex” with a bushy head of coal-black hair, and he is dressed in hides. But the hides have now assumed a different shape: “Et estoit afulés d'une cap a deus envers”—he was dressed in “a double-folded cape” rather like the Green Knight's hairy “capados” (XXIV, 13-21). In the Fled Bricrend the hide worn by Curoi is merely an article of clothing. In Yvain Chrétien specifies how the hides are worn, hanging from the neck. In Aucassin et Nicolette the hides have become a cape of the sort that still appears on the wild man in Lovelich's Merlin: “And vppon hym a clowted cote / that heng adown abowten his throte” (vv. 3153-54).

Often this “cap a deus envers” was replaced by a growth of hair. In Rigomer Lancelot meets a wild man whose hair and beard are his only clothing, hanging down to his waist, where they are fastened with a belt (vv. 2288-2319). By the fourteenth century this strange growth of hair had become so common that the English translator of Yvain, the author of Yvain and Gawain, felt compelled to add it to Chrétien's wild herdsman; the only change he makes in this part of Chrétien's text is the substitution of a marvellous growth of hair for the wild herdsman's strange garments: “Unto his belt hang his hare, / And efter þat byheld I mare” (vv. 253-54). The tradition was strong enough to survive even in Spenser's Fairy Queen (IV, vii, 7) and so well known that in Wynnere and Wastoure the “wrethyn locckus” are enough to invoke the entire stock figure of the wodwose (v. 71). When Merlin disguises himself as a wild man in Lovelich's Merlin, he wears the cape cited above,

And thereto he hadde a ful gret berd
Þerwith to han mad many men aferd.

(vv. 3155-56)

When Bercilak bursts into Arthur's court, his cape-like head of hair and his broad beard are perhaps as frightening to Arthur's courtiers as his green complexion is amazing, for they are the marks of the fierce and hostile wild man “Þerwith to han mad many men aferd.”

This conventional figure had acquired a number of stock associations and traditional roles in medieval literature by the time of Sir Gawain. His ritual character had, of course, been lost. It survived among the peasantry of continental Europe until well into the nineteenth century, but in the sophisticated art and literature of the late Middle Ages the wild man had developed so far from his origins that he could be used for everything from a heraldic symbol to a prop for an elaborate practical joke in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV, ii). He was perhaps especially well known to the nobles and clerics who, like the Gawain-poet, were fortunate enough to read the illuminated books of the fourteenth century,30 for the heavily bearded, long-haired wild man, carrying his club or his axe and hunting or sporting in the forest, is one of the most common grotesqueries in fourteenth-century art. In the “Sherborne Missal,” an English work of the fourteenth century, there is even a drawing of a wild man in a situation reminiscent of Sir Gawain.31 He is shown standing upright in the stirrups of a handsome saddle that is mounted on the foliage. In one hand he holds a long sword; in the other he grips by the hair and holds up, as if it were speaking, his heavily bearded, severed head. This decapitated but living wild man, holding his head by the hair, reappears, this time shown only from the waist up, in Jean Pucelle's Book of Hours.32 It is hardly likely that such wild men represent any beheading game or ritual. They are probably merely the marginal parody of sacred themes so frequent in the grotesquerie of illuminated manuscripts, for the beheaded but living saint (Denis is the prototype) is quite common in church art.33 Nevertheless these illustrations do show that the beheaded but living wild man of La Mule sanz frain, Hunbaut, and especially Sir Gawain has some precedent in medieval art.

Indeed, fourteenth-century art and literature provide precedents for almost every aspect of Bercilak's role in Sir Gawain. When Arthur assures Guenevere that the challenge and beheading are only “enterludeȝ” and that “Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse” (v. 471), the audience was probably reminded of how often the wild man appeared in court masques and dramatic entertainments. As Elizabeth Wright pointed out some years ago, the Green Knight himself lends substance to Arthur's reassurance, for his elaborate and exaggerated posturing does indeed remind one of a character in a dramatic entertainment.34 The wild man was so fashionable a figure in such performances that even the heir to the throne of France wore a wild man's costume in the tragic “Dance of the Wild Men” held at the French court near the end of the fourteenth century (one of the flaxen costumes took fire, some of the dancers were burned to death, and the prince himself was nearly killed).35 The wild man's association with winter made him especially suitable for Christmas plays, and he appears in Christmas entertainments at Edward III's court as early as 1348.36

The late Middle English Christmas play A Mumming of the Seven Philosophers preserves another of the wild man's traditional roles, that of teacher to the courtly knight. In this play the “King of the Wilderness” is represented as brother to the “King of Christmas,” and he appears at the court's Christmas banquet to warn it against pride, which is attacked in language similar to that used in the condemnation of Arthur's court at the beginning of the Second Fit in Sir Gawain.37 The wild man is of course a king of the wilderness; hence the Green Knight's “kyngeȝ capados” and the poet's later, apparently puzzling, reference to Bercilak as “kyng,” a reference that all editors have unnecessarily emended to “lorde.”38 The wild man as a wise man, a natural philosopher chastizing the artificiality and pride of the courtier, was a rather popular theme in the later Middle Ages. It seems to have derived mainly from the Alexander romances, such as Alexander and Dindimus, in which the learned Brahmin lives in the sylvan isolation commonly identified with the wild man, and it seems to have had an especially strong appeal to the later period, in which the chivalric ideals of the earlier Middle Ages no longer held unquestioned dominance.39

In whatever role the wild man appears, whether as a comic figure, a philosopher, or—by far the most common—as the pugnacious foe to knighthood, he is basically the same, for he always represents a mode of life completely opposed to that represented by the knight. In the frequent battles between a wild man and a knight, a common theme in fourteenth-century art and the subject of at least one lost English romance,40 “The wild man is interpreted as a symbol of unruly passion while the knight is consciously treated as a protagonist of an opposite manner of life.”41 When Gawain battles the “etayneȝ” on the way to Bercilak's castle, he is probably reminded of the Green Knight, who is “half etayn.” When he battles the “wodwos, þat woned in þe knarreȝ” (v. 721), he must also remember the Green Knight, who is half wodwose as well and who clearly champions a set of values completely opposite to those of the polished courtier.

Because in the later romances wildness was a matter of attitude and manners rather than social class, one could combine a nobleman with a wild man in the same character. For example, the carl in The Carl of Carlisle is, like Bercilak, lord of a fine castle and husband of a lovely wife. But he is also a wild man. His castle is located deep in the wilderness; he has a strange power over wild beasts (his “pets” are a bull, a lion, a bear, and a wild boar); and he is evidently a hunter, since he has a hunting spear handy for one of the tests to which Gawain, his guest, must submit. Moreover, the carl is a “dreadfull man” with a twisted nose and a great beard:

                    Betwyne his browus a large spane
His moȝth moche, his berd graye,
Ouer his brest his lockus lay
                    As brod as anny fane.(42)

(vv. 252-55)

He is “ij tayllors ȝerdus” across the shoulders, and nine tailor's yards in height, with long legs, huge arms and fingers, and thighs thicker than any post in the hall.

Whos stoud a stroke of his honde
He was not wecke I vnderstond.

(vv. 268-69)

The resemblances between this carl and the Green Knight extend even to the poets' comments on their strength (“Hit semed as no mon myȝt / Vnder his dynttes dryȝe,” SG, 201-02), and the more general similarities to the host in Sir Gawain have led some critics to assume a direct link between the two works.43 There may be a tenuous relationship, since each poem contains an “Imperious Host,” a hunter who subjects his knightly guest to a test of obedience.44 Yet the Gawain-poet could easily have developed the host in the temptation tale from a simple hunter, as he is in Yder, to a wild hunter without drawing on The Carl of Carlisle. The resemblances are due not to borrowing but to the fact that both poets were using the same set of conventions.

A character who resembles Bercilak even more closely than the carl is King Claudas, Arthur's opponent in the vulgate Lancelot. He shares some features with the carl—the exact specification of his height and his ugly nose—but in other respects he is remarkably similar to Bercilak. He is a tall and handsome knight from the neck down, but, like the Green Knight, he has a wild man's head:

li contes dist quil auoit bien.ix. pies de lonc a le mesure dies pies de lors. si auoit le viaire noire & gros. Et les sorchiex velus. & les iex gros & noirs, lun loig del autre. Il auoit le neis court & reskignie & le barbe rousse. & les cheueus ne bien noir ne bien rous. Mais entremeles dun & dautre. Si ot le col gros & le bouche grande. & les dens clers & enchises. Mais les espaules les pies & tout lautre cors ot il si bel & si bien fait com len ne poroit miex diuiser en nul homme. Et ses teces estoient & boines & mauuaises … volentiers aloit au moustier. mais ne faisoit mie grantment de bien a poure gent. Moult volentiers leuoit matin et manioit. ne ia ne iaust as esches ne as tables ne a autres ieus se moult petit non. En bois aloit volentiers.

(pp. 26-27)

[The story says that he was a good nine feet tall, according to the foot measure of those days. His face was black and large, and his eyebrows were bushy. His eyes were large and black with a large space between them. He had a short and ugly nose, and his beard was red. His hair was neither all black nor all red; rather the two were intermingled. He had a large neck and a large mouth, and his teeth were white and sharp. But his shoulders and his legs and all the rest of his body were as well made as one could imagine. His habits were both good and evil. … He was fond of going to church, but he did not give much to the poor. He liked to rise early and to eat. He did not care for chess nor for tables nor for other such games; he was fond of going to the woods.]

Claudas' favorite weapon is the axe, and his full name is “Claudas de la terre desert,” just as the challenger is “Bercilak de la Hautdesert.”45 Yet there need be no direct relation between the two. Even the recurrence of “desert” in both names is merely an explicit reference to the wilderness with which their appearance implicitly links them.


Such characters as Claudas and Bercilak could be easily distinguished from the various courtly knights with a suggestion of wildness in their characters, such as Doddinaual li Sauvage in Sir Gawain,46 because in the later romances, in which the hero had become less a warrior and more an exponent of refined and courtly manners, the speech and action of a vilain distinguish him as clearly from the courtiers as does his grotesque appearance, and it becomes possible for a character to be a vilain without looking like one.47 In Sir Gawain, in which the word “vylanye” always implies morals or manners rather than social class, this distinction allows the poet to establish the essential relation between the host and challenger and to establish their basic identity, at which the host's appearance only hints.

“Dangiers li vilains” of Le Roman de la rose was by far the most influential of those unmannerly wild men, and his influence can be detected even in the challenger of our poem.48 When Dangier first appears in Le Roman, he bursts onto the scene with the same sudden violence as marks Bercilak's entry:

Atant saut Dangiers li vilains
De la ou il s'estoit muciez.
Granz fu e noirs et hericiez.
S'ot les iauz roges come feus,
Le nés froncié, le vis hisdeus,
Et s'escrie con forsenez.

(vv. 2920-25)

[With that sterte oute anoon Daunger, / Out of the place where he was hid. / His malice in his chere was kid; / Ful gret he was and blak of hewe; / Sturdy and hidous, whoso hym knewe; / Like sharp urchouns his her was growe; / His eyes reed sparclyng as the fyr glowe; / His nose frounced, ful kirked stod. / He com criand as he were wood.

(The Romaunt of the Rose, vv. 3130-38)]

Dangier has the appearance that we expect of a wild man, complete with a club (Roman, v. 3157) and the fiery red eyes, like the Green Knight's “red yȝen” and the host's “felle face as þe fyre,” which conventionally mark the fierce vilain.49 But more important is the churlish energy of his speech and action, which differentiates him as clearly from l'Amant as does his appearance.

His superlative rudeness is most obvious in his speech, a most significant aspect of character in works like Le Roman de la rose and Sir Gawain, where nobility of speech is so important. He consistently addresses l'Amant as “vassal” and “felon,” and he uses “tu” even when he grants that gentleman's humble request. Likewise, the Green Knight refers to Arthur not as “the king” but as “þat haþel” and he invariably addresses him in the familiar form—“in fayþ I þe telle.” But both Dangier and the Green Knight would be churlish even if they used the proper forms, for their manners are revealed in their delivery as well as their words. Both accompany their speeches with the frowns and grimaces that so often mark the vilain of this period. When Dangier speaks, he shakes his head disdainfully (v. 2948); when enraged, he rolls his eyes (v. 3733). The wild man in The Sowdane of Babylone has the same mannerism: “Alagolofur rolled his yen / And smote with his axe on the stone” (vv. 2175-76). The Green Knight does the same:

And runischly his rede yȝen he reled aboute,
Bende his bresed broȝeȝ blycande grene,
Wayued his berde for to wayte quo-so wolde ryse.

(vv. 304-06)

The bent brows and waving beard are also marks of the angry vilain. For example, the churl “Rud Entendement” in The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man first appears with his “browhes fersly bente” (v. 10334), and when enraged,

Grucchynge, he grunte wyth his teth
His grete malys for to kythe,
And shook his berd fful offte sythe.

(vv. 10470-72)

Not only does the conventional vilain roll his eyes and grind his teeth; like Dangier, he also frowns (v. 3733), and the Green Knight increases the terror of his appearance in the same way:

þenne tas he hym stryþe to stryke
And frounseȝ boþe lyppe and browe.

(vv. 2305-06)

The noble gentlemen of romance seldom betray their emotions in this manner; they may blanch, or redden, or weep, but they almost never distort their features with churlish frowns. Even when Arthur becomes as “wroth as wynde” (v. 319), there is no trace of even so much as a bent brow. The vilain is less decorous, and the Gawain-poet drew freely on the conventional grimaces of the churlish wild man to characterize the Green Knight.

However, the most important distinction between a vilain like Dangier and a gentleman is the frenzied energy of his action. Dangier first appears in Le Roman leaping up and “criand as he were wood,” and the violence of that entry characterizes him throughout the work. The same is true of the Green Knight, who first comes riding through the door calling out for the king, and of the host, who continually shouts and rushes about. This contrast between the reserved, dignified movement of the gentleman and the hasty violence of the churl is frequently employed in medieval narrative; when a character in the Purgatorio breaks into sudden action, his movement has “la fretta / che l'onestade ad ogni atto dismagha” (“the haste that mars the dignity of every act,” iii, 10-11), and we recognize the momentary loss of the aristocratic dignity that befits him. Likewise, when Chaucer's noble Theseus rides to battle, his actions are described with relatively neutral verbs—“rit” “cam,” “alighte”—that convey little more than the idea of decorous courtly activity:

Thus rit this duc, thus rit this conquerour,
And in his hoost of chivalrie the flour,
Til that he came to Thebes and alighte,
Faire in a feeld, ther as he thoughte to fighte.

(KT, [Knight's Tale] 981-84)

But when the vulgar Sir Thopas rides forth, Chaucer describes the movement in far more lively detail:

                    Sir Thopas fil in love-longynge
Al whan he herde the thrustel synge,
                    And pryked as he were wood.
His faire steede in his prikynge
So swatte that men myghte him wrynge;
                    His sydes were al blood.

(Sir Thop, 772-77)

The first two lines of this passage describe an aristocratic figure, for Thopas' title, his love-longing, and the singing bird are all accessories of a courtly hero. It is the violence to which his love-longing leads, the precise insistence on the physical action, and the aimless vigor of that action (“and pryked as he were wood”) that immediately places him in a properly comic perspective.

When Bercilak appears as the host, he, like Thopas, has some of the accessories of a courtier—a title, a castle, a lovely lady, and a taste for the aristocratic pleasures of the hunt. But he also shouts, rushes about, and like Dangier, Thopas, and the challenger (v. 2289), he behaves “As wyȝ þat wolde of his wyte, ne wyst quat he myȝt” (v. 1087). Gawain raises his voice only once in the poem, at the Green Chapel where he “con calle ful hyȝe” for the Green Knight (v. 2212). The rest of the time he usually “quoth” his speeches, whereas his challenger and host shout and roar their words. When Gawain moves from one place to another, he usually “gotȝ” or “boȝeȝ,” “walkeȝ,” and “romeȝ,” as he does at the Green Chapel. When the Green Knight enters that scene, he comes characteristically “whyrlande out of a wro wyth a felle weppen,” and he “stalked” to the stream, “hypped ouer on hys ax, and orpedly strydeȝ” (vv. 2222-32). Likewise, at Bercilak's castle Gawain sits quietly with the ladies while his host leaps aloft, calls for mirth, snatches off his hood and hangs it on a spear (vv. 981-83).

The poet takes care that his audience will not miss the significance of this ceaseless activity, for he repeatedly stresses the contrast between the inactive, passive courtier and his churlishly energetic opponent. At Bercilak's castle this becomes a source of comedy when the decorous, elaborately ceremonious Gawain is pulled and pushed about by his enthusiastically shouting and laughing host. When Gawain first arrives,

Gawan glydeȝ ful gay and gos þeder sone;
Þe lorde laches hym by þe lappe and ledeȝ him to sytte,
And couþly hym knoweȝ and calleȝ hym his nome.

(vv. 935-37)

The unaggressive, and probably startled, Sir Gawain does not even ask his host's name. When he attempts to leave, Bercilak simply grabs him—“þe god mon hym lachcheȝ” (v. 1029)—and forcefully questions him about his journey. When he sees that there is no reason for his guest to leave the castle until New Year's, he is so delighted he lapses into his one use, as host, of the impolite singular pronoun—“Þenne laȝande quoth þe lorde, ‘Now lenge þe byhoues’” (v. 1068), and he presses his advantage with such excited vigor that the courtier can only submit. He grabs Gawain again—“Þenne sesed hym þe syre and set hym bysyde” (v. 1083)—and speaks with merriment and force:

Þenne he carped to þe knyȝt, criande loude,
“Ye han demed to do þe dede þat I bidde;
Wyl ȝe halde þis hes here at þys oneȝ?”
“Ye, sir, for soþe,” sayd þe segge trwe.

(vv. 1088-91)

One is reminded of Chaucer and the forceful eagle in The House of Fame. Later, in the bedroom scenes, there is a trace of the same contrast. The lady becomes the pursuer, Gawain the pursued, and when she wins her kisses, it is she who must embrace and kiss the passive and submissive courtier.

In the Green Knight this aggressive, churlish energy is threatening rather than amusing. In some ways the Green Knight is even more threatening and more churlish than Dangier, for he appears in a royal court where he disdains to dismount or even to greet anyone. His entry is in the tradition of wild men like the young Perceval in the English romance: “Þare made he no lett / At ȝate, dore ne wykett. … His mere witt-owtten faylynge / Kyste þe forhevede of þe kyng, / So nerehand he rade” (vv. 489-91, 494-96). It is even more similar to the entry of the churlish Guinehot, Macaire's messenger in Aiol:

Tant par fu fel li mès que ne daigne desendre,
Ains s'apoie as arçons, si desploie s'ensenge.
Fierement en apelle le rice roi de Franche.

(vv. 8818-20)

[The messenger was so fierce that he did not deign to dismount; rather he leans on his saddle-bow and vents his raillery; fiercely he calls to the noble king of France.]

The enmity implied by such an entry is unmistakable. When the skin-clad English Perceval rides suddenly into Arthur's court during a Christmas feast, the king recognizes him at once as a wild man.50 Arthur's recognition of Bercilak's wildness is no less immediate, and he perceives that the stranger is a foe to the Round Table even before the challenge is delivered:

And sayd, “Sir cortays knyȝt,
If þou craue batayl bare,
Here fayleȝ þou not to fyȝt.”

(vv. 276-78)

Since the Green Knight has just announced that he comes in peace (v. 266), some readers take this speech as evidence that Arthur has lost his self-control and is guilty both of a breach of manners and of unmotivated pugnacity.51 The ironically elaborate form of address shows that Arthur, who later does lose his self-control, is here in full possession of both his manners and himself. The speech reveals not the king's pugnacity but his realization that the Green Knight is, partly at least, a wild man and thus the natural foe of Camelot and the knighthood it represents.


The Gawain-poet's audience probably recognized the green-man and wild-man aspects of Bercilak's character almost automatically, but his most striking characteristic—his strange green skin—must have been a good deal more puzzling, for it is not a conventional feature. Of course, the fourteenth-century hearer, accustomed to the marvels of romance, was probably not as startled by this aspect of Bercilak as the modern reader is. The medieval audience knew of a good many strangely colored knights, such as the Green Knight in Valentine et Orson, the White Knight (actually the disguised magician Gasozein) in Diu Crône, and the original of them all, the Felon Red Knight of Perceval, who appears in the English Sir Perceval completely clothed and equipped in red, mounted on a red horse, and associated with an old hag who has the power of restoring his life. Furthermore, the medieval audience expected the wild man to have a strange complexion, and although in literature it is customarily black, in painting it is often green.

Nevertheless, the green complexion is not a necessary, conventional feature of any of these figures. Even in painting, green skin is by no means common, and in literature Bercilak's complexion has no exact analogue. Scholars have searched diligently for one, but even if they were able to find one or two green-skinned literary characters, they would probably shed little light on the poem.52 The green skin is puzzling because that is what the poet intended it to be. This one unconventional element, the only one in the portrait of the Green Knight, casts the familiar parts of that character into a new and ambiguous context and lends him the novelty and mystery upon which the effect of a “ferly” depends.

Any strange color—red or blue or purple—would have had this effect, but green is especially suitable for this character. Not only is it a logical extension of the green man's conventional costume and the wild man's conventionally strange color, it is also a color that is rich in suggestions relevant to the theme of this romance. At the moment the green skin is first mentioned, one is at a complete loss as to which of the suggested meanings he should select. Green, he knows, is the color of fairies and sometimes of ghosts—and the courtiers believe at first that the Green Knight is “for fantoum and fayrye.”53 Green is also the color of death; “His rode was worþen grene” is a metaphor for death in one Middle English lyric, and the ambiguous word “fade” in “He ferde as freke were fade / And oueral enker grene” does suggest that the Green Knight may represent death.54 Green is also the color of otherworld creatures and sometimes of the “fiend,” as Gawain calls his opponent.55 No wonder then that Gawain leaves the court carrying charms to ward off phantoms and evil spirits—the Pentangle for evil spirits and the “brown” diamonds on his helm, which protect one against phantoms but are effective, the lapidaries warn, only so long as one preserves his chastity.56

Yet, as the medieval students of symbolism would put it, green has bona as well as mala significances.57 It is the color of life as well as death, especially when it is an “enker” green instead of the pale green of death, and it is associated with spring and rebirth (in one later romance the hero is saved from death by a marvellous green liquor that leaves him with a green complexion58). It is difficult to take the substantial and merry challenger as a spectre of death, and the repeated association of his green color with nature and vegetation reminds us of his close connection with this world and of his pleasant as well as his threatening side.

The poet capitalizes on this ambiguity, and he takes care that his audience remains unsure of whether the green implies good or evil until the very end of the romance, when the green-skinned Bercilak leans on his axe and chuckles good-naturedly at the hero. If one did know immediately what the green represents, there would be no “ferly,” no suspense, and no pleasure when we, with Gawain, finally discover that the man he thought was a fiend is actually his friend. It is the ambiguity of the greenness and the relevance of its ambiguous implications to the challenger's character that maintain the balance of attractiveness and fearfulness that the combined figures of the literary green man and wild man produce.

Bercilak's green skin also helped the poet solve his most difficult problem in the creation of the Green Knight, that of combining two such disparate figures as the wild man and the green man. They are such exact opposites that Henryson, who used the green man for his portrait of the young Jupiter in The Testament of Criseyde, draws upon the wild man for part of the antithetical portrait of Saturn, making him churlish and remarkably hairy as well as very old: “Ane busteous Churle on his maneir … atouir his belt his lyart lokkis lay” (vv. 153, 162). He is dressed in gray instead of green, he is associated with storms, and he frowns fiercely. In Sir Gawain the green skin, which occurs at the exact center of the description, allows the poet to unite the two antithetical figures in a single portrait. It carries the green of the costume into the green of the hair and beard, and it thus transfers some of the wild man's frightening grotesquerie to the green man at the same time as it brings some of the green man's pleasant implications to the wild man. Furthermore, the color green, with its suggestion of vegetation, allows the poet to develop the unity of these two figures beyond the limits of description by emphasizing the one characteristic they do have in common, their association with nature.

The Green Knight's relation to the natural world is as important as his churlishness, and the poet emphasizes this relation throughout the poem, first by allusion in the initial description of the challenger (the grass-green color, the movements like lightning, the beard like a bush), then by the accounts of Bercilak's joy in the hunt, and finally by the Green Chapel, which, Gawain tells us, “Wel bisemeȝ þe wyȝe wruxled in grene” (v. 2191). Like the Green Knight, the chapel is “vgly, with erbeȝ ouergrowen,” and it is a frightening place, a chapel where, Gawain believes, the Devil might well say his matins. But it is also a benevolent place, for here Gawain, like Caradoc at the isolated chapel in the French tale, is finally brought to humility and repentance. Most important, it is the opposite extreme of Camelot, the place to which Gawain must come just as the Green Knight came to Camelot the year before. It thus shows us that the Green Knight does not, like Dangier, live within the garden of courtesy; he comes from another world altogether, from the world of nature with which both aspects of his appearance link him. He therefore assumes neither the validity nor even the existence of the rules of courtesy. In Le Roman de la rose Dangier's use of “tu” and “vassal” in addressing l'Amant simply reverses the roles proper to a gentleman and a vilain, and he thereby acknowledges the validity of courtly rules even as he violates them. The Green Knight grandly ignores them. His tone has none of Dangier's petulance, and his use of “sege” and “wyȝe” is uncourtly but not insulting; he calls himself “wyȝe.” Consequently his manners impress us more with their energy than with their poor form, and the poet contrives to make this energy as attractive as it is natural and uncourtly.

He does this mainly through his characterization of the host. Bercilak reflects the same combination of features as appears in the Green Knight, though he is a somewhat simpler figure, since his wife embodies the beauty of the Green Knight's portrait, whereas he is almost completely grotesque. His passion for hunting and the churlish vigor of his action and speech reinforce this basic aspect of his character, but he has none of the vices his grotesque appearance leads us to expect. He is generous and hospitable despite his fierce red face and black beard, and though we know that so far as the plot is concerned he is a threatening character, we cannot feel that the threat is very serious as we watch the jolly host laughing and leaping for joy or as we admire his skill in the hunt. The long interlude at Bercilak's castle assures us of the humanity of the challenger just as it reveals the human weakness of the hero, and we are not completely surprised to learn that the Green Knight's threats were more comic bluster than tragic forewarning, for the challenger's forgiveness of the hero accords with our impression of the generous host. When the Green Knight reveals his identity, praises Gawain, and invites him back to the castle for a merry feast, the two aspects of his character as challenger and host are combined; he remains grotesque in appearance and he still ignores the rules of courtesy and addresses Gawain in the singular, but he is now as admirable and sympathetic as Gawain himself.


Gawain is almost as difficult a character as Bercilak, and his relation to the romance tradition is even more complex, for whereas the poet had to create the Green Knight, Gawain came to him fully formed by the tradition, complete with a set of conventional characteristics so well known that the poet could play upon them, defining his hero through the interplay of the traditional Gawain and the Gawain of this poem. Yet, to the reader who does not know the tradition Gawain seems a very simple character. The narrator himself apparently explains Gawain to us, and when he pauses in the narrative to do so, there are no puzzling allusions, as in the description of the Green Knight; he tells us exactly what Gawain represents and precisely why the Pentangle suits him. The difficulty is that Gawain does not live up to this idealized characterization; he is presented as a knight of superhuman perfection, but he turns out to be human after all. Moreover, the knight of the Pentangle is not the Gawain the poet's readers knew from other romances. This audience no doubt did know Gawain very well, for he is the hero of more English romances than any other knight, including even Arthur.59 They were aware that he is famed not for courtesy, chastity, and loyalty, but for courtesy, lechery, and treachery,60 and they were probably puzzled to find the narrator ignoring these vices and presenting a hero closer to Galahad than to the Gawain of most romances.

But then Gawain moves from Camelot to Bercilak's castle, and he begins to act a bit more like the Gawain of tradition than the ideal knight of the Pentangle. He lays aside the rich armor that symbolizes his knightly perfection, dons the robes that Bercilak's attendants offer him, and reveals himself as an imperfect, slightly comic figure, with a weakness for women and the capability of betraying his host. At the Green Chapel Gawain changes again, for there he is both human and admirable, less perfect than the knight who undertook the adventure at Camelot but braver and more noble than the man who hid beneath the bedclothes from a woman at Bercilak's castle. The developments in Gawain's character are so well motivated by the situations in which he finds himself that we accept them without difficulty, yet each new development is somewhat different from what we have been led to expect. The basis for these changes is not the narrator's characterization of Gawain in the description of the Pentangle but the familiar tradition that constantly functions as a lightly ironic backdrop for the untraditional Gawain whom the poet keeps in the foreground.

Gawain does not come into that foreground until well after the poem has begun, for he is not introduced until after the long characterization of the court and king that he represents. Like Gawain, Arthur and Camelot are presented as models of courtesy, untouched by any of their traditional vices or even by any traditional virtues that are not consonant with their kind of perfect courtliness. This is not what the opening two stanzas of the poem lead us to expect. They are cast in an elevated epic style, and they create an impression of fierce and violent activity that encompasses all from the eponymous founders of the kingdoms of Europe to the strong men who were Arthur's immediate predecessors and “In mony turned tyme tene þat wroȝten.” Such an introduction seems to be leading to a great war chief like the Arthur of the alliterative Morte Arthure, who conquered “kyngryke thorowe craftys of armes.” Instead, we read,

Bot of alle þat here bult of Bretaygne kynges
Ay watȝ Arthur þe hendest, as I haf herde telle.

(vv. 25-26)

From the kings of conquest we pass to the king of courtesy, not the boldest but the “hendest,” and the poet emphasizes the weakness and finality of even this anticlimactic epithet by the avowal of hearsay that abruptly checks the forward movement of the verses—“as I haf herde telle.”

The introduction thus functions as a means of isolating Arthur far in the past, before the decline of manners that the romancers so often lament, and as a way of isolating the king from his own past by contrasting him to the fierce line of warriors who preceded him. Their world of vigorous activity is the world that the Green Knight brings into the court. Arthur, on the other hand, is above all a courtier whose every action is governed by ceremony. He will not eat until he sees or hears of some adventure (it is noteworthy that he wishes only to see or hear of, not take part in, some adventure) because of the custom that he through “nobleness” has acquired. When the Green Knight enters, Arthur's first thought is that the proper ceremony be observed, that the intruder dismount, join the feast, and then afterwards turn to business. Arthur is a good knight (v. 104), and when he is taunted by the challenger, his headstrong youth overcomes his courtesy, but this is only a temporary departure from his customary mode of conduct, as shown by the elaborate, ceremonial manner in which he transfers the adventure to Gawain. This is not quite the Arthur of tradition. This is a young Arthur, “sumquat childgered,”61 and though Arthur is usually the ideal courtly king, this is an Arthur whose only virtue is courtesy, known to Bercilak's courtiers as “Arthur þe hende,” a famous courtier rather than a powerful king.

Nor is the court that Arthur rules a traditional Arthurian court.62 Like Gawain and the king, it is idealized and purified of all its usual vices. There is no hint of the adultery, incest, and treachery that finally brought ruin to the Round Table, and familiar characters whose names might serve as allusions to these vices are carefully omitted. There is no Mordred in this Camelot, Lancelot is only a name in a list of knights (and that list does not appear until after the departure of the Green Knight), and even Sir Kay is missing. The omission of Kay is significant, for he played a major role in Caradoc and inevitably appears in most Arthurian romances.63 The author of The Grene Knight was evidently disturbed by Kay's absence, for he brings him back into the court and assigns him the part he usually has in such scenes.64 Yet, traditional as Kay was and important as he had been in Caradoc, he could not appear in the Camelot of Sir Gawain without marring the tone of courtly perfection that the poet is building. Guillaume de Lorris shows us why in the well-known passage in Le Roman de la rose where he uses Gawain as the model of courtesy (“Par sa cortoisie ot de pris”) and Kay as his opposite, universally blamed for being “of word dispitous and cruell” (“Par ce qu'il fu fel e crueus,” v. 2096). In this idyllic court Kay's courtly sin of discourtesy would have been as jarring a note as Mordred's real sin of treachery.

Unusual as the Gawain-poet's omissions are, the reader has no difficulty in accepting them. Partly this is because the poet assures us that this is a Camelot in its “first age,” the time before it acquired the villainies that mar its perfection. Mainly it is because this Camelot has a familiar tone, one that the poet works carefully to establish in the unusually long description, over a hundred lines, that he devotes to the court before the Green Knight appears. The tone is that of the premerain vers of the courtly lyric, of the more sophisticated romances, and, most important, of Le Roman de la rose. As Bezzola writes, “This premerain vers—joyful, sun-filled, spring-like—is followed by pains and sorrows, by all that is serious in the love of the troubadours or in the adventure of the romance.”65 In most romances this is reserved for the hero, for the young knight about to begin the chivalric life. In Sir Gawain, as in Le Roman, it is extended to the entire court:

With all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen,
Þe most kyd knyȝteȝ vnder Krystes seluen,
And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
For al watȝ þis fayre folk in her first age,
                                                  on sille;
                    Þe hapnest vnder heuen.

(vv. 50-56)

Superlative youth, beauty, and mirth prevail in this first age. The courtiers carol, tourney, and feast, and “Ladies laȝed ful loude þoȝ þay lost haden,” in refreshing contrast to the usual Arthurian court, in which the competitive spirit of the ladies so often caused trouble. Camelot has no troubles; it is like the walled Garden of the Rose or the Heaven of Pearl (another ideal court of youth, beauty, riches, mirth, and courtesy), for it is isolated completely from the world of nature outside its confines. The time is the middle of winter, but we are never conscious of this fact at Arthur's court, where the tone is more like spring than a cold January and where the narrator calls the New Year the “young year,” emphasizing the season's youth. The world outside does not matter here; courtesy and ceremony are the most important concerns, and even the democratic Round Table survives only as a name for a brotherhood of knights who take their places at the feast with due attention to degree.

The Green Knight emphasizes this concern when he tells the courtiers that he has heard of their “kydde cortaysye,”

“And þat hatȝ wayned me hider, iwyis, at þis tyme.”

(v. 264)

One hardly expects a fierce challenger to be interested in the courtesy of Arthur's court; it is usually the prowess of the Round Table that attracts adventure. Yet, though the knights of this court are also known as warriors (v. 260), they are primarily courtiers, and when a chance does come for them to prove their prowess, they are overcome with a word (v. 314) and sit helpless and silent before the Green Knight, “Not al for doute,” the poet adds, “Bot sum for cortaysye” (vv. 246-47). These refined gentlemen, more used to dances and jousts than to real fighting, do not quite know how to deal with the vigorous world of adventure that the Green Knight represents. This joyous Camelot is the Arthurian court as it was viewed by Guillaume de Lorris, to whom it was a type of courtly virtue, rather than as it was viewed by the poet's fellow romancers, to whom it was a home of warriors or, especially in the fourteenth century, a scene of sin and tragedy. That other Camelot, the flawed Camelot of tradition, hovers always in the background and lends ironic depth to this Camelot, the idealized seat of courtesy.

Bercilak's castle reinforces the irony, for it contains much of what was missing in the court at the beginning of the poem. There are riches, beauty, and mirth at Bercilak's castle, too, but there we are never allowed to forget the world outside, and the blazing fires remind us of the winter even as the company feasts. The old lady personifies all the age, ugliness, and villainy that Camelot lacks, and, as we later learn, she also embodies the treachery, hate, and deceit of which Arthur's court is innocent. Her presence alongside Bercilak's lady shows us that a romance castle can be a more complex place than the idyllic Camelot, and she, along with the warm fires and the consciousness of a world larger than the court, makes Bercilak's castle, the home of disguise and magic, a more “realistic” place than Camelot.

After the departure of the Green Knight Camelot also becomes more realistic. He has brought the world of nature and violence into the court, and when he departs, the innocent mirth of the Round Table is gone. When Gawain prepares to leave on his adventure, there is another rich feast, but all are “joyless” now (v. 542). It is at this point that the name of Lancelot appears (v. 553), and the discord he faintly implies becomes explicit when the courtiers weep at Gawain's departure and complain bitterly about the king who has allowed him to take on the challenge (vv. 672-83). These hints suggest the traditional Camelot, and Bercilak's castle reinforces the suggestions, and then finally, with the appearance of Morgan la Fay at the end of the adventure, the traditional flaws of Camelot are brought forcibly to the foreground.66 However, all these developments come later. At the beginning of the poem Camelot's unalloyed joy and youthfulness establish a tone of superlative youth and courtesy that prepares the audience for the perfect courtier who is its champion.

The poet explicitly disrupts his narrative—“þof tary hyt me schulde” (v. 624) in order to explain Gawain's character to his audience. He gives him the armor appropriate to the ideal knight,67 and he even provides him with a new heraldic device, as if by changing his usual arms he could also change some of his usual characteristics, and he emphasizes the novelty of that device by calling it the “pentangle nwe,” because it is new to Gawain even though, the narrator explains, it is an old symbol, invented by Solomon. Later the reference to Solomon acquires an ironic cast when we are reminded that the inventor of the Pentangle was himself a “fole made” and brought to sorrow by the wiles of a woman (v. 2417), but at this point there is no obvious irony. The poet capitalizes on the interest the unusual heraldic symbol arouses (late medieval audiences had a passion for heraldry, even the fictional variety68), and he directs that interest to Gawain. The hero wears the Pentangle, we are told, because it is the token of “trawþe,” and it fits him because he is devoid of faults and adorned with virtues, a “tulk of tale most trwe / And gentylest knyȝt of lote” (vv. 638-39). In the next stanzas the poet explains that Gawain is faultless in every way (so that, as we later learn, a single flaw will break the whole of the endless knot)—in his five fingers, in his faith in the Five Wounds of Christ, in his fortitude derived from the Five Joys of Mary, and, most important, in his perfect courtliness:

Þe fyft fyue þat I finde þat þe frek vsed
Watȝ fraunchyse and felaȝschyp forbe al þyng,
His clannes and his cortaysye croked were neuer,
And pité, þat passeȝ alle poynteȝ, þyse pure fyue
Were harder happed on þat haþel þen on any oþer.

(vv. 651-55)

The qualities asserted in these lines are repeatedly emphasized in the poem, and Gawain's actions are clearly governed by the “pure five” courtly virtues. When the lady attacks his “clannes” at Bercilak's castle, she capitalizes on the “felaȝschyp” that led to the bargain with the host, and she plays upon the “fraunchyse,” “pité,” and “cortaysye” that he must display if he is to remain the “gentylest knyȝt of lote.”69 Gawain is keenly aware of the importance of his courtly virtues, and he scrupulously avoids “vylanye” even when a “lodly” refusal would remove him from a difficult and dangerous situation (v. 1772).

It is not difficult to accept Gawain as a model knight, for in many romances, especially the early verse romances, he was indeed a model of knighthood. It is only in the later works, the prose romances and poems like the stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, that we encounter the treacherous Gawain of Malory and Tennyson, “Light in life and light in death.”70 With his model knighthood defined mainly as perfect courtesy it is even easier to accept the Gawain-poet's characterization, for both in early and in late romance Gawain was so well known for his courtesy that Chaucer needed only mention “Gawayn, with his olde curteisye” (SqT, [Squire's Tale] 95) to evoke the superlative courtliness he had come to represent. However, the Gawain-poet insists that his hero is not only a perfect courtier, he is a perfect Christian knight. He is presented as Mary's knight, and his famous courtesy is explicitly linked with “clannes,” making it a spiritual quality of the sort one finds in Pearl, where Mary is Queen of Courtesy.

In this initial characterization there is no trace of the traditional Gawain, whose notorious weakness for the things of the world prevented him from attaining the Grail and whose courtesy was conventionally linked with lovemaking rather than “clannes.” Even in the First Continuation of Perceval, in which Gawain is generally a model of chivalric virtue, he is guilty of two characteristic crimes, lechery and rape.71 Rape was seldom necessary, for Gawain is one of the most accomplished lovers in medieval literature. He was not, like Tristan or Lancelot, famous for his attachment to any one partner; rather he enthusiastically distributed his attentions among a large number of ladies. Gawain was “Cortois d'amour,” sadly wrote the moral Gower, “mais il fuist trop volage” (Traitié, [Traitié pour essampler les amantz marietz] xii, 2). His reputation for being “trop volage,” too fickle, is probably what led the author of The Weddynge of Syr Gawen to assure his readers, somewhat charitably, that “Gawen was wedded ful oft in his dayes” (v. 832). But it was not marriage for which this hero was famed. He was a master of the casual amour of the sort that Bercilak's lady seems so eagerly to desire, and, as his adventure with Sir Pelleas shows, he was hardly the sort that could be trusted alone with one's wife or mistress.72


In the description of the Pentangle the narrator is so positive in his statements and he so carefully invokes the force of religion to account for Gawain's virtue that the reader is inclined to overlook Gawain's traditional character and accept this hero in his “first age,” free from his conventional fault of lechery. But the poet does not allow us to overlook it, for when Gawain arrives at Bercilak's castle his conventional character as a lover is repeatedly stressed. Bercilak's attendants make as much of Gawain's courtesy as the narrator does, but they link it with “luf-talkyng” (v. 927) rather than chastity, and they regard Gawain not as Mary's knight but as a famous and experienced lover. So does Bercilak's lady, as she pleads again and again that he, who is so “cortays,” is obliged to teach a young thing “sum tokeneȝ of trweluf craftes” (v. 1527). When the temptation begins, Gawain remains true to the character that the narrator has given him, and he tells the lady “I be not now he þat ȝe of speken” (v. 1242). But he cannot long maintain this perfect detachment from the flesh, and by the last day of the temptation he is passionately involved; “Wiȝt wallande joye” warms his heart when his beautiful seductress appears.

The Gawain of tradition could seldom resist such an opportunity. In Le Chevalier à l'épée, when the “perilous bed” prevents his profiting from a similar opportunity, his first thought is for his reputation as a lover; he fears that his fame will be tarnished and that he will become a butt of ridicule; in Hunbaut and The Carl of Carlisle, which contain chastity tests of a sort, Gawain fails without hesitation.73 When Gawain is commanded to kiss the Carl's wife, he brings matters to a critical point so quickly that the Carl must hastily intervene: “Whoo ther,” he cries, “That game I þe forbede” (vv. 467-68). On the rare occasions when Gawain does resist temptation, as in Perlesvaus, the ladies concerned can barely believe that he is Gawain.74 Bercilak's lady expresses the same sentiment (v. 1293), but there is no doubt that her guest is indeed Gawain. In Perlesvaus he resists mainly because the presence of a suspicious-looking dwarf has forewarned him, and in Sir Gawain he very nearly falls. The lady “nurned hym so neȝe þe þred” (v. 1771) that it takes Mary, his concern for his courtesy, and his fear of sin and disloyalty to save him, and even then it is a pretty close thing.

In medieval literature the knight who overcomes temptation is seldom really tempted. Yder merely kicks his temptress in the belly, and in Perlesvaus Gawain simply refuses to speak to the ladies. The perfect knight of the Pentangle would have reacted in the same way, but not the Gawain of romance tradition, and it is this traditional character that makes the bedroom scenes so difficult for the hero of Sir Gawain.

Perhaps this is why the poet chose to add a sexual temptation to the beheading. As we have noted, he needed some means of testing the hero's courtly qualities as well as his bravery and loyalty. He might easily have found some other test, but only a sexual temptation would so completely fit Gawain's conventional character, and only a test of this sort would provide the rich but delicate comedy that one finds in the bedroom scenes. Gawain's problem is that he will lose his reputation for courtesy, the “clean courtesy” defined by the narrator, if he makes love to the lady, and just as surely he will lose his traditional fame for courtesy, love-making, if he does not. Gawain is torn by the contradictory demands of his courtliness, and he cannot help becoming ridiculous as he pretends to misunderstand, coyly grants the kisses, and is finally “al forwondered” by this charming antagonist whose most dangerous weapon is his own traditional character.

In Gawain's last interview with the lady the darker aspect of his traditional character is briefly and lightly invoked, and the “tulk of tale most trwe” accepts the girdle and agrees to conceal the fact from his host. There is a suggestion here of the treachery that mars Gawain's character in the later romances and of the trickery, the willingness to accept a compromise in battle, that is one of his conventional characteristics throughout romance.75 The perfect knight of the Pentangle would have scorned such aid; the Five Wounds of Christ are in his mind “Quere-so-euer þys mon in melly watȝ stad” (v. 644), but the Gawain of tradition knows the value of a ruse; he thinks the charm would be “a juel for þe jopardé,” and that if he can escape death “þe sleȝt were noble” (vv. 1856-58). His use of “noble” shows his awareness of the claims of chivalric virtue, but he employs the ruse not because of his nobility but because of his conventional faults. He later recognizes that his error has led to “vylany and vyse þat vertue disstryeȝ,” and he laments,

“Now I am fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben euer
Of trecherye and vntrawþe.”

(vv. 2382-83)

Of course, the fault is slight, and the suggestion of the treachery that is his blackest sin in romance tradition is very light. Yet the fact that he does succumb to the temptation of the lace and does acquire a touch of treachery reminds us finally that his traditional character exactly suits the plot that the poet created, for Gawain is the one hero in romance who is as famous for his conventional faults as for his virtues and who comes near perfection but never attains it.

When it later becomes clear that he has partially failed the beheading test, Gawain's first concern is for the “vylanye” that he has acquired, for in the description of the Pentangle he was characterized as “voyded of vche vylany.” Courtesy untouched by churlishness is the essential quality of Gawain's perfect knighthood, and his main concern is always his manners. Caradoc does not bother with ceremony when he leaps suddenly forward and fiercely seizes the axe, but Gawain is of a later, more refined generation, and when he accepts the challenge, it is with a long, ceremonial speech, in which he takes care that Guenevere and the king will permit him to rise from the table “wythoute vylanye” (v. 345). In that scene his main problem is to accept the challenge in the correct courtly manner, and at the heart of the poem, the scenes at Bercilak's castle, his greatest difficulty is the delicate matter of courtesy posed by the lady's advances.

Gawain consequently impresses us more as an ideal courtier than as an ideal knight, for though all romance knights are courteous none is so exclusively preoccupied with that virtue as the Gawain of this poem. Chaucer's ideal knight, for example, is as courtly as Gawain, for he is “meek as is a mayde” and “nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde” (GenPro, [General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales] vv. 69-70), but he has the full complement of chivalric virtues, and in the well-known description in The General Prologue the main emphasis is on his many campaigns and his fifteen “mortal battles.” He is a seasoned warrior, content to wear a battle-stained “gypon.” Gawain, on the other hand, has little of the warrior about him, and when he arrives at Bercilak's castle, he changes out of his travel-stained garments as soon as possible. He has more in common with Chaucer's Squire than with his Knight.

Of course, this is a matter of emphasis. Gawain is brave, for he accepts the challenge; he is strong, for his mighty blow sends the challenger's head flying; and he is a skilled warrior who fights many wild beasts on his way to Bercilak's castle. Yet the poet barely mentions these aspects of Gawain's knighthood. His strength and bravery are only indirectly stated in the list of virtues that accompanies the description of the Pentangle,76 and his battles are quickly passed over in the narrative, whereas his courtly deeds are narrated at great length and his courtesy is mentioned again and again. Gawain finds only hardship on his journey instead of the high adventure that most romance knights prized, and when he arrives at Bercilak's castle “þenne his cher mended” among the courtly amenities that he prefers. Once within the castle this perfect courtier can lie abed for three days in succession while his more vigorous host energetically hunts in the woods. Such conduct is dangerous for one's morals, since long lying in bed, Chaucer's Parson informs us, is conducive to lechery.77 It is also unbecoming to a knight of the older school. When Chrétien's Erec remained in his bower while the rest of the court hunted, Enide reproached him bitterly—and justly in Chrétien's view—for unchivalric sloth.78 Yet what was shameful for Erec seems suitable to the Gawain of this poem. He is, as the Green Knight mockingly calls him, a “Sir swete,” famed not for warlike deeds but for “sleȝteȝ of þewes” and “luf-talkyng,” and his knighthood is more clearly related to the pattern of chivalry in Le Roman de la rose than to that of the older Arthurian romances.

To a certain degree this was made inevitable by the nature of the plot and by the kind of challenger the poet created for it. In the action of the beheading tale Gawain is called upon to display only his moral qualities. Strength and skill are of no avail to the hero who must meekly bow for the return-blow, and in the temptation, should Gawain use his strength as the lady suggests (“Ye ar stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkþe, Yif yow lykeȝ,” v. 1496), he would fail the test. Restraint and fortitude are the virtues necessary to the hero of this poem. Furthermore, Gawain's opponent is partly a wild vilain, who is conventionally a mighty hunter and fighter, the equal and sometimes the superior of the knight in brute strength and ferocity. Certainly the Green Knight, who survives even a beheading, is more than a match for Gawain. When, after the return-blow, Gawain leaps back and draws his sword, the Green Knight merely leans on his axe and laughs, and we cannot help feeling the futility of Gawain's gesture. Compared to Bercilak, Gawain is indeed a beardless child. It is only in courtesy that Gawain can be shown to be the Green Knight's superior, and it is only in manners that a sure distinction between the knight and a churl can be drawn, for though a vilain may hunt and fight as well as the chevalier, he can never be cortois without ceasing to be a vilain. Gawain does have some military prowess and Bercilak some courtesy, but in general the two are opposites, with Gawain essentially a courtier and his opponent a vilain with traces of churlishness in his conduct and appearance even when he appears as lord of a fine castle. To understand how the poet uses this opposition we must next learn something of his style and literary techniques.


  1. W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance (New York, 1957), p. 342.

  2. See W. C. Curry, The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty (Baltimore, 1916), p. 3; D. S. Brewer, “Medieval Conceptions of Beauty,” MLR, L (1955), 257-69. On the knowledge and use of this convention by the Gawain-poet and his fellow alliterative romancers see D. L. Pearsall, “Rhetorical ‘Descriptio’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,MLR, L (1955), 129-34.

  3. J. F. Eagen, “The Import of Color Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,St. Louis University Studies, Series A, I (1949), 27. Despite this error, this is a valuable work.

  4. John Speirs, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London, 1957), p. 234; G. L. Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge, Mass., 1916), p. 199; both Alice Buchanan, “The Irish Framework of Gawain and the Green Knight,PMLA, XLVII (1932), 234, and R. S. Loomis, Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes (New York, 1961), p. 288, take the red eyes as a Celtic “solar” feature.

  5. Alan Markman, “The Meaning of Gawain and the Green Knight,PMLA, LXXII (1957), 574-86; H. L. Savage, The Gawain-Poet (Chapel Hill, 1956); Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, p. 225.

  6. Marie Borroff, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study (New Haven, 1962), pp. 107, 114, notes that the use of “myriest” is unusual here but that there is no doubt the poet intends this aspect of the Green Knight to be attractive. W. C. Curry, Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty, shows how often the Green Knight's features appear in other handsome knights (e.g., p. 114). Hans Schnyder, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Cooper Monographs, 6 (Bern, 1961), p. 41, is so taken by the challenger's handsome side that he denies that the character has any grotesqueness at all and argues that the Green Knight is “described as a superior, even majestic being who inspires respectful awe, and certainly not as a wild man of the woods whose savagery provokes terror.”

  7. The resemblances between Youth and the Green Knight are noted by M. Y. Offord (ed.), The Parlement of the Thre Ages, v. 109 note.

  8. For examples see G. L. Marsh, Sources and Analogues of The Flower and the Leaf (Chicago, 1906), pp. 23-37.

  9. E. K. Chambers, The English Folk Play (Oxford, 1933), discusses this history from the point of view of folklore.

  10. Chambers, p. 197, suggests a relation between this play and Sir Gawain, for which he had long before suggested a ritual origin; see his The Medieval Stage (Oxford, 1903), I, 185-86.

  11. See Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Abridged Edition (New York, 1942), Ch. XXVIII, “The Killing of the Tree Spirit”; Wilhelm Mannhardt, Wald- und Feldkulte (Berlin, 1875), I, esp. pp. 322 ff.

  12. London, 1941, Pl. 69. See also the eighteenth-century Jack o' the Green, Pl. 52.

  13. Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, p. 225.

  14. Ibid., pp. 219-20.

  15. C. J. P. Cave, Roof Bosses in Medieval Churches (Cambridge, 1948), p. 67; Lady Raglan, “The Green Man in Church Architecture,” Folk Lore, L (1938), 45. Lady Raglan noted how realistic these grotesques seem and she concluded that they must therefore be portraits.

  16. The Canterbury Psalter, intro. M. R. James (London, 1935), esp. Pl. 11; for Farnese's Book of Hours see Exhibition of Illuminated Manuscripts, Pierpont Morgan Library (New York, 1934), Ms. 69. In the plates to Richard Bernheimer's Wild Men in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1952) there are several such green men, and the margins of almost any illuminated manuscript of the fourteenth century (especially a manuscript of the celebrated East Anglian school) will contain further examples. Some of the best are found in a fourteenth-century French work, in which English influence is apparent, Les Heures dites de Jean Pucelle, ed. L. Deslisle (Paris, 1910), Pl. 47. Modern descendants of these figures are still to be found in the colophons of printed books.

  17. A monochrome reproduction of this page of the Windmill Psalter is printed in the Morgan Exhibition (see note 16 above), Ms. 102. Since the shrubbery in this painting is blue, brown, and orange rather than green, none of these men is green. However, the green-skinned grotesque is very common in medieval art.

  18. See the discussion in G. G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation (Oxford, 1928), pp. 371-87. Like almost all reformers, the Lollards and the author of Pierce the Ploughmans Crede shared this attitude, but most English preachers approved of art and even of grotesques. See G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, Second Revised Edition (Oxford, 1961), pp. 136-48.

  19. A. E. Schönbach, “Zu Ulrich von Lichtenstein,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum, Neue Folge, XXVI (1882), 314, n. 1. The occurrence of “green as the grass” in both Sir Gawain and Ulrich's poem is, of course, without significance, for the phrase is a common formula in German as well as English; see Adèle Stoecklin, Die Schilderung der Natur im deutschen Minnesang und im älteren deutschen Volkslied (Strassburg, 1913), p. 33.

  20. Ethel Seaton, “Le Songe vert: Its Occasion of Writing and Its Author,” MÆ, XX (1950), 1-16; the attribution to Gower is not convincing. The poem has received little attention; P. Meyer, who discovered it, wrote, “Je ne me suis pas cru obligé de le lire, car il appartient à un genre peu récréatif, le genre allégorique” (Romania, V [1876], 63), and C. Langlois in the Histoire littéraire de la France, XXXVI (Paris, 1927), characterizes the poem as “Verbose et médiocre, mais non pas sans agrément ça et là.” For the possible influence of the poem see W. O. Sypherd, “Le Songe vert and Chaucer's Dream Poems,” MLN, XXIV (1909), 46-47, and Miss Seaton's article, in which the relation of Le Songe to The Black Knight is discussed.

  21. See A. S. Cook, “The European Sky God,” Folk Lore, XVII (1906), 340-41; G. L. Henderson, “Arthurian Motifs in Gadhelic Literature,” Miscellany Presented to Kuno Meyer (Halle, 1912), p. 26.

  22. For a general discussion of the wild man see Richard Bernheimer's valuable work, Wild Men in the Middle Ages; for the wild man in romance see Arthur Dickson, Valentine and Orson (New York, 1929), pp. 97-156; a useful study of the wild man in English art is G. C. Druce, “Some Abnormal and Composite Forms in English Church Architecture,” Archeological Journal, LXXII (1915), esp. pp. 150-70; for the wild man in pageantry see R. S. Loomis, “The Allegorical Siege in the Art of the Middle Ages,” American Journal of Archeology, Second Series, XXIII (1919), 255-69. In the discussion that follows I draw most heavily on the works of Dickson and Bernheimer.

  23. Gollancz glosses “staue” as “axe,” apparently considering it a synecdoche like “schaft,” but Tolkien and Gordon take it as “club,” remarking in their note on the appropriateness of a club to a mound-dweller like the Green Knight. Cf. OED, s.v. “staff,” sb.1, 2: “A stick, pole, or club used as a weapon.”

  24. See the discussions by Frazer and Mannhardt cited in note 11 above, and cf. OED, s.v. “wodewose” and “ivyman,” where it appears the two words are used interchangeably.

  25. See Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, p. 47.

  26. R. S. Loomis, Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes, pp. 285-89. However, Celtic influence played only a part, though perhaps an important one, in shaping this tradition. See W. Mulertt, “Der wilde Mann im Frankreich,” ZFSL, LVI (1932), 69-88, for the French tradition of the wild man before Chrétien. Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, p. 194, n. 12, notes the contribution of the classical tradition.

  27. On bachlach see R. S. Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Literature (New York, 1927), pp. 59-60, and PMLA, XLVIII (1933), 1024. Loomis even derives the name “Bercilak” from bachlach. The derivation is based on the assumption that Sir Gawain has a lost source more Celtic than Caradoc. For other objections to this derivation see R. M. Smith, “Guinganbresil and the Green Knight,” JEGP, XLV (1946), 1-25; Smith believes the Green Knight's name is derived from “breslach” and related to Guinganbresil. J. R. Hulbert, “The Name of the Green Knight: Bercilak or Bertilak,” The Manly Anniversary Studies in Language and Literature (Chicago, 1933), pp. 12-19, offers the more probable explanation. He derives the name from Bertolais, one of Arthur's enemies in the Vulgate Merlin. The name appears as “Bertelak” in the English prose Merlin. Gollancz therefore prints the name as “Bertilak.” Usage among scholars is divided; I use the form “Bercilak” in order to conform to the usage of Tolkien and Gordon, whose edition I use for quotations.

  28. On the relation of the wild man in Le Livre d'Artus to Yvain see L. A. Paton, “The Story of Grisandole: A Study in the Legend of Merlin,” PMLA, XXII (1907), esp. pp. 268-69. In Spenser see Fairy Queen, IV, vii, 5. The editors of the Variorum Spenser search a great variety of sources in an attempt to account for this “carl's” strange features, but they overlook the medieval romance tradition.

  29. To the brief account of the wild man in the Latin source, quoted by Skeat in his note to line 4171, the English poet adds enough details to expand the description from two lines in Latin to ten in English.

  30. The description of Paradise in Pearl (vv. 73-84), in which the trees are blue and silver, is influenced, I believe, by medieval painting, since such nonrepresentational coloring is rare in the literary plaisance but relatively common in illuminated books, such as the Windmill Psalter, cited in note 17 above.

  31. English Illuminated Manuscripts of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, ed. E. G. Millar (Paris, 1928), Pl. 82.

  32. Les Heures dites de Jean Pucelle, Pl. 61.

  33. I. P. McKeehan, “St. Edmund of East Anglia: The Development of a Romantic Legend,” University of Colorado Studies, XV (1925), 13-74, believed that the beheaded St. Edmund was reflected in Sir Gawain, but C. G. Loomis, White Magic (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), p. 93, shows that this was a widespread theme.

  34. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,JEGP, XXXIV (1935), 158.

  35. See the account in Froissart, Chroniques, XV, 84-92.

  36. The Wardrobe Accounts list payment for “vizards”—twelve woodwose heads. See Sir N. H. Nicholas, “Observations on the Institution of the Most Noble Order of the Garter,” Archeologica, XXI (1846), 43, 122.

  37. “Attempt nothyng surmountyng your myght / Ne that to finish passeth your power,” v. 29. The sentiment, of course, is a commonplace of fourteenth-century moralizing.

  38. V. 992: “þe kyng comaundet lyȝt.” The line does not require the alliteration “lord” supplies; none of the rimes in this wheel alliterates.

  39. See the discussion in Bernheimer, pp. 106-20. The idea of a wild man as a philosopher may perhaps be involved in the scene in Mum and the Sothsegger in which Witt enters the great hall. He is dressed in a simple, old-fashioned, “wholesome guise” in contrast to the elaborately dressed courtiers. Furthermore, the courtiers are all “beardless burnes” (III, 235), whereas he is “With grette browis y-bente and a berde eke” (III, 214). Perhaps the beard should be related to his generally old-fashioned dress, for beards were going out of style in this period, but the combination of the great brows with the beard is reminiscent of the wild man. In romance the most famous of the wise wild men is, of course, Merlin.

  40. The illustrations in the Taymouth Hours provide the evidence for its existence. See R. S. Loomis, “A Phantom Tale of Feminine Ingratitude,” MP, XIV (1917), 751-55.

  41. Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, p. 123.

  42. The lines quoted are from the earlier Porkington Ms., which is dated 1453-1500 (though the romance itself is probably older). In the Percy Ms. (around 1650) the beard is not so prominent: “His mouth was wyde & his beard was gray, / his lockes on his shoulders lay” (vv. 177-78). This carl also has “2 great eyen brening as ffyer” (v. 181).

  43. For a full discussion of the sources of The Carl of Carlisle see Auvo Kurvinen's introduction to her edition, pp. 80-111.

  44. Kittredge, A Study of Gawain …, pp. 257-73; R. S. Loomis, Wales and the Arthurian Legend (Cardiff, 1955), pp. 77-90.

  45. P. 61: “Puis a pris unce hache grant & pesant. … Et il estoit li hons el monde qui plus amoit hache en grant mellee.” P. 38: “Vns riches roi poissans qui a non claudas de la terre deserte.” (“Then he took a great and heavy axe. … And he was the man in the world who most loved an axe in battle.” “A rich, powerful king called Claudas de la Terre Deserte”.) In Lestoire de Merlin Claudas is one of Arthur's and Gawain's greatest enemies; he hunts boar (p. 18); when Arthur is young, he visits his court in disguise (pp. 28-29); and he also fights with a club or stick—“.j. baston en sa main” (p. 95). R. S. Loomis, Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes, pp. 282 ff., notes some of the resemblances between Claudas and Bercilak.

  46. In French romance, Gollancz notes in his edition (p. 104), the name is “le sauage,” and Doddinaual is a mighty hunter.

  47. Cf. Yvain, vv. 31-32: “Qu'ancor viaut miaux, c'est m'avis, / Uns cortois morz qu'un vilain vis” (“In my view, a dead courteous man is better than a live churl”). The figure of the vilain seems to have been necessary to romance. In the chansons de geste he seldom appears, but in romance one needed a figure of the “other fellow” not only as an enemy for the knight but also as a means of defining what knighthood is. See Per Nykrog, Les Fabliaux (Copenhagen, 1957), pp. 176-96, 227-41.

  48. Le Roman is the only secular work the Gawain-poet mentions by name (Clean, 1057); see R. J. Menner (ed.), Purity, pp. xli-xlii.

  49. E.g., Fairy Queen, I, iv, 33; VI, vii, 41. Langlois, in his note to v. 2920 of his edition of Le Roman, gives many examples of this and Dangier's other features in previous romance.

  50. Sir Perceval, v. 596. The German version also makes Perceval explicitly wild. See E. Brugger, “Bliocadran,” in Medieval Studies in Memory of G. S. Loomis (New York, 1957), p. 167-68, where Brugger also cites Weston's emendation, which would make the French Perceval explicitly wild.

  51. Else van der ven-ten Bensel, The Character of Arthur in English Literature (Amsterdam, 1925), p. 137; Hans Schnyder, “Aspects of Kingship in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,ES, XL (1959), 289.

  52. There are some green-skinned characters in folklore; see Lewis Spence, The Fairy Tradition in Britain (London, 1948), p. 136, and Kittredge, A Study of Gawain … pp. 195-99.

  53. Cf. J. R. Hulbert, “Gawain and the Green Knight,MP, XVII (1915), 715. In this period “fayrye” may mean “fantasy” rather than the modern word “fairy.” Spence, The Fairy Tradition, pp. 116-17, points this out and cites Piers Plowman: “Me befel a ferly of faerie,” “a sleight of fantasy,” as Spence translates it. Spence also derives the word “fairy” from Latin “fadus,” as used by Gervase of Tillbury, Otia Imperialis, Diss. III, c. 94, and it has been suggested that “fadus” is a likely explanation for the puzzling word “fade” in the description of the Green Knight. See I. Jackson, N&Q, CXCV (1950), 24, and G. V. Smithers, N&Q, CXCV (1950), 134-36.

  54. For an interpretation of the Green Knight as Death see A. H. Krappe, “Who Was the Green Knight?” Speculum, XIII (1938), 206-15; Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York, 1948), pp. 76-77. In a note Campbell adds, “‘Life’ and ‘Death’ are equally nomina dei. Green stands for either or both.” Yet Zimmer takes it to stand for death, even though this forces him to take the revelation of Bercilak's name as “still another joke of disguise, played this time not on the hero alone but on the readers and the poet too,” p. 80. The lyric quoted is “A Light Is Come to the World,” No. 24, v. 44, English Lyrics of the Thirteenth Century, ed. Carlton Brown (Oxford, 1932). The ambiguous word “fade,” taken by some to mean “enchanted” (see note 53 above), by most to mean “hostile,” is sometimes used to mean “faded” with the sense of “dead.” See OED, s.v. “fade,” and cf. Pearl, v. 29: “Flor and fryte may not be fede.”

  55. See Dale B. J. Randall, “Is the Green Knight a Fiend?” SP, LVII (1960), 479-91. To the objection that Bercilak has some attractive features Randall answers, “We should remember that it is an easy trick for Satan and his cohorts to masquerade as angels of light” (p. 485). D. W. Robertson, in “Why the Devil Wears Green,” MLN, LXIX (1959), 472, n. 6, remarks that the green devil is not quite comparable to the Green Knight. Hans Schnyder takes the Green Knight as “the Word of God and—on a different allegorical level—anagogically as Christ” (Sir Gawain, p. 41).

  56. Editors commonly translate “broun” in “Diamaunteȝ a deuys / þat boþe were bryȝt and broun” (vv. 617-18) as “shining.” That is a possible translation, but brown diamonds and their special virtues were evidently well known in this period. Mandeville in his Travels, p. 107, tells of brown diamonds that protect one from evil spirits and turn away witchcraft so long as their wearer avoids incontinence. The Gawain-poet probably knew this passage in Mandeville, since he uses the Travels as a source for part of Cleanness; see Carleton F. Brown, “Note on the Dependence of Cleanness on the Book of Mandeville,PMLA, XIX (1904), 149-53, and Menner's Purity, pp. xli-xliii. Furthermore, brown diamonds (which do exist) were discussed in almost all the medieval lapidaries, where they are credited with the same power Mandeville ascribes to them. See English Medieval Lapidaries, ed. J. Evans and M. S. Serjeantson, EETS, CXC (1933).

  57. For a brief explanation of this principle see Robertson's article, cited in note 55; for the various symbolic meanings of green see Joseph Eagen, cited in note 3 above.

  58. Eger and Grime, vv. 69, 291-94. The green elixir is life-giving, but the green complexion may indicate merely that Eger is pale and sickly, still weakened from his wound.

  59. “More than one critic has remarked that Gawain is probably more fully represented in English literature before Malory than Arthur himself,” R. W. Ackerman, “English Rimed and Prose Romances,” Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. R. S. Loomis (Oxford, 1961), p. 493. Ackerman surveys the extant Gawain-romances, pp. 493-505.

  60. For a full discussion see B. J. Whiting, “Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy, and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale,MS, IX (1947), 189-234.

  61. This point is touched upon by Hans Schnyder, ES, XL (1959), 289.

  62. D. E. Baughan, “The Role of Morgan la Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,ELH, XVII (1950), 241-51, comments from a much different point of view on the contrast between the court in Sir Gawain and the Arthurian court of tradition.

  63. Sister Imogene Baker, The King's Household in the Arthurian Court from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory (Washington, D.C., 1937), p. 79, notes that next to Arthur and Gawain, Kay is the most common character in Arthurian romance.

  64. Kay leaps up and shouts “I shall strike his neck in tooe.” The court in The Grene Knight is much more traditional than that in Sir Gawain. The king is not disturbed by the challenge, and all the knights there are willing to accept the adventure. Such changes show the force of the conventions that the Gawain-poet is breaking. They make the challenge in The Grene Knight closer to that in the early redactions of Caradoc than to that in Sir Gawain. This is not because the author of The Grene Knight knew those versions; it is only because he, like the authors of those redactions, is using the material to write a more conventional romance than Sir Gawain.

  65. “Ce premerain vers, joyeux, ensoleillé, printanier est suivi des peines et douleurs, de tout ce qu'il y a de sérieux dans l'amour du troubadour comme dans l'aventure du roman.” Reto R. Bezzola, Le Sens de l'aventure et de l'amour (Paris, 1947), p. 88. I have slightly changed Bezzola's meaning by translating “comme” as “or,” since in his argument he is moving from the lyric to the romance.

  66. See Albert B. Friedman, “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Speculum, XXXV (1960), 260-74.

  67. See, for example, the arming of Gawain in Le Chevalier à l'épée, vv. 36-46.

  68. This is shown not only by the attention to heraldry in the later romances but in the use of purely decorative heraldic devices in the illuminated books of the fourteenth century.

  69. The relation of Gawain's shield to the action is discussed by G. J. Englehardt, “The Predicament of Gawain,” MLQ, XVI (1955), 218-25; R. W. Ackerman, “Gawain's Shield; Penitential Doctrine in Gawain and the Green Knight,Anglia, LXXVI (1958), 254-65; R. H. Greene, “Gawain's Shield and the Quest for Perfection,” ELH, XXIX (1962), 121-39.

  70. See F. Bogdanow, “The Character of Gawain in the Thirteenth-Century Prose Romances,” MÆ, XXVII (1958), 154-61.

  71. Jean Frappier, “Le Personnage de Gauvain dans la Première Continuation de Perceval (Conte du Graal),RP, XI (1958), 331-44.

  72. The adventure is told in Malory, IV, xxii.

  73. Le Chevalier à l'épée, vv. 624-31; Hunbaut, vv. 490-850; Carl of Carlisle, vv. 335-46.

  74. Perlesvaus, p. 95.

  75. J. F. Kitely, “The Knight Who Cared for His Life,” Anglia, LXXIX (1962), 131-37, shows that Gawain was traditionally characterized as “willing to accept a draw,” especially in the English romances.

  76. “Fayled neuer þe freke in his fyue fengereȝ” may refer not to Gawain's strength but to his virtue; see Ackerman, Anglia, LXXVI, 263, and Greene, ELH, XXIX, 134. Gawain's prowess is implied by “forsnes” in v. 646, but even there the sense is ambiguous. Tolkien and Gordon emend to “fersnes” and translate “pride, high courage.” Gollancz allows the word to stand and glosses “forsnes” as “strength.” “Forsnes,” which appears nowhere else in Middle English, is probably closer to “fortitude” than to “strength” or even “courage.” See MED, s.v. “fors,” and note that when Mary does come to Gawain's aid (v. 1769), fortitude, in its older sense of the power to resist sin, is the aid she gives. G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, pp. 331-38, discusses fourteenth-century knighthood from the preachers' point of view and notes (p. 336) that participation in tournaments, such as those at Camelot, was no guarantee of military prowess.

  77. Pars T, l. 952.

  78. Cf. Erec and Enide, vv. 2536 ff.

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3175

SOURCE: Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Romance and Anti-Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Critical Studies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” edited by Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher, pp. 257-66. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Bercovitch explains that many elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight run counter to traditional romantic conventions.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is without question a “profound celebration of the romance values … [of] Christian chivalry and courtesy,” and in this sense we undoubtedly have an “obligation to read[it] … constantly as a romance.”1 Unfortunately, however, the obligation seems to have misled modern readers into a disproportionate emphasis on its sombre and sacral qualities. The Gawain-poet, writes an influential critic, “is as civilized as Chaucer, but sterner, much more of a moralist, a great deal less of a humorist.”2 Such highly serious interpretations neglect the function, if not the presence, of the poem's humor and realism, though in fact these are among its chief characteristics, deliberately counterbalancing the romance properties and ameliorating the “stern morality.” This paper attempts to show that an essential part of the poem's structure and meaning lies in its anti-romance elements: in the overriding comic-realistic spirit which good-naturedly laughs at certain artificial romance conventions—and thereby vitalizes and enlarges its affirmation of romance values.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight builds upon a series of dualisms. The first stanza tells us that since its founding “blysse and blunder / Ful skete hatȝ skyfted” in Britain;3 and correspondingly, the scenes alternate between festivity and trial in a regular A, B, A, B pattern, each stage of which alternates a traditional romance episode with a humorous and realistic scene that implicitly undercuts its predecessor.4 After the “aghlich mayster” (line 136) leaves, “þe kyng and Gawen þare / At þat grene þay laȝe and grenne” (463-464), and—comforting the distraught ladies—Arthur summarizes the whole experience as a bit of clever Christmas entertainment:

“Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse,
Laykyng of enterludeȝ, to laȝe and to syng.”


At Bercilak's castle, Gawain undergoes what he considers three tests of courtesy and honor, but the aftermath of each test passes in a spirit of merriment that seems to belie the serious import of the morning exchange. Directly following the first temptation “ho gef hym god day, and wyth a glent laȝed” (1290); after the lady's second, stronger attempt “þay laȝed and layked longe” (1554); and on the third afternoon Gawain

                    mace hym as mery among þe fre ladyes,
With comlych caroles and alle kynnes ioye,
As neuer he did bot þat daye, to þe derk nyȝt,
                                        with blys.


In every case, the relaxation of tension reduces the temptation, in retrospect, to a game—as in fact, from the lady's viewpoint, it is. Similarly, the climactic second part of the Beheading Game leads into a general unmasking where we learn that the challenge, the blows, and the Green Knight himself were one huge hoax, and that the enchantress herself has only the friendliest feelings towards her nephew (2452-68).5 Far from uniting the various elements of romance, the dénouement brings to the fore the comic-realistic countercurrent of human warmth and Christian forgiveness.

The same dualism characterizes each scene in itself. At Camelot the realistic setting stands in deliberate contrast to the Green Knight's antics. Only after the Christmas festivities have sprung vividly to life, and Arthur—“so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered” (86)—has called for some diversion from the usual, does the Green Knight enter. Strutting back and forth, he twists his beard, rolls his eyes, brags and taunts (304-322)—and yet for all this “Wel gay watȝ þis gome” (179), “þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride” (142). At first sight he appears “On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe” (137); upon closer inspection he turns out to be only “Herre þen ani in þe hous by þe hede and more” (333). And, post facto, his terrible challenge hardly terrifies the king. “‘If þou redeȝ hym ryȝt,’” Arthur promises Gawain,

                    “redly I trowe
Þat þou schal byden þe bur þat he schal bede after.”


One by one the supernatural implications dissolve until it all seems, finally, just what the Green Knight promised at the outset, “a Crystemas gomen” (283). But the onlookers tremble credulously while it lasts—and for that very reason they are slyly poked fun at. A satirical note underlies the description of the court's awe at the exaggerated buffoonery of the Green Knight (237-249), and of its imagining the tall knight (333) to be “Half etayn” (140). This note of levity continues to the end of the first fit, through the mock-serious tone of Arthur's warning to his knight (487-490) to Gawain's too solemn farewell—“He wende for euer more” (669)—as he sets out on his journey.

The artificial romance atmosphere is further opposed by the vivid realism of Gawain's journey. The wasteland through which the romance hero travels invariably involves supernatural peril and incidental combat; but the “wormeȝ” (720) and “wodwos” (721) which Gawain encounters receive the most cursory treatment, and present ineffectual if not absurd obstacles in the striking naturalism of the landscape:

Þe hasel and þe haȝþorne were harled al samen,
With roȝe raged mosse rayled aywhere,
With mony bryddeȝ vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.


Even his battles with the inevitable “etayneȝ” (723) dim beside the harshness of the weather:

For were wrathed hym not so much, þat wynter was wors.


Consistent with the tone and meaning of the poem, the juxtaposition of actuality with the marvelous becomes largely a means of stressing the former. By their very ineffectuality, the fanciful “werreȝ” direct the reader's attention to the natural hardships of the journey—an insistence upon reality which serves for a sophisticated audience to enhance the knight's heroic perseverence.

With a similar counter-romance effect, piety, elegance, and courtesy set the tone at Bercilak's halls; the magic antagonist and his retinue offer the stranger warm hospitality and display exemplary courtly behavior. The Christmas celebrations have all the realism of the Camelot setting; the solemn religious observances perhaps suggest a reprimand to Arthur's court;6 and the glowing detail of castle life continues in the character portrayals, which create in Bercilak and the ladies (disguises and enchantments notwithstanding) impressively real people. Similarly, the deer, the boar, and the fox, whatever their emblematic meanings,7 are real animals. The hunts form an accurate picture of actual practice,8 and moreover add a second foil to the romance-conventions aspect of Gawain's journey. Nature may produce satyrs, serpents, and giants, but here it reveals itself to be primarily the home of the wild game that provides civilized man with pleasant sport and with “dayntés” (1401) for his festivities. Nowhere at the castle of the Green Knight and of “Morgne þe goddes” (2452) is there a hint of magic or enchantment. Where supernaturalism should most abound, the poem's realism most attractively affirms knightly life and values.

Finally, magic and the natural contend in the dual nature of the Green Chapel. On one hand the place corresponds, in appearance and in name, to the entrance to the fairy Other-World.9 But on the other hand Gawain's surprise at finding “nobot an olde caue” (2182) expresses the true state of things. The “vgly oritore” (2190) may prove to be witches' heath, as Gawain fears (2195); in fact, it is simply what it seems to be, an earthen mound. This second, accurate view of the Green Chapel coincides with the use of green imagery throughout the poem as at once fairy color and color of nature (e.g., 166-167, 525-527). It is in keeping, too, with the Green Chapel as background for the disenchanting—and humanizing—realism of the Beheading Game finale.

The characters, like the scenes of the poem, develop through reversals, contrasts, and parallels. Crabbed age highlights Bercilak's wife's youthful beauty, and Gawain's greeting to the two ladies perhaps smiles at his chivalry:

When Gawayn glyȝt on þat gay, þat graciously loked,
Wyth leue laȝt of þe lorde he went hem aȝaynes;
                    Þe alder he haylses, heldande ful lowe,
                    Þe loueloker he lappeȝ a littel in armeȝ,
                    He kysses hir comlyly, and knyȝtly he meleȝ.


In any case, the more interesting counterplay lies between the real and the pretended self in each of them. The young lady is both temptress and faithful wife; her temptations, accordingly, complement the Beheading Game in that the disguised antagonist is at once testing and jesting with Gawain's courtesy. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, a prominent convention of romance compels the courteous knight to adultery,10 and Gawain's discomfort in the bedchamber conversations stems largely from his hostess's harping on his renowned courteousness. “For I wene wel, iwysse, Sir Wowen ȝe are,” she tells him at the outset. “Your honour, your hendelayk is hendely praysed” (1226, 1228). This note returns insistently on the following days. Twice she asks him pointedly why he does not act according to the customs of chivalry:

“Sir, ȝif ȝe be Wawen, wonder me þynkkeȝ,
Wyȝe þat is so wel wrast alway to god,
And conneȝ not of compaynye þe costeȝ vndertake.”


“And ȝe, þat ar so cortays and coynt of your hetes,
Oghe to a ȝonke þynk ȝern to schewe
And teche sum tokeneȝ of trweluf craftes.”


The tension and the sparkling wit of the temptations center in this play on chivalric values: the lady's surprise that one “so cortays” restrains himself in love and (on the other hand) Gawain's overriding concern “for his cortaysye lest craþayn he were” (1773). To round out the comic impasse of his predicament, the lady pretends to rely on Gawain's courtesy to keep secret the gift of the green lace. In all its forms her masquerade laughs at the “trweluf craftes” of romance heroes; and the force of the satire derives from the fact that she remains true to her husband all along. Like Bercilak at Arthur's court, she is making merry with romance conventions; and like Bercilak's, her sport deepens the import of Gawain's sense of honor precisely by supplanting the atmosphere of rigid knightly heroes with one of psychological realism.

The old woman is so peripheral and her unmasking as Morgan le Fay so unintegral to Gawain's adventure, that her meaning suggests itself only indirectly, as a reflection of larger themes and attitudes. In the context, then, of the dualistic structure of the poem, is it not possible that the very absurdity of the Morgan disclosure affords still another caricature of the romance mode? Frequently the romance adversary is the pawn of an evil enchanter: if the hero fails the cause lies in some uncontrollable superhuman factor.11 But Gawain takes no comfort, indeed reacts not at all, when Bercilak tells him about Morgan. He bears upon himself the blame of the green lace and when he returns to Camelot he makes no mention of the fay. Despite her unearthly powers, Gawain is seen, and sees himself, to be the sole shaper of his destiny. This tour de force not only increases the knight's stature but throws Morgan into a new and realistic perspective. She becomes an anti-romance device in precisely the way of Lady Bercilak; her real self contrasts with and ultimately serves to deflate her enchanted alter ego, to the enrichment of the narrative as a whole. Just as at the last the temptress stands revealed as the faithful wife, so the fearful fay seems, when all is said, a rather sentimental, kindly, and honored old lady.

A similar personality split offsets the romance qualities of the Green Knight. Bercilak shows himself a genial host whose great capacity for enjoyment and bounty of nature match those of the magic Challenger. If one is a figure of fun, the other is funloving; the “behooding” game which Bercilak proposes upon Gawain's arrival (983-984) parallels the Beheading Game at Camelot. But the Lord of Hautdesert is also a sophisticated gentleman, and as such he contrasts with the “gomen in grene.” His histrionics in Arthur's court seem ludicrously overdone not only because of the realism of the setting but equally because the actor is a devout and urbane aristocrat. So, too, at the Green Chapel Gawain's “aghlich” antagonist becomes his own parody. His overelaborate gestures (2231-34, 2261-63) and his rude mockery of the hero (2269-73)—both characteristic of romance—are twitted in the humaneness he displays a moment later:

“Bolde burne, on þis bent be not so gryndel.
No mon here vnmanerly þe mysboden habbeȝ.
Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses,
And hatȝ þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge,
I halde þe polysed of þat plyȝt, and pured as clene
As þou hadeȝ neuer forfeted syþen þou watȝ fyrst borne;
And I gif þe, sir, þe gurdel. …”


Most clearly, Bercilak's anti-romance qualities stand out in opposition to Gawain. Gawain undergoes two tests, the challenge and the temptation. His courage in the former complements his loyalty in the latter and if finally he falls short of perfection in both situations he remains eminently correct throughout. This knightly correctness becomes the butt of the character contrast between his host and himself. His self-conscious sense of propriety turns into a source of Gawain's embarrassment; Bercilak, on the contrary, grows in personal force by virtue of his exuberant human warmth and flexibility. When he learns that Gawain has arrived at his castle, “Loude laȝed he þerat” (909)—a generous and delighted, not a threatening laughter. The gift-exchange pact which Gawain treats so earnestly is for him a form of Christmas sport (1086-93, 1122-25). He does question his guest about his gifts, but when he is rather stiffly refused an answer he “laȝed, and made hem blyþe” (1398). Similarly, after the exchange on the third evening,

Þay maden as mery as any men moȝten—
With laȝyng of ladies, with loteȝ of bordes
Gawayn and þe gode mon so glad were þay boþe,


though presumably Bercilak knows of Gawain's foxiness. With laughter, too, at the Green Chapel, he minimizes the importance of the hidden lace (2389) and reassures the knight that he remains “þe fautlest freke þat euer on fote ȝede” (2363). Again and again his tolerance and mirth contrast with Gawain's concern for perfection until, at the end, Gawain's penance seems un peu de trop, he takes himself too seriously. Three times he curses his “cowarddyse and couetyse” (2374) though both Bercilak and Arthur bring out the comic aspect of his “meschaunce.” True, he sheds blood for his failure, but the “snyrt” on his neck (2312) signifies neither malice nor danger, and the total effect of the scene—the blood spurts upon the snow, Gawain leaps free (2314-16)—indicates that his imperfection figures in his deliverance. In precisely this spirit Arthur later “comforteȝ þe knyȝt, and alle þe court als”—adopting the green lace as a token of their “broþerhede” in a sort of symbolic repudiation of the “romance maxim … [that] the hero is a superman”12—“Laȝen loude þerat” (2513-14).

In one sense, such anti-romance laughter almost turns Gawain into the jest of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It makes light of his ordeals, it contrasts a buoyant natural vitality to his chivalric pride, it even seems subtly to belittle the enchantments that leave the hero a sadder and a wiser man. But this is to confuse means with ends. Though the laughter of Bercilak and his lady, of Arthur and his court, tempers Gawain's anguish, this laughter, far from decrying the knight's morality, in effect adds another dimension to it. Though Gawain is sometimes ridiculed, his courtesy, because thus humanized, provides the pattern of civilization, of good breeding and proper conduct. As the “literary” romance elements are subverted, the poem becomes a “profound celebration” of courtly life and ideals, through the triumphant balance of humor and realism.


  1. Alan M. Markman, “The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” PMLA, lxxii (1957), 586.

  2. Dorothy Everett, “The Alliterative Revival,” in Essays on Middle English Literature (Oxford, 1955), p. 85.

  3. Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), lines 18-19. All quotations from the poem are taken from this edition.

  4. If A represents a realistic scene and B one of romance, the poem follows the pattern A, B, A (first fit); A, B, A (second fit); B, A-B, A-B, A (third fit); B, B-A, A (fourth fit). The shift of alternation in the last fit helps, first, to heighten the tension, and second, to reinforce the humorous and realistic conclusion.

  5. It should be noted, too, that Morgan's motive for the enchantment by no means clashes with her friendly gesture at the end. Bercilak tells Gawain:

    “Ho wayned me vpon þis wyse to your wynne halle,
    For to assay þe surquidré, ȝif hit soth were,
    Þat rennes of þe grete renoun of þe Rounde Table.”


    According to some readings of the poem, Morgan's motive is implicitly vicious and sinister (e.g., Denver E. Baughan, “The Role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” ELH, xvii [1950], 241-251). But see Albert B. Friedman's thorough refutation of this position in “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Spec., xxxv (1960), 260-274.

  6. Contrast lines 929-934 with lines 60-70 describing Arthur's court, where the lords and ladies hurry the services in their eagerness to uncover the gifts.

  7. See Henry L. Savage, “The Significance of the Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” JEGP, xxvii (1928), 1-15.

  8. See, for example, Dorothy Everett, “English Medieval Romances,” in Essays, p. 8. Miss Everett continues: “He who looked to them [English medieval romances] for realistic pictures of medieval manners and practices would be disappointed, except in … Havelok and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Significantly, Havelok's realism also tends to work against certain of its romance elements, though not of course consciously; in this case, realistic scenes of folk interest, inserted into a romance framework by a folk minstrel, place Havelok midway between the epic form and the romance.

  9. William A. Nitze, “Is the Green Knight Story A Vegetation Myth?,” MP, xxxiii (1936), 352.

  10. The Allegory of Love (Oxford, 1958), p. 13. Regarding Gawain in particular, see The Gest of Sir Gawain and The Wedding of Sir Gawain.

  11. Thus in Beaumont and Fletcher's satire on romance, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Works, ed. A. R. Waller, 10 vols. [Cambridge Univ. Press, 1908], vi, 187-188), the husband and wife excuse their hero's defeat by enchantment:

    Sure the devil (God bless us!) is in this springald! Why George, didst ever see such a firedrake? I am afraid my boy's miscarried. …
    No, no; I have found out the matter, sweetheart, Jasper [the antagonist] is enchanted; He could no more have stood in Rafe's hands than I can stand in my lord mayor's.
  12. “English Medieval Romances,” in Essays, pp. 8-9. More generally the poem counters the “romance device” of having “every man … a hero … or a villain.”

A. C. Spearing (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9051

SOURCE: Spearing, A. C. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Gawain-Poet, pp. 171-91. London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Spearing contends that three plot-elements—the Beheading Game, the Temptation, and the Exchange of Winnings—are fundamental to understanding the meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.]


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Gawain-poet's best known and most admired work, differs from his other three poems in being more essentially a narrative than they are. It is not an exemplum set in a homily, or a vision with explicit and detailed doctrine at its heart, but a story. Like Patience and Pearl, it has its tail in its mouth; but what it emerges from and returns to is not a moral truth but the process of legendary British history, that larger tale of alternating ‘blysse and blunder’ (18) in which it is only an incident. This essentially narrative quality of the poem gives it a self-sufficiency, and independence of moral schemata, whose consequences we shall have to examine later. For the moment, let us consider the story which is the poem's principle of structure or, in Aristotelian terms, its ‘soul’. This story is made up of a number of traditional elements—the Beheading Game, the Temptation, the Exchange of Winnings—which can be traced back over several centuries, but it is generally agreed that these elements are not found linked together in any possible source for the poem.1 It may be, of course, that the poet was using a lost source in which they were linked, and that we should take literally his claim to be repeating the story ‘as I in toun herde’ (31) or ‘As hit is breved in the best boke of romaunce’ (2521). Perhaps some such source may one day be brought to light out of the tangled forest of medieval French romance. But it is perfectly possible that it was the poet himself who first brought the plot-elements together. As we shall see later, the skill with which he employs his narrative structure to convey his meaning makes this more likely. At any rate, in reading his poem, we are not in a position, as we were with Purity, Patience and Pearl, to compare it line by line with an immediate source. It stands by itself, and it is generally agreed to stand as an excellent story, admirably told: the finest of all the romances in Middle English. The poem offers no problems of structure, and its division into four ‘fitts’, indicated by large decorated initials in the manuscript, seems satisfactory and has usually been retained by editors.2 No reader could possibly have any difficulty in following the beautifully articulated plot; and when the plot is complete, so is the poem.

But though Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is essentially a story, it is not purely a story. Reading it for the first time, we are eager to know ‘what happens next’, but we also delight to read it again and again, long after the mere sequence of events is well known enough to surprise us no more. In part this lasting fascination of the poem is due to the satisfaction its plot gives as an aesthetic structure, in which the three main plot-elements are ingeniously linked together, and certain patternings recur throughout. Many of these are threes of one kind or another: three days' hunting, three meetings of the Lady and Gawain in Gawain's bedroom, three axe-blows at the Green Chapel, and many other minor groups of three.3 Other patternings involve the recurrence of certain colours: green, predominantly, but also the gold with which it is often intertwined, and the red of blood.4 Others again involve the repetition of events such as the two Christmas feasts, the two halves of the Beheading Game, the kisses Gawain receives from the Lady and passes on to her husband, and so on. Such effects, involving repetition and variation, are regularly found in oral literature, or literature with an oral basis, such as chansons de geste and ballads, and we whose training is with written literature may need reminding not to underestimate their power. But Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though it belongs to a tradition with its roots in oral poetry, is far from being a ballad or chanson de geste. These are what we might call ‘pure’ narratives: works which are narratives and nothing else, in which the burden of interpretation, of finding meaning and coherence in the events narrated, is thrown entirely upon the audience. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance, and it possesses those characteristics which Professor Vinaver has seen as fundamental to the genre:

romance was primarily a literary genre in the strict and perhaps somewhat narrow sense of the term: it was the product of trained minds, not of an uncritical and ingenuous imagination. To such minds an event in a work of narrative art could not be expressed merely by a plastically significant gesture or scene: it called for description and elaboration, it had to be related to its context and given its proper place in a sequence of co-ordinated occurrences. It was not enough for it to be impressive: it had to be made fully intelligible.5

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers its own detailed commentary on the story it tells, a commentary which both elaborates and interprets, in such a way as to make the story at once more specific and more general in its significance. This fact seems often to have been disregarded by those who have offered their own interpretation of the poem in terms of the primitive origins, real or supposed, of its plot-elements. Such interpreters will see in Gawain, ‘the traditional Gawain who … was the hero, the agent who brought back the spring, restored the frozen life processes, revived the god—or (in later versions) cured the king’, and will see in his pentangle ‘an ancient life-symbol’,6 before they have exhausted or fully come to terms with the commentary included in the poem on the hero and his token. Gawain is a thoroughly self-conscious and articulate hero. His articulateness indeed is an essential part of his traditional virtue of courtesy, and his self-consciousness is used at crucial points in the poem to throw a clear light upon his feelings and motives. Thus when the Lady of the castle first comes creeping into his bedroom and he pretends to be asleep, we are left in no doubt as to what is going on in his mind:

The lede lay lurked a ful longe quyle,
Compast in his concience to quat that cace myght
Meve other amount—to mervayle hym thoght,
Bot yet he sayde in hymself, ‘More semly hit were
To aspye wyth my spelle in space quat ho wolde.’
Then he wakenede, and wroth, and to hir warde torned,
And unlouked his yye-lyddez, and let as hym wondered,
And sayned hym, as by his sawe the saver to worthe.


That conscience (self-awareness) of Gawain's is an essential part of the poem, and it has nothing to do with his supposed origin as a sun-god. In the passage just quoted, several different techniques—what Gawain says to himself, how he would have appeared, or wished to appear, to the Lady, what the omniscient narrator knows of his consciousness—are run expertly together to give a complete picture of his inner and outer behaviour. The narrator has no hesitation in telling us from his omniscience what feelings and principles Gawain is motivated by, when this is necessary for our understanding of the action's significance. For instance, at the evening meal in the castle after the second day's hunting, we are not left merely as observers of the behaviour of the Lady and Gawain, but are taken into Gawain's consciousness and given a most detailed and subtle account of the eddying conflict in his feelings:

And ever oure luflych knyght the lady bisyde.
Such semblaunt to that segge semly ho made
Wyth stille stollen countenaunce, that stalworth to plese,
That al forwondered watz the wyye, and wroth with hymselven,
Bot he nolde not for his nurture nurne hir ayaynez,
Bot dalt with hir al in daynté, how-se-ever the dede turned towarst.


That nurture which prevents Gawain from repelling the Lady's forwardness, though it is characteristic of him, is not a quality peculiar to himself. It is good breeding: a quality widely understood in medieval courtly society, and one that we too can feel our way into with only a little trouble (the trouble largely of reading this very poem). Thus the significance of the scene is extended; it takes on a relevance to its audience's own lives, and in entering into Gawain's situation they are reassessing their own values. Here we have a conflict involving both values and impulses (‘wroth with hymselven’ suggesting that it is not a simple case of one against the other). At other points, values are in conflict among themselves in Gawain's mind, so that the whole system of Christian courtliness to which he is committed—a commitment which the poem's audience no doubt shared—is put under strain. This is so on the next day, when the Lady renews her assault, and Gawain's cortaysye, chastity and loyalty are set at odds among themselves:

For that prynces of pris depresed hym so thikke,
Nurned hym so neghe the thred, that nede hym bihoved
Other lach ther hir luf, other lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest crathayn he were,
And more for his meschef yif he schulde make synne,
And be traytor to that tolke that that telde aght.


The pentangle, too, is used by the poet to articulate the involvement of the story in moral issues of general relevance. I shall have more to say later about its significance, but here it is worth at least remarking that it is not left as ‘an ancient life-symbol’, but is given a detailed symbolic interpretation which shows how Gawain goes forth on his quest as the representative of a delicate complex of civilized and religious values.8 They may be summarized in the terms of the fifth and last of the pentangle's fives: fraunchyse, felawschyp, clannes, cortaysye and pité.

Gawain is not the only character whose motives and values are in this way made explicit. Whether or not the poet applies his omniscience to them, they are all splendidly articulate. Arthur, for example, plays only a minor part in the poem, but nothing could be clearer than the complicated sequence and synthesis of motives revealed in the economical little scene immediately after the Green Knight has galloped away from Camelot, carrying his head in his hand:

Thagh Arther the hende kyng at hert hade wonder,
He let no semblaunt be sene, bot sayde ful hyghe
To the comlych quene wyth cortays speche,
‘Dere dame, today demay yow never;
Wel bycommes such craft upon Christmasse,
Laykyng of enterludez, to laghe and to syng,
Among thise kynde caroles of knyghtez and ladyez.
Never the lece to my mete I may me wel dres,
For I haf sen a selly, I may not forsake.’
He glent upon Sir Gawen, and gaynly he sayde,
‘Now sir, henge up thyn ax, that hatz innogh hewen’.


Here the combination of narratorial penetration and the Gawain-poet's usual gift for imitating tones of voice catches and crystallizes a whole range of varied motives as they stream past. First there is Arthur's bewilderment, then the courage and sense of kingly responsibility that enable him to keep it to himself. He is hende, a man of cortays speche (that is why the cortays Gawain can fitly take his place as the representative of Camelot), and he therefore turns first not, as we might expect, to Gawain, the main participant in the extraordinary scene which has just been transacted, but to Guinevere. An event of disturbing abnormality has occurred, and Arthur's first concern is therefore to reassure the queen and the courtiers by pushing it into the realm of the normal. And so, with sang-froid and a quick wit, he immediately classes the scene they have witnessed among the usual courtly entertainments of the Christmas season, and recaptures the situation before the Green Knight's entry by admitting with rueful irony that now at last he cannot deny that he has seen the wonder he was waiting for. Now he can eat, and the feasting can be resumed, as if nothing untoward had happened. Only after this, having done what he can to re-establish an atmosphere of normality, does he turn to Gawain, and address him with an appropriate manly brevity. This brevity is one kind of cortaysye; the loquaciousness of Gawain, master of ‘the teccheles termes of talkyng noble’ (917), and especially admired by ladies, is another. Arthur is generally a man of few words—this is his longest speech in the poem—and he is evidently given to this masculine curtness especially when addressing someone like Gawain, who is at once his vassal and his kinsman. We remember the forceful advice he gave Gawain earlier—perhaps out of the corner of his mouth, certainly in confidence—when he was about to strike his blow at the Green Knight:

‘Kepe the, cosyn,’ quoth the kyng, ‘that thou on kyrf sette,
And if thou redez hym ryght, redly I trowe
That thou schal byden the bur that he schal bede after.’


His words now are similarly packed with meaning. Once more his aim is to absorb the abnormal into the normal, and so, with a reassuring joke which is at the same time a skilful compliment, he classes the all-too-real axe he is holding with the metaphorical one of the proverb ‘Hang up thine axe’, meaning ‘Have done with this business’.9 Gawain's axe, however, is to be ‘hung up’ as a trophy over the dais. Even now we have by no means exhausted the implications of these lines, for they have their part to play not only in making this scene as fully comprehensible as possible, but in enriching the meaning of the whole poem. Thus Guinevere's fear, which is implied by the promptness with which Arthur reassures her, will be useful two thousand lines later in rendering more plausible the Green Knight's explanation that Morgan la Fay sent him to Camelot

For to haf greved Gaynour and gart hir to dyye
With glopnyng of that ilke gome that gostlych speked
With his hede in his honde bifore the hyghe table.


Again, Arthur's classification of the entry and beheading of the Green Knight with the enterludez appropriate to the Christmas season has a wider significance than might appear, for it seems likely that such pageants really could have formed part of the Christmas festivities in the court for which the poet wrote.10 Arthur's words thereby help to reinforce the ambivalent suspension of the action between jest and earnest which is found throughout the poem. After all, the Green Knight announced that he had come to Camelot to seek ‘a Crystemas gomen’ (283).

We may surely say that in this little scene the Gawain-poet has succeeded in what Vinaver sees as the romance-writer's aim of making the event ‘intelligible’, and that he has done so with an economy that puts to shame the diffuseness of the kind of commentary that is necessary to bring out all its implications. And throughout the poem the Gawain-poet employs his exquisitely clarifying art to the same purpose: sometimes by the means we have been discussing, of revealing speech and explicit analysis of motive, at other times by other means that Vinaver mentions, such as description. Description is an essential part of the medieval ars poetica, and it is used with great skill in passages describing persons (such as the Green Knight at lines 137-220 and the old and young ladies at 943-69), seasons (the cycle of the year at 500-33), or places (the castle at 781-802, the Green Chapel and its surroundings at 2163-84).11 But it cannot be said that the poem as a whole is rendered ‘fully intelligible’ in this way. Not everything in it is equally clear. On the one hand, for example, we are never given any external description of Gawain's appearance, comparable with that of the Green Knight just mentioned or that of the lord of the castle at lines 843-9. On the other hand—and this is a lack we feel much more sharply—the motives of the Green Knight in either of his roles are never laid bare in the way Gawain's are, and those of his accomplices are left in similar obscurity. We are occasionally given an insight into his wife's motives, of a delicacy comparable with that employed on Gawain or Arthur, with the outward appearance shown to conceal a complex inner experience. This occurs, for example, towards the end of her first visit to his bedroom, when she seems almost to give up hope of tempting him:

And ay the lady let lyk as hym loved mych;
The freke ferde with defence, and feted ful fayre.
‘Thagh I were burde bryghtest,’ the burde in mynde hade,
‘The lasse luf in his lode’—for lur that he soght
                              boute hone.


But such insights are rare in the case of the Lady, and altogether absent in the case of that puzzling character, the guide, who gives Gawain what appears to be a quite false account of the Green Knight, when they are on their way to the Green Chapel (2097-2109). And so far as the Green Knight himself is concerned, though he, like all the other characters, is thoroughly articulate in speech, there are only two points at which we are given even a hint of his inner thought and feelings. One is in his Sir Bertilak role, when Gawain arrives at his castle and discloses who he is, and Sir Bertilak gives a loud laugh, ‘so lef hit hym thoght’ (909). The other is in his Green Knight role, when Gawain, having received the slight cut in his neck at the Green Chapel, leaps up to defend himself, and the Green Knight sees his fearlessness and ‘in hert hit hym lykez’ (2335). Elsewhere, the Green Knight's inner life is left in complete darkness, and when, towards the end of the poem, Gawain attempts to pierce this and asks who he really is, he gets an answer concerning Morgan la Fay which has been widely felt to be nothing more than a sop to prevent him (and us) from asking more questions—‘a bone for the rationalizing mind to play with, and to be kept quiet with’.13 Moreover, the Green Knight is provided with no equivalent to Gawain's pentangle—no explicit indication of the values to which he is committed.

One consequence of this failure of the poet to clarify the inner life or the ethical goals of the Green Knight in the way he does with Gawain and Arthur is that modern scholars and critics have felt the need to ‘interpret’ the Green Knight from outside, in much the same way that they have tried to interpret the central symbol of Pearl. It is on the face of it needless to interpret Sir Gawain in any other terms than those that are so abundantly supplied in the poem (though this has not stopped some modern readers from seeing him as a ‘youthful hero whose task it is to bring back life’ and who is tested ‘to find out whether or not [he] is a fit agent to bring back the spring’, or, more simply, as Everyman).14 But there might seem to be more justification for finding an identity for the mysterious Green Knight, by relating him to symbolic systems outside the poem. The ‘meanings’ that have been found for the Green Knight have been almost as abundant and various as those that have been found for the pearl. Thus John Speirs has seen him as ‘a recrudescence in poetry of the Green Man … a descendant of the Vegetation or Nature god of almost universal and immemorial tradition … a reappearance in poetry of an old vegetation god.’ L. D. Benson sees him as a combination of this Green Man with another figure in medieval iconology, the ‘wild man’ or ‘wodwose’, but he insists that the Green Man who appears in the poem as the Green Knight is not the pagan, folkloric figure Speirs describes but a courtly derivative, who had become fully acceptable to Christianity. By way of contrast with Speirs, who asserts that the Green Knight ‘is life’, and relates his greenness to vegetation, Heinrich Zimmer identifies him as death, and associates his greenness with that of corpses. A similarly total contrast may be found between B. S. Levy who sees him as the Devil and Hans Schnyder who identifies him as Christ.15

There have also been, as with the pearl symbol, attempts to ‘explain’ the Green Knight in biographical terms, by identifying him with some fourteenth-century nobleman, such as Amedeo VI of Savoy, known as the Green Count.16 There can clearly be no reconciling of such divergent views, and, as with the symbolism of Pearl, the very variety of modern interpretations makes one inclined to doubt the validity of any claim to achieve a greater certainty of interpretation by studying external evidence than simply by reading the poem. As C. S. Lewis has written, with specific reference to the attempt to interpret the Green Knight in terms of pagan ritual, ‘the surviving work of art is the only clue by which we can hope to penetrate the inwardness of the origins. It is either in art, or nowhere, that the dry bones are made to live again.’17 It seems at any rate that there are dangers in beginning one's study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by asking ‘Who is the Green Knight?’ and expecting an answer to that question will somehow ‘solve’ the poem. It is true that many critics find him more interesting than any other character in the poem, ‘more human, more alive’, as one of them has written, ‘than Arthur and even Gawain’, but I believe, and have tried to show elsewhere,18 that this may be partly due to the predilection of modern criticism for concreteness and muscularity in poetry, and to a consequent failure to respond to the power of the different kind of poetry associated with Gawain. Without wishing to deny the fascination of the Green Knight or his poetic vitality, I prefer to begin studying the poem not with him, but with the story in which he plays a part, and with the poet's way of telling it.


We have seen that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is made up of a combination of three plot-elements: the Beheading Game, the Temptation, and the Exchange of Winnings. The poet has often been praised for the skill with which he links these elements together, but he has not perhaps been sufficiently praised for the way in which he makes this linkage itself convey the meaning of his poem. It is not simply a case (as often with medieval romances) of a given narrative having a new meaning imposed on it by such devices as those Vinaver mentions as typical of romance, and which we have just been examining at work in the poem. It is rather that the story is so arranged that it is the poem's meaning; or, to put it differently, meaning is not only defined by style, analysis of motive, characterization, and so on, but is enacted by the shape of the narrative itself. If the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was found rather than invented, it was even better chosen for the poet's purpose than that of Patience. In consequence, the poem affords a degree of satisfaction arising from economy almost unparalleled in medieval romance. It will be remembered that the plot-elements are not linked consecutively, but inserted one into another. Thus the Temptation is inserted into the Beheading Game, and is completed between the blow Gawain gives and the blows he receives. In the same way, the three parts of the Temptation are each inserted inside one of the hunting scenes and thus the Exchange of Winnings is intertwined with the Temptation, not consecutive with it, and it too is inserted into the Beheading Game. We know of course that the Temptation and the Exchange of Winnings are linked, or at least we come to know by the end of the first day of Temptation; but it is very important that we do not know until almost the end of the poem that these two elements have any connection with the Beheading Game.

The action of the poem begins with the Beheading Game, but first we are given a picture of the court which the Green Knight is to disrupt. The Camelot of this poem is a young Camelot, a place of gaiety and elegance, where a ‘fayre folk in her first age’ (54) is ruled over by a ‘childgered’ king (86), who cannot bear to do any one thing for long, ‘So bisied him his yonge blod and his brayn wylde’ (89). It is a delightful place, an innocent version of the ideal aimed at by any of the great courts of Western Europe in the later Middle Ages. It combines the religious and the secular virtues, and when we first see it, it is celebrating the Christmas and New Year festival first with Mass and then with presents and kissing games. When the Green Knight abruptly enters this festivity, just as the first course of the feast has been served, his challenge sets up a test which is in itself sufficiently difficult and exciting to engross our interest. The Green Knight announces that he has been drawn to Arthur's court by its fame, and particularly by its ‘kydde cortaysye’ (263), to request a Christmas game. But the nature of this game is so horrific as to stun the courtiers into an even deeper silence than the Green Knight's extraordinary appearance, and he exults over their discomfiture and the injury done to their fame. But although the courtiers may be frightened, Arthur is not: he answers angrily, immediately takes up the challenge, and plays a few practice strokes with the unfamiliar axe, to get the feel of it. It is at this point that Gawain intervenes, and, in a speech of poised modesty, begs to be allowed to take Arthur's place. There has been a persistent feeling among recent critics that Arthur and his court show up rather badly in this initial encounter with the Green Knight; but this seems to me an exaggerated view. The courtiers perhaps are less heroic than they might be in their response to the Green Knight's entry, and in their silence there is a definite hint of fear:

As al were slypped upon slepe so slaked hor lotez,
                                        in hyghe—
                    I deme hit not al for doute,
                    Bot sum for cortaysye—
                    Bot let hym that al schulde loute
                    Cast unto that wyye.(19)


But Arthur's response is surely impeccable, despite the various criticisms that have been made of it. Baughan asserts that he strikes great blows at the Green Knight himself, but finds that they are in vain; this, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the text. Benson argues that ‘Arthur's failure is that when he does take up the challenge he does so in exactly the churlish manner that the Green Knight had demanded. His shame and anger lead him to forget his famous courtesy entirely’. But Arthur's initial greeting of the stranger is highly courteous, and he answers him angrily only after receiving from him a number of unprovoked insults. Moorman suggests that we are encouraged to compare Arthur's court with Sir Bertilak's, to the detriment of the former, because better hospitality is offered to Gawain on his arrival than had been offered to the Green Knight; but to say this is surely to forget that Gawain does not offer any insults to his hosts—quite the reverse—nor is he ‘half etayn’ and bright green.20 In general, it is surely the case that Arthur performs very creditably in the face of a quite unfamiliar physical danger. Still more admirable is the performance of Gawain, once he has stepped forward to beg that he may be substituted for Arthur as the respondent. Gawain addresses his plea to be allowed to take on the challenge not only to the king but to his council and to the queen. Arthur is no Renaissance tyrant but a medieval prince, ruling by the counsel of his nobles; and the queen is presumably added out of Gawain's famous cortaysye, which especially demands deference to ladies. The nobles agree that Gawain should take up the ‘game’ (365) the intruder proposes. Thus, when Gawain, with a formal gesture of submission, receives the Green Knight's axe from the king, he is becoming both his personal substitute and, in the most open and official way, the representative of the whole court, who is to redeem their initial hesitance. He then proceeds to ask the Green Knight what his name is and how to get to his court, so that he can present himself in a year's time to receive the return blow. It is clear that he sees the challenge he has accepted as being essentially a test of physical skill, strength and courage, and that he is so far responding to it honourably. He has promised to accept a return blow from the Green Knight's axe, and, though it will presumably kill him if he does not succeed in killing the Green Knight with his first blow, he is taking pains to find out where he must go to keep the appointment. It is clear that the onlookers see the test in this light. I have already quoted Arthur's advice to Gawain, to make sure of his opponent with his own axe-stroke, and then he will not need to worry about any return blow. The Green Knight appears to take the same view, because he says that he will give Gawain the information he needs after receiving his axe-stroke,

And if I spende no speche, thenne spedez thou the better,
For thou may leng in thy londe and layt no fyrre.


In fact, contrary to all expectation, the Green Knight is able to speak again even after Gawain's aim has been so good that he has completely sliced his head off; and when he speaks, he once more emphasizes this straightforward physical test:

To the grene chapel thou chose, I charge the, to fotte
Such a dunt as thou hatz dalt—disserved thou habbez
To be yederly yolden on Nw Yeres morn.
The Knyght of the Grene Chapel men knowen me mony;
Forthi me for to fynde if thou fraystez, faylez thou never.
Therfore com, other recreaunt be calde the behoves.


What is demanded of Gawain, it seems, is a response in the tradition of heroic behaviour to which we have seen alliterative poetry characteristically giving expression. The situation belongs to romance rather than to the epic ethos of Old English poetry as continued in the alliterative Morte Arthure: Gawain has taken up the challenge in the first place for the honour of Camelot, rather than, for example, to protect the weak from physical harm by the strong. But the action demanded of him in confronting the monstrous Green Knight is approximately the same as that demanded of Beowulf in facing his monsters, or of Arthur in facing the Giant of St Michael's Mount. The worst that can happen to him is death by beheading—an honourable form of execution at least. When the time eventually comes for him to set off, this is what the courtiers fear on his behalf:

There watz much derve doel driven in the sale
That so worthé as Wawan schulde wende on that ernde,
To dryye a delful dynt, and dele no more
                    wyth bronde.


Finally, at the very moment when the armed Gawain rides away on his quest, the poet, with a certain cynicism about human behaviour, lets us overhear the very courtiers who had earlier advised Arthur to allow Gawain to take up the challenge criticizing him for letting Gawain be ‘britned to noght, / Hadet wyth an alvisch mon’ (680-1).

In the light of all this, when Gawain is welcomed at the strange castle on Christmas Eve, neither he nor we have any reason to suppose that what happens there will have any connection with the Beheading Game. Throughout his stay there, he sees himself as enjoying a relatively pleasant interlude in the few days that are left to him before he is ‘britned to noght’ by the Green Knight. He cannot, of course, forget the terrifying goal of his quest, and this fact makes all the more impressive the display of the courtly virtues that he puts on for the sake of his host and hostess and their court. This is what they expect of him—‘Now schal we semlych se sleghtez of thewez’ (916)—and he does as much as any man could to be a pleasant guest. He eats, he drinks, he dances, he makes conversation, he plays games; but all the while there sits at his heart the knowledge that the real test still lies ahead of him. Here the poet uses his omniscience not only to render Gawain's behaviour ‘intelligible’ but to bring out most touchingly his genuine courage: not insensibility or forgetfulness, but a magnificent self-control. Gawain declines the lord's invitation to stay longer after Christmas because he knows where his duty lies: to reach the Green Chapel may mean death, but he would rather die than not reach it:

Naf I now to busy bot bare thre dayez,
And me als fayn to falle feye as fayly of myyn ernde.


After he has been informed that the Chapel is nearby, so that he can spend all three days at the castle, we are reminded on each of the three days of what lies ahead of him. I have quoted the first day's reminder, in the lines in which his hostess thinks to herself that even if she were the most beautiful of women, she would still be unable to gain Gawain's love, ‘for lur that he soght / boute hone’ (1284-5). On the second day Gawain begs to be allowed to leave for the Green Chapel at once, ‘For hit watz negh at the terme that he to schulde’ (1671), but his host assures him that it will be soon enough if he leaves at dawn on New Year's Day. And early on the next morning, that of the third day, we are told (so deep is the poet's penetration into his hero's experience) how even in his dreams the coming meeting was present to him:

In dregh droupyng of dreme draveled that noble,
As mon that watz in mornyng of mony thro thoghtes,
How that destiné schulde that day dele hym his wyrde
At the Grene Chapel, when he the gome metes,
And bihoves his buffet abide withoute debate more.


From these dreams he is awakened by his hostess's morning visit; and throughout the three days the actual trials of the Temptation have been intertwined with these thoughts of the Beheading Game. It is, of course, the thought of this crucial test lying ahead of him that persuades him to accept and conceal the Lady's gift of the green girdle, even though he has previously said that he will receive no gift,

                                                                                                    er God hym grace sende
To acheve to the chaunce that he hade chosen there.


When the Lady explains that the girdle will preserve his life,

                                                                                                                                  hit come to his hert
Hit were a juel for the jopardé that hym jugged were.


After this, ominously, we are told that he went to confession and was absolved as completely as if ‘domezday schulde haf ben dight on the morn’ (1884)—and again we think of the ordeal that lies ahead of him. At the end of fitt iii the poet reminds us of it once more, in a way which is all the more sinisterly suggestive because this time he declines to use his omniscience and in effect invites us to imagine Gawain's thoughts for ourselves:

Yif he ne slepe soundyly say ne dar I,
For he hade muche on the morn to mynne, yif he wolde, in thoght.
                    Let hym lyye there stille,
                    He hatz nere that he soght;
                    And ye wyl a whyle be stylle,
                    I schal telle yow how thay wroght.


With this minstrel-like intervention, the poet makes it clear that he is deliberately winding up the tension, and pointing his audience's expectations ahead to the completion of the Beheading Game.

In fitt iv the poet redoubles this effort to keep his audience on the edge of their seats, waiting for the climax of the story. In the early hours of the next morning, he does dare to tell us whether Gawain slept soundly. He did not: snow fell, the wind blew it into great drifts, and:

The leude lystened ful wel that ley in his bedde;
Thagh he lowkez his liddez, ful lyttel he slepes;
Bi uch kok that crue he knwe wel the steven.


After he is dressed and armed, he engages in another brilliant display of courtesy before leaving the castle, and then rides away in the company of the guide,

That schulde teche hym to tourne to that tene place
Ther the ruful race he schulde resayve.


The guide warns him, with detectable relish, of what a terrible monster the Green Knight is: he is bigger than any man on earth (so was Beowulf's opponent, Grendel),21 he kills everyone who passes by his Chapel, and Gawain does not stand a chance against him. The guide then proposes that Gawain should ride away, and he will keep his secret, an episode which (though it has other purposes, to which I shall return) certainly has the effect of heightening the tension still further by introducing delay and indecision. When Gawain indignantly rejects the proposal, the guide gallops wildly away, shouting that he would not accompany Gawain a foot further for all the gold on earth. Gawain, left alone, arrives at the Chapel at last, and finds it as sinister as we could possibly expect—or, one feels inclined to add, hope, for the guide's relish in the horror of the situation is clearly shared by the poet, and transmitted to us. Once again we enter into Gawain's very mind, and share his fears, as he insists with almost hysterical emphasis that the Devil himself must be at hand, waiting to destroy him:

‘Now iwysse,’ quoth Wowayn, ‘wysty is here;
This oritore is ugly, with erbez overgrowen;
Wel bisemez the wyye wruxled in grene
Dele here his devocioun on the develez wyse.
Now I fele hit is the fende, in my fyve wyttez,
That hatz stoken me this steven, to strye me here.
This is a chapel of meschaunce, that chekke hit bytyde!
Hit is the corsedest kyrk that ever I com inne!’


Here, as is usual with the Gawain-poet's psychological realism, there is the most delicate touch of exaggeration, which gives the mimicry of Gawain's thoughts, however fundamentally sympathetic it may be, a definite comic edge. One is reminded of the moment in Patience when we entered Jonah's thought and learned directly, what the Bible did not explain, why he was fleeing from the Lord. In both cases, we observe a single fearful thought rapidly growing until its branching detail dominates the mind: in Patience that Jonah will be captured by the Ninevites, here that Gawain's adversary is really the Devil. The situation is terrifying, and Gawain has perhaps more right to his fear than Jonah has, for Gawain has received no direct command from God; indeed the courtiers at Camelot had suggested that the Green Knight's challenge had only been accepted ‘for angardez pryde’ (681). But we are not quite so terrified as Gawain is: the hint of exaggeration in his thought enables our sympathy to be accompanied by a certain detachment. We certainly share his expectation, however, that the goal of his adventure lies immediately ahead. It is at this point that he hears the terrible noise, ‘As one upon a gryndelston hade grounden a sythe’ (2202)—not just an axe this time. Gawain is startled—his sudden ‘Bi Godde!’ (2205) suggests something like a nervous leap—but then he summons up the last ounce of courage left to him after all that he has gone through, and calls out his challenge aloud:

Who stightlez in this sted me steven to holde?
For now is gode Gawayn goande ryght here.
If any wyye oght wyl, wynne hider fast,
Other now other never, his nedez to spede.


The movement of these lines seems to impose a quiver on one's voice as one reads them; and the implication of the emphasis on speed in the courageous shout is very clear. Now or never: if the challenger fails to answer on the instant, Gawain will feel he has done his duty and will be off like lightning. Significantly, the answer he gets, without a moment's pause, is one that mocks him for his apparent impatience:

‘Abyde,’ quoth on on the bonke aboven over his hede,
‘And thou schal haf al in hast that I the hyght ones!’


We and Gawain are made to wait a moment longer still, both by the Green Knight's determination to finish grinding his blade and by the poet's own delaying tactics in supplying information, before we find with relief that the challenger is the Green Knight, exactly as before, not even the more hideous monster described by the guide:

Yet he rusched on that rurde rapely a throwe,
And wyth quettyng awharf, er he wolde lyght;
And sythen he keverez bi a cragge, and comez of a hole,
Whyrlande out of a wro wyth a felle weppen,
A denez ax nwe dyght, the dynt with to yelde,
With a borelych bytte bende by the halme,
Fyled in a fylor, fowre fote large—
Hit watz no lasse bi that lace that lemed ful bryght—(22)
And the gome in the grene, gered as fyrst …


It will be noted that only after the fearsome weapon has been fully described does the poet disclose who it was that was carrying it. Now the tension is wound up once more as the two knights carry out the second part of the Beheading Game. The tenseness of this scene is so obvious as to need no detailed comment. First Gawain ducks as he sees the axe-blade descending on him ‘as marre hym he wolde’ (2262), and the Green Knight halts his stroke and pauses to taunt Gawain. We enter fully into Gawain's situation, seeing the descending axe-blade from the viewpoint of one underneath it.23 Next the Green Knight deliberately feints at him, and Gawain irritably tells him to get on with it. Then at last the genuine blow is struck, and cuts Gawain only slightly. The tension that has been built up throughout the whole episode between Gawain's eagerness to get the Game finished and the slowness with which events have actually proceeded (a slowness enacted by the lingering detail in which they have been described) is at last released, and Gawain leaps up and away with an energy that expresses our relief as well as his. Up to this point; though Gawain's honour has sometimes seemed balanced on a knife-edge, it has always been possible that he would come successfully through the test of the Beheading Game. Now at last it seems that he has done so. He draws his sword and challenges his opponent to a fair fight if he wishes—only to find, to our astonishment and his, that the Green Knight is not preparing to strike a fourth blow. He is standing aside, resting on his axe, looking at Gawain; and, with an almost vertiginous shift of perspective, instead of seeing the Green Knight through Gawain's eyes, as we have done all through this last scene, for a brief moment we see Gawain through the Green Knight's. The effect is as disturbing as if an Italian Renaissance picture had somehow been turned inside out; though it must be remembered that such shifts of perspective were still possible within the freer spatial conventions of medieval art. What the Green Knight sees is:

How that doghty, dredles, dervely ther stondez
Armed, ful awlez; in hert hit hym lykez.


That pleasure of the Green Knight's is not entirely flattering to Gawain. He is pleased with him, from the same standpoint of superiority that might enable one to be pleased with a small boy or a pet dog that showed fighting spirit. His first words express an almost teasing reproof:

Bolde burne, on this bent be not so gryndel.
No mon here unmanerly the mysboden habbez


and they strikingly echo God's words to Jonah at the end of Patience:

Be noght so gryndel, godman, bot go forth thy wayes:
Be preve and be pacient in payne and in joye.


One might well ask, what else could Gawain do? For it soon appears that he has been conspired against not just by the Green Knight but, in a sense, by the plot of the poem and by the poet who contrived it. He learns that the Green Knight was the lord of the castle; that he knew of all Gawain's dealings with his wife, including his secret acceptance of the girdle; and that the conclusion of the Beheading Game functioned not as the supreme test Gawain had to face, but as a symbolic representation of a test which had already taken place, and which Gawain had already failed. The three axe-blows which made up the second part of the Beheading Game were only symbols of the three days of the Temptation, and in this sense the Beheading Game was a game indeed: it was a way of enacting in play a quite different form of challenge. What makes this dénouement all the more galling is that it is delivered by the Green Knight as something absolutely matter of course, as if Gawain might have known about it all along. This is particularly true of the disclosure that the Green Knight and the lord of the castle were the same person in different forms, a fact which is never formally disclosed at all, but simply implied by the we of ‘the forwarde that we fest in the fyrst nyght’ (2347). Gawain feels himself to have been made the butt of a cruel and unfair joke, and he gives vent to violent anger and shame.

I have been tracing out this thread of plot in such detail, trying to recapture the reactions of someone hearing the poem read for the first time, in order to emphasize what seems to me a crucial point. This is that the audience of the poem, along with Gawain himself, have been led all the time to look forward to the conclusion of the Beheading Game as the true climax of the poem, in the form of a test of Gawain's physical skill, strength and courage; but that, quite unexpectedly, they are then brought to understand that what had seemed the climax was only an anticlimax, that what had seemed an interlude was the main subject of the poem. The crucial test Gawain had to undergo was not the test at the Green Chapel but a test in the castle: a moral test, not a physical test, a test not outside but inside the bounds of courtly society. What the conclusion of the Beheading Game brought was not the expected climax, but only knowledge of what had happened already, and consequent self-knowledge. If we accept this, then a question immediately presents itself. It was very clear what was tested by the Beheading Game: it proved that Gawain was not a ‘recreaunt’ (456) or a ‘knyght kowarde’ (2131) but truly, if only just, ‘gode Gawayn’ (2214). But, if not the Beheading Game but the Temptation was the crucial experience Gawain had to undergo, what was tested by that? What qualities in Gawain were tested during his stay at the strange castle?


  1. Source studies have exercised a peculiar, and perhaps unjustifiably great, fascination over students of Gawain. For accounts of analogues and possible sources, see L. H. Loomis, in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. R. S. Loomis (Oxford, 1959), pp. 530-7; Norman Davis, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, pp. xv-xxi. …

  2. But cf. above, p. 43, n. 2 [in A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet, London: Cambridge University Press, 1970].

  3. J. A. Burrow (p. 96, n. 29) notes that ‘All threes in the poem are connected with Hautdesert’, and lists a number of other threes.

  4. See J. F. Eagan, ‘The Import of Color Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, St Louis University Studies, series A, Humanities 1, 2 (1949), 11-86; William Goldhurst, ‘The Green and the Gold: the Major Theme of Gawain and the Green Knight’, College English, xx (1958), 61-5; and Burrow, pp. 14-16 and 39-40.

  5. Eugène Vinaver, ‘From Epic to Romance’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, xlvi (1963-4), 476-503; p. 488.

  6. John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: the Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London, 1957), pp. 220, 230.

  7. For more detailed comment on the meaning of this passage, see Burrow, p. 100. …

  8. It is fair to add that Mr Speirs admits that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ‘the pentangle has acquired a Christian significance’ (p. 230), but he thereafter disregards that significance as completely as if it were not there. For my further comments, see below, pp. 196-8 [in A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet, London: Cambridge University Press, 1970].

  9. See Davis, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, note on lines 476-7, p. 87.

  10. See Elizabeth Wright, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP, xxxiv (1935), 157-79, p. 158, followed by Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, p. 219. On the appearance of the somewhat similar ‘wild man’ figure in pageants, see Benson, pp. 79-80.

  11. See D. A. Pearsall, ‘Rhetorical Descriptio in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’.

  12. It is not clear whether ‘for lur that he soght / boute hone’ is part of the Lady's thought or an explanation added by the poet. I believe the ambiguity to be intentional (as it could easily be in a poem written for reading aloud), and therefore revert to the punctuation of J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, corr. edn (Oxford, 1930), which brings it out better.

  13. Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, p. 218.

  14. For the former view, see Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, pp. 229, 236; for the latter, H. Schnyder, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Bern, 1961), and B. S. Levy, ‘Gawain's Spiritual Journey: Imitatio Christi in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Annuale Mediaevale, vi (1965), 65-106.

  15. Speirs, Medieval English Poetry, pp. 219, 225, 226; Benson, pp. 56-95; Zimmer, The King and the Corpse (New York, 1956), 76-7 (a similar view is expressed by A. H. Krappe, ‘Who was the Green Knight?’, Spec, xiii [1938], 206-15); Levy, ‘Gawain's Spiritual Journey’ (and see also D. B. J. Randall, ‘Was the Green Knight a Fiend?’, Studies in Philology, lvii [1960], 479-91); Schnyder, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 41.

  16. See J. R. Hulbert, ‘Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyȝt’, MP, xiii (1915-6), 689-730, pp. 716-28; and S. R. T. O. D'Ardenne, ‘“The Green Count” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, RES, n.s. x (1959), 113-26.

  17. C. S. Lewis, ‘The Anthropological Approach’, in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Norman Davis and C. L. Wrenn (London, 1962), pp. 219-30; p. 223.

  18. D'Ardenne, ‘“The Green Count” and Sir Gawain’, p. 120; Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry, pp. 38-45.

  19. Borroff points out (p. 119) that the narrator's defence of the court against the imputation of cowardice actually has the effect of suggesting that they were afraid. A similar narratorial ‘smear’ technique is commonly found in Chaucer, especially directed against Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde.

  20. D. E. Baughan, ‘The Role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, ELH, xvii (1950), 241-51, p. 246 (Baughan's error was pointed out by G. L. Engelhardt, ‘The Predicament of Gawain’, Modern Language Quarterly, xvi [1955], 218-25); Benson, p. 216; Charles Moorman, ‘Myth and Mediaeval Literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, MS, xviii (1956), 158-72, p. 167.

  21. Compare Gawain, 2100: ‘And more he is then any mon upon myddelerde’, with Beowulf, ed. Klaeber, line 1353: ‘Næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer.’

  22. Editors normally explain this line as referring to a lace or thong similar to that mentioned in line 217. But the Green Knight now has a new axe, the former one having been hung up as a trophy at Camelot, and, as Gollancz remarks, ‘one hardly expects the present weapon to be in any way ornamental’ (I. Gollancz, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, EETS OS 210 [London, 1940], note on line 2226, p. 127). Gollancz continues, ‘The only lace that has been recently mentioned is the one worn by Gawain himself (2037-9)’—i.e. the green girdle—but he goes on to suggest a different solution. I am attracted, however, by the suggestion of S. Malarkey and J. B. Toelken, ‘Gawain and the Green Girdle’, JEGP, lxiii (1964), 14-20, that the line does refer to the green girdle, and means ‘the gleaming girdle that Gawain wore had no effect in making that horrible four-foot blade seem any smaller’ (p. 16). The slightly detached irony of the narrator's remark, thus interpreted, is perfectly in keeping with what I judge to be the tone of the scene.

  23. Noted by Borroff, pp. 126-7.


The following abbreviations are used in footnotes:

Benson: L. D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, 1965).

Borroff: Marie Borroff, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study (New Haven, 1962).

Burrow: J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1965).

EETS ES: Early English Text Society, Extra Series.

EETS OS: Early English Text Society, Original Series.

JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

MLR: Modern Language Review.

MP: Modern Philology.

MS: Mediaeval Studies.

PL: Patrologia Latina.

PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America.

RES n.s.: Review of English Studies, new series.

Spec: Speculum.

W. A. Davenport (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16994

SOURCE: Davenport, W. A. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Art of the Gawain-Poet, pp. 152-94. London: The Athlone Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport examines various techniques employed by the Gawain-poet, including symbolism, irony, and role reversals in his characterizations.]


The most puzzling, and hence the most variously interpreted, element in Sir Gawain is the double figure of the Green Knight-cum-Bertilak. He has been seen as Life, Death, God, the Devil, and the force of Nature, as a Wild Man, a primitive hob-goblin, a shape-shifter, as the force of an earthly moral integrity stripping courtly pretension of its class veneer, as a super-human primordial energy mocking the mutabilities of time and human triviality, and more. Most such ‘interpretations’ are fanciful generalisations based on unanalysed, impressionistic reactions to particular moments in the poem, but the very variety of them is an indication of the multiplicity and the ambivalence which the poet created in the figure of his hero's main tester. The experience which Gawain endures is not clearly sign-posted, as the hero's experience in a medieval allegory or in a poem designed as a moral exemplum would have been. The reader is left to work out for himself whether the poet intended a particular significance in the figure of the Green Knight, and the main problem of the working-out is, to put it crudely, an uncertainty whether he is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. If his challenge to Camelot was motivated by malice, how can he be accepted as Gawain's instructor in moral conduct? Do we take him as an innocent victim who is obliquely offering apologies at the end? Or has the poet imagined him as so much bigger than the narrative machinery of the poem warrants that we interpret him without reference to internal logic? This last is a desperate remedy, to be resorted to only when the internal logic of the poem can be proved to have failed. Though some readers have suggested that it does fail, few have looked very hard at what the poet really did in order to test the point. I hope that a more accurate sense of the poet's quality as the creator of complex fiction may emerge from an examination of Gawain's opponent and of those associated with him, of how they are presented and of what ideas are developed by the poet through them. Since I am concerned to show the growth of the complexity of impression, I will take the four parts of the poem one at a time.


When the Green Knight arrives at Camelot to fulfil the awaited task of challenging the Round Table to an adventure, the narrative is suspended for nearly ninety lines of description, which gives full weight to the startling quality of his appearance, and invites us to consider what he is, as the courtiers are soon pictured doing:

Ther watz lokyng on lenthe the lude to beholde,
For uch mon had mervayle quat hit mene myght
That a hathel and a horse myght such a hwe lach …


This statement encourages us to speculate and shows that the poet did not assume any immediately recognisable identity in the figure. The ordinary reaction is astonishment and the surmise of fearful ignorance that he belonged to the world of ‘fantoum and fayryye’. He is to be taken on first appearance as a manifestation, startling and puzzling. The only clues to his nature are those provided in the detailed description, and, as Burrow puts it, ‘The most remarkable feature of this description … is its richness and variety of suggestion.’1 At the human level the figure is accommodated to a norm of romance description, an animation of allegorical portraits of Youth, which presents him as of fine physique and as modishly dressed; by his clothes Camelot would recognise him as one of themselves, an aristocrat, and have no fear that they were faced by a wild man of the woods. At the monstrous level he is awesome and grotesque, in colour and size, in hair and beard possessing wilder qualities which distinguish him from Camelot. If the green of face and hair suggest a phantom, the green and gold of his clothes belong to the ‘merry, luxurious world of courtly youth’.2 If the battle-axe in one hand confirms the threat of his phantom greenness, the green holly-branch in the other is a re-assurance of seasonal peace, and the emblems hold out promises of life and death as well as of peace and war, and of the knight's own power to mete out death and to survive it. One aspect of the ambivalence is the traditional sense of Christmas and New Year as a time of endings and beginnings; the Green Knight has been given suggestions of Janus, ‘with double berd’.3 The poet also wants us to be reminded of the indefinable face of Fortune, whose ‘hands, right and left, apparently mean good and evil fortune.’4 The undercurrents give great power to the figure even before he speaks, in addition to the impression of his monstrous greenness and imposing size. The description implies in advance the supernatural moment when he is both dead and alive, and in its combination of opposites makes the challenge that follows his appearance more threatening; in spite of the rules of the game, the mixed nature of the challenger tells us that the outcome is ultimately uncertain, and that Gawain, though he has entered into a bargain with well-defined terms, has nevertheless become a hostage to the unknown, and has, in a sense, offered himself to Fate. As with the prologue to Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Green Knight's coming ‘sets all on hazard’. The poet has made an extraordinarily imaginative response to the idea of challenge in his creation of this enigmatic figure, whose qualities suggest the uncertainties of which the world of adventure consists. The figure has its seeds both in romance monsters and in allegorical portraits of mirth and of mutability, and gatherings together of qualities connected with an abstract idea, such as Chaucer's description of the chapels in The Knight's Tale.5

When the action begins, our minds have thus been encouraged to think in terms of uncertainty and threat, and we have been given a rich enough range of possibilities in the Green Knight to feel an ambiguous resonance in all his sayings and doings, and a sense of power, with-held and disguised for a purpose, lying beneath his action. If his brusque self-assurance identifies him as a hostile challenger, his proper observance of forms in asking for Arthur and making a formal request, as well as his aristocratic dress and bearing, authenticate his seeking for a sporting duel; his words of scorn, though offensive, are offensive in a traditional heroic manner. The ‘merriness’ is drawn on in his proposal of a game, his welcoming of Gawain as a worthy undertaker of the challenge, and in his cheery insouciance about the whole affair:

                                        ‘bot slokes!
Ta now thy grymme tole to the
And let se how thou cnokez!’


There are several other striking qualities in his speeches. First, there is a jesting, teasing note in his addresses in the first part of the scene. Explaining the reasons for his visit, he says to Arthur, ‘for the los of the, lede, is lyft up so hyghe’, implying that it has been lifted higher than Camelot deserves, then ‘thy burgh and thy burnes best ar holden’, implying that though they may be thought best there is some doubt about the matter, and ‘here is kydde cortaysye, as I haf herd carp’, again implying the doubtful sense, so they say.

Secondly his speeches to Gawain before the beheading have a much crisper, business-like quality, and, with the repeated use of legal and formal terms and of the idea of trawthe, they make it clear that the bargain is a solemn, binding contract;6 the effect is disconcerting, as if a party to a gentlemen's agreement had suddenly whipped out three copies of a formal document to be signed. The rules of the game begin to sound like a trap. With the beheading the supernatural force of the earlier description is revived, after lapsing from our attention, and the speech of the severed head adds awe to the solemn insistence on Gawain's promise and the clear declaration that his reputation depends on it:

‘Therfore com, other recreaunt be calde the behoves.’


He disappears as suddenly as he came, with sparks of fire, and goes with a suggestion that he may have no existence once he has gone from view:

To quat kyth he becom knwe non there,
Nevermore then thay wyste from quethen he watz wonnen.


We cannot decide how to view the Green Knight on the basis of Part I because the poet's purpose is to create unsatisfied curiosity and speculation about him, which cannot, in the strategy of the poem, be satisfied until the end, if then. The poet does not wish us to ascribe a personality or identity to him. The ‘characterisation’, if that is the word, combines two devices: the simpler device of characterising according to function in the scene, and the more complex one of creating a multiplicity of suggested possibilities in the figure. Since it is his function not only to challenge but also to create wonder and fear, to disconcert, to tease into rash response, to trap and to get a hold over Camelot, the characterising has a kaleidoscopic quality which feeds on the variety of suggestions in the description, and these suggestions allow the subsequent splitting of the figure into two, metaphorically as well as literally, and the curious uncertainty with which we view the Green Knight on his re-appearance in Part IV of the poem. The reader's sense of him shifts also through the identifying words used for him: in the early part of the first scene he is a terrible lord, ‘half etayn’ and ‘mon most’; later he is referred to by neutral words, gome, schalk and freke, implying, if anything, a social inferior; in conversation with Arthur he rises through hathel, lude and renk, until, in exchanges with Gawain, he appears on equal terms with the hero as the knyght in the grene; when he has gone he is de-personalised into that grene. His refusal to give a name also leaves a threat, and suggests significance in the request for Gawain's name; Gawain's giving a name is another indication that the hero gives himself to Fate, and the Green Knight's anonymity is another facet of his facelessness; he eludes attempts to identify him.


If the impression made by the Green Knight at Camelot is ambiguously sporting and threatening, leaving us on the one hand with a sense that the jest may turn sour and on the other with a sense that the solemn contract must, sworn in such an atmosphere of courtly revelry, be capable of a happy outcome, then the total impression of the Castle where Gawain spends the following Christmas, and of its Lord, its ladies, its courtiers and servants is even more so. The eventual explanation of the plot reveals that for Gawain his stay at the Castle has been a time when he thought he was being welcomed and valued, but when, in reality, he was being tested and found wanting. Are we then to understand that this place and its inhabitants were all a sham, that all were party to the clever game and all laughing at Gawain's unwitting behaviour, that the whole thing was a conspiracy and therefore all the statements about Hautdesert lies? Or even, since it is the malicious fairy, Morgan, who directs affairs there, are we to understand that the whole place was a mirage, filled with plausible life but actually an illusion fabricated for Gawain's benefit? Or perhaps we are simply meant to think that the place is real, the courtiers, guests and servants all what they seem (except for that unexplained guide who rides with Gawain towards the Green Chapel), but the Lord and the two ladies playing a double role? That is what Gawain himself seems to conclude as he struggles with the conflicting feelings of gratitude to the man whose food he has eaten, resentment that he has been tricked, and galling knowledge of his own fault:

‘Nay, for sothe’, quoth the segge, and sesed hys helme,
And hatz hit of hendely, and the hathel thonkkez,
‘I haf sojorned sadly: sele yow bytyde,
And He yelde hit yow yare that yarkkez al menskez.
And comaundez me to that cortays, your comlych fere,
Bothe that on and that other, myn honoured ladyez,
That thus hor knyght wyth hor kest han koyntly bigyled.’


That is an explanation that we can accept at the mystery-story level of the poem, though it means quelling some niggling questions about the providential arrival of Gawain at Hautdesert and some feeling that the poet has cheated in creating such a favourable impression of the place and its Lord, but it does not seem to provide a satisfactory basis for the moral authority which the poet gives to the Green Knight in his lessons to the hero at the end. Seeking such a basis, some readers have claimed that the moral values of Hautdesert are being presented as a model for Camelot, which needs to be reminded of Christian values; but the ending of the poem hardly supports such an interpretation. There is clearly a problem here, and one which is eventually crucial to our sense of the poem and particularly to our understanding of its ending. Is Gawain right to be remorseful and Camelot wrong to make light of the matter? Or is Camelot right to be joyous and Gawain too concerned with self in his exaggerated abasement? Was Hautdesert a Castle Perilous, a Bower of Bliss, a place of deceitful and enervating ease and luxury, or a Great Good Place, home of wholesome courtesy and fair welcome?

On first acquaintance it seems surprisingly normal, a luxurious plaisance which is also a model of propriety.7 The picture at Gawain's arrival is one of complete generosity, hospitality and courtesy, and there is no hint from the poet that we are to take the greeting as anything but a display of punctilious good manners and evidence of a well-trained household. For the moment, the poet is on the household's side, as it were, and is presenting an idealised picture of medieval country-house life, without any hint of pretentiousness or self-esteem.

The first ripple of suspicion comes when the courtiers find out that the strange knight is Gawain; the poet's ingenious and imaginative skill here is of a high order:

Thenne watz spyed and spured upon spare wyse,
Bi prevé poyntez of that prynce put to hymselven,
That he beknew cortaysly of the court that he were
That athel Arthure the hende haldez hym one,
That is the ryche ryal kyng of the Rounde Table,
And hit watz Wawen hymself that in that won syttez,
Comen to that Krystmasse, as case hym then lymped.
When the lorde hade lerned that he the leude hade,
Loude laghed he therat, so lef hit hym thought,
And alle the men in that mote maden much joye
To apere in his presense prestly that tyme,
That alle prys and prowes and pured thewes
Apendes to hys persoun and praysed is ever;
Byfore alle men upon molde his mensk is the most.
Uch segge ful softly sayde to his fere:
‘Now schal we semlych se sleghtez of thewez
And the teccheles termes of talkyng noble.
Wich spede is in speche unspurd may we lerne,
Syn we half fonged that fyne fader of nurture.’


A wealth of impressions and nuances are smoothly and professionally fitted together in sequence in this stanza. On the surface the poet is continuing to display the good breeding of the courtiers of Hautdesert, and incidentally of Gawain, as they question their guest with delicacy, and as they show their appreciation of a model of elegant discourse. The fact that they do this privately guarantees that they are what they seem and have a genuine, if possibly superficial, response to Gawain and the chivalry he represents. But what of their Lord who, according to later discoveries, must have known who Gawain was? The poet has neatly got round this by removing the Lord from the scene, so that his learning ‘that he the leude hade’ (ominously enough expressed) cannot be timed; the pluperfect tense preserves the poet from the accusation of cheating. The reader is put on the alert by the reminders of Gawain's quest, provided by the reference to Arthur and his court, and by the allusion to the ‘prys and prowes and pured thewes’ symbolised by the pentangle, and by that natural-sounding line ‘Comen to that Krystemasse, as case hym then lymped’; we know then, with part of our minds, that he is not there by chance or by the good offices of guardian saints. At the same time the poet is cleverly preparing the ground for what is to follow with the imaginative idea of using Gawain's reputation as a weapon against him; at the moment it seems innocent enough, but it is significantly presented just before we are given the other pieces which are needed, in the presentation of the other principal actors in the drama, the two ladies of Hautdesert. There seems to me clear evidence in this stanza that the poet is consciously developing his narrative on more than one level, showing the reader that there is more than meets the eye and yet endowing what meets the eye with a positive life and virtue. Gawain's experience of Hautdesert is of courtesy and generosity and we are made to share, not always from his point of view, a sense of the castle's positive values. At the same time the poet reserves for himself the possibility of other meanings and gives us hints to that end. We are not encouraged to attempt to resolve the complexity but merely to recognise that it is there; the juxtaposition is the poet's intent and pleasure.

The striking description of the two ladies also works by juxtaposition and contrast and, though much shorter than the description of the Green Knight in Part I, also halts the narrative and provides us with a picture full of suggestion and potentiality. Here at the literal level are two new characters who are to figure in the action, presented in tandem and so making a welcome variation of the medieval romancer's descriptive technique. Beyond that are the moralist's emblems of transience and mutability in the two faces of woman, Youth and Age, the fair and ugly faces of Fortune, as ambiguous as the holly branch and the axe, as reassuring and threatening.8 Equally the two faces of Hautdesert are displayed, the one belonging to the world of youth, mirth, and complete openness to the eye, the other secretly muffled up, grim and ancient. The poet's most ingenious effect is to weld the two of them together, not only by the antithetical description, but also by presenting the younger as an appendage of the older:

An other lady hir lad bi the lyft honde …



More lykkerwys on to lyk
Watz that scho hade on lode.


The latter statement particularly presents the young lady from the start as one subordinate to and manipulated by another, and even suggests that she, in some sense, is merely a facet of the old woman. I think the poet may well have expected his audience to suspect an allusion to the tale of the Loathly Lady and to have a flashing idea that the two women are really one, present both in her young and old guises. It is a tale several times associated with Gawain, and, though the poet does not develop the suggestion, it is consistent with the poet's other hints that he should make us suspect and wonder about the relationship and about the significance of the old lady; it is the one place where he does prepare for the revelation of Morgan's role at the end. As with the disconcerting effect of the headless knight, however, the poet turns the doubts of his suggestive passage into humorous and social channels, making it the occasion for a display of Gawain's sense of appropriateness as he embraces one lady and bows to the other, and is taken off to join the Christmas fun. With this the narrative returns to the favourable presentation of Hautdesert with the Lord's exuberant mirth and the definitive picture of the pleasure, propriety and civility of the Christmas day feast.

The crucial last stanzas of Part II draw on the sense of security and civilisation re-established in our minds and the conversation between the Lord and Gawain is marked by mutual courtesy, as the Lord thanks Gawain for honouring and embellishing his house by his presence, and the hero reciprocates, and by an apparently frank and merry intimacy as Gawain reveals his quest and is relieved of his anxiety about finding the Green Chapel. The poem's second bargain is brought about as naturalistically as the first, seeming a natural product of the Lord's liking for sport and of Gawain's relief. The pattern of attack after apparent relief is one we are to meet again in Part III and later it appears part of a consistent psychological campaign to disarm and lull the hero into complacency and consequent rashness, but at the time the scene is simply one of friendly jest. True, the Lord's joy is excessive as he ‘let for luf lotez so myry, / As wyy that wolde of his wyt, ne wyst quat he myght’, but we, by now, accept him as a maker of mirth, the leader of Hautdesert's bonhomie and wholesome courtesy. By the end of Part II the poet has laid out all his materials and now comes to the centre of his work: all is to play for, all in balance and at hazard.


The entertaining ingenuity of Part III of Sir Gawain with its two simultaneous actions and patterned structure, marks it as the poem's centre. The poet's primary effect is to create variety and to highlight the qualities of the two actions by the contrast between them. The enclosed intensity of the conversations in Gawain's bed is pointed by the surrounding scenes of action, noise, bustle and crowd, the intricacy of the battle of words relieved by the direct narration of the chase. Part III is not only the most carefully formed passage in Middle English narrative poetry, but also the most wide-ranging in its poetic effects. The poet engages in a virtuoso display of the flexibility and richness of the alliterative tradition and his own power of modulating his style.

Within the poet's delight in variety of poetic effect lies the structural pleasure itself, both that of making a symbolic pattern of the three days, which prepares for the dénouement of the poem, and that of creating a narrative pattern of repetition with variation, whereby the action of each day is the same in outline but subtly different in detail, proportion and emphasis. The first two days build up to the third where the Lady's movement from wooing to offering gifts and the exchange of winnings between Gawain and the Lord are stressed by their difference from the procedures of the other days. On the first two days the renewal of the contract leads on to the next day's action; the third day also looks forward, but more ominously. The poet's shaping of his matter is made to seem natural, as it follows the passage of the day and the stages appropriate to an ordered household, while simultaneously the parallelism shows it to be unnatural, intended and significant, one of those archetypal threes of folk-tale and ballad, where the third prince, the third task, the third sister is always the one that matters.

Less frequently pointed out and studied is another aspect of the structuring of Part III, the way in which each day consists of a separation and subsequent bringing together of the different faces of Hautdesert and of courtesy. The division of each day into four parts—hunt, courtly dalliance, hunt, meeting and exchange—continues the alternation of country and court begun in Part II, but with the significant difference that Gawain is absent from the hunts. The poet interweaves scenes of the occupations of the male and female halves of Hautdesert, with Gawain left to a society of ladies, and then brings the two halves together. This neat patterning takes over from the second section's combination of ‘favourable’ presentation of Hautdesert's courtesy and suggestive hints which arouse suspicion. Now the poet simply divides Hautdesert up, putting all of one type of meaning into the hunting scenes, all of another into the bedroom scenes, and then playing them off against one another in the evening meetings.

The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain have often been ill-treated by commentators on the poem, either ignored, or dismissed as mere padding catering to the now obsolete tastes of a medieval upper class. Worse, when they have been discussed, they have been forced to fit into some scheme whereby they symbolically represent the bedroom scenes with detailed parallelism between Gawain and deer, boar and fox;9 this sort of interpretation survives with difficulty an actual reading of the poem since one is conscious as one reads mainly of the contrast of the two actions and aware of similarity only when it is obvious, as in the semi-humorous relationship between the two kinds of venery, hunting and wooing, or when it is made explicit, as in the parallel between the traditional treachery of the fox and Gawain's behaviour on the third day. Readers seeem reluctant to accept them on their own terms but they seem to me attractive, full of lively pictures of actions and renderings of sounds and sights, and appealing purely because they provide the most direct narrative poetry in the work. The vigorous and precise realisation of exciting scenes, from the panorama of the deer-hunt with its mingling of the noises of dogs, horns and men, to the fiercer and more powerful pursuit and slaughter of the boar and the persistent following of the dodging trail of the fox, provides the sense of physical activity and of masculine prowess in which Sir Gawain is, in comparison to most romances, otherwise so conspicuously lacking. The hunting scenes both expose and make up for the essentially passive nature of the hero's own role in the poem. The poem needs these passages of uncomplicated deeds, embedded in a world of things, a mass of animals, men, woods and fields, horns and weapons of slaughter, to set off the play of wits between Gawain and the Lady and also the ingenuity of the structure into which they are fitted.

Into these scenes the poet put all his love for the fictional world he had created in Hautdesert and what it represented, the life of the country and of the well-run manor. Knighthood and the brotherhood of men appear in their realistic forms as the quality of leadership and the sharing of physical activity, conducted with polished expertise. Some of the qualities attributed to Hautdesert earlier only here achieve solidity and convincing presence in the poem. The Lord was described on his first appearance as ‘a bolde burne’ with ‘felle face as the fyre’ and ‘wel hym semed … To lede a lortschyp in lee of leudez ful gode’, but up to now we have seen him mainly capering about the court with hearty laughter for every occasion; in the hunts he becomes a figure to be reckoned with, bold, decisive, nimble, brave and strong, a leader of men and a swift but sporting dealer out of death. The depiction of the men he leads enhances our sense of him as well as fulfilling that impression of Hautdesert as a model of courtly practice and good government which was suggested earlier in the more superficial zones of politeness and the proper serving of meals. Here we turn to men's work, and the cumulative impression of the descriptions of the work of dog-handlers, beaters, riders and the men who cut up the deer and boar and skin the fox is of skill and thorough knowledge of the proper conduct of a gentleman's affairs. And if that nowadays least-loved passage in the poem, the breaking up of the deer (1325ff.) may seem completely outside the range of modern responses as a point of gentlemanly honour, it surely still works as a brilliantly precise demonstration of the real nature of knightly occupation in the late Middle Ages, a knightly life which has little in common with that romantic picture of knighthood which the Lady keeps urging on Gawain. The display of the good practices of Hautdesert is particularly meaningful to the reader because Gawain is absent and we cannot therefore suspect any element of putting-on a show for his sake. The unavoidable conclusion, unless we decide the poet has no sense of logic, is that whatever else he may be, the Lord is a good master who does things properly, as in observing the close season. Throughout the scenes at Hautdesert this sense of good order and proper custom is drawn to our attention. At the beginning of Part IV the poet twice makes the point, first when Gawain receives his armour and sees that it has been polished and cleansed of rust and more explicitly when Gringolet is brought from the stable in the peak of condition. Gawain's gratitude for hospitality which survives even his irritation at being tricked is thus shown to be earned and supported by the lively presentation of wholesome actions which belong to the sphere of the Lord as leader, as host, and as good master. The hunts are more important in literal terms than has often been implied, because through them at least part of the basis upon which Gawain is finally judged is conveyed as part of the experience of the poem.

If our favourable reactions to a wholesome Hautdesert are channelled into the hunts, then our suspicions all find fulfilment in the bedroom conversations of Gawain and the Lady, though the poet ingeniously complicates our suspicions by developing the scenes as those of a comedy of manners. As with the hunts the primary appeal of the passages is on the level of entertainment: the poet makes us appreciate the comedy of the situation, with Gawain cast in the role of a reluctant Roger the Lodger while the man of the house is out, as well as the more courtly comedy of the verbal fencing and the witty manoeuvres of the two antagonists. The whole conception of the Lady's speeches and behaviour is brilliantly comic, a tour de force of clever play-acting as she goes through an extensive repertoire of seductive strategies. The poet's command of tones of speech is subtly displayed in the nebulous amplitude of her syntax, in her mock-serious turning of the courtly metaphor of imprisonment into jesting literal fact, in her arch flattery and her comically indignant reproofs; her speeches come fluting and pouting off the page tailor-made for a Joan Greenwood or a Fenella Fielding. How anyone can suggest that the poet is presenting her as crude and inexpert in some of her speeches passes my comprehension. It seems obvious to me that the poet has imagined her as playing a role and that he conveys to us by touches of exaggeration, hints, and brief allusions to her thoughts, that this is so, and that therefore all her moves are calculated to test out Gawain from different directions and find his weak spot. There is no vulnerability about her but complete assurance from first to last; she, after all, is the one figure in the poem who succeeds and, moreover, the poet manages to suggest that she is enjoying herself. The cool judgement lying behind the fetching performance implies a cynicism refreshingly astringent in comparison to much medieval poetry about love.

The presentation of the Lady is of course a ‘dramatic’ characterisation, both in that she is presented almost entirely in direct speech, and in that she is almost completely confined to the fulfilling of a particular function in the story, but the poet shows that he has gone beyond a simple acceptance that role is all there is to character, by making us aware that this is what she is doing and suggesting that there is more of the Lady than is seen. So at the end of each conversation there is a short comment on her behaviour; on the second day:

Thus hym frayned that fre, and fondet hym ofte,
For to haf wonnen hym to woghe, what-so scho thoght ellez.


and on the third:

Thenne lachchez ho hir leve and levez hym there,
For more myrthe of that mon moght ho not gete.


Both of these statements declare her purpose and suggest that she is capable of judging her own efforts and her degree of success, ‘what-so scho thoght ellez’, and they confirm the likelihood that the poet had a similar intention in the disputed corresponding passage on the first day:

And ay the lady let lyk as hym loved mych;
The freke ferde with defence, and feted ful fayre,
‘Thagh I were burde bryghtest,’ the burde in mynde hade,
‘The lasse luf in his lode for lur that he soght
                                        boute hone,
                    The dunte that schulde hym deve,
                    And nedez hit most be done.’
                    The lady thenn spek of leve;
                    He granted hir ful sone.


All attempts to punctuate this so that the Lady is not aware of the nature of Gawain's quest have been artificial and implausible;10 the only way of leaving it open is not to close the direct speech at all, but to assume that the poet has allowed his character's voice to merge into the narrator's. I believe, however, that the poet meant us to realise that the Lady knew more than she apparently should have done, because he wants us to appreciate the testing of Gawain and to be aware of the dramatic irony. The suspense is not destroyed because we are not given enough information to work it all out and the Lord is carefully left free of any imputation of guilty knowledge; the dramatic ironies in which he is involved are deliberately ambivalent. Knowledge that the Lady is playing a part and is not a genuinely love-lorn woman is, in any case, implicit in the style the poet developed for her, and this knowledge, together with hints of an ulterior motive, focus attention on the strategy itself, its variety and subtlety, rather than on the Lady's nature and feelings; it is clear that they are a sham put on for the occasion and so we can stop wondering about them, enjoy them for what they are, and pay attention to the reaction of the hero which is what is really under examination.

What the Lady does in her performance is to launch a persistent psychological assault on Gawain, using a clever mixture of attack and defence, as she flatters, lulls and lures on the one hand, and reproves, goads and invites retaliation on the other; it is her aim to disconcert, to catch him out somewhere, to nose out a weakness, find something that Gawain really wants and then to cajole him into accepting it.

We are in no doubt in these scenes that the performance is put on for Gawain's benefit and that he is on trial just as we are in no doubt in the hunting scenes that Hautdesert's following of good practices is on show. The relationship between the two is primarily that of contrast, between outdoor and indoor, between action and passivity, between deeds and words, between a real chivalry of masculine sport and a literary, artificial chivalry of the feminine sport of love, between the solid gains of the one and the insubstantial profits of the other. Lying behind the alternation is the shadow of a debate about the nature of knighthood, with the Lord and the Lady as the spokesmen for the two opposing sides, and Gawain caught in the middle; this impression is aided by the anonymity of Lord and Lady, whose identities are, for this reason, amorphous, pushed at one moment towards allegory, at another towards folk-tale and myth. Because the alternation is part of a continuous narrative, one sees it primarily in terms of the hero's situation and one's judgement of the experience he encounters. So the contrasts also identify the different aspects of Hautdesert, the open, bold masculine society and the secretive, calculating feminine one. The point that emerges from the testing of Gawain at Hautdesert is that it is the demands of the feminine society that Gawain satisfies, not by yielding to its every demand or by accepting its conception of knighthood, but by acting throughout with unblemished courtesy and high moral standards; Gawain's acceptance of the belt has nothing wrong with it and, in context, is a courteous act, though, of course, his motive for accepting and his later anti-feminist feeling ironically undermine both aspects of his courtesy. What Gawain betrays is the masculine world of free, generous dealings, of honesty between brothers, of keeping the rules of the game. Because Gawain is to be judged as lacking, that which judges him must itself be worthy, and the Lord is therefore given virtue to which Gawain's may be compared and authority by which he may be judged.

The meeting of Gawain and the Lord on the evening of each day is the third element in the pattern of Part III; these meetings are fairly briefly recounted and the passages in which they occur have to act as bridges between one day and the next, but, because they deal with the bargain and sum up the day's action, they have greater weight than their length might seem to imply. As with the Lord's departures and the Lady's arrivals, these passages work to a pattern. First they are fitted into the time-scheme by running on from the Lord's return at dusk from the chase; each thus begins in the atmosphere of homecoming and mirth and is pictured in terms of the Lord entering upon a scene prepared for him. On the first two days he immediately takes the centre of the stage and takes command, summoning the company, displaying his catch, describing the hunt and handing over his winnings. Gawain then decorously repays, with one kiss on the first day and two on the second, the Lord teases and chaffs him and in mirth they sit down at table and swear the bargain again for the next day. The whole thing is very natural and entertaining, but the reader is made conscious of the undercurrents. Here the two faces of Hautdesert meet and the Lord's entry from outdoors to the warm, enclosed world of the hall is a vivid, natural image of this coming together. In the exchanges the venison and boar's head are the solid and admired trophies of the day; in this moment their literal nature is augmented since they represent the Lord's occupations in the outside world of deeds and things. The kisses stand equally for the chivalry of the boudoir, nebulous in comparison, their worth equivocal, an anti-climax unless, as the Lord says, their value is explained by identification of where they come from. So the exchanges lead to teasing, as the Lord suggests that Gawain is on to a good thing, both in getting so much for so little and, presumably, in the winning of the kisses in the first place. The first day sets the pattern. On the second day the poet shows the threads beginning to tangle, as Gawain is seen poised between the two contending forces; it is, of course, through the calculating Lady that the difficulty for Gawain of keeping separate his obligations to Lord and Lady, of satisfying one without offending the other, is revealed:

Such semblaunt to that segge semly ho made
Wyth stille stollen countenaunce, that stalworth to plese,
That al forwondered watz the wyye, and wroth with
Bot he nolde not for his nurture nurne hir ayaynez,
Bot dalt with hir al in daynte, how-se-ever the dede turned towrast.


With characteristic courtesy he restrains the impulse to check the Lady in public and risks offending the husband, and so all remains in balance for the third day, as the terms of the Lord's proposal to renew the bargain emphasise:

‘For I haf fraysted the twys, and faythful I fynde the.
Now “thrid tyme throw best” thenk on the morne.’


The crucial third day varies the pattern of the first two in several places, and the significance of the exchange scene, particularly, seems to be stressed by reversal of the expected order of things. The Lord again comes home and finds ‘fire upon flet, the freke ther-byside’ as expected, but a description of Gawain in blue and ermine, a heraldic picture of loyalty, focuses our eyes on him, not the Lord, as he makes his payment first: thus Gawain's lie is brought into prominence, the Lord's jesting comment given an extra bite, and the handing-over of the fox-skin placed at the end with the Lord's ironic speech.

‘Mary,’ quoth that other mon, ‘myn is bihynde,
For I haf hunted al this day, and noght haf I geten
Bot this foule fox felle—the fende haf the godez!
And that is ful pore for to pay for suche prys thinges
As ye haf thryght me here thro, suche thre cosses
                    so gode.’


The symbols of betrayal, the fox-skin and the three kisses, forecast the judgement of Gawain's failure to satisfy both of the worlds he has encountered at Hautdesert, but in dramatic terms it is the Lord's gift which seems the anti-climax and Gawain, in his fur-clad elegance, who seems to claim the mastery.

The last two stanzas of Part III return to the manner of Part II, combining praise of Hautdesert, in Gawain's courteous thanks to the Lord and his household and the sorrow of the servants at his departure, with the suspicion of a threat in the Lord's words:

‘In god faythe,’ quoth the godmon, ‘wyth a goud wylle
Al that ever I yow hyght halde schal I redé.’


And so the poet leaves us with those questions about Hautdesert which I mentioned earlier. By first combining praise of the house with hints that all might not be as it seems, and then dividing the narrative into two sets of actions, he creates two faces, the one eliciting our trust and approval, the other arousing our mistrust, tempered by amused admiration of cleverness and panache—a combination of reactions similar to that elicited by the Green Knight at Camelot. The poet has devised a two-faced household for his Janus-headed knight.


Since the poet has spent a long time on matters which have, apparently, little to do with the Green Knight and the challenge from which the story began, the last section of Sir Gawain has to begin with recapitulation. As the poet moves the story onward with Gawain's early rising, his saying goodbye to Hautdesert and setting out to meet the fearsome foe, he simultaneously draws the strands together and reminds the reader of what has gone before. By means of the pictures of the sleepless Gawain listening to the howling wind, the arming of Gawain and the wild, bleak landscape through which he rides, and the dialogue between Gawain and his companion, the poet reminds us of hazard and death, apprehension and obligation, of the nature of the Green Knight, of the challenge at Camelot, of Gawain's earlier arming and setting out, and the lonely journey which ended at the Castle. The scene with the Guide dramatises Gawain's keeping of his first promise, recalls to our minds the fact that this is his major test and that it requires real courage to reject the temptation to run away and to resolve to ride on alone to meet death.

The most interesting and ingenious aspect of this is the figure of the Guide. In him again are combined the two faces of Hautdesert. His credibility depends on the Castle's good face; he is a member of the ‘meyny’ which loves Gawain and which the hero with extreme courtesy has praised and thanked at his departure; he has the credit of being a good servant of a good master. His warning to Gawain seems, therefore, an honest impulse of goodwill. But, with hindsight, one sees that the warning belongs with the testing, tempting face; it teases Gawain and waits to see what he will do. The Guide is never explained in logical terms. What he says has a kind of truth, but it conflicts in factual detail with the explanation of events given later, and so he remains equivocal. We are not given the information to identify him either as an agent of the Lord, lying to make Gawain afraid, or as an honest man, speaking what he believes to be the truth. This unexplained doubleness creates another ‘dramatic’ characterisation which leads us on to the scene of climax, and leads us back to the Janus figure of the Green Knight himself.

The meeting of Gawain and the Green Knight is a powerful dramatic scene, dramatic both in the sense that it is dominated by direct speech and in that its ingenious construction provides a fitting climax of conflict, with suspense, surprise, reversal, and a complete untying of knots, metaphorical and literal. The presentation of the Green Knight is initially a striking combination of threatening sounds and gestures, vigorous physical actions and authoritative speech, alternately courteous and haughty. If the sound of the whetstone, the unidentified voice from above, the new axe and the swift, powerful movements of the green man re-animate the sense of an awesome yet gleeful bogeyman, his speeches have a business-like certainty; his reproof of Gawain ‘with mony prowde wordez’ reminds us not only of his scornful condemnation of Camelot's lack of bravery but, by measuring Gawain once more against his reputation, also of the scenes at the Castle.

When the blow is eventually struck the poet shows, with vivid visual detail, Gawain's flurry of relieved action as he sees his blood gleaming on the snow and realises that he is still alive to defend himself against further attack. Our attention is given to the hero's comically rapid donning of helmet and grabbing of weapons and the nervously patronising reminder of codes of gentlemanly conduct which Gawain offers to the Green Knight by using the word traditionally associated with the halting of chivalrous duels (ho):11

‘Bot on stroke here me fallez—
The covenaunt schop ryght so,
Fermed in Arthurez hallez—
And therfore, hende, now hoo!’


This bubble of pretence is soon burst and the reminder becomes ironic when Gawain himself is given a lesson in chivalry by a transformed Green Knight, for, by way of the exaggeration of Gawain's action and the amusement it arouses in the laconic, observing opponent, the poet makes a brilliant switch from one characterisation to the other; the Green Knight, with his floating, undefined suggestions of Hazard, Fortune and Death, is converted into the Lord of Hautdesert, bluff, cheerful commander and commender. The enemy changes roles and becomes a friendly adviser, unsparingly honest but indulgent and generous. He ceases to be identified as the ‘gome in the grene’ but from now on is simply ‘The hathel’, ‘that other leude’, ‘the lorde’ until he departs from the scene with that same effect as at the end of the first scene at Camelot of total disappearance into limbo. There is again a subliminal suggestion that with the blow, as in those folk-tales where a beheading magically restores a transformed being to his original state of youth and beauty, the magic is dispelled, though it is the transformed figure who delivers it rather than receives.

Certainly from the moment of the axe-stroke, the scene is a slow deflation, a modulation from heroic, supernatural expectation to the level of ordinary human dealings, and the character of the Green Knight/Lord changes key from moment to moment. First he speaks in an authoritative voice, echoing the tone used elsewhere by the poet to represent the spirit of right, justice and moderation, as in God's final words in Patience and some of the Maiden's reproofs in Pearl.

‘Bolde burne, on this bent be not so gryndel.
No mon here unmanerly the mysboden habbez,
Ne kyd bot as covenaunde at kyngez kort schaped.
I hyght the a strok and thou hit hatz; halde the wel payed.’


Then he becomes legal and business-like as he explains the rules of his particular game, and modulates into a matter-of-fact giver of information, as he tells Gawain how he has been deceived, and becomes, at the end of his speech, the courteous friendly host of Hautdesert, addressing Gawain with the polite ‘yow’:12

‘Now know I wel thy cosses, and thy costes als,
And the wowyng of my wyf: I wrought hit myselven.
I sende hir to asay the, and sothly me thynkkez
On the fautlest freke that ever on fote yede.
As perle bi the quite pese is of prys more,
So is Gawayn, in god fayth, bi other gay knyghtez.
Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted;
Bot that watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauther,
Bot for ye lufed your lyf; the lasse I yow blame.’


It is Gawain who inflates the terms of the discussion into those of vice and sin, bringing together, more explicitly than at any moment since the passage on the pentangle, chivalric standards and religious ones, and it is, as it seems, in response to Gawain's own enlargement of the moral importance of the moment, that the Lord, in his next speech, is given the terminology of confession and penance. The effect of this is, in my view, partly comic; the Lord with laughter takes up a metaphorical, temporary, priestly authority to re-assure Gawain and to bring him down from his exaggerated stance of tragic failure, offers the belt as a token and returns quickly to ordinary common-sense matters, teasing Gawain to make light of it all. We are invited to respond to this primarily in terms of its effect on the hero and as part of the gradual deflating of heroic exaggeration: the result of the speech is that Gawain speaks with calmer, rueful cynicism, pointing out truthfully that he has been tricked and made use of, but accepting that he has done wrong. The lowering of the level of speech, thought and action culminates in Gawain's speaking at an everyday, common-sense level and asking his opponent's name.

What more we may read into the Lord's significance at this point is open to some doubt. He speaks as Gawain's judge, but the only bases which, in the reader's eyes, give him the right to judge are, first, the power associated with having, in some sense, won a contest and having worked within the rules; secondly, his earlier fulfilment of the role of host and master; and thirdly, his undefined, shortly to be undermined, supernatural power. For the moment he is able to interpret Gawain's motives and jestingly absolves Gawain, but the poet does not choose to sustain the priestly voice, let alone give any body to the suggestions of divine power, and the standards by which Gawain is judged are primarily contractual and social, the standards of good government, generosity, and fair dealing, which Hautdesert exemplified. The belt is returned as a reminder of the vagaries of fortune; Gawain is offered a lesson in experience. The religious tone of the exchange makes clear the moral basis of the test, but the language is not to be taken literally; it acts rather, on the Lord's lips, as a teasing metaphor for what has been going on, and though Gawain speaks of ‘vertue’, ‘vyse’ and ‘covetyse’, his own judgement of himself is couched in chivalric and social language, which links vice with ‘vylany’ and defines the nature he has forsaken as ‘larges and lewté that longez to knyghtez’. As in Pearl there seems to be more interest in the poet's mind in the hero's actual experiencing of the lesson than in clear didactic exposition and analysis of the lesson itself. It seems to me impossible from this shifting, dramatic succession of plausible reactions and postures to justify a reading of the poem which places strong emphasis upon moral lessons, or on Christian doctrines.13

The identification of the Lord by name disperses any remnants of mystery and his final speech lacks any sense of the majestic and meaningful; at the last the whole affair is deliberately reduced to the level of gentlemanly conduct and the adventure is treated rather as if Gawain had been caught not actually cheating at cards but furtively taking out insurance against loss—not the done thing but nothing really to be disturbed about. The Lord himself, diminished in importance once his mask is off, is further reduced when he reveals that he was merely a puppet dangling from someone else's hands. The most significant feature of this long anti-climax is that the real judge of Gawain is not the awesome grotesque persona of the Green Knight, who belongs to the world of fantasy and exotic mystery, but the ‘human’ manifestation of the figure. Gawain is judged in the realm of social behaviour, not in one of supernatural challenge, judged for his conduct in a normal situation not in a moment of heroic action. We seem to have been living in a world peopled by looming shadows which disappear beneath the light of simple truth, which leaves us with the inescapable fact that Gawain was afraid and failed to see that all his promises were equally important. Beneath the high-sounding name by which the two-faced challenger is identified, Bertilak de Hautdesert, is the prosaic allegorical identification of Gawain's future burden, ‘Bear thy lack of high deserving’. Despite Bertilak's consoling praise, Gawain's remorse seems to show that Morgan's ultimate purpose has been fulfilled, but the poet chooses not to leave it so, restoring our sense of proportion, if not the hero's, by Camelot's laughter and sensible pleasure in Gawain's preservation.

Judged by any naturalistic standards or by the standards of characterisation which one would think inevitable in later fiction, the figures of Gawain's opponents are obviously unsatisfactory in being unexplained and inconsistent. The Guide is a tool unexplained in logical terms; the Lady is characterised merely in terms of her function in the plot, although the poet is subtle enough to suggest that she has unrevealed thoughts and that the rest of her character exists but is not being used for the moment; the importance of Morgan in the plot is not ‘justified’ by any presentation of her nature and motives, since she exists only as an emblematic picture; the Green Knight/Bertilak is a combination of two natures, which overlap at some places in the poem but which are never fused into one explicable being. Obviously one way of accounting for such figures is to accommodate them to a general principle of medieval dramatic treatment of character, whereby the figures are filled out with plausible, vivid sense of what they must say and do to fulfil their purpose in a particular moment. Geoffrey Shepherd speaks of such treatment of character in Troilus and Criseyde:

The plot is central. But the story, as Chaucer tells it in its wholeness and fullness, generates the characters it needs. If we insist on assessing the individuality and psychology of these characters we do it from outside the poem. They needed not to be psychologically coherent as long as their presentation sustains and gives substance to the narratio.14

The presentation of the Guide and the Lady are clearly rooted in such animation of the narrative, generated from the plot's need of a tempter and a temptress, and, similarly, the Green Knight at Camelot is basically an inventive filling-out of the role of challenger. But in Sir Gawain the way such figures work is unusually complex. Because the plot requires the Lady to act at her husband's bidding, the Guide presumably to act at someone's bidding, though we are not told whose, and the Green Knight at Morgan's bidding, the idea of playing a role, of deliberately acting an assumed part, is made an aspect of the fiction itself. The poet's treatment of behaviour is, in any case, a sophisticated one which knows that action may be an act put on for the benefit of an audience. Arthur's behaviour when he is surprised by the supernatural, but ‘let no semblaunt be sene’, is a performance of what seems fitting to him as king and husband, and an example of the quelling of private feeling in the interests of decorum and protection of women and social inferiors. The courtiers of Camelot similarly display a sense of appropriate public behaviour as they disguise their grief at the thought of Gawain's doomed quest (539-42). But Gawain's pretence when the Lady first comes to his bedroom is different, embarrassed, self-protective and wary:

                                                            and the burne schamed,
And layde hym doun lystyly, and let as he slepte …
The lede lay lurked a ful longe quyle,
Compast in his concience to quat that cace myght
Meve other amount to.


When he does manage to behave in a more fitting way, the ‘seemly’ behaviour is presented to us as comic, a pantomime performance of waking-up in pious innocence:

Bot yet he sayde in hymself, ‘More semly hit were
To aspye wyth my spelle in space quat ho wolde.’
Then he wakenede, and wroth, and to hir warde torned.
And unlouked his yye-lyddez and let as hym wondered,
And sayned hym, as bi his sawe the saver to worthe,
                              with hande.


Since the poet indicates to us that the Lady's wooing is a performance from start to finish as she ‘let lyk as hym loved mych’, the ensuing encounters between the two are rich in the delicate humour of supposed courtly love scenes which are really contests of false rhetoric. Gawain's sense of seemly public behaviour is even further tainted by comedy and embarrassment, when it becomes a matter of manners having to conceal honesty (1658-1663). Courtesy of speech, which the poet refers to often, is thus shown to be another romance quality which is two-faced; manners make good order, but to be civilised may mean to compromise truth. The particular deed does, of course, turn awry and culminates in a convincing show of frank honesty from Gawain as he comes forward to act a lie to the Lord:

He metez me this godmon inmyddez the flore,
And al with gomen he hym gret, and goudly he sayde,
‘I schal fylle upon fyrst oure forwardez nouthe,
That we spedly had spoken, ther spared watz no drynk.’
Then acoles he the knyght and kysses hym thryes,
As saverly and sadly as he hem sette couthe.


The treatment of this scene shows the poet moving over completely, for the moment, to detached presentation and creating the irony of a convincing performance of truth which the reader knows to be false. We are not given such ironic knowledge in other scenes which we know only at the end of the poem to have been lies, but retrospectively we recognise that the Lord and the Guide put up similarly convincing acts. Since the inhabitants of Hautdesert are presented almost entirely within their roles, they appear as characters who know their lines, in contrast to Gawain whom we see in the act of improvisation. We can trust what we read only when the character's inner thought is revealed; the dialogue itself is constantly suspect. Hence our certainty, if we had any doubts at all, that Gawain is our hero. The figures of the Lord, the Lady, the Guide and the Green Knight are shown to us only as performances, as façades; the poet has significantly not developed their inner life and so they exist as mysterious and threatening talking masks. This effect is augmented both by the fact that, until the end, none of these figures is given a name, and by the poet's use of suggestion in his presentation of them.

Working in conjunction with, and in a similar way to the poet's suggestive, anonymous figures are figures of another kind, the numbers and patterns in the poem. These might seem to imply that the poem's meaning is defined by some symbolic design. The existence of several such patterns, however, prevents one from identifying a single total scheme. The three final days at Hautdesert, with the three hunts, three temptations, three exchanges and the one, two, three kisses, followed by the three blows from the Green Knight's axe form the most obvious pattern; this seems to work mainly as a device of suspense, suggesting to us the familiar folk-tale idea that the third of a series is the one that is significant, and thus throwing into prominence the third exchange scene, and building up the suspense of the delivery of the blow. Another number series is presented in the poet's lengthy explanation of the pentangle, the five-pointed star with its overlapping, endless lines; the identification of the significance of the sign with regard to Gawain is an ingenious piece of arithmetical poetry, explaining in twenty-five alliterative long lines (lines 640-64) five groups of five qualities and emblems. From the stress placed on the symbol and the number, one expects both to play a part later in the story but the pentangle is hardly referred to and, though the number is used later, it is used unobtrusively enough for one to be unsure whether the pattern is accidental or another sign of the poet's teasing ingenuity. Whichever it is, there is a pattern of five in the poem. Gawain makes five promises, one to the Green Knight at Camelot, three to the Lord of Hautdesert and one to the Lady (and manages to keep four of them). Gawain is faced by five different figures who, as it appears later, were all tempters and testers, the Green Knight, Bertilak, the Lady, the Guide and Morgan la Fay. But the poet does not point this correspondence, nor, as he easily might have done, explain Gawain's failure in any way which makes us see it as part of this fixed pattern. The pattern fades away as the testers dwindle by the identification of the Green Knight and the Lord, by the reduction of the Lady (and by implication the Guide) and the Green Knight himself to pawns of the one malevolent source, who is in turn deprived of any sense of majesty and power. The pentangle itself is replaced, or rather augmented, by a different, less immutable, kind of knot, a single band of green.

So behind the already piquant combination of a fantastic adventure-story, and a mixed narrative style, the poet has created a further dimension to the poem in the suggestion of larger but nebulous, mythic and allegorical forms, of which the anonymous opponents of the hero are particular but shifting manifestations. The reader is teased into trying to form such shapes into patterns, but the poet skilfully weaves together suggestions without enabling one to make clear identifications. At one moment one perceives Gawain as the centre of a tug-of-war between two allegorical opponents who represent two different conceptions of knighthood, but the Lord and Lady of Hautdesert remain within their social roles and do not solidify into personifications. From another point of view one sees Gawain ringed by a masque of tempters and testers, who present to him façades of normal behaviour, behind which is a sense of mysterious significance, a sense which is never defined but simply dispelled in the closing stages of the poem. Both the Green Knight and Morgan la Fay, for instance, are described in terms which associate them with Death. The Guide says of the Green Knight:

Ther passes non bi that place so proude in his armes
That he ne dyngez hym to dethe with dynt of his honde …


This description of the bringer down of pride regardless of degree is echoed by Bertilak's own words about Morgan:

Weldez non so hyghe hawtesse
That ho ne con make ful tame.


But we are not allowed to make the equation of either with Death itself: the words of the Guide are proved untrue and the words about Morgan are undermined by the reminder, a few lines later, that she is only old Auntie Morgan.


It was possibly in pursuit of his interest in the ‘difficult case’ that the poet turned, in Sir Gawain, to secular material. God is a tricky subject and the poet has to contend with greater resistance in both material and audience when he deals with scriptural and doctrinal matter. If instead of codes of universal justice and belief, one starts from the earthly code of chivalry, then the values are more ambivalent. It is possible for the poet to set up oppositions between a hero and his challenger without a clear identification of the moral agency which that challenger represents. And so, around the central concept of a traditional hero undertaking a romance quest, the poet creates a shifting, hazardous world, where the ideas which in many other romances are taken for granted are explicitly or implicitly questioned.

The poet's choice of a literary form with a well-defined tradition could be assumed to arouse certain expectations in his audience; it is the poet's ingenious pleasure to attempt to satisfy his reader's interest in adventure while partly frustrating such expectations by eschewing the easy romance path and attempting a more penetrating treatment of the knight, showing him as an individual struggling to accomplish an impossible task. The poet also avoids the hero's easy triumph and colours his ‘happy ending’ with a sense of partial failure and anticlimax, placing idealism in the light of unheroic reality and deflating comedy. Again, he chose a hero who would already be known to his hearers, and the existence of conflicting traditions of Gawain's nature may well have been something which the poet wished to exploit.15 The resistance to sexual temptation of a hero who elsewhere in Arthurian tales acts as an impulsive libertine seems a particularly teasing example of moral conduct, intended to surprise the audience as much as the failure of this exemplar of courage completely to pass his more traditional test. The ‘dangerous edge of things’ is offered for our interest as much as with Jonah, though more lightly, and, like Jonah, Gawain eventually appears as something of an heroic fool who thought wrongly that life played fair and according to the rules, even while he fails to conduct his own life according to them.

Unlike Jonah, however, Gawain is indisputably a hero, though the result of the poet's complex and equivocal treatment of his adventure is that the nature of the heroic role is continually in doubt, and the ending of the poem is designed to make us wonder whether Gawain has fulfilled such a role or not. We are certain, at least, that Gawain is hero in the sense of the central figure of the narrative; once he enters the action in the fifteenth stanza, he is present in every stanza except six scattered verses describing the hunts. Further, once he has left Camelot, the poet shows more and more of his thoughts and feelings, and often, though not always, focuses scenes from Gawain's point of view. He is identified as ‘our luflych lede’ and the idea of ‘our’ hero implicitly calls for the reader's sympathetic involvement. It is also clear that he is considered within the world of the poem as a model of noble behaviour, who performs actions fitting to the traditions of chivalry. He is presented in traditional heroic situations such as being equipped in armour and riding alone into danger. He is given words which ring with echoes of epic stoicism, and he is even accompanied by epic epithets: Gawayn the gode, Gawayn the hende, gode Gawan. He is associated throughout with high ideals and standards of behaviour, even if at times ironically; he is praised by the poet and by his opponent. But, of course, the model proves to have a flaw, and the outcome of the story displays the idea of the hero as a model of behaviour in conflict with the idea of the individual who is our emotional concern. This is the poet's major change in the traditional beheading tale. Whereas in the analogues the keeping of the promise alone proved the hero's courage and saved his life, the author of Sir Gawain portrays a hero who shows courage, keeps his promise, saves his life, and yet does not end with the conventional hero's triumph. Gawain possesses the necessary qualities for the fictional automaton which the hero of romance often seems, but these are played off against ordinary human, even unchivalrous, qualities, particularly fear, to create a figure who eventually seems to possess character and not just characteristics. The change of ending is a turning towards both realism and comedy, for Gawain's failure is no tragic fall, but an anti-climax. Hence from the start the tone of the poem is intermittently and insidiously comic, and indicates to us that the outcome, though it may be unexpected, is not to be serious. This is of a piece with the poet's other uses of levelling realism and marks Sir Gawain, from one point of view, as a romance moving in the direction of Don Quijote.16 But the poet's basic choices, the choice of a testing story and the choice of treatment, indicate not so much a desire to deflate romance as that same interest in the antithesis of opposites, and in the inter-play of ideal behaviour and actual experience, that one can observe, in various ways, in the other three poems. The Beheading Game measures Gawain against the heroic figures of legend, and in following their path, Gawain partakes of their heroic stature. The poet wants us to respond to the elevated, romantic aspects of his tale. At the same time the poet's treatment brings Gawain, like Jonah, to the reader's level of experience.

So, although Gawain fulfils a hero's role, the hero himself is continually being diminished. He is shown repeatedly as subordinate, and therefore being obliged to be deferential, and as passive. At Camelot he appears as liege, nephew and inferior; he is subject to the approval of Arthur and the court, advised and, at the close of the scene, patronised by the King, lectured on his obligations by the Green Knight, and even warned by the narrator, who, by the end of Part I, has left his pretended role of the minstrel repeating a tale, and has turned into the all-seeing, ironic commentator on the action. In Part II Gawain is shown setting out on an adventure in which he is doomed to be the passive recipient of a death-blow, and in which, in the court's eyes, he is the victim of kingly pride and folly. In the arming scene he is presented as a lay-figure being accoutred in equipment whose heroic associations have to contend with a sense of its irrelevance and uselessness in the particular quest he is undertaking. The elaborate explication of Gawain's device accompanies praise of the hero with emphasis on his reliance on forces outside himself and on his possession of virtues which are gentle and mild and show deference to the feelings of others, and this is followed by an account of Gawain's journey which gives a brief summary of his acts of valour but enters in detail into his experience of loneliness, cold and anxious uncertainty. The poet thus begins to establish a distinction between the hero's humanity and the heroic pattern of behaviour expected from him; this distinction forms the basis of the complex treatment of the hero, whereby the poet repeatedly reduces Gawain's heroic quality in a variety of related ways, while maintaining in the reader's mind elevated senses of his nature and behaviour.

Much of the time we are asked not to look at him but to perceive through him; as he is faced by unknown places, an unfamiliar society and startling and unnerving experience, so we live through it with him as impressions are presented in the order in which he receives them. This is strikingly so in the last part of the poem, where the poet builds up the suspense preceding the Green Knight's reappearance and the delivery of the blow. The careful focusing through Gawain's perception of the scene in which he first hears and then sees the Green Knight again is characteristic of the way in which the poet creates a bond of sympathy between reader and hero, which is implicitly identifying the hero as an ordinary man, who reacts to the unfamiliar with embarrassment and fear, and whose limitations are inevitably exposed. His ‘inadequate’ reactions are among the effects in the poem of which the reader can be most sure, because the poet tells us of Gawain's inner thoughts, reminding us from time to time of his fear of the encounter with the Green Knight, and identifying his embarrass-ment by the Lady of Hautdesert and his sense of the dilemma in which he is placed. On the last day at the Castle, the poet enters into his hero with particular point and emphasis, first identifying his preoccupation during sleep and ominously reminding us of the passive, doomed role which Gawain has yet to fulfil:

In drey droupyng of dreme draveled that noble,
As mon that watz in mornyng of mony thro thoghtes,
How that destiné schulde that day dele hym his wyrde
At the grene chapel, when he the gome metes,
And bihoves his buffet abide withoute debate more.


The hero is shown, that is, at his most vulnerable. Then, as he hastily recovers his wits to deal with the laughing and alluring Lady, bending over him with her fair face, throat and breast enhanced in beauty by jewels and fur, Gawain's instinctive sexual response is indicated both directly and by innuendo:17

He sey hir so glorious and gayly atyred,
So fautles of hir fetures and of so fyne hewes,
Wight wallande joye warmed his hert.
With smothe smyling and smolt thay smeten into merthe,
That al watz blis and bonchef that breke hem bitwene,
                                        and wynne.
                    Thay lanced wordes gode,
                    Much wele then watz therinne.


Beneath the decorous surface description of conversation runs the current of sexual, physical nuance, identified clearly in ‘Wight wallande joye’ and obliquely suggested in the physical verbs, smeten, breke and lanced. The threat that the warm courtesies of speech may burst into the hotter pleasures of physical contact is then made explicit by the voice of the all-seeing poet, who states Gawain's moral dilemma, shows his hero suppressing his sexual arousal and at last recognising that he can no longer go on temporising with the Lady without being false to her husband:

                    Thay lanced wordes gode,
                    Much wele then watz therinne.
                    Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
                    Nif mare of hir knyght [hym] mynne.
For that prynce of pris depresed hym so thikke,
Nurned hym so neghe the thred, that nede hym bihoved
Other lach ther hir luf, other lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest crathayn he were,
And more for his meschef, yif he schulde make synne
And be traytor to that tolke that that telde aght.
‘God schylde,’ quoth the schalk, ‘that schal not befalle!’


This is, of course, a disputed and much discussed passage and one which several critics have seen as central to one's understanding of the moral sense of the tale.18 It seems to me that the poet is ingeniously combining his reducing and his enhancing of the hero. Gawain's thoughts are on a level of plausible feeling; he wants to maintain a reputation for courtesy to women, but he comes to a moment of self-knowledge in recognising that he cannot, in his situation, both do that and maintain faith to his host. He is a normal male and his physical reactions to the Lady declare (Nurned) that he is shamefully near crossing the boundary of another man's territory (thred), and so, because faith is more important than courtesy, he forces down, subdues and checks (depresed) his urgent sexual desire. The physical undertones of the passage make one view the hero in ordinary terms and enjoy his comic struggle between being a gentleman and avoiding adultery. The morality by which Gawain acts also seems to emphasise common-sense ideas at the expense of romantic notions of knightly conduct; Gawain is no dashing blade, but a cautious man who realises that being polite to a woman stops short of going to bed with her, if one is a guest in her husband's house. The diminishing of the chivalrous hero to bourgeois standards of social behaviour is, however, counter-acted by the sense of a real struggle against temptation and of a decisive act which is ideal in social terms rather than those of either amour courtois or Christian celibacy. The decision of a prynce of pris to respect the rights of a social inferior, even at the expense of his own reputation for courtliness, is a piece of ideal behaviour which displays Gawain as one of those who have that true ‘gentillesse’ of which another bourgeois character, the Wife of Bath, so eloquently speaks, through the lady in another intimate bedroom scene, in Chaucer's version of the tale of the Loathly Lady. Again we have a moment in the poem where beneath the surface is a debating point about knighthood, as to which of the two, courtesy to a woman or loyalty to one's host, is the more important. The emphasis on the hero's own overcoming of temptation in lines 1770-91 seems to make the idea of the intervention of the Virgin Mary, which most editors curiously prefer to emendation in line 1769,19 quite out of keeping with the rest of the section; the poet is thinking more in social than in religious terms.

Gawain's resistance to temptation and his loyalty to his host occur, with an irony which comes to seem typical of the poet, just before the crucial scene in which he yields to the Lady's persuasion and commits himself to an act of disloyalty. The alternation of building-up and letting-down is present throughout the poem and is a second way in which the heroic aspect of Gawain and his enterprise is diminished. The Castle itself, which at first sight seemed full of rich potentiality, is, in romance terms, an anti-climax. There are no besieged maidens, no predatory giant; its inhabitants turn out to be, apparently, normal, concerned with sensible matters such as food, warmth and Christmas entertainment. Gawain is, on his arrival, rapidly disarmed, domesticated, led to the lulling comfort of fine fresh clothes, fire, food and drink. What have pentangles and high courage to do in such a setting? It is no surprise that the Green Chapel turns out to be just around the corner. The whole business of Gawain's quest is deflated and made to sound ridiculously easy:

‘The grene chapayle upon grounde greve yow no more;
Bot ye schal be in youre bed, burne, at thyn ese,
Quyle forth dayez, and ferk on the fyrst of the yere,
And cum to that merk at mydmorn, to make quat yow likez in spenne.
          Dowellez whyle New Yerez daye,
          And rys, and raykez thenne.
          Mon schal yow sette in waye;
          Hit is not two myle henne.’


Gawain will not even need to get up early! When he comes to depict the actual fulfilment of the quest, the poet again builds up a sense of climax in the account of Gawain's setting forth, his rejection of the Guide's advice, and the description of the desolate valley. The Chapel itself is a let-down, but Gawain's imaginings invest it with eerie force and lead to a further build-up of suspense with the Green Knight's re-appearance and the preliminaries to the blow. After the cut all is, for Gawain, bathos. The revelation of the Lady's deceit, of the meaning of the challenge and of the identity of the agent leads to the ultimate insulting cosiness of Bertilak's invitation to Gawain to come back and stay with his elderly aunt.

The poet thus seems to take pleasure in putting his hero in false positions and it is in the scenes at the Castle that he most ingeniously devised ways of doing it. In this part of the poem Gawain is imagined as a kind of Wimbledon champion of chivalry, who has to find again those qualities that made him champion. Since there is no question that Gawain will, if challenged to direct knightly contest, display superlative powers, his humbling has to be achieved by guile. Hence the methods at the Castle are devised to subject him to what is in essence a psychological trial. He is first encouraged by comfort and relief to relax and to consider himself off duty, but, at the same time, is placed beneath a weight of obligation by the overwhelming hospitality which puts him into the role of grateful and deferential guest; the weight grows heavier as he finds himself expected to put on a performance worthy of the reputation accorded to him. Then the Lord deprives Gawain of the opportunity to show his masculine, active qualities of courage and strength in the field. This is typically justified in naturalistic terms: Gawain needs rest and food after his long winter journey. But it reduces him to a passive role and this is highlighted by the constrast of the vigorous, active Lord, fulfilling the role of a leader of men, the ‘lowande leder of ledez’ which Gawain might have been, in a realistic picture of the activities of the rural nobility. So Gawain is held within a pleasant prison, reduced to inactivity. Then he is further placed in a false position and further imprisoned by the Lady, who takes on the lover's role, captures him naked and flat on his back, disarmed in every sense of the word.

This double reversal of roles is made ingeniously comic and subtle by the Lady's use of Gawain's own reputation as a weapon against him. The juxtaposition of the romantic and the real is expressed in their conversations almost in terms of a distinction between literature and life: Gawain appears to have read fewer romances than the Lady and to be ill-versed in the role which is persuasively thrust upon him. This twist of the situation works both to convince the reader of Gawain's reality, since we sympathise with the one who appears the imperfect actor on the stage, struggling to keep up with a plot he is unaware of and to improvise appropriate lines, and further to draw a distinction between the limited, actual man and romantic conceptions of a knight as an idealised being. Measured against the example of the hunting Lord and against the Lady's picture of a prototype lover-hero, the real Gawain is continually disconcerted and his standards are questioned by being deliberately confused. On the one hand he is presented with an exaggerated model of fine breeding and courtly expertise by the flattery of the Lady and the courtiers, against which he is forced to demur and to counter over-praise with modest disclaimers; on the other hand, he is forced to defend himself against undervaluation when the Lady accuses him of failing to do what a gentleman ought. The disconcerting of Gawain takes place in a situation where he is constantly under obligation to express courtly sentiments of service to the Lady, and to defer to his host. He is forced to receive repeated generosity in the form of the Lord's winnings and to give little in return—a situation repeated in the symbolic moment when Gawain confesses himself bankrupt of courtly gifts and the Lady in reply presses him to accept a valuable ring. He is further put out of countenance by the Lord's teasing and by the Lady's embarrassing hints in her husband's presence. Another element in the concerted attack on him is the attempt to catch him off guard by the exertion of pressure just when the situation might allow him to relax: so the Lord proposes the exchange-bargain just when Gawain has been relieved of anxiety about finding the Green Chapel; the Lady first persuades him to accept a kiss just as she seemed on the point of leaving; the Lady starts the crucial discussion about giving love-tokens only when she appears to have given up her attempt to make Gawain act as lover. Such strategy contributes to an over-all sense of deliberate displacement in the poem, whereby not only is the hero continually caught off-guard, but also the reader is cleverly confused and challenged to read the situation truly.

Trapped at the centre of a web of invidious comparison and subtle teasing attack, Gawain is shown to us from within and without. We are given an intimate, identifying knowledge of him, a knowledge both comic, since we share his experience of embarrassment and uncertainty, and also serious, since we are given private access to his fear, his resistance to temptation and his single-mindedness and determination. But this view of the hero is not consistently maintained and we are shown Gawain's acts at times as they appear to others, the courtiers at Hautdesert, the Lord, the Lady, the Green Knight in the valley, and the Round Table. The outer view of him also has a comic and a serious aspect. His improvised displays of elegant words for the Lady's benefit and his returning of the kisses to her husband are conceived as dramatic scenes offered for the reader's detached, amused enjoyment; the serious aspect is his performance as a keeper of promises, shown mainly in dramatic externalised terms. The effect of the combination of points of view is to create a division between Gawain's thoughts and his acts, so that the hero's actual conduct is presented as a performance of what is fitting to the moment, whether, in other terms, it is genuine or false. The poet most significantly chooses to withdraw knowledge of Gawain's inner mind in the scenes immediately after his acceptance of the green belt, so that we are shown his going to confession, his mirth, and the last exchange of winnings, from outside. These acts exist in the poem as a performance of virtue, a completely convincing appearance of truth. As we know later, Gawain is here at his most wrong and that he should show at this moment the greatest self-confidence that he displays anywhere in the poem is another of the poet's ironies. The fact that the author makes so little of the matter of Gawain's confession is a sure indication that he is more interested in creating an effect of dramatic irony than in making the moral point which so many commentators have tried to elicit from the scene.20 Gawain is later blamed for lack of loyalty to a fellow man, not for false religious observance, and the sensible conclusion is that the poet wears his religion, as so many other things, lightly and comfortably, recognising that this tale is not the place for making points about whether an unconfessed intention to commit sin is to be added to the list of Gawain's failings. The poet remains, interestingly and effectively, vague, leaving us either to assume that ‘the more and the mynne’ did really include everything and that the priest belongs to the ‘good face’ of Hautdesert uninvolved in the plot, or that Gawain with sensible practicality went to confession before he had actually done anything wrong and even, if we care to press it that far, before he had finally made up his mind. But the reader is not actually invited to consider such questions: his attention is directed to enjoyment of the performance and the ironic confrontation between a confident, joyful, truthful, open-handed hero and a crest-fallen Lord apologising for his measly fox-pelt.

That Gawain's deeds and words should, in part, be presented to us in terms of putting on an act is the inevitable product of the antitheses basic to the whole poem, between ideal and actual, between the reputation and the real man, between mystery and explanation, between anonymity and identification. Gawain is repeatedly measured against models of behaviour. He is measured against an archetypal sense of the hero's role in a setting with the authority of historical tradition. He is measured in Christian and partly allegorical terms as an Everyman existing in a world of mutability and human weakness. He is measured in terms of a social, courtly, romance ideal of knighthood. Most subtly he is compared to the idea of himself, since the poet offers us definitions of what a Gawain should be, or might be considered to be. Teasingly he is accused of being an impostor, of not really being Gawain at all, first by the Lady:

‘Bot that ye be Gawan, hit gotz in mynde.’
‘Querfore?’ quoth the freke, and freschly he askez,
Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes.


The phrase ‘in fourme of his castes’ places emphasis on the idea of the performance of Gawain which Gawain is managing to put on, and this performance is again questioned by the Lady on the next day (1481-3). It is left to the Green Knight to make the strongest accusation of imposture:

And thenne repreved he the prynce with mony prowde
‘Thou art not Gawayn,’ quoth the gome, ‘that is so goud halden,
That never arwed for no here by hylle ne be vale,
And now thou fles for ferde er thou fele harmez!
Such cowardise of that knyght cowthe I never here.’


In the face of these challenges that he is failing to deserve a famous name, Gawain is required to define his own nature, to reply in effect: ‘I am Gawain, but Gawain is other than you think.’ No other hero of medieval romance is so frequently shown as talking about himself, first with modest, conventional self-depreciation:

‘I am the wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest,
And lest lur of my lyf, quo laytes the sothe:
Bot for as much as ye ar myn em I am only to prayse;
No bounté bot your blod I in my bodé knowe.’


This courtly modesty gradually becomes more than conventional as self-depreciation becomes necessary in the face of too great generosity and praise:

‘In god fayth,’ quoth Gawayn, ‘gayn hit me thynkkez,
Thagh I be not now he that ye of speken;
To reche to such reverence as ye reherce here
I am wyye unworthy, I wot wel myselven.’


From this the poet is able to move his hero to a real recognition of limitation, first in response to the Green Knight's scornful words:

Quoth Gawayn, ‘I schunt onez,
And so wyl I no more;
Bot thagh my hede falle on the stonez,
I con not hit restore.’


This ruefully humorous and true declaration that the comparison between the Green Knight and Gawain is unfair and unreal, rescues Gawain in the reader's eyes from any accusation of cowardice and prepares for the fuller acknowledgement of human frailty which Gawain is later obliged to make:

‘For care of thy knokke cowardyse me taght
To acorde me with covetyse, my kynde to forsake,
That is larges and lewté that longez to knyghtez.
Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben ever
Of trecherye and untrawthe …’


The contest remains an unfair one, and one inducing cynical disillusion with women, if nothing else, but all men must accept the heritage of sons of Eve.

The hero's answer to the question ‘What is Gawain?’, which the poem implicitly poses, is humble, and his verdict on the quality of the performance of Gawain which he managed to produce, uncharitable, but the poet's combination of inner and outer senses of his hero forces the reader to take a larger view. We have been shown by the end a hero subordinate, deferential, nervous, who is tested, tempted and tricked, and whose difficult path is overhung by reminders of idealistic and romantic conceptions of knighthood. Treading between quicksands, Gawain shows his positive qualities by his ad hoc behaviour in the peculiar situations in which he is unexpectedly placed. The poet gives us dramatised instances of his resistance to sexual temptation, his refusal of rich gifts and his rejection of the opportunity to run away. Throughout, the reader is made conscious of the difficulty of fulfilling a heroic role and is asked to respond to a hero who has sufficient imagination to feel fear and to be sensitively aware that at the end of the road waits death. In a difficult place Gawain acts with modesty, courtesy, quick-wittedness and discretion, even to the extent of knowing when to pretend; he has a sympathetic lack of aggressive self-confidence, a capacity for civilised pleasure, a stern sense of duty, and sensible, conventional moral standards. His morality fails him only when basic self-protection is at issue, when he acts, in a way with which the reader is encouraged to sympathise, with sudden irrationality and gullibility.

The picture created by the poet amounts to a characterisation of Gawain, a portrait complex enough to have a kind of realness uncommon in romance literature. The journey in Sir Gawain is a journey inward, into the nature of the hero, a journey in which a young, over-serious, inexperienced Gawain, armed with ideal standards of heroic conduct, is gradually transformed through struggling against fear, by resistance to psychological trial, and by discovered weakness into the experienced and self-condemning figure at the close. The comic conception of the poem is based on the idea that such a voyage of discovery is inevitable for all men, leaving us with the sense that Gawain fulfils the role of hero essentially in surviving, particularly since he has survived an unfair trial with honour dented no more than can be accepted as the inevitable price of experience.

The world which the poet has created to embody this experience is a maze through which the bewildered hero has to pick a path. The only way we can account for the figures whose ambiguous faces make up the labyrinth, and can relate to the literal story the nebulous suggestions of allegorical figures, of a masque of testing and temptation, of the fable as a schematised abstraction and so on, is to see the poet's intention as that of creating images and figures who are, in various ways, manifestations of the shifting powers which operate in the sublunary world, the powers of fortune, mutability, hazard, time and mortality. The images of youth and age, of good and bad fortune, of the passing seasons, of the new and old year, fuse together to form a broad, shadowy backcloth to the action. Against this backcloth Gawain's test may be seen as a test not only of knighthood but of humanity, but the poet, having made use of shadows and suggestions as part of the suspense and mystery of his tale, seems to dismiss them as illusions at the end, when the adventure is seen simply. As we read there is no danger of the poet's ingenuity over-reaching itself, because, first, we go through the maze with the hero, and have the shadows and complexities focused for us through his eyes or by having our attention continually directed to him, and, secondly, we are given an over-all, distanced sense of the poem as something belonging to the legendary past, something completed and, therefore, following a course whose conclusion we, in a sense, know in advance; the details may be surprising but, whatever the particular outcome for Gawain, we know that it will be something which we can absorb into our existing knowledge of Arthurian history.

Though I have referred to the ending of the poem as ambiguous, it is not really so; rather it is humanely ironic. Gawain at the end is powerfully abashed and overcome by his failure, as he sees it. What Gawain feels ashamed of is the result of his weakness, that because of fear he was led to act in a way unworthy of his code, and be false to his nature as a knight. His fault is not that of feeling fear but allowing fear to pervert his judgement, allowing human instinct to overcome the acquired ideals of perfect behaviour. But the poet makes it clear that for this result Gawain has been punished, and therefore left subsequently free of guilt; the green band is a reminder of the punished fault. The actual weakness, instinctive love of life, Gawain is not blamed for and Gawain himself, though naturally enough with some rueful bitterness, accepts it. His anti-feminist cynicism is implicitly as much an acceptance of his share in the Fall as the explicit statement a few lines later of human frailty, and the poet's choice of this way of recognising one's limitations clearly identifies wry and worldly humour as his conception of a mature attitude to life. Gawain's sorrow and shame convey the bitter sadness of recognising limitation and uphold the value of the romantic ideals with which literary knighthood is identified. What else can men do but build civilisations, establish standards of fair dealing, affront destiny, and attempt to surpass the boundaries of man by creating ideals, orders and structures? The beauty of an ideal life, such as it can be in the world, remains. But the poet persuades us that the joyous assembly at the end is right, even if in all human dealings there is an element of folly, to laugh and to honour Gawain and the belt. By the standards of common sense what matters is that Gawain ‘the grace hade geten of his lyve’. The cause of Gawain's failure is itself the reason for going on, absorbing experience and joyfully continuing to pursue ideals which will inevitably have to combat the mutations of time and human nature. The view the poem represents is an essentially generous and comic sense of life, a sympathetic, mature view, containing a dash of cynicism as to whether honour can set to a leg, which accepts the weakness of men but shows the pain of living with intelligence and sympathy. Gawain's progress through the courtly maze of experience to a kind of bitter-sweet maturity seems, eventually, to be a fair enough fictional image of one part of life.


  1. Burrow, Reading, p. 13.

  2. Ibid., p. 15.

  3. Chaucer, The Franklin's Tale, a passage which Burrow cites as a comparison to the opening of Part II of Sir Gawain (Burrow, Reading, p. 35).

  4. H. R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (1927, reprinted London 1967), p. 44.

  5. The arrival of a different sort of messenger at the court of Cambuskan, in The Squire's Tale, affords an interesting comparison.

  6. See Burrow, Reading, pp. 22-3.

  7. See Benson, pp. 199-201.

  8. See Waldron, pp. 23-4.

  9. Notably by H. L. Savage, ‘The Significance of the Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP 27, 1928, 1-15, repeated in The Gawain-Poet (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1956); for a more moralistic version see, for example, Gerald Gallant, ‘The Three Beasts: Symbols of Temptation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Annuale Mediaevale 11, 1970, 35-50.

  10. See the unconvincing note on lines 1283-5 in TG/Davis, p. 110.

  11. See W. A. Davenport, ‘Sir Gawain's Courteous “Whoa!”’, English Language Notes 11, 1973-4, 88-9.

  12. See Allen A. Metcalf, ‘Sir Gawain and You’, Chaucer Review, 5, 1970-1, 165-78, for a full analysis of the poet's careful distinctions of usage in the poem as a whole.

  13. For a very different view of this section of the poem see Burrow, Reading, pp. 127-33.

  14. Geoffrey Shepherd, ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ in Chaucer and Chaucerians ed. D. S. Brewer (London. 1966), p. 78.

  15. See B. J. Whiting, ‘Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale’, MS 9, 1947, 189-234, Gordon M. Shedd, ‘Knight in Tarnished Armour: The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, MLR 62, 1967, 3-13 and comments in Two Old French Gauvain Romances (see Note 5 above).

  16. See D. D. R. Owen, ‘Burlesque Tradition and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, FMLS 4, 1968, 125-45.

  17. I have argued the point more fully and commented on this passage as a whole in ‘The Word norne and the Temptation of Sir Gawain’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 78, 1977, (in press).

  18. See Burrow, Reading, pp. 99-101 and Spearing's detailed discussion of the question of Gawain's chastity (p. 194ff.), with specific comments on Burrow's view of the passage at pp. 204-6. Also Ian Robinson, Chaucer and the English Tradition (Cambridge, 1972), p. 231.

  19. See the note on lines 1768-9 in TG/Davis, p. 121.

  20. Especially Burrow, Reading, pp. 104-10. See also G. J. Engelhardt, ‘The Predicament of Gawain’, MLQ 16, 1955, 218-25.


The following abbreviations have been used in the notes.

Benson: L. D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ, 1965).

Burrow, Reading: J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1965).

Spearing: A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet (Cambridge, 1970).

TG/Davis: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon. Second edition revised by N. Davis (Oxford, 1967).

Waldron: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ed. R. A. Waldron, York Medieval Texts (London, 1970).

Jonathan Nicholls (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14363

SOURCE: Nicholls, Jonathan. “The Testing of Courtesy at Camelot and Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet, pp. 112-38. Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

[In the following essay, Nicholls contrasts the notion of courtesy as practiced by Sir Gawain with the behavior of other courtiers, especially the discourtesy displayed by the Green Knight.]

Despite having a consistent Christian framework, SGGK [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] explores more fully the social meaning of courtesy than its companion poems. There are only three occasions in the poem when ‘courtesy’ or ‘hende’ is used in an explicitly religious context: twice when Gawain offers thanks to Jesus and St Julian for finding him a lodging at Christmas, and once in connection with Mary, ‘þe hende heuen-quene’.(647) Other verbal contexts for the words suggest a less explicit religious reference, although the poet's normal sensitivity to the complexity of the idea never allows us to view its use as simplistic.

The most prominent use of ‘courtaysye’ occurs in the pentangle-passage where it is enumerated along with ‘clannes’, ‘fraunchyse’, ‘felaȝschyp’, and ‘pité’, as the fourth quality of the ‘fyft fyue’. (651) Here the word must pick up resonances of Christian virtue from its proximity to the other emblematic explanations of the pentangle, but it is equally true that the other qualities in its immediate group are applicable as much to chivalry as to Christianity. Their prominence in the analysis of the pentangle is emphasised by the poet, not only by their final position, but also by the poet's statement that ‘þyse pure fyue / Were harder happed on þat haþel þen on any oþer’. (654-55) Thus it should be no surprise that the subsequent events of the romance seem designed to test the virtues that are most operable in the social sphere of knighthood. We are aware that Gawain is Mary's knight (646-50), but it is as well to remember that on the ‘vrysoun’ of his helmet, Gawain wears embroidery of ‘papiayez’, ‘tortors’, and ‘trulofez’. (608-12) As Gawain sets out, he journeys not as a knight ascetic, but as one who carries with him the symbols of courtly life in all its richness.1

This does not preclude, as John Burrow points out, that the final sections of the poem have a penitential movement to them.2 The poet encourages us to compare the confession that Gawain makes in the castle to the confession and absolution that the Green Knight hears and grants in the wilds of Cheshire.3 But the very fact that the final scene with the Green Knight is a secular confession, almost a distortion of religious practice by its location at a ‘Green Chapel’, which Gawain thinks of as an ‘vgly’ ‘oritore’ where the devil might hear Matins (2188, 2190), may make us re-assess the nature of his trial. In the Green Knight's opinion, the Exchange of Winnings and the Sexual Temptation are inextricably linked. In his explanation of the three strokes of the axe, he emphasises the surrender of all the gains which Gawain made: ‘Trwe mon trwe restore’. (2354) Gawain suffers a ‘nirt in þe nek’ (2498) because he withheld the girdle, and lacked ‘lewte’. (2366) The retention of the girdle is part of the ‘wowyng of my wyf’ (2361) because the lady manoeuvres Gawain into a position where he can no longer keep faith both to her and to Bertilak. Presented with a chance to save his life, Gawain forgets the bonds of hospitality which tie him to Bertilak, supposing an obligation to the lady that runs counter to his over-riding agreement with his host. More than a matter of chastity, it is, as Burrow stressed, a question of ‘trouthe’ that is involved,4 a test that is appropriate to the pentangle, ‘a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyle / In bytoknyng of trawþe’, (625-26) and at which the poet probably hints in his comment (on the third day of temptation) that:

He cared for his cortaysye, lest craþayn he were,
And more for his meschef ȝif he schulde make synne,
And be traytor to þat tolke þat þat telde aȝt.


It seems to me, following Burrow, that 1775 qualifies ‘synne’ in 1774, and if this is so, then our attention is being drawn to the treacherous consequences of adultery in destroying the fabric of society, as much as to its consequences for the individual soul.5 Adultery, as Lancelot and Guinevere discovered, can easily create intolerable tensions in a society that exists on the mutual trust and obligation of lord and retainer.6 Gawain's eventual breach of loyalty does not portend the end of his society, and in not succumbing to the lady's full sexual temptation, he proves himself to be ‘on þe fautlest freke þat euer on fote ȝede’. (2363)

However, as well as accusing himself of ‘trecherye and vntrawþe’, (2383) Gawain also stresses other facets of his weakness, enumerating a number of possible vices. This extreme reaction, natural perhaps to a perfectionist, may not be the view of the poet, and should be balanced by the moderating voice of the Green Knight. It is worth noting that for him, the fact that Gawain ‘lufed’ his ‘lyf’ (2368) extenuates further what he sees as Gawain's minor failing. Undoubtedly it is possible to take a stern moral view of this last scene and support such a view with examples from penitential literature and homilies.7 But in spite of the Christian perspective which Gawain adds to his trial, it seems to be the social tests that have been the Green Knight's concern, and which the poem best illustrates. During his stay at Hautdesert, trial is made of Gawain's social virtues by associating them with a code that ultimately contradicts Gawain's beliefs.8 The most central of these values is courtesy, and in the action of the poem, the poet explores the meanings and consequences of following a courteous mode of behaviour, linking it both with the integrity of society and of the individual.


The two main elements of plot in SGGK, a Beheading Challenge and a Sexual Temptation, each have as a prelude the arrival of a knight at court. The Green Knight's entry into Camelot begins the ‘outtrage awenture’, (29) and Gawain's reception at Hautdesert begins the sequence of sexual temptations and agreement about the Exchange of Winnings which is the crucial phase of the story. Of the two arrivals, the Green Knight's is characterised by a deliberate flouting of normal convention, whereas Gawain's reception at Hautdesert is described as the consummation of courteous conduct and good manners. The ‘principle of good manners’ is something that Kittredge sees as being a common element in a number of analogues to this poem.9 In both Le Chevalier à l'Épee and the Carl of Carlisle, it is the hero's strict adherence to the host's commands that saves him from a beating or death, and Kittredge cites a number of other similar exempla or tales that illustrate the same point.10 In all, it is the point of the story that the guest does not contradict the host in his own house, a dictum which, as Kittredge also realised, lies at the heart of a guest's behaviour to his entertainer as depicted in non-fictional works. Kittredge cites two examples from courtesy books to substantiate his case, but there are many others, both in the general and the particular, that make it quite clear that to do what the host wanted was a fundamental point of courtesy.11

Because Gawain is treated with such good manners at Hautdesert, and responds in kind, there are limitations as to what he may do. Being a conscientious guest involves a loss of self-determination. As will be shown, this explains in part why he appears to act with passivity at Hautdesert; he does not go hunting because his sense of obligation to Bertilak requires him to carry out his host's wishes, even though this means that he is placed in dangerous proximity to the lady. But because the Green Knight breaks all rules of courteous behaviour when he ‘hales’ (136) into Camelot, he is not hampered by the restrictions of ritualised politeness. His lack of concern for the principles governing that society gives him the licence to harass and intimidate the court, and to insist upon his strange request. In order that this disruptive presence has the greatest possible impact, the poet describes the interruption from the viewpoint of the court, and establishes the joy and harmony at Camelot before their disruption.

The poet is at pains to stress the excellence and courtesy of Camelot at Christmas time. Of all Britain's kings, Arthur was the ‘hendest’, (26) the ‘luflych lorde’ are ‘ledez of the best’, (38) ‘þe most kyd knyȝtez vnder Krystes seluen’, (51) and their ladies are ‘þe louelokkest … þat euer lif haden’. (52) Their festivities are described in the same glowing terms and with the same kind of superlatives. Recognisable social decorum is observed when everyone washes before the meal (72), and twice the poet particularises the seating arrangements at the high table, which enables us to reconstruct the order of the guests confronted by the Green Knight.12 The impression that we obtain from the description of the Christmas feast is of conventional courtesy and luxury being taken to their highest level. As an image of society it is one of an elite in perfect accord.

This is the over-riding impression, although some commentators have wished to see in certain phrases an implied criticism of the court and of Arthur in particular.13 But any note of disapprobation that may be imagined in the phrase ‘rechles merþes’ (40) should be dissipated by the same line when the poet talks of ‘rych reuel oryȝt’, a qualifying statement that seems to approve of the fun and games as being appropriate to a celebration of Christmas. In the same way, the description of Arthur's easy dissatisfaction with a settled existence, particularly the much discussed phrase ‘sumquat childgered’, (86) may be just as appropriate to a young king at the head of a group of knights all in their ‘first age’. (54) ‘Childgered’ would only have a distinctly critical connotation if used of a much older man, and in the only other known use of the compound (as a noun rather than an adjective), it describes Alexander at the age of fourteen going on his first expedition, where it serves to emphasise the responsibility undertaken by one so young.14 Even if the poet leads us to expect that the court may be unequal to the Green Knight's challenge because of its immaturity, the expectations are confounded by the response of Arthur to the challenge (apart from a momentary lapse of control quickly restored by Gawain's intervention) despite these earlier suggestions of brittle resolve.

One of the manifestations of Arthur's restless spirit is that he ‘wolde not ete til al were serued’, (85) a new aspect of the well-known custom that Arthur would not dine at certain feasts (often Pentecost rather than Christmas) until he had heard or seen a marvel. A presiding Lord at a banquet would normally expect to be served first;15 Arthur inverts these normal rules of precedence, but does not act discourteously. Everything is still effected with the utmost attention to the requirements of good manners, and the deliberate reversal of ranks (here only in the order of serving, not in the position of the guests) has been a feature of Christmas celebrations since at least the Roman Saturnalia when slaves ate with masters and all marks of rank were discarded. It found a counterpart in the Middle Ages with the celebrations such as the Feast of the Boy Bishop, and even today, in some units of the British Army, officers act as serving men on Christmas Day in the privates' mess.16 To follow such customs is a kind of game, the taking of delight in a brief reversal of the normal course of events. In SGGK it is another aspect of the gaiety and joy which pervades this young court at its feast. There have been carols, interludes, a game of forfeits, and a traditional disregard of everyday rules within the wider terms of courtesy. The general impression of this feast-day is one of concord, social well-being, and fine manners.

But the first course has hardly been served when, without warning, the Green Knight bursts in. It is not learnt that the knight is green until the last line of the wheel (150), and although this adds to the shock of revelation, it also means that the first thing that is known about the newcomer is his enormous height. A stranger rushes into the hall, and the poet says that he was the largest man alive (137). The Green Knight's colour, his height and size, and his precipitous entrance obviously contravene what is reasonable. Not only his physical appearance, but his behaviour too, lack ‘measure’.17 As in Cleanness, we have a further example of the interrupted feast, and the poet's most elaborate example of the unwanted-guest motif. Following a similar pattern in Cleanness, the poet has described in detail the state of the society (represented by the order and cohesive good-will of the feast) before its disruption by a potentially dangerous intruder. Much of the interest in this opening scene now rests on seeing how the disrupted society copes with the stranger, who, unlike the ragged beggar at the wedding feast, can not be thrown into chains and hauled out of the door.

Although the Green Knight is like no other human being, the poet takes care not to dismiss him as a monster or another ‘wild man’. (Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 83-90) The admission that ‘Bot mon most I algate mynne hym to bene’, (141) and the care taken to describe his clothing and other physical features as being in accord with the ideals of beauty and fashion, means that the reader reacts to this visitor as a knight as well. Courtesy is due to and from a knight, and although the Green Knight's appearance is shocking, and subsequent events prove that he is supernatural, much of the dramatic tension in this scene is generated by expectations of courteous behaviour being disregarded, reflecting the fact that though he is a ‘mayster’, he is also ‘aghlich’, though (in a sense) a courtier, he is also a monster. This ambiguity is the most fundamental aspect in the presentation of the Green Knight, and it is essential to respond to it in order to respond adequately to the subtlety of the poem.18

In his analysis of this scene, Burrow argues that the Green Knight's entrance is an example of what he terms the topos of the ‘hostile challenger’.19 He picks out two distinguishing actions in the knight's behaviour (refusing to greet the king and addressing him with the singular pronoun), and quotes examples from Chrétien de Troyes and the Vulgate Romances to further his argument. Such instances and comments are helpful in an assessment of the tradition behind the Green Knight's challenge, but Burrow underestimates the role which deliberate discourtesy plays in the convention that he describes. Politeness is a veneer over the violence latent in human affairs, and courtesy, however frigid or strained, acts as a restraining force between a violent thought and a violent act. If courtesy is ignored and disregarded, then the rules of mediation and ‘mesure’ cease to apply, with potentially dangerous results.

The importance of the Green Knight's discourtesy in SGGK can be seen by comparing his actions with those of the knights in some of the analogues to this part of the story. The three versions of the Carados story do not contain the same details of disrespect for the court.20 In none does the knight omit to greet Arthur. In all, he states his mission reasonably, using the polite form of the second person pronoun. This neutralises some of the menace in the approach, and the gaiety and courtesy of the knight's entry contrasts with his strange request. The later Middle English ballad, The Grene Knight, does not describe Sir Bredbeddle bursting into the court, but pictures him waiting at the gate for the porter to request an audience with Arthur.21 It will be seen, when Gawain's arrival at Hautdesert is discussed, that this was one of the accepted courtesies when seeking a lodging. Like Carados's father, Sir Bredbeddle greets Arthur with becoming courtesy when he does enter the hall. These analogues all contain essentially the same story in which the intention of the visitor is, at least in part, hostile. In none, however, does the intruder cause the same degree of alarm as results from the Green Knight's interruption. The Green Knight undoubtedly acts with more hostility than either Carados's father or Sir Bredbeddle, but without his deliberate neglect of polite forms of behaviour, his hostility would also be less threatening, especially since he claims to come in peace without the trappings of war (265-71).

Without announcement, therefore, the Green Knight rides into the hall on horseback. This refusal to dismount is another indication of his disruptive purpose. When Guy of Warwick goes as a messenger to the Sowdan's tent without peaceful intentions, one manuscript records that, ‘Into that pauylon Guy is went / On horsbak, y telle you, verament’, and repeats the information a little later to emphasise his point: ‘And Guy on horsbak sate there’.22 In another English romance, Sir Degrevant, the squire sent by Degravant to the Earl's to challenge him about his crimes, ‘nolde nat down lyght’ from his horse, and gives his message while mounted.23 To remain on horseback indicates mobility and the capability of attack. It also gives the mounted person a height advantage which emphasises his challenge for superiority. When Gawain arrives at Hautdesert, dismounting is one of the first signs of his peaceful intention.

It was shown, when the first feast passage in Cleanness was discussed, that some form of greeting was expected from anyone entering another's dwelling. Thus the poet's comment that, ‘haylsed he neuer one’, (223) is a further example of the Green Knight's calculated surliness. In this case, the insult is compounded by the splendid haughtiness of, ‘“Where is,” he sayd, / “þe gouernour of þis gyng?”’ (224-25) justified, perhaps, because Arthur is not at that moment sitting at the head of the high table, but still scornful of the other insignia of rank which Arthur is presumably wearing.

As Arthur is of a higher rank than the Green Knight, the latter's consistent use of the less polite form of the pronoun also increases our sense of the lack of regard that has been manifest in his disruption of the feast.24 The challenge to identity or reputation (‘What, is þis Arþures hous’, 309) is a recurrent motif of the poem, and becomes of crucial importance later, as will be seen, when the Lady questions the identity of the Gawain she has before her with the phrases, ‘“Bot þat ȝe be Gawan, hit gotz in mynde,”’ (1293) and ‘“Sir, ȝif ȝe be Wawan.”’ (1481)25

Arthur's initial reaction to the Green Knight's disruptive presence is to remain courteous and attempt to restore the status quo.26 We are told that ‘rekenly hym reuerenced’, (251) and he welcomes the stranger to court, reasserting his own authority as head of the court (‘þe hede of þis ostel Arthour I hat’, 253) while readily telling the stranger his name. Arthur wants the Green Knight to dismount and stay (254), and he seems to try to neutralise the possible effects of the Green Knight's challenge by treating him as if he were a normal guest of the court. At this point, no one knows whether the Green Knight is going to follow his threatening behaviour with direct action, and Arthur, through the use of courtesy, does not precipitate immediate violence. The Green Knight abruptly refuses any offers of friendship (nor does he reveal his name) with claims that he has come in peace. Despite having just been treated with some degree of polite tolerance, he insinuates that the ‘courtesy’ of the Round Table is hearsay (‘as I haf herd carp’, 263) and seems to suggest that their courtesy, as well as their courage, will be solely determined by whether they will play his ‘gomen’. (273) Arthur, now perhaps responding more to the axe than the holly-bob, offers the Green Knight ‘batayl bare’, (277) calling him with ill-concealed irony ‘Sir cortays knyȝt’. (275) Throughout these exchanges, Arthur has addressed the Green Knight with the second-person singular pronoun, (as he does Gawain), which, like his offers of hospitality, is an assertion of normal social codes. A king would naturally address an inferior with the less polite form of address. Having had his kingship questioned by the stranger, Arthur behaves as a person of authority and maintains his tone of command.

But the Green Knight is not satisfied with individual combat, and as his purpose becomes known, his impatience is as threatening as it is insulting:

þe renk on his rouncé hym ruched in his sadel,
And runischly his rede yȝen he reled aboute,
Bende his bresed broȝez, blycande grene,
Wayued his berde for to wayte quo-so wolde ryse.


His imputation of cowardice on the part of the Round Table stings Arthur into an angry and shamed response, and he prepares to carry out the beheading. Arthur's anger, however natural as the reaction of a man whose manhood has been doubted, is impotent in the face of the Green Knight's impassivity (‘No more mate ne dismayd for hys mayn dintez / þen any burne vpon bench hade broȝt hym to drynk / Of wyne’, 336-38), and Camelot loses its focal point of order when the king steps off the dais.27 It is at this point that Gawain intervenes, and the respite this gives Arthur, enables him to regain his self-control. He behaves with regal grace towards Gawain (366), and even finds the presence of mind to offer him some witty advice (372-74).

Just as it was Arthur who attempted to act normally when the court was initially confronted by the Green Knight, so it is Arthur again, who, after the headless and no more polite Green Knight has rushed out of the door, restores calm to the uneasy court. He remains ‘þe hende kyng’ and speaks to Guinevere ‘wyth cortays speche’, (467, 469) and he controls any natural apprehensiveness (‘He let no semblaunt be sene’, 468) for the sake of his companions. The incident is brushed off as ‘Laykyng of enterludez’, (472) and he redirects attention back to the feast by admitting that his condition of a marvel has been fulfilled (474-75). This display of courtly wit and politeness is rounded off by a punning reference to the whole business (‘Now sir, heng vp þyn ax, þat hatz innogh hewen’, 477) with which he signals an end to the disruption of the feast. Although it may seem, from subsequent events, that Arthur treats the whole matter too lightly, we know of his true feelings, that he ‘hade wonder’, (467) and his public comments are appropriate for the restoration of the court's well-being. Arthur acts as a king acutely conscious of his social duties, and despite the Green Knight's suggestions to the contrary, he also shows a becoming regal authority.

But at the critical moment when it seems that Arthur loses some of his composure and makes ready to use the axe, it is Gawain who re-establishes the order and courtesy of the Round Table by re-affirming faith in Arthur as the head of the court. His speech, with its careful flattery of the king and its courteous subordination of self, relaxes the tension in the hall.28 Authority is restored to Arthur because Gawain, although assuming control of the situation, leaves the matter of whether he should proceed with the Green Knight's request solely to his king and his fellow-knights.

Like his sovereign, Gawain also treats the Green Knight with some degree of courtesy. It is true that he consistently uses the singular form of the second-person pronoun to him, in marked contrast to his use of the plural form to Bertilak. But in the latter case, Gawain is a guest and Bertilak is the lord of a castle. By using the singular form to the Green Knight, Gawain makes the assumption that the intruder is an equal, and refuses to cede any authority to him by being over-polite, a politeness that could be misconstrued as an inferior's deference. Besides, having used the plural form to Arthur, and having heard Arthur call the Green Knight by the singular form, it would be insulting to treat them as of equal rank.

One of the main indications that Gawain acts politely towards the Green Knight is the ready way in which he reveals his name: ‘“In god fayth,” quoþ þe goode knyȝt, “Gawan I hatte.”’ (381) Burrow points out that Gawain was particularly noted for revealing his name when asked, and substantiates the remark by reference to Le Haut Livre du Graal.29 There does seem to be a connection between refusing to conceal identity and Gawain's traditional character, although it should not be thought that this is a peculiarity of Gawain, as the practice was a universally recognised point of good manners. Arthur, at an earlier moment in this scene, willingly reveals who he is (253), and the custom can be illustrated from many other romances as well. When Guy of Warwick is asked for his name by Amis, the lord of the castle in which Guy is hospitably received during his search for Oisel and Tirri, he readily answers (6021-23), to be repaid with similar information by the host a few lines further on (6039). In the same romance, Tirri also comes to lodge at this castle after having been set free by Guy, and he too is asked for his name (6367), although this time there is no need for an exchange, as Tirri has already called the host by his proper name (6359). The same kind of thing happens during an episode in the Continuation de Perceval, when Perceval, with several companions, takes lodging at a castle:

Aprés souper molt belement
Li sires de cele maison
A mis Percheval a raison,
Son non li demande et enquist.
Et Perchevaus son non li dist
Et puis li demande le sien.(30)

As often with the examples of courteous behaviour from romances, the custom has a non-fictional basis too, and the right to ask a name is an established precept in courtesy books, especially in the context of travel. Facetus: ‘cum nihil utilius’ advises that, ‘Cum quocumque tibi prope vel procul accidit ire / Nomen et esse suum, quo, qua, quis, et unde require’,31 which was repeated by the Sloane Courtesy Book as:

With woso men, boþe fer and negh,
The falle to go, loke þou be slegh
To aske his nome, and qweche he be,
Whidur he wille kepe welle þes thre.


It would not be worth dwelling on this point were it not for the fact that names and identities play an important part in SGGK, a poem in which the ambiguity of reputation is fully explored.

Gawain's reply to the Green Knight's question fulfils certain obligations when two strangers meet. The Green Knight, for the moment, keeps his identity secret, and even when Gawain asks some understandable questions:

‘Where schulde I wale þe,’ quoþ Gauan, ‘where is þy place?
I wot neuer where þou wonyes, bi hym þat me wroȝt,
Ne I know not þe, knyȝt, þy cort ne þi name.’


the stranger avoids the request. When he does tell Gawain who he is, he uses a riddling reference, almost a nickname, ‘þe knyȝt of þe grene chapel’, (454) which does not satisfactorily solve the problem of his identity. The description does not give Gawain any clearer idea of the stranger's motives or reputation than does his appearance, and even during these final exchanges with the Green Knight, the values of the court are largely powerless in defining this mysterious figure. But despite the Green Knight's intransigence and his consistent refusal to conform to the courteous values of Camelot, Gawain comes through the encounter with great presence of mind, and without compromising his own code of social ethics.

Having examined Arthur and Gawain's reaction to these events, it is illuminating to observe the way in which the court behaves. At no point does any other member of the court rise to the same mastery and control as does Gawain, which serves further to pick him out from his companions as the knight who best embodies the ideal qualities of Camelot. After the Green Knight's first challenging speech, the court stare rudely at him (232), and without respect for his trappings as a knight, show only an awed interest in him as a freak: ‘Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre’. (237) In the face of this supernatural visitant, an uneasy hush settles over the hall, which the poet says is ‘not al for doute / Bot sum for cortaysye’. (246-47) Contemporary etiquette demanded quiet attention when a superior was talking, which may explain the poet's claim that the silence was courteous in origin.32 It may also refer to the fact that it was not their duty to welcome the stranger, so they ‘courteously’ defer the obligation to Arthur, as the next lines (‘Bot let hym þat al schulde loute, / Cast vnto þat wyȝe’, 248-49) imply.

However, in reminding the reader that the silence can partly be explained by the polite habits of the knights, the poet only further underscores the bewildered awe which the Green Knight provokes. It is almost as if the majority of the court takes refuge in a corporate reputation for courtesy to hide its real feelings.

When the court does talk, it is to whisper together before deciding whether Arthur or Gawain should meet the challenge. Gawain's clear and eloquent courtesy contrasts sharply with this mode of discussion, and further marks him off as an individual. Throughout the poem the opinions of courtiers are generalised, their opinions often being misleading or ambiguous. At Hautdesert, and at Camelot, broad statements are offered by members of the court which need modification in the light of the other information that we can gather from both the events and the poet's interpretation of his story. The knights of Camelot, for example, imply that Arthur is to blame for not preventing Gawain's quest (677-83), although they are only too delighted to share in Gawain's success on his return: ‘for þat watz acorded þe renoun of þe Rounde Table’. (2519)

The reader's attitude to the courtiers is conditioned by the obvious superiority of Gawain and Arthur over their companions. Not only do they behave with more poise than the court, but the poet is also not afraid to question the qualities of the other knights so that Gawain's conduct is seen to be more exemplary. The last reference to the court in this opening scene does not give much credit to it either, and illustrates the possible dissolution of courteous values in the face of the Green Knight's threat, were it not for the ethical resilience of Arthur and Gawain. After Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, ‘þe fayre hede fro þe halce hit to þe erþe / þat fele hit foyned with her fete, þere hit forth roled’. (427-28) Even if this is not a reference to medieval football, a sport which was generally frowned upon by the authorities as being disorderly and ignoble, it shows an unbecoming attitude to a ‘defeated’ opponent, and in its contrast to the standards of behaviour displayed before the Green Knight's arrival, it indicates how thin the veneer of courtesy can be.33

Even when under duress, the retention of courteous modes of behaviour by Gawain and Arthur hold the society together, its potential disintegration being represented by the reaction of the courtiers to the events. Gawain and Arthur are shown to be the leaders of their society: Arthur because of his rank and the acceptance of responsibilities that go with leadership, and Gawain because of his possession of qualities that will come under closer scrutiny at Hautdesert. Thus the poet underlines the importance of courtesy and etiquette, associating such concepts not only with ‘sleȝtez of þewez’, (916) and the ‘teccheles terms of talkyng noble’, (917) but with the whole meaning of society and the forces that bind it together. At both Camelot and Hautdesert, the potency of courtesy is in evidence, whether this potency is shown in the deliberate breaking of accepted codes and patterns of behaviour, or whether in the acceptance and fulfilment of them.

In contrast to the Green Knight's arrival at Camelot, Gawain's reception and entrance into Hautdesert is seen through his eyes. The Green Knight appears from nowhere (rather like his departure from the poem, ‘Whiderwarde-so-euer he wolde’, 1478) whereas we are made acutely aware of the spiritual and physical discomfort that Gawain encounters before the sudden discovery of the castle. For an Arthurian knight to come fortuitiously to a dwelling where he will be offered hospitality, is a common episode in romances.34 The poet of SGGK makes full use of this traditional element, emphasising and expanding upon details of hospitality (to be found in other such incidents) in order to stress the courteous reception that the knight receives.

After gazing at the impressive architecture of the castle, Gawain decides to ask for lodging. He calls out (807) to indicate his presence, and a porter soon appears who greets him pleasantly (810). Courtesy books do not often deal with admission into another's dwelling, but there is a brief reminder in Facetus: ‘cum nihil utilius’ of the need to wait at the gate after making a noise to draw attention to the inhabitants, and in the much later Sloane Courtesy Book, fuller treatment is given to the same procedure.35 In accordance with the ideas advocated there, Gawain asks the porter to act as an emissary to the lord, a task which the porter gladly undertakes, adding that he is certain that Gawain will be able to stay for as long as he likes (814). It is not difficult to find parallel examples in other romances of castle porters showing similar respect to travelling knights, and such a detail would have been viewed as typical of courteous reception.36 Rude porters can be found in medieval literature (as, for example, in Sir Cleges, when one tries to bar Cleges's entrance into the hall, in order to prevent him from showing the king the miraculous cherries), but they are deliberate elements of discord that indicate an atypical reception for the knight.37

Other elements in Gawain's arrival and reception can also be paralleled in the romances, showing them to be connected with a traditionally polite mode of conduct that both guest and host were expected to follow.38 Although they do not share many similarities with the customs to be found in religious houses, the adherence to a ritualised procedure is common to both the secular and the religious forms. In the passage that has already been partially quoted from Gerbert de Montreuil's Continuation de Perceval (1094-1116), for example, a similar order of events takes place to those in SGGK.

Perceval, Agravain, Saigremour, and two maidens arrive at a lodging. The preudom who owns the Manoir comes out to greet them, the travellers dismount, and the ladies are helped from their horses. The horses are then stabled, the guests are led by hand into the hall, where the men are disarmed and given robes suitable for indoor wear. In Ywain and Gawain, Colgrevaunce's reception at the castle where he is impressed by the excellence of the hospitality, matches that shown to Perceval. He mentions particularly that ‘Mi sterap toke þat hende knight / And kindly cumanded my to lyght’. (173-74) His horse is taken to the stables, and he is also taken by the hand and undressed in a chamber (193-204). In the episode in Guy of Warwick that has already been discussed, Guy too is led by the hand into Amis' castle and dressed in a mantle. (6009-12) References such as these could be duplicated at length from other romances, and the details of greeting, asking permission, alighting and being helped from a horse, the taking by the hand, dressing in a robe, and the stabling of the horse, establish a strong pattern of courtesy that necessitates a similar response.

Some of these customs are also recorded by the courtesy books as well. Giving a welcome or greeting to the assembled company when arriving in hall, was, as we have seen in the discussion of Cleanness, recommended by several poems. Facetus: ‘cum nihil utilius’ also contains the advice that help should be given to any one who has trouble dismounting, ‘Si quis descendat ab equo vel equum grave scandat / te praesente, strepae manus obsequium cito pandat’, and no doubt the precept about removing the spurs after dismounting, also in the same poem (213-14), bears a close relationship to the disarming passages, which symbolise the peaceful intentions of the visitor.

In SGGK, a very similar sequence of events can be observed. Gawain is greeted and greets all the attendants who meet him, he is helped from the saddle (822), and his horse is taken to the stables. Courtiers help to disarm him, and he is led to the hall where Bertilak meets him with great reverence. Also in accordance with other passages, Gawain is stripped of his war-like gear and given an indoor robe when he is taken to his chamber.

For a medieval audience, Gawain's arrival and reception at Hautdesert would have contained many recognisable and conventional gestures of courtesy. But even though it is useful to compare Bertilak and Hautdesert with a vavasor and his castle, Scattergood is correct in qualifying his parallel between the two by stating that Hautdesert ‘is a much more splendid place’. (‘Sir Gawain’, p. 350) The Gawain-poet takes some pains to emphasise the meticulous attention paid to his hero, and the sumptuous richness of his new surroundings. It is a large crowd of people who come to greet Gawain, not just a few attendants but ‘sere seggez’, (822) ‘knyȝtez and swyerez’, (824) and ‘mony proud mon’. (830) Apart from greeting him, they treat him to especial reverence, even though it is the middle of winter, ‘And kneled doun on her knes vpon þe colde erþe’. (818) When he takes off his helmet, ‘þer hiȝed innoghe / For to hent hit at his honde, þe hende to seruen’. (826-27) In the chamber, the trappings and furnishings are of the best, and prominence is given to the luxurious garments that Gawain wears. After the privations of the journey, the comfort seems even greater, and Gawain responds to this treatment, his servants thinking that Christ never made a more comely knight (869-70).

The meal or feast in this part of the poem figures prominently as an image of relaxed and harmonious good-will, as it does in Cleanness. To be offered a meal as a stranger is a sign that participation in the household has been effected to an intimate degree. Even today, to serve a visitor with a meal is to acknowledge to the recipient that they have been treated with a familiarity that distinguishes them from other people. The meal that honours Gawain on this first night consists of a grandeur commensurate to his surroundings, and is made more of an honour by being brought to him in his chamber. Some writers in the Middle Ages condemned this particular custom, but it was generally seen as a privilege reserved for special guests or dignitaries. Ffor to serve a Lord, p. 373, gives instructions on how ‘grand Guests’ are to be served in chambers after the main course in the hall, and several accounts of feasts, such as the Nevill Feast, pp. 95-97, and the testimony of the Czechs who visited England in 1465, (Rozmital, Travels, p. 47) support the notion that the private meal was a respected honour.39

The details of the meal served to Gawain in his chamber, given prominence by selectivity and intensifying adjectives, also illustrate the excellent courtesy on display at Hautdesert. That the meal is generally attended to with due regard to the forms of polite society can be determined by the poet's choosing to draw attention to Gawain washing before the meal (887). This particular courtesy, that occurs at Camelot, and is notable in Cleanness, can also be found in many other romances where meals are described.40 As in these other cases, the particularisation of it at Hautdesert seems to be a traditional signal that the meal was passed with full attention to courteous behaviour.

The meal itself, as Davis's note says (edn., n. to 897) is recognisable from contemporary descriptions of such fast day feasts. From John Russell's Book of Nurture, we can see the possible elaboration and skill in preparing a meal from fish, skills which were developed to counter the Church's restrictions on diet on certain dates in the calendar. There is no suggestion from the poet that a various and sumptuous fish meal is to be viewed as either immoral or casuistical. Some church reformers would have been unhappy with this shadow of abstinence, but there are no such strictures here, just as in Cleanness it is not the luxury of Belshazzar's feast that is being criticised, but the misuse of the expense for an egotistical and perverted end.41

Since Gawain's arrival at Hautdesert, the words ‘hende’ or ‘cortaysye’ in their various forms have appeared with remarkable frequency (nine times between 773 and 946) and particularly in this scene describing the meal, during which the compliments between guests and hosts are rapidly swapped. Gawain has completely accepted the standards of Hautdesert, and even becomes a little tipsy (899-900), recalling to the reader the poet's comment on the effects of ‘mayn drynk’. (497) It would be wrong to seize upon this and elaborate a scheme of moral censure by which the poet is condemning Gawain.42 But it does seem to suggest that Gawain's unsuspicious enjoyment of his courteous treatment ensures that he will be drawn into the darker designs of Bertilak. During Gawain's first night at the castle, the poet explores the conditions under which Gawain feels obliged to enter into another agreement with Bertilak/The Green Knight, and to remain in the castle while the lord goes hunting. As the courtesy becomes more extravagant, so it becomes more difficult for Gawain to avoid doing what is demanded of him.

After the meal, Gawain again finds himself being asked for his identity in a significant passage that in some ways parallels the Pentangle description because it too defines the qualities of Gawain's character. This time, however, the emphasis is solely on the secular virtues as seen by other courtiers, and their expectations of Gawain are ambiguous enough to prepare the reader for the difficulties of definition that characterise the temptation scenes. For a stranger to be questioned after a meal as to his identity was another established courteous practice in the Middle Ages. To entertain a visitor first and only then to enquire who, or what, he was, placed strong faith in him, and has echoes in the ideal code of hospitality practised in monasteries. …Urbanus Magnus is quite clear about the propriety of waiting until after the meal:

Advena dum comedit, verbis non sit stimulatus,
Quelibet interea rumorum questio cesset
Querere si placeat, post cenam questio fiat.


In the episode from the Continuation de Perceval that has been quoted from before, it is ‘aprés souper’ that host and guest exchange names (1132), and Rauf Coilȝear also waits until after supper before asking the anonymous Charlemagne for his dwelling-place, his occupation, and his name.43 As at Camelot, Gawain readily responds to the attendants' enquiries, but it is noticeable, as Burrow points out (A Reading, p. 59), that Bertilak never reveals his name throughout Gawain's stay, a fact which has all the significances of ignorance and mystery that Burrow describes so well.

As soon as the court and Bertilak know they are entertaining Gawain, ‘þat fyne fader of nurture’, (919) his name conjures up a reputation which incorporates a wider interpretation of courtesy than that of which Gawain has hitherto shown himself master. We are reminded of his ‘pured þewes’, (912) and the court not only think that they will see ‘manerez mere’, (924) ‘sleȝtez of þewez’, (916) and the ‘teccheles termes of talkyng noble’, (917) but also that they will hear the skills of ‘luf talkyng’. (927) This last quality need not necessarily imply the specious blandishments of the seducer, and there may be little difference between the art of talking about love and the art of ‘talkyng noble’. During his stay at Hautdesert, Gawain is not inept at talking to women, either alone or in company, and such conversational ease (which comes under extreme pressure) is all part of the courteous man. There is ample evidence to suggest that talking about love was a courtly pursuit, and one at which Gawain would no doubt be proficient. It seems to be fairly clear that, apart from anything else they do, the Lady and Gawain discuss the subject of love because this was a topic that becomes a courtly pastime: ‘Much speche þay þer expoun / Of druryes greme and grace’. (1506-07) In the Knight's Tale, Chaucer says he will not discuss the finer points of Theseus's feast: who sat highest on the dais, who danced and sang best, ‘Ne who most felyngly speketh of love’, (CT, [Canterbury Tales] The Knight's Tale, I, 2203) an aspect of the feast which is bracketed quite innocently amongst other points of interest in its organisation.44 What Gawain has to repudiate is the idea that such conversation necessarily means that there is a sexual interest too.45 The Lady assumes that courtesy shown towards women must have an ulterior motive, and will not be offered as a polite refinement. Gawain shows that courtesy is a worthy virtue in and of itself, even though he is handicapped by being a guest, a social role that allows him little room for manoeuvre when subjected to the testing motives of Hautdesert.

The remainder of Fitt 2, which describes the events leading up to the three days before New Year, explores further the ambiguity of courtesy and courtly love, as well as the limitations placed on Gawain by a solicitous host. There can be little doubt of the excellence of the court-life at Hautdesert. The Christmas feast, with its particularisation of the seating arrangements (1001-05, paralleling the feast at Camelot), the Christmas games of the lord and the conversation of Gawain and the Lady, ‘Wyth clene cortays carp closed fro fylþe, / þat hor play watz passande vche prynce gomen, / in vayres’, (1013-15) which is probably another reference to the ‘game of love’, all suggest another society in which the pursuits of the noble life are followed to the highest degree. However, there are several indications of the passive role that Gawain plays in the Christmas celebration, and the poet takes pains to emphasise that he rarely does anything of his own volition. There are overtones of control for instance, in the way the lord ‘laches’ Gawain by ‘þe lappe and ledez hym to sytte’ (936) when they go to the chapel, although Bertilak shows a generous warmth to his guest.46 The words are repeated when ‘þe godman hym lachchez, / Ledes hym to his awen chambre’ (1029-30) before they have their crucial conversation about the length of Gawain's stay, and even the manner in which the ladies ‘tan hym bytwene hem, wyth talkyng hym leden / To chambre’ (977-78) after the meeting in the chapel, suggests the powerlessness of Gawain's will when he has accepted the courtesies of Hautdesert.

Gawain's subservience to the desires of his host and hostess is encapsulated by his request to be the ladies' servant, an innocent gesture of chivalric politeness, but which is used to great effect by the lady in the temptation scenes when she also pretends serviture to Gawain's desires (1239-40) so that Gawain, in order to neutralise any possible sexual implication, has to reiterate his own willingness to serve her in word or deed (1245-47). His obligation to the lady is of a slightly different nature to his obligation to Bertilak, founded as it is upon medieval notions of respect for noble women by a single knight, but we are still aware of the lady's role of hostess, and how this further complicates Gawain's predicament.

If there is any doubt, at this point, of the restrictions that Gawain must feel as a guest at Hautdesert, the poet gives explicit attention to clearing these up in the conversation between Bertilak and Gawain just prior to the end of the fitt. While Bertilak (supposedly) does not know of Gawain's quest, Gawain is perfectly correct in refusing any further hospitality at the holiday season, although his words first bring to mind the debt he feels to his host: ‘And I am wyȝe at your wylle to worche youre hest, / As I am halden þerto, in hyȝe and in loȝe, / bi riȝt’. (1039-41) But when Bertilak informs him of the Green Chapel's proximity, any further thought of rudely departing is banished. It is at this point that Bertilak's speech takes on an authoritative tone, with words and phrases that imply necessity or command: ‘Now leng þe byhoues’, (1068) ‘Dowellez’, (1095), and ‘Ye schal lenge in your lofte’. (1096) In the face of this, Gawain can only express his willingness to stay, repeating the debt of gratitude he feels by stating the other side of the guest-host bargain, ‘I schal at your wylle / Dowelle, and ellez do quat ȝe demen’, (1081-82) and, ‘Whyl I byde in yowre borȝe, by bayn to ȝowre hest’. (1092) Having said this, Gawain can hardly refuse, what seems in retrospect, the ambiguous suggestion that he stay in bed, ‘Tomorn quyle þe messequyle, and to mete wende / When ȝe wyl, wyth my wif’, (1097-98) particularly as it seems sensible in view of his long journey and the tiredness he must feel.47 When he agrees to this, Bertilak then proposes the Exchange of Winnings agreement, and with elaborate courtesy (‘Frenkysch fare’, 1116) they part and go to bed.


It should now be clear how important the first few days of Gawain's stay at Hautdesert are in preparing the reader for what will become the central issues of the Temptation scenes, and the cause of Gawain's eventual failure. One further incident over the Christmas period, however, adds to our sense of the difference between Hautdesert and Camelot, and also illustrates the difficulty in separating codes of love from codes of behaviour. Although Morgan la Fée is mentioned by name only once in the poem, when the Green Knight explains the motivation for his appearance at Camelot, her presence in Fitt 2 is a surprisingly dominating one, and the poet hints at her control over the court when she first appears (albeit anonymously). This line, ‘An oþer lady hir lad bi þe lyft honde’, (947) is another example of the verb ‘lead’ in this part of the poem referring to the treatment of guests, and likewise resonates with overtones of control.48

Although the introduction of Morgan into the poem may make us more aware of the pitfalls that Gawain faces in observing a courteous code of conduct at Hautdesert, his greeting of the two ladies in the chapel underlines just as clearly how easy it is for the boundary between courtesy and romantic love to be disputed. His treatment of the two women appears to be differentiated according to their attractiveness. The poet has already said, ‘More lykkerwys on to lyk / Watz þat scho hade on lode’, (968-69) and although bowing to and greeting Morgan, he kisses the lady and clasps her in a light embrace. It may well be thought that the poet would like us to see behind this greeting an unconscious sexual response on the part of Gawain, and in retrospect the episode takes on more significance when seen as a foretaste of the temptation scenes. The poet's use here of the kiss of greeting, however, and his descriptions of kissing throughout the poem are more complex than they at first appear.

As we saw in the discussion of Lot's reception of the angels in Cleanness, the kiss as a gesture of greeting or parting is well-documented in the Middle Ages.49 In this poem, Gawain is kissed when he leaves Camelot (596), and when he returns (2492). He kisses Bertilak and the lady farewell when he leaves Hautdesert (1979); during his stay, all three kiss each other goodnight the evening before the first day of temptation and hunting (1118); and when Gawain and Bertilak depart from the Green Chapel, they kiss once more (2472). It is still the case, however, that, in the chapel on his first night, Gawain only kisses the lady, and not Morgan. It would be easier to assume that Gawain thinks that to kiss Morgan would be distasteful were it not for the fact that he treats her with elaborate courtesy. In bowing to her, Gawain seems to be recognising her high rank, a rank that the poet has emphasised by some well-placed clues. There is little in other English references to the custom to suggest that Gawain was following a code of precedence when he does not offer a kiss of greeting to Morgan, but in Middle High German narrative works, there are several instances that indicate the kind of rules that he might have been following.50

Broadly it seems that someone of high rank would not kiss someone of lower rank. Thus in Das Nibelungenlied, Rüedeger tells Kriemhild whom he thinks is worthy of her kiss when they meet Etzel, so that she does not make the mistake of treating all of Etzel's vassals equally.51 In Wolfram's Parzival, Belacane is at first afraid that Gahumuret may not be of high enough rank to merit her kiss, and in a reverse case, Cunneware hesitates to kiss Parzival because she does not feel worthy enough until he reassures her.52 These examples are from instances in which a noble lady is the first to salute a guest or visitor, but in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet, a poem originally composed in Anglo-Norman (and therefore perhaps, closer to the Gawain-poet's milieu), the poet suggests that Lanzelet was highly honoured in being allowed to greet with a kiss a group of the noblest ladies when he arrives at Johfrit's castle:

The ladies obediently rose in a stately manner and received the unknown knight with kind greeting. On this occasion the host's affection for his companion was manifest. The youth had to kiss all the ladies in the better group, those who were noblest; he knew how to bear himself toward these so that they thought it praiseworthy.53

German epic and SGGK are separated from each other by both time and culture, but they do share some similarities of courteous practice, particularly in the ritual of reception of which greeting is a part.54 Using the examples of the protocol of giving the kiss of greeting in Das Nibelungenlied, Parzival, and Lanzelet with caution, it may be possible to argue that Gawain's motive for not kissing Morgan is partly due to his assessment of her higher rank. He can kiss his hostess, but does not feel of sufficient status to kiss the mysterious person of high power.

The scene in the chapel is not distinct enough to allow the reader to either wholly blame or excuse Gawain for his conduct. We feel that he has not treated Morgan discourteously, but we are also acutely aware of the Lady's beauty. The poet's treatment of this episode blurs further the distinctions between ‘courtesy’ and romantic love, a confusion which lies at the heart of the temptation scenes in Fitt 3. The Lady's insistence upon the act of kissing is a patent tactic to seduce Gawain. If he can be made to follow her example, then further developments may occur. But just as in the chapel when the kiss of greeting is given a shade of erotic meaning, here in the bedroom, the seemingly erotic kisses are so placed that they can also be seen as conventional gestures of greeting and farewell. Chaucer uses a similar ambiguity for comic effect in the Summoner's Tale. When the wife of Thomas enters the room:

The frere ariseth up ful curteisly,
And hire embraceth in his armes narwe,
And kiste hire sweete, and chirketh as a sparwe
With his lyppes.(55)

This is more than a kiss of peace or greeting, but because of the friar's usually flamboyant style of courtesy (he loves, in particular, to season his speech with fashionable French remarks), his licentiousness is partially camouflaged.

In SGGK, the ambiguities of kissing are treated with more seriousness than that reserved for a fabliau jest. At the end of the first temptation scene, the lady chides Gawain for staying so long with a women and not claiming a kiss:

þen quoþ Wowen: ‘lwysse, worþe as yow lykez;
I schal kysse at your comaundement, as a knyȝt fallez,
And fire, lest he displese yow, so plede hit no more.’


Immediately after taking her kiss, the lady departs (1308). Gawain may be loth to accede to this demand, but he does not see any dishonour in fulfilling the request, partly because he must not disobey his hostess, and partly because the kiss does not have all the sexual connotations the lady would like it to have.56 The other kisses in this part of the story follow the same pattern: Gawain is kissed once in greeting by the lady (1758), and twice on her departure (1555, 1794-96), and although the kiss at 1505 seems to break the pattern, it is still the result of the Lady's reproaching Gawain for not kissing her when she arrived. In response to the Lady's comment that he should have kissed her because it ‘bicumes vche a knyȝt þat cortaysy vses’, (1491) Gawain replies that he did not do so lest he had been refused, a clear indication that in the code to which he adheres, the kiss as a gesture of courtesy is not lightly given (it will be remembered that in the chapel, Gawain asks permission before greeting the ladies). What exactly the lady means by ‘cortaysy’ in 1491 is given more forceful expression in her rebuttal: ‘Ye ar stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkþe, ȝif yow lykez’. (1496) Gawain deflects this attempt by the Lady to encourage him to misuse the social code by which he conducts his life, and her eventual kiss has few overtones of meaning other than as a delayed gesture of greeting.

The duality of implication that can be observed in the use of this gesture is indicative of the general style of the three bedroom debates.57 It is the lady's purpose to shift the meaning of courtesy from its purely social and virtuous associations so that it becomes a quality dependent on adulterous and dishonourable action. At the same time, she tries to insinuate that Gawain's reputation is founded upon expectations of a similar kind of behaviour.58 This becomes clear through her use of words like ‘courtesy’, ‘hende’, and ‘hendelayke’, terms which take on a new shade of meaning when used by her, and which often are conjoined with an analysis of his character. Twice she openly questions whether he really is Gawain (1293 and 1481, quoted above) because he has not kissed her, and at the beginning of the first morning, her declaration that ‘Sir Wowen ȝe are’, (1226) is followed by an estimation of his ‘honour’ and ‘hendelayke’. (1228) This leads by loose association to an almost open invitation to sexual intercourse, which leaves little doubt that ‘hendelayke’ is seen by her as an inseparable part of the ‘game’ of romantic love.

A more direct expression of what the ‘game of love’ means to the lady, apart from, as we have seen, objective discussion of ‘druryes greme and grace’ comes on the second morning in her celebrated speech about ‘þe lettrure of armes’. (1513) In this long and elliptical exposition of the nature of romances, the lady seems to have abandoned some of her caution (‘And yow wrathed not þerwyth’, 1509) in order to ask why he, ‘so ȝong and so ȝepe’, (1510) is so uninterested in her as a sexual object. However, she changed her mind, eschewing the direct question, and implies the same by reference to ‘þe lel layk of luf’ (1513) in fiction, associating Gawain with fictional knights who perform deeds of valour for their ladies and who bring ‘blysse into boure’. (1519) Such an approach not only gains effect by being less vulnerable to direct rebuttal, but it also allows her to express doubt about Gawain's right to be so famous when he refuses to teach her about love: ‘Why! are ȝe lewed, þat alle þe los weldez?’ (1528) Once again, Gawain has to ignore the combination of flattery and disbelief, and then restate the different principles by which he governs his life, without seeming either insulting or discourteous.

Despite the lady's use of seductive and invitational language, like Gawain, she cannot, at any time, fail in reasonable standards of courtesy. If her tactics were too crude and overbearing, it would be easier for Gawain to rebuff her advances. The subtlety in the lady's approach lies in the way in which she delicately treads the thin line between being an alluring beauty and a witty adversary. At no point can Gawain merely dismiss her as an unworthy woman to whom he no longer feels obligations of courtesy.59

Indications of the lady's desire to act in a mannerly fashion, without losing any of her suggestiveness, can be found in the construction of many of her speeches (see the one discussed above), and in her careful use of the ‘ȝe’ and ‘þou’ forms of the pronoun. Although she normally uses the plural form of the pronoun to Gawain (which, as was seen in the discussion of Pearl can be the normal form of address between lovers or courtly equals), her occasional lapse into the singular form (1252, 1272, 1746, 1799) is not without point, and tends to imply a momentary familiarity or special feeling for Gawain (‘Haf þe, hende’, 1252; ‘Now, dere, at þis departyng do me þis ese, / Gif me sumquat of þe gifte’. 1798-99) Gawain, on the other hand, is scrupulous in his use of the plural form, only once using the singular when he believes that all danger is past, and that he ought to feel compassion for his love-sick hostess (1802).

Other aspects of the lady's behaviour are, perhaps, more questionable when judged against strict standards of courtesy, but are less open to criticism when seen in the perspective of her overall purpose. There are few analogues in medieval literature to a temptress going to a knight's bedroom, and this behaviour causes Gawain much initial embarrassment. Although such an action should be considered as improper, the lady's reduction of its immediate implication into a kind of jest in which Gawain becomes her prisoner, lessens its possible outrageous effect. Gawain, even if he is alarmed and surprised, has no choice but to accept what has happened, given that the lady's approach is not apparently sinister, and that she is mistress of the household. After some deliberation, he pretends to arouse himself, and places his trust in his conversational skill.60

Only once more is Gawain shocked by the lady's behaviour, but that is not in the bedroom. At the evening meal on the second night, her ‘stille stollen countenaunce’ (1659) seems designed to test Gawain's resistance to her when the temptation is taken out of the context of the bedroom, and to convince him that her love for him is genuine, and not merely a feigned strategem. Rather than being angry with her, Gawain chides himself (1660) and deftly turns the more serious nature of these love-glances to the less serious business of ‘luf-talkyng’ (‘Quen þay hade played in halle’, 1664) so that he does not have to ignore her rudely, and break the fellowship of the feast.

The one moment in the three days of conversation in the bedroom that possibly contradicts the view that the lady never acts without regard to some standards of courtesy and restraint, comes on the first morning with her much discussed invitation: ‘Ye ar welcum to by cors / Yowre awen won to wale’. (1237-38) Attempts to explain these lines as an idiom meaning ‘I am glad to have you here’, have been largely unconvincing.61 Nor is it entirely satisfactory to stress the deliberate crudity of the lady's assault as being a part of her strategy as others have tried to do.62 As Mills points out (‘An Analysis’, pp. 616-17), the lines also have a social reference apart from the sexual implication, and it is to the social reference that Gawain responds, choosing to concentrate upon the lady's offer to be his servant. ‘Cors’ puns on ‘court’, and ‘won’ (pleasure) on ‘won’ (dwelling), the puns gaining credence from the previous lines with their reference to ‘þis hous’ (1234) and the lady's reminder that her lord is away (1231). If we ignore all sexual connotation (which, of course, cannot be done), then it is possible to see the lady's words having a similar meaning to Bertilak's when he first greets Gawain:

‘Ye ar welcum to wonye as yow lykez;
þat here is, al is yowre awen, to haue at yowre wylle
and welde.’(63)


The lady's claim to become Gawain's servant follows naturally from these ambiguities, because although her primary meaning is ‘servant of love’, the domestic possibilities of the passage allow Gawain the opportunity to make a reply that takes no account of the underlying sexual offer.

Gawain's reply at this point is typical of his method throughout the three mornings. Without ever frankly contradicting the lady, he deftly turns back the compliments on herself and obliquely directs the conversation away from its more obviously sexual destination. His main difficulty is, of course, that he has to counter the redefinition of courtesy to which the lady wishes him to conform. Up to this point in the poem, we have seen Gawain as the exemplar of the courteous man both at Camelot and Hautdesert, but under pressure from the lady, he finds it harder to maintain command of his composure, and on each morning he becomes worried lest he has failed in the standards of polite behaviour. Two of these instances are connected with the lady's desire for a kiss (1295 and 1488), but the third, which encapsulates his predicament, is, as was shown, at the point when Gawain is in most danger of forgetting his obligation to Bertilak and succumbing to the lady's allurements (1770-75). Because his eventual failing is a lack of faith to Bertilak in not rendering up the girdle, it is notable that Gawain rarely lets thoughts of Bertilak stray far from his mind, and in the passage just referred to, it is thought of committing a sin against his host that inspires Gawain to renew his contest with the lady:

          ‘God schylde,’ quoþ þe schalk, ‘þat schal not befalle!’
With luf-laȝyng a lyt he layd hym bysyde
Alle þe spechez of specialté þat sprange of her mouthe.


Reference to Bertilak also allows Gawain to remind the lady on the first morning that however much she may admire him, she has ‘waled wel better’, (1276) and he follows this gentle reproach by restating his social position (as a guest) with regard to her: ‘And, soberly your seruant, my souerayn I holde yow’. (1278) So it is that, when on the third morning Gawain accepts the girdle and promises to ‘lelly layne’ it from her lord (1863), we are left in no doubt of the cause of Gawain's error. For the first and only time in the poem, he loses a proper sense of his debt to Bertilak, and this forces him to break the rules of their agreement, an agreement that in some ways has objectified the social bonds between guest and host, and which has determined the tone of Gawain's stay at Hautdesert.

Acceptance of the girdle may be the manifestation of Gawain's failure, but it is too easy to neglect his triumph in not forsaking his code of courtesy when his system of values is severely questioned by a skilful and persistent adversary. At Hautdesert, we are made aware of the restrictions of courtesy and its ambiguity of interpretation. At Camelot, we encounter the potential disaster for society if this code, however difficult to follow consistently, should be broken. In both courts it is the Green Knight who instigates this searching analysis of courtesy, and who forces us to realise its importance by paradoxically suggesting its shortcomings when misunderstood or misused. Because he escapes from this ordeal virtually unscathed, Gawain's story celebrates this positive side of courtesy and the values around which society is built, not those which cause its destruction. Although this celebration is tempered by the knowledge of the impossibility of perfection in any man (however well he exemplifies both religious and social virtues), SGGK is still an optimistic poem about the possibilities for the ideal values of court life.


  1. Cf. John A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1965), p. 41: ‘This should put us on our guard against taking too narrowly ascetic a view of the ideal which he represents.’

  2. ibid. esp. pp. 127-33, a view repeated in the same author's Ricardian Poetry (London, 1971), pp. 106-11. Since Burrow pointed this out, the idea has become something of a critical commonplace.

  3. There has been much debate on the efficacy of Gawain's first confession to the castle-priest. Rather than agreeing with Burrow, A Reading, pp. 104-09 that his first confession is invalid, I follow Spearing, Gawain-poet, p. 225 who says that Gawain does not mention the girdle in confession because he fails to see its withholding as a sin.

  4. Burrow, A Reading, esp. pp. 23-25, 42-45. For an assessment of earlier views of the poem, see Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal’, PMLA 76 (1961), 7-19. The most outspoken critic of Burrow's commentary on the poem's meaning is by Spearing, Gawain-poet, pp. 206-09, although his comments seem to misrepresent the wider implications of Burrow's reading, especially in connection with the nature of contracts in the poem: ‘In the narrow sense of fidelity to contracts, it does not appear that the poem is centrally concerned with trawthe’. (p. 207) William R. J. Barron, ‘Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered, Publications of the Faculty of Arts, University of Manchester 25 (Manchester, 1980) has the most recent discussion of ‘trawthe’ in SGGK, although he tends to emphasise the religious rather than the social aspect of the quality.

  5. Burrow's view of these lines can be found in A Reading, p. 100. Spearing, Gawain-poet, pp. 204-206 takes the opposite view. Davenport, Art, pp. 184-85 sees the lines as encapsulating a ‘debating point about knighthood’, (p. 185) holding essentially the same view as Burrow, but strengthening it by his proposed emendation of 1769 which he revises to, ‘Nif mare of hir knyght (hym) mynne’, a point elaborated in his article ‘The word “norne” and the Temptation of Gawain’, NM 78 (1977), 256-63. Most other commentators follow Burrow or Spearing, although Joseph E. Gallagher, ‘“Trawþe” and “Luf-Talkyng” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, NM 78 (1977), p. 373 sees the poet joining the two sins into ‘a single possible act’.

  6. Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, 1965), pp. 44 (with extended discussion of Le Chastelaine de Vergi, pp. 47-48) makes the point that in many medieval examples of the ‘Potiphar's Wife’ story, to which SGGK is surely related, the tempted knights repulse the ladies because of loyalty to the ladies' husbands rather than out of personal concern for chastity. That it would be Bertilak's honour that Gawain preserves by not committing adultery is indicated by Derek S. Brewer, ‘Honour in Chaucer’, Essays and Studies n.s. 26 (1973), 1-19, esp. p. 9.

  7. A recent example of this kind of reading has been made by Vincent J. Scattergood, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Sins of the Flesh’, Traditio 37 (1981), 347-71. But both Spearing, Gawain-poet, p. 227-31 and Davenport, Art, pp. 180-94 are suspicious of taking too seriously Gawain's judgement on his failings, or of reading the poem as an essay on gross moral failure.

  8. This view of the test is also supported by Burrow, A Reading, p. 80, Brewer, ‘Courtesy and the Gawain-poet’, p. 84, and Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 44-55; 218-26. Spearing, The Gawain-poet, pp. 200-01 sees the ambiguity residing in the term ‘cortaysye’ itself, and the different sorts of ‘courtesy’ have also been emphasised by John F. Kiteley, ‘The De Arte Honeste Amandi of Andreas Capellanus and the Concept of Courtesy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Anglia 79 (1961), 7-16.

  9. George L. Kittredge, A Study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Harvard, 1916), pp. 101-03.

  10. ibid., pp. 90-101, including Italian Canzoni, Latin exempla, as well as romances such as Hunbaut and Rauf Coilȝear. Other folktale versions are discussed by Hamilton M. Smyser, The Taill of Rauf Coilyear and its Sources, Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 14 (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), pp. 135-38.

  11. Kittredge quotes from Le Castoiement d'un Père à son Fils (a translation of Disciplina Clericalis) and Enfant qui veult estre courtoys. Other examples are not difficult to find. Cf. Doctrina Mense, 56, Carmen Iuvenile de Moribus, 69, De Ingenuis, 145-46, Petit Traitise, 116-18, and Urbanus Magnus, 1064-70. Some of these are in the context of drinking and therefore bear a close relationship to the anonymous Canzone retold by Kittredge, A Study, p. 93, in which the host singles out as a particular discourtesy he has suffered, a guest telling him to drink first. The general connection between loyalty and courtesy can be found by the inclusion of a number of precepts praising truth, loyalty, and honour in the courtesy poems. Cf. Urbain: ‘later version’, 28 (Harley MS), SPAM: Ashmole, 213, Caxton's Book of Courtesy, 492, and Young Children, 146.

  12. 73-74, and 109-15. The latter passage is explained by Oliver F. Emerson, ‘Shakespearean and Other Feasts’, SP 22 (1925), p. 181. Also see Davis, edn., n. to 107.

  13. For a good summary of the various critical responses to phrases such as ‘childgered’ and ‘rechles merþes’, see Patricia A. Moody, ‘The Childgered Arthur of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, SMC 8-9 (1976), 173-80.

  14. Walter W. Skeat, ed., The Wars of Alexander, EETS ES 47 (London, 1866), *826-24 (Dublin MS).

  15. Cf. Johannes de Garlandia, Morale Scholiarum, 400, and Urbanitatis, 45-48. It is also tacitly assumed in serving manuals, such as Ffor To Serve a Lord, p. 369.

  16. Henry L. Savage, ‘The Feast of Fools in SGGK’, JEGP 51 (1951), 537-44 elaborates further on this point.

  17. Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 86-89 describes well the energy of the Green Knight/Bertilak.

  18. Burrow, A Reading, pp. 13-17 also explores the ‘suggestiveness’ of the Green Knight.

  19. ibid., pp. 17-20. Burrow challenges John Speirs, The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London, 1957), p. 226 who notices the ‘outrageously discourteous’ behaviour of the knight.

  20. Most easily read in L. Elisabeth Brewer, From Cuchulainn to Gawain (Cambridge, 1973).

  21. John W. Hales & Frederick J. Furnivall, eds., Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript, II (London, 1868), pp. 56-77. Also in Brewer, From Cuchulainn, pp. 83-91.

  22. Julius Zupitza, ed., The Romance of Sir Guy of Warwick: The First or 14th century version, EETS ES 42, 49, 59 (London, 1883-91), Caius MS 3883-84; 3889. Burrow, A Reading, p. 18, n. 16, claims that such behaviour is not necessarily hostile, and refers to examples of suppliants and donors riding into hall. However, in the right context, such an action can only denote hostility and discourtesy.

  23. Leslie F. Casson, ed., The Romance of Sir Degrevant, EETS 221 (London, 1949), Cambridge MS 117.

  24. My comments on the use of the second person pronoun in SGGK owe much, once again, to the articles by Evans and Metcalf cited in Chapter Seven [in Nicholls, Jonathan. The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet. Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 1985.].The use of the pronoun in SGGK is also specifically treated by Basil Cottle, The Triumph of English 1350-1400 (London, 1969), pp. 280-84. Also see Israel Gollancz, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, EETS 210 (London, 1940), n. to 1071.

  25. A final detail in this picture of the rude stranger is the way in which the Green Knight rolls his eyes (228-29). Apart from connotations of madness and aggression, Hugh Rhodes in his Book of Nurture (ed. Furnivall, Babees Book, pp. 63-114), condemns rolling the eyes when speaking to another man (p. 76, II.173-74), and Facetus:cum nihil utilius’, 169-70 advises that a visitor should always show a happy face to his host. On the redness of the eyes, see Robert B. White, jr., ‘A Note on the Green Knight's Red Eyes (SGGK, 304)’, ELN 2 (1962), 250-52.

  26. Several commentators have noted Arthur's courtesy, including Benson, Art and Tradition, p. 97, Burrow, A Reading, p. 29, and Spearing, Gawain-poet, pp. 175-77, 182-83.

  27. Benson, Art and Tradition, p. 216 sees Arthur becoming churlish, but I do not see Arthur's reaction as a complete breakdown of his courtesy, only as a momentary relinquishment of his regal authority.

  28. Gawain's speech has been well analysed by Anthony C. Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry, 2nd ed. (London, 1972), pp. 43-47.

  29. A Reading, p. 58, referring to Wiliam A. Nitze, and collaborators, ed., Le Haut Livre du Graal, Perlesvaus, II: Commentary and Notes (Chicago, 1937), pp. 241-42, n. to 1492, and Whiting, ‘Gawain’, p. 196, n. 25.

  30. Gerbert de Montreuil, Continuation de Perceval, ed. Mary Williams, (III, ed. Marguerite Oswald), 3 vols. CFMA 28, 50, 101 (Paris, 1922-25-75), 1132-37.

  31. Passages such as this lie behind the ‘curious piece of advice’ (Burrow, A Reading, p. 60) given to Perceval by his mother in Chrétien's romance (557-62) when she advises him to ask a stranger for his name at meeting. …

  32. Cf. Facetus: ‘cum nihil utilius’, 197-98, L'Apprise de Nurture, 115, Urbanitatis, 87, SPAM: Lydgate, 69-70, and Babees Book, 75-77.

  33. See the articles by Francis P. Magoun, Jr., ‘Sir Gawain and Medieval Football’, English Studies 19 (1937), 208-09, and ‘Football in Medieval England and in Middle English Literature’, American Historical Review 35 (1929-30), 33-45.

  34. Cf. the examples cited by Roy J. Pearcy, ‘Chaucer's Franklin and the Literary Vavasour’, Ch. Rev. 8 (1973), 32-59; some of these are also cited by Scattergood, ‘Sir Gawain’, pp. 350-51. Hakan Ringbom, Studies in the Narrative Technique of Beowulf and Lawman's Brut, Acta Academiae Åboensis, Ser. A. Humaniora 36, 2 (Åbo, 1968) shows how typical arrivals are in heroic poetry. He counts (p. 99) sixty-two arrivals with spoken salutation in the Brut.

  35. Facetus: ‘cum nihil utilius’, 255-56, and cf. Robert de Blois, Chastoiement des Dames, 487-90. For the passage from the Sloane Courtesy Book (5-14), see Chapter Six [Nicholls, The Matter of Courtesy].

  36. Cf. Albert B. Friedman & Norman T. Harrington, eds., Ywain and Gawain, EETS 254 (London, 1964), in which Ywain, on coming to a ‘fayre castell’, (2712) calls out (2713) whereupon a porter soon appears who welcomes him; and Sir Degrevant, Lincoln MS, 389-400 when Degrevant going to the Earl's castle, dismounts and asks the porter to be his messenger to the Earl.

  37. Alexander Treichel, ‘Sir Cleges, eine mittelenglische Romanze’, Englische Studien 22 (1896), 345-89, II. 259-70.

  38. For further examples, apart from those adduced below, see Dupin, La Courtoisie, pp. 18-35.

  39. In Piers Plowman, Dame Study criticises the custom, X, 98-101, and the ninth of Robert Grosseteste's Household Statutes (ME version) advises the reader to make his/her household sit together in the hall at mealtimes. For other references critical of the habit of eating alone, see Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge, 1973), p. 157, n. 38. Criticism of the custom may have had its origins in the association, in some romances, of private meals and scenes of love. See Sir Degrevant, for example, 1393-1440 and the editor's note on this passage.

  40. Cf. the episode from the Continuation de Perceval, 1125, Guy de Warwick, 6850, and Sir Degrevant, 1408.

  41. This is the view too of Burrow, A Reading, p. 57, although Scattergood ‘Sir Gawain’, p. 355 sees the episode as one in which ‘overindulgence would be easy’, and Wilson, Gawain-poet, p. 124 finds the meal ‘disturbing’.

  42. Scattergood, ‘Sir Gawain’, p. 350 also sees this as a sign of Gawain's eventual moral failure, but Burrow, A Reading, pp. 57-58 is not too critical of Gawain here.

  43. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, The English Charlemagne Romances VI, EETS ES 29 (London, 1882), II. 227-42. Unlike Burrow, A Reading, p. 58, I cannot detect ‘a sinister touch of cunning in the attendant's behaviour’ here.

  44. For further discussion of the ‘game of love’ and its place in courtly discussion, see John E. Stevens, Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (London, 1961), pp. 159-64, and Green, Poets and Princepleasers, pp. 101-34.

  45. Pandarus's smirk when Criseyde asks him whether Troilus ‘kan wel speke of love’ (TC, [Troilus and Cressida] II, 503) indicates the thin line that separated speaking about love, and love-making. Like the lady, Pandarus hopes to exploit the subtle distinction.

  46. To lead someone by the ‘lappe’ can imply both intimacy and control. Two uses by Chaucer illustrate this, the first from the Second Nun's Prologue, when the nun says that until a man be seized ‘by the lappe’ he is not aware that the devil ‘hathe hym in honde’ (CT, VIII, 12-13), and the second from TC when Pandarus leads Criseyde to Troilus's bed: ‘And Pandarus, that ledde hire by the lappe, / Com ner, and gan in at the curtyn pyke’. (III, 59-60)

  47. Some critics, notably Scattergood, ‘Sir Gawain’, wish to argue that Gawain is guilty of sloth in staying in bed and not hunting with Bertilak. Although the point is well-argued, it takes no account of the obligations Gawain must feel to Bertilak. Benson, too, Art and Tradition, p. 108 thinks that it is dangerous to stay in bed, even if he finds it not entirely inappropriate for Gawain.

  48. As Burrow points out in his edition of SGGK, Penguin English Poets (Harmondsworth, 1972), n. to 947, this line shows that Morgan is not a guest at the castle. If she were a guest, then the position of the two ladies would be reversed, Morgan having the position of honour. (We know already that the younger women is Bertilak's wife.) As it is, Morgan shows herself to be in the dominant role, and possibly of greater rank in the castle, because she is able to give an honoured position, rather than to take it.

  49. Apart from the previously mentioned examples, see Dietmar Peil, Die Gebärde bei Chrétien, Harmann und Wolfram, Medium Aevum: Philologische Studien 28 (Munich, 1975), pp. 307, 309, for a list of its occurrences in the texts he examines. The prevalence of the gesture in England was amusingly recorded by Erasmus in a letter to Fausto Andrelini. See The Correspondence, Letters 1 to 141, trans. Roger A. B. Mynors & Douglas F. S. Thomson, Vol. I of Collected Works, gen. ed. Wallace K. Ferguson (Toronto, 1974), Letter 103, p. 193. Also see Kristoffer Nyrop, The Kiss and its History, trans. William F. Harvey (London, 1901), and Nicolas J. Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane (Berkeley, 1969), although this last work does not concern itself much with the gesture of greeting or farewell.

  50. The examples are taken from Peil, Die Gebärde, pp. 63-68, and George F. Jones, ‘The Kiss in Middle High German Literature’, Studia Neophilologica 38 (1966), pp. 201-03.

  51. Ed. Karl Bartsch, 10th ed. Helmut de Boor (Lepzig, 1940), 1348.

  52. Ed. Karl Lachmann, 7th ed. Eduard Hartl (Berlin, 1952), I: 22, II. 15-16; 306, 1. 5.

  53. Trans. Kenneth G. T. Webster & Robert S. Loomis, Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 47 (New York, 1951), p. 33.

  54. It is useful to compare the ritual of greeting as I have described it from essentially English sources, with what Peil, Die Gebärde, pp. 31-72 (esp. pp. 36-44) finds in his European texts.

  55. CT, Summoner's Tale, III, 1802-05. See Alfred L. Kellog, ‘The Fraternal Kiss in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale’, Scriptorium 7 (1953), 115 on this scene. A more serious example of the literary exploitation of the hazy distinction between social and sexual kisses can be found in a ‘rounde’ of Charles d'Orléans when he contrasts the private kisses given to him by his mistress with the ones she gives everyone in the normal conduct of social intercourse. Ed. Robert Steele, I, EETS 215 (London, 1941), No. 37.

  56. An analogous situation occurs in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. When Lancelot is imprisoned by Mellyagaunce, a lady comes to him every day, tempting him with deliverance if he will make love to her. She eventually narrows her demands to a kiss, to which Lancelot accedes, adding that he may do that and ‘lese no worshyp’. He makes it clear that if there were any dishonour in the act, he would not do it. See Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1967), III, p. 1136.

  57. Apart from the studies by Burrow, Spearing, and Benson, of particular interest are the articles by Davis Mills, ‘An Analysis of the Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. JEGP 67 (1968), 612-30, Christopher Dean, ‘The Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Leeds Studies in English n.s. 5 (1971), 1-12, Gallagher, ‘“Trawþe” and “Luf-Talkyng”’, and Myra Stokes, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Fitt III as Debate’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 25 (1981), 35-51.

  58. This theme of identity has been well-expressed by Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 218-26, and Spearing, Gawain-poet, pp. 198-99 also discusses Gawain's traditional reputation as a philanderer.

  59. It is difficult to accept Benson's comment, Art and Tradition, p. 54, that ‘she, like the Green Knight, is an attractive but essentially uncourtly character, the antithesis of the perfect gentleman whom she woos’. Were the lady as blunt as the temptress in Yder (see Brewer, Cuchulainn, pp. 47-51), Gawain could act in a similar way as the hero of that romance when he kicks her in the stomach. Because courtesy is never established by either side, the restraints of polite society do not apply.

  60. It is worth noting that Gawain's gesture of crossing himself does not resonate with fears of moral danger, as it is all part of his dumb-show pretence of waking. At least one courtesy book recommends that the reader should cross himself when first waking. See Young Children, 11-12, and cf. Castrianus, 122, and Caxton's Book of Courtesy, 23-24.

  61. As, for example, Davis's note on these lines, and Burrow, A Reading, pp. 80-82.

  62. Particularly by Dean, ‘Temptation Scenes’, pp. 4-5, and Gallagher, ‘“Trawþe” and “Luf-Talkyng”’, pp. 365-66. Kiteley, ‘De Arte Honeste Amandi’, p. 10 sees the offer as an appeal to the senses and contrary to the tenets of courtly love, and Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 49-50, also sees it as a breach of courtly love.

  63. I follow Gollancz's emendation of the passage which eschews the ugly repetition of ‘welde’ in 835 and 837.

Joseph M. Lenz (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5528

SOURCE: Lenz, Joseph M. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Promised End: Romance Closure in the “Gawain”-poet, Malory, Spenser, and Shakespeare, pp. 31-44. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Lenz examines section by section the circular structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.]

Very few poems are more structurally sound than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet blends a variety of disparate sources—the folklore motifs of the exchange of blows and the exchange of gifts, the courtly love game, the Arthurian setting and characters—into a marvelously wrought tale whose whole, as Marie Borroff tells us, is “far greater than the sum of its parts.”1 Because of its stable and intricate structure, few poems are more satisfying than Gawain. The association of structure and satisfaction implies that there comes a point when we recognize the interrelation of the various elements and when that design appears not only complete but also aesthetically appealing. Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes that moment of recognition as the point of closure: “a structure appears closed when it is experienced as integral: coherent, complete, and stable.”2 As we have already seen, closure is not simply that place where events stop, for a narrative can end without ever “tying up loose ends.” A conclusion should be a consummation. The point of closure is that point at which we are able to re-experience the entire work, not only as a fitting culmination to successive events, but with a special insight into the significance of the tale. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight achieves such a point of closure; the action comes to an end which elucidates the formal and thematic patterns developed through the poem.

Structure, in its largest sense, can be simply defined as the shape of the story. Every story has a three part structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action of Gawain begins at Arthur's court, where the Green Knight delivers his challenge and Gawain accepts. The middle part records Gawain's adventures on his way to fulfill the bargain. And the poem ends with the Green Knight's delivery of his blow and Gawain's return to Camelot. In the completion of the exchange and the return to Camelot we recognize the shape of the story, the tale's circularity. Since this recognition of the unity of events and the integrity of the structure comes at the end, we can justly conclude that Gawain exhibits closure. This of course is closure at its simplest level.

The poet further emphasizes the circularity by placing his story in a historical frame. The poet opens with the standard recitation of Britain's mythic history:

Siøen øe sege and øe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Øe borȝ brittened and brent to brondez and askez,
Øe tulk øat øe trammes of tresoun øer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, øe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias øe athel, and his highe kynde,
Øat siøen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al øe wele in øe west iles.


So the poet continues, as he relates the founding of Rome, Tuscany, Lombardy, and Britain, where “of Bretaygne kynges, Ay watz Arthur øe hendest, as I haf herde telle,” until he finally announces his intentions:

Forøi an aunter in erde I attle to schawe,
Øat a selly in siȝt summe men hit holden,
And an outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderez.
If ȝe wyl lysten øis laye bot on littel quile,
I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde,
                                                            with tongue.


The poet surveys the panorama of history to locate his subject. He identifies a type, as we find out, for his hero: “Øe tulk øat øe trammes of tresoun øer wroȝt / Watz tried for his tricherie, øe trewest on erthe.”4 Gawain, too, will attempt a deceit and be impeached for it. Although the prologue does allow the poet to foreshadow his story, its main purpose is to set the stage, to paint the backdrop: to create an illusion. By placing the tale in a history and by crediting his source, “as I in toun herde,” the poet establishes the authenticity of his “outtrage awenture.”

Although the poet describes his story as “a selly in siȝt,” one of “Arthurez wonderez,” a “laye,” he supports the historicity of his fiction by returning to his litany at the end. After once more mentioning an authority, the “best boke of romaunce” the author again invokes history:

Øus in Arthurus day øis aunter bitidde,
Øe Brutus bokez øerof beres wyttenesse;
Syøen Brutus, øe bolde burne, boȝed hider fyrst,
After øe segge and øe assaute watz sesed at Troye,
                              Mony aunterez here-biforne
                              Haf fallen suche er øis.
                              Now øat bere øe croun of øorne,
                              He bryng vus to his blysse! AMEN.


The poet not only echoes his opening lines, he also reverses the order—the source, Arthur, Brutus, Troy—giving the impression of a gradual fade-out from the subject. The ending corresponds exactly to the beginning. Even the hint that Aeneas' story typifies Gawain's is matched by the author's admission that his tale is not unique: “Mony aunterez here-biforne / Haf fallen suche er øis.” The poet first places his tale within the historical framework, then steps back from the painting to show that it is but one picture on a wall with many others. The frame isolates and defines the story, keeping it distinct from its brethren on the wall, and yet reminding the reader of the kinship as well. The poet seals the poem with the prayer-like envoi, “Now øat bere øe croun of øorne, / He bryng vus to his blysse!” and the finality of “Amen” rounds the period. The poet, then, establishes the truth of his lay through three different testimonies. “As I in toun herde” and “the best boke of romaunce” create the illusion of appeal to authority. The mythological history gives the tale a pedigree. And the reference to Christ, another “knight” who was impeached, asks (at least) for the sanction of divine truth. The integrity is verified, so be it.

In addition to the completion of the sequential events, Gawain illustrates two methods of closure, the frame and the envoi.5 The frame controls the shape of the story, reinforcing the circularity of the narrative. The poet formally ends his poem where it begins, just as Gawain returns to the place where his adventure begins. The envoi signals the readers that the tale is done, that the experience is complete, and that the expectations aroused at the start should be satisfied. Thus the poem is closed.

The envoi, however, also raises certain questions. If the readers had not realized it yet, in the envoi we discover that the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts. Why should a relatively simple and complete structure merit the reinforcement of so elaborate a frame? By adding the prayer-like envoi, with its reference to Christ's humiliation, the poem exceeds the matter with which it began. The difference carries with it the thematic implications that provide the commentary on the poem. Gawain may return to where he begins, but is he at the end of what he begins?

If the beginning-middle-end deep structure of the poem cannot explain the questions raised by the envoi, as it cannot, then we must look to the surface grammar imposed by the poet on the poem. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is divided into four sections, with each part, governed by a dominant setting, relating a particular sequence in Gawain's adventure. The first part begins the poem, describes the scene and Arthur's appetite for wonders, presents the Green Knight and his challenge to exchange strokes, and delivers the first half of that exchange, Gawain's turn with the ax. The action all takes place at Camelot, where the “most kyd knyȝtez,” “louelokkest ladies,” and “comlokest kyng” gather “all øe wele of øe worlde.” It is a collection of superlatives, whose festivity, furnishings, and society symbolize to the Green Knight the praise of Arthur “lyft vp so hyȝe.” The Green Knight means to test the quality of that court, to determine whether it is gilt or gold.

The second part records Gawain's departure from Camelot, his search for the Green Chapel, and his reception at Bercilak's castle. The glories of Camelot are here focused on Gawain, the best in a society of superlatives. He is its ambassador to the satellite courts as well as in the Green Knight's game. Upon Gawain's arrival those at Bercilak's castle remark,

'Now schal we semlych se seleȝtez of øewez
And øe teccheles termes of talkyng noble,
Wich spede is in speche vnspurd may we lerne,
Syn we haf fonged øat fyne fader of nurture.


He is the cultured courtier out among the bumpkins to model the latest fashions. Yet the “fyne fader of nurture,” so elaborately armed (556-669) prior to his departure from Camelot,

                                                  sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtez øen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Øer as claterande fro øe crest øe colde borne rennez,
And henged heȝe over his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.


One wonders just how stylish Gawain appears when he presents himself to that court. The journey from Camelot to Bercilak's castle dominates this section, for it removes him from the ideal world of Camelot where one is defined and honored by reputation and places him in the “real” world, where well-burnished armor will rust, where one survives by his deeds, not his laurels. Gawain must fight with serpents, wolves, wild men, and giants, none of whom know of, nor would respect, his reputation; then he must display deportment to those who do respect reputation and expect confirmation of it. On his arrival at the castle Gawain's armor is removed and he is dressed in courtier's clothing (860-63). The first layers of veneer are stripped away in the Green Knight's test.

The third, and most famous, section of the poem plays out the agreed upon exchange between Gawain and his host, the trade of each day's profits for three successive days. Of course, this exchange amplifies the poem's original theme, the game between Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet further varies the theme by dividing his attention between Bercilak's exploits in the wood and Gawain's in bed. The wood scenes, where the host hunts, sandwich the chamber scenes, where Gawain is hunted, thus providing a direct link to the basic plot, for Bercilak beheads or cuts the throat of each beast and gives each to Gawain in turn, ominously foreshadowing the Green Knight's stroke. Gawain, in his own turn, dutifully repays his host with the kisses garnered from the lady, but withholds the green lace, an action he will later regret. In the scenes with the lady there is a literal stripping away of veneer. Gone are the knightly armor and the courtly clothes; Gawain is in bed, all but naked, held “captive” by a woman with

No hwez goud on hir hede bot øe haȝer stones
Trased aboute hir tressour be twenty in clusteres;
Hir øryuen face and hir ørote ørowen al naked,
Hir brest bare bifore, and bihinde eke.


Gawain is indeed in a compromising position, and compromise he does when, after repeated refusals and after the protective virtue of the lace is made known, he accepts the gift.

The third section strips everything from Gawain. If the journey from Camelot forces Gawain into the real world where the knight must prove himself, the exchange scenes force Gawain to confront himself, or at least to confront his fears. On the third morning the lady wakes Gawain from a dream:

How øat destine schulde øat day dele hym his wyrde
At øe grene chapel, when he øe gome metes,
And bihoues his buffet abide withoute debate more.


As his day of reckoning approaches Gawain grows plainly fearful of the probable outcome, the loss of his life. He wakens from his black dreams, sees the lady before him—“Hir brest bare bifore”—and admits (to himself) his dilemma:

For øat prynces of pris depressed hym so øikke,
Nurned hym so neȝe øe øred, øat nede hym bihoued
Oøer lach øer hir luf, oøer lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest craøayn he were,
And more for his meschef ȝif he schulde make synne,
And be traytor to øat tolke øat telde aȝt.


The combination of fear and beauty take from Gawain another cover. The father of fine manners abandons his courtesy in order to save his soul. When the second proffer is made that morning, that of the girdle, the comparative veniality of the offense to his host (he agrees to “disceuer hit neuer / Bot to lelly layne fro hir lorde”), promotes the attraction of the “noble” scheme. The direct appeal to Gawain's fear for his life defeats the less tangible concern for his honor. No longer bothered with the superficiality of decorum and appearance, Gawain confronts the bare essentials, fear, lust, salvation. This is the test intended by the Green Knight; Gawain, however, does not yet realize it.

Although the real test occurs before the final ax blow, the last section is not the less climactic for it. The fourth section brings the basic narrative to its promised end, the delivery of the Green Knight's stroke. More complexly, the various stages in the last section recapitulate the action of each of the three previous parts. Again, the structure of the poem merits attention. The overall frame of the story itself, Camelot—adventure—Camelot, is mimicked by each of the first three sections: festivity—Green Knight's interruption—festivity; castle (Camelot)—journey—castle (Bercilak's); and hunt—chamber—hunt, repeated three times. This pattern is also present in the fourth part, in that it begins at Bercilak's castle and ends at Camelot (reversing Part II), but more impressive is the rehearsal of the action of the poem.

The final section truly summarizes the poem. Each of the major sequences in the fourth part corresponds to each of the other divisions. Gawain travels from the castle to the Green Chapel, repeating his earlier journey from Camelot (Part II). At the Green Chapel he completes his game with the Green Knight, as anticipated by the (incomplete) exchange with his host (Part III). His return to Camelot, as we discussed earlier, places him back in his original setting (Part I). But the correspondence between the sequences and the divisions is more than just circumstantial. For instance, when Gawain leaves Camelot he is carefully armed; likewise, he regains his armor on his departure from Bercilak's castle. This time, however, he worries about the green girdle—“Yet laft he not øe lace, øe ladiez gifte, øat forgat not Gawayne for gode of hymseluen” (2030-31)—whereas before his shield, bearing the sign of the “hende heuen-quene,” held all attention. The preference for a bit of cloth from a woman's garment over the emblem of the Virgin accents both Gawain's credulity and the irony prevalent in the closing section. Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel differs from his previous journey only in that he is accompanied part way by a garrulous servant who speaks fearfully of the Green Knight (2091-2151), a device to annoy the already worried Gawain. Otherwise the landscape, the eventual solitude, and the sudden discovery of his destination are much the same. The final section, then is a culmination of and commentary upon the earlier section.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the encounter between Gawain and the Green Knight. The scene here is the antithesis of that of the first stroke. Rather than his “home court,” with a noble audience to witness the deed, and the confidence in the improbability of the Green Knight's surviving the blow (371-376), Gawain faces a seemingly invincible opponent, on foreign ground, alone, and frightened by the possibility (despite his protection) of his own death—a fright added to by his guide's words and by the sight of the Green Knight sharpening “A denez ax nwe dyȝt, øe dynt with to ȝelde” (2223). Rather than strike, Gawain is to be struck. And rather than the swift, clean stroke with which Gawain hits the Green Knight, he must suffer through two feints before enduring the relief and humiliation of a nearly missed third blow.

After creating tension through the guide's ominous description of the Green Knight, the sight and sound of the grindstone sharpening the ax, and the anxiety of the two feints (emphasized by Gawain's initial flinch and his short temper—2165-2204), the poet deflates us (and Gawain) by having the Green Knight, like Casey at bat, miss the third strike.6 Unlike Casey, however, the Green Knight's miss is intentional. The irony deepens when he explains the significance of the three blows:

Lif I deliuer had bene, a boffet paraunter
I coupe wroøeloker haf waret, to øe haf wroȝt anger.
Fyrst I mansed øe muryly with a mynt one,
And roue øe wyth no rof-sore, with ryȝt I øe profered
For øe forwarde øat we fest in øe fyrst nyȝt,
And øou trystyly øe trawøe and trwly me haldez,
Al øe gayne øow me gef, as god mon schulde.
Øat oøer munt for øe morne, mon, I øe profered,
Øou kyssedes my clere wyf—øe cossez me raȝtez.
For boøe two here I øe bede bot two bare myntes boute scaøe.
                              Trwe mon trwe restore,
                              Øenne øar mon drede no waøe.
                              At øe ørid øou fayled øore,
                              And øerfor øat tappe ta øe


The levels of irony here are multiple. First, Gawain discovers that the blow which he had been anticipating, which had been his goal for a year and a day, has little bearing on the original pact made at Camelot. Second, the Green Knight implicitly identifies himself as Gawain's host. Third, he explains the blows in terms of the exchanges made at his castle, making the third blow an answer to Gawain's broken promise and his failure to return the girdle. Fourth, he reveals that the girdle, prized by Gawain as “a juel for øe joparde,” has no power to protect—“I couøe wroøeloker haf waret, to øe haf wroȝt anger.” Indeed, even in the near miss some harm is done, “øat øe scheme blod ouer his schulderes schot to øe erøe; … øe blode blenk on øe snawe” (2314-15), an image of the stain on Gawain's character. Fifth, the whole affair—the original pact, the difficult journey, the games with the host, the temptations of the lady, the anxiety at the Chapel—is revealed to be a scheme, devised to make trial of the “fautlest freke øat euer on fote ȝede” (2352). Sixth, “øat euer on fote ȝede,” although a superlative fit for an inhabitant of Camelot, is nonetheless a qualified statement: Gawain is as faultless as a mortal man can be. Bercilak tells Gawain:

‘Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewte yow wonted;
Bot øat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauøer,
Bot for ȝe lufed your lyf; øe lasse I yow blame.’


It seems hardly necessary for Gawain or for us to discover that he, like any man, is not faultless, that he loves his life. Nevertheless, the fear for his life does fit the very rationale Gawain uses when he accepts the girdle in the first place.

If the poem ended here, the sum would equal the parts. Each of the first three sections goes into making up the fourth section. Each of the different plot developments are identified as belonging to the same plot (formally and thematically). Characters are conflated, unfinished actions are completed, questions are answered. This indeed should be the point of closure, for we can, in Barbara Smith's words, “experience the structure of the work as, at once, dynamic and whole.” We can visualize in the Green Knight's explanation the design of the whole poem. We even have what Frank Kermode calls peripeteia, or the falsification of one's expectation of the end:

The more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality, and the more certainly we shall feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those in which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naive expectations, is finding out for us something real.7

That so much irony attends the Green Chapel scene is no accident. The tables are turned on Gawain, yes, but they are turned on us as well. The ending is not quite what we expect. While we may not be surprised by the identity of the Green Knight, nor by the outcome of the confrontation, for enough hints are dropped along the way,8 there is still the disappointment at the identification of Gawain's fault: that entire, elaborate, beautiful adventure merely to illustrate that Gawain fears death. Yet it is important for us to feel cheated, for the scene turns out to be a tease, a falsification.

A deeper irony underlies the sense of disappointment. When Gawain reacts to Bercilak's explanation we realize, in a moment of insight that once more turns the tale around, the necessity of the adventure. Upon hearing the explanation, Gawain is left temporarily speechless, an oddity for an artist of eloquence:

Øat oøer stif mon in study stod a gret whyle,
So agreued for greme he gryed withinne;
Alle øe blod of his brest blende in his face,
Øat al he schrank for schome øat øe schalk talked.


Gawain is ashamed of himself for having a human frailty. He rages not at Bercilak but at himself. He refuses the understanding offered him—“Bot for ȝe lufed your lyfe; øe lasse I yow blame”—by accusing himself of cowardice, coveting, disloyalty, and greed (2378-84). He then moves on to ally himself with the heroes of old, Adam, Solomon, David, all of whom were betrayed by women. Gawain exaggerates his fault, debasing himself completely. The scene is both funny and significant. We, like Bercilak who laughs, find it humorous that Gawain should take himself so seriously; and we find it revealing that he does take himself so seriously.

Gawain mistakes “himself” for his reputation. Throughout the poem Gawain is concerned with appearances. He caps his request to take Arthur's place in the beheading game with the statement, “And if I carp not comlyly, let alle øis cort rych / bout blame” (360). He calls attention to the comeliness of the request, as if its mere rhetoric should earn him the right he asks for. He is greeted as the “fyne fader of nurture” who can teach the “teccheles termes of talkyng.” He observes every formality in his introduction to his host, the lady, and the other lady who turns out to be Morgan le Fay. Even in bed, when the lady questions Gawain's identity (for the real Gawain would be incapable of a rudeness—1296-1300), he “Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes.” Later, again in bed, “He cared for his cortaysye, lest craøayn he were.” The key words here are the “termes of talkyng,” the “fourme of his castes,” “lest craøayn he were,” all superficial, all finery, all part of the veneer which gradually gets stripped away. Gawain uses words, but he does not know their meaning. He deals in signs and symbols, in forms, but he does not know their referents. He carries a shield with the emblem of perfection stamped on it, the Virgin Mary in the pentangle of the five fives. Since a shield bears a knight's coat of arms, essentially his identity, Gawain implies, at least, an equation between “himself” and perfection. He fails to distinguish between striving for and attaining perfection. All the superlatives—“most,” “louelokkest,” “best,” “worøyest”—describing Arthur's court and Gawain, its pattern and paragon, help to blur the distinction between the “fautlest freke øat euer on fote ȝede” and simply “faultless.” This is exactly the “surquidre” Morgan le Fay seeks to expose.

Gawain, in effect, believes in a fiction about himself. Early on he says to Arthur, with show humility, “I am øe wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest, / And lest lur of my lyf, quo laytes øe soøe” (354-55). Gawain insists on the extreme, “wakkest,” “feblest,” “lest.” His comely claim wins him the right to discover the value of his life: he does not learn its worth until he faces the prospect of losing it. Later, in a more truly humble mood, Gawain accepts the girdle as a “syngne of my surfet”:

And øus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
Øe loke to øis luf-lace schal leøe my hert.


The words are important. Without the use of superlatives, Gawain acknowledges the dangers of praise and self-satisfaction, and his own tendency toward pride, but he does not demean himself. He simply looks to the girdle as a reminder of his imperfection. He still deals in signs—nothing else is possible—but he has experienced the meaning of this particular sign. The poet takes such care to verify the “truth” of his tale because his story addresses “something real.” As a result of his adventure Gawain learns the limitations of his fiction.

At the start of this [essay] I mentioned that the closure in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has significance for the romance form as well as for the poem itself. That Gawain exhibits closure has been, I think, fully demonstrated. The poet uses the formal device of the frame to contain his poem. That frame is repeated in each of the four major divisions, reinforcing the unity of the structure. The last section recapitulates the action of the poem, completes the sequences, and provides the moment when the design of the poem is perceptible and all expectations are satisfied. The poem achieves closure by focusing our attention on the completion of a simple narrative.

Eugene Vinaver, in discussing the narrative techniques popular in the 12th and 13th century romances, describes the “poetry of interlace,” a method of narration that follows the principles of Romanesque art: “Historians of Romanesque art have shown us, among other things, that the so-called ‘ribbon’ ornament, which has no beginning, no end, and above all no centre—no ‘means of guidance,’ as one critic puts it—is nevertheless a remarkable coherent composition.”9 Vinaver attributes this method of composition to the romance writers:

This is precisely what the authors of the Arthurian Prose Cycle sought to achieve: the feeling that there is no single beginning and no single end, that each initial adventure can be extended into the past and each final adventure into the future by a further lengthening of narrative threads. Any theme can reappear after an interval so as to stretch the whole fabric until the reader loses every sense of time and space.10

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shares some of these traits. The tale does have remnants of the interlace technique: the variations on a theme, the analogous scenes, the variety of interlocking motifs. Perhaps even the closing lines about other tales, “Mony aunterez here-biforne / Haf fallen suche er øis,” is an attempt to extend the adventure through allusion. More important, however, are Gawain's deviations from previous methods of romance composition. It has a beginning and an end, and a definite “means of guidance,” the completion of the exchange. Because of the closed nature of the poem, extension of the adventure into the past or future is practically impossible. The poem is contained and controlled. We may sink into the story, losing sense of real (our) time and space, but within the story we are made quite aware of the passing of time and the changing of space.

Gawain tells a story focused on a single knight, a story in which there is only one narrative thread, although that thread can be split and respliced. The use of closural techniques direct concentration on that narrative. The linear progress of the tale and the concern for psychological motivation make the tale remarkably “modern”:

The change from the cyclic romance to a narrative intelligible without reference to anything that lies beyond it and unrelated to any wider scheme of things brings with it a new sense of the tragic: the very restriction of the field of vision heralds the advent of tragedy as an essentially modern form.11

Vinaver here speaks about Malory's “short novel,” The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Darthur Saunz Guerdon. The “restriction of the field of vision” to the demise of Arthur and Lancelot, … does indeed accent the tragic quality of their fall. And we can readily see how a self-contained, focused, restricted vision functions in Shakespeare's tragedies. Yet Vinaver would be wrong to insist that “a narrative intelligible without reference to anything that lies beyond it” effects only tragedy. The self-contained narrative can be comedy just as well.

One last irony from Gawain will, I think, illustrate my point. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the green lace, a reminder of his “real” self, not his reputed self. He reports his adventure to the King and explains his reason for wearing the lace. But,

Øe kyng comfortez øe knyȝt, and alle øe court als
Laȝen loude øerat, and luflyly acorden
Øat lordes and ladis øat longed to øe Table,
Vche burne of øe broøerhode, a bauderyk schulde haue,
A bende abelef hym aboute of a brȝt grene,
And øat, for sake of øat segge, in swete to were.


The sign of “surfet” starts a fashion, another finery with which to adorn the court. Although they wear their baldrics “for sake of øat segge,” to show their sympathy for Gawain, and by extension their own faults, they make Gawain and the girdle objects of praise—exactly what the girdle is to warn Gawain against. From Gawain's perspective, the court misses the point, but then they did not go through the adventure.

Yet this closing does redeem the romance values that are put to the test, asserting the primacy of the romance vision over the satiric.12 The adventure makes trial of the most faultless man that walks on earth. That Gawain fails his test by accepting the lace does not surprise us. What surprises is the revelation of his surprise at his fault. And what surprises even more is that he is commended for his failures—by Bercilak, by the court, apparently by the poet himself. While the Gawain-poet does satirize the niceties of courtesy and the predicaments these niceties can cause, Gawain is “polysed of øat plyȝt.” His only fault is his mortality, “øe lasse I yow blame.” As ironic as the loud laughter may be, Gawain does deserve the praise, for he succeeds in ransoming the King and the court.


  1. “Introduction” to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Marie Borroff (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 8. For a full discussion of Gawain's sources and conventions, see Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ; Rutgers UP, 1965), especially chapters one and two.

  2. Poetic Closure (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), 2.

  3. Smith, 36. A “dynamic” structure is one in which the “structural principles produce a state of expectation continuously modified by successive events”, 33.

  4. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, eds., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edn. Norman Davis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967). All subsequent line references made in the text refer to this edition.

  5. There has been some controversy over the identity of “tulk”in line 3, some editors claiming it refers to Aeneas, others arguing it is Antenor. Alfred Davis, “Gawain and Aeneas,” English Studies 49 (1968), 402-07, reviews the debate and identifies “tulk” as Aeneas.

  6. Smith lists the methods of formal closure for stanzaic verse as 1) terminal modification of the refrain; 2) identical repetition of refrain, but a thematic change in meaning; 3) the announcement of the close; 4) the use of a frame, repeating the opening at the close (59-67).

  7. The poet arouses predictable expectations by manipulating romance rituals and then “deliberately disappointing these expectations.” He “exploits in a very self-conscious way his audience's literary awareness”: J. Finlayson, “The Expectations of Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Genre, 12 (1979), 3.

  8. The Sense of an Ending (London: Oxford UP), 18.

  9. Between, but not including, the initial scene at Camelot and the final encounter at the Green Chapel, there are twenty-four references to heads or cut throats, usually in the form of a beheading, symbolic, like a hood or helm being removed, or actual, like the beheading of the animals. There are, in addition, the similar descriptions of the Green Knight (137-41) and the host (844-49), the proximity of the castle to the chapel, and the green lace itself. These are just a few of the more obvious signals.

  10. [Eugéne Vinaver,] Rise of Romance, 77.

  11. Rise of Romance, 76.

  12. Rise of Romance, 136. Likewise, Barbara Smith defines a structure's “integrity” as that “property of a system of which the parts are more obviously related to each other than to anything outside that system” (23).

Wendy Clein (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Clein, Wendy. ““Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Its Readers. ” In Concepts of Chivalry in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 3-14. Norman, Okl.: Pilgrim Books, 1987.

[In the following essay, Clein contends that the Gawain-poet deliberately made the message of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ambiguous, seeking a wide and changing range of responses in his readers in order to encourage them to think critically about ethics.]

Only when we finish reading a work can we evaluate its meaning as a whole, the way in which its parts fit together. At the conclusion of a tale, the quest to discover what happens next ceases. We discover whether our predictions are accurate, whether the work meets or violates our expectations. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight concludes in a way that thwarts our desire for resolution. The poem withholds motives and explanations until the end. Then, contrary to readers' expectations, the problems that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight entertains are not resolved upon the completion of the hero's quest and the antagonist's revelation of his identity and purpose. Like Gawain, readers are surprised by the disclosure of the Green Knight's identity with Bertilak and his wife's complicity in the test. Moreover, the news that Gawain's aunt, Morgan la Faye, instigates the entire plot comes as a puzzling revelation. The discoveries at the end of the poem frustrate readers' satisfaction in Gawain's escape from harm, unleashing a host of questions. Rather than resolving uncertainties, the poem's conclusion forces readers to review the action and attempt to interpret it.

The indeterminate ending of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ensures the reader's engagement in the problem ofjudgment. Although the poem is neatly framed by the self-referring context of “þe Brutus bokez” (line 2523),1 the sense of closure is artificial, for the poem raises moral questions without finally resolving them. When the hero's quest is over, various characters in the poem offer different interpretations of the action. Because Gawain loved his life, Bertilak forgives him for concealing the girdle and judges him to be “as perle bi þe quite pese” (line 2364). Arthur and the court rejoice that Gawain returns unscathed, “al in sounde” (line 2489), and they adopt the green baldric to do him honor. For the hero, by contrast, the girdle has become “þe token of vntrawþe” (line 2509), and he judges himself permanently marred by his slip. By offering these varied and partial perspectives on the hero's quest and by withholding any authorial resolution of the resulting contradictions, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight draws readers into the pursuit of meaning.

The poem addresses first-time readers, creating suspense through structure and narratorial comment. For example, the narrator builds readers' apprehension by presenting the journey to the green chapel largely from Gawain's center of consciousness. Tension mounts as the guide sketches a fearful portrait of the Green Knight.2 Gawain's anxiety grows as he inspects the desolate site of his encounter, “Debatande with hymself quat hit be myȝt” (line 2179). The hero's troubled imagination transforms the desolate landscape into a diabolical scene: “‘Here myȝt aboute mydnyȝt / Þe dele his matynnes telle!’” (lines 2187-88).

The Green Knight slowly reveals himself, first through the noise of his ax, then through his command that Gawain abide, and finally in his approach, as he whirls out from behind the rocks, vaults a stream with the aid of his huge ax, and advances toward the hero. The interchange between the two and the feigned strokes of the ax draw out the suspense so that readers share Gawain's sense of relief as he escapes his obligation with only a nick and springs into action to take up the offensive. Gawain's release is as powerful as a rebirth: “Neuer syn þat he watz burne borne of his moder / Watz he neuer in þis worlde wyȝe half so blyþe” (lines 2321-22). The elation which first-time readers perhaps share with the hero is only temporary, however. The revelation of the Green Knight's identity and the connection between the two games demands that Gawain's behavior be examined minutely and judged.

Subsequent readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer experiences that are different from and more aesthetically gratifying than the first. Of course, the poem eternally invites familiar readers to reenact the pleasurable experience of suspense. Once the resolution is known, the poem offers the more aesthetic experience of observing the narrator's technique in manipulating expectations. Our responses to characters alter too. Readers can appreciate Bertilak's skill in winning Gawain's confidence and the lady's artistry and wit in beguiling him. Correspondences that a first reader might not notice become apparent, such as the green-and-gold decoration of both the Green Knight and the lady's girdle.3 Subtle ironies also become more noticeable, for example, Gawain's choice of a blue mantle (the color symbolizing loyalty) on the evening he breaks his pact to exchange winnings.4 Finally, the questions the poem poses about chivalric ideals and human experience remain open for readers' consideration.

J. A. Burrow proposes that the narrative art of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight owes much to the nature of oral recitation and that the Gawain poet “made a virtue of necessity and positively exploited the linear character of the medium,” most obviously by keeping readers in suspense.5 Nevertheless, Burrow's own comparison of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf illustrates that the oral tradition offered a wide range of narrative possibilities and that the Gawain poet was not in any way bound by necessity.6 As Burrow subsequently admits, the suspense of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more than the happy adaptation of literary circumstances. He argues that it enables the poet to “allow his ‘meaning,’ like his ‘plot,’ to emerge gradually from among a number of more or less deliberately countenanced possibilities.”7 If it were true that the poet intends a particular meaning to emerge, there would surely be more critical consensus. Instead, the linear narrative pattern gives readers the freedom to suspend judgment until the completion of the narrative, whereupon the open-ended conclusion elicits a consideration of the competing evaluations of knightly behavior evoked in the various interpretations of Gawain's lapse.

While the poem offers divergent evaluations of the hero's behavior in the responses of Gawain, Bertilak, and Arthur's court, critics tend to favor a particular interpretation, denying the validity of its opposite. Readers emphasizing the poem's comic aspects view the tolerant laughter of Bertilak and Arthur's court as sanative and Gawain's remorse as morbidly excessive.8 Other readers, focusing on the poem's serious elements, condemn the laughter as trivializing or corrosive, a sign of ignorance rather than sanity.9

A less common response to the poem's ending is to offer a reading that recognizes the validity of more than one perspective. While A. C. Spearing leans toward a reading wherein Gawain appears slightly comic in his self-criticism, he accepts the validity of an opposing interpretation and concludes that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem “more ‘open-ended’ than the poet's three others, because it is not firmly placed in a perspective of absolute values.”10 Victor Yelverton Haines discusses the poem's contrasting perspectives in his study of the felix culpa doctrine in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He argues that both repentance and joy are proper responses to Gawain's failing; nevertheless, he concludes that Gawain's response is less complete than the court's, for at the poem's end the hero has not come to appreciate the operation of divine grace.11 While also favoring the court's joyous response, Larry Benson sympathizes with Gawain's point of view, attributing the poem's balance to a “characteristically Gothic acceptance of life both as it is and as it should be.”12 J. A. Burrow describes the poem's final scene as an “ambiguous tableau,” but he finds more agreement between conflicting viewpoints than the text truly affords: “The knights and ladies share the baldric with Gawain as a sign both of their corporate renown and their common humanity.”13 Although attempts to harmonize competing viewpoints are appealing, the poem offers no real evidence to suggest that other characters understand Gawain's point of view. On the hero's return, we hear none of the dialogue between Gawain and the court. The laughter at the end of the poem has the effect of distancing the hero from other Round Table knights. Although attempts to reconcile the disparate points of view address the poem's diversity, they impose limits on its open-ended structure by offering a resolution to a problem which is deliberately left unsolved.

The history of scholarship on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates both the diversity of readers and the open nature of the text. No particular response to Gawain's adventures emerges as the most valid. Instead, the final indeterminacy of the poem makes it continually available for new interpretations, keeping it vital despite the passage of centuries.14 Rather than attempting to close its open structure, substituting narrow interpretations for its polysemy, readers should concentrate on further exploring the problems it poses.

In arguing that the structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight frustrates the reader's search for a single meaning, I am rejecting the widely held theory that any tensions readers find in medieval art result from the distorting lens of their modern perspective. D. W. Robertson and his followers claim that only by using exegetical methods to interpret medieval texts can readers restore a sense of historicity.15 In Robertson's view, medieval people perceived their world as hierarchical, without polarities or unresolved questions.16 While this approach illuminates some medieval works of art, especially those of a propagandistic nature, it represents the Middle Ages as more uniform, more orthodox than is warranted. Although some romances promote traditional concepts of reality,17Sir Gawain and the Green Knight forces readers to evaluate fourteenth-century conventions and ideologies. The established idea of medieval readers and their culture needs to be reevaluated, for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reflects tensions between chivalry and Christianity that were part of fourteenth-century experience.

Recent theories of reader reception offer a more flexible approach to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than do exegetical methods. As much as other elements of a text, readers need to be taken into account, for they are integral to the discovery of meaning. Although Robertson claims authenticity for his approach by portraying the medieval reader as an exegete, this narrowly defined role prompts modern interpreters to censor many legitimate readings of medieval texts. While some texts cast readers as exegetes and reward a Robertsonian approach, many, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, do not.

An alternative approach is to attempt to identify the actual fourteenth-century readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nonetheless, speculations about the poem's original audience, though interesting, are likely to remain inconclusive. A. C. Spearing argues that aristocratic details in the poem suggest that courtly life was “known and felt from the inside.”18 Elizabeth Salter and Michael Bennett have produced fascinating studies of the cultural milieu of northwestern aristocratic households, showing how it would support a production like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.19 Nevertheless, Derek Pearsall points out several problems inherent in attempts to identify the poem's original readers: “The audience implied may not be the audience addressed; the circumstances of manuscript survival may be no guide at all to the circumstances of production; and sophistication is a difficult thing to quantify.”20

Fortunately, identifying a specific historical audience is not essential in interpreting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for the poem creates its readers, fictionalizing them in the text.21 This “inscribed” role affects interpretation as much as do other elements, such as character or plot.22 Nevertheless, the reader's role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not uniform. The poem invites readers to adopt a variety of attitudes. Rather than viewing the poem from a single vantage point such as Christian moralism, critics must take into account the shifting perspectives from which the poem allows readers to interpret the action.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows the tradition of oral poetry and addresses readers as if they are physically present, asking them to “lysten” (line 30) and “be stylle” (line 1996). These injunctions should not be taken to imply that the poem was composed orally, or even necessarily that it was designed to be read aloud, though this is possible.23 Instead they indicate that readers are to cast themselves as the audience at the recitation of an Arthurian romance. The fictitious readers, the “ȝe” whom the narrator addresses directly, could include all the members of an aristocratic household: lords, ladies, clerks, and retainers. While actual readers may have been lay or clerical, noble or common, the poem speaks as if their world is not far removed from its courtly milieu. The descriptions of hunting, feasts, and architecture would confirm the values of those who belonged to the aristocracy. At the same time, such details would educate the nonaristocrat.

Since medieval courtly values are inscribed in the poem, modern readers are transported back in history and initiated into that milieu.24 Consider, for example, the description of the New Year's feast at Camelot. The poem gently instructs readers in courtly etiquette while at the same time flattering us with the fiction that we are insiders: “Alle þis mirþe þay maden to þe mete tyme; / When þay had waschen worþyly þay wenten to sete, / Þe best burne ay abof, as hit best semed” (lines 71-73). Readers do not need to be familiar with courtly ritual and precedent to appreciate the decorum of Camelot, for the text demands our approval with the adverb worþyly and the parenthetical remark on seemliness.

During much of the poem fictional readers accept the values of courtly life. Nevertheless, at certain junctures, the poem appeals to the reader in a different character. A striking example of the deliberate rupture of the fictitious reader's consistency occurs at the start of the second fitt. During most of the first fitt the narrator's description of the action calls for our approval. Abruptly the tone changes, as the narrator condemns the hero (lines 495-99):

Gawain watz glad to begin þose gomnez in halle,
Bot þaȝ þe ende be heuy haf ȝe no wonder;
For þaȝ men ben mery in mynde quen þay han mayn drynk,
A ȝere ȝernes ful ȝerne, and ȝeldez neuer lyke,
Þe forme to þe fynisment foldez ful selden.

The first fitt presents “gomnez” favorably as appropriate to courtly festivities. The mirth of Camelot's New Year is part of the decorum of its rituals. But the subsequent criticism of “mayn drynk” wrenches readers out of the courtly mode and demands that we become moralists, viewing the elapsed narrative in another context. Although the tendency in medieval criticism is to assign more validity to the moralist perspective than to the alternate aristocratic point of view, approaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in this way denies its inherent ambiguity. The narrator's comment here undermines the authority of the didactic mode, for nothing in Gawain's impeccable behavior of the first fitt suggests inebriation. Nevertheless, the moralist censure dislodges readers from the comfortable position of unquestioningly accepting the courtly point of view.

The conflicting roles assigned readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight bring into focus competing ethical systems in fourteenth-century culture. While the poem educates us in courtly and moralist values, these major medieval modes of ordering reality can be considerably sharpened through the study of the poem's cultural context. The attempt to regain a sense of the poem's dynamic relationship to the time of its composition is not mere antiquarianism. At its initial reception the major issues of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight held an immediacy which time has diminished. The poem rewards efforts to recover the extratextual setting with a richer sense of its implications. The competing perspectives in the poem are reflected in fourteenth-century approaches to chivalry and death, two major themes which studies of the poem have not yet explored in any depth.

The passage of time has obscured the meaning and importance of chivalry, a central value of the poem. In 1961, in an essay evaluating the state of criticism on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morton Bloomfield suggested that the poem should be connected to the wider issues of the fourteenth century, among which he identified chivalry.25 To date no study has addressed the complex phenomenon of knighthood found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. With the exception of two essays by historians,26 discussions of chivalry in the poem have accepted Huizinga's theory of chivalric decadence in the fourteenth century.27 To view chivalry as degenerate oversimplifies the complex picture that fourteenth-century culture offers. A familiarity with the literature of chivalry illuminates the poem by clarifying the cultural origins of its range of perspective.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demands that its fictitious readers respond not to a single view but to the wide range of chivalric expression found in contemporary texts. The narrator speaks as both a promotor and a detractor of chivalry. Furthermore, diverse responses to chivalry are dramatically realized. The Green Knight expresses the critical challenge offered by moralists; Bertilak's wife operates according to a literal interpretation of French romance; the two courts practice chivalry primarily as a social code; and Gawain exemplifies an idealistic, self-conscious ethical version. The central conflicts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight resonate against the different value systems invoked.

The various evaluations of Gawain's actions encourage readers to look critically at the hero, yet at the same time much of the action is presented from Gawain's point of view, enabling us to identify with him. Through his consciousness readers are initiated into the experience of being a knight. Although other characters may not appreciate the rigorous idealism of his self-definition, extratextual sources identify his intricate synthesis of knightly virtues as one of the many versions of fourteenth-century chivalry. Gawain's quest dramatizes the tensions inherent in conforming to chivalric ideals. Sir Gawain defines his public personality in his pentangle version of chivalry. The pentangle represents an elaborate ethical code by which the hero must continually measure his behavior. Challenges to Gawain's self-definition occur in the tests the plot poses. Like actual fourteenth-century knights, he must maintain the image which his coat of arms proclaims for him, constantly proving his reputation. Writings by medieval knights illuminate the poem because they bring into focus Gawain's struggles.

A major problem Gawain faces in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is his confrontation with his own mortality. Here again, fourteenth-century sources augment our understanding of the hero's dilemma, for in responses to death the tensions between Christianity and chivalry appear most marked. Medieval texts and artefacts relating to death bring into sharper relief the problems with which Gawain struggles.

Although reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with a sense of its historical milieu goes against the classicist habit of universalizing literature,28 an awareness of other fourteenth-century expressions of the problems the poem entertains can only deepen readers' understanding. By drawing attention to significance which might otherwise be missed, extratextual sources enable modern readers to assume more self-consciously the roles the poem assigns.

Since the linear unfolding of the poem's plot influences readers' perception of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I have chosen to discuss the poem fitt by fitt. However, in an attempt to prepare for the complexities I see in the poem, I preface my analysis with a consideration of the cultural context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I examine the ethical system of chivalry, first as it is formulated in various texts and second as it is reflected in the writings of several fourteenth-century knights. I then discuss Christian and chivalric attitudes toward death. Having delineated conflicting fourteenth-century perceptions of knighthood and mortality, I return to the poem to show how the text challenges readers with its presentation of competing ethical systems.


  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2d ed., rev. Norman Davis. All quotations from the poem are from this edition.

  2. A. C. Spearing, The Gawain Poet, p. 187.

  3. J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 103.

  4. Ibid., p. 112.

  5. Ibid., p. 2.

  6. Ibid., pp. 2-3. Beowulf excludes suspense through the use of narrative flashback and flash-forward. It is both thematic and encyclopedic.

  7. Ibid., p. 3.

  8. Arthur T. Broes, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Romance as Comedy,” Xavier University Studies 4 (1965): 35-54. Other readers opposed to Gawain's point of view include Larry Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; R. H. Bowers, “Gawain and the Green Knight as Entertainment,” MLQ 24 (1963): 333-41; Dorothy Everett, Essays on Middle English Literature, p. 79; Richard Hamilton Green, “Gawain's Shield and the Quest for Perfection,” ELH 29 (1962): 121-39; Donald R. Howard, The Three Temptations: Medieval Man in Search of the World, p. 248; Tony Hunt, “Gawain's Fault and the Moral Perspectives of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Trivium 10 (1975): 1-18; Richard M. Trask, “Sir Gawain's Unhappy Fault,” SSF 16 (1979): 1-9.

  9. Peter Christmas, “A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Neophil 58 (1974): 238-47. Other interpretations favoring Gawain's response include R. A. Halpern, “The Last Temptation of Gawain: Hony Soit Qui Mal Pence,” ABR 23 (1972): 353-84; Nicolas Jacobs, “Gawain's False Confession,” ES 51 (1970): p. 434; Robert C. Pierle, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Study in Moral Complexity,” SoQ (1968), 203-11; Gordon M. Shedd, “Knight in Tarnished Armour: The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,MLR 62 (1967): 3-13; Lynn Staley Johnson, The Voice of the Gawain-Poet, pp. 89-91.

  10. Spearing, The Gawain Poet, p. 235.

  11. Victor Yelverton Haines, The Fortunate Fall of Sir Gawain, pp. 119-21.

  12. Benson, Art and Tradition, p. 248.

  13. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain, p. 159.

  14. See Hans Robert Jauss's discussion of open, indeterminate structures in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, p. 69.

  15. D. W. Robertson's approach is set out in A Preface to Chaucer.

  16. Ibid., pp. 3-51.

  17. The genre of courtly romance has been represented as universally celebrating the values of the prevailing system; see Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading; and Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. W. A. Trask. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is frequently interpreted as a statement of traditional morality.

  18. Spearing, The Gawain Poet, p. 8.

  19. Elizabeth Salter, “The Alliterative Revival,” MP 64 (1966): 146-50, 233-37; Michael J. Bennett, Community, Class and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

  20. Derek Pearsall, “The Alliterative Revival: Origins and Social Backgrounds,” in David Lawton, ed., Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background, p. 49.

  21. For discussions of the way in which writers construct roles for their audiences, see Walter J. Ong, “The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA 90 (January, 1975): 9-21; and Iser, The Act of Reading, chap. 2.

  22. Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 33.

  23. Richard Green presents evidence that, along with such things as gambling, caroling, dancing, chess, and cockfighting, public readings were regular courtly entertainment. Richard Firth Green, Poets and Princepleasers, pp. 54-59.

  24. Iser notes that modern readers can reconstruct social norms from a text. Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 74.

  25. Morton W. Bloomfield, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal,” PMLA 76 (1961): 7-19.

  26. Maurice Keen, “Chivalrous Culture in Fourteenth Century England,” Historical Studies 10 (1976): 1-24; and Gervase Mathew, “Ideals of Knighthood in Late Fourteenth Century England,” in Studies in Medieval History Presented to F. M. Powicke, pp. 354-62.

  27. See Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romance of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, p. 4; Charles Moorman, A Knyght There Was, p. 59; Benson, Art and Tradition, p. 244; Benson has since changed his view of chivalry's decadence, as he demonstrates in Malory's Morte Darthur, pp. 137-62; Broes, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” p. 54; John M. Ganim, “Disorientation, Style, and Consciousness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,PMLA 91 (1976): 377; Halpern, “The Last Temptation of Gawain,” pp. 353-84.

  28. The classicist approach to literature is attacked briefly by Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer, p. 3, and at greater length by Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, pp. 13ff.

Gerald Morgan (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27424

SOURCE: Morgan, Gerald. “The Action of the Hunting and Bedroom Scenes,” “The Definition of Gawain's Sinfulness,” and “The Judgment of Gawain's Conduct.” In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the Idea of Righteousness, pp. 106-69. County Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

[In the following essays, Morgan examines how the Gawain-poet demonstrates nobility through character, rather than by action; contends that Gawain's confession is truly pious; and explores the themes of sin and repentance in the work..]



The moral seriousness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is clearly established by the pentangle passage, and in the light of its values commentators have addressed themselves to the judgments of Gawain's conduct made by the Green Knight (2331-68), Gawain himself (2369-88, 2406-38, and 2494-512), and Arthur and his court (2513-21). It is not a matter of dispute that the moral outcome is determined in the series of bedroom exchanges, framed by the hunting scenes, which take place in Fitt III between Gawain and the host's wife. Nevertheless the moral implication of these events, reinforced as it is by the poem's interlocking structure, has not prevented some readers from reducing the bedroom interchanges to the level of light comedy or even farce. Thus Barron believes that Gawain's ‘elaborate and self-conscious piece of play acting’ when he feigns surprise at the lady's presence in his room and crosses himself (1200-1203) provokes laughter and that ‘though we may not be able to define the cause of our laughter, it must materially affect our relationship to the hero hereafter.’1 On the other hand we do not laugh when Lancelot is tested by a lady in the Perlesvaus and also resorts to crossing himself as a means of defence (8401-3, and 8409-11, and p. 223):

Ele sailli sus isnelement e s'en vient eu vergier la ou Lanceloz gisoit. Ele le trova dormant, si s'asiét dejoste lui, si le conmença a regarder en sospirant, … Ele aproche sa boche de la sieue e le besa au meuz e au plus bel q'el sot. iii. foiz, e Lanceloz s'esveilla tantost, si sailli sus e fist croiz sor lui; puis esgarda la damoisele.

The lady jumped up and came to the orchard where Lancelot lay. She found him still asleep, and so she sat down at his side and began to gaze at him, sighing … She lowered her lips to his and kissed him three times as finely and as sweetly as she could, and Lancelot woke up at once and leapt to his feet and crossed himself, and then saw the maiden.2

Clearly there is a difference of religious and moral sensibility here that makes it difficult for the modern reader to invest such actions with the seriousness that they deserve. In the same way Davenport compares the temptation of Gawain to fabliau, and observes that ‘by choosing the wiles of a woman as the means by which Gawain's honour and self-command are tested, the poet indicates a basically comic view of Gawain's failure, and introduces a note of parody into the poem’ (The Art, p.139). Such comparisons are essentially misconceived, and fail to give due moral weight to the values of chastity and courtesy. At the same time there is a violation of the poem's imaginative integrity as expressed in the idea of the pentangle.

It should indeed be axiomatic that the hunting and bedroom scenes are to be understood in relation to the poem's idea, for to repeat Aquinas (ST, la 15.2):

Ratio autem alicujus totius haberi non potest, nisi habeantur propriae rationes eorum ex quibus totum constituitur; sicut aedificator speciem domus concipere non potest, nisi apud ipsum esset propria ratio cujuslibet partium ejus.

Now a plan governing a whole necessarily involves knowing what is special to the parts which make up the whole; just as an architect cannot plan a house without knowing what is special to each part of it.

The idea of the pentangle establishes two fundamental principles, namely that nobility is a complex unity made up of interrelated parts and that, relative to other men, Gawain stands for the highest perfection of human nobility. The organization of the hunting and bedroom scenes builds upon and reflects these principles. The bedroom scenes are set within the hunting scenes and linked to them by the Exchange of Winnings agreement. The Exchange of Winnings agreement in its turn is set within the Beheading Game, and these too are linked, for the outcome of the Beheading Game is dependent upon the outcome of the Exchange of Winnings agreement. By means of this complex, interlocking structure of events there is a comprehensive testing of Gawain's trawþe. Our point of departure is Gawain's physical, moral, and spiritual excellence. This being so, the traditional contrast between the health of the hunting field and the sinfulness of the bedroom has to be subordinated to our sense of that excellence.

Moreover, the poet has once more given us the means of measuring that excellence, for Gawain's actions at this point are to be judged by their conformity to the terms of the Exchange of Winnings agreement. As in any proper game, the rules are set out with the greatest possible clarity and precision. On Gawain's part there are four elements to be observed; first, he will remain in bed; second, he will get up in time for mass; third, he will go to his food; and fourth, he will be entertained by the companionship of the host's wife until the host himself returns (1096-99). We can see for ourselves how these conditions are fulfilled by Gawain on the three successive days. The appearance of the lady in Gawain's bedroom is not only a violation of the rules of courtesy, but also of the implied pattern of the Exchange of Winnings agreement itself. Nevertheless, although the appearance of the lady in Gawain's bedroom complicates the predicted pattern of action, it does not in fact succeed in dislocating it. For all the difficulties created by the lady's intervention, Gawain remains true to the pattern of action required of him by his host.

At the same time the lord plays his part to the full in the hunting field. He is true to his word in getting up early and going off to the hunt (1133-38), and he does not do so without a fitting display of courtesy and piety (1135). Once again the pattern is repeated on the following days (1412-16, and 1688-96). The lord is not a poacher (like the man in The Parlement of the Thre Ages), but a true sportsman who respects the laws and conventions of hunting. He observes the close season, and so does not interfere with the male deer (1154-57). Although a great multitude of deer is slain, the slaughter is controlled and not wanton, being of ‘hyndez barayne’ (1320) and ‘of dos and of oþer dere’ (1322). The lord is open and generous when it comes to the exchange of winnings itself. He does not disguise his delight as a sportsman in his achievement, but he does not exult to the discomfiture of a worthy opponent, for he conducts himself towards Gawain ‘al godly in gomen’ (1376). In all this we are reminded that the best games are those which are suffused with sportsmanship and in which the opponents are well matched. We can see that the values of the host are not essentially different from those of Gawain himself as they are set out in the pentangle passage. Indeed the equality of host and guest is revealed in the discriminating generosity that Gawain displays towards the host on each successive evening. The venison is the best that he has seen in seven years in the season of winter (1381-82); it is the biggest quantity of flesh that he has ever seen on a boar (1629-32); and the embarrassment of ‘þis foule fox felle’ (1944) is a matter to be passed over as quickly as possible (1948-49).

The notion of equality between Gawain and the lord is sustained in the actual exchanges of the winnings themselves on the three successive evenings. The importance of these exchanges is underlined by the public ceremony that attends them, for they do not take place until the whole court has been assembled (1372-75, and 1623-25). Even allowing for the differences of the third evening (and they are significant differences) the transaction remains a public transaction (1924-27). The lord's success on the first day is matched by the kiss that Gawain gives ‘as comlyly as he couþe awyse’ (1389). It is not hard for us to believe that it could be superior to the lord's winnings (1392-94), but it is right for Gawain not to respond to the lord's promptings on this score. It is not for him to reveal to the husband the impropriety of the wife. Gawain is not bound by any promise to declare the source of his winnings (1395-97), and by his generous acknowledgment of the lord's success in the deer hunt has already shown himself to be abiding by the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement. The awesome prize of the boar on the second day does not diminish but on the contrary reveals the true worth of the two kisses that Gawain in his turn delivers to the lord (1639-40). Gawain is justified in claiming equality here: ‘Now ar we euen … / Of alle þe couenauntes þat we knyt’ (1641-42). On the third day Gawain's three kisses (1936-37) seem to earn for him a great advantage, for they are, as the lord truly acknowledges them to be, ‘suche prys þinges / … suche þre cosses / so gode’ (1945-47). Yet there remains an equality in this exchange too despite the superficial inequality, and it is an equality that is not entirely to Gawain's disadvantage. The lord is dissatisfied, but the fox did not get away from its pursuers. Indeed a ceremonial tribute or salute is paid to the fox as a fitting adversary (1916-17):

Þe rich rurd þat þer watz raysed for Renaude saule
                                        with lote.(3)

In the same way the worth of Gawain's three kisses is not wholly undermined by his failure in the matter of the girdle.

The equality that is explicit in the Exchange of Winnings enables us to estimate the kisses that Gawain receives and exchanges at their true value. It is impossible to accept the view put forward by Davenport (The Art, p. 139) that they expose the hero to ridicule:

The receiving and giving back of Gawain's gains, the kisses from the Lady, both expose him to ridicule: as receiver Gawain is a parody of the youthful, chivalrous lover as he lies in bed using his wits to fend off the importunities of the bold, provincial lady; as giver Gawain is made to look a ninny as he solemnly plants kisses on the Lord's teasing face.

Malory's Lancelot sees no dishonour, and presumably no foolishness, in giving a kiss when he resists the temptation to love-making during his imprisonment by Mellyagaunce (The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, 1136/18-27):

So she cam to hym agayne the same day that the batayle shulde be and seyde,

‘Sir Launcelot, bethynke you, for ye ar to hard-harted. And therefore, and ye wolde but onys kysse me, I shulde delyver you and your armoure, and the beste horse that was within sir Mellyagaunce stable.’

‘As for to kysse you,’ seyde sir Launcelot, ‘I may do that and lese no worshyp. And wyte you well, and I undirstood there were ony disworshyp for to kysse you, I wold nat do hit.’

And than he kyssed hir.

Further, the kisses exchanged between Gawain and the lady can be seen to correspond to a pattern of courtly decorum, as J. Nicholls has observed.4 The only kiss on the first day is that of farewell (1305-8); the two kisses on the second day are ‘a delayed gesture of greeting’ (1504-5)5 and an act of farewell (1555-57); and the three kisses on the third day are of greeting (1757-58), pretended farewell after rejection in love (1794-96), and final leave-taking (1868-69). Above all the public exchange of the kisses thus received is a means of defining Gawain's moral excellence. The first kiss that Gawain bestows on the lord is given comlyly (1389), and this indicates the courtesy that is the dominant note of the first day's interchanges between Gawain and the lady. The same idea is present on the second day, for Gawain kisses the lord hendely (1639). The kisses that the lady gives Gawain on the third day are passionately delivered, for she exhausts every feminine art and feeling, and this is reflected by the vigour with which Gawain bestows the kisses in the Exchange of Winnings (1937):

As sauerly and sadly as he hem sette couþe.

To win kisses so entirely pure and passionate from a lady so beautiful, determined, and clever in the circumstances that Gawain finds himself involves moral action of quite exceptional courtesy and chastity. It is this combination of virtues that sets Gawain apart from a hero like Yder, for Yder succeeds in preserving his chastity only by means of kicking his temptress in the belly (Yder, 370-80):

E Yder respont brefment qu'il ment
E qu'il n'a de s'amor ke fere;
Ançois li loe ensus a treire
E qu'el se gart qu'il ne la fiere.
Quanques il puet se treit ariere,
Mes ele se treit tot dis soentre.
Yder la fiert del pié al ventre
Si qu'el chei ariere enverse
E qu'el en devint tote perse.
Jo nel sai pas de ço reprendre
Kar il ne se poeit defendre.

Yder replied briefly that she was lying and that he was not interested in her love; instead he advised her to go away and to be careful that he did not strike her. He drew away from her as much as possible, but she drew closer immediately. Yder kicked her in the belly so that she fell backwards and her colour drained away. I cannot criticize him for this as he was unable to defend himself in any other way.

Yder is a sophisticated romance, and the poet's defence of his hero's conduct is not simply to be dismissed. The cruelty of Yder's action is to be explained by the desperate peril he is in, for the virtue of chastity has to overcome powerful and almost irresistible desires. The courtesy that Gawain manages to display in such circumstances is in no respect worthy of laughter but only of the highest admiration.

The equality of host and guest is shown above all by the fellowship that they share. Thus the two ‘laȝed, and made hem blyþe / Wyth lotez þat were to lowe’ (1398-99) at the end of the first day, and this pattern of fellowship is repeated on the two succeeding days (1623-24, 1680-85, and 1952-59). The lord is not, however, merely Gawain's equal in an open competition, but is superior to him in his knowledge of the true significance of the events that are taking place. The lord is to be the judge of Gawain's conduct, and the poet anticipates for us the judgmental function of Fitt IV by giving to the lord on the evening of the second day of competition words that carry a special authority and resonance (1679): ‘For I haf fraysted þe twys, and faythful I fynde þe’. These words are conceived by the poet in no more of a naturalistic spirit than those he has given to the wife (1283-87), but they are important in giving moral shape and weight to the events that he describes.

Thus the terms of the Exchange of Winnings agreement, the repeated actions, and the interlocking structure are the artistic means by which the poet develops and clarifies his meaning. These are the elements that we must pay attention to ourselves if we are not to disturb the subtle moral and imaginative balance of forces which he has thereby created.


We must also take note of the primacy of another artistic principle, namely the priority of action to character. A character is to be perceived in the first place as the fitting agent of an action of some kind. This is not to say that character is unimportant, but only that it is secondary and unintelligible except in relation to the action. Although this may be a difficult principle for the modern reader to accept, it is a principle of great antiquity, most memorably asserted by Aristotle in the Poetics (6):

Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action.6

What is applied by Aristotle to tragedy is no less applicable to narrative poetry, and it is so applied by Tasso in the Discorsi (Book III) at the end of the sixteenth century (II, 228 and p. 67):

… presupponendo che la favola sia il fine del poeta (come afferma Aristotele, e niuno ha sin qui negato) …

… assuming the fable to be the goal of the poet (as Aristotle affirms, and no one has denied to this day) …

Once we begin to look to the relation between the hunting and bedroom scenes in Sir Gawain in terms of action rather than or as prior to character, that is, with character as fittingly subordinated to action, then much begins to make sense that would otherwise be obscure. It is by giving priority to character over action that Gollancz concludes that ‘Gawain'’s conscience makes him unwilling to prolong discussion of the exchange’ (p. 124) on the third day, and it is for the same reason that he is followed by a critic so sensitive as Burrow (A Reading, p. 111). It is to be noted that Burrow assumes that the courteous Gawain can act brusquely on occasion since he knows that even the most courteous people sometimes lapse from the highest standards of courtesy. But the Gawain-poet cannot present Gawain as discourteous other than by a specific violation of the idea of nobility in terms of which his narrative is organized. And if it were so that Gawain has been discourteous, the discourtesy would need to be brought before the Green Knight for judgment in the same way as the violation of fidelity through the concealment of the girdle. In the light of the principle of the primacy of action we may now turn directly to the corresponding patterns of action in the three sets of hunting scenes and bedroom scenes.

On the first day of hunting the deer are quick to sense danger; they try to escape to the high ground, but are driven back by the ring of beaters (1150-53). It is indeed in this way that they are eventually slaughtered at the low-lying hunting stations (1167-73). In the same way Gawain is quick to sense danger (1182-83), and he too tries to get to safer ground, but is encircled in his bed by the determined purpose of the lady (1218-25). There is no doubt, as Davis observes (p. 107), a contrast between the noise of the hunt (1158-66) and the stillness of the bedroom (1182-94). But stillness is not to be taken for peace. Gawain is being hunted with the stealth that is necessary, as we have seen, in a deer hunt (PTA, 40-42), and remains in deadly danger. The Master of Game (pp. 8-11) emphasizes the great joy of hunting, and especially the hunting of the hart (see also p. 29), and this emphasis is strongly present in the Gawain-poet's account (1174-77):

Þe lorde for blys abloy
Ful oft con launce and lyȝt,
And drof þat day wyth joy
Thus to þe derk nyȝt.

Again, the joy of the chase is matched by the joy in the bedroom. The lady exudes a surface gaiety and charm (1208-12) and Gawain responds in kind (1213-17). Indeed, throughout this first interchange these qualities are continually stressed (1245, 1247, 1248, and 1263). The issue of the first day finally turns on a question of courtesy, for Gawain's reputation for courtesy is challenged by the lady (1290-1304).7 Here is another direct link with the framing hunting scene, for the cutting up of the deer (1323-64) is entirely a matter of courtesy. First of all, the correct order must be observed, and this is underlined by the series of deictic adverbs, syþen (1330, 1332, 1339, 1354, and 1363) and þen(ne) (1333, 1337, 1340, 1353, 1356, and 1357). Secondly, skill is required, and this is emphasized by a series of evaluative adverbs and adverbial phrases focusing on the swiftness, deftness, and correctness of the procedure: lystily (1334), grayþely (1335), radly (1341, and 1343), verayly (1342), by resoun (1344), and swyft (1354). Thirdly, there is a mastery of the technical vocabulary, as for example in the use of querré (1324) and asay (1328). And fourthly, each huntsman gets the portion of the deer to which he is properly entitled (1358): ‘Vche freke for his fee, as fallez for to haue’. Here is true courtesy in the behaviour that fully matches the occasion. Hunting is a proper activity for men of a medieval court, and the cutting up of the deer is a proper concern of huntsmen; hence ‘þe best boȝed þerto with burnez innoghe’ (1325). Moreover, the propriety of the hunt is observed from the beginning to the end by the accompaniment of the fitting sounds. The uncoupling of the hounds is signified by three long single notes, ‘þre bare mote’ (1141). The death of the deer and the return home are marked by a like formality; ‘baldely þay blw prys’ (1362) and ‘strakande ful stoutly’ (1364). The significance of this display of nobility is brought out by Malory in The Book of Sir Tristram (682/25-683/4):

And every day sir Trystram wolde go ryde an-huntynge, for he was called that tyme the chyeff chacer of the worlde and the noblyst blower of an horne of all maner of mesures. For, as bookis reporte, of sir Trystram cam all the good termys of venery and of huntynge, and all the syses and mesures of all blowyng wyth an horne; and of hym we had fyrst all the termys of hawkynge, and whyche were bestis of chace and bestis of venery, and whyche were vermyns; and all the blastis that longed to all maner of game: fyrste to the uncoupelynge, to the sekynge, to the fyndynge, to the rechace, to the flyght, to the deth, and to strake; and many other blastis and termys, that all maner jantylmen hath cause to the worldes ende to prayse sir Trystram and to pray for his soule. AMEN, SAYDE SIR THOMAS MALLEORRÉ.

Here we see the importance that is attached to the development and mastery of the correct terms, and it is in relation to the correct terms that the bedroom and hunting scenes of the first day are finally linked. For just as Gawain is concerned ‘lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes’ (1295), so the poet is anxious to ensure that he has distinguished between the avanters (1342) and the numbles proper (1347-48):

And þat þay neme for þe noumbles bi nome, as I trowe, bi kynde.

The second day's hunt is of sterner stuff, as is at once evident from the uncoupling of the hounds ‘among þo þornez’ (1419). The course of the hunt is no longer over hills and dales (1151-52), but over marshy ground amid rough cliffs (1429-36). The boar is a ferocious adversary (1437-53, and 1571-80), and he makes even brave men flinch (1460-63, and 1573-76). Similarly, there is a shift in tone between the first and second day's bedroom scenes, for on the second day there is a greater directness in the confrontation between the lady and Gawain. The lady comes to Gawain with a clear purpose (1472-76), but Gawain is now ready for her (1477). Further, the analogy with the action of the hunt is once again clear. As the arrows bounce off the boar (1454-59), so Gawain's words of greeting meet a swift reply (1478): ‘And ho hym ȝeldez aȝayn ful ȝerne of hir wordez’, and the lady undeterred returns to the attack (1479-80). The debate now turns not only on the propriety of kissing (1481-94), a matter of courtesy, but also on the admissibility of the use of force (1495-1500), a matter that bears on a knight's courage. The combination of these two virtues in Gawain is seen in his initial response to the lady's importunity whereby she seeks to elicit from him an inappropriate forwardness in kissing (1492):

‘Do way,’ quoþ þat derf mon, ‘my dere, þat speche.’

But the lady's argument, as Burrow has shown (A Reading, pp. 90-91), is more subtle than it first appears. For a lady to refuse Gawain would be churlish (1497) and, according to Andreas Capellanus, De amore (I.11), the resistance of a peasant woman to amorous embraces is not to be overcome ‘nisi modicae saltem coactionis medela praecedat ipsarum opportuna pudoris’.8 The underlying reality of the argument is acknowledged by Malory in the account of the begetting of Torre by Pellinore on a maid, subsequently a cowherd's wife (The Tale of King Arthur, 101/10-15):

Anone the wyff was fette forth, which was a fayre houswyff. And there she answerde Merlion full womanly, and there she tolde the kynge and Merlion that whan she was a mayde and wente to mylke hir kyne, ‘there mette with me a sterne knyght, and half be force he had my maydynhode. And at that tyme he begate my sonne Torre.’

Malory has here softened his French source, which represents Pellinore as having entirely disregarded the maid's will, u je vausisse ou non (Works, p. 1326). Sidney's Cecropia shows no such faint-heartedness. She puts the argument for violence to her son Amphialus, languishing in a hopeless love for the heavenly Philoclea, with a brutal frankness (Arcadia, 1590; III.17.3):

Tush, tush sonne (said Cecropia) if you say you love, but withall you feare; you feare lest you should offend; offend? & how know you, that you should offend? because she doth denie: denie? Now by my truth; if your sadnes would let me laugh, I could laugh hartily, to see that yet you are ignorant, that No, is no negative in a womans mouth. My sonne, beleeve me, a woman, speaking of women: a lovers modesty among us is much more praised, then liked … above all, mark Helen daughter to Jupiter, who could never brooke her manerly-wooing Menelaus, but disdained his humblenes, & lothed his softnes. But so well she could like the force of enforcing Paris, that for him she could abide what might be abidden. But what? Menelaus takes hart; he recovers her by force; by force carries her home; by force injoies her; and she, who could never like him for serviceablenesse, ever after loved him for violence.9

Amphialus is interrupted by a messenger before he can answer these arguments. But Sidney knows that they require no answer. Their wickedness is sufficiently vouched for by the wickedness of the one who delivers them. For Gawain, too, there can be no compromise with such arguments even in a qualified form (1498-1500):

‘Ye, be God,’ quoþ Gawayn, ‘good is your speche,
Bot þrete is vnþryuande in þede þer I lende,
And vche gift þat is geuen not with goud wylle.’

The values of the pentangle forbid any possible use of force in winning a woman's love, whether lady or peasant, and Gawain's rebuttal of the lady's proposition is thus direct and forceful in itself. Gawain stands his ground here as does the boar against its adversary (see 1450-51, 1562-66, and 1582, and The Master of Game, p. 49), but at the same time he offers the lady no discourtesy (1501-7). The lady is obliged to retreat, and pretends in the process to be fearful of offending one who can take against such propositions in so decided a way (1508-9). She shifts her position now from that of teacher (1481-91) to that of pupil (1525-34). This is a stratagem that Gawain recognizes in his urbane reply (1535-39), and undermines by the effective use of the rhetorical device of gradatio (1540-45). Thus the lady's imposture is exposed and she is forced to break off the contest of the second day (1554-57). But for all the surface charm we are left in no doubt of the strenuousness of the moral struggle that has taken place (1549-50):

Þus hym frayned þat fre, and fondet hym ofte,
For to haf wonnen hym to woȝe, what-so scho þoȝt ellez.

But, like the lord's killing of the boar (1583-96), Gawain's triumph on the second day is decisive (1551-53):

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer halue, nawþer þay wysten
                              bot blysse.

On the third day the fox leads the huntsmen a merry dance, dodging and doubling back (1707-8), but when he thinks that he is safe he runs into more trouble (1709-14). He is forced into the open (1715-18), rebuked by the pursuing hounds (1719-25) and given no respite (1726-28). On the third day Gawain too is under attack from all sides. The lady now exploits her sexual charms to the full (1733-41), and rebukes the knight for sleeping in his bed (1742-47). This is doubly unfair, for Gawain is preoccupied by anxious fears of impending death (1748-54). He has to manoeuvre in this way and that to avoid the dangers that beset him, at once of unchastity, discourtesy, and infidelity (1770-75). He does not yield to unchastity either by admitting to a previous love (1788-91) or by acknowledging the lady's love in offering her a love-token (1805-7) or by accepting from her a love-token (1821-23). Nor has he been moved by the great value of the precious ring that she first offers him (1817-20). His rejection of all the lady's blandishments and importunities is complete (1839-41):

‘And þerfore, I pray yow, displese yow noȝt,
And lettez be your bisinesse, for I bayþe hit yow neuer
                              to graunte.’

But, like Reynard before him, when he thinks that he has escaped from the danger he finds himself in most deadly peril. The lady, like the titleres at Reynard's tail (1726), presses relentlessly. Suddenly she shifts her ground, and is prepared to vilify Gawain (1846-47) with a charge of covetousness of which it is already apparent that he is free (1826-29). She appeals instead (with unerring aim) to the knight's fears for his life (1849-54), and as he struggles with the contending emotions of fear and relief (1855-58) she prevails upon him to make that fateful promise which marks the limit of his virtue (1863-65): ‘þe leude hym acordez / þat neuer wyȝe schulde hit wyt, iwysse, bot þay twayne / for noȝte’. Thus Gawain is taken in the trap, for from the contradiction of the promises thus made to the lady and the lord there is no escape.


The intricate and delicately balanced structure of Sir Gawain is nowhere more evident than in the enclosing of the bedroom scenes within the hunting scenes, and the parallel development of the action of the three days. The repeated actions are not only significant in themselves, but also in the very fact of being repeated. Each single action demands to be viewed in relation to the larger pattern of which it is a part.10 Now the question of the symbolic value of the hunts ought not to be considered apart from the parallels that exist between them in the progressive development of the fable. If one of the hunts is symbolically significant, all three are likely to be symbolically significant; if two of the hunts are not symbolically significant, why should we assume that a third which is structurally parallel is symbolically divergent? Here is an aesthetic objection to Burrow's reading (A Reading, p. 98) in which he posits symbolic value on the third day only in violation of the poem's structure, and is led as a result to violate the moral significance of the poem by predicating cunning of Gawain (A Reading, p. 112). Our first principle, then, in respect of the poem's symbolism, is that we seek to identify a consistent symbolic relation between the hunting and bedroom scenes corresponding to the parallel narration of the events of the three days.

In the second place the symbolism of deer, boar, and fox is not to be pressed to the point of identity any more than the symbolism of the pentangle. To look for an identity between symbol and referent is to deny the very meaning of a symbol, which lies not in denotation but in suggestiveness. Judgment is always required of the reader in knowing how far and in what directions to press the potential significance of a symbol. To look for a symbolic identity between Gawain and the deer, boar, and fox respectively is an error of judgment, akin in many ways to that of those who insist upon reading allegorical works in terms of a one-for-one correspondence in the levels of meaning. In the present instance the judgmental error is based upon the elevation of character at the expense of fable, and the consequent imposition of a psychological frame of reference alien to the poet's exposition of his abstract, co-ordinating idea. If we are not to posit a deer-like timidity of Gawain on the first day, and a boar-like ferocity of him on the second day, by what imaginative logic are we to posit a fox-like cunning of him on the third day? Commentators who recoil from the ideas of timidity and ferocity as applied to Gawain should recoil also from the application to him of cunning, and for the same reason, namely its inaptness. The symbolism, as is only too evident in the case of the fox, has a moral value, but being moral it is generalized. We may contrast in this respect the symbol of the pentangle and its value of nobility or righteousness. The poet intends to apply this symbol directly to Gawain and he goes out of his way to do so, enforcing the relation with a syllogistic precision (623-35). The symbols of deer, boar, and fox are not fastened on Gawain in this way, and we must assume that the poet (no less than his modern readers) wishes to avoid the absurdity of doing so.

At the same time no reader can deny the attribution of cunning to the fox—‘so Reniarde watz wylé’ (1728)—nor its relevance to the bedroom scene on the third day. It is a good point at which to examine the way in which the symbolism works. The fox is cunning, it is true, but no less cunning are the hounds that pursue him. And it is the cunning of the hounds that the poet first of all chooses to draw to our attention (1699-1700):

Summe fel in þe fute þer þe fox bade,
Traylez ofte a traueres bi traunt of her wyles.

It is clear that the symbolic value of cunning is diffused rather than concentrated; cunning is relevant to the fable at this point, not the cunning of any particular agent in it. The idea of cunning can be applied, therefore, with perfect consistency to the lady's actions. Thus of the fox it is said (1727):

Ofte he watz runnen at, when he out rayked,

and shortly afterwards of the lady making her purposeful way to Gawain's bedroom (1735):

Bot ros hir vp radly, rayked hir þeder.

The coincidence of terms here, linking the fox and the lady, is well designed by the poet to alert his audience to the moral significance of the events that he is about to describe. And again, whereas the fox is cunning, he can hardly be called cunning for seeking to avoid the blow from the hunter's sword. There is no living creature, cunning or simply prudent, that would not instinctively seek to save its life in this fashion.11 But the notion of cunning has become so imprecisely generalized that Savage is able to characterize the death of the fox as follows:

… the fox resorts to a bit of trickery, and that bit of trickery is the very cause of his undoing. The position of Gawain is the same: in his desire to avoid death from the impending blow, he resorts to trickery, and his recourse to duplicity proves the sole and only cause of his disgrace. Thus the two situations closely resemble one another.12

But the resemblance consists in the instinct for life itself. Gawain suddenly sees in the offer of the girdle the hope of escape from certain death, and in grasping at that hope is undone by the lady's cunning (1859-63). If there is a direct moral comparison between Gawain and the fox it is with the fox as a thief, for the fox was ‘ofte þef called’ (1725) and Gawain in withholding the girdle from the lord is technically and objectively guilty of theft. The resemblance between Gawain and the fox can go no further, for the knight ‘voyded of vche vylany’ (634) is not to be characterized by cunning.13 It is here above all that the reader needs to exercise some tact in not pressing an analogy beyond the bounds that a poet has devised for it.

Thus although the idea of cunning is obviously relevant to the action of the third day, it is limited and defined by that action and does not explain every part of that action. And in the same way, as we have seen, the caution of the deer and the fierceness of the boar are analogies that cannot be pressed beyond certain definite limits. Indeed, the moral issue of the third day is in fact for Gawain one of courage rather than cunning. The evidence for this is that the poet reminds us of Gawain's need for the help of the Virgin Mary (1768-69):

Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
Nif Maré of hir knyȝt mynne.(14)

The immediate connection of the Virgin Mary is with the virtue of courage rather than chastity. This fact is established in the pentangle passage (644-50), and once again we must seek to do justice to the particularities of this poem (and especially to the matter belonging to its co-ordinating idea) rather than to more general considerations. Courage is necessary in the man who remains continent, for continence is nothing other than the resistance of evil passions, namely the desires and pleasures of touch. Moderation is above all most difficult in respect of these passions, and hence the virtue of temperance is principally concerned with them (Aquinas, ST, 2a 2ae 141.4). But since temperance is the moderation of the desires and pleasures of touch, it is as a consequence also directed to the sorrows that result from the absence of such pleasures (ST, 2a 2ae 141.3). And it is in the endurance of these sorrows that the virtue of courage, or more particularly perseverance (ST, 2a 2ae 137.2 ad 1), is called for. It is hardly possible to overstate the courage that Gawain displays here, for he has at the same time to contend with fears for his life, and these fears undoubtedly make him more susceptible to the lady's charms. The reason is that the presence of strong emotion predisposes one to the arousal of other emotions. Thus a man moved by fear is more likely to be moved by love than a man who is not moved by fear.15 Hence it is courage that Gawain shows when he responds decisively to the most powerful of the sexual temptations that the lady sets before him (1776):

‘God schylde,’ quoþ þe schalk, ‘þat schal not befalle!’

And it is in respect of the virtue of courage that Gawain's moral fall corresponds to the fox's death. The fox in seeking to save his life from the blow of the hunter's sword retreats into the jaws of the pack of hounds (1898-1905). And Gawain, seeking to avoid death from the blow of the axe at the Green Chapel, falls into the trap cunningly laid for him by the lady (1855-67). No wonder he is later to rue upon the ‘wyles of wymmen’ (2415).




In a poem so intricately constructed and coherently developed as Sir Gawain a single mistake in interpretation is liable to have far-reaching consequences. Such is the case in respect of the identification of pité, the final virtue of the fifth pentad, with its modern equivalent of ‘pity’, rather than with ‘piety’. Tasso points to the importance of piety in the concept of chivalric perfection, and also perhaps to a reluctance to acknowledge it, when he writes that ‘chi vuol formare l'idea d'un perfetto cavaliere, non so per qual cagione gli nieghi questa lode di pietà e di religione’ (Mazzali, I, 193).16 The issue of piety assumes central importance when we come to Gawain's confession of his sins immediately after the acceptance of the girdle (1876-84), and it is no surprise that this passage has become the centre of critical controversy.

Upon the hunting and bedroom scenes the poet has imposed the idea of righteousness as symbolized by the pentangle, and hence he illustrates among other virtues the virtue of piety. This is evident in the conduct of both Bertilak and Gawain. On three successive days Bertilak goes to mass before he sets off for the hunting-field (1135-36, 1414-16, and 1690):

Ete a sop hastyly, when he hade herde masse,
With bugle to bent-felde he buskez bylyue.
So þat þe mete and þe masse watz metely delyuered,
Þe douthe dressed to þe wod, er any day sprenged,
                                        to chace.
After messe a morsel he and his men token.

On the first and second days Gawain also goes to mass (1309-11 and 1558), but on the third day he goes to confession (1876-84):

Syþen cheuely to þe chapel choses he þe waye,
Preuély aproched to a prest, and prayed hym þere
Þat he wolde lyste his lyf and lern hym better
How his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld seye heþen.
Þere he schrof hym schyrly and schewed his mysdedez,
Of þe more and þe mynne, and merci besechez,
And of absolucioun he on þe segge calles;
And he asoyled hym surely and sette hym so clene
As domezday schulde haf ben diȝt on þe morn.(17)

The difference in Gawain's action on the third day is explained by the fact that he is in imminent danger of death. The poet significantly calls our attention to Gawain's anxious thoughts about the blow at the Green Chapel when the lady first enters his bedroom on this fateful third day (1750-54). Gawain's response to his justified fears of death is entirely proper, for in the Middle Ages the Church required a public confession of sins by those in expectation of death (ST, 3a Suppl., 6.5):

Et quia ea quae sunt de necessitate salutis, tenetur homo in hac vita implere, ideo si periculum mortis immineat, etiam per se loquendo, obligatur aliquis ad confessionem faciendam tunc …

Moreover, since man is bound to fulfil in this life those things that are necessary for salvation, therefore, if he be in danger of death, he is bound, even absolutely, then and there to make his confession …18

It is necessary that sacramental confession should be made to a priest (Suppl., 8.1). If circumstances make such a confession impossible, confession can in the hour of need be made to a layman (Suppl., 8.2):

… et ita etiam minister poenitentiae, cui confessio est facienda ex officio, est sacerdos; sed in necessitate etiam laicus vicem sacerdotis supplet, ut ei confessio fieri possit.

In like manner the minister of Penance, to whom, in virtue of his office, confession should be made, is a priest; but in a case of necessity even a layman may take the place of a priest, and hear a person's confession.

The common occurrence of such a need accounts for the spread in the fifteenth century of the Latin treatises known generically as the Ars Moriendi, and also for its translation into English as The Book of the Craft of Dying. At the end of the century Caxton reflects the continuing importance of deathbed confession by his publication of two related treatises, The Art and Craft to Know Well to Die (1490) and the Ars Moriendi (?1491).19 A central part of all these versions is the interrogation of the dying man; indeed The Book of the Craft of Dying and The Art and Craft to Know Well to Die contain two sets of interrogations, drawn respectively from St Anselm's Admonitio Morienti and Gerson's Opusculum Tripertitum.20 If circumstances are such as to make public confession of any kind impossible, whether to priest or layman, true contrition with the intention of making confession is sufficient (Suppl., 2.3 sed contra and 6.1):

Nullum peccatum dimittitur, nisi quis justificetur: sed ad justificationem requiritur contritio …

… no sin is forgiven a man unless he be justified. But justification requires contrition …

Et ideo ad culpae remissionem et actualis, et originalis requiritur sacramentum Ecclesiae, vel actu susceptum, vel saltem voto, quando articulus necessitatis, non contemptus, sacramentum excludit …

Wherefore for the remission of both actual and original sin, a sacrament of the Church is necessary, received either actually, or at least in desire, when a man fails to receive the sacrament actually, through an unavoidable obstacle, and not through contempt.

There is no question at this time of justification by faith alone. Gawain therefore fulfils a religious obligation when he makes a complete confession of his sins on the eve of his departure from Bertilak's castle. In his confession, therefore, we have an outstanding example of his piety. But it is no more than we should expect in a knight so aptly symbolized by the device of the pentangle on his shield and coat armour. Thus we see at this point in the narrative an importance attached to piety that corresponds to the importance claimed for it in the pentangle passage. It is indeed central to the poet's moral and spiritual exposition.

Moral acts are the products of free and deliberate movements of the will, and their corresponding habits or virtues presuppose such freedom and deliberation. An act that is grudging cannot for that reason be described as morally good. Virtue requires not only that we do what is good, but that we do it by reason of its goodness. The mark of a virtuous act, therefore, is that it is performed promptly and with pleasure (ST, 1a 2ae 107.4). Gawain's attendance at mass and at confession amounts to more than a religious formality. They are the moral acts of the virtue of piety, and so the poet observes of them that they are performed with promptness and pleasure (1309-11, 1558, and 1872-76):

And he ryches hym to ryse and rapes hym sone,
Clepes to his chamberlayn, choses his wede,
Boȝez forth, quen he watz boun, blyþely to masse.
Then ruþes hym þe renk and ryses to þe masse.
When ho watz gon, Sir Gawayn gerez hym sone,
Rises and riches hym in araye noble,
Lays vp þe luf-lace þe lady hym raȝt,
Hid hit ful holdely, þer he hit eft fonde.
Syþen cheuely to þe chapel choses he þe waye …

Such promptness on Gawain's part has reference to more than the habit of virtue in general, but is the special mark of the act of devotion, the internal act of the virtue of religion, that is, in our sense, piety (ST, 2a 2ae 82.1):

Unde devotio nihil aliud esse videtur quam voluntas quaedam prompte tradendi se ad ea quae pertinent ad Dei famulatum. Unde dicitur (Exodus, 35.20), quod multitudo filiorum Israel obtulit mente promptissima atque devota primitias Domino.

Devotion, therefore, is nothing other than the will to give oneself promptly to those things that pertain to the service of God. Hence, it is written, everyone offered first fruits to God with a most prompt and ready heart.

The importance of promptness in carrying out religious observances is signified in the words that Gawain uses in his anxious prayer to God and the Virgin Mary on Christmas Eve (753-58):

And þerfore sykyng he sayde, ‘I beseche þe, lorde,
And Mary, þat is myldest moder so dere,
Of sum herber þer heȝly I myȝt here masse,
Ande þy matynez to-morne, mekely I ask,
And þerto prestly I pray my pater and aue and crede.’

A fundamental moral principle, derived from Aristotle's Ethics, is that the virtues are interconnected. The principle is explained by Aristotle in terms of the possession of the virtue of prudence (Ethics, VI.13):

But in this way we may also refute the dialectical argument whereby it might be contended that the virtues exist in separation from each other; the same man, it might be said, is not best equipped by nature for all the virtues, so that he will have already acquired one when he has not yet acquired another. This is possible in respect of the natural virtues, but not in respect of those in respect of which a man is called without qualification good; for with the presence of the one quality, practical wisdom (i.e. prudence), will be given all the virtues.21

It is this conception of the virtues as interconnected, as we have seen, that the symbolism of the pentangle is above all designed to express. Piety as a virtue, therefore, is connected with other moral virtues, and indeed it is introduced by the poet immediately in conjunction with four other virtues—generosity, fidelity, chastity, and modesty—as constituting a fifth group of fives (651-55). If Gawain's confession to the priest is an act of piety, it cannot be taken to imply the simultaneous commission of sin. And here we confront a seemingly intractable moral difficulty, namely the reconciliation of the fact of piety with the fact of infidelity. The poet has shown with a characteristic moral precision that on the third day Gawain is brought through fear for his life to fall short in fidelity. The moral situation is accurately stated by the Green Knight himself in the judgment scene of Fitt IV (2366-68):

Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted;
Bot þat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauþer,
Bot for ȝe lufed your lyf; þe lasse I yow blame.

By pledging to the lady that he will conceal the girdle from her lord, Gawain has entered into two mutually incompatible agreements, for by the Exchange of Winnings agreement he is already obliged to hand over all his gains to the lord (and the girdle is undeniably such a gain). If Gawain confesses his sin of infidelity, he will undoubtedly be required to make restitution by way of satisfaction. And yet there is no suggestion in the poem of any attempt to do so.

Those scholars who recognize in Gawain's confession of his sins an act of piety are led as a result to deny the gravity of the act of withholding the girdle in the Exchange of Winnings agreement (the resultant infidelity of the fidelity to the promise to the lady to conceal the girdle). According to Davis (p. 123) the withholding of the girdle is not to be considered a sin at all:

The poet evidently did not regard the retention of the girdle as one of Gawain's ‘mysdedez, þe more and þe mynne’, which required to be confessed.

T. P. Dunning likewise finds no special moral difficulty to be posed here, and reduces Gawain's retention of the girdle to nothing more than a social solecism:

To ‘orthodox imaginative men of the fourteenth century’, the situation would seem clear enough: the girdle, as the lady assured Gawain, was not of any great material value (1847-8); the bargain with his host was, as Professor Smithers calls it, ‘sportive’ (M.Æ. xxxii (1963), 175); Gawain's resolve to retain the girdle was a yielding to superstition to which even the best of Christians are sometimes prone, but he certainly did not construe this resolve as a sin, worthy of being mentioned in confession. It was, however, a social solecism, as the Green Knight will rub in later (though he excuses him) …22

But this is a trivialisation of the moral issues of the poem, and Burrow is right to object to it as such (A Reading, p. 106):

… notice that the particular ‘chivalric virtue’ in question here, fidelity to the pledged word, shares its name with the whole Christian-chivalric complex to which it belongs—both are ‘trawþe’. Are we to believe that Gawain's ‘untrawþe’ (narrow chivalric sense) involves no more than a marginal disturbance of his (broad sense) ‘trawþe’? Surely not. If Gawain's integrity, his virtue, is ‘trawþe’ (and the poet chose the word), then ‘untrawþe’ is to be looked to. It is not, prima facie at least, a trivial matter.

The interconnection of the virtues, and in the present case the linking of felaȝschyp and pité in the same group of five virtues, does not admit of the moral reduction of infidelity to a social solecism.

Those scholars who see in Gawain's retention of the girdle in the Exchange of Winnings agreement the sin of infidelity are led in contradiction of the poet's explicit words (1876-84) to call into question the piety of his confession. The confession is to be seen rather as a false confession, an act of impiety. Gollancz tells us (p. 123) that ‘though the poet does not notice it, Gawain makes a sacrilegious confession’, and Burrow claims (A Reading, p. 109) that Gawain's confession ‘must be seen as invalid—not a remedy, but a symptom of his fall from grace’. In both these cases there is a failure to appreciate the seriousness of the moral offence. There is a hierarchy of sins as well as of virtues, and the gravest of sins are those committed directly against God (ST, la 2ae 73.3):

… peccatum quod est circa ipsam substantiam hominis, sicut homicidium est gravius peccato quod est circa res exteriores, sicut furtum; et adhuc est gravius peccatum quod immediate contra Deum committitur, sicut infidelitas, blasphemia et hujusmodi. Et in ordine quorumlibet horum peccatorum, unum peccatum est gravius altero secundum quod est circa aliquid principalius vel minus principale.

… sins which affect the very being of a man such as homicide are worse than sins which affect an exterior good, e.g. theft; and more serious still are those sins which are immediately against God, as infidelity, blasphemy, etc. And in each of these basic areas of sin, one sin will be worse than another if its object is more important than that of another.

The response of pious Moslems to the blasphemy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses may indicate to uncomprehending modern readers the horror that would have been felt by a medieval Christian at a sacrilegious confession. The Gawain-poet is lucid and subtle in his moral analysis. It is unthinkable that he would fail to detect an act of theft or of murder on the part of his hero, and it is even less likely that he would have failed to detect an act of sacrilege. The assumption of a false confession implicitly devalues the meaning of piety, and this is evident in Burrow's own reconstruction of Gawain's act as an act of piety (A Reading, p. 105):

So Gawain approaches his priest, not because he has just imperilled his soul by agreeing to hide the girdle, but because he thinks he is to die next morning. He simply takes a convenient opportunity to do what any Christian should do when in peril of death. It is a routine visit.

Here piety is robbed of its essential meaning as a moral act, for the exercise of virtue can never be merely a routine matter. But if Gawain were guilty of impiety his sin would cry out for recognition. This is not only because of its intrinsic seriousness. The poem as a whole is ordered to the idea of righteousness as it is defined in the pentangle passage, and an act of impiety would be the violation of a virtue that is given exceptional emphasis as the final virtue of the final group of virtues. But in the judgment scene of Fitt IV, where cowardice, covetousness, and infidelity are mentioned and indeed insisted upon (2366-68, 2373-75, 2378-84, and 2505-12), there is no mention of an act of sacrilege.

The only possible position that does justice to the moral argument of the poem is one that recognizes the retention of the girdle as involving an act of infidelity and the confession in the face of imminent death as an act of piety. Gawain's infidelity and piety can be reconciled on the assumption that Gawain, unlike the reader of the poem, is blind to the moral implications of his act when he makes his promise to the lady to conceal the girdle from her lord. And the moral situation that the poet describes is such as to make this an entirely reasonable assumption. Indeed self-knowledge in a sinner is always difficult to achieve; as the psalm (18.13) has it:

Delicta quis intelligit? Ab occultis meis munda me.

Who can understand sins? from my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord.

The need for self-knowledge in the penitent sinner is symbolized by the first of the three steps at the entrance to Purgatory proper in Purgatorio, IX.94-96:

Là ne venimmo; e lo scaglion primaio
          bianco marmo era sì pulito e terso
          ch'io mi specchiai in esso qual io paio.

We came on then, and the first step was white marble so smooth and clear that I mirrored myself in it in my true likeness.23

Sin, then, is characteristically the product not of knowledge, but of ignorance. This is the opinion of Socrates, and as Aquinas observes it contains a measure of the truth (ST, la 2ae 77.2):

In quo quidem aliqualiter recte sapiebat. Quia cum voluntas sit boni vel apparentis boni, nunquam voluntas in malum moveretur nisi id quod non est bonum aliqualiter rationi bonum appareret: et propter hoc voluntas nunquam in malum tenderet, nisi cum aliqua ignorantia vel errore rationis. Unde dicitur Prov., Errant qui operantur malum.

There is something to be said for this opinion. Since the object of the will is the good, or at least the apparent good, the will is never attracted by evil unless it appears to have an aspect of good about it, so that the will never chooses evil except by reason of ignorance or error. Thus it says in Proverbs, Do not those who plot evil go astray?

But Aristotle shows in the Ethics that it is possible for a man to do what he knows is not good for him. Here Aristotle distinguishes between knowledge possessed and exercised, and knowledge that is possessed but not exercised. Man sins through ignorance by failing to exercise the knowledge that he possesses of what is good for him (Ethics, VII. 3):

But (a), since we use the word ‘know’ in two senses (for both the man who has knowledge but is not using it and he who is using it are said to know), it will make a difference whether, when a man does what he should not, he has the knowledge but is not exercising it, or is exercising it; for the latter seems strange, but not the former.

Aquinas distinguishes three kinds of sin, in so far as there is a defect of reason (sin of ignorance), a defect of the sensitive appetite (sin of passion), and a defect of the will (sin of malice). Although the sin of ignorance is the term specifically applied to acts in which there is a defect of reason, all three kinds of sinful act involve ignorance of some sort (ST, la 2ae 78.1 ad 1):

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod ignorantia quandoque quidem excludit scientiam qua aliquis simpliciter scit hoc esse malum quod agitur: et tunc dicitur ex ignorantia peccare. Quandoque autem excludit scientiam qua homo scit hoc nunc esse malum: sicut cum ex passione peccatur. Quandoque autem excludit scientiam qua aliquis scit hoc malum non sustinendum esse propter consecutionem illius boni, scit tamen simpliciter hoc esse malum; et sic dicitur ignorare qui ex certa malitia peccat.

Sinning out of ignorance means total unawareness that a thing is evil. Sometimes ignorance involves only temporary unawareness that a given thing is here and now evil, and this is what happens when a man sins under the impact of emotion. Sometimes, however, a man fails to consider that the loss suffered is not worth the gain even though he knows full well that the loss is itself evil, and in this case ignorance is compatible with resolute malice.

Gawain's piety in confession is irreconcilable with his act of infidelity only on the assumption of a sin of malice in which the simple knowledge of evil is present.24 But the poet has made it clear that Gawain's sin stems from passion. Not only does the poet show us the hero tormented by fears on the third day of the Exchange of Winnings agreement (1750-54), but he explains also Gawain's motive in accepting the lady's offer of the girdle (1855-58):

þen kest þe knyȝt, and hit come to his hert
Hit were a juel for þe jopardé þat hym iugged were:
When he acheued to þe chapel his chek for to fech,
Myȝt he haf slypped to be vnslayn, þe sleȝt were noble.

Gawain's sin is a sin of passion, and the ignorance which characterizes it is ignorance of the particular knowledge that can and should be derived from universal knowledge. Passion can prevent a man from drawing a correct conclusion from universal knowledge, but instead can direct his attention to a universal idea that is consistent with it. The Aristotelian argument is formulated by Aquinas as follows (ST, la 2ae 77.2 ad 4):

Unde Philosophus dicit in Ethic., quod syllogismus incontinentis habet quatuor propositiones, duas universales: quarum una est rationis, puta nullam fornicationem esse committendam; alia est passionis, puta delectationem esse sectandam. Passio igitur ligat rationem ne assumat et concludat sub prima; unde, ea durante, assumit et concludit sub secunda.

Thus Aristotle writes that the incontinent man forms a syllogism from four propositions of which two are universal, e.g. one from reason that says fornication is to be avoided; and another from emotion that says pleasure is to be sought after. Accordingly, emotion hinders reason lest it draw a conclusion from the former and at the same time moves one to conclude from the latter.

This reasoning can be directly applied to Gawain's case. The first universal proposition of which Gawain has knowledge is that all winnings are to be exchanged. But he fails to draw from it the particular proposition that the girdle is a winning to be exchanged because he is hindered from doing so by fear. The second universal proposition of which he has knowledge is that a device that would preserve his life would be worthy of possession. Gawain is inclined towards this universal proposition by fear and so, being unhindered by fear in respect of it, draws from it the correct conclusion, namely that the girdle is such a device and hence worthy to be possessed. The lady cunningly exploits Gawain's temporary moral disarray, and represents the retention of the girdle as an act of virtue, namely the keeping of a pledge.

We cannot say, therefore, that Gawain goes to confession in a state of knowledge. Rather he goes in ignorance of the particular knowledge that it is unlawful for him to retain possession of the girdle. But confession is an act of virtue in so far as it is a true profession of that which a man has on his conscience (Suppl., 7.2):

Haec autem conditio ad virtutem pertinet, ut aliquis ore confiteatur, quod corde tenet; et ideo confessio est bonum ex genere, et est actus virtutis.

Now to express in words what one has in one's thoughts is a condition of virtue; and, consequently, confession is a good thing generically, and is an act of virtue.

Now a true profession of a sin of which one is ignorant is not possible. Moreover, a complete account of one's sins will always be difficult because of the pervasive reality of sin, and many sins will have been simply forgotten. But forgetfulness does not necessarily imply a lack of sincerity in confession (Suppl., 10.5 ad 4):

… sed oblivio de actu peccati habet ignorantiam facti, et ideo excusat a peccato fictionis in confessione, quod fructum absolutionis, et confessionis impedit.

Now forgetfulness of an act of sin comes under the head of ignorance of fact, wherefore it excuses from the sin of insincerity in confession, which is an obstacle to the fruit of absolution and confession.

A general confession is sufficient for mortal sins that have been forgotten (Suppl., 10.5 sed contra):

… sed ille qui confitetur omnia peccata, quae scit, accedit ad Deum, quantum potest: plus autem ab eo requiri non potest; ergo non confundetur, ut repulsam patiatur, sed veniam consequetur.

Now he who confesses all the sins of which he is conscious, approaches to God as much as he can: nor can more be required of him. Therefore he will not be confounded by being repelled, but will be forgiven.

Thus provision is made for general confession in a treatise such as The Book of the Craft of Dying. The third interrogation of the Gersonian set ends as follows (BCD, 34/8-10):

Desirest thou also in thyn hert to haue verray knowynge of alle (the) offenses that thou hast doo ayenst God and foryete, to haue special repentaunce of hem alle?

The Gawain-poet leads us to understand that Gawain makes a sincere confession. He does what is possible for one who is ignorant of the particular knowledge that defines his sin. He must, therefore, have made a general as well as a particular confession of his sins.25

Passion does not excuse from sin altogether, unless it rules out entirely the voluntariness of an act, as in those who become mad through love or fear. But Gawain is not so moved by fear as to have lost the use of reason altogether (1866-67):

He þonkked hir oft ful swyþe,
Ful þro with hert and þoȝt.

Ignorance of the moral status of the act of retaining the girdle does not therefore excuse from sin (ST, 1a 2ae 77.7 ad 2):

Ad secundum dicendum quod ignorantia particularis quae totaliter excusat, est ignorantia circumstantiae quam quidem quis scire non potest, … Sed passio causat ignorantiam juris in particulari, dum impedit applicationem communis scientiae ad particularem actum. Quam quidem passionem ratio repellere potest …

The ignorance of concrete fact which totally excuses from sin … is ignorance of a circumstance which could not possibly be foreseen. A highly emotional state causes one to be unaware of the particular application of a general principle, which is a detail of law rather than of fact. A reasonable man can and should withstand the influence of such emotions …

But passion does diminish the sinfulness of an act if it precedes that act (ST, 1a 2ae 77.6):

Si igitur accipiatur passio secundum quod praecedit actum peccati, sic necesse est quod diminuat peccatum.

When emotion precedes sin, it necessarily diminishes sinfulness.

Thus Gawain's sin in retaining the girdle is a mortal sin generically, but becomes venial through the weakness that results from the fear of death. It is to be classified as venial from the cause.26 This is the position adopted by the Green Knight himself in the judgment scene of Fitt IV (2367-68):

Bot þat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauþer,
Bot for ȝe lufed your lyf; þe lasse I yow blame.


The ease and lucidity with which the Gawain-poet expresses a complex moral argument in a continuous narrative are made possible by an assumed foundation of Scholastic moral philosophy on which such an argument rests. Misinterpretation can result when the modern critic is unfamiliar with this philosophical foundation, as in the case of the confession scene. We need also at this point to consider some fundamental Scholastic principles about the goodness of human acts, for these have a direct bearing upon the poet's definition of Gawain's sinfulness.

There are two related activities involved in the creation of a human act. There is the interior act of the will, that is, the very act of willing elicited by the will itself, and there is the exterior act, that is, the determination of the will by its interior act results in the exterior act commanded by the will. Both the interior act of will and the exterior act have their proper objects. The proper object of the interior act of will is the end, and the proper object of the exterior act is the object itself with which it is engaged (ST, 1a 2ae 18.6):

In actu autem voluntario invenitur duplex actus, scilicet actus interior voluntatis, et actus exterior; et uterque horum actuum habet suum objectum. Finis autem proprie est objectum interioris actus voluntarii, id autem circa quod est actio exterior est objectum ejus. Sicut igitur actus exterior accipit speciem ab objecto circa quod est, ita actus interior voluntatis accipit speciem a fine sicut a proprio objecto.

Now we find a double activity here, namely the will's own internal activity and its externalized activity; and each of these has its objective. Strictly speaking the end intended is the objective for the will's internal act, while the objective for the external act is what it is engaged with. As the external act gets its specific character from the objective with which it is concerned so the internal gets its specific character from the end intended, this being its proper objective.

In accordance with this distinction an act can be said to be willed formally in relation to its end, and materially in relation to its object (ST, 1a 2ae 18.6):

Et ideo actus humani species formaliter consideratur secundum finem, materialiter autem secundum objectum exterioris actus. Unde Philosophus dicit in Ethic., quod ille qui furatur ut committat adulterium est per se loquendo magis adulter quam fur.

Hence the specific character of human acts is assessed as to its form by the end intended and as to its matter by the objective of the external deed. That is why Aristotle observes that he who steals in order to commit adultery is directly more adulterer than thief.

It is to be noted, therefore, that the sinner is responsible for both the formal and material sinfulness of an act, and this distinction becomes important in Gawain's specification of his own sinfulness in Fitt IV. In the poet's analysis of Gawain's conduct we need to be aware both of its formal and material dimensions. But we should not in the process elevate the intention of the agent above the objective nature of the act. The goodness in an exterior act derives from its object, and is not a function of the will. Theft, for example, as the taking of another's property is wrong in itself, independently of the intention of the agent. To suppose otherwise is to argue for a mere subjective basis for good and evil, and Aquinas is not willing to allow moral activity to be reduced in this way (ST, 1a 2ae 18.2):

Et ideo sicut prima bonitas rei naturalis attenditur ex sua forma, quae dat speciem ei, ita et prima bonitas actus moralis attenditur ex objecto convenienti …

Hence as the basic goodness of a natural thing is provided by its form, which makes it the kind of thing it is, so also the basic goodness of a moral act is provided by the befitting objective on which it is set …

Armed with these distinctions we may proceed to a further examination of Gawain's conduct in the crucial scenes of Fitts III and IV. And we shall see that the poet's representation of the conduct is characteristically lucid and precise.

Gawain's acceptance of the girdle offered to him by the lady is the last in a series of acts that progressively define his moral condition. Gawain values his courtesy even to the point of public misrepresentation of it (1658-63), but courtesy stops short of yielding to the sins of unchastity and infidelity (1770-75). Indeed Gawain is not prepared to acquiesce in the lady's suggestion that he has rejected her because of his love for another (1779-84). To do so would be to call into question the virtue of chastity, for chastity is in itself a sufficient ground for rejection of the lady's advances, irrespective of any other moral consideration whatsoever. This is perhaps not an attractive moral argument in our own age, but chastity as a virtue pursued for its own sake is rare at any time, as we may gather from the words of Spenser's Squire of Dames (FQ, III. 7.60):

Safe her, I neuer any woman found,
          That chastity did for it selfe embrace,
          But were for other causes firme and sound;
          Either for want of handsome time and place,
          Or else for feare of shame and fowle disgrace.

It is the purpose of the Gawain-poet here to show that Gawain is firm and sound for the virtue of chastity itself. This is the point of the invocation of the apostle St John, for St John was revered as an example of celibacy (1788-91):

þe knyȝt sayde, ‘Be sayn Jon,’
And smeþely con he smyle,
‘In fayth I welde riȝt non,
Ne non wil welde þe quile’.

Chastity does not imply the absence of feeling but the control of feeling. The very demonstration of the virtue of chastity has involved the exertion of a great moral effort on Gawain's part, aided by the grace he receives from the Virgin Mary (1768-69), and it is softened by a consideration for the lady's own feelings in the expression of a gentle and compassionate smile (1789). The lady represents herself as a true unrequited lover, and so destined to a life of bitter unrelieved sorrow (1794-95). But she cannot by this stratagem induce Gawain to give her a gift as a keepsake, since such a keepsake would cast doubt upon the chasteness of his love for her and would be in itself dishonourable (1805-7). It is not by chance that the lady specifies Gawain's glove as a keepsake, for the glove has a possible sexual significance (1799-1800):

Gif me sumquat of þy gifte, þi gloue if hit were,
Þat I may mynne on þe, mon, my mournyng to lassen.

Criseyde's betrayal of Troilus is thus significantly prefaced by the giving of her glove to Diomede (TC, V.1012-13):

And after this, the sothe for to seyn,
Hire glove he took, of which he was ful feyn.(27)

Gawain turns the discussion away from the gift of a glove, which he recognizes as a dishonourable act (1806-7), towards an apology for his inability to give an expensive gift that would truly be worthy of her (1808-9):

And I am here an erande in erdez vncouþe,
And haue no men wyth no malez with menskful þingez.

The distinction that he makes here is between an implicit acknowledgment of love and the explicit offering of a gift that any guest would consider fitting for his hostess.28 But the lady is undeterred, and offers Gawain a gift in her own right, but Gawain rejects it, for the same argument that prevents him from offering a gift also prevents him from accepting one (1822-23). The lady then affects to believe that it is the costliness of the ring and not its symbolic import that has led Gawain to reject it (1826-29). She succeeds only in provoking the most emphatic rejection of an offer that it is possible for a poet to contrive (1836-38):

And he nay þat he nolde neghe in no wyse
Nauþer golde ne garysoun, er God hym grace sende
To acheue to þe chaunce þat he hade chosen þere.(29)

There can be no doubt that in the scene between Gawain and the lady up to this point the poet intends us to see his hero in the most admirable light. He is zealous in the defence of his chastity, and resolute also in the defence of the rights of his host by turning aside from the sin of adultery. He laments his present incapacity to be generous (1808-12), but is unmoved by covetousness of the precious ring that the lady offers him as her gift (1817-20). And all the time he strives to maintain his reputation for courtesy, save in so far as courtesy in itself becomes prejudicial to acts of virtue.

It is by successive acts of virtue that the poet proceeds to the one sinful act by which Gawain's human imperfection is defined. The lady now shows her quality in entirely shifting the ground of her attack, for by doing so she is able to attribute to Gawain a covetousness that is the product only of her own suggestion (1846-47):

‘Now forsake ȝe þis silke,’ sayde þe burde þenne,
‘For hit is symple in hitself? And so hit wel semez.’

She now takes advantage of a complication in the moral environment that results from the enclosing of the Exchange of Winnings agreement within the Beheading Game, for Gawain is beset by fears of impending death from the return blow. The poet has carefully drawn our attention to these fears at the beginning of this third moral confrontation between Gawain and the lady (1750-54):

In dreȝ droupyng of dreme draueled þat noble,
As mon þat watz in mornyng of mony þro þoȝtes,
How þat destiné schulde þat day dele hym his wyrde
At þe grene chapel, when he þe gome metes,
And bihoues his buffet abide withoute debate more.

And it is to these fears that the lady successfully appeals. She puts it to Gawain that by accepting the girdle he will preserve his life (1851-54); it is a proposition to which his fears readily lead him to assent (1855-58). Once she has secured her advantage, the lady does not fail to press it home. She begs the knight not only to accept the girdle, but faithfully to conceal it from her lord (1862-63). The knight agrees to do so (1863-65):

                                                                      … þe leude hym acordez
Þat neuer wyȝe schulde hit wyt, iwysse, bot þay twayne for noȝte.

And we see that he is indeed faithful to his word, for he ‘hid hit ful holdely’ (1875). But he is by now compromised, for no knight can maintain faith between two irreconcilable pledges.

The poet's clarity in his representation of these moral issues in the temptations is reinforced throughout the rest of the narrative, so that we need be in no doubt as to what are Gawain's motives for his actions and what are not his motives. We may proceed to specify these motives in terms of covetousness, fidelity, and fear. First of all it is clear that Gawain is not motivated by covetousness, for he rejects the ring ‘worth wele ful hoge’ (1820) offered to him by the lady. Further, the poet reminds us that Gawain was not attracted to the girdle because of its costliness when he fastens it round his waist over his surcoat before setting out for the Green Chapel (2037-39):

Bot wered not þis ilk wyȝe for wele þis gordel,
For pryde of þe pendauntez, þaȝ polyst þay were,
And þaȝ þe glyterande golde glent vpon endez.

Moreover, in his judgment of Gawain's conduct, the Green Knight too recognizes that covetousness was not a motive (2367):

Bot þat watz for no wylyde werke, …

Secondly, it is clear that Gawain is moved by a deep regard for the pledged word, and shares the knightly perspective of an Arveragus that ‘trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe’ (CT, F 1479). His fidelity to his pledged word in honouring the Exchange of Winnings agreement is evident on the first two days (1385-97, and 1637-43), and also, up to a not insignificant point, on the third day as well (1932-41). He is faithful too in honouring the appointment at the Green Chapel in accordance with the terms of the Beheading Game, and his good faith in so doing is acknowledged by the Green Knight (2237-41). He is careful not to compromise his pledge to the Green Knight in the Beheading Game in accepting fresh obligations on the third day of the Exchange of Winnings agreement (1670-85). Even in concealing the girdle, as we have seen, Gawain is faithful to a pledge (1874-75). Thirdly, there can be no doubt that Gawain yields to the lady's importunity in pressing upon him the girdle because he recognizes its value as a means of saving his life (1851-61). The poet reminds us that the reason why Gawain wears the girdle over his coat armour in setting out for the final journey to the Green Chapel is (2040-42):

… for to sauen hymself, when suffer hym byhoued,
To byde bale withoute dabate of bronde hym to were oþer knyffe.

The Green Knight himself identifies the motive of fear when he observes in his judgment that Gawain was moved to accept the girdle ‘for ȝe lufed your lyf’ (2368). Gawain in his turn has the honesty to recognize the justice of this description of his own conduct (2379-80):

For care of þy knokke cowardyse me taȝt
To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake.

Gawain's intention in accepting and retaining the girdle, the end or proper object of his interior act of will, is to save his life; formally, therefore, his sin is a sin of cowardice. Gawain's act of retaining the girdle is a sin materially in two respects. First of all it is materially a sin of covetousness. Gawain accuses himself of covetousness in retaining the girdle on three separate occasions (2374, 2380-81, and 2507-8). The threefold self-accusation of the sin of covetousness obliges us to consider it seriously, even though it is plainly at odds with Gawain's expressed motives. Covetousness cannot here be understood in the wide sense of the inordinate desire of any temporal good whatsoever, that is, as cupiditas in opposition to caritas,30 for this would be to suggest a more radical failure in respect of the virtues of the pentangle than the poet's own exposition allows. And as Burrow rightly points out in his reply to Hills,31 covetousness is opposed by Gawain not to caritas but to larges (2381), that is, generosity.32 Covetousness is to be understood in the specific sense of the inordinate desire for riches, and its relevance here is to be explained by the specific classifications of this sin in the Middle Ages. Thus in the Ancrene Wisse we read:

Edhalden cwide, fundles, oþer lane, … nis hit spece of ȝisceung & anes cunnes þeofde?

… withholding what has been promised, found, or borrowed, … is not this a species of covetousness and a kind of theft?33

By retaining the girdle, which properly belongs to the lord by virtue of the Exchange of Winnings agreement, Gawain is thus guilty of covetousness. Secondly, if we look at the act of retaining the girdle from a different but related point of view, we shall see it as a material failure on Gawain's part to keep faith with the lord in the Exchange of Winnings on the third day. And it is in these terms that the Green Knight puts it to Gawain (2354-57):

Trwe mon trwe restore,
Þenne þar mon drede no waþe.
At þe þrid þou fayled þore,
And þerfor þat tappe ta þe.

The dual significance of Gawain's act in respect of its material sinfulness reflects the central significance of the interconnectedness of the pentangle virtues, and in particular of the link between fraunchyse and felaȝschyp (652).

The poet's moral analysis is as lucid as it is subtle. Fear for life has led Gawain to the acceptance of the girdle into his permanent possession, and hence to the breaking of his faith with his host in the Exchange of Winnings agreement. The facts of the case and their moral significance are not in doubt, and they are confirmed for us, if confirmation were at all to be needed, by the Green Knight's subsequent rehearsal of them (2366-68). Nevertheless, at the same time as we specify Gawain's sins we cannot but also admire his moral excellence. The material covetousness in retaining the girdle must be set beside the formal generosity that Gawain displays in his acknowledgment of his host's winnings. Further, a single sinful act is not in itself sufficient to destroy the habit of virtue, for the habit of virtue is acquired by repeated acts, not by a single good act (ST, 1a 2ae 71.4 sed contra). Hence Gawain continues to perform virtuous acts after he has wrongfully taken the girdle into his possession with the intention of concealing it from the lord, and ironically displays his virtue by proceeding at once to carry out that intention.



Thou in thyself art perfect, and in thee Is no deficience found; not so is Man, But in degree …



In pledging to the lady that he will ‘lelly layne fro hir lorde’ (1863) the girdle, Gawain has been led through her cunning (1846-50) and his own fear for his life (1851-58) to compromise himself, for by the Exchange of Winnings he is obliged to hand over the girdle as a winning to the lord. The poet makes us aware of the compromise when he describes how Gawain does in fact conceal the girdle (1872-75):

When ho watz gon, Sir Gawayn gerez hym sone,
Rises and riches hym in araye noble,
Lays vp þe luf-lace þe lady hym raȝt,
Hid hit ful holdely, þer he hit eft fonde.

This is indeed the act of a man who is habitually faithful to his pledged word, but it is also by the same token an act of infidelity. Gawain's faithful infidelity is also suggested by the ‘bleaunt of blwe’ (1928) in which he is dressed for the Exchange of Winnings on the third day, for blue is the colour of fidelity. That is why Criseyde bids Pandarus take a ring with a blue stone to Troilus to assure him of her continuing faithfulness (TC, III.885).

It is important to recognize that what the poet is concerned to represent here is moral contradiction and not moral turpitude. Gawain is not simply unfaithful in the Exchange of Winnings agreement on the third day. The three kisses that he hands over have been hard won and are highly esteemed (1936-37):

Þen acoles he þe knyȝt and kysses hym þryes,
As sauerly and sadly as he hem sette couþe.

It is this combination of moral excellence and sinfulness that is illustrated in the juxtaposition of the pentangle and the girdle at the beginning of Fitt IV. In this second arming scene the poet follows the systematic and orderly method of description that is recommended by the rhetoricians and is characterized by his own practice. But according to the logic of the poet's descriptive method the putting on of the surcoat and the wrapping about of the girdle will be separated by the girding on of the sword. The poet displays considerable syntactic ingenuity, as Burrow has explained (A Reading, p. 115), in avoiding this natural effect of his own method (2025-36):

Whyle þe wlonkest wedes he warp on hymseluen—
His cote wyth þe conysaunce of þe clere werkez
Ennurned vpon veluet, vertuus stonez
Aboute beten and bounden, enbrauded semez,
And fayre furred withinne wyth fayre pelures—
Yet laft he not þe lace, þe ladiez gifte,
Þat forgat not Gawayn for gode of hymseluen.
Bi he hade belted þe bronde vpon his balȝe haunchez,
Þenn dressed he his drurye double hym aboute,
Swyþe sweþled vmbe his swange swetely þat knyȝt
Þe gordel of þe grene silke, þat gay wel bisemed,
Vpon þat ryol red cloþe þat ryche watz to schewe.

The pentangle is a symbol of human perfection, and the girdle is the sign of Gawain's imperfection. But the girdle is not opposed to the pentangle, and does not take the place of the pentangle (Burrow, A Reading, p. 116). It renders explicit the element of sinfulness that is implicit in the definition of human perfection. In one hardened by a sin of malice the wearing of the girdle might be taken for an act of shameless ostentation. But virtuous knights are not given to ostentation of any kind, as we see from Chaucer's portrait of his knight (CT, A 73-78). And no more is Gawain. It is the lesser sinfulness of sin preceded by passion of which Gawain is guilty (2037-40):

Bot wered not þis ilk wyȝe for wele þis gordel,
For pryde of þe pendauntez, þaȝ polyst þay were,
And þaȝ þe glyterande golde glent vpon endez,
Bot for to sauen hymself, when suffer hym byhoued.

The guide assigned by Bertilak to lead Gawain to the Green Chapel is no less a tempter than the lady, and the poet makes his function in the poem no less evident to the reader. First of all the relationship between lord and servant is reversed when the servant commands the lord to stop (2089-90). Although his language is formally correct in the use of the plural form of address (yow, 2091, etc., and ȝe, 2092, etc.), his manner is patronising in the assumption of superior wisdom that his words contain (2096):

Wolde ȝe worch bi my wytte, ȝe worþed þe better.

He knows what is in the moral interest of Gawain better than does Gawain himself. Secondly his language becomes overtly contemptuous and abusive towards Gawain after his temptation has been resisted. The polite plurals give way to the condescending singulars, most improperly used of a servant to his master (2140-42):

‘Mary!’ quoþ þat oþer mon, ‘now þou so much spellez,
Þat þou wylt þyn awen nye nyme to þyseluen,
And þe lyst lese þy lyf, þe lette I ne kepe.’

Gawain has fallen short in fidelity through fear for life. The testing of Gawain by the guide is designed to take the moral issue one stage further, for Gawain is not simply a coward who abandons his pledged word when beset by fears. Indeed the guide's asseveration ‘Mary!’ (2140) is an implicit acknowledgment of Gawain's courage, for in the pentangle passage Gawain's courage is seen as being derived from the image of the Virgin Mary depicted on the inner side of his shield (648-50).

The guide assures Gawain of the formidable size (2098-2102) and merciless nature (2103-9) of his adversary. The keeping of his pledge in the Beheading Game involves the certainty of death (2111-13):

Com ȝe þere, ȝe be kylled, may þe knyȝt rede,
Trawe ȝe me þat trwely, þaȝ ȝe had twenty lyues to spende.

These are truths that we ourselves can easily vouch for, and there is no need for Gawain to misbelieve the truth of the guide's words. The guide promises to conceal Gawain's guilt in words that are specifically intended to recall the loss of fidelity in the concealment of the girdle (2124-25):

… I schal lelly yow layne, and lance neuer tale
Þat euer ȝe fondet to fle for freke þat I wyst.

But the temptation here is less insidiously stated. Indeed the moral issues are straightforward for Gawain (although hardly the less difficult for that), and Gawain responds honourably towards them. We are confirmed in our belief in the lesser imperfection of Gawain's sin. When the simple knowledge of evil is present Gawain does not hesitate to reject the course of cowardice and infidelity (2129-31):

Bot helde þou hit neuer so holde, and I here passed,
Founded for ferde for to fle, in fourme þat þou tellez,
I were a knyȝt kowarde, I myȝt not be excused.

The poet therefore asserts Gawain's excellence in terms of those very virtues in which he has fallen short. And this fact is further acknowledged by the guide himself when he takes his departure (2149-51). It is also clear that in the midst of the dangers that confront him, Gawain's confidence rests securely in God (2136-39):

þaȝe he be a sturn knape
To stiȝtel, and stad with staue,
Ful wel con Dryȝtyn schape
His seruauntez for to saue.

This is a point important enough for the poet to return to it in the wheel at the end of the following stanza (2156-59):

‘Bi Goddez self,’ quoþ Gawayn,
‘I wyl nauþer grete ne grone;
To Goddez wylle I am ful bayn,
And to hym I haf me tone.’

Thus the poet also asserts the excellence of Gawain's faith, or rather (as with his courage and fidelity) reasserts it, for faith is one of the virtues explicitly set out in the account of the pentangle as a symbol (642-43).34

In the description of Gawain's solitary journey on the final stage of his quest to the Green Chapel (2160-2238), the poet reminds us insistently of the perils of the situation in which the hero now finds himself. He describes the desolation and seeming hostility of the place itself; the rough rocks that graze the skies (2166-67); the water boiling in the stream (2172-74); and the grass-covered mound with its devilish associations (2178-96). The suggestion of menace is at once confirmed by the description of the hideous noise of grinding (2199-2204 and 2219-20) and of the size and sharpness of the Green Knight's axe (2223-25):

A denez ax nwe dyȝt, þe dynt with to ȝelde,
With a borelych bytte bende by þe halme,
Fyled in a fylor, fowre fote large.

The poet focuses entirely on the fearsome qualities of this weapon. There is no occasion here, as there was in the description of that other axe on the first meeting in Arthur's hall (see 214-20), to dwell on the fine craftsmanship of which it is a product. There is no comfort either to be found for Gawain in the mood of the man who wields this evil weapon. He strides forward to the meeting with the hero ‘bremly broþe’ (2233). The poet has thus superbly concentrated his effects, and, what is more, has presented them to us from Gawain's point of view (2163, 2167 and 2169-70):

And þenne he wayted hym aboute, and wylde hit hym þoȝt.
Þe skwez of þe scowtes skayned hym þoȝt.
And ofte chaunged his cher þe chapel to seche:
He seȝ non suche in no syde, and selly hym þoȝt.

We are made sharply aware of the dangers that he confronts and the fears that they inspire, and as a result we are bound not only to recognize his great fidelity (2237-38), but also the courage that such fidelity requires of him.

In the account of the blows that Gawain receives at the hands of the Green Knight (2239-2330) the poet reveals yet again a precision in his moral analysis. Gawain's physical response indicates at one and the same time the extent and limitations of his courage. We are led to admire the courage with which he presents himself for his death and controls his fears (2255-58). Such conduct entirely justifies the poet's description of him as one ‘þat doȝty watz euer’ (2264). But it is at this very point that the great courage of the knight fails him, for he flinches as the blow descends (2265-67):

Bot Gawayn on þat giserne glyfte hym bysyde,
As hit com glydande adoun on glode hym to schende,
And schranke a lytel with þe schulderes for þe scharp yrne.

This relative failure of nerve corresponds to the partial failure in the Exchange of Winnings agreement, and it brings down on Gawain's head the sternest of recriminations (2268-79). Such recrimination stands in need of explanation when we compare this incident with a similar incident in Perlesvaus. Here Lancelot is compelled to enter into a Beheading Game at the Waste City, and he too flinches when he comes to receive the return blow. But no criticism is offered him for doing so (Perlesvaus, 6695-700 and p. 183). The reason is that the fact that Lancelot has presented himself for the return blow in the first place speaks volumes for his outstanding courage and fidelity. Indeed the author records that at least twenty knights before Lancelot had failed to keep their promise because of a lack of courage (Perlesvaus, 6714-23 and pp. 183-84). The Green Knight's rebuke of Gawain for flinching is deliberately overdone, for there is a calculated exaggeration of Gawain's offence on the poet's part. The rebuke underlines and does not diminish the reality of Gawain's courage. And Gawain is justly enabled to say in his own defence that it does not lie in his power to restore his own head after the manner of the Green Knight himself (2280-83). There is a suggestion here of an unfairness in the rules of the game as it applies to the two contestants. Before the second blow is offered Gawain gives his word to receive it without flinching (2284-87). This pledge enables the poet to set before us once again the admirable combination of fidelity and courage in his hero, for Gawain is as good as his word (2292-94):

Gawayn grayþely hit bydez, and glent with no membre,
Bot stode stylle as þe ston, oþer a stubbe auþer
Þat raþeled is in roché grounde with rotez a hundreth.

The poet shows once again that Gawain does not yield to his fears when he has a direct knowledge of their moral consequences. As in the testing by the guide Gawain's reputation for fidelity is restored, so here his reputation for courage is restored. The good knight offers no resistance on the occasion of the third blow until the blow itself has been struck, even though he has the expectation only of death (2305-8):

Þenne tas he hym stryþe to stryke,
And frounsez boþe lyppe and browe;
No meruayle þaȝ hym myslyke
Þat hoped of no rescowe.

By means of this narrative of the beheading the poet has realised in Gawain the classic definition of courage, namely, firmness of mind in the face of the fears aroused by the dangers of death (ST, 2a 2ae 123.4). The manner in which Gawain receives the three blows aimed at him enables us to see his fidelity and especially his courage in their proper perspective. There is no need for us to minimize the seriousness of Gawain's failing, for the sinfulness of the human condition is not something that the poet wishes lightly to accommodate. But at the same time we can appreciate the great moral excellence of Gawain. The poet intends us to share in the Green Knight's unfeigned admiration of the courage of the man, and underlines it by rhetorical amplification (2331-35):

The haþel heldet hym fro, and on his ax rested,
Sette þe schaft vpon schore, and to þe scharp lened,
And loked to þe leude þat on þe launde ȝede,
How þat doȝty, dredles, deruely þer stondez
Armed, ful aȝlez: in hert hit hym lykez.(35)

We have been led to see that in this life authentic courage in its noblest manifestations co-exists with the weakness of man's fallen nature.


We must not as readers withhold from Gawain the admiration that is due to his virtuous conduct in the quest that he has undertaken. But we must recognize at the same time that he is blind to his sins in failing to hand over the girdle to the lord in the Exchange of Winnings agreement, and that such sins are properly to be cleansed by satisfaction. The poet duly proceeds to these matters in the meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. The penitential significance of this meeting cannot escape the attention of any reader of the poem, and it has in many respects been satisfactorily explained by Burrow (A Reading, pp. 127-33). But the second or quasi-confession stands in relation to the first not as valid to invalid, but as the completion of a moral process.

The Green Knight occupies the role of confessor, and Gawain that of penitent sinner. It is not possible to hide one's sins from the supreme judge, as the fictional Dante learns when he comes to make his confession before Beatrice (Purg., XXXI.37-39):

Ed ella: ‘Se tacessi o se negassi
          ciò che confessi, non fora men nota
          la colpa tua: da tal giudice sassi!

And she: ‘Hadst thou kept silence or denied what thou confessest, thy fault would be not less plain, by such a judge is it known.’

Similarly the Green Knight is the judge who understands the hidden causes of things, and hence gives a true report of Gawain's motives and measures the extent of his sin (2366-68):

Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted;
Bot þat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauþer,
Bot for ȝe lufed your lyf; þe lasse I yow blame.

The importance of the Green Knight's function as judge explains why so much is made of his jovial nature. Bertilak is a jovial type in the full medieval sense; he is not only merry and companionable (908-9, 936-37, 981-87, 1086-87, and 1174-77), he is also generous (988-90, and 1156-57) and courteous (833-37, 1002, and 1029-36). It is Jove who dispenses justice, and justice is to be dispensed with equanimity. The authority of Bertilak is characterized by that lack of harshness of spirit or gentleness that disposes to mercy (2336-38):

Þenn he melez muryly wyth a much steuen,
And wyth a rynkande rurde he to þe renk sayde:
‘Bolde burne, on þis bent be not so gryndel.’

He thus resembles as judge the merciful and patient Lord who rebukes Jonah for his foolish lack of patience (Patience, 524-25):

Be noȝt so gryndel, god-man, bot go forth þy wayes,
Be preue and be pacient in payne and in joye.

The third blow that the Green Knight delivers is not seen in any way as an act of mercy, however, but as an act of satisfaction for sin, that is, a due punishment (2389, and 2393-94):

Thenn loȝe þat oþer leude and luflyly sayde …
‘I halde þe polysed of þat plyȝt, and pured as clene
As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne.’

Satisfaction for sin is an act of justice, and it is defined as (Suppl., 12.3):

… illatae injuriae recompensatio secundum justitiae aequalitatem.

compensation for an inflicted injury according to the equality of justice.

Man cannot make satisfaction in the sense of quantitative equality, that is, he cannot do anything that equals the goodness of divine grace, but he can do so in the sense of proportionate equality. By the justice of satisfaction, therefore, is to be understood a strict measure in accord with proportionate equality (Suppl., 8.7 sed contra, and 13.1 sed contra):

Isaiae 27: In mensura contra mensuram, cum abjecta fuerit, judicabis eam; ergo quantitas judicii punitionis peccati est secundum quantitatem culpae.

Praeterea. Homo reducitur ad aequalitatem justitiae per poenitentiam inflictam: sed hoc non esset, si quantitas culpae, et poenae non sibi responderent; ergo unum alteri respondet.

… It is written (Isa. xxvii.8): In measure against measure, when it shall be cast off, thou shalt judge it. Therefore the quantity of punishment adjudicated for sin answers the degree of fault.

Further, man is reduced to the equality of justice by the punishment inflicted on him. But this would not be so if the quantity of the fault and of the punishment did not mutually correspond. Therefore one answers to the other.

Satisfactio est, cum poena culpae aequatur; quia justitia est idem, quod contrapassum, ut Pythagorici dixerunt …

… there is due satisfaction when the punishment balances the fault, since justice is the same as counterpassion, as the Pythagoreans said

(Aristotle, Ethic. v).

It is in accordance with the principle of contrappasso or fitting retribution that Dante assigns punishment to the impenitent sinners in hell. Thus the spirits consumed by lust, that is, those who in their lives set the disturbance of passions above the order of reason, are driven weeping and wailing before the unrelenting tempest (Inf., V. 28-51). And in the same way the impiety of diviners in claiming to forecast future events is punished by the denial of ordinary forward vision (Inf., XX.10-15). But the example of fitting retribution that comes closest, potentially and implicitly at any rate, to Sir Gawain is that of Bertran de Born whose head is severed for the fomenting of the rebellion of Henry against his father Henry II of England (Inf., XXVIII. 112-42). Bertran explains the meaning behind this terrible punishment as follows (Inf., XXVIII. 139-42):

‘Perch'io parti' così giunte persone,
          partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!,
          dal suo principio ch'è in questo troncone.
Così s'osserva in me lo contrapasso.’

‘Because I parted those so joined I carry my brain, alas, parted from its root in this trunk; thus is observed in me the retribution.’

The principle of fitting retribution is the principle of measure that is at work in Sir Gawain, and it accounts for the contrivance of three blows of the axe to match Gawain's conduct on the three days of the Exchange of Winnings agreement (2352-53, and 2356-57):

For boþe two here I þe bede bot two bare myntes
                              boute scaþe …
At þe þrid þou fayled þore,
And þerfor þat tappe ta þe.

It is the same principle that explains the poet's earlier comparison between the girdle and the axe. When describing the massive blade of the Green Knight's axe—it is four feet wide—the poet is led to observe, somewhat oddly it seems to a modern reader, that (2226):

Hit watz no lasse bi þat lace þat lemed ful bryȝt.(36)

The girdle is the measure of Gawain's sin, and the axe the instrument of punishment for that sin. The concerns of the final fitt, then, are those of justice simply, and not of justice and mercy.37 Gawain receives at the hands of the Green Knight what is strictly due to his virtue. There need be no doubt that if he had fallen gravely short in his quest he would, like Bertran de Born, have lost his head, for the Gawain-poet is no less morally realistic than Dante. Sin involves a disturbance of the order of justice, and that order can only be restored by the virtue of penitence. When Gawain's sin is disclosed to him, he shows himself to be excellent in the moral virtue of penitence no less than in the theological and moral virtues set forth under the symbol of the pentangle. This is not to argue for a gap in the scheme of the pentangle, but for a necessary implication of that imperfection which is contained in the pentangle. Gawain's behaviour from here onwards follows in detail the requirements of penitential practice, and it has been the failure of critics to set his conduct in a penitential context that has accounted for some notably unsympathetic and even hostile misinterpretations of it. I shall indicate in the notes to the discussion that follows the points at which these misinterpretations need to be corrected.

The virtue of penitence is to be classified as a part of justice (ST, 3a 85.3). It is the right reason whereby one chooses to grieve for past sins that merit such grief, and in proportion to the nature of those sins, for there is also a mean of virtue in relation to the sorrow of repentance (ST, 3a 85.1). Hence penitence is a specific virtue concerned with the destruction of past sins (ST, 3a 85.2):

Manifestum est autem quod in poenitentia invenitur specialis ratio actus laudabilis, scilicet operari ad destructionem peccati praeteriti, inquantum est Dei offensa, quod non pertinet ad rationem alterius virtutis. Unde necesse est ponere quod poenitentia est specialis virtus.

Now it is clear that with penitence there is an act of special value, namely of working towards the destruction of past sin as an offence against God, and this belongs to the specific function of no other virtue. Hence we conclude that penitence is a special virtue.

The habit of the virtue of penitence is expressed in the three related acts of contrition, confession, and satisfaction.38 The nature of the relationship between them is plainly to be seen in the standard definition of contrition as (Suppl., 1.1 arg.1):

… dolor pro peccatis assumptus, cum proposito confitendi, et satisfaciendi.

an assumed sorrow for sins, together with the purpose of confessing them and of making satisfaction for them.

The conditions of all three are fulfilled in the conduct of Gawain.

Contrition involves a great disturbance of soul, for it is nothing less than a crushing of the heart. Such a disturbance results from the fact of being torn from one's own previous judgment of one's acts. Thus the fictional Dante is broken like a cross-bow under too great a strain before Beatrice's accusations (Purg., XXXI.16-21):

Come balestro frange, quando scocca
          da troppa tesa, la sua corda e l'arco,
          e con men foga l'asta il segno tocca,
sì scoppia' io sott'esso grave carco,
          fuori sgorgando lacrime e sospiri,
          e la voce allentò per lo suo varco.

As a cross-bow shot with too great strain breaks the cord and bow and the shaft touches the mark with less force, so I broke down under that heavy charge, pouring forth tears and sighs, and my voice failed in its passage.

In the same way Gawain is overwhelmed by his new-found sense of sin, and takes a long time to absorb the shock of the Green Knight's disclosure. He has to come to terms with the reversal of his judgment that he has been faithful to the lord in the Exchange of Winnings agreement and to the Green Knight in the Beheading Game. The realisation of his moral sinfulness in retaining the girdle fills him with shame (2369-72):

Þat oþer stif mon in study stod a gret whyle,
So agreued for greme he gryed withinne;
Alle þe blode of his brest blende in his face,
Þat al he schrank for schome þat þe schalk talked.

This is without doubt Gawain's first realisation of his sin, and indeed shame answers to the first recognition of sin, for shame is a reaction to a shameful deed as present (ST, 3a 85.1 ad 2). Since penitence is not merely a passion, but a virtue, true contrition requires a willed displeasure for the sin committed (Suppl., 3.1):

… in contritione est duplex dolor: unus est in ipsa voluntate, qui est essentialiter ipsa contritio, quae nihil aliud est, quam displicentia praeteriti peccati. Et talis dolor in contritione excedit omnes alios dolores, quia quantum aliquid placet, tantum contrarium ejus displicet: finis autem ultimus super omnia placet, cum omnia propter ipsum desiderentur; et ideo peccatum, quod a fine ultimo avertit, super omnia displicere debet.

… there is a twofold sorrow in contrition: one is in the will, and is the very essence of contrition, being nothing else than displeasure at past sin, and this sorrow, in contrition, surpasses all other sorrows. For the more pleasing a thing is, the more displeasing is its contrary. Now the last end is above all things pleasing: wherefore sin, which turns us away from the last end, should be, above all things, displeasing.

The importance of willed displeasure for sin is also stressed in a treatise such as The Book of the Craft of Dying (47/11-48/3):

… therfor to euery suche man that is in suche caas and is come to hys last ende (it) is to be counceiled besily that he laboure wiþ reson of hys mynde after hys power to haue ordinat 7 verray repentaunce, that is to menynge, not withstondynge þe sorwe 7 greuaunce of (hys) siknesse 7 drede that he hath of hasty deth, that he vse reson asmoche as he may, and enforce hym self to haue wilfully ful displesynge of alle synne for the due ende 7 (a) parfyt entent, that is for God …39

Gawain's response to the Green Knight's disclosure of his sin is not one of uncontrolled self-disgust, for that would be to add one sin of passion to another, but one of willed displeasure. The poet makes this distinction clear when he states that Gawain remained in silent thought for a long time before speaking (2369). Gawain's willed displeasure at his sins is repeatedly emphasised by the poet, for it is so essential to his future spiritual welfare. He repudiates his cowardice and covetousness (2374):

‘Corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse boþe!’

He repudiates also the girdle as a sign of the breaking of faith (2378):

‘Lo! þer þe falssyng, foule mot hit falle!’

And he condemns the infidelity itself and the loss of righteousness that is its necessary consequence (2382-84):

Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben euer
Of trecherye and vntrawþe: boþe bityde sorȝe
                              and care!(40)

It is important to recognize also that Gawain's action in removing the girdle and flinging it fiercely to the lord (2376-77) is not an impetuous gesture, but the expression of a proper alienation from sin. In order to make this distinction clear the poet has set Gawain's action in a carefully ordered sequence of events; it not only follows upon a period of silent thought and inward mortification (2369-72) but is placed between the penitent's two judgments of his sin (2373-75, and 2379-84). These judgments are considered judgments, as is suggested by their very compatibility, and they answer to one of the conditions that is essential to a proper confession of sin, namely that it should be the product of knowledge (Suppl., 9.4):

… prima (sc. conditio) est, ut aliquis sit sciens; et quantum ad hoc confessio dicitur esse discreta, secundum quod in actu omnis virtutis prudentia requiritur: est autem haec discretio, ut majora peccata cum majori pondere confiteatur.

The first (sc. condition) is knowledge, in respect of which confession is said to be discreet, inasmuch as prudence is required in every act of virtue: and this discretion consists in giving greater weight to greater sins.

It is necessary to stress the prudence that Gawain displays here, since prudence is not an obvious mark of Gawain's judgment of his own sinfulness for a modern reader unacquainted with penitential practice and Scholastic moral philosophy.41 But the amplification of the judgment and the repetition of the same specific moral terms are intended as an implication of Gawain's prudence (2374-75, and 2379-81):

‘Corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse boþe!
In yow is vylany and vyse þat vertue disstryez …
For care of þy knokke cowardyse me taȝt
To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake,
Þat is larges and lewté þat longez to knyȝtez.’

In the language of Scholastic moral philosophy Gawain is saying that his sinful act is formally one of cowardice, and materially one of covetousness and infidelity. It will be seen that Gawain's own judgment corresponds to that of the Green Knight, and that both are in accord with the poet's representation of his conduct in the Exchange of Winnings agreement.

There is, however, a difference in emphasis or rather in perspective between Gawain's judgment and that of the Green Knight. The Green Knight addresses himself to the essential significance of Gawain's act and focuses as a result on Gawain's intention. And, per se loquendo, Gawain's act is one of cowardice, not of covetousness nor of infidelity. But the Green Knight does not disregard the proper object of Gawain's exterior act, namely his infidelity, for he stands in a twofold relation of faith to Gawain as a result of the Beheading Game and the Exchange of Winnings agreement. The Green Knight does indeed find fault with Gawain for the material sin (2366):

Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted.

But he finds in the passion of fear a mitigating circumstance; he blames Gawain, but he blames him the less as a result of it (2368). This is a judgment strictly in conformity with the principles of Scholastic morality; it is not indulgent, but even-handed.42 Gawain's own situation is necessarily very different from that of the Green Knight. He is to be judged by the standards appropriate not to a confessor but to a penitent sinner. And here we need to note that it is not enough for a penitent's statement of his sins to be accurate; it must be also explicit, simple, and complete (Suppl., 9.4):

Sed ex propria ratione hujusmodi actus, qui est confessio, habet quod sit manifestativa. Quae quidem manifestatio per quatuor impediri potest: primo per falsitatem; et quantum ad hoc dicitur fidelis, idest vera: secundo per obscuritatem verborum; et contra hoc dicitur nuda, ut non involvat obscuritatem verborum: tertio per verborum multiplicationem; et propter hoc dicitur simplex, ut scilicet non recitet in confessione, nisi quod ad quantitatem peccati pertinet: quarto, ut non subtrahatur aliquid de his, quae manifestanda sunt, et contra hoc dicitur integra.

By reason of its very nature, viz. confession, this act is one of manifestation: which manifestation can be hindered by four things: first by falsehood, and in this respect confession is said to be faithful, i.e. true. Secondly, by the use of vague words, and against this confession is said to be open, so as not to be wrapped up in vague words; thirdly, by multiplicity of words, in which respect it is said to be simple, indicating that the penitent should relate only such matters as affect the gravity of the sin; fourthly none of those things should be suppressed which should be made known, and in this respect confession should be entire.43

Hence Gawain specifies his covetousness as well as his infidelity. But the Green Knight does not say that Gawain is not guilty of covetousness, he says that he was not motivated by it—a very different matter. And as we have seen, the covetousness has the same moral status as the infidelity; it is a sin materially, but not formally.

In discussing Gawain's detestation of his sins we have moved imperceptibly to his confession of them. This is inevitably the case when the penitent's assumed sorrow for his sins directly involves an intention to correct them. But confession is explicit in Beatrice's words to the fictional Dante in the earthly paradise (Purg., XXXI. 5-6):

‘dì, dì se questo è vero: a tanta accusa
tua confession conviene esser congiunta.’

‘say, say if this is true; to such an accusation thy confession must needs be joined.’

The distinctness of the act of confession as an essential act of the virtue of penitence is rendered explicit in two ways by the Gawain-poet, first of all subjectively in Gawain's words to the Green Knight (2385-86):

I biknowe yow, knyȝt, here stylle,
Al fawty is my fare,

and second objectively in the Green Knight's acceptance of Gawain's confession as complete (2391):

Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses.(44)

Moreover, in his representation of Gawain's subsequent conduct the poet continually underlines its penitential fitness in respect of confession. Now confession is, as we have seen, an act of the special virtue of penitence, and as such it must meet certain specific conditions. First of all it must be full of shame in so far as it expresses the sinner's horror at the shamefulness of his sin (Suppl., 9.4):

Quae quidem primo initium sumit in horrore turpitudinis peccati; et quantum ad hoc confessio debet esse verecunda, ut scilicet non se jactet de peccatis propter aliquam saeculi vanitatem admixtam.

First of all it takes its origin in the horror which one conceives for the shamefulness of sin, and in this respect confession should be full of shame, so as not to be a boastful account of one's sins, by reason of some worldly vanity accompanying it.

The sense of shame is still with Gawain when he comes to tell the court at Camelot of his sin (2501-4):

He tened quen he schulde telle,
He groned for gref and grame;
Þe blod in his face con melle,
When he hit schulde schewe, for schame.

There is nothing morbid in all of this, not at least if we judge it (as we surely must) from within the value system of medieval penitential literature.45 The sense of shame is nothing less than what is proper to the reality of sin. Any moral danger that may be perceived in this situation is not the indulgence of shame but the avoidance of shame. Langland sees the friars as the agents who undermine the salvific purpose of penance (PPl, B XX.281-85):

For persons and parissh preestes, that sholde the peple shryve,
Ben curatours called to knowe and to hele,
Alle that ben hir parisshens penaunces enjoigne,
And ben ashamed in hir shrift; ac shame maketh hem wende
And fleen to the freres …

Meed the Maid has no difficulty in finding an accommodating friar (PPl, B III. 43-44):

Thanne Mede for hire mysdedes to that man kneled,
And shrof hire of hire sherewednesse—shamelees, I trowe,

and by the sound of it Chaucer's Friar is no less accommodating, for ‘ful swetely herde he confessioun’ (CT, A 221). The second specific condition of confession is that it should be tearful in spirit, that is, that it should be an expression of regret for the past sin (Suppl., 9.4):

Secundo progreditur ad dolorem de peccato commisso; et quantum ad hoc dicitur esse lacrymabilis.

Then it goes on to deplore the sin committed, and in this respect it is said to be tearful.

Hence the confession of the fictional Dante to Beatrice is characterized by tearfulness (Purg., XXXI. 34-36):

Piangendo dissi: ‘Le presenti cose
          col falso lor piacer volser miei passi,
          tosto che 'l vostro viso si nascose.’

… weeping, I said: ‘Present things with their false pleasure turned my steps as soon as your face was hid.’

It is evident that Gawain too retains a sense of the injury that his sin has done him, and still deplores it on his arrival at Camelot (2505-8):

‘Lo! lorde,’ quoþ þe leude, and þe lace hondeled,
‘Þis is þe bende of þis blame I bere in my nek,
Þis is þe laþe and þe losse þat I laȝt haue
Of couardise and couetyse þat I haf caȝt þare.’

The third specific condition of confession is that it should be humble (Suppl., 9.4):

Tertio in abjectione sui terminatur; et quantum ad hoc debet esse humilis, ut se miserum confiteatur, et infirmum.

Thirdly, it culminates in self-abjection, and in this respect it should be humble, so that one confesses one's misery and weakness.

The fictional Dante's humble abjection in his confession is shown in the image of him as a child, ashamed and silent, with eyes on the ground (Purg., XXXI. 64-67):

Quali i fanciulli, vergognando, muti
          con li occhi a terra stannosi, ascoltando
          e sè riconoscendo e ripentuti,
tal mi stav'io …

As children ashamed stand dumb with eyes on the ground, listening and acknowledging their fault and repentant, so I stood there …

The nourishment of such humility is Gawain's expressed motive for the acceptance of the girdle from the Green Knight himself (2437-38):

And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
Þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.(46)

Such behaviour stands clearly defined when set against that of someone like the Wife of Bath, who displays the sin of pride in both its inward and outward forms (CT, A 449-57). She does not lament the reality of human imperfection, but rather rejoices in it (CT, D 105-12):

Virginitee is greet perfeccion,
And continence eek with devocion,
But Crist, that of perfeccion is welle,
Bad nat every wight he sholde go selle
Al that he hadde, and gyve it to the poore,
And in swich wise folwe hym and his foore.
He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly;
And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.

It has already been observed that the act of confession by its very nature as the manifestation of sin should be true, explicit, simple, and complete. Gawain's declaration of his sins to the court fulfils these conditions no less admirably than his earlier declaration of them to the Green Knight. And here we might justly commend the moral courage of one who is not deflected by shame from making so full a confession of his sins. Such courage in confession belongs to the general condition of virtue, as Aquinas also explains (Suppl., 9.4):

Quarta (sc. conditio) est, ut immobiliter operetur; et quantum ad hoc dicitur, quod debet esse fortis, ut scilicet propter verecundiam veritas non dimittatur.

The fourth condition is that one should act immovably, and in this respect it is said that confession should be courageous, viz. that the truth should not be forsaken through shame.

As a truly contrite and fully confessed sinner, Gawain is willing to make satisfaction for his sin (2387-88):

Letez me ouertake your wylle
And efte I schal be ware.

But the Green Knight makes it clear that Gawain has done satisfaction for his sin by receiving the nick on the neck from the third blow of the axe (2392):

And hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge.

As a result it can be said that he has received absolution for his sin (2393-94):

I halde þe polysed of þat plyȝt, and pured as clene
As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne.

His subsequent behaviour is therefore to be understood as that of one made whole again by penance.


It is very easy to misinterpret the matter which directly follows upon the second confession scene and which presents Gawain's leave-taking of Bertilak. The poet is all too readily seen by some modern readers as lapsing into a characteristically medieval anti-feminism, and Gawain as a result is held to show bad grace in blaming his failure in the quest not on his own weakness but on the deceit of women.47 But it is impossible to attribute such conduct either to one whose virtue is symbolized by the pentangle or to one who has been made whole by penance.

It has to be said that Gawain is indeed the victim of deceit, for the cunning of the lady is amply evident in the bedroom scene of the third day, and it is symbolically confirmed by the analogy of the fox-hunt. But the argument that Gawain is a victim of such cunning is not in its turn to be pressed unreasonably. Gawain is certainly aware of his own responsibility as he is aware of feminine deceit (2414-15):

Bot hit is no ferly þaȝ a fole madde,
And þurȝ wyles of wymmen be wonen to sorȝe.

And no one is more severe in judgment on Gawain than Gawain himself (2374-84). Moreover, as we have seen, Gawain's severity is a due severity. When Gawain concludes that (2427-28):

Þaȝ I be now bigyled,
Me þink me burde be excused,

he does not literally mean that he should in fact be excused his sin, for that would be inconsistent with all that he has said before. Rather we must attribute to him the rueful good humour of one whose guilt for sin has now been removed.

The reference that Gawain now makes to Adam, Solomon, Sampson, and David (2416-19) is designed by the poet to draw attention once again to the central theme, namely that the highest human excellence is flawed. No human attainment is superior to that of these men, and yet all of them fell short (2422-24):

For þes wer forne þe freest, þat folȝed alle þe sele
Exellently of alle þyse oþer, vnder heuenryche
                                        þat mused.

Chaucer's Parson draws the same lesson from the same examples (CT, I 955):

Ful ofte tyme I rede that no man truste in his owene perfeccioun, but he be stronger than Sampson, and hoolier than David, and wiser than Salomon.

And herein we may appreciate the special fitness of the association between Solomon and the pentangle (625-26), for the pentangle is a symbol that at one and the same time expresses human excellence and imperfection.

In judging Gawain's conduct at this point we need to remember that he has already taken his leave of Bertilak and the ladies before setting out for the Green Chapel (1975-82), and has done so in such a warm and loving manner that he could hardly improve upon it even if he were to return to Hautdesert as Bertilak suggests (2400-2406). What may be construed as Gawain's bad grace in taking his final leave of Bertilak and the ladies is in fact another fine display of good manners. Considerable social tact is exercised by Gawain here, for he can hardly deny that these three have been responsible for his bitter self-knowledge of imperfection. Thus he courteously removes his helmet and wishes his host well, using the polite plural form of address (2407-10):

‘Nay, for soþe,’ quoþ þe segge, and sesed hys helme,
And hatz hit of hendely, and þe haþel þonkkez,
‘I haf soiorned sadly; sele yow bytyde,
And he ȝelde hit yow ȝare þat ȝarkkez al menskes!’

And no less courteously does he commend himself to the ladies (2411-13):

And comaundez me to þat cortays, your comlych fere,
Boþe þat on and þat oþer, myn honoured ladyez,
Þat þus hor knyȝt wyth hor kest han koyntly bigyled.(48)

He remains their servant, and his gesture is more than an empty formality. He is even able to look with some ironic humour on the way in which he has been deceived. But these ironic possibilities have been hard earned in terms of the knowledge of himself that he has gained on the quest.

When Gawain returns to Arthur's court he does so as one made whole through penance, so that the stain of sin has been made clean. And it is the recognition of this fact that makes possible the joyful welcome of the court. But to understand the conduct of Gawain and the court on the knight's return it is necessary to set the responses of each in a proper perspective in relation to the virtue of penitence.

Although the sensible sorrow that accompanies contrition can be immoderate (Suppl., 3.2), contrition itself lasts for the whole of the present life, even though satisfaction may have a temporal limitation (Suppl, 4.1):

… in contritione … est duplex dolor: unus rationis, qui est detestatio peccati a se commissi: alius sensitivae partis, qui ex isto consequitur. Et quantum ad utrumque contritionis tempus est totius vitae praesentis status.

… there is a twofold sorrow in contrition: one is in the reason, and is detestation of the sin committed; the other is in the sensitive part, and results from the former: and as regards both, the time for contrition is the whole of the present state of life.

Thus when Gawain returns to Camelot the slight wound in his neck is healed (2484), but his sorrow for his sins (2501-4) and his displeasure for them (2505-10) remain unimpaired. The motive of sorrow persists because of the knowledge of the harm that has been done by sin (Suppl., 4.1 ad 1):

… manet autem dolori, qui non solum de culpa est, inquantum habet turpitudinem, sed etiam inquantum habet nocumentum annexum.

… but there does remain a motive of sorrow, which is for the guilt, not only as being something disgraceful, but also as having a hurt connected with it.

This harm is the obstruction that has been placed in the way of man and his salvation (Suppl., 4.1):

Quamdiu enim est aliquis in statu viae, detestatur incommoda, quibus a perventione ad terminum viae retardatur, vel impeditur; unde, cum per peccatum praeteritum vitae nostrae cursus in Deum retardetur, quia tempus illud, quod erat deputatum ad currendum, recuperari non potest, oportet quod semper in vitae hujus tempore status contritionis maneat, quantum ad peccati detestationem.

For as long as one is a wayfarer, one detests the obstacles which retard or hinder one from reaching the end of the way. Wherefore, since past sin retards the course of our life towards God (because the time which was given to us for that course cannot be recovered), it follows that the state of contrition remains during the whole of this lifetime, as regards the detestation of sin.

And this harm too Gawain acknowledges (2511-12):

For mon may hyden his harme, bot vnhap ne may hit,
For þer hit onez is tachched twynne wil hit neuer.(49)

There is no lack of spiritual or moral discernment on the part of the court in the welcome that it extends to Gawain. The best of knights returns in safety from a quest which has seemed to hold out only the certainty of death (see 672-86). The virtues symbolized by the pentangle he wears on shield and coat armour have been triumphantly vindicated, while the imperfection that accompanies them has been made good by satisfaction and absolution. And as Aquinas also explains, when the guilt is removed, so too is the shame (Suppl., 4.1 ad 1):

… erubescentia respicit peccatum, solum inquantum habet turpitudinem; et ideo postquam peccatum quantum ad culpam remissum est, non manet pudori locus.

Shame regards sin only as a disgraceful act; wherefore after sin has been taken away as to its guilt, there is no further motive for shame.

Gawain has made a shameful confession of his sin to the court in his account of his adventures, and this is indeed an efficacious act.50 But now the moment for shame has passed. The court shares its humanity with Gawain, and Gawain is its representative, the nephew of their king (2464-66). The only fitting response of such a court is to comfort the knight who has survived so profound a spiritual and moral examination, and to receive him back joyfully into their midst (2513-14):

Þe kyng comfortez þe knyȝt, and alle þe court als
Laȝen loude þerat …

It is another sign of the fitness of the court's response (its courtesy in the strict sense) that it should wish to associate itself with the knight's imperfection (2514-18):

                                                            … and luflyly acorden
Þat lordes and ladis þat longed to þe Table,
Vche burne of þe broþerhede, a bauderyk schulde haue,
A bende abelef hym aboute of a bryȝt grene,
And þat, for sake of þat segge, in swete to were.

But the girdle, as a measure of Gawain's sin, is by the same token a measure of human excellence, and its fitness as such is acknowledged by the Green Knight (2398-99):

                                                                      … and þis a pure token
Of þe chaunce of þe grene chapel at cheualrous knyȝtez.

The girdle is the symbol of human virtue as it is proved in the quest of the Green Chapel, and as Aristotle observes (Ethics, IV.3) honour is the reward that is due to virtue. Since the adventure of the Green Chapel is one of the most marvellous adventures concerning Arthur (27-29) and since Arthur is by repute the noblest of the kings of Britain (25-26), the honour that is won for the court by Gawain's conduct is spread abroad and so becomes renown. At the end of the poem as at the beginning Gawain and the court are united in the renown of the Round Table (2519-21):

For þat watz acorded þe renoun of þe Rounde Table,
And he honoured þat hit hade euermore after,
As hit is breued in þe best boke of romaunce.

The romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight justly takes its place, therefore, among ‘þe Brutus bokez’ (2523) as a witness of the nobility of England in the days of King Arthur.


  1. Barron, Trawthe and Treason (1980), p. 12. A similar view is expressed by D. Mills, ‘An Analysis of the Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP, 67 (1968), 612-30, when he observes that Gawain's crossing himself ‘is a gesture of comic surprise rather than a serious reminder of moral danger’ (p. 613). More judicious is the opinion of C. Dean, ‘The Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Leeds Studies in English, 5 (1971), 1-12 (p. 4): ‘He makes the sign of the cross so that he might be þe sauer (1202). This action should probably not be considered very significant. Very likely it is nothing more than part of his pretence of waking up.’ Dean is right to emphasise the naturalness of Gawain's action. It is what a pious knight would do on any morning. But the reason for that action is also significant, for it points to the ever-present reality of moral danger. And in the actual circumstances of the first bedroom scene the action has more than its usual significance, for Gawain is indeed in immediate moral danger. Thus B. S. Levy, ‘Gawain's Spiritual Journey: Imitatio Christi in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Annuale Mediaevale, 6 (1965), 65-106, is surely right when he observes (p. 96): ‘Nor is Gawain unaware of his vulnerability, for at the first approach of the lady, who attempts to distract him from his basic concern for his spiritual welfare, he carefully blesses himself to assure the safety of his soul.’

  2. B. J. Whiting, ‘Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale’, Mediaeval Studies, 9 (1947), 189-234 and printed in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by D. Fox (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968), pp. 73-78, records an example from Gerbert de Montreuil's Continuation de Perceval in which Gawain is saved from death by his piety in making the sign of the cross: ‘Gawain, with a touch of happy, if not completely congruous, piety, makes the sign of the cross as he enters the bed, and the knife is more or less miraculously disclosed to him’ (p. 197).

  3. It is necessary here to reject the description of J. D. Burnley, ‘The Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 3 (1973), 1-9 (p. 9): ‘On the hunting field anxiety turns to panic and an unceremonious death which invites our contempt and, with memories of the previous heroic struggle, a deep sense of disappointment.’ A contrast may be noted with the lack of success of the hunt in The Book of the Duchess, for here the hounds had ‘on a defaute yfalle’ (384), that is, they had fallen in error since they had been foiled by the hart. See D. Scott-MacNab, ‘A Re-examination of Octovyen's Hunt in The Book of the Duchess’, Medium Aevum, 56 (1987), 183-99 (pp. 191-92).

  4. J. Nicholls, The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet (Woodbridge and Dover, New Hampshire, 1985): ‘the seemingly erotic kisses are so placed that they can also be seen as conventional gestures of greeting and farewell’ (p. 133). See also his continuing discussion on p. 134, where the reference to Lancelot is cited (n. 56).

  5. The phrase is that of Nicholls, p. 134.

  6. Aristotle goes so far as to say that ‘a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without character’ (Poetics, 6). This is a hard saying. What it means is that actions are carried out by agents, but by ‘character’ Aristotle understands moral choice, and human agents are not always seen in the act of making such choices. Characters are then seen to possess a moral, but not a poetic autonomy. See G. F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: the Argument (Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1957), pp. 238-39.

  7. Assumptions about Gawain's reputation for courtesy are often imported into interpretations of the poem, and these in their turn need to be challenged. Gawain is often identified in the later romances as sexually active and even lecherous, so that sexual innuendo is taken to be a predictable element in his conversation, and love-making the end towards which that conversation is directed. Thus Whiting, ‘Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale’, describes Gawain as the ‘well-mannered wooer of almost any available girl’ (p. 203). This conception of Gawain has hardened into dogma, so that Spearing represents the hero of Sir Gawain in terms of a secular cortaysye defined as ‘thoughtfulness for others, refined manners, deference, the service of ladies, and elegant love-making’ (The Gawain-Poet, p. 11). But the image of Gawain is by no means so clearcut in the medieval romances, and Whiting is obliged to counter the view that Gawain was originally a model of chastity (p. 203). Indeed, since we are dealing here with fictional creations not historical realities, as Whiting himself reminds us (p. 203), we can accommodate two or several traditions concerning the character of Gawain. There is no evidence, so far as I am aware, that Chrétien's Gawain was unchaste. The courtesy and chastity of Gawain are disparaged by the Maidens of the Tent in Perlesvaus much as they are by the lady in Sir Gawain (Perlesvaus, 1813-17, and p. 64):

    ‘Par Dieu, fet l'une a l'autre, se ce fust cil Gavains qui niés est le roi Artu, il parlast a nos autrement, e trovissions en lui plus de deduit que en cestui; mes cist est uns Gavains contrefez. Malement est enploiee l'onneurs q'on li a fete en ceste tente’.

    ‘In faith’, said one, ‘if this were Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, he would speak to us differently, and we should find in him more entertainment than in this man: this Gawain is an impostor. The honour we have paid him here was ill-spent.’

    (Compare also Sir Gawain, 1478-94, and see Perlesvaus, 6995-96 and p. 190, where Gawain is represented as not merely chaste, but also shy). Thus Gawain's courtly conversation in Sir Gawain does not necessarily presuppose any sexual element, as Nicholls (The Matter of Courtesy, p. 129) observes, drawing out in the process a comparison between the innocent talk of love in Sir Gawain, 1506-7 and at Theseus's feast in The Knight's Tale (CT, A 2203). The chaste tradition is essentially that within which the Gawain of Sir Gawain has been conceived and which the pentangle passage has made explicit, although the Gawain-poet is familiar with the alternative tradition and exploits the tension between the two in the bedroom scenes of Fitt III. For a recent discussion of the history of Gawain in medieval romance, emphasising the positive rather than the negative sides of his character, see J. Matthews, Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (Wellingborough, 1990).

  8. ‘Unless the remedy of at least some compulsion is first applied to take advantage of their modesty.’ Reference is to the text and translation of P. G. Walsh, Andreas Capellanus on Love (London, 1982), pp. 222-23.

  9. Reference is to The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, Volume I, Arcadia, 1590, edited by A. Feuillerat, reissued with minor corrections (Cambridge, 1969), p. 452.

  10. The general position is admirably stated by Burnley, YES, 3 (1973), p. 2: ‘The co-occurrence of three seduction scenes with three hunting scenes has attracted the attention of every reader of the poem, and the almost unanimous desire to pair the scenes in some way can scarcely be ascribed to a universal aberration of sensibility. If, however, the scenes cannot be paired, then occurring as they do in a context of parallels, their evident deliberation must constitute a major flaw in an otherwise carefully constructed poem. The probability is, therefore, that a grand overall pattern is conceived in Fitt III whose moral significance unites in some way with the moral theme of the poem.’ Unfortunately the ensuing discussion fails to do justice to the narrative details by means of which the respective hunting and bedroom scenes are linked.

  11. A graphic instance of the animal instinct for life is given by Leonard Woolf, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939-1969 (London, 1969), pp. 20-21:

    My bitch had five puppies and it was decided that she should be left with two to bring up and so it was for me to destroy three. In such circumstances it was an age-old custom to drown the day-old puppies in a pail of water. This I proceeded to do. Looked at casually, day-old puppies are little blind, squirming, undifferentiated objects or things. I put one of them in the bucket of water, and instantly an extraordinary, a terrible thing happened. This blind, amorphous thing began to fight desperately for its life, struggling, beating the water with its paws. I suddenly saw that it was an individual, that like me it was an ‘I’, that in its bucket of water it was experiencing what I would experience and fighting death, as I would fight death if I were drowning in the multitudinous seas.

  12. H. L. Savage, ‘The Significance of the Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP, 27 (1928), 1-15 (p. 6).

  13. The eloquence of Savage has undoubtedly been influential in the attribution of cunning to Gawain; compare also the beguiling formulation he makes in JEGP, 27 (1928), p. 5: ‘On the third day, then, a false beast is roused in the forest, and a false man revealed in the castle; a sly fox is caught in the wood, a “sly fox” in the castle.’ Not all critics, however, have been persuaded. L. Blenkner, OSB, ‘The Three Hunts and Sir Gawain's Triple Fault’, American Benedictine Review, 29 (1978), 227-46 notes that ‘on the day of the fox, guileless Gawain is pointedly un-wily’ (p. 239), and that ‘there is … nothing tricky or devious in Gawain's acceptance of the girdle’ (p. 243).

  14. According to Davis (p. 121), following Hulbert and Knott, the intervention of Mary here constitutes yet another artistic blunder, for it interferes with the testing of Gawain at a crucial point. But the operation of human free will is a secondary cause concerned with contingent realities, and is dependent on the first cause which is God. The will cannot be the ultimate source of its own free acts (see Aquinas, ST, 1a 2ae 10.1 ad 1, and 10.4 ad 2).

  15. The relation of fear and love has been the subject of empirical testing. The experimental data are described by E. Berscheid and E. Walster in Foundations of Interpersonal Attraction, edited by T. L. Huston (New York and London, 1974), pp. 363-64. I owe this reference to Dr Margret Fine-Davis, Centre for Women's Studies, Trinity College, Dublin.

  16. ‘I do not know why anyone who wishes to form the idea of a perfect knight should deny him the commendation of piety and religion’ (Cavalchini and Samuel, p. 39).

  17. On this passage compare The Parlement of the Thre Ages, 645-48:

    Ite ostendite vos sacerdotibus,
    To schryue ȝow full schirle, and schewe ȝow to prestis.
    Et ecce omnia munda sunt vobis,
    And ȝe þat wronge wroghte schall worthen full clene.
  18. Reference is to Divi Thomae Aquinatis Summa Theologica, second edition (Rome, 1894), Volume V, Tertiae Partis Supplementum, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London, 1917).

  19. Texts of the three English translations are made available in my unpublished doctoral thesis, ‘A Critical Edition of Caxton's The Art and Craft to Know Well to Die and Ars Moriendi together with the Antecedent Manuscript Material’, 2 vols (University of Oxford, 1973).

  20. See Morgan, ‘A Critical Edition’, II, 129-31.

  21. Reference to the Ethica Nicomachea is to the translation of W. D. Ross, revised by J. O. Urmson, in The Works of Aristotle, edited by W. D. Ross, Volume IX (Oxford, 1975).

  22. T. P. Dunning, Review of J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1965), RES, NS, 18 (1967), 58-60 (p. 59).

  23. See P. Armour, The Door of Purgatory: A Study of Multiple Symbolism in Dante's Purgatorio (Oxford, 1983). Armour rejects the sacramental interpretation of the three steps as representing contrition, confession, and satisfaction in favour of the moral interpretation by which the three steps represent self-knowledge, the sorrow of contrition, and shame (pp. 1-34). Accordingly, the fictional Dante's own experience of the penitential process begins with the self-knowledge that leads to shame (Purg., XXX. 76-78):

    Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte;
              ma, veggendomi in esso, i trassi all'erba,
              tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.

    My eyes fell down to the clear fount, but, seeing myself in it, I drew them back to the grass, so great shame weighed on my brow.

  24. In his reconstruction of Gawain's confession in ‘The Two Confession Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Modern Philology, 57 (1959), 73-79, Burrow explicitly attributes to Gawain a deliberation in his sinning: ‘He goes to confession, rather than to Mass, because he realizes that he has sinned in agreeing to conceal the gift of the girdle from Bertilak, against his promise; but, though, presumably, he confesses this, he neither makes restitution … by returning the girdle nor resolves to sin no more’ (p. 75).

  25. Spearing justly observes that ‘it is difficult not to feel that if we were to understand that Gawain was deliberately concealing what he knew to be a sin then the poet would have given us some insight into his consciousness at this point, in order to make the matter clear’ (p. 225). The observation is developed by Davenport in such a way as to show the positive moral import it has for Gawain's conduct: ‘the poet most significantly chooses to withdraw knowledge of Gawain's inner mind in the scenes immediately after his acceptance of the green belt, so that we are shown his going to confession, his mirth, and the last exchange of winnings, from outside. These acts exist in the poem as a performance of virtue, a completely convincing appearance of truth’ (p. 189). The uncertain knowledge of sin in the sinner seeking expurgation is expressed by Agatha to Harry in T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, Part II, Scene II:

    It is possible that you have not known what sin
    You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
    That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
    It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
    In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
    And so find expurgation.
  26. This conclusion is in accordance with that arrived at independently by other scholars. Thus Levy, ‘Gawain's Spiritual Journey’ comments that ‘from a strictly theological point of view, Gawain's “sin” would have to be considered venial, for Gawain was caught in a dilemma, and his choice was thus not entirely voluntary’ (p. 102, n. 54). P. J. C. Field, ‘A Rereading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Studies in Philology, 68 (1971), 255-69 concludes that ‘breaking a secular promise over a possibly trivial matter in extenuating circumstances is a much less serious fault than committing adultery with no such excuse’ and that the juxtaposition of the two temptations ‘seems to put Gawain's lapse into perspective, and to place it firmly as a venial sin’ (p. 269). Similarly L. Blenkner, OSB, ‘The Three Hunts and Sir Gawain's Triple Fault’, American Benedictine Review, 29 (1978), 227-46 comments that ‘the hero does not deliberately sin; he tacitly consents to keep the girdle, but because he is ignorant he is not aware it is sin, and so his act of iniquity is a venial sin’ (p. 231, n.5).

  27. See the comment of C. Wood, The Elements of Chaucer's Troilus (Durham, N. C., 1984), pp. 102 and 187, n.6.

  28. The distinction is not perceived by Spearing, and accordingly he misrepresents Gawain's words and intentions. Gawain's ‘praise of the lady's efforts becomes positively patronizing’ and ‘his honour is obviously in his mind too’ (p. 211).

  29. D. Burnley, The Language of Chaucer (London, 1989) describes such an accumulation of negatives in the phrase ‘negative support’, and explains it by the fact that ‘each negating item is mutually supportive of the others in clarifying the total negative character of the clause’ (p. 60). The purpose of such multiple negation is to add intensity to the utterance.

  30. As argued by D. F. Hills, ‘Gawain's Fault in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, RES, NS, 14 (1963), 124-31.

  31. J. A. Burrow, ‘“Cupiditas” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Reply to D. F. Hills’, RES, NS, 15(1964), 56.

  32. Burrow explains Gawain's covetousness by invoking the distinction between the formal and material nature of a moral act (A Reading, pp. 135-36). It will be apparent that I find his exposition at this point entirely convincing.

  33. The passage is quoted by Davis, p. 128. The translation is that of M.B. Salu, The Ancrene Riwle (London, 1955), p. 93.

  34. The explicit statement of Gawain's faith here rules out any interpretation of the wearing of the girdle as an act of superstition (such as that of N. Jacobs, ‘Gawain's False Confession’, English Studies, 51 (1970), 433-35, whereby we learn that ‘Gawain's reliance on sorcery rather than the mercy of God is culpable both as pride in the form of presumption and as sloth in the form of infirm faith’ (p. 433)). The wearing of charms is superstitious and unlawful if they bear inscriptions that involve demons or if confidence is placed in the form of the inscriptions or the manner in which they are worn (ST, 2a 2ae 96.4). If the girdle is such a charm the wearing of it would be a contradiction of Gawain's piety, for superstition is a vice opposed to the virtue of religion (ST, 2a 2ae 92.1). It would also be a contradiction of his faith, for piety presupposes faith as being an outward confession of faith (ST, 2a 2ae 94.1 ad 1). But the wearing of charms is not superstitious if they derive their power from God and the saints (ST, 2a 2ae 96.4 ad 3):

    Ad tertium dicendum quod eadem ratio est de portatione reliquiarum. Quia si portentur ex fiducia Dei et sanctorum quorum sunt reliquiae, non erit illicitum: si autem circa hoc attenderetur aliquid aliud vanum, puta quod vas esset triangulare, aut aliquid aliud hujusmodi quod non pertineret ad reverentiam Dei et sanctorum, esset superstitiosum et illicitum.

    This same consideration applies in the wearing of relics. If it is out of confidence in God and the saints, whose relics they are, this is not wrong. But if account were taken of some irrelevance, for instance, that the locket is triangular and the like, which has no bearing on the reverence due to God and the saints, it would be superstitious and wrong.

    The lawful use of charms is also acknowledged in Chaucer's Parson's Tale after a vehement denunciation of superstitious practices (CT, I 607):

    Charmes for woundes or maladie of men or of beestes, if they taken any effect, it may be peraventure that God suffreth it, for folk sholden yeve the moore feith and reverence to his name.

    Now the source of the qualities attributed by the lady to the girdle is not specified (1849-54). Since Gawain is not accused of superstition we are entitled to believe that its power is derived from God. Further, when Gawain fastens the girdle twice around his waist (2030-36) the action is not carried out in any special manner that might suggest an act of superstition. We may draw a clear contrast with Chaucer's presentation of superstition in his Franklin's Tale, where the resort to astrological magic is condemned in unambiguous terms as ‘supersticious cursednesse’ (CT, F 1272). Gawain's act of acceptance of the girdle is followed by the confession of his sins (1876-79) and this act constitutes, as we have seen, the clearest demonstration of his piety.

  35. Spearing takes a very different view of this scene (p. 190): ‘That pleasure of the Green Knight's is not entirely flattering to Gawain. He is pleased with him, from the same standpoint of superiority that might enable one to be pleased with a small boy or a pet dog that showed fighting spirit.’ These analogies cannot be accepted, for they unduly diminish the person of the hero. It is true, of course, that the Green Knight possesses the superiority of knowledge and Gawain the vulnerability of ignorance. But the gap between the two is that of equable judge and penitent sinner, and this is how it subsequently comes to be expressed. And there is nothing childish (in the pejorative sense) about the penitent sinner.

  36. Davis (p. 126) takes lace (2226) to refer to a ‘thong’ wrapped about the shaft of the axe in the manner of that described in the first fitt (217-18). But it is hard to see what point there can be in such a reference. The identification of the lace with the lady's girdle was first made by S. Malarkey and J. B. Toelken, ‘Gawain and the Green Girdle’, JEGP, 63 (1964), 14-20 and printed by D. R. Howard and C. Zacher, Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1968), pp. 236-44, and is further supported by Waldron in his note to 2225f. (p. 125).

  37. Burrow's discussion of justice and mercy (A Reading, pp. 137-40) is not here relevant, and results from the erroneous assumption of an invalid confession.

  38. The acts of penitence are not related to the virtue as parts but as effects (ST, 3a 90.1 ad 2). On contrition, confession, and satisfaction as acts of virtue, see Suppl., 1.2, 7.2, and 12.2.

  39. The author of the Latin Ars Moriendi is here following Duns Scotus, Quaestiones in Lib. IV Sententiarum, Distinctio XX; see Morgan, ‘A Critical Edition’, Volume II, pp. 136-37.

  40. The spiritual outlook of Gawain's detestation of his sins is reflected in the words of the preacher at the retreat at Belvedere in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. The distinction between mortal and venial sin is here of little comfort, for ‘even venial sin is of such a foul and hideous nature that even if the omnipotent Creator could end all the evil and misery in the world, the wars, the diseases, the robberies, the crimes, the deaths, the murders, on condition that He allowed a single venial sin to pass unpunished, a single venial sin, a lie, an angry look, a moment of wilful sloth, He, the great omnipotent God, could not do so because sin, be it in thought or deed, is a transgression of His law and God would not be God if He did not punish the transgressor’. See J. Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Granada Publishing Limited (London, 1977), p. 122. The Portrait was first published in 1916.

  41. Spearing writes of Gawain's response to his sin: ‘Certainly he does not take a balanced view of his situation. At one moment, before the Green Knight explains things to him, his conscience is apparently quite clear … At the next moment, having learned the truth, he is accusing himself of every sin he can think of’ (p. 227).

  42. Benson describes the Green Knight's attitude as one of ‘indulgent forgiveness’ (p. 247) and Spearing comments that ‘the Green Knight is eventually more lenient towards Gawain's failing than Gawain himself is’ (p. 31). But equanimity is not indulgence nor leniency. The reason why the Green Knight's judgment is light is not due to any absence of moral rigour on his part, but rather to the presence of moral virtue on Gawain's part. Thus it is only after Gawain has made his confession and done satisfaction for his sin in retaining the girdle that the Green Knight addresses him as ‘Sir Gawayn’ (2396). See V. L. Weiss, ‘The Medieval Knighting Ceremony in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Chaucer Review, 12 (1978), 183-89 (p. 185).

  43. The importance of completeness in confession is a matter that has already been raised in connection with Gawain's confession on the eve of his departure for the Green Chapel. The ubiquity of sin is impressed upon the gloomy spirits of Stephen Daedalus at the beginning of the retreat at Belvedere. He is led to reflect that at the final judgment ‘every sin would then come forth from its lurking place, the most rebellious against the divine will and the most degrading to our poor corrupt nature, the tiniest imperfection and the most heinous atrocity’ (Portrait, p. 104). It is the ubiquity of sin that explains the need for completeness in confession.

  44. Davis glosses confessed so clene as ‘made clean by confession’ (p. 173). But clene probably means here ‘completely’ (see MED, s.v. clene adv. 3. (a)); it is used in the phrase clene-shriven to mean ‘fully shrived’, as in a 1500 Treat. G Battle 431: Heme that were clene-shryvene off alle here synnes. Compare also MED s.v. clene adj. 6. (a) ‘complete’, under which is supplied an example from a 1470 Malory, Wks. 886/10: I mervayle … how ye durste take uppon you … the hyghe Order of Knyghthode … withoute clene confession.

  45. D. Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, The Routledge History of English Poetry, Volume I (London, 1977) believes that ‘the paragon of romance-heroes’ is reduced ‘to hysterical self-accusation and sour self-contempt’ (p. 174).

  46. Spearing expresses a sense of unease about Gawain's conduct in this respect (p. 230): ‘There is something noble about his determination to wear the token of his failing publicly, but there is something a little absurd too … he will punish himself openly in his reputation, by wearing something that will call other people's attention as well as his own to his imperfection. And yet, without judging him unsympathetically, may we not feel that there are still traces of pride in the feeling that one's own imperfection deserves such ostentatious treatment.’ But the text focuses not on the effect that the wearing of the girdle has on others but on the effect it has on Gawain himself (2433-35):

    Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
    When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
    Þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed.

    The issue here is not of reputation, but of humility. Spearing is not an unsympathetic reader of the poem, but his judgment of Gawain's conduct is deeply unsympathetic. The reason is that he has not fully understood the penitential ideas that the poet is here seeking to express.

  47. Such a perspective is endorsed with copious illustration in Arthur's Medieval Sign Theory, pp. 134-41. Gawain's words of farewell to Bertilak (2411-28) are seen to be not only discourteous, but also sinful in so far as they constitute an attempt by Gawain ‘to excuse himself from responsibility for his own lapse’ (p. 141). A better way forward is suggested by P. J. Lucas, ‘Gawain's Anti-Feminism’, Notes and Queries, NS, 15 (1968), 324-25 when he comments that ‘there is in these lines a semi-humorous mocking of the embarrassment that would be Gawain's on meeting the lady again’ (p. 325).

  48. Spearing comments that ‘when he goes on to speak of the two ladies … his courtesy gives way to a raw sarcasm’ (p. 223). Again there is a contradiction here of the idea represented by the pentangle, and there is no reason to see why it should be contradicted in this way. I owe my initial understanding of Gawain's courteous leave-taking to Waldron's note to 2425-28. Waldron draws attention to ‘the almost jocular tone of this stanza … In spite of the reader's first impressions, Gawain's chivalry and social tact are most in evidence here: in order to avoid directly implicating Bertilak's wife in his condemnation of himself he falls back on the ecclesiastical commonplace of the “eternal Eve”’ (p. 134).

  49. See also The Parson's Tale (CT, I 304): ‘Forther over, contricioun moste be continueel, … ' Spearing misrepresents the point in stating that Gawain declares himself to be ‘permanently stained with sin’ (p. 221). Gawain is permanently affected with sorrow for sin. A similar misrepresentation is to be found in Arthur's conclusion that Gawain is unsuccessful in his attempt ‘to make the green girdle a sign for endless untrawþ … because his views are doctrinally erroneous’ (Medieval Sign Theory, p. 157). It is the critic, not the poet, nor the character, who is in error on the question of doctrine.

  50. Compare once more the words of Beatrice in answer to the fictional Dante's confession (Purg., XXXI. 40-42):

    Ma quando scoppia della propria gota
              l'accusa del peccato, in nostra corte
              rivolge sè contra 'l taglio la rota.

    … but when from a man's own cheek breaks forth condemnation of his sin, in our court the wheel turns back against the edge.


Arthur, Medieval Sign Theory: R. G. Arthur, Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Toronto, 1987).

Barron: W. R. J. Barron, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Manchester, 1974).

Benson, Art and Tradition: L. D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1965).

Burrow, A Reading: J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1965).

Davenport, The Art: Davis: W. A. Davenport, The Art of the Gawain-Poet (London, 1978). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, second edition, revised by N. Davis (Oxford, 1967).

EETS (OS): Early English Text Society (Original Series).

JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

ME: Middle English.

MED: H. Kurath and others, Middle English Dictionary (Michigan, 1952-).

MLR: Modern Language Review.

OE: Old English.

OED: The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, 20 vols (Oxford, 1989).

RES, NS: Review of English Studies, New Series.

Spearing, The Gawain-Poet: A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study (Cambridge, 1970).

ST: Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, edited by T. Gilby and others, 61 vols (London, 1964-81).

Suppl.: Divi Thomae Aquinatis Summa Theologica, second edition (Rome, 1894), Volume V, Tertiae Partis Supplementum, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London, 1917).

Waldron: R. A. Waldron, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1970).

Sandra Pierson Prior (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15200

SOURCE: Prior, Sandra Pierson. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Pearl Poet Revisited, pp. 92-127. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Prior offers a critical reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a medieval romance and asserts that its author did not believe in offering firm conclusions concerning moral issues, considering them outside the scope of the genre.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the last poem in the manuscript, is by far the best known and the most popular of the poet's works. A romance tale combining various Celtic and folk motifs with traditions about King Arthur and his knights, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight recounts Gawain's adventures after he accepts a challenge to play a beheading game with a gigantic green man. This poem is unique among the Pearl poet's works, set apart from the other three by both its secular subject and romance form.

Since its rediscovery in the mid-nineteenth century, this poem has been the subject of enormous scholarly and critical study. Because of this great wealth of material, much of which is available either directly through critical essay collections or indirectly through introductions to the many editions of the poem, I will not attempt to give a general view of the criticism of Gawain.1 Instead, I will mention a few of the most prominent approaches to the poem and then go on to concentrate on the aspect that I consider most important, especially for the new reader: the poem's genre as Arthurian romance. After discussing the assumptions and conventions that belong to the romance genre, I will examine how the poet works with them, adapts them, and sometimes subverts them. In addition, because the poet's particular version of the romance genre is strongly affected by his versification, style, and language play, I will, as with my discussion of the other poems, look very closely at some key passages that I find particularly revealing of the larger questions of form and genre related to Gawain.

One approach to this poem that I will not be using must be mentioned, since a student is likely to meet with examples of it, namely, the exegetical or Robertsonian method—“exegetical” because it is what medieval exegetes, that is, interpreters of the Bible, did; or “Robertsonian” after its first and most famous proponent, D. W. Robertson, Jr. Critics of this school allegorize the poem, looking for its Christian and moral themes, for, as they point out, medieval readers were especially inclined to read texts in this way. There is no doubt that moralizing a story, whether classical or medieval, has always been popular in Western literature, but it has never been, even in the Middle Ages, the only way to read a poem. An overly allegorical reading tends, I believe, to reduce a poem to a not very engaging sermon. In the process, exegesis removes a poem's language play, its versification, its poetic figures, its wit and humor—in short, many of the qualities that make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight such a brilliant and successful poem.

Very different from the Robertsonian method, but in my view similar to it in its reliance on materials outside the poem, is much of the most recent criticism, especially feminist, cultural, and the so-called new historicist criticism. These approaches also “allegorize” the poem, but not to find its religious message; instead, they extract morals about oppression and analyze the relationships between women and men, rulers and ruled, and rich and poor. Certainly, a courtly romance like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight must be somewhat concerned with the various relationships in a court, as well as with those between men and women, and therefore some of the criticism that focuses on such aspects of the poem can be revealing. However, all too often critics of these schools resort to a reductive moralizing tendency that lacks even the historical authenticity of the Robertsonian approach.

Moreover, some romances, Gawain in particular, seem less suited to many of these politicizing methods. As Muscatine first observed, the Pearl poet seems to be “a man for whom the perfection of his art has become a kind of defense against crisis,”2 for he generally seems to avoid political issues, both those of gender and those of power. Whereas certain romances (Béroul's Tristan, for example) depict court gossip and intrigue, the Pearl poet's romance shows little interest in such matters. With one exception, courtiers in Gawain, whether at Camelot or at Hautdesert, tend to act as a unit and seem univocally loyal to their respective lords, Arthur and Bertilak.

Although relationships among nobles or between the lord and his vassals do not figure much in the Pearl poet's romance, those between men and women do. The role of women in Gawain is somewhat unusual for a courtly romance, since the hero is not in love with any lady: the only lady he serves is the Virgin Mary and the only lady he talks to is paying court to him, rather than the reverse. These gender issues have been the subject of some recent and interesting feminist criticism. Probably the most useful is Sheila Fisher's article, “Leaving Morgan Aside.”3 Fisher's thesis is that the real power behind the romance is Morgan and its major active player is Bertilak's lady (notably never given a name), but that these women have been marginalized and displaced by the lesser, usurping, male players: Gawain, Bertilak, and King Arthur. While Fisher's argument is not without a certain validity, I find its usefulness in helping us read the poem limited. It is worth remembering that the one explicit piece of evidence for Morgan's role, Bertilak's testimony at the end of the poem, could be read in several ways, rather than at “face value,” as Fisher apparently does.

One study that does yet another kind of cultural analysis, R. A. Shoaf's The Poem as Green Girdle: Commercium in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” discusses the poem in economic and commercial terms.4 Shoaf's analysis is especially appropriate, since, as Shoaf puts it, “the commercial vocabulary of Sir Gawain consistently informs its structure” (2), and since the poem was written at a time of “unprecedented economic upheaval” in England (11). However, I think Shoaf's approach is not very useful as an introduction to the poem. Studies like Shoaf's require more knowledge, both of economic history in the fourteenth century and of the traditions in Christianity concerning commerce and exchange, than nonspecialists are likely to have, and are therefore best suited to advanced study of the poem.

Sooner or later almost all critical approaches, new and old, are involved with an analysis of Gawain and his role. In fact, it is a natural tendency in the average reader, not just now but in the Pearl poet's time as well, to look closely at the hero and his development. There are dangers with this approach, of course—different ones according to the precise assumptions about human psychology and fictional characters that one brings to an analysis of the hero. While Robertson and members of his school tend to reduce all of Gawain's actions to caritas versus cupiditas, and the new historicists and the feminists reduce the hero's actions to power struggles, other readers are inclined to look at Gawain's development as though he could be analyzed psychologically. Certainly, Gawain should be a major focus of the reader's interest. However, he is neither a character in a novel nor an allegorical figure in a sermon, but instead a figure in a romance, with a long history as a leading knight in earlier Arthurian romances. We will therefore not properly appreciate Gawain's role until we first understand what a romance is, recognizing that the romancier owes different allegiances to other literary traditions and assumes an audience with different expectations than the novelist. Reading Gawain in terms of its genre as romance is thus central, and even essential to its interpretation, especially for the new reader.


What, then, is a medieval romance? What are its features and expectations? How should we read a romance—more precisely, how should we read it, as opposed to how we read an epic, or a novel, or a lyric poem, or a short story? A fine and succinct description of a medieval romance, particularly of the courtly kind, can be found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight itself. This description is provided by the Lady of Hautdesert, who tells Gawain:

And of alle cheualry to chose, þe chef þyng alosed
Is þe lel layk of luf, þe lettrure of armes;
For to telle of þis teuelyng of þis trwe knyȝtez,
Hit is þe tytelet token and tyxt of her werkkez
How ledez for her lele luf hor lyuez han auntered,
Endured for her drury dulful stoundez,
And after wenged with her walour and voyded her care
And broȝt blysse into boure with bountées hor awen—
And in the whole of chivalry, the thing most praised
Is the loyal pursuit of love, the code of warfare;
For, to speak of the endeavors of true knights,
It is the title and text of their works,
How lords have ventured their lives for their true loves,
Suffered dreadful hardships for the sake of their love,
And afterward avenged themselves through their valor and dispelled their pain,
And brought bliss into their [probably the ladies'] chamber with
their [the knights'] achievements.


Although she uses the term “chivalry” instead of “romance,” the Lady is clearly speaking not just of chivalry itself, but even more of the stories about chivalry, namely, those found in chivalric romance.5 According to the Lady, these stories are about war and love and also about the knights who practice both the “lel layk of luf” and “þe lettrure of armes.” Love and arms are a common pair in courtly romance; Chrétien de Troyes, for example, uses the paired terms “courtoisie” and “proesce.”6Courtoisie, or “courtesy,” includes the art of love, but is a more general term referring to the sophisticated gentility—good manners and fine speech, for example—of the cultural elite. “Courtoisie” thus embraces the values of a more civilized, more “feminine,” culture. Proesce, literally “prowess,” refers both to the knight's honor and the actual achievements that establish that honor—his skills as a fighter on horseback, his courage and integrity—all the values of a masculine, warrior culture.

The Lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is taking her paired (and easily contradictory) sets of values and placing the emphasis on the courtly, gentility side, making a knight's achievements as a warrior depend upon his duty as a lover. In many ways the Lady's definition of romance fits the common assumptions we hold today. Most of us think of a “romance” as a story with a happy ending: a story about young knights and their ladies; a story set in a fairytale world, one in which there are magical happenings taking place in a setting free of political or social contexts, geneological backgrounds, or geographical or historical precision and accuracy.

There are, however, a few ways in which the Lady's description differs from what someone might give today or what we can infer from other medieval romances. One aspect of the Lady's description that would not be common today is her reference to love as a game. (Although I have translated layk as “pursuit,” the word, which comes from the Old Norse laikr [to play], more precisely means “amusement” or “playing.”7) In addition, the Lady does not speak of warfare in itself, but of the “lettrure” of warfare, the learning or perhaps code of warfare—the word lettrure specifically connotes written learning. Moreover, the Lady's whole definition is very literary: it is the “title” and the “text” of the knights' “werkkez” that she describes.8 She thus subsumes a knight's deeds of arms and his suffering for love all within the language of literature, and she speaks of knights as if she were a reader of romances, even though she herself is a character within a romance. This conflation of romance actions with romantic tales is common in courtly romances, where aventure (adventure), is the word both for an event or a series of events and also for the story of those events. Werkkez in the Lady's definition serves a similar double purpose, for it can mean both “works” as deeds and “works” as written texts (particularly in the sense of constructed or designed literary creations).

The kind of literature that the Lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is talking about is the courtly romance that focuses on love and on the arts of “courtoisie.” The Lady's perspective is appropriate since she belongs to a sophisticated court, but she has, in fact, omitted many aspects of other Middle English romances, especially those about Arthur and his knights. She seems to be unconcerned about historical events and indeed to view Gawain purely as a literary personage. For the medieval reader, however, Gawain is not just a fictional character, but one from history—if not actual history, at least legendary history. Historical figures who inhabit a romance carry an authority and a validity that purely fictional characters do not. On the other hand, with certain quite interesting exceptions, romances handle these figures not so much as the subject of historical studies, but rather as the source of a set of cultural values. This is admittedly a fine distinction, and there are romances that center so much on the world and time of a legendary figure or event—on Alexander the Great or the Trojan war, for example—that we can only say they are different from history because they are not historical (a circular argument of the kind that bedevils generic theory).9

The Arthurian romances are the most important and most obvious example of this mixture of history with romance, especially in medieval England. (The so-called romans d'antiquitiés [romances of classical antiquity] were also very popular.) As far as we know, the first history to mention Arthur explicitly, giving him the name “Arthur,” and to present him as a king of Britain, was Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. This work has always held a dubious position as history, despite its title and despite its claims to authenticity through its use of Latin and of a supposed written source. Although English poets and dramatists looked to Geoffrey's History for its good stories about England's monarchs (Shakespeare used it as a source, for example), from early times many historians have condemned Geoffrey as a liar and a fraud.10 Certainly, Geoffrey's chapters on King Arthur read more like romance than history, for they remind us of the pretty, fairytale-like world of medieval knights and their ladies, the world of Chrétien de Troyes, Spenser's Faerie Queen, T. H. White's Sword in the Stone, Lodge's Small World, and all those awful, and therefore unmentionable, romances that crowd airport bookstores.

On the other hand, some Arthurian romances work quite hard to be “nonromantic,” concentrating on the authenticity of their stories and the historical implications of their events. Two notable prose compilations, the Vulgate cycle, written in thirteenth-century French, and Malory's works, composed in English in the fifteenth century, are the most important and best known of these kinds of romances. Although works like these are not without magic elements, love affairs, and the various trappings of romances, they lay claim to telling a “true story,” and they usually take pains to set their stories in some kind of historical context. Malory, for example, gives details both of King Arthur's parentage and birth and also of his death and the loss of his kingdom, thus providing a perspective on Arthur's role and on his place in Britain's history.

Composed before Malory but after the Vulgate cycle, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is contemporary with two English Arthurian romances that also exhibit a historicizing tendency: the Stanzaic Morte Arthure and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. These two verse narratives focus on Arthur himself, not on one or more of his knights, and more particularly, as their titles indicate, they tell of the troubles and wars that marked the end of Arthur's kingdom and that are the subject of the final parts of the two prose compilations, the Vulgate cycle and Malory's works.

One obvious explanation for this interest in Arthur's kingdom and its fall was the growing consciousness in late medieval England that its land and culture should be separated from the continent of Europe.11 From Geoffrey of Monmouth on, one senses in English romances and histories an emerging need for the English to define themselves, to claim an English history and an English identity, a need caused precisely because so much of their political history since 1066 had been merged with that of France and so much of their culture borrowed directly from French and other continental sources and traditions. In other words, if late medieval England's history, language, literature, philosophy, and art had been more truly “English” or “British” and less Western European (whether Latin or Norman French), then presumably English writers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would not have gone to so much trouble to claim (or reclaim) Arthur for their own.

It is no doubt also significant that the same texts that attribute the fall of King Arthur's kingdom, either wholly or in part, to Lancelot's adultery with Guinevere usually identify Lancelot as French. Gawain, on the other hand, was traditionally held to be of northern English or Scottish stock and predictably seems to have been preferred by English romanciers—he certainly is a favorite hero of shorter English romances and lais (for example, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, or Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle).12 One cannot push this kind of interpretation too far, of course. The Vulgate cycle, for example, is of French origins and written in French, but it carefully and exhaustively traces the unhappy consequences of Lancelot's love for Guinevere from its very beginning to the disastrous battle on Salisbury Plain, a battle lost primarily because King Arthur has been in France warring against Lancelot's family. On the other hand, most readers of the Vulgate cycle find Lancelot a sympathetic figure. By the end of the last book of the cycle, The Death of King Arthur, Gawain has replaced Lancelot as the major source of Arthur's problems, for it is Gawain's continued anger that forces Arthur to pursue Lancelot and his brothers to the Continent. In contrast to Gawain, Lancelot tries to make peace with King Arthur and Gawain's family and ends his days as a holy hermit, doing penance for his sins. This view of Gawain's role in the downfall of Arthur's kingdom became a strong enough tradition to be carried over into the later English accounts, but in them Gawain's culpability is usually softened; and alongside this tradition England produced many tales and romances glorifying Gawain.

About the same time that England was beginning to produce its own “Englished” versions of the Arthurian romances, we also find other romances, concerned either with legendary English heroes like Bevis of Hampton or with historical ones like Richard Coeur de Lion. Some of these romances, Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick, for example, exist in several versions, thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman texts and later English ones (around 1300 for Bevis and Guy).13 According to Crane, “[C]entral to all these works is the English hero's status as fictional forebear and defender of his nation” (54).

Certainly, not all English romances, even the later ones, show this historicizing and anglicizing tendency, nor are all of them popularized tales, whether about local, legendary heroes or about Arthur or his knights. Some of the later English romances are closer to the courtly romances from France, the ones that the Lady of Hautdesert seems to have been reading, which focus on an individual knight and his feats of prowess and his love affairs. A few of these are directly based on courtly French romances, such as the Middle English Ywain and Gawain, an adaptation of Chrétien's Yvain. For most of us, however, even these Middle English romances lack the intensity and introspection of the French romances' devotion to the abstract issues surrounding chivalry. For the most part, as Ganim and others have argued, the Middle English romancier is more concerned with telling a good story and getting on with the events than with spending time examining the implications of those events. Certainly, the English poems (and presumably their audiences) are less courtly, less self-conscious about poetic craft, less sophisticated, and less artful, and have a decidedly less French setting than their continental predecessors. Few Middle English romances, for example, include the Norman-French terms for courtly pursuits and topics such as heraldry and hunting, even though these terms were still in actual use in England well past the fourteenth century. Moreover, the heroes of the later Middle English romances indulge in fewer interior monologues and appear less refined and less aristocratic than Chrétien's heroes. Likewise, the fairies and magic of these Middle English tales seem less magical, less wondrous, more everyday, and more ordinary and English.14

All of these noncourtly characteristics have earned Middle English romances the label “bourgeois”—although that is an adjective that probably raises more questions than it answers. A better term is “popular,” for these romances definitely have a more popular feeling to them than their continental predecessors.15 As Burrow and others have shown, most Middle English romances suggest a setting in which a minstral or tale-teller spins a good story to an audience of many kinds of people, not just to a court consisting of the literary and cultural elite. Without getting into the scholarly debate about oral origins or composition of some of these Middle English romances (and recognizing that those we read today have obviously survived as written texts), we can still believe, as Burrow has argued in Ricardian Poetry, that within most Middle English romances there is at least a literary pretense that we are listening to an oral poet or reciter—there is what Ganim calls a “consciousness of an addressed public” (151).16 (Whether that pretense was once a reality probably can never be proved, and anyway the question, though intriguing, is not relevant here.)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is no exception in this regard, since, especially with its beginning, it creates the sense of a storyteller reciting a tale to a present audience. However, the few touches of the English popular romance found in Gawain coexist with features of other kinds of medieval romance. Like most courtly romances, this poem focuses its attention on an individual knight and structures its story in the form of the hero's quest. But the Pearl poet does make his romance more typically English by choosing an indisputably English hero and by setting his tale in the context of English history. At the same time, along with the poem's features of the popular tale, the poet includes references to written authority that are more characteristic of the historicized prose romances.

The unique mixture of different kinds of romance found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is most evident in the opening stanzas.17 The poem begins with its most “historical” lines:

Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondez and askez,
Hit watz Ennias þe athel and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and þatrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
And fer ouer þe French flod, Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
                                        Wyth wynne,
                    Where werre and wrake and wonder
                    Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne
                    And oft boþe blysse and blunder
                    Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
After the siege and the attack at Troy was ended
And the city left ruined and burnt to ashes and cinders,
It was the prince Aeneas and his noble family,
Who afterward conquered lands, and became rulers
Of almost all the wealth in the western realms.
And Blessed Brutus, far across the French sea [the English Channel]
On many wide shores, he establishes Britain,
                                                  With joy,
                    Where war and strife and strange events,
                    By turns, have followed there,
                    And often both joy and sorrow
                    Have quickly taken their turns.

(1-2, 5-7, 13-19)

This opening places the poem in an explicitly British setting. Arthur is a British king, one of a long line of rulers descended from their founding father, Brutus.

However, the sense of history belongs more to legend than to written chronicles. For example, whereas the tradition that Aeneas's descendent Brutus founded Britain is a common one (originating in the historians Eusebius and Nennius),18 it is hardly authoritative and factual, even for the Middle Ages; it is more the stuff of romance histories than of chronicles and written records. Moreover, the last lines of Gawain's opening stanza, which make up the rhyming quatrain of short lines called the “wheel,” treat time and history as a series of cyclical events rather than as precise moments in a linear chronology. This wheel serves as a transition to the second stanza, in which the poet moves even further into the vaguer time and space of romance. We are given no specific historical place for King Arthur, but rather are told:

Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged bi þis burn rych
Bolde bredden þerinne, baret þat lofden.
.....Bot of alle þat here bult of Bretaygne kynges
Ay watz Arthur þe hendest, as I haf herde telle.
And when this Britain was built by this noble warrior,
Stout men, who loved fighting, arose there.
.....But of all the kings of Britain who resided here
Arthur ever was the noblest, as I have heard tell.

(20-21, 25-26)

Moreover, the sense of a chronological background of historical Britain has been replaced by the mode of fairytales and popular minstrelsy:

Forþi an aunter in erde I attle to schawe,
Þat a selly in siȝt summe men hit holden
And an outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderez.
If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile,
I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde,
                                                                      With tonge.
                              As hit is stad and stoken
                              In stori stif and stronge,
                              With lel lettres loken,
                              In londe so hatz ben longe.
And so an adventure on earth I intend to set forth,
Which some people consider a wondrous thing to behold,
And an extraordinary adventure among Arthur's wonders.
If you will listen for just a little while,
As I heard [it told] around, I shall tell it right now,
                    As it is set down and recorded
                    In a tale brave and strong,
                    With true letters joined,
                    As it has long been [known] in [this] land.


Possibly, the phrase “lel lettres loken” actually refers to the metrical art of alliteration, but even if it is just a phrase equivalent to “well-turned” or “put together with true words,” this preamble still promises a well-told tale (or “laye”) to those who listen, even as it cites the authority of tradition.19

The movement toward romance is completed when the poet begins his actual story. Set in Camelot, the story begins with a sumptuous feast attended by well-known figures from Arthurian tradition, who are busy flirting and playing various courtly holiday games. Arthur, the young and energetic king, “sumquat childgered” (86; somewhat childlike/boyish),20 is equally gay and playful. Rather than doing kingly things like waging wars or arbitrating disputes or granting favors, Arthur is waiting for a bit of adventure before he eats (a custom that is mentioned in other romances),21 waiting to have presented to him “sum auenturus þyng, an vncouþe tale / Of sum mayn meruayle” (93-94; some adventurous thing, a strange tale of a great marvel), a story about princes, arms, or other adventures. This marvelous thing that King Arthur awaits does not have to be an actual event: it could be a challenge from a knight (96-97), but it could also be just a story of a marvel, in keeping with romance's tendency to conflate event and the record of an event into one aventure.

With the stage set for a marvel, a marvel duly appears, with a climactic effect brilliantly re-created by the poet. First, there is “anoþer noyse ful newe” (132; another noise quite new), warning court and audience that something is about to happen. Then the strange knight enters: riding his horse right into the feast hall (incidentally, a not uncommon happening in romance), he is a startling creature, huge yet elegant. With expert use of his verse form, the poet saves the most crucial information about this uninvited guest until the wheel at the end of the stanza:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker grene.
And men wondered at his color,
Clearly seen in his appearance.
He behaved like a knight that was bold[?],
And [was] bright green all over.


We further learn that the Green Knight is richly arrayed in gold and green and carries no sword; instead, in one hand he bears an axe with intricate carvings and trim, and, in the other hand a holly bob—the latter presumably a sign of peace and of the Christmas season. At this point we still do not know the creature's purpose, much less his identity; like the narrator, who withholds the information about his color, the Green Knight himself creates suspense for court and reader by postponing the announcement of his challenge.

The narrator and the court view the Green Knight with mixed responses to these various and sometimes contradictory signals. The narrator, for example, practically stutters in his initial hesitancy over whether this is a giant or a human:

Half-etayn in erde I hope þat he were,
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride.
A semigiant on earth I suppose that he was,
But at any rate the largest man I consider him to have been,
And the most pleasing of his size that ever did ride.


King Arthur, equally unsure of this knight's identity or purpose, first greets him as a guest and invites him to join their feast. Then, when the Green Knight says he does not plan to linger but has instead come to test the fame of the court, Arthur understandably assumes a challenge to battle is being offered (this is one of the adventures customarily expected at a feast [see lines 96-98]). Not so, says the Green Knight, since here there are only unworthy opponents—mere “berdlez chylder” (280; beardless children). Instead of combat or jousting, the Green Knight seeks only a game. But this game turns out to be more dangerous than actual fighting, for the Green Knight proposes a Beheading Game—an exchange of blows in an attempt to decapitate the opponent. The suggested “game” so horrifies the court that they are stunned into silence, until King Arthur, embarrassed by his knights' hesitation and by the Green Knight's derisive laughter, steps forth to take the challenge himself. It is clear from both the knights' and the king's responses that not only is the proposed game deadly serious, but it bears important implications for the reputation of the Arthurian court. The movement here is important: we have been taken from a courtly feast with merry games, to a startling and magical appearance, back to a courtly feast, then briefly to the possibility of battle, and again back to feast and play, but with a new mood of horror, for the earlier kissing games and the present giving have been replaced by a risky, indeed potentially fatal game that constitutes a challenge to the honor of King Arthur and his knights.

The alternation of game and laughter with horror and serious danger continues throughout this opening scene. For example, in tones of deadly seriousness, but with a bit of smiling understatement, King Arthur advises Gawain to strike well, so there will be no chance of a return blow. Later, there are touches of farce, as well as horror, when the decapitated head is kicked around like a football and even more when it terrifyingly, but also ludicrously, looks to Guenevere and speaks, commanding Gawain to keep his appointment. The effect, similar to that of horror movies or ghost stories and many fairytales, is a pleasant shiver of terror, rather than genuine dread. Jonassen believes that the poet creates “a tension between frivolous game and life-and-death seriousness” and that the Green Knight “is both a playful organizer of games and a purveyor of death.”22 It is evident that the Green Knight's visit has caused uneasiness when King Arthur goes to such trouble to reassure everyone, Guinevere in particular, that this horrific adventure is all part of the holiday festivities. As soon as the Green Knight leaves, Arthur says:

“Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse—
Laykyng of enterludez, to laȝe and to syng—
Among þise kynde caroles of knyȝtez and ladyez.”
“Well-suited are such doings at Christmas time—
Performing of plays, laughing and singing—
In the midst of these seasonal carols of [sung by] knights and ladies.”


Throughout the rest of the poem there are similar mixtures of sophisticated games and uncouth terrors. For the most part, the games and sophistication remain inside, in castles where lords and ladies play and feast, whereas outside, especially well outside in the wilderness, lurk threats of giants and other wild creatures. But this dichotomy is not only breached when one of those wild creatures intrudes into the courtly gaiety of Camelot at Christmastime, it also breaks down in the very person of the Green Knight himself, who, as we have seen, combines elegance with uncouthness. The poet, in fact, has carefully constructed his poem in a system of parallels and contrasts, which at once both maintain the separation of courtliness and otherworldliness and also challenge that separation.23

This set of parallels and contrasts not only applies to the figures and motifs, it also organizes the plot. The story begins and ends in the court of Camelot, the archetype of courtliness, where laughter and game and good manners rule. Set against Camelot is the wilderness Gawain must travel through on his quest, and especially the Green Chapel, which turns out not to be a Christian place of worship, as its name, but not its resident Green Knight, would suggest—this is at best a lonely and at worst a terrifying world. Similarly, the two games that organize the plot apparently fit the courtly/uncouth classification. The Beheading Game—whether from Celtic tales, as most have assumed, or owing more to the Mummers' Play, as Jonassen argues—frames the story in grotesque danger. This game is begun by the Green Knight in the horrific scene at Camelot, and it concludes at the Green Chapel in an atmosphere of fairy, even satanic, terrors.

The second game, which organizes the events in between, is played at a court, and involves the noble pursuits of hunting and “luftalkyng” (literally, “lovetalking,” that is, talking of and with love). In the Beheading Game we have talking heads, the ominous whirr of an axe being sharpened, and a general atmosphere of otherworldly terror. In the Exchange-of-Winnings Game, in contrast, we have the carefully observed rules of the hunting game (for which by the fourteenth century there were a number of treatises covering everything from terminology to the notes for horn signals to the proper way to “undo” the prey) paired with the elaborate courtesy of gracious flirtation that masks a serious seduction attempt.

However, since the Green Knight, who institutes the first, other-worldly game, turns out to be none other than Bertilak of Hautdesert, the host who proposes the courtly Exchange-of-Winnings Game, the division does not hold, any more than wild green creatures can be counted on to remain in their wild green countryside. Moreover, it is Bertilak, the Green Knight in his other persona, who pursues the courtly game of hunting according to the rules, and his own lady who engages in the sophisticated seduction of the hero. The poet has constructed this part of the story as a particularly elaborate set of parallels, with three days of hunting and flirtation, which the narrator moves between with far more adroitness than usually found in the “meanwhile back at the castle” kinds of plot structure common in many romances with more than one story line. And yet the careful structure is belied by the increasing conflation of the two motifs: Bertilak's hunts become gradually less rule-bound, and the Lady's seduction grows less genteel and more threatening. On the third day the hunt for the fox has many hints of moral language and virtually no suggestion of manly dangers or skills, while the Lady's flirtation with Gawain has become morally dangerous, and very like a hunt in its pursuit of the prey.

There is thus much of game, much of magic, much of love in Gawain's adventures. What there is virtually none of are the deeds of arms associated with chivalry, much less any major battles or wars or conquests of kingdoms. Nor is there any reference during Gawain's quest to the larger context of British history, or even to Arthur's place in it. Only at the poem's close, after Gawain has returned to Camelot and related his adventure amid laughter and general acclaim (despite his own personal shame), does the poet return to the world of British history, now authenticated even more, with the written authority of the “þe best boke of romaunce” (2521; the finest book of romance), and the “Brutus bokez” (Brutus chronicles) that “bere[s] wyttenesse” (2523; bear witness) to the stories of King Arthur.

The very last lines, with their prayer to Christ (the one who wears the crown of thorns), add another note of seriousness, one more authoritative than written chronicles. While no such explicitly Christian reference appears in the poem's opening, some are scattered throughout the main story at various points, especially in the bedroom scenes, where the game gradually takes on a moral seriousness, even an overtly Christian one. Gawain himself is repeatedly presented as a Christian knight, embodying Christian virtues and devoted to the Virgin Mary, whose image appears on the inside of his shield. In many ways the occasional references to Christian morality are typical of chivalric romance and the general context of their values. Certainly, Gawain's Christianity often seems but part of his chivalric trappings—it goes with the image, so to speak. For example, when Gawain is alone in the wilderness and longing for a haven, he worries about keeping the “costes” (750; customs) of his religious observances. Moreover, the sign of the pentangle, which exemplifies the Christian cast to Gawain's chivalric virtues, is not mentioned again after the narrator's initial lengthy description and explanation. Unlike the Grail romances, which keep their spiritual message well in the foreground, the Pearl poet's romance makes specifically Christian references only sporadically.

Except for the concluding prayer, these Christian references all concern Gawain: his behavior, his fears, his needs, his guilt. Gawain is thus not just the subject of the romance, but a kind of measuring rod of its tone and attitude, and an indicator of how the poem works as a romance and what comments it makes upon chivalric values. When we laugh at or with Gawain, the romance is lightened and comic; when we struggle with judging Gawain's adventures and actions, the story takes on a mood of moral seriousness. Gawain's strengths and successes serve to redeem chivalric values, while his failures call them into question. I would like now to look closely at the figure of Gawain, in order to analyze further the craft and message of the poem.


During the course of his story we see Gawain change from a humble, loyal member of Arthur's family and court, to a knight alone on a quest, to a much-feted guest at Hautdesert, to an embarrassed penitent at the Green Chapel. Each of these roles is characteristic of a certain kind of romance, though it is unusual to find them all combined in one hero in a relatively short narrative. By the end, when he returns to Camelot, Gawain seems to fulfill virtually all of his different roles at the same time, according to the point of view: his own, the court's, or the narrator's.

When we first see Gawain in action, when he steps forward to beg King Arthur for the right to play the Beheading Game, his manner epitomizes the humble, loyal knight. Claiming no other privilege or right than his family relationship to Arthur and the fact that he is the first to ask, Gawain even says that he is the “wakkest” (weakest) and “of wyt feblest” (354; least smart) of the knights.

Despite the explicit humility of Gawain's speech here, his claims to fame are clear. First, the blood relationship is no small matter. For, in fact, the relationship of maternal uncle to nephew is a privileged one in both custom and literary tradition.24 Second, Gawain indirectly reminds everyone that he alone has behaved as the loyal vassal who fights on behalf of his lord, since it is “not semly” (348; improper) for the lord to fight when “mony so bolde yow aboute vpon bench sytten” (351; so many bold warriors are seated on benches around you), even though, as the narrator has already indicated, these same bold warriors have not made a move (see especially 241-49 and 301-2). Third, Gawain boasts of both King Arthur's prowess and that of his knights, who “vnder heuen I hope non haȝerer of wylle / Ne better bodyes on bent þer baret is rered” (352-53; under heaven, I believe, none are fitter of spirit nor stronger of body on the fields where battle is waged). Finally, in what are some difficult lines for readers and editors, Gawain may be assertively looking to the rest of the court for support in his request:

“And syþen þis note is so nys þat noȝt hit yow falles,
And I haue frayned hit at yow fyrst, foldez hit to me,
And if I carp not comlyly let alle þis cort rych
                                                            Bout blame.”
“And since this maxtter is so foolish that it ought not to fall to you,
And since I have requested it from you first, grant it to me,
And if I do not speak fittingly, let the whole court [say so]
                                                            Without offence.”


Gawain's elaborately courteous speech is thus not a sign of his unworthiness, but rather part of the game of courtliness and one more proof of his qualifications as the ideal Arthurian knight, which is then verified by his prowess in decapitating the Green Knight with a single blow.

The focus of the story has now shifted from Arthur and his court to Gawain. Similarly, despite the untowardness of the appointment (not a conventional single combat) and Arthur's efforts to treat the matter as a Christmas game, Gawain's promise to seek out the Green Knight at his mysterious Green Chapel takes on the appearance of a conventional quest by a chivalric knight. Even the mode of poetry has changed, from a lively holiday scene to the solemnity of Gawain's departure. Introduced by two justly famous stanzas on the seasons (491-535), which provide a context at once natural and religious (because these are liturgical seasons) for Gawain's quest, the ceremony of Gawain's departure is narrated in highly conventional verse. We see the hero from the outside, legendary and ideal, almost saintly in these traditional set pieces: his arming, the excursus on his shield and the pentangle, and the sad farewell as he rides off, apparently to meet his death. Whereas in the opening scene Gawain himself acts with traditional, chivalric courtesy, here he is acted upon with courtly manners—he is the object of ceremony by both courtiers and narrator.

Although not much to the taste of many modern readers, the kind of conventionality found in the arming scene apparently held strong appeal for the Pearl poet's contemporary audience. (We tolerate similar kinds of conventionality and predictability, but more so in our popular prose fiction than in poetry.) The “set pieces,” especially the arming of the hero, that are expected in a chivalric romance attest to its mixed heritage, since descriptions of arms are central features of epics of war and the medieval chansons de geste. Their absence would be a marked omission, for they lend the story significance and authority, as they idealize and exalt its hero. At the point in Gawain where we get these passages, there is no frivolous spirit of game and holiday merriment and almost no sense of misgiving or ironic detachment, certainly not toward the hero.

The most formal and most conventional of these descriptions surrounding Gawain's departure is the narrator's extended commentary and explication of the pentangle, which also idealizes Gawain more than any other part of the poem. Yet there are even a few aspects of the pentangle passage that potentially undercut the idealization. The pentangle is, the narrator claims, an authoritative biblical sign:

And quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble
I am in tent yow to tell, þof tary hyt me schulde.
Hit is a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyle
In brytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez.
And why the pentangel to that noble prince,
I intend to tell you, even though it will delay me.
It is a sign that Solomon established one time
To betoken truth, through the title [right or name] that it has.


Although in this passage the narrator apparently is claiming biblical ancestry for the pentangle, it has no such history: any development of the pentangle as a symbol was postbiblical and largely the creation of the poet.25 In the context of the Pearl poet's works, poems that so frequently reproduce and evoke biblical iconography, it is particularly striking that so much importance and attention should be paid to a minor and nonbiblical Christian symbol. The pentangle, painted on the front of Gawain's shield, is described and analyzed at length, but the much more orthodox iconographic image, of the Virgin Mary, on the reverse of the shield, is mentioned quickly and never described visually.

Though the pentangle lacks the biblical ancestry claimed for it by the narrator, it does bear Christian associations and meanings, which idealized and moralize the values of an Arthurian knight. The five points of the star represent five sets of fives belonging to Gawain: his five faultless senses; his five faultless fingers (presumably standing for his actions, as “wits” stands for his thoughts and feelings); his devotion to Christ's five “wounds” (that is, Jesus's suffering and death) and to Mary's five joys (like the five wounds of Christ, Mary's five joys are a subject for meditation); and finally Gawain's five virtues. These virtues (652-54) are: “fraunchyse” (generosity, but in its broadest sense, more like “liberality”), “felaȝschyp” (fellowship, in the sense of being a loyal and loving friend and companion), “clannes” (chastity and general purity of speech and thought), “cortaysye” (politeness), and “pité” (compassion). Some important Christian virtues are missing from this list of Gawain's virtues, most notably humility. Other virtues have been altered and adapted to chivalric values, so that they are especially appropriate to a Christian knight. For example, the command to love one's neighbor as oneself, which is embodied in the cardinal virtue of caritas, is here “fellowship”—apparently love confined to one's chivalric community, not extended to one's enemies. Similarly, the virtue of liberality (also part of the larger virtue of caritas—the part we would call “charity”) is a generosity that cannot function without wealth: a noble needs land and possessions in order to distribute them to others; a lord needs a fine home and servants and food in order to be a liberal host. Britton Harwood calls this virtue “obligatory largesse” and argues that in late medieval England it “became a constituent of knightly virtue.”26

At this place in the poem there is no suggestion of any problem with the symbolism of the pentangle or with its application to Gawain. The alert reader, knowledgable about the Bible and Christian morality, might question the claims for biblical ancestry or the chivalric adaptation, and an audience well read in Arthurian romance might wonder at the virtue of chastity being applied to Gawain (since tradition praised his capacities as a lover), but at this particular point the narrator gives us no hint of these problems. The pentangle passage, like the entire arming scene, stands as an unambiguous idealization of the hero, with almost no negative note about him or even about the court and the values he represents.

The one slight negative note, the courtiers' regret that Gawain must leave on such an errand, has perhaps been made too much of by modern readers. Mostly, the court's reaction serves to verify Gawain's status, for it is primarily the kind of resigned sympathy appropriate when the good—whether saints or knights—face a heroic death. However, the courtiers regret does indeed turn to grumbling, when they explicitly question Arthur's behavior and the values implied by it: “Who knew euer any kyng such counsel to take / As knyȝtez in cauelaciounz on Crystmasse gomnez?” (682-83; Who ever heard of a king who would follow such counsel, as comes from knights involved in disputes that are part of Christmas games?). Gawain, they say, ought rather to be given a dukedom—a kingly act, by the way, that is more common to epic than to romance. For a moment we are all made conscious of the incongruities of Gawain's situation and of similar happenings in other romances. This paragon of virtue, this embodiment of virtue, is being sent off on the stupidest of missions: a silly holiday game that will probably cost him his life.

A different kind of doubt is introduced in the account of Gawain's journey through the wilderness. In one respect, this part of the story simply evokes the tradition of the knight alone on his quest.27 However, Gawain's actual armed conflicts are the least perilous of his adventures; for the rapid list given of these typical fairytale and romance foes amounts to an anticlimactic dismissal:

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez and with wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos þat woned in þe knarrez,
Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle.
And etaynez þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle.
Sometimes he battles with serpents and with wolves also,
Sometimes with trolls that lived in the crags,
Both with wild bulls and bears, and boars at other times.
And giants who chased him from the high hills.


Greater danger than these standard perils comes from the weather, which, unlike the rather dull list of foes, is described with all the craft of the Pearl poet's art:

For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde
And fres er hit falle myȝt to þe fale erþe.
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe, in naked rokkez
Þeras claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez
And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisseikkles.
For battle grieved him not as much as the far worse winter,
When the cold, clear water fell from the clouds
And froze before it could reach the brown earth.
Nearly dead from the sleet, he slept in his armor
More than a few nights, among the bare rocks,
Where the cold brook ran clattering down from the crest,
And hung high over his head in hard icicles.


Hardest of all his trials is Gawain's loneliness, and his lack of a refuge or shelter, even more his need for a place to attend Mass and the other holy offices of Christmas. Fighting and the hardships of the wilderness are as nothing compared to the loss of society and civilization. Although much of the romance tradition of the knight on a quest assumes his solitariness, since departure from the community is usually a necessity for a proper quest, it is unusual so to emphasize the burden of this isolation. Gawain, in fact, seems far more at home and “in his element” inside and at court (whether Arthur's or Bertilak's), feasting and playing games and engaging in ceremonial exchanges. Here again the poet has taken strongly entrenched traditions and conventions of Arthurian romance—King Arthur's court as the chivalric community and the individual knight on adventures—and used them in a way that reveals their potential incompatability.

Furthermore, by placing great importance on Gawain's problems with the cold loneliness of his quest and simultaneously belittling his deeds of battle, the poet is working against romance tradition. In most Arthurian romances, especially Chrétien's and the various Grail romances, Gawain enjoys the reputation of being the best warrior, the one whom the hero—whether Lancelot, Yvain, or Perceval—has to beat. In the Pearl poet's story this reputation survives, but as just that—a reputation and a tradition, one the courts at Camelot and Hautdesert seem to know, but not one we ever really see in action.

In some ways the Pearl poet's story thus works against tradition, even as it idealizes the hero. In one important respect the poet takes on a traditional view of Gawain and makes it explicitly an issue of the poem, namely, Gawain's reputation as a great lover. Although there is no evidence at first of this questionable reputation, and indeed Gawain's chastity is one of the five virtues symbolized in the pentangle, the inherent conflict in the traditional courtly pairing of love and honor, especially in Gawain's case, is the focus of the central action of the poem, the scenes at Hautdesert. This is the place where the poem deals directly with the values of chivalric romance. No longer set apart as an ideal, Gawain is now seen in action, confronted with his own reputation and the implications of that reputation.

Gawain's famous way with the ladies is invoked explicitly and repeatedly by all the court at Hautdesert and especially by Bertilak's Lady. After their ceremonial, almost religious, welcome of Gawain on his arrival and the traditional disarming and bathing of the knight on a quest, the Hautdesert courtiers finally learn who their guest is. They are delighted to have with them this knight, whose “mensk is þe most” (914; honor is the highest). They say:

“Now schal we semlych se sleȝtez of þewez
And þe teccheles termes of talkyng noble.
.....                    In menyng of manerez mere
                    Þis burne now schal vus bryng.
                    I hope þat may hym here
                    Schal lerne of luf-talkyng.”
“Now shall we nicely see the skillful craft of manners
And [hear] the perfect phrases of genteel speech.
.....                    Understanding of noble manners
                    This knight shall now bring us.
                    I believe that whoever hears him
                    Shall learn about ‘love-talking’.”

(916-17, 924-27)

This paragon, who combines honor, prowess, and virtue, is especially welcome because he will demonstrate how to speak with gentility, and in particular he will teach the court about “luf-talkyng,” flirtatious but polite conversation for lovers, the kind of talk that could either precede physical lovemaking or substitute for it. Although here the only doubt in the reader's mind would be in reconciling such a reputation with the pentangle's virtue of chastity, later references, in the scenes with the Lady, are more ambivalent than this initial approving praise.

In the later passages, while the Lady herself explicitly focuses on Gawain's shortcomings as a lover, Gawain and the narrator hint that success in “luf-talkyng” would be worse than its lack. Gawain's identity and reputation make up the main subject of the reported conversation between Gawain and the Lady, particularly on the first two days. On the one hand, this is typical of romance; as Silverstein reminds us, courtly romances tend to make much of the naming of the hero (Silverstein, ed., 123, notes to lines 379-81, 401-8). For example, two of Chrétien's romances, Yvain and Lancelot, accord their respective heroes both a name and a title, the latter a kind of epithet earned through an identifying adventure: Yvain is known as “The Knight with the Lion” because he has acquired a lion as a companion while crazed and alone in the forest; and Lancelot earns the title “The Knight of the Cart” because of his notorious ride in a lowly cart while pursuing the abducted queen. On the other hand, in many romances, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parsifal or Marie de France's Milun, for example, there are battles in which at least one knight fights in disguise, even though custom has it that opponents must first identify themselves. (This custom is implicit in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the opening scene when the Green Knight demands to know the identity of the Arthurian knight who accepts his challenge [lines 379-80].)

In certain obvious ways, then, the Lady's preoccupation with who Gawain is and whether he is really Gawain fits with this traditional concern of romance with the hero's name and reputation. However, since the context for this preoccupation is a playful, bantering one, the traditional concern is altered and the convention even subverted. For example, on the first day that the Lady comes to Gawain's bedroom, she says she plans to keep him in bed so she can talk with him:

“For I wene wel, iwysse, Sir Wowen ȝe are,
Þat alle þe worlde worchipez; querso ȝe ride,
Your honour, your hendelayk is hendely praysed
With lordez, wyth ladyes, with alle þat lyf bere.”
“For I well know, for certain, that you are Sir Gawain,
Whom all the world honors; wherever you ride,
Your honor [and] your courtesy are graciously praised
By lords, by ladies, by all who live.”


After beginning with this ostensibly straightforward identification of Gawain with that same knight famous for his honor and courtesy (the pairing is equivalent to Chrétien's “proesce” and “courtoisie”), the Lady immediately proceeds to a not-too-subtle invitation to lovemaking:

“And now ȝe ar here, iwysse, and we bot oure one;
My lorde and his ledez ar on lenþe faren,
Oþer burnez in her bedde, and my burdez als,
Þe dor drawen and dit with a derf haspe;
And syþen I haue in þis hous hym þat al lykez,
I schal ware my whyle wel, quyl hit lastez,
                                                  With tale.
                    Ye ar welcum to my cors,
                    Yowre awen won to wale,
                    Me behouez of fyne force
                    Your seruaunt be, and schale.”
“And now that you are here, indeed, and we are all by ourselves—
My lord and his men have gone well away,
The other knights [are] in their beds, and my ladies also.
The door is drawn and closed with a strong clasp.
And since I have in this house the one whom all like,
I shall spend my time well, while it lasts,
                                                            With conversation.
                    You are welcome to my body,
                    Your own course to choose,
                    It behoves me, of strong necessity,
                    To be your servant, and [so I] shall.”


As editors point out, the statement that I have translated literally as “You are welcome to my body,” is not as blatant as it sounds in modern English.28 The word cors can be used in a more metaphorical way, referring to “person” as well as the fleshly body, especially when used in conjunction with the personal pronoun, in this case it means “self” and “my cors” thus translates as “me” or “myself.” The Lady could be saying, with a bit of overstatement, that she is very glad to have Gawain with her. Nonetheless, the context, which for several lines the Lady explicitly underscores, of a woman and a man alone in a bedroom, with the husband off on a day of hunting, definitely literalizes her concluding statement in a physical and sensual way. Even if we translate “Ye ar welcum to my cors” more idiomatically, as “Welcome to me and my home,” it is a fairly sexy thing for a woman to say when sitting on a man's bed while he lies, presumably naked or scantily clothed, under the covers. Thus, what begins as an almost formulaic, very polite, identification and praise of a hero knight turns into a seduction ploy. The implication is that because this knight is Gawain, the Lady wants him, and perhaps also that she can rightly expect him to want her.

Similarly, Gawain's response fits both the conventions of polite modesty and also the particular context of seduction. In words of humble self-deprecation, not unlike those in the opening scene when he confesses his unworthiness to represent Arthur's court, Gawain answers:

“In god fayth,” quoþ Gawayn, “gayn hit me þynkkez.
Þaȝ I be not now he þat ȝe of speken—
To reche to such reuerence as ȝe reherce here
I am wyȝe vnworþy, I wot wel myseluen—
“In good faith,” says Gawain, “it seems to me profitable.
Although I am not now the one you have spoken of—
To aspire to such an honor as you have just said
I am an unworthy creature, I myself well know—”


On the one hand, this could be Gawain insisting on keeping the sexual innuendoes out of their conversation and taking the Lady's invitation as a conventional, if forceful, welcome to her guest. However, I am certain the poet has Gawain knowingly respond to the implicit sexual invitation, effectively saying: “I am not the kind of knight who makes love to ladies, certainly not the famous Gawain you are hoping to seduce.”

This implication is even stronger in the next stanza, in another bit of modest denial, that is at once so idiomatic and so subtle and syntactically complex that it is nearly impossible to translate (manuscript errors may add to the problem):

“Madame,” quoþ þe myry mon, “Mary yow ȝelde,
For I haf founden, in god fayth, yowre fraunchis nobele;
And oþer ful much of oþer folk fongen hor dedez;
Bot þe daynté þat þay delen for my disert nys euer—
Hit is þe worchyp of yourself, þat noȝt bot wel connez.”
“Madam,” said the gay man, “May Mary reward you,
For I have found, in good faith, your generosity to be noble;
And some base their actions very much on those of other people;
But the honor that they give out is not of my deserving—
It is from the merit of you yourself, who knows only how to
          behave nobly.”


Although couched in excessively polite, almost fawning, terms, and followed by another pledge to be the Lady's servant, Gawain's denial is still that: a denial and a refusal. Gawain is doing some very fancy, and often quite funny, maneuvering here; his skill in fending off the Lady is equal to that of a fine swordsman parrying an opponent's blade. Indeed, the narrator describes Gawain's behavior exactly as though he were in a fencing match: “Þe freke ferde with defence and feted ful fayre” (1282; the warrior behaved defensively and conducted himself most graciously).

The Lady's use of Gawain's reputation and identity as a weapon in her seduction game is even stronger on the second day than on the first. She challenges Gawain aggressively and accuses him of not being the “real thing”:

“Sir, ȝif ȝe be Wawen, wonder me Þynkkez,
Wyȝe þat is so wel wrast alway to god
And connez not of compaynye þe costez vndertake.”
“Sir, if you are Gawain, it's a wonder to me,
A man who is always so well disposed to good
And can understand nothing of the customs of society.”
[especially in the sense of romantic relationships](29)


However, Gawain continues to be equal to the Lady's aggressive moves and correspondingly strengthens his responses. He answers that, while greatly flattered by her attentions (1535-39), he cannot begin to teach her about “trweluf” (1540; true love) or talk of “talez of armez” (1541; tales of arms). For, as Gawain says to her:

“[You] þat (I wot wel) weldez more slyȝt
Of þat art, bi þe half, or a hundreth of seche
As I am, oþer euer schal in erde þer I leue,
Hit were a folé felefolde, my fre, by my trawþe.”
“[You] who, as I well know, can manage more skill
In that art [of love], by twice as much, [as can] a hundred
As I am, or ever shall be, on this earth where I live,
It would be a thousandfold folly, my gracious one, by my word.”


Of course, this conversation is not really about Gawain or his reputation for knowledge of love and war. At the level of the story, as the characters engage in this verbal thrust-and-parry, what is going on is an attempted, and so far successfully thwarted, seduction. Furthermore, this seduction poses a serious threat to Gawain. By the fourth fitt (section) we are to learn that it is not the quest to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, but the three days spent in the castle with the Lady that constitute the real test of Gawain's integrity and honor. Even before the Green Knight announces this, we are told that the bedroom scenes are more than pleasant and playful flirtations. First, there is the language of contest and combat used to describe the Lady's tactics and Gawain's responses. Second, on the third day, when clearly Gawain is enjoying himself more, the narrator announces that Gawain is in real danger:

Þat al watz blis and bonchef þat breke hem bitwene,
                                                            And wynne.
                    Þay lauced wordes gode,
Much wele þen watz þerinne.
Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
Nif Maré of hi knyȝt mynne.
So that all was bliss and happiness that passed between them,
                                                            And joy.
                    They spoke good words,
                    Much happiness then was there.
                    Great peril stood between them—
                    If Mary had not been mindful of her knight.


The poet has made a masterful use of his stanzaic form here. The short (two-syllable) bob summarizes the pleasure of the “luf-talkyng,” and the wheel at first continues to describe this pleasure, only to shift abruptly in the final two lines to a totally different perspective: the moral danger in this pleasant pastime.

This new mood of seriousness continues in the following stanza:

For þat prynces of pris depresed hym so þikke,
Nurned hym so neȝe þe þred, þat nede hym bihoued
Oþer lach þer hir luf oþer lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest craþayn he were,
And more for his meschef ȝif he schulde make synne
And be traytor to þat tolke þat þat telde aȝt.
“God schylde!” quoþ þe schalk. “Þat schal not befalle!”
For that noble princess pressed him so heavily,
And urged him so near the limit [literally, thread], that it was
          necessary for him,
Either to receive her love or hatefully refuse it.
He cared about his courtesy, lest he be worthless,
And even more for his trouble, if he should sin
And be a traitor to that man who owned that place.
“God forbid!” said the man. “That shall not happen!”


The text explains Gawain's inner turmoil with both indirect and direct discourse, one of the few times in the poem when we get something like the interior monologue so prevalent in French courtly romances (significantly, the other places where we get this in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are desperate moments: when Gawain is alone in the Wirral wilderness, and when he comes upon the Green Chapel). Moreover, the language of both this stanza and the wheel immediately preceding it has changed from light innuendoes to strong and explicit words: “perile,” “craþayn,”30 “synne,” and “traytor,” and a direct reference to Mary. The poet has turned a happy scene of love dalliance into a heavy, moral problem.

Yet, at the same time, the third day's bedroom scene includes moments of humor, irony, and almost farce, some even funnier than those of the first two days. The most farcical of these humorous moments is also the one of most moral tension, when Gawain makes his most important and most seriously wrong move: when he accepts the Lady's “luflace.” (Usually translated “girdle,” a luflace is a kind of belt or sash that goes around a lady's tunic; the nuances of the Middle English term—literally “love belt” and thus a girdle used as a love token—are important for its use in this poem.) Just before offering her luflace, when the Lady asks Gawain for a farewell gift, he replies, certainly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that, while he would love to give her something since she is so deserving, to give her a love token would not do. For, he says, “Hit is not your honour to haf at þis tyme / A gloue for a garysoun of Gawaynez giftez” (1806-7; It is not your privilege at this time to have for a trophy a glove from Gawain's gifts). Besides, adds Gawain, he is on a strange mission and is not carrying any luggage with love tokens to distribute (1808-10). (Just like the solitary cowboys in Hollywood westerns, this medieval hero travels light!) The Lady then makes her move, by offering to give him a gift: first a ring, then the luflace. At first Gawain has no trouble continuing to hold off the Lady's gifts, just as easily as he has resisted her sexual favors, but the information that the luflace could save the wearer's life is too tempting for him to ignore. Gawain's error is twofold here: first, in accepting an intimate and secret gift from his host's wife; and second, in implicitly agreeing not to tell her husband (which, of course, he could not do anyway, not without surrendering the luflace in the Exchange-of-Winnings Game).

As many readers have noted, the luflace effectively replaces the pentangle as Gawain's badge and heraldic sign, but there are important differences in the way these two signs are handled.31 First, in contrast to his handling of the pentangle, the narrator does not tell us anything directly about the luflace—in place of authoritative and authorial information, we have only the word of the Lady (which turns out to be mostly lies) and later that of her lord (who was in on the plot), along with the conflicting views of Gawain and the court, which are articulated in the final scene at Camelot. Clearly then, the luflace is not an authoritative symbol, let alone a biblical one, as the pentangle is claimed to be. The luflace is first and foremost an article of female apparel, and its various meanings are not intrinsic, but rather attached to it by the people who use it. This is an important movement in the poem: from idealizing, authoritative Christian symbol that is purely symbol (in Augustine's terms, a signum), to a feminine, pseudomagical, thing (a res) that is an ambiguous signum. As Shoaf has pointed out, both of these are knots.32 The pentangle is, as the narrator tells us, the “þe endeles knot” (630; endless knot), without beginning or end to its self-sufficient continuity. The girdle, on the other hand, has no such fixity; it can be knotted and unknotted and passed around from wearer to wearer as easily as its meanings can be shifted. The poem's view of Gawain follows the same pattern as his signs. From the idealized Christian knight we see in the beginning, Gawain becomes a fallible human being, whose goodness is a matter of dispute.

The conflicting judgments about Gawain and his aventure are rendered in the last fitt of the poem, along with the different views of the luflace. The Green Knight's judgment is the most extensive and the most analytical:

“I sende hir [my wife] to asay þe, and sothly me þynkkez
On þe fautlest freke þat euer on fote ȝede.
As perle bi þe quite pese is of prys more,
So is Gawayn, in god fayth, bi oþer gay knyȝtez.
Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted;
Bot þat watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauþer,
Bot for ȝe lufed your lyf—þe lasse I yow blame.”
“I sent her [my wife] to test you, and truly I think
That you are the most faultless knight that ever walked on earth.
As a pearl surpasses in value the white pea,
So does Gawain, in good faith,(33) compared to other fine knights.
But in this you were a little lacking, sir, and wanting in loyalty
But that was for no intricate workmanship, nor for lovemaking
But rather because you loved your life—and I blame you less.”


To most readers this seems a reasonable evaluation. It is informed by a fuller knowledge of circumstances than had been available at the time of the seduction scenes, and it is spoken by the figure with the most claim to authority in the matter. Furthermore, the Green Knight's judgment is in line with orthodox Christian moral theology; cupiditas, whether covetousness for flesh or material things, is worse than a concern for one's own life—indeed some prudent self-protection is considered not only excusable but necessary.

On the other hand, many readers, like Gawain and the other characters in the story, tend to forget that the Green Knight is a troublesome authority figure. By his own admission, the Green Knight's games and plots have relied on magic and deceit, and they were instigated by Morgan, who learned her “craftes” (2447; magical arts) from her lover Merlin and who was motivated by a desire to scare Guenevere. All of what scholastics would see as the various kinds of causes for Gawain's adventure—how it was effected and why—are thus bad and even satanic. (In orthodox Christianity any supernatural or magical powers that are not saintly and divine must be from the devil.) Thus the Green Knight's right to judge Gawain's behavior is undercut by his associations with magic and Morgan. It is even questionable whether we should take at face value the Green Knight's disclosures about his true identity and the old woman's, but most of us do. All of these doubts, however conscious or unconscious they may be for readers, reflect an integral problem with secular fiction, and romance in particular: the lack of a trustworthy authority and the presence of magic.

However, Gawain certainly does not doubt the truth of these revelations. He only questions the Green Knight's moral judgment. Far from seeing his own behavior as nearly faultless and his worth as equal to a pearl's, Gawain condemns himself in strong language:

“For care of þy knokke, cowardyse me taȝt
To acorde me with couetyse, my kynde to forsake:
Þat is larges and lewté, þat longez to knyȝtez.
Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben euer
Of trecherye and vntrawþe—boþe bityde sorȝe
                                                            And care!”
“For fear of thy blow, cowardice led me
To act with covetousness, and forsake my better nature:
Which is generous and loyal, as is appropriate for knights.
Now I am sinful and without honor, I who have always feared
Treachery and dishonor—both of them bring sorrow
                                                            And pain!”


This unqualified apology, which amounts to a full confession in the Green Knight's opinion (2390-94), is not allowed to stand, but is undercut by Gawain's subsequent speech on all the women, beginning with Eve, whose wiles have brought about the downfall of their men (2414-24). This misogynist diatribe is a piece of self-justification of the worst kind. And, although we today might be more sensitive to the sexism of this kind of rationalization, a medieval audience would probably have been more aware of its weakness as moral reasoning. Shifting the blame, pointing to other sinners who have made mistakes, is to deny responsibility for one's own sins and thus to be lacking in full contrition. On the other hand, because there is a long tradition behind Gawain's speech—a tradition stretching back to the church fathers—that viewed women and female nature as the weaker side of humanity, holding men back from the higher good, it may be that the poet expected some of his audience to accept this rationalization.34

The respective opinions of the Green Knight and Gawain regarding Gawain's behavior are reflected in their different views of the luflace. The Green Knight offers it to Gawain as a gift, “a pure token / Of þe chaunce of þe Grene Chapel at cheualrous knyȝtez” (2398-99; a pure sign, / For chivalrous knights, of the adventure of the Green Chapel). Gawain, however, while he accepts the luflace, sees it instead as a humble reminder of his sinfulness:

“Bot your gordel,” quoþ Gawayn, “—God yow forȝelde!—
Þat wyl I welde wyth guod wylle, not for þe wynne golde,
Ne þe saynt, ne þe sylk, ne þe syde pendaundes,
For wele ne for worchyp, ne for þe wlonk werkkez;
Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
Þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe.
And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
Þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.”
“But your girdle,” said Gawain, “—May God bless you!—
That I will most willingly use, not for the lovely gold,
Nor the girdle [clasp?], nor the silk, nor the hanging pendants,
For wealth nor honor, nor for the beautiful workmanship;
But in sign of my error I shall see it often,
When I ride in fame, remember with remorse,
The faults and the frailty of the crabbed flesh,
How vulnerable it is to catching bits of dirt.
And thus, when pride shall incite me to deeds of arms,
A glance at this luflace shall humble my heart.”


Gawain's view of his behavior remains the same when he returns to Camelot, where he tells of his aventure. Again, his sense of his error is revealed in the terms he uses for the luflace, which he calls a “token of vntrawþe” (2509; a token of disloyalty/dishonor/dishonesty) and “þe bende of þis blame” (2506; the band of this fault) that he bears in his neck.

However, King Arthur and his courtiers see both Gawain and his trophy very differently—indeed with more unqualified, and almost unthinking, admiration than even the Green Knight's positive assessment. The Arthurian court's reception of Gawain and his luflace is joyous and celebratory:

Þe kyng comfortez þe knyȝt, and alle þe court als
Laȝen loude þerat and luflyly acorden
Þat lordes and ledes þat longed to þe Table,
Vche burne of þe broþerhede, a bauderyk schulde haue,
A bende abelef hym aboute, of a bryȝt grene,
And þat, for sake of þat segge, in swete to were.
For þat watz acorded þe renoun of þe Rounde Table
And he honoured þat hit hade, euermore after.
The king comforts the knight, and all the court also
Laughs loudly at this and gladly agrees
That lords and knights who belong to the [Round] Table,
Each warrior of the brotherhood, a baldric should have,
A band tied about him, of bright green,
And, for the sake of that knight, to wear that, following suit.
For that [the luflace and/or the wearing of it] was granted the
          fame of the Round Table
And he who owned it would be honored for ever after.



It is not just that King Arthur and the court see the luflace as a badge of honor and Gawain's behavior as praiseworthy. They view both from a courtly context, where laughter and game prevail, and where the values for judging a knight's behavior are chivalric values. To them Gawain has been on an aventure, as is proper for a knight in a romance; he has returned with a trophy, and, equally important, with a story to tell, as is essential for romance—the events of the aventure are the story of aventure and that aventure is fully betokened by the luflace. Just as Gawain has literally returned home to his chivalric community, so too the court's response of laughter and celebration returns the poem to the romance world of magic and game, a far pleasanter place than the troublesome one of moral analysis, of guilt and sin.

There is no conclusive resolution of these different contexts: the celebratory, courtly one, and the judgmental, moral one. The implication is that the two contexts cannot be reconciled. It is not just that Gawain's opinion is more negative; it belongs in the end to a world of different values. It must be remembered that, while the Green Knight's and Gawain's judgments differ, they are both argued in the language of Christian morality. When far from civilization and the chivalric community, where Gawain faces his judge alone, and where he is judged as an individual Christian, not as a representative knight of Arthur's court, the tone is serious and the language is that of moral analysis. (It is significant that when Gawain does invoke the experience of others at the Green Chapel, he does not cite knights or any characters from romance or secular history, but rather turns to biblical figures, those of sacred history.) On the one hand, this moral context is framed within the games and aventures of the romance world; on the other hand, the romance world is placed within the even larger contexts of British history and humanity's final home with Christ.

The poet has in this one poem shown that within that largest frame, of humanity's true place in the universe, it is possible not only to construct a playspace of romance, but to include within that playspace both sophisticated artfulness and basic moral issues. However, the very nature of romance as art and game renders it incapable of arriving at any solid conclusions about moral issues. Such conclusions can only be found in the “real” context of the world made and ruled by God, and the “tyxt of her werkkez”—the text of humanity's ultimately important deeds—can only be the Bible, never secular romance.


  1. For readers who wish a more comprehensive introduction to the poem and its criticism, there are, in addition to the general bibliographies on the poet, bibliographies specific to this poem: Morton W. Bloomfield, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal,” PMLA 76 (1961): 7-19; reprinted in Critical Studies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” ed. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 24-55; this collection will hereafter be cited as Howard and Zacher. Also see Robert J. Blanch, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”: A Reference Guide (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983).

  2. Charles Muscatine, Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972), 69.

  3. Sheila Fisher, “Leaving Morgan Aside: Women, History, and Revisionism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe (New York: Garland, 1988), 129-51; this collection will hereafter be cited as Baswell and Sharpe.

  4. R. A. Shoaf, The Poem as Green Girdle: Commercium in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984). See also Jill Mann, “Price and Value in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Essays in Criticism 36 (1986): 294-318. Hereafter both studies will be cited in the text.

  5. For a discussion of chivalry in terms of chivalric romance, see Robert W. Hanning, “The Criticism of Chivalric Epic and Romance,” in Chickering and Seiler, eds., The Study of Chivalry, 91-113. For more information, see some of the other articles in this collection and also Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984).

  6. The pairing of proesce and courtoisie occurs often in Chrétien de Troyes's romances. See, for example, the passage in which a lady and her mother are said to have heard many times of Yvain's “cortoisie” and “grant proesce”: The Knight with the Lion, or Yvain (Le Chevalier au Lion), ed. and trans. William W. Kibler (New York: Garland, 1985), lines 4024-25.

  7. See Middle English Dictionary, s.v., leik, n.

  8. See Burrow's discussion of this passage, in which he points out the “touch of bookishness” in the Lady's speech, in A Reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), 92; this study will hereafter be cited in my text.

  9. See Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), esp. 3-31, for a different view of romance, one which sees it primarily as a popular literary form, which lacks the authority of myth. Frye makes it clear that he is not talking primarily about medieval romance (4). However, to the extent that Frye's generic principles hold true for medieval romance, we could look upon the use of historical and legendary figures in chivalric romance as the particular community's way of absorbing the romance tale into its authoritative mythology—what Frye calls “mythical imperialism” (13).

  10. Robert W. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 122.

  11. According to Susan Crane, this concern to distinguish English romances and their romance heroes from those on the Continent began in the twelfth century and can be found in Anglo-Norman romances; see her Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), esp. 216; hereafter this study will be cited in the text.

  12. For a summary of Gawain's place in medieval Arthurian literature, see the entry on him in The Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1986), 206-8.

  13. Charles Dunn, “Romances Derived from English Legends,” in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, ed. J. Burke Severs, vol. 1, Romances (New Haven, Conn.: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967), 25-31. For a collection of translated versions of some of these romances, see Richard the Lion-Hearted and Other Medieval English Romances, trans. and ed. Bradford B. Broughton (New York: Dutton, 1966).

  14. As Crane puts it, “For the early insular poets Old French courtoisie is alien and implausible, but later poets embrace it as a source of heroic value by rejecting its claims to exclusivity and high refinement” (221).

  15. John Ganim, Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative, 17-18. See also Burrow, Medieval Writers and Their Work, 51-52.

  16. See Burrow, Ricardian Poetry, 13. For another good discussion of this sense of orality, see William Nelson, “From ‘Listen Lordings’ to ‘Dear Reader,’” University of Toronto Quarterly 46 (1976-77): 110-224.

  17. For a slightly different reading of the opening, see Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965), 96-97.

  18. Theodore Silverstein, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 113, note to lines 8, 11, 12; this edition is hereafter cited in my text as Silverstein's edition. See also Silverstein, “Sir Gawain, Dear Brutus and Britain's Fortunate Founding: A Study of Comedy and Convention,” Modern Philology 62 (1965): 189-206.

  19. For a discussion of what a “lay” might be, see Rumble, ed., Breton Lays in Middle English, xiii-xv. …

  20. Childgered is not a compound found in any other text—whether one translates it as “boyish/youthful” or in a more negative way, as “childish,” depends upon how morally one reads both this passage and the whole poem. While I think ultimately the poet is questioning the ideals and practices of chivalry and romance, I do not believe that here he is deliberately sneaking in a moralizing remark—it would be too heavyhanded, and even snide, in a passage that is otherwise gay and playful and celebratory in its tone. See Andrew and Waldron's edition, 210, note to lines 86-89; compare Vantuono's edition, 2:244-45, notes to lines 85-106 and 86.

  21. See Silverstein's note on this in his edition of the poem, 117-18, note to lines 90-102.

  22. Frederick B. Jonassen, “Elements from the Traditional Drama of England in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Viator 17 (1986): 237. As the title of his article indicates, Jonassen argues that the drama (both the Mummers' Play and certain cycle plays) provided an important influence and source for this holiday mixture of gaiety and seriousness.

  23. Still the best discussion of this important aspect of the poem is Donald R. Howard, “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain,Speculum 39 (1964): 425-33; reprinted in Howard and Zacher, 159-73.

  24. On the privileged relationship between maternal uncle and nephew, see Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, 2 vols. trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 1:137; and Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. Cynthia Postan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), 141.

  25. For more on the pentangle, which had a full history in the Middle Ages, although as the “Seal of Solomon,” not as a “pentangle,” see Silverstein's edition, 129-31; and Andrew and Waldron's edition, 230-33, all notes to relevant lines and terms. As far as I know, no one comments on the irony involved in this most biblical of poets citing a biblical authority (Solomon) for a symbol that is nowhere in the Bible.

  26. Britton Harwood, “Gawain and the Gift,” PMLA 106 (1991): 485.

  27. On the centrality of the quest for aventure, see Erich Auerbach, “The Knight Sets Forth,” in Mimesis, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953), 123-42, esp. 136; on the solitariness of the quest, see R. W. Southern, “From Epic to Romance,” in The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953), 219-57, esp. 244-45.

  28. See, for example, Andrew and Waldron's edition, 253, note to 1237f; see also Burrow, A Reading of “Sir Gawain,” 80-81.

  29. As Andrew and Waldron put it, “{C}ompaynye already has some of the amorous connotation of the modern ‘keep company’ as it also has in Chaucer's lines on the Wife of Bath” (262, note to 1483; compare the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, lines 460-61).

  30. The word crayþayn is a matter of some dispute—see Silverstein's edition, 157-59, note to line 1773.

  31. On the pentangle and medieval sign theory, see Burrow, A Reading of “Sir Gawain,” 187-89. Two recent discussions of the luflace and the pentangle as signs are R. A. Shoaf, “The ‘Syngne of Surfet’ and the Surfeit of Signs,” in Baswell and Sharpe, 160-65; and Geraldine Heng, “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,PMLA 106 (1991): 500-14. Of these two, I find Shoaf's discussion far more valuable.

  32. Shoaf, The Poem as Green Girdle, 75; see also his “The ‘Signe of Surfet,’” 160.

  33. Probably “in good faith” is here used simply as an intensifying aside (equivalent to “truly”), but Andrew and Waldron make the plausible suggestion that the phrase might literally mean “in respect of good faith”—and thus be an explanatory reference to Gawain's integrity (see Andrew and Waldron's edition, 293, note to line 2365).

  34. Ganim has an unusual and interesting reading of this speech; see Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative, 69.

Ad Putter (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20113

SOURCE: Putter, Ad. “The Temptation Scenes.” In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and French Arthurian Romance, pp. 100-48. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 1995.

[In the following essay, Putter analyzes how the Gawain-poet's temptation scenes differ from those found in his probable sources.]


The romance of Perlesvaus, or Le Haut Livre du Graal, was written in the first half of the thirteenth century, perhaps in England or at least by a writer with some knowledge of its geography and its recent historical events.1 The work recounts the adventures of Perceval, Lancelot, and Gawain, who has undertaken the quest for the sword of Saint John. The relation between the Perlesvaus and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has already been a matter of considerable speculation.2 Like Gawain, the prose romance contains a beheading game. After chopping off the head of a suicidal knight, Lancelot returns to the Waste City one year later for a return blow. When his opponent raises his axe he sees that Lancelot flinches, and impugns his bravery. While he prepares himself for a second attempt, two damsels who have observed the scene from afar beg Lancelot's enemy to spare his life. He does so because, since Lancelot has kept his promise to return, the Waste City has been restored to prosperity.

The presence of a beheading game alone is of course hardly a basis for claiming the Perlesvaus as a source for Gawain. Among works in French, the First Continuation of Chrétien's Perceval, the Mule sans frein, and Hunbaut likewise depict beheading games. But there is another, more revealing analogue to Gawain in the Perlesvaus, which is less well known.3 The romance describes an attempted seduction which bears some intriguing resemblances to the temptation scenes in Gawain. On his quest, Gawain meets two knights who offer him hospitality. As he sits down for supper in a pavilion two ladies enter:

Que que Messire Gavains menjoit, atant ez vos. ii. damoiseles qui viennent en la tente e le saluent molt hautement; et il leur respont au plus bele qu'il sot … ‘Sire, fet l'ainznee, comment est vostre nons?—Damoisele, g'é non Gavains.—Sire, fet ele, tant vos amons nos mielz … E qant il fu cochiez eles s'asieent devant lui, e ont le cierge alumé, e s'apoient desus la coche, e li presentent molt leur service. E Messire Gavains ne leur respont autre chose que granz merciz, car il ne pense fors a dormir e a reposer. ‘Par Dieu, fet l'une a l'autre, se ce fust cil Gavains qui niés est le roi Artu, il parlast a nos autrement, e trovissions en lui plus de deduit que est en cestui; mes cist est un Gavains contrefez …’ Atant ez vos le naim o vient. ‘Biax amis, font les damoiseles, garde nos cest chevalier qu'il ne s'enfuie. Ainsi va il d'ostel en ostel par truandise; si se fet apeler Messire Gavains, mes il no sanble pas, car se ce fust il, e nos volssissions veillier.iii. nuiz, s'en veillast il quatre …’ Messire Gavains ot bien ce que les damoiseles dient, e ne leur respont neent …

(Perlesvaus, pp. 95-6)

While Sir Gawain was eating, two damsels entered the pavilion and greeted him emphatically; and he answered them as best as he could … ‘Sir,’ said the eldest, ‘what is your name?’ ‘Maiden, my name is Gawain.’ ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘then we love you all the more …’ And when Gawain had gone to bed, they seated themselves before him, lit the candle and, leaning on his bed, they fervently presented their services. And Sir Gawain only said, ‘Thank you very much’, for he thought only of sleeping and resting. ‘By God,’ one said to the other, ‘if this were indeed Gawain, Arthur's nephew, he would have talked to us differently, and we would have found more fun in him than in this one. This Gawain is counterfeit …’ Then the dwarf joined them. ‘Dear friend,’ say the damsels, ‘make sure this knight does not run away. This deceiver goes from hostel to hostel calling himself Sir Gawain, but he does not resemble him, for if it was him and we would have wanted to stay awake for three nights, he would have added a fourth …’ Sir Gawain heard all too well what the damsels were saying, but did not say a word.

The next day Gawain must do battle with a knight who can only be killed by piercing his Achilles' heel. When Gawain defeats the knight, the ladies decide that he must indeed be the genuine article. For the second time they offer their services:

Sire, font eles, encore vos offrons nos nostre service, car nos savons bien que vos estes li buens chevaliers. Recevez a amie la quele que vos volez.—Granz merciz, damoiseles, fet Messire Gavains. Vostre amor ne refus ge pas, e a Dieu vos commant.

(Perlesvaus, p. 99)

‘Sir,’ they say, ‘again we offer you our services, for we know well that you are the good knight. Take as your friend whomever you fancy.’ ‘Many thanks, damsels,’ says Sir Gawain. ‘I shall not refuse your love, and I commend you to God.’

With these words Gawain rides off, leaving the ladies to bewail their lost opportunity.

Gawain's adventure from the fifth branch of the Perlesvaus has admittedly nothing of the ingenuity with which the Lady and Gawain combat each other in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But if the Perlesvaus differs from Gawain's temptation scenes in this respect, the thirteenth-century romance may nevertheless elucidate some of the strategies to which the Lady, Gawain, and the Gawain-poet resort. Like the Lady in Gawain, the two ‘damoiseles’ know Gawain's literary reputation as a ladies' man very well.4 Having offered their ‘service’, a euphemism for their sexual favours, their astonishment when Gawain instead retires to sleep is great. So great that they are, or pretend to be, convinced that this Gawain must be an impostor, for the real Gawain would have known better what to do with two damsels. He would have wished to ‘keep vigil’ even longer than they themselves. There is no indication in the text that they address their complaint directly to Gawain. But Gawain overhears, and the ladies no doubt mean him to overhear. For it is with words that they tempt him. They reason and argue but their overtures never depart from the field of language. In fact the temptations in Perlesvaus and in Gawain take the similar form of an invitation to become the ‘Sir Gawain’ about whom their seductresses have obviously heard so much. Why this form should be effective, and whence the ladies derive Gawain's reputation as a womanizer, will be the subject of my first section.

The adventure from Le Haut Livre du Graal resembles the temptation scenes from Gawain in another respect. Gawain's dilemma in the Perlesvaus and Gawain is not simply one of whether to give in or to resist. Like Gawain in the Perlesvaus, Gawain has to refuse politely. In the second section I will show that, like the French Gawain, our hero finds a way of circumventing the dilemma he faces by using the saving ambiguity inherent in ‘luf-talk’. Its potential to be a facet of gallantry, and nothing more, means it is always open to misunderstanding, or the pretence of misunderstanding. This is what Gawain in the Perlesvaus exploits when he responds to the offer of ‘service’, or the offer of an ‘amie’, which may mean no more than ‘friend’, with the polite reply that he is honoured to accept their love. But when he next commends the two ladies to God, it becomes clear that his reply has been no more than an urbane figure of speech, precisely the way in which he pretends to have taken the ladies' words. In the second section I want to show how Gawain in the English romance turns the ambiguity of love-talk to his advantage.

Unlike his counterpart in the Perlesvaus, however, Gawain does not leave the Lady of the Castle empty-handed, but with a green girdle which, as the Lady of the Castle assures him, will save his life. While refusing to merge with the ‘Gawain’ of earlier works, the fantasy of ladies of romance whose love-gifts protect knights on their quests proves irresistible for Gawain. And, like Gawain, the reader, too, momentarily shares the illusion of being in a narrative where magic talismans might work. Of course, all Arthurian romances ask us to believe in their enchanted worlds, but the spell is not usually broken until the romance is finished and we return to reality. The Gawain-poet, however, breaks his spell much earlier, when, at the Green Chapel, he reveals to us and Gawain that the green girdle was, after all, only a matter of make-believe. Chrétien de Troyes plays similar games with his audience and heroes, and I want to explore in a final section how both poets confront us in the course of their romances with our suspension of disbelief.


As the Gawain-poet makes abundantly clear, Gawain is beset by temptations which are to a large extent of a verbal nature.5 Wherever the Gawain-poet talks of the Lady's attack or Gawain's resistance, he refers in fact to the thrust and parry of the words with which the Lady seduces and Gawain rebuffs her, as if to bring home the force which words exert on lives. Indeed, the words used to describe seduction in Gawain are almost indistinguishable from, or used synonymously with, words that describe acts of speech. In the following line, for example, ‘tempting’ (fonden) and ‘questioning’ (fraynen) are practically interchangeable:

Þus hym frayned þat fre and fondet hym ofte,
For to haf wonnen hym to woȝe, what-so scho thoȝt ellez …


The temptation lurks, so it seems, in the very act of ‘frayning’. Let us look at one such question which the Lady puts to Gawain to see why such a verbal temptation should be effective.

‘I woled wyt at yow, wyȝe,’ þat worþy þer sayde,
‘And yow wrathed not þerwyth, what were þe skylle
Þat so ȝong and so ȝepe as ȝe at þis tyme,
So cortayse, so knyȝtyly, as ȝe ar knowen oute—
And of alle cheualry to chose, þe chef þyng alosed
Is þe lel layk of luf, þe lettrure of armes;
For to telle of þis teuelyng of þis trwe knyȝtez,
Hit is þe tytelet token and tyxt of her werkkez,
How ledes for her lele luf hor lyuez han auntered,
Endured for her drury dulful stoundez,
And after wenged with her walour and voyded her care,
And broȝt blysse into boure with bountees hor awen—
And ȝe ar knyȝt comlokest kyd of your elde,
Your worde and your worchip walkez ayquere,
And I haf seten by yourself here sere twyes,
ȝet herde I neuer of your hed helde no wordez
Þat euer longed to luf, lasse ne more.’


At first sight, the Lady's question, posed during her second bedroom visit, suffers from a lack of organization. Just as the Lady broaches the topic of Gawain's reputation for courtesy and chivalry, her sentence seems to founder. She proceeds to give her reading of chivalric romance and picks up the loose end only at line 1520. Her lecture on medieval romance, however, is both accurate and pertinent to her project. Chrétien's romances, Thomas's or Beroul's Tristan are some of the many ‘werkkez’ the Lady could quote in support of the ‘chivalry topos’ she expounds. This topos, formulated for the first time in Arthurian literature in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, sought to resolve the incompatibility between the warrior and the lover by showing how love inspires excellent deeds. Chrétien puts the effect of love on the knight's bravery concisely when he describes Lancelot as ‘the knight made noble and strong by love, and courageous in all things’ (‘cil cui Amors fet riche ❙ et puissant, et hardi par tot …’: Lancelot, 630-1). It follows, so the Lady reasons, that there can be no ‘trwe knyȝtes’ who do not at the same time benefit from the spur of ‘lele luf’.

The topos is a powerful weapon against unwilling men: witness the use that ladies in medieval romance make of it. In the Lanzelet, the host's daughter tries to seduce her guests with lines such as:

jâ solten helde ziere,
die durch diu lant alsus varnt
unt sich mit hübscheit bewarnt,
etwaz reden von den wîben
und die zît hin vertrîben
mit sprechenne den besten wol.

(Lanzelet, 908-13)

Why, fine knights who travel abroad this way and take pains to behave courteously should converse somewhat about women and while away the time in most pleasant conversation.

daz ist wâr,
er gewan nie manlîchen muot,
der nicht toerlîche tuot,
etswenne durch diu wîp.

(Lanzelet, 1016-19)

The truth is that nobody ever achieved real manhood who did not at some time or other act indiscreetly for the sake of a woman.6

Note also the scathing remarks of the young widow, when her object of desire, Petit Jehan de Saintré, confesses to not having a lady-friend:

Ha! failli gentil homme, et dictes vous que n'en avez nulle? A ce cop cognois je bien que jamais ne vauldrez riens. Eu! failli cuer que vous estes, d'ou sont venues les grans vaillances, les grans emprises et les chevalereux faiz de Lancelot, de Gauvain, de Tristan, de Guron le courtois, et des autres preux de la Table Ronde … sinon par le service d'amours acquerir et eulz entretenir an la grace de leurs tres desirees dames!

(Jehan de Saintré, pp. 6-7)

Ha! feeble young man, and you tell me that you have none? Then I know immediately that you will never be worthy. Alas! you coward, whence came the bravery, the magnanimity, and the chivalrous deeds of Lancelot, of Gawain, of Tristan, of Guiron the courteous, and of the other heroes of the Round Table … if not from the love-service they rendered to acquire and maintain themselves in the grace of their dearly beloved ladies!

The Lady of the Castle, too, applies the rhetorical weapon of the ‘chivalry topos’ unremittingly to her guest. Like the heroes of her ‘werkkez’ Gawain has excellence: ergo, he must have a lover. The Lady, then, does not simply offer her love; she claims on the basis of her reading that to accept her is only proper. When Gawain does not speak a word ‘þat … longed to luf’, she concludes he must be ‘lewed’, not simply in the sense of ‘uncouth’, which is how most modern editions gloss it, but also in the original sense of ‘illiterate’, that is to say, unable to read the ‘werkkez’ which the Lady adduces as sure proof that Gawain's behaviour goes against the letter.

Gawain has very good reasons besides modesty to decline the Lady's offer to ‘take þe toruayle to myself to trwluf expoun, ❙ And towche þe temes of tyxt and talez of armez’ (1540-1). Not only has the Lady mastered the art of story-telling herself, as Gawain remarks, but the ‘tyxt and talez’ she wishes to hear would only underline the fact that the heroes of old acted differently. Gawain deviates from the ‘lettrure’ by failing to provide the happy ending of romances when knights bring ‘blysse into boure’.

The Lady's tactical use of romance paradigms has an interesting analogue in Renaut de Beaujeu's startling conclusion to his romance of the Bel Inconnu (c.1185-90). The romance relates the adventures of Guinglain, a young knight in search of his identity. Unbeknown to him, he is Gawain's son, and in various adventures he discovers and proves himself worthy of his name and his ancestry. The Bel Inconnu first liberates the Fairy Maiden with the White Hands, and he is instantly struck by her great beauty. Unfortunately, he is bound by a promise to liberate the castle of the Blonde Esmeree and is thus forced to leave her. He successfully puts an end to the spells and enchantments which had transformed the Blonde Esmeree into a serpent. Esmeree presses her claims for Guinglain's hand but, still enamoured of the Fairy Maiden, Guinglain abandons her. Esmeree, however, remains intent on marrying her hero and with Arthur's help a tournament is announced in the hope of luring him away from his true love. When Guinglain turns up at the tournament, Esmeree exerts her influence on him, and Gawain's son is pressurized into a marriage with Esmeree which Arthur's court has been busily preparing. At this moment, when it seems that Guinglain will forever be joined to the lady of his second choice, the narrator suddenly stops and concludes his romance by addressing the lady whose love has inspired him to compose it:

Ci faut li roumans et define.
Bele, vers cui mes cuers s'acline,
Renals de Biauju molt vos prie
Por Diu que ne l'obliés mie.
De cuer vos veut tos jors amer,
Ce ne li poés vos veer.
Quant vos plaira, dira avant,
U il se taira ore a tant.
Mais por un biau sanblant mostrer
Vos feroit Guinglain retrover
S'amie, que il a perdue,
Qu'entre ses bras le tenroit nue.
Se de çou li faites delai,
Si ert Guinglains en tel esmai
Que ja mais n'avera s'amie.
D'autre vengeance n'a il mie,
Mais por la soie grant grevance
Ert sor Guinglain ceste vengance,
Que ja mais jor n'en parlerai
Tant que le bel sanblant avrai.
Explicit Del Bel Desconeü

(Bel Inconnu, 6247-66)

Here the end is missing, and the romance comes to a halt. Sweetheart, to whom my heart inclines, Renaut de Beaujeu begs you for God's sake not to forget him. He wants to love you sincerely forever, and you cannot deny him this. When it pleases you, he will continue, if not, he will forever be silent. But for a wink he will make Guinglain find his lost lady-love again, so that he may hold her naked in his arms. If you delay, Guinglain will have the misfortune of never seeing his love again. He has no other vengeance but to take out his anger on Guinglain, and I will not continue until I have your wink. This is the end of the ‘Bel Inconnu’.

This is one of the most shameless pieces of emotional blackmail in medieval literature.7 If Renaut's Lady wants a happy ending, she must first give her admirer her ‘bel sanblant’. If she does not, Renaut threatens, the ‘grevance’ he suffers will be avenged on his fictional character. The possible gratification of the desires of Guinglain and the Fairy depends on the Lady's willingness to gratify the desires of the poet. The tale thus awaits an ending which only Renaut's addressee can provide. The romance of Guinglain and the Fairy, so Renaut implies, is really about himself and his lady. They will reap the misery or the joy of their fictional characters.

As the Lady of the Castle banks on Gawain's desire to bring his story in line with the chivalric romances about the ‘blysse’ of knights and their lovers, so Renaut de Beaujeu manipulates the Lady's desire to bring the aborted poem to a satisfactory conclusion. The romance paradigm, culminating in the knight's ‘blysse’ with a lady whom he may hold ‘entre ses bras … nue’, is used in both these cases as a magnetic force to whose pull Gawain and Renaut's lady are urged to yield. Renaut and the Lady of the Castle tell romances not in order to amuse their listeners, but in the hope that they will root their own wishes in them, in the hope that their listeners make the love that torments the fictional heroes and heroines their own. In the relationship between the tale-teller and the listener the romance insinuates itself as a mediator of desire.8

The lure of the Lady of the Castle's ‘tyxt’ and ‘talez’ is, like that of Renaut's romance, mimetic. She projects in her words a lover of ladies to whom a long tradition of chivalric romance has given its seal of approval, so that Gawain may model himself on the ideal these romances have constructed.9 Herein lies the temptation of the Lady's narrative fashioning. It holds out to Gawain the possibility of satisfying the need for recognition, the human desire to find oneself confirmed in the language of the other, in the act of identifying with the heroes of romantic invention.10 Prominent among these ideals is the ‘Gawain’ of late twelfth- and thirteenth-century romance. It is necessary here to look briefly at his reputation in these romances.11 I will do so with specific reference to two episodes from the continuations of Chrétien's Perceval which seem to have influenced the Gawain-poet directly.

I take my first episode from the First Continuation of Chrétien's Perceval. When Arthur lays siege to Brun de Branlant's castle, Gawain, injured though he is, rides out on a beautiful day to divert himself. He chances on a pavilion where he finds an attractive damsel all on her own. When Gawain greets her she replies:

‘Et cil qui fist et soir et main
Salt et gart monseignor Gavain
Et vos aprés, et beneïe.’

(First Continuation, I. 2629-31)

‘And may he who made morning and evening save, guard, and bless Sir Gawain, and then you.’

Asked why she greets both ‘Gavain’ and himself, she replies that ever since she first heard about Gawain she has loved him for his excellent qualities:

Qu'en lui a plus sens et larguece,
De cortoisie et de proëce,
Qu'il nait en chevalier vivant.

(I. 2649-51)

Because he has in him more wisdom and liberality, more courtesy and prowess, than any living knight.

Despite Gawain's assurances that he is in fact this ‘Gavain’, she refuses to believe him at first. When he insists, she asks him to wait while she checks his appearance with an embroidered image of her idol. The lady quickly returns when she has verified her guest's claims:

A lui s'en vient et si l'embrache,
Baise lui oex et boche et face
Plus de vint fois en un randon.
‘Amis, fait ele, en abandon
Vos met mon cors et vos presant.
Vostre serai tot mon vivant.’
D'amor, de jeu, de cortoisie
Ont puis ensamble tant parlé
Et bonement ris et jüé,
Tant qu'a perdu non de pucele,
S'a non amie et damoisele.

(I. 2699-716)

She comes up to him and embraces him, kisses his eyes, mouth, and face more than twenty times in a go. ‘Friend,’ she says, ‘I surrender and present to you my body. I will be yours while I live.’ … Of love, of fun, and of courtesy they talked, and they laughed and played together, until she had lost the name of ‘maiden’, and had become lover and lady.

The passage is the first in French romance in which a lady falls in love with the idea of Gawain rather than the man himself. She shows no interest in her guest before she positively identifies him as Gawain. Later romancers borrowed the motif of the woman who has fallen in love with Gawain before ever having seen him. That is why it becomes essential for these ladies to be able to identify him should he be passing by. The lady in the First Continuation has an embroidered portrait of her idol, the heroines of later romances use a lifelike statue, or an engraving in a ring. Other ladies hire a servant who is conversant with all the faces of the Arthurian knights, or rely on the expertise of local inhabitants to spot the hero and to report his whereabouts.12 Like Bertilac's wife, the ‘pucelle’ of the First Continuation has a preconceived notion of Gawain and both refuse to believe they are dealing with him when he fails to meet their expectations. Compare ‘J'ai non Gavains’—‘Gavains, fait ele; ❙ Pas ne le croi’ (2661-2), with the Lady of the Castle's ‘Bot þat ȝe be Gawan, hit gotz in mynde’ (1293). In both cases the ladies take the initiative and embrace their guests; in Gawain ‘Ho commes nerre with þat, and cachez hym in armez, ❙ Loutez luflych adoun and þe leude kyssez …’ (1305-6), and in the Continuation ‘A lui s'en vient et si l'embrache, ❙ Baise lui …’. Even more striking are the correspondences in the way the ladies offer their favours to their guests. Compare lines 2702-4 from the Continuation above with the Lady of the Castle's words:

‘Ye ar welcum to my cors,
Yowre awen won to wale,
Me behouez of fyne force
Your seruaunt be, and schale.’


Both ladies offer their ‘cors’ and promise they will always ‘your seruaunt be’ or ‘vostre serai’.

La Pucelle de Lis is of course genuinely attracted to her guest and is not merely pretending. For a temptation scene in which a lady feigns interest we may turn to the little-read Fourth Continuation by Gerbert de Montreuil, composed in the early thirteenth century. As Gawain wanders about on his horse ‘le Gringalet’, he is offered hospitality in the castle of a beautiful lady. Immediately, he offers her his services. The Lady, who is in fact out to revenge her brother's death on any knight who happens to pass by, and ideally on Gawain, the alleged murderer, feigns a passionate interest in her guest. The temptation scene corresponds very closely to Gawain, as these passages, juxtaposed with extracts from Gawain, will show.

Malement estera sozpris
Me sire Gavains cele fois,
Se Dieus ne li aïue et fois.

(Fourth Continuation, 12418-20)

This time Sir Gawain will be in trouble, unless God comes to his aid.

Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
Nif Maré of hir knyȝt mynne.


‘Certes, por vostre chevalier
Me poez d'ore e avant prendre.’
E cele por lui plus esprendre
Et eschaufer de musardie;
‘Sire, ne lairai ne vous die,
Onques nul jor ne m'entremis
D'amours. Je ne sai qu'est amis,
Ne je nel quier nul jor savoir,
N'en mois n'a pas tant de savoir,
Ke chevalier amer seüsse …’

(Fourth Continuation, 12430-9)

‘Certainly, you may from now on consider me your knight.’ And to rouse him even more, and egg him on to foolishness, she said: ‘I should tell you that I have never had anything to do with love before. I do not know what a boyfriend is, and never wished to know, ignorant as I am about how to love a knight.’

          my souerayn I holde yow,
And yowre knyȝt I becom …


And ȝe, þat ar so cortays and coynt of your hetes,
Oghe to a ȝonke þynk ȝern to schewe
And teche sum tokenez of trweluf craftes.
I com hider sengel, and sitte
To lerne at yow sum game;
Dos, techez me of your wytte,
Whil my lorde is fro hame.


Et neporquant, se je deüsse
A nul homme doner m'amor,
Vous l'avriiez tot sanz demour
Tant vous voi bel et avenant …

(Fourth Continuation, 1240-3)

But nevertheless, if I had to give my love to any man, you would have it without demur, since you are so handsome and nice.

‘And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde,
For þe costes þat I haf knowen vpon þe, knyȝt, here,
Of bewté and debonerté and blyþe semblaunt,
And þat I haf er herkkened and halde hit here trwee,
Þer schulde no freke vpon folde bifore yow be chosen.’


Le regarde por mieus esprendre
En sozpirant, puis li a dit:
‘Sire, ore ostez sans contredit
Vos armes, tanz est de souper;
N'i arez compaignon ne per
Fors moi et deus cousins germains
Que chi veez; ne plus ne mains,
N'ai de maisnie, ce sachiez.’

(Fourth Continuation, 12468-75)

She looks at him to excite him further, and sighing, she says: ‘Sir, take off your arms, without protest. It is time for supper; there will be no other companion apart from me and my two cousins, who you see here. You should know that they are the only people in my household.’

And now ȝe ar here, iwysse, and we are bot oure one;
My lorde and his ledez ar on lenþe faren,
Oþer burnez in her bedde, and my burdez als …


Gawain's adventure from Gerbert de Montreuil's romance reads almost like a handbook of seduction. In order to excite her guest the Lady pretends to be a novice in the art of love, pretends that if she had to make a choice Gawain would be her favourite, and emphasizes that he can expect to be left undisturbed. The Lady's tactics, which, as the passages from Gawain show, the Lady of the Castle seems to have studied closely, prove a great success. But just as Gawain approaches to join the Lady in bed, he remembers to cross himself, and then finds the knife which she has hidden under her bed. Now Gawain hides it from the Lady and works his will:

Weille ou non, sosfrir li estuet
Le ju de mon seignor Gavain.

(Fourth Continuation, 12638-9)

Like it or not, she has to submit to Sir Gawain's game.

But the First and Fourth Continuation are not simply implicated as sources which influenced the Gawain-poet. They influence the poet's fictional characters in turn. The Lady uses them to prove that her representations of Gawain as a womanizer must be correct. Gerbert de Montreuil's episode, and Gawain's later account of his adventure with the Pucelle de Lis in the First Continuation in which he confesses to having raped her,13 can be used, for example, to suggest to her guest that he could—or rather, is expected to—take her by force:

Ye ar stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkþe, ȝif yow lykez.


She invokes a literary tradition of a Gawain renowned for his love-affairs to show Gawain that he is unfaithful to the ‘lettrure of armes’.

Her narrative fashioning is not, I think, innocuous.14 It poses a threat to Gawain, based on the fact that it is ultimately language which realizes notions of identity in reality. Misrepresented in the language of the Lady, who speaks with the powerful backing of a long-standing literary tradition, Gawain faces the loss of his identity:

‘Bot þat ȝe be Gawan, hit gotz in mynde.’


‘Sir, ȝif ȝe be Wawen, wonder me þynkkez …’


The possibility of regaining his name, his identity, by identifying with the ‘Gawain’ constructed by the Lady and the literature of the past is the bait which the temptations hold out to him.

The effects of the Lady's strategy leave their marks on Gawain's responses. Note, for example, Gawain's response to her observations that he cannot be the real Gawain because he lacks the amorous leanings of the romance-hero:

‘Querfore?’ quoþ þe freke, and freschly he askez,
Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes;
Bot þe burde hym blessed, and ‘Bi þis skyl’ sayde:
‘So god as Gawayn gaynly is halden,
And cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen,
Couth not lyȝtly haf lenged so long wyth a lady,
Bot he had craued a cosse, bi his courtaysye,
Bi sum towch of summe tryfle at sum talez ende.’
Þen quoþ Wowen: ‘Iwysse, worþe as yow lykez;
I schal kysse at your comaundement, as a knyȝt fallez,
And fire, lest he displese yow, so plede hit no more.’


Again the Lady confronts Gawain with his reputation in the verse romances as ‘the wooer of almost any available girl’.15 The image of his fictional alter ego does not leave Gawain entirely cold. He asks the Lady eagerly, ‘freschly’, what her observed distinction between ‘Gawayn’ and himself might be. Moreover, he does grant her a ‘cosse’, for which the Lady's ‘Gawayn’ is renowned, and one wonders whether Gawain would have done so if it were not for the Lady's reminiscences about the ‘Gawayn’ everyone admires.

It is no coincidence that just at the moment when Gawain complies with her request for a kiss, when Gawain's self and his model overlap, the words of Gawain's concession conflate the grammatical person ‘I’ with which we represent ourselves, and the ‘he’ by which we are signified in the discourse of others. Instead of saying: ‘I will grant you a kiss lest I displease you’, Gawain's answer registers a striking shift to the third person: ‘I will grant you a kiss, lest he displease you.’ At the point where Gawain and his image in the Lady's words merge, he inscribes himself into the Lady's narrative where he figures as a ‘he’, and abandons the ‘I’ which realizes his identity as a separate individual. The Lady's bait, the appealing possibility of adequate representation in the discourse of the other, thus entails a relinquishment of personal autonomy.

I do not wish to suggest that Gawain's curious change from ‘I’ to ‘he’ is a Freudian slip uttered under pressure. For one thing, Gawain is in fact highly alert to the need to insist on the incompatibility of himself and the Lady's ‘Gawayn’. His protest: ‘I be not now he þat ye of speken’ (1242) focuses precisely on the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he’. Certainly, this defence shows an acute awareness that it is at the space which separates the two that the Lady takes aim. Moreover, Gawain's peculiar handling of personal pronouns does not spring from involuntary confusion. On the contrary, the point of Gawain's answer is that he announces his self-cancellation as he is about to kiss her. He will kiss her ‘at her commaundement’, not because the idea has come from within, but merely to do ‘as a knyȝt fallez’. ‘I will conform myself to your image of me so as to please you’ is what Gawain seems to be saying here. The confusion between himself and his model is deliberate and purely symbolic, serving not to abolish the difference between the two but to keep it in place. For, as Gawain implies, the Lady will embrace not himself but her own image of the knight. When the lady believes she has moulded her interlocutor in the exact likeness of the Gawain of her romances by exacting a kiss, Gawain declares himself momentarily non-existent in order to evade the fixative symmetry of himself and the romantic model in which the Lady attempts to capture him. If the Lady's temptations fail they do so not because her narrative seduction can do no harm but because Gawain senses the strategies employed against him.

Before turning to Gawain's use of tact as a subtle weapon of defence, it should be made clear that Gawain is far from being the only romance to acknowledge the power of fictions to shape or manipulate the present. I have used Renaut de Beaujeu's startling conclusion to Le Bel Inconnu as an illustration of this power at work. For another example we may turn to Chrétien's Cligés. When the three wise men from Salerno have come to pay their last respects to Fenice, who has faked death, they suddenly recall a famous story of a morte fausse:

Lors lor sovint de Salemon,
Que sa fame tant le haï
Que come morte le trahi.

(Cligés, 5802-4)

Then he remembers the story about Solomon, whom his wife hated so much that she betrayed him by playing dead.

Having called to mind the legend of Solomon and his wife who feigned death, the three would-be Magi begin to entertain the possibility that the legend may well have inspired Fenice. When they fail to bring her back to life they apply torture in the vain hope that this will prove right their suspicion that Fenice is actually following the well-known script of the story of Solomon's wife.16 In Cligés, too, literary works, be it the legend of Solomon or the Tristan legend, have the power to ensnare Chrétien's characters. In the final lines of Cligés, Chrétien shows an awareness that this power inheres even in his own narrative:

Einz puis n'i ot empereor
N'eüst de sa fame peor
Qu'ele nel deüst decevoir,
Se il oï ramantevoir
Comant Fenice Alis deçut.
.....Por ce einsi com an prison
Est gardee an Constantinoble …

(Cligés, 6645-53)

After this any emperor who heard tell of how Fenice deceived Alis was afraid that his wife might deceive him too … That is why the empress is kept locked in prison in Constantinople …

Once again, the telling of a story, the history of Fenice's deception, has a remarkable effect on reality. Constructed as potential Fenices, all empresses remain jealously guarded lest another Cligés should come along. The story of Cligés, ‘l'uevre Crestïen’, captivates its audience in the most literal sense of the word. Like the Lady of the Castle, the characters in Cligés fashion themselves and others according to the powerful models provided by a literary tradition, a tradition which, so Chrétien seems to imply, includes his own romance.


The hero of the Anglo-Norman romance of Yder is, like Gawain, accosted by his host's wife. The poet of Yder describes the ensuing scene as follows.

Quanques il puet se treit ariere
Mes ele se treit tot dis soentre.
Yder la feirt del pié al ventre
Si qu'el chei ariere enverse
E qu'el en devint tot perse.
Jo nel sai pas de ço reprendre
Kar il ne se poeit defendre.

(Yder, 374-80)

Whenever he can he draws back, but she immediately advances. Yder kicks her with his foot in the stomach, so that she falls over backwards and turns blue all over. I do not think I can reproach him for it, because it was the only way of defending himself.

That this episode should rank as one of the Gawain-poet's possible sources does not strike me as self-evident.17 To be sure, a superficial similarity between Yder and the temptation scenes in Gawain exists. The host's wife attempts to seduce the hero. But this is about as far as the similarities go. The poet of Yder excels at slapstick effects. The lack of dialogue is made up for by the physical exuberance of the two combatants, the one backing off, the other instantly drawing closer, in the end discomfited only by violence. Lest we make heavy weather of Yder's behaviour, the poet wittily pleads self-defence. The Gawain-poet, too, speaks of defensive movements: ‘The freke ferde with defence, and feted ful fayre’ (1282), but as the Lady confronts Gawain almost entirely on the plane of language, so, too, Gawain must defend himself with words. Yder has a means of repulsing the lady which never seems feasible to Gawain, who faces the more arduous task of discouraging the Lady without causing offence.

Gawain does so with patience and subtlety. Even when, in the third temptation scene, Gawain's resistance has reached a low point, he manages to remain polite:

With luf-laȝyng a lyt he layd hym bysyde
Alle þe spechez of specialté þat sprange of her mouthe.


Instead of Yder's shove, Gawain first gives a gently dismissive smile, and next utters a not-today-thank-you. Here, in miniature, we see the difference between Yder and Gawain. In the former, the hero and the temptress act without restraint or control. Their movements seem somehow always in excess of what is either necessary or natural. Yder does not just push the lady, he kicks her in the belly. The Lady does not just fall, she topples over backwards and changes colour. In Gawain, however, appearances and words are minutely controlled. No pause or laugh seems unwilled. In a scene where the closing of a door can be an invitation, and Gawain's little ‘luf-lagh’ a rejection, all is understated rather than hyperbolic.

Despite the delicacy of Gawain's refusal, critical consensus has seen in the Gawain-poet's report of his dilemma a sign of Gawain's weakness:

For þat prynces of pris depresed hym so þikke,
Nurned hym so neȝe þe þred, þat nede hym bihoued
Oþer lach þer hir luf, oþer lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest craþayn he were,
And more for his meschef ȝif he schulde make synne,
And be traytor to þat tolke þat þat telde aȝt.


It is not immediately obvious why the Gawain-poet feels that Gawain's rejection of the Lady's advances should compromise his ‘cortaysye’. The assumption is usually that the poet reports the dilemma only as Gawain himself perceives it. On this account, it becomes possible to argue, as A. C. Spearing does,18 that Gawain has already succumbed to the Lady's definition of ‘cortaysye’ in, for example, line 1300, ‘Bot he had craued a cosse, bi his courtaysye …’, where courtesy refers, in Dame Ragnell's blunt words, to ‘cortesy in bed’.19 Having accepted this definition, Gawain now feels he must betray the value of courtesy for which the Lady supposes him to stand. The word ‘cortaysye’ in this passage must, in this view, be read as if in inverted commas. This interpretation involves, however, a significant simplification of the problem that here concerns Gawain, a simplification which has been a tendency of most discussions of the temptation scenes.20 Courtesy versus sin is glossed as an internal conflict between the two options of sleeping with the Lady or turning her down. When all is said and done, Gawain and Yder are envisaged as being in the same situation. Yet what bothers Gawain here is the thought that he, too, may have to resort to an unsubtle rejection à la Yder. For, as the passage makes clear, Gawain does not equate a refusal with a breach of courtesy. It is the possibility of refusing her ‘lodly’, of refusing her in a way that might cause offence, which brings on the concern for ‘cortaysye’. The face Gawain is trying to save, in other words, is not his own, but the Lady's. He feels he can at this juncture no longer counter her temptations without hurting her. To understand why, we need to examine how Gawain had managed to do so earlier.

When the Lady first enters Gawain's bedroom, Gawain carefully lifts up the curtain to see what is going on, and decides on the following plan:

Hit watz þe ladi, loflyest to beholde,
Þat droȝ þe dor after hir ful dernly and stylle,
And boȝed towarde þe bed; and þe burne schamed,
And layde hym doun lystyly and let as he slepte;
And ho stepped stilly and stel to his bedde,
Kest vp þe cortyn and creped withinne,
And set hir ful softly on þe bed-syde,
And lenged þere selly longe to loke quen he wakened.’
Þe lede lay lurked a ful longe quyle,
Compast in his concience to quat þat cace myȝt
Meue oþer amount—to meruayle hym þoȝt,
Bot ȝet he sayde in hymself: ‘More semly hit were
To aspye wyth my spelle in space quat ho wolde.’
Þen he wakenede, and wroth, and to hir warde torned,
And vnlouked his yȝe-lyddez and let as hym wondered,
And sayned hym, as bi his saȝe þe sauer to worthe,
                    with hande.


The Gawain-poet endows his character with a psychological depth which is the more remarkable for the shortness of the scene. Gawain's response to the awkward situation he finds himself in when a strange woman sneaks into his room is brilliantly conceived. The reason for the Lady's intrusion into Gawain's bedroom is as yet obscure. She may have other motives than her interest in her guest. Gawain simply cannot tell as yet. Even if she is here for a different reason than love, however, she might think Gawain is construing her motives as such. Imagine the embarrassment to which this what-must-he-be-thinking situation could give rise. Gawain therefore deliberately decides he has not seen a thing. But when the Lady settles on his bed for a ‘ful longe quyle’ it becomes impossible to ignore her. Again Gawain is careful to avoid embarrassment. To stop ‘letting’, to admit, in other words, that he has been aware of her presence all along, would be an acknowledgement of the fact that he has indeed used tact; an admission that the situation is indeed embarrassing. If, on the other hand, Gawain does not show surprise he might seem to suggest that to wake up with his host's wife on the bed is nothing out of the ordinary for him. Gawain therefore crosses and stretches himself elaborately, and while acting ‘as him wondered’, the pretence of surprise will invite her to make her intentions clear.

The scene is rich in situational humour, and shows Gawain's extraordinary awareness of the intricate realities of social interaction. This awareness, which, as Erving Goffman has noted,21 involves the inhibition of all acts and statements that might cause embarrassment, has been claimed to be a unique feature of English Arthurian romance.22 Exceptional it indeed is, but a comparison with a scene from Yvain will show that Chrétien de Troyes was equally capable of representing and poking gentle fun at the social game of keeping up appearances.

The episode I refer to is one in which two damsels and their lady happen upon a naked man in the middle of the forest. To the maiden's astonishment, the man turns out to be Yvain. She decides, however, not to wake him up:

Molt s'an seigne, et si s'an mervoille;
cele ne le bote, n'esvoille …

(Yvain, 2909-10)

She frequently crosses herself in amazement; but she does not touch or wake him …

Fortunately her lady has a box of ointment received from Morgan la Fee which can cure any form of madness. She gives it to the damsel on the condition that it must not be applied too lavishly, but the maiden gets so carried away in massaging the naked Yvain that she has soon finished the content of the box:

S'il en eüst cinc setiers,
s'eüst ele autel fet, ce cuit.


And the same would have happened if she had had five gallons, I think.

She fanatically rubs his body with this ointment, leaves a suit of clothes, and hides behind a tree while Yvain gets dressed:

Derriers un grant chasne s'areste
tant que cil ot dormi assez,
qui fu gariz et respassez,
et rot son san et son mimoire.
Mes nuz se voit com un yvoire;
s'a grant honte; et plus grant eüst
se il s'aventure seüst.
et de sa char que il voit nue
est trespansez et esbaïz
et dit que morz est et traïz,
s'einsi l'a trové ne veü
Or ne vialt mes plus arester
la dameisele, ainz est montee,
et par delez lui est passee,
si con s'ele ne l'i seüst.
Et la dameisele autresi
vet regardant environ li
con s'ele ne sache qu'il a.
Esbaïe, vet ça et la
que droit vers lui ne vialt aler.
Et cil comance a rapeler:
‘Dameseile, de ça, de ça!’
Et la dameseile adreça
vers lui son palefroi anblant.
Cuidier li fist par ce sanblant
qu'ele de lui rien ne seüst,
n'onques la veü ne l'eüst,
et san et corteisie fist …

(Yvain, 3012-59)

She hides behind a great oak until he had slept enough, and woke up better and cured, in possession of his senses and his memory. But he sees that he is naked like ivory, and is greatly embarrassed, though he would have been even more embarrassed if he had known what had happened … His naked body causes him alarm and shame, and he says he is dead and betrayed if he is found or seen like this … Now the damsel waits no more, but gets on her palfrey and rides in his direction, as if she did not know that he was there … Looking bewildered, she goes now here and now there, since she did not want to go straight at him. And he calls out: ‘Damsel, here, here!’ And the damsel turned her ambling palfrey towards him, making him believe that she did not know anything about him and had not seen a thing. She acted cleverly and courteously …

Like Gawain, this ‘dameseile’ has mastered the art of pretending. The potential gêne for both parties is great. Yvain is stark naked, but to be seen naked, or to be observed watching someone naked, would be much worse, as both Yvain's monologue and the Lady's actions suggest. How can the damsel give Yvain the opportunity to extricate himself from his compromising position? She strikes on the same solution as Gawain. She pretends not to have seen, and hides behind the tree until Yvain is presentable. Even when Yvain has dressed she must tread carefully. Her act goes much further than a momentary look in the other direction. Like Gawain, the damsel realizes that to be seen to have purposefully ‘not seen’ something would only draw attention to the fact that something potentially embarrassing has taken place. She therefore does not make for Yvain directly, but purports only to be riding by as if wholly ignorant of his presence. She thus convinces Yvain that he has seen her first, and to complete her performance she pretends at first not to hear him as he calls out for help. The witty episode in Chrétien need not necessarily have influenced the Gawain-poet. But we find such a display of tact only rarely in medieval literature.23 Where we do find it, it is never as developed or minutely observed. In his De Nugis Curialium, for example, Walter Map praises Henry II for his courtesy when, on seeing a monk's private parts exposed, ‘Rex, ut omnis facecie thesaurus, dissimulans uultum auertit, et tacuit.’ (‘The king, like the treasury of all courtliness, turned his face and was silent’.)24 If this is courtliness, then how much more praise do Gawain and the damsel in Yvain deserve!

In addition to Yvain, the Gawain-poet seems to have made use of Chrétien's Lancelot. In one episode, which I have discussed elsewhere, Lancelot receives hospitality from a Lady who has engineered a test of his prowess. Lancelot takes on her household, who appear to be raping her, but just as he gains the upper hand the Lady calls the game off. But yet another ordeal awaits Lancelot. He has promised to sleep with the lady in return for her hospitality. Lancelot, however, can only think of Guinevere and is absolutely mortified. He lies completely still in bed until the maiden realizes he has no interest. She takes her leave and then begins to speak to herself:

‘Si vos voel a Deu comander;
si m'an irai …’
‘Des lores que je conui primes
chevalier, un seul n'an conui
que je prisasse, fors cestui,
La tierce part d'un angevin;
car si con ge pans et devin,
il vialt a si grant chose antendre
qu'ainz chevaliers n'osa enprendre
si perilleuse ne si grief;
et Dex doint qu'il an veigne a chief.’

(Lancelot, 1260-78)

‘I would like to commend you to God, and will be off …’ ‘Since I met my first knight, I have never known one that I would prize at one third of a penny compared with him. For I think and guess that he has undertaken so great an enterprise that no other knight before him undertook one so dangerous and hard; may God give him success.’

Besides the overall correspondences between this scene from Lancelot and the temptation scene in Gawain, it is in particular the lady's monologue which betrays a direct influence. For at the end of the Lady's first visit to Gawain's bedroom she, too, ponders in herself that:

‘Þaȝ I were burde bryȝtest,’ þe burde in mynde hade,
‘Þe lasse luf in his lode—for lur that he soȝt
                              boute hone,
                    Þe dunte þat schulde hym deue,
                    And nedez hit most be done.’
                    Þe lady penn spek of leue,
                    He granted hir ful sone.


The gist of their monologues is the same. Both are spoken just after or before the ladies take their leave. In addition, an echo of the first part of the lady's monologues in Chrétien's Lancelot can be found in lines 1268-75 of Gawain. But the most important similarities between this scene from Gawain and Chrétien's Lancelot are to be found in the minute observation of the strategies with which unpleasant situations can be avoided. The Lady does not thrust herself on her guest. When she leaves, Chrétien drops a hint that she normally sleeps naked:

si est an sa chanbre venue,
et si se couche tote nue …

(Lancelot, 1263-4)

So she went to her room, where she went to bed stark naked.

As she lies down on Lancelot's bed, however, she does not undress entirely but keeps on her ‘chemise’.

et la dameseile s'i couche,
mes n'oste mie sa chemise.

(Lancelot, 1202-3)

And the damsel went to his bed, but she did not take off her chemise.

Why not? Because in case Lancelot has no appetite she will not have fully committed herself and will therefore be able to withdraw while allowing some uncertainty on which to construct the face-saving fiction that sex was not what she was after. How does Lancelot cope? He observes that the lady has not undressed entirely and decides that her policy is worth following:

Et il se couche tot a tret,
mes sa chemise pas ne tret,
ne plus qu'ele ot la soe feite.

(Lancelot, 1213-15)

And he lies down at the far end of the bed, but, like her, he does not take off his shirt.

When Lancelot observes the maximum distance between himself and her, the lady perceives that he is clearly not interested in what she has to offer. She therefore decides to leave, but not without maintaining the semblance that nothing extraordinary has in fact taken place:

‘S'il ne vos doit peser,
sire, de ci me partirai.
En ma chambre couchier m'irai
et vos an seroiz plus a eise.’

(Lancelot, 1248-51)

‘If you do not object, sir, I will leave you, and sleep in my room, so that you will be more comfortable.’

In the end, as Marie-Luce Chênerie writes, Lancelot's would-be lover ‘leaves the room in all her dignity … appearances have been saved; she offered nothing and nothing has been refused … we will admire the delicacy of this suggestion’.26 Lancelot is of course not in the least sad to see her go: ‘the knight does not mind at all, but freely lets her go’ (‘au chevaliers mie ne grieve, ❙ einz l'an leisse aler volentiers’: 1262-3). In this comic ritual of leave- taking, it is only the author's hint that Lancelot lets her go happily which betrays his relief. I suspect that the same hint is present when Gawain grants the Lady of the Castle leave ‘ful sone’ (1289).

The lady's display of tact does not stop at this. The next day she accompanies Lancelot on his quest. When Lancelot spots a comb with the Queen's golden hair entangled in it, he nearly collapses. The lady leaps from her palfrey to assist him but at this moment Lancelot is overcome by shame and asks her what she has dismounted for. The lady weighs her options and decides against telling him the truth:

Ne cuidiez pas que le porcoi
la dameisele l'an conoisse,
qu'il an eüst honte et angoisse,
et si li grevast et neüst,
se le voir l'en reconeüst;
si s'est de voir dire gueitiee,
einz dit come bien afeitiee:
‘Sire, je ving cest peigne querre,
por ce sui descendue a terre;
que de l'avoir oi tel espans,
ja nel cuidai tenir a tans.’

(Lancelot, 1446-56)

Do not think that the lady revealed her motives, because it would have caused him shame and embarrassment, and would have hurt his feelings. And so she abandons the idea of telling the truth, and says courteously: ‘Sir, I came to fetch this comb, that is why I got down on the ground. I was so eager to have it that I could not stop myself.’

Rather than recognizing Lancelot's near-collapse for what it is, by admitting that she has come to help Lancelot, she hides ‘le voir’ from him, and pretends she has only come to get the comb. Like Gawain, who feigns sleep, she has a highly developed sense of the ‘honte’ and the ‘angoisse’ to which an open acknowledgement of the faux pas could lead.

But Gawain's ingenuity is to be taxed further. By pretending not to see the Lady of the Castle he had given her the opportunity to save her role as Bertilac's wife. The Lady, however, will not be ignored, and she makes her intentions abundantly clear:

‘Ye ar welcum to my cors,
Yowre awen won to wale;
Me behouez of fyne force
Your seruaunt be, and schale.’


Much has already been said about the potential ambiguity of these lines. As Tolkien and Gordon pointed out in their edition, ‘cors’ need mean no more than ‘person’.27 More speculatively, David Mills has suggested another possible double-entendre between ‘cor(t)s’ (courts) and ‘cors’ (body), ‘won’ (delight) and ‘won’ (dwelling).28 The ambiguity of a word, however, does not simply manifest itself in the act of enunciation. If we only had the context of the First Continuation to go by, in which Gawain responds to the same offer by taking ‘cors’ in the literal sense, and sleeps with the damsel, we would never have known that the word ‘cors’ could be equivocal. And likewise, if Gawain had decided to act like the French hero of the First Continuation, there would surely have been no reason to consult the MED for semantic polyvalence. Meaning would in that case be fixed because speaker and hearer agree on one. Single meaning and ambiguity arise, in other words, out of a process of negotiation. What makes us alive to the multiplicity of meanings in the Lady's words is precisely the fact that these meanings are being contested, that their negotiations do not come to a halt in an agreement between the Lady and Gawain. What the Lady intends as a come-on, Gawain deliberately misreads as politeness pure and simple. Only by a misprision of the sexual innuendo does he activate the other, innocuous side of the Lady's words. In fact, his response to the Lady of the Castle is no less tactful than his decision not to see the Lady enter the bedroom. The ‘speches skere’ (1261) with which he replies to her innuendoes are a deliberate misrecognition of her adulterous intentions. By mistaking her in this way, Gawain can dissuade her, without giving open recognition that he is in fact aware of what she is after.

What makes Gawain's polite dissuasions possible is the saving ambiguity of ‘luf-talk’. Potentially one of the most pronounced ‘face-threatening acts’, advances and love-talk are hedged in by hints, metaphors, double-talk, and circumlocutions which allow the speaker to go ‘off-record’, not to commit himself to one attributable intention, and thereby to avoid being held accountable for any offence or unpleasantness.29 Love-talk, born of and used in situations where so much self-esteem is at stake, contains for this reason a considerable interpretative leeway. Is it mere dalliance or does it serve an ulterior purpose? When Gawain sits beside the Lady in Bertilac's hall, sharing in the public joy, neither the Lady's glances, nor Gawain's response to them, can escape this potential ambivalence:

Such semblaunt to þat segge semly ho made,
Wyth stille stollen countenance, þat stalworth to plese,
Þat al forwondered watz þe wyȝe, and wroth wyth hymseluen,
Bot he nolde not for his nurture nurne hir aȝaynes,
Bot dalt with her al in daynté, how-se-euer þe dede turned towrast.


Although the Lady ‘wyth stille stollen countenance’ intimates her love for her neighbour, Gawain responds to her as if all were done ‘in daynté’. Unwillingly admitted to the Lady's secret communications, Gawain finds himself placed in a ‘collusive relationship’30vis-à-vis Bertilac and his retainers, and the only way he can avoid causing offence to the Lady and the crowd who observe the scene is by acting as an interpreter, by translating her advances into an acceptable form of ‘nurture’. But just as the Lady's innuendoes can be interpreted as a form of urbane dalliance only, Gawain's gallantry can also be mistaken for a sign of an illicit love-affair. The ‘dede’ of dalliance can always be turned ‘towrast’.

Chrétien similarly draws attention to the language of love. An episode from Cligés will serve as an illustration. In the passage below, the lovers Cligés and Fenice say goodbye while the bystanders look on:

Molt ot fez sopirs et sangloz
Au partir celez et coverz,
Que uns n'ot tant les ialz overz,
Ne tant i regart cleremant
Qu'au departir certenemant
De verité savoir peüst
Qu'au anträus deus amor eüst.

(Cligés, 4284-90)

There were many hidden and concealed sighs and tears at the departure, so that, however hard one had looked, and however clearly one had seen it, it would have been impossible to say or know for certain whether the two who departed were in love.

As Chrétien makes clear, it is not that their behaviour cannot be interpreted as a sign that ‘antr'aus deus amor eüst’. But no one can tell positively. By slightly disguising their emotions, passion and polite gallantry become indistinguishable. In point of fact, even for Fenice Cligés's parting words take on the very ambivalence which had benefited the couple earlier on:

Cligés par quele entancion
‘Je sui toz vostres’ me deïst,
S'amor dire ne li feïst?
Mes ce me resmaie de bot
Que c'est une parole usee
Si repuis bien estre amusee.
Don ne me sai auquel tenir,
Car ce porroit tost avenir
Qu'il le dist por moi losangier.

(Cligés, 4366-97)

With what intention did Cligés say: ‘I am all yours’, if it was not out of love? … But what really worries me is that it is a cliché, and I may be deluded … So I do not know how to take it, for it might well be that he said it to flatter me.

Was Cligés's parting word a trite commonplace or a token of his love? Even Fenice herself can no longer be sure.

But the closest analogue to the passage from Gawain above is in Chrétien's Yvain, where Laudine entertains Arthur's court, which has arrived to participate in the festivities in honour of her and Yvain's wedding:

et la dame tant les enore
chascun por soi et toz ansanble,
que tel foi i a cui il sanble
que d'amors veignent li atret
et li sanblent qu'ele lor fet;
et cez puet an nices clamer
qui cuident qu'el les voelle amer;
quant une dame est si cortoise …

(Yvain, 2456-63)

and the lady honours them all so well, collectively and individually, that there were some who thought that her attention was inspired by love; but I would call them fools for thinking that a lady who is courteous to them loves them …

Like Gawain, Laudine acts only in ‘daynté’, but, like the Gawain-poet, Chrétien shows that her courtesies can always be mistaken for love. At stake in these moments from Gawain and Chrétien is a confusion not so much about the meaning of words or actions but about their force,31 or, in Chrétien's words, the speaker's ‘entancion’ at the moment of enunciation—a confusion, to be precise, about whether gallantry is intended as a means to an end, as an invitation to reciprocate love, or is merely an urbane manner of speech which seeks to achieve no such perlocutionary effect.

In order to see how Gawain exploits this ambiguity of ‘luf-talk’ to his advantage, let us look at a dialogue from the first bedroom visit. The passage opens with his response to the Lady's offer of her ‘cors’:

‘In god fayth,’ quoþ Gawayn, ‘gayn hit me þynkkez,
Þagh I be not now he þat ȝe of speken;
To reche to such reuerence as ȝe reherce here
I am wyȝe vnworþy, I wot wel myseluen …’
‘In god fayth, Sir Gawayn,’ quoþ þe gay lady,
‘Þe prys and þe prowes þat plesez al oþer,
If I hit lakked oþer set at lyȝt, hit were littel daynté;
Bot hit ar ladyes innoȝe þat leuer wer nowþe
Haf þe, hende, in hor holde, as I þe habbe here,
To daly with derely your daynté wordez,
Keuer hem comfort and colen her carez,
Þen much of þe garysoun oþer golde þat þay hauen …’
‘Madame,’ quoþ þe myry mon, ‘Mary yow ȝelde,
For I haf founden, in god fayth, yowre fraunchis nobele,
And oþer ful much of oþer folk fongen bi hor dedez,
Bot þe daynté þat þay delen for my disert nys euen,
Hit is the worchyp of yourself þat noȝt bot wel connez.’
‘Bi Mary,’ quoþ þe menskful, ‘me thynk hit an oþer;
For were I worth al þe wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde
Þer schulde no freke vpon folde bifore yow be chosen.’
‘Iwysse, worþy,’ quoþ þe wyȝe, ‘ȝe haf waled wel better;
Bot I am proude of þe prys þat ȝe put on me,
And soberly your seruaunt, my souerayn I holde yow,
And yowre knyȝt I becom, and Kryst yow forȝelde!’


The Lady's words are again potent with sexual innuendo. She responds to Gawain's modest retort that he is unworthy of the price she sets on him by imagining just how popular he would be with ladies. If they had his company, they would find delightful words, comfort, and relief from their sorrows. The word ‘comfort’, like its Latin counterpart solatia, has the connotative meaning of sexual enjoyment. The word ‘carez’ too is by no means straightforward. The ‘carez’ which Gawain would relieve could refer to ‘pangs of love’.32 While the Lady's subordinate clause is hypothetical, she connects the hypothetical fulfilment of the ladies' desire explicitly with her own situation when she reminds Gawain that what for her imagined ladies must remain wishful thinking can in her case become reality: ‘as I þe habbe here …’. Her whole speech implies that the potential value of Gawain to ladies can now become a reality, if only Gawain would live up to it.

Gawain's clever response to her argument revolves around the interpretative choice Fenice imagines apropos of Cligés's parting words. Apparently unaware that the Lady might have said this out of love for him, he replies to it as if her words were indeed ‘une parole usee’ and as if she had indeed said it ‘por losangier’. Thanking her for her ‘fraunchis nobele’, from which her ‘praise’ must have sprung, Gawain then denies the value she has set on him as if that had been the Lady's only intention. When the Lady next suggests—again in a hypothetical clause—that she would list Gawain as her first choice, Gawain responds again by a deliberate misprision of the perlocutionary effect the Lady is trying to achieve. Purporting to take her proposition merely as a supposition for the sake of argument, he commends her on her good choice in reality: ‘ȝe haf waled wel better’, and gallantly offers his service.

Let us look at one more example of the way Gawain manages to keep the Lady at bay. During her first visit to Gawain's bedroom, the Lady had asked Gawain for a kiss. When she entertains her guest the following morning she reminds him of the instruction in politeness she had given him the day before:

‘What is þat?’ quoþ þe wyghe, ‘Iwysse I wot neuer;
If hit be sothe þat ȝe breue, þe blame is myn awen.’
‘Yet I kende yow of kyssyng,’ quoþ þe clere þenne,
‘Quere-so countenance is couþe quikly to clayme;
þat bicumes vche a knyȝt þat cortaysy vses.’
‘Do way,’ quoþ þat derf mon, ‘my dere, þat speche,
For þat durst I not do, lest I deuayed were;
If I were werned, I were wrang, iwysse, ȝif I profered.’
‘Ma fay,’ quoþ þe meré wyf, ‘ȝe may not be werned,
Ye ar stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkþe, ȝif yow lykez,
Yif any were so vilanous þat yow devaye wolde.’
‘Ye, be God,’ quoþ Gawayn, ‘good is your speche,
Bot þrete is vnþryuande in þede þer I lende,
And vche gift þat is geuen not with goud wylle.’


As usual Gawain plays the dummy, pretending not to understand what the Lady is driving at. When she reminds him of yesterday's kiss, his response is again phrased as a hypothetical statement so as to avoid talking about kisses to be given here and now. Moreover, Gawain suggests that in certain conditions a kiss might be inopportune, in the hope that by investigating the conditions in which a kiss is felicitous, he will be seen to explore possible routes of escape. Of course the route Gawain explores had already been blocked by the Lady when she implied that her ‘countenance’ is ‘couþe’. But the Lady's suggestion that a kiss would be welcome to her is an implication contained in a general maxim—‘where favour is plain to see, one should not hesitate to stake one's claim’—which does not explicitly refer to her particular situation. As Gawain implies when he expresses his doubts about having met this condition, he does not count himself so lucky as those who can rely on their ladies' favour. When the Lady then suggests that even if he were refused he could easily take a damsel by force, Gawain is quick to point out an impropriety in her suggestions, for, in Arthur's land, the use of force is frowned on.33 In this way Gawain succeeds in diverting the Lady's moves on to the safe ground of a debate about the dos and don'ts of love.34

Gawain's tactics in the temptation scenes are therefore not to reject the Lady's love-talk, but to participate in a way that will define it as nothing more than playful banter. True, this is not the way the Lady of the Castle sees it, when she expresses disappointment with Gawain's reluctance to show off his skills in love-talk:

And I haf seten by yourself here sere twyes,
Yet herde I neuer of your hed helde no wordez
Þat euer longed to luf, lasse ne more …


And her assessment of the situation has been reduplicated by numerous critics who argue that the Gawain-poet endowed his hero with an ‘English’ moral uprightness that precluded his participation in the ‘French’ game of courtly love.35 But in fact Gawain shows a remarkable adeptness at playing the courtly lover. Moments before the Lady expresses her surprise at not hearing any words ‘þat ever longed to luf’ from her guest the Gawain-poet describes the two busily talking ‘Of druryes greme and grace’ (1507). When she reprimands Gawain for not indulging in love-talk she is right only in so far as we credit her definition of love-talk as a prelude to action. For words of ‘druryes’ she has had from Gawain in plenty.

Gawain's knowledge of the corpus of love-literature and his ability to act the lover are clearly demonstrated in the opening exchange between the Lady and Gawain:

‘God moroun, Sir Gawayn’, sayde þat gay lady,
‘Ye ar a sleper vnslyȝe, þat mon may slyde hider;
Now ar ȝe tan as-tyt! Bot true vus may shape,
I schal bynde yow in your bedde, þat be ȝe trayst’:
Al laȝande þe lady lanced þo bourdez.
‘Goud moroun, gay,’ quoþ Gawayn þe blyþe,
‘Me schal worþe at your wille, and þat me wel lykez,
For I ȝelde me ȝederly, and ȝeȝe after grace,
And þat is þe best, be my dome, for me byhouez nede’:
And þus he bourded aȝayn wiþ mony a blyþe laȝter.
‘Bot wolde ȝe, lady louely, þen leue me grante,
And deprece your prysoun, and pray hym to ryse,
I wolde boȝe of þis bed, and busk me better;
I schulde keuer þe more comfort to karp yow wyth.’


The Lady shows herself to be well versed in the conventional metaphors of courtly love. She is the person who wages war on the lover, who captures her powerless lover whom only a truce can save. This is of course the stuff on which the representations of love in both lyrics and romances are based.36 And Gawain, the magisterial love-talker, answers the Lady in kind. He is the Lady's prisoner, completely dependent on her will. Between the Lady and Gawain, an imaginary play-world interposes itself, whose stylized conventions had been elaborated by numerous texts, such as the following by the trouvères Blondel de Nesle and Gace Brulé respectively:

Et bien set [la dame] que sui en prison.
S'or ne me met a guarison,
Nule autre ne m'en puet jeter.

And my lady knows well that I am in prison, and if she does not bail me out, no one else can release me.

De tantes parz ai esté assailiz
Que je n'ai mais pooir de moi deffendre,
Ne je suis si forz ne si hardiz
Qu'envers Amors osasse plus contendre.(37)

I am assailed from so many sides that I have no power to defend myself, and I am not so strong or bold as to fight Love any longer.

Gawain cannot be faulted for his ignorance of the corpus of love-literature or his inability to enact it.

As a virtuoso performer of the game of courtly love, Gawain has in actual fact much in common with the way Chrétien de Troyes presents the hero in his romances.38 During the feast in honour of Yvain and Laudine's wedding, we meet Lunete and Gawain engrossed in playful flirtations:

La dameisele ot non Lunete.
.....A mon seignor Gauvain s'acointe
qui molt la prise, et qui molt l'ainme,
et por ce s'amie la clainme,
qu'ele avoit de mort garanti
son compaignon et son ami;
si li offre molt son servise.

The damsel's name was Lunete … She introduces herself to Gawain, who thinks highly of her, and likes her a lot, and for that reason he calls her his amie, since she had saved his companion and friend [Yvain] from death. He insistently offers her his service.

Lunete then tells Gawain of Yvain's adventures:

Mes sire Gauvains molt se rit
de ce qu'ele li conte et dit:
Ma dameisele, je vos doing
et a mestier et sanz besoing
un tel chevalier con je sui.
.....—Vostre merci, sire, fet ele.

(Yvain, 2417-42)

Sir Gawain laughs heartily about her story and says: Damsel, I put myself at your disposal, whenever you need me … Thank you, sir, she replies.

There is no reason to assume that Gawain or Lunete regard these offers of love and service as anything more than a pleasant and elegant pastime. The English Gawain, too, simply deems it polite to meet the ladies at Castle Hautdesert and to offer them ‘To be her seruaunt soþly’ (976). As Chrétien suggests, the rationale behind his character's plaisanterie is not passion but his gratitude for Lunete's efforts on his friend Yvain's behalf. To take to heart Chrétien's saying that gallantry must not be misconstrued as love—‘cez puet an nices clamer ❙ qui cuident qu'el les voelle amer’ (Yvain, 2461-2)—we need to distinguish both in Gawain and Yvain between love in game and love in earnest. Whereas later verse romances about Gawain show him interested primarily in the latter, the romances of Chrétien, with the possible exception of his last romance,39 resemble Gawain in portraying a knight whose penchant for acting the lover is simply part and parcel of social gracefulness.

What the ‘play’ between Gawain and the Lady of the Castle presupposes is the difference between who they are and what they do, between themselves and the models of love-literature they follow, between fiction and reality. That is why Gawain can safely accept this kind of ‘confort’, and why, when the Lady's thoughts turn out to be far from ‘clene’, Gawain must double his efforts to impose his vision of their dalliance as a game. While the Lady attempts to break down the boundary which separates the lovers of fiction from herself and her host, Gawain attempts to keep the Lady in the realm of play where actions are ‘non- consequential’ and ‘do not denote what these actions for which they stand would denote’.40 Gawain's misreadings of the Lady's advances as merely playful serve as a hint that she must not confuse their dalliance with the real thing, not simply because of the different meaning it carries in the play-world, but because as play their actions are only a stand-in, representing what Gawain insists to be absent in reality.

The Lady of the Castle, however, chooses not to take the hint and does not avail herself of the opportunity for an honourable retreat. If Gawain pretends to be deaf to her intentions, the Lady can decide not to hear Gawain's. The problem of his tactful approach is that it circumvents the issue; it cannot address it openly. His tact ultimately keeps all options open, including the choice to ‘lach þer hir luf’.

In an ingenious way the Gawain-poet succeeds in conveying the increasing difficulty of Gawain's tactful deferrals. After the first temptation scene the Lady's only triumph is a goodbye kiss. But she uses the small territorial advantage she has gained to great effect. In the second temptation scene she refers to her previous session with her guest as a lesson on which they should build and, though not without difficulty, she wrests from Gawain the first kiss of the day half-way through her visit to his bedchamber. The third temptation scene involves no preliminaries at all. She opens a window, walks up to his bed, and kisses Gawain even before he has the chance to welcome her. No time is wasted on any preambles:

Þe lady luflych com laȝande swete,
Felle ouer his fayre face, and fetly hym kyssed;
He welcumeȝ hir worþily with a wale chere.
He seȝ hir so glorious and gayly atyred,
So fautles of hir fetures and of so fyne hewes,
Wiȝt wallande joye warmed his hert.
With smoþe smylyng and smolt þay smeten into merþe,
Þat al watz blis and bonchef þat breke hem bitwene,
                              and wynne.
                    Þay lanced wordes gode,
                    Much wele þen watz þerinne;
                    Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
                    Nif Maré of hir knyȝt mynne.


Gawain, struck by the lady's beauty, is at this point on the verge of surrender. The scene recalls Perceval's temptation in the Queste del saint graal. Perceval is also about to give in to a lady's temptations, until he sees the cross on the hilt of his sword and returns to his senses:

Et lors resgarde la damoisele qui li est si bele, ce li est avis, que onques n'ot veue sa pareille de biauté. Si li plest tant et embelist, por le grant acesmement qu'il voit en li et por les douces paroles que ele dit; qu'il en eschaufe outre ce que il ne deust.

(Queste del saint graal, p. 109)

And then he saw the maiden, who seemed to him so beautiful that he had never seen her equal in beauty. She pleased and delighted him, because of the beauty he sees and the sweet words she says to him. They heated him more than they should.

Gawain is equally overwhelmed and inflamed by the sight of the Lady. The personifications of Gawain's feelings—‘Wiȝt wallande joye warmed his hert’, ‘al watz blis and bonchef þat breke hem bitwene’—suggest Gawain is no longer acting, but being acted on. Gawain and the Lady still speak, but the poem no longer lets us listen in on their conversation, as if to suggest it has become too private. Significantly, it is when we next hear Gawain speak that we know he has pulled back from the ‘gret perile’ of intimacy: ‘God shylde’, quoþ þe schalk, ‘þat schal not befalle!’ (1776).

Finding her guest as resistant as ever, the Lady of the Castle decides, in her final opportunity to break through Gawain's defences, to get her message across whatever the cost:

Quoþ þat burde to þe burne, ‘Blame ȝe disserue,
Yif ȝe luf not þat lyf þat ȝe lye next,
Bifore alle þe wyȝez in þe worlde wounded in hert,
Bot if ȝe half a lemman, a leuer, þat yow lykez better,
And folden fayth to þat fre, festned so harde
Þat yow lausen ne lyst—and þat I leue nouþe;
And þat ȝe telle me þat now trwly I pray yow,
For alle þe lufez vpon lyue layne not þe soþe
                              for gile.’
                    Þe knyȝt sayde, ‘Be sayn Jon,’
                    And smeþely con he smyle,
                    ‘In fayth I welde riȝt non,
                    Ne non wil welde þe quile.’
‘Þat is a worde’, quoþ þat wyȝt, ‘þat worst is of alle;
Bot I am swared for soþe, þat sore me þinkkez’.


The sudden directness of the Lady's words is striking. There are no ambiguities here which allow Gawain to extricate himself from overtly acknowledging what the Lady is after. Does he love her or another, she asks, and she insists on a straightforward answer: ‘layne not þe soþe for gile.’ We cannot understand why Gawain feels he must now refuse her ‘lodly’ and compromise his courtesy, unless we realize that he can here no longer tactfully misread the Lady's intentions in a way that will save her face. She drops all her cover in an attempt to hit home and thus deprives Gawain of the possibility of maintaining for her benefit the illusion that she was merely playing an urbane game. The Lady speaks her mind and demands the truth. Gawain does his best to soften its impact. There is his gentle smile, an indirect answer which picks up on the question whether he has a lover rather than the question whether he loves her, and a slight qualification at the end in ‘þe quile’. But if the purpose of courtesy is to avoid unpleasant situations, then Gawain has indeed fallen short of this ideal. As the Lady's response makes clear, the truth hurts, however much Gawain tries to cushion it. But in so far as the Lady insists on the ‘soþe’ in a way which allows Gawain no scope for any strategic misreading of her intentions, and offers him, in Goffman's words, ‘no excuse for excuse’, she leaves him no other choice.41


The Lady of the Castle, is, as we have seen, an expert reader of medieval romance. As she tells Gawain stories about knights and their lady-loves, Gawain must counter by insisting on the difference between his own situation and the episodes in romance in which knights equip themselves with lovers. The difference is not simply that he is not the ‘Gauvain’ of many French verse romances, always ready to indulge in a love-affair. For while the Lady of the Castle reduces the difference between the history Gawain is in the process of writing and the histories of previous romances to a deviance in Gawain's character, she directs attention away from her own questionable credentials as a romance-heroine. Maidens, widows, and hosts' daughters may be fair game for the wandering knight, but in the long history of Gawain's love-life there is not a single affair with the host's wife. Courtly romances underwrite a law of hospitality which anthropologists have observed to be as universal as the prohibition of incest: any usurpation of the host's role by the guest is taboo.42

A whole series of anecdotal stories about Gawain, written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italian and Latin, take this very moral as their subject. In these stories Gawain decides to receive hospitality from this castellan to quench his curiosity. But to his surprise he is treated very well. When he takes leave of his host he asks him why he has not been beaten like all the others. The host explains:

Cum milites veniunt ad domum meam, ego nitor eis honorem facere; ipsi vero in contrarium faciunt et dicunt: ‘Domine, domine, ego nolo, hoc non faciatis!’ et nolunt in domo mea mihi dominari.43

When knights come to my house, I go out of my way to honour them; they, however, oppose me and say: ‘Lord, lord, I will not do this, don't do that!’ They do not allow me to be a lord in my own home.

Because Gawain has respected the fact that the host should be the master in his own house and cannot allow a guest to step into his shoes, he escapes scot-free. Of the many versions of this anecdote, Antonio Pucci's fourteenth-century Italian telling, which includes a temptation by the host's wife,44 spells out most explicitly the nature of the transgression which sleeping with the host's wife behind his back would involve. To commit this sin would be to assume the place of the host, or, as Gawain puts it, ‘to be traytor to þat tolke þat þat telde aȝt’ (1775). This is what the Lady wishes Gawain to forget when she compares Gawain with the heroes of romances who bring ‘blysse into boure’: that she is not suited for a narrative about knights who acquire lovers. She is not a potential bride but the wife of the paterfamilias, and is in this sense ‘mother’ rather than ‘lover’.

If I invoke here the metaphors of an Oedipal drama it is not because on some mysterious ‘latent’ or ‘underlying’ level the Lady is really Gawain's mother, as some critics have argued,45 but because the law of hospitality which forbids Gawain to usurp the place of the host by sleeping with his wife resembles the Oedipal prohibition at the literal level. Obedience to the Father or the paterfamilias entails a sacrifice, be it the son's desire to be at one with the mother, or the guest's desire for the host's wife or anything which might encroach on the host's privileges. In both cases participation in culture requires that roles are distinguished and distances are kept in play, between father and son, or between host and guest.

The Lady's temptations take as their object of attack the differentiations between Gawain and his literary model, guest and host, the wife of the paterfamilias and a lover of one's own. As I have argued in an earlier section, Gawain knows the importance that attaches to maintaining the distinction between the Lady as lover and as Bertilac's wife, between the amorous ladies and the knights whom they inspire in chivalric romance and his own situation. But in the face of Gawain's awareness that in his own adventure the host's wife functions as a dangerous opponent, the Gawain-poet's Lady conjures up a romance-paradigm which hides from Gawain and the reader that she continues to play the role she had played all along: not that of a lady whose love will support the knights she admires, but, like the mother of the family drama, a figure whose love puts obstacles in the way of success.

Her temptations withstood three times, the Lady acknowledges defeat. But as she is about to leave the room she retraces her steps and asks Gawain, as if in a final by-the-way, for a gift to remember him by. When Gawain refuses she eventually offers him the green girdle, and although Gawain first refuses it, he quickly changes his mind when she reveals that the girdle has the power to keep its wearer from harm:

Þen kest þe knyȝt, and hit come to his hert
Hit were a juel for þe jopardé þat hym iugged were:
When he acheued to þe chapel his chek for to fech,
Myȝt he haf slypped to be vnslayn, þe sleȝt were noble.


After Gawain has spent three mornings belabouring the discrepancy between previous romances and his own situation, it is finally a love-gift with magical properties in which Gawain and the reader suspend their disbelief. After many hours in which Gawain stubbornly refuses to be ruled by the authority of previous romances, he and the reader fall for one of the oldest commonplaces of romance: the talismanic love-token.

The motif may be found, before the birth of Arthurian romance, in Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie, in which Medea presents her lover Jason with magical gifts that will assist him in his adventure of the Golden Fleece. In Arthurian romance, Yvain similarly receives a gift with protective qualities from Laudine. Before he leaves her on his round of tournaments, Laudine gives him a magical ring that will protect him from harm:

Mes or metroiz an vostre doi
cest mien anel, que je vos prest;
de la pierre quex ele est
vos voel dire tot en apert:
prison ne tient ne sanc ne pert
nus amanz verais et leax,
ne avenir ne li puet max;
mes qui le porte, et chier le tient
de s'amie li resovient,
et si devient plus durs que fers …

(Yvain, 2602-11)

Now I will put this ring of mine on your finger, and I lend it to you. And I want to tell you plainly about the nature of its stone: no true and faithful lover will be taken prisoner or will shed blood, and nothing bad can happen to him. But he who wears it, and cherishes it, will remember his beloved. Then he will become tougher than iron.

The ladies of the Vulgate Lancelot, too, trust that the gift of a girdle will boost the morale of their champions. When Gawain undertakes a combat for the lady of Roestoc, her servant advises her as follows:

‘Et je voes loeroie que vous li donisiés aucune druerie et par aventure cuers li croisteroit, car dames ont aidié a faire maint preudome.’ Et ele s'i acorde bien. [The Lady gives her gift to Gawain and says] ‘si vous aport de mes drueries et vous pri que vos les portés en ramenbrance de moi. Et sachiés que je suis tout vostre. Or si combatés por vostre amie durement.’ Lors li baille le coroie et le fremal, et il le chaint et met le fremal a son col.

(LVIa, 31-2)

‘It would be praiseworthy if you gave him some love-token. It might increase his courage, for ladies have often helped men in this way.’ And she agrees completely. ‘I am bringing you a token of my love, and I pray you wear it in remembrance of me. And know that I am wholly yours. So fight for your lady-love as hard as you can.’ Then she hands him the belt and the lace, and he ties it around him and puts the lace around his neck.

Like the many chivalric heroes who have gone before him, Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who has thus far refused to give in to the Lady's seductions in order to preserve an allegiance to the host, ends up by embracing, as romance-heroes do, a ‘luflace’, which she insists must remain hidden from her husband:

And [she] bisoȝt hym, for hir sake, disceuer hit neuer,
Bot to lelly layne fro hir lorde; þe leude hym acordez
þat neuer wyȝe schulde hit wyt, iwysse, bot þay twayne for noȝte.


This love-token is a gift which Gawain thinks is known only to himself and the Lady. No longer a threat to Gawain, the Lady becomes Gawain's partner in a ‘secret coalition’ which, Gawain believes, excludes the host.46

The Lady of the Castle seems suddenly to have undergone a structural change which transforms her from Gawain's earlier enemy into an adjuvant, who, like the ladies of romance, hands out a gift so that her loved one may thrive on its beneficial properties. If Gawain may retrospectively be analysed as a narrative in which the Lady of the Castle represents Gawain's ‘enmy kene’ (2406), the function of the Lady's offer of the girdle is precisely to hide this structure momentarily beneath a familiar romance-paradigm in which the Lady appears as helper rather than opponent. The girdle lures Gawain and the reader into believing they are in a different romance, in which ladies assist their lovers in their quests. True, Gawain knows that she is Bertilac's wife, and that in that capacity she is quite different from the marriageable ladies of romance, but still he believes her love-gift might save his life. And the reader colludes in Gawain's wishful thinking. Rationally, we know perfectly well that girdles are not magical talismans, but fancying ourselves to be in the fantastic world of romance where such magical love-gifts abound, we, like Gawain, overlay our knowledge of the way things are with the belief that we are in a romance where things can be different.

The joke the Gawain-poet plays on Gawain and the reader is his obfuscation and subsequent revelation of what we could always have known: that a green girdle is, after all, a green girdle, and that the Lady is Bertilac's wife rather than Gawain's secret admirer. What Gawain learns from the Green Knight when the joke is revealed is not simply that it is foolish to suspend this distinction and the distinctions which inevitably follow—those between mine and thine, between the privileges of guest and host, between self and the knights of romance who can do the impossible when armed with love-tokens. He learns also that to believe one can get away with suspending these distinctions is to believe in magic.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not the only romance that makes its hero and its audience believe in magic when it is not there. There is an important connection here between the Gawain-poet and Chrétien de Troyes, who frequently lures us into a world of make-believe, only to explode the fiction in which we had suspended our disbelief. The episode of the magic tower from Cligés will illustrate this. Like Gawain, Cligés and Fenice are convinced that the miraculous inventions of Fenice's nurse Thessala and Cligés's servant John will enable them to escape from reality.47 Because Fenice is married to Cligés's uncle, she is reluctant to desert her husband for his nephew by eloping to Arthur's kingdom. In this case they would surely be defamed for their infidelity. With the help of Thessala, Fenice feigns death, and John builds a tower with invisible entrances, constructed in such a way that the couple will be able to spend the rest of their lives there without ever being found out. Thus they will be able to enjoy each other without incurring shame. When Fenice gets tired of being locked away in a tower and yearns for fresh air, John agrees to wave his magic wand yet again. He opens an invisible door and reveals to the lovers' eyes the most paradisal garden they have ever seen:

Lors vet Jehanz ovrir un huis
Tel que je ne sai, ne ne puis
La façon dire ne retraire.
Nus fors Jehan le poïst faire.
Ne ja nus dire ne seüst
Que huis ne fenestre i eüst,
Tant con li huis ne fust overz,
Si estoit celez et coverz.

(Cligés, 6297-304)

Then John opens a door—I do not know what kind of door, and cannot say how he did it. Only John could have done it. And no one could have said there was a door or window in it, for unless the door was open, it was hidden and concealed.

As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the marvellous in Cligés seems to offer the heroes a final victory over the real. As the green girdle, had it worked, would have allowed Gawain to survive a beheading ‘vnslayn’, to refuse the Lady's love and yet draw on the power of her ‘luf-lace’, to withhold what is rightfully the host's without incurring reproach, and to err without consequence, so John's magic seems to create an alternative world in which the couple can have it both ways. Fenice can live with her husband's nephew without being slandered, the couple can hide away in a tower, while enjoying the seasonal changes of nature.

Such is the power of the Lady and John's fictions that despite the knowledge that we cannot eat the cake and have it, Gawain, the couple in Cligés, and their readers submit to them. But just as the green girdle turns out to be no more than the piece of cloth which we might have known a girdle to be, the magic of John's construction dissipates before the reader's eyes. While Fenice and Cligés live out their impossible dream of wish-fulfilment, a knight named Bertrand who happens to be hunting in the neighbourhood sees his hawk disappear in the tower. We have been told that the walls of the tower are so high that no one could possibly scale it:

Et li vergiers ert clos antor
de haut mur qui tient a la tor,
Si que riens nule n'i montast,
Se par la tor sus n'i entrast.

(Cligés, 6333-6)

And the garden is enclosed by a high wall connected to the tower so that no one can get in unless through the entrance in the tower.

But Bertrand does the impossible, and hastens to penetrate the impenetrable hide-out to retrieve his hawk.

Tantost se vet au mur aerdre
Et fet tant que oltre s'an passe.
Soz l'ante vit dormir a masse
Fenice et Cligés nu a nu.

(Cligés, 6360-3)

Then he begins to scale the wall, until he comes to the top. Beneath the tree he sees Fenice and Cligés sleeping naked in each other's arms.

Like us, the couple have been deceived into believing that they can have their paradise on earth. I use this formulation deliberately, for Chrétien consciously fashioned Jehan's tower after medieval descriptions of heaven, and in particular after Drythelm's vision of heaven in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. Like Bertrand in Cligés, Drythelm and his guide encounter an apparently unscalable wall, without doors or windows, when, inexplicably, they suddenly find themselves standing on top of it:

Cumque me in luce aperto duceret, vidi ante nos murum permaximum, cuius neque longitudine hinc vel inde neque altitudine ullus esse terminus videretur. Coepi autem mirari quare ad murum accederemus, cum in eo nullam ianuam uel fenestram uel ascensum alicubi conspicerem. Cum ergo pervenissemus ad murum, statim nescio quo ordine fuimus in summitate eius.48

When he led me in open light, I saw before us an extremely high wall. There seemed to be no limit to its length and height in every direction. I began to wonder why we were headed towards it, since I did not see a door, a window, or an ascent anywhere in it. But when we had reached the wall, we suddenly stood on its summit—how, I do not know.

When Bertrand similarly leaps over the high wall, Fenice and Cligés's paradise is lost. They have been inhabiting an illusion. And so, as in Gawain, the heroes and readers harshly awake to reality and the realization they have been duped by their credulity.

It may well be true that Cligés suggests a correspondence between the magicians Thessala and John, and Chrétien de Troyes.49 Both create the most outrageous fictions, build castles in the air, and yet always find an audience willing to make these their homes. But a more accurate representation of both Chrétien and the Gawain-poet must be the Lady of the Castle, a teller of romances which she herself knows to be fictitious, a manipulator of wishful thinking, as unreliable and shifty as the poets who lead their readers up the well-trodden paths of escapism which they mercilessly expose as blind alleys.

Chrétien and the Gawain-poet's art is one of deception, and time and again they wrongfoot their audience and fictional characters, until a startling subversion of expectations catches us realizing we have been tricked into believing we were in a different narrative. Consider, for another example, the way Chrétien plays games with the reader in his Chevalier de la charrete. Lancelot is on his way to the Sword Bridge, and has to pass through the Stony Passage, which, as Lancelot is warned, is guarded by an army of hostile men:

‘Ne vos sera mie randuz
maintenant que vos i vandroiz;
d'espee et de lance i prandroiz
maint cop, et s'an randroiz assez
einz que soiez outre passez.’

(Lancelot, 2170-4)

‘It will never be surrendered to you on your arrival. You will have to put up with many blows of sword and spear, and will have to deal many, before you get through.’

When Lancelot arrives at the passage, numerous men with axes stand ready to defend it. Lancelot defeats one knight and the men-at-arms leap forward brandishing their axes. Like Lancelot, we brace ourselves for a fight, since this is the way romances usually test their heroes, but what actually happens defeats our expectations:

et li sergent as haches saillent,
mes a escïant a lui faillent,
qu'il n'ont talant de feire mal
ne a lui ne a son cheval.

(Lancelot, 2229-302)

and the soldiers leap forward with their axes, but they miss him on purpose, since they have no wish to hurt him or his horse.

The dangers, as it turns out, have no material reality outside Lancelot's and our minds. Once he has conquered his fear and confronted his opponents, the objects of his fear dissolve.50

The Gawain-poet springs a similar surprise on us. Not only do we suspend our disbelief in the green girdle, but we are also convinced that Gawain is destined to receive the blows of a demonic Green Knight. Again, our familiarity with romances in which knights are brought face to face with monsters strengthens us in our belief that something awful is about to happen. And indeed, when Gawain arrives at the macabre Green Chapel, and hears the Green Knight whetting a huge axe, the scene seems set for violence. But, like Lancelot's opponents, who strike blows that studiously avoid their target, the Green Knight strikes two blows in the air and a third that does no more than nick Gawain's skin.

As in Lancelot, the terrible encounter with the enemy existed only in our imagination. In the romances of Chrétien and the Gawain-poet this imagination is at the mercy of poets who play with it at their will, who deliver us from evil and enchantments just as easily as they plant them in our minds.


  1. Thomas E. Kelly, Le Haut Livre du Graal: A Structural Study (Geneva, 1974), 18. Perlesvaus's link with England is borne out by its manuscript tradition. The Oxford Manuscript in the Bodleian (Hatton 82) was probably copied in England, and was definitely circulating in England from the early fourteenth century onwards. It was known to the English author of Fouke Fitz Warin and to Malory, as noted by R. H. Wilson, ‘Malory and the Perlesvaus’, MP 30 (1932), 13-21, and P. J. C. Field, ‘Malory and the Perlesvaus’, MAE 62 (1993), 259-69. The Gawain-poet could therefore have had first-hand knowledge of the work.

  2. See W. A. Nitze, ‘Is the Green Knight Story Really a Vegetation Myth?’, MP 33 (1936), 351-66.

  3. Only Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York, 1965), 221-2, notes the analogue.

  4. On this aspect of the Perlesvaus see Thomas E. Kelly, ‘Love in the Perlesvaus: Sinful Passion or Redemptive Force?’, Romantic Review, 66 (1975), 1-12.

  5. The point is lucidly made by Thomas L. Wright in an analysis of the temptation scenes: ‘Luf-Talking in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. M. Y. Miller and J. Chance (New York, 1986), 77-86.

  6. Trans. K. G. Webster, Lanzelet (New York, 1951), 39.

  7. The point of its conclusion seems to have been lost on much criticism of the romance. Thus Laurence de Looze argues that the open ending of the work shows the author's conviction that ‘writing, like loving, demands freedom, and that endings and genres cannot be forced upon the reader’. That the open ending is the narrator's trump card in a manipulation of an unwilling lover, and thus aims at restricting freedom, is overlooked: ‘Generic Clash, Reader Response, and the Poetics of the Non-Ending in Le Bel Inconnu’, in Courtly Literature: Culture and Context, ed. K. Busby and E. Kooper (Amsterdam, 1990), 113-23, at 115. The editor of Le Bel Inconnu called the work ‘banal dans son fond’ (p. x), while Keith Busby in the Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy (Cambridge, 1986) claims the French romance is ‘brought to a satisfactory conclusion’. Busby may here be confusing the work with the English adaptation by Thomas of Chestre, in which the Fairy Maiden becomes a malevolent enchantress from whom Guinglain narrowly escapes. Thomas of Chestre, who provided the happy ending missing in his French source, thus succumbed to the desire for a satisfactory closure on which the narrator relies. See Jeri S. Guthrie, ‘The JE(U) in Le Bel Inconnu’, Romantic Review, 75 (1984), 147-61, for an illuminating discussion of Renaut de Beaujeu's ending.

  8. I draw here on René Girard's model of mimetic desire. Rather than assuming that there is a direct line from desiring subject to object of desire, Girard argues that desire is triangular. There is always a third party whose desire or imagined desire for the same object makes that object alluring. See his Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque (Paris, 1961).

  9. Geraldine Heng, ‘A Woman Wants: The Lady, Gawain, and the Forms of Seduction’, Yale Journal of Criticism, 5 (1992), 101-35.

  10. Two notorious victims of precisely this temptation are Dante's Paolo and Francesca who, on reading about Lancelot and Guinevere's affair in the Vulgate Lancelot, give each other their first kiss and become involved in a passionate relationship whose consequences they now suffer in Hell. As René Girard writes: ‘The written word exercises a veritable fascination … it is a mirror in which they gaze, discovering in themselves the semblances of their brilliant models’: ‘From the Divine Comedy to the Sociology of the Novel’, in Sociology of Literature and Drama, ed. Elisabeth and Tom Burns (Harmondsworth, 1973), 101-8, at 102.

  11. Much work has been done on the character of Gawain in medieval literature. The broadest studies are Keith Busby's Gauvain in Old French Literature (Amsterdam, 1980); Bartlett J. Whiting, ‘Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy, and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale’, MS 9 (1947), 189-244; and Per Nykrog, ‘Trajectory of the Hero: Gauvain, Paragon of Chivalry 1130-1230’, in Medieval Narrative: A Symposium, ed. H. Bekker-Nielsen et al. (Odense, 1979), 82-93. Martin B. Shichtman has written on Gawain's appearance in Wace and Laȝamon; ‘Gawain in Wace and Laȝamon: A Case of Metahistorical Evolution’, in Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers, ed. Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman (Ithaca, NY, 1987), 103-19. For studies of the character of Gawain in the romances of Chrétien in particular see William A. Nitze, ‘Gauvain in the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes’, MP 50 (1952-3), 219-25, and Douglas Kelly, ‘Gawain and Fin Amors in the poems of Chrétien de Troyes’, Studies in Philology, 67 (1970), 453-60. On the role of Gawain in thirteenth-century prose and verse romances see Fanni Bogdanow, ‘The Character of Gawain in the Thirteenth-Century Prose Romances’, MAE 27 (1958), 154-61; and Beate Schmolke-Hasselmann, ‘Eine Idealfigur in Zweispalt: Ritter oder Liebhaber’, in her book Der Arthurische Versroman von Chrestien bis Froissart (Tübingen, 1980). Three recent studies of Gawain in English romances are Heinz Bergner's ‘Gawein und seine literarischen Realisationen in der englischen Literatur des Spätmittelalters’, in Artusrittertum im späten Mittelalter: Ethos und Ideologie, ed. Friedrich Wolfzettel (Giessen, 1984), 3-15; Alfred Schopf, ‘Die Gestalt Gawains bei Chrétien, Wolfram von Eschenbach, und in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in Spätmittelalterliche Artusliteratur, ed. Karl Heinz Göller (Paderborn, 1984), 85-104; and Philip C. Boardman, ‘Middle English Arthurian Romance: The Repetition and Reputation of Gawain’, in The Vitality of the Arthurian Legend, ed. M. Pors (Odense, 1988), 71-90.

  12. These medieval equivalents of the ‘wanted’ photograph and the bounty hunter are used in Hunbaut, the Non-Cyclic Lancelot, L'Atre périlleux, and the Perlesvaus respectively.

  13. Gawain's confession of rape does not match the aventure as the poet has narrated it earlier. For an attempt to resolve this contradiction see Jean Frappier, ‘Le Personnage de Gauvain dans la Première Continuation du Conte du Graal’, Romance Philology, 11 (1957), 331-44. Frappier's ingenious argument that Gawain confesses rape in order to exonerate the maiden has been called into question by Pierre Gallais, ‘Gauvain et la Pucelle de Lis’, in Mélanges offerts à Maurice Delbouille, 2 vols. (Gembloux, 1964), ii. 207-29.

  14. Communicative acts, as Ross Chambers and Stephen Greenblatt have emphasized, have the power to produce new situations, to change the relationship between speaker and listener. Their interpretation of narratives not simply in their contexts, but also with an eye to the new contexts they seek to produce, is of particular relevance to Gawain, where seduction and story-telling go hand in hand. See Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis, 1984), and Stephen J. Greenblatt, ‘The Improvisation of Power’, in Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute: 1978, ed. Edward W. Said (Baltimore, 1980), 57-99, reprinted in Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1984), 222-54. I borrow the term ‘narrative fashioning’ from Greenblatt's essay.

  15. Whiting, ‘Gawain’, 232.

  16. This episode from Cligés has been suggestively analysed by Robert W. Hanning, ‘“I Shal Finde It in a Maner Glose”: Versions of Textual Harassment in Medieval Literature’, in Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers, ed. Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman (Ithaca, NY, 1987), 27-51. It should be noted that Hanning's proposed reading of the three physicians as ‘exegetes who all but annihilate the poetic value of a text’ (39) overlooks the troublesome fact that their interpretation of Fenice as a ‘morte fausse’ is essentially correct.

  17. Both this scene from Yder and Lancelot's seduction in the Vulgate Lancelot, included in E. Brewer's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues, bear only a vague resemblance to the temptation scenes in Gawain, certainly in comparison with the seduction of Gawain in Gerbert de Montreuil's Continuation.

  18. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in his Criticism and Medieval Poetry (London, 1962, 2nd edn. London, 1972), 28-50, at 39-40.

  19. Wedding of Sir Gawain, l. 639. The use of the word by Dame Ragnell shows up the inadequacies in Tony Hunt's argument in ‘Irony and Ambiguity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, FMLS 12 (1976), 1-16, which sees in the temptation scenes a conflict between the Lady's ‘continental’, understanding of the word ‘courtesy’ and Gawain's ‘English’ notion of ‘courtesy’, in which, as Hunt mistakenly claims, amorous implications were absent. The conflict as I see it turns on an opposition between courtesy as politeness and courtesy as a first stage of courtship. The tension between these two conceptions is the topic of a medieval debate which cuts across national bounda