Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Pearl-Poet

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight book cover
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At a Glance

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is commonly believed to have been written in the 14th Century by the Pearl poet, an anonymous author known for his most famous work, a long poem entitled Pearl. Like Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight employs the bob-and-wheel device, which appends a five-line stanza ("wheel") to each section. This stanza is written in the ABABA rhyme scheme and is attached to each section by a "bob" (a phrase that bridges the alliterative main section from the rhyming wheel).
  • Sir Gawain's shield has symbolic significance. The five points of its decorate pentangle represent five virtues upheld by knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Sir Gawain embodies these virtues at various times in the poem but ultimately fails to maintain his piety in key moments, particularly his final meeting with the Green Knight.
  • In the course of the poem, the green girdle also takes on symbolic significance. At first, it is a love token from Lady Bertilak. Then it becomes a kind of protective talisman during Gawain's encounter with the Green Knight. Finally, it becomes a mark of shame, which Gawain wears to remind him of his failure to trust in the Virgin Mary to protect him.

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Analysis

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

During the Yule celebration, many knights and fair ladies gather in King Arthur’s banquet hall, there to feast and enjoy the holiday festivities. Suddenly a stranger enters the room. He is a giant, clad all in green armor, and with a green face, hair, and beard. He advances, gives his greetings, and then loudly issues his challenge. Is there a knight in the group who would dare to trade blows with the mighty Green Knight? He who accepts is to strike one blow with a battle-ax immediately. Then on New Year’s morning, a year hence, the Green Knight is to repay the blow, at his own castle in a distant land. Arrogantly, the Green Knight waits for an answer. From King Arthur’s ranks answers the voice of Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge.

King Arthur and the other knights watch approvingly as Sir Gawain advances, ax in hand, to confront the Green Knight. The stranger kneels down, bares his neck, and waits for the blow. Sir Gawain strikes, sure and true, and the head of the Green Knight is severed from his body. While all gape in amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head in his hands, leaps upon his charger, and rides toward the gate. As he rides, the lips of the head shout defiance at Sir Gawain, reminding him of their forthcoming meeting at the Green Chapel on the coming New Year.

The months pass quickly. Noble deeds are legion at the Round Table, and an atmosphere of gaiety pervades King Arthur’s castle. Then, when autumn comes, Sir Gawain departs on his promised quest, and with much concern the other knights see him set forth. Sir Gawain, riding his horse Gringalet, goes northward and at last arrives in Wirral, a wild and uncivilized region. On his way he was often in danger of death, for he faced fire-puffing dragons, fierce animals, and savage wild men in his search for the Knight of the Green Chapel. At last, on Christmas Eve, Sir Gawain sees a great castle in the middle of the wilderness. He enters it and is made welcome.

His host offers Sir Gawain the entire facilities of the castle. In the beautifully furnished chamber that he occupies, Sir Gawain is served the finest dishes and the best wines. The lady of the castle, a lady more beautiful even than Queen Guinevere, sits with him as he eats. The next day is Christmas, and the lord of the castle leads in the feasting. Expressing the wish that Sir Gawain will remain at the castle for a long time, the host assures the knight that the Green Chapel is only a short distance away, so that it will not be necessary for him to leave until New Year’s Day. The lord of the castle also asks Sir Gawain to keep a covenant with him. During his stay Sir Gawain is to receive all the game that his host catches during the day’s hunt. In return, Sir Gawain is to exchange any gifts he...

(The entire section is 4,676 words.)