11MEDIEVAL LITERATURESir Gawain and theGreen Knight2Sir Gawain and the Green Knight(Oxford University Press, 1998)NB: YOU WILL BEEXPECTED TO BRING THETEXT TO EVERY CLASSAssignment due: FRIDAY10 MAY3Where are we?• William Shakespeare (1564–1616)Elizabethan period• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1380–90)Anonymous (NB!)• Late Middle Ages (Medieval period)(over 600 years ago)4What were the “Middle Ages”?• Period betweenDark Ages (c. 500 – 1000)and• The Renaissance (c. 1500–1600)c. 1000–1500 AD
25The medieval period was the beginning of recognisableEnglish language and literature.Beginnings of the ‘modern’ age.Medieval literature has been influential for over 600 years.WHY ARE WE STUDYING THISPERIOD AND THIS WORK?6King Arthur and the Knightsof the Round Table• King Arthur – a legendary king of Britain• He becomes king when he draws amysterious sword out of a stone7• Arthur fights to end a period of civil war, andbecomes leader of a group of heroic knights,includingSir LancelotSir GawainSir Galahad• They meet around a Round Table –• At which everyone is equal8• Arthur’s kingship is further confirmed when hereceives a magical sword — Excalibur —from ‘the Lady of the Lake’• For many years Arthur’s knights go onadventures, defeating enemies, upholdinggood over evil, and upholding the values ofchivalry.• But tragedy develops when Arthur’s queen —Guenevere — falls in love with his bestknight, Lancelot.
39Sir Gawain and the Green Knight• An ‘Arthurian romance’ (genre)• A narrative poem (style)• The hero is not Arthur, but Arthur’s nephew,Sir Gawain• The setting is Arthur’s court, when everyoneis young and energetic• Text is a modern English rendition• As you read, try to get a sense of where thetext is taking you10• Troy• Tuscany• Lombardy• Rome• Britain• ‘The French Sea’After the battle and the attack were over at Troy …Romulus goes off in haste towards Rome …Ticius builds new towns in Tuscany …And Langeberde lays out homes in Lombardy …And, joyfully, far over the French sea,Felix Brutus founds Britain11• The poem begins in the distant past, andmoves progressively closer to the poet’s owncountry• Note how both destruction and creation arementioned (ends and beginnings)• War AND joy• Life is unpredictable; it consists of good andbad• Finally, we reach the court of King Arthur(stanza 2)12• Stanza 2 also refers to war and conflict, butthis belongs to the time before King Arthur• Arthur is renowned for courtesy• The poet promises to tell a story aboutmarvels, that will make you wonder• Marvel / marvellous – something astonishing,out of the ordinary, maybe even supernatural
413And after Britain was founded by this brave fighterRough fellows were fathered here who relished a frayAnd made much mischief in troubled times.More marvels have occurred in this countryThan any other since then, so far as I know.But of all the kings who’ve commanded this landMen say King Arthur was the greatest in courtesy.Let me tell you, then, a tale of adventure,A most striking one among the marvels of ArthurWhich some will consider a wonder to hear.If you listen closely to my words a little whileI’ll tell it to you now as I heard it toldin town:A bold story, well proven,And everywhere well known,The letters all interwovenAs custom sets it down.StockBobWheelStructure of Stanzas14And after Britain was founded by this brave fighterRough fellows were fathered here who relished a frayAnd made much mischief in troubled times.More marvels have occurred in this countryThan any other since then, so far as I know.But of all the kings who’ve commanded this landMen say King Arthur was the greatest in courtesy.Let me tell you, then, a tale of adventure,A most striking one among the marvels of ArthurWhich some will consider a wonder to hear.If you listen closely to my words a little whileI’ll tell it to you now as I heard it toldin town:A bold story, well proven,And everywhere well known,The letters all interwovenAs custom sets it down.Alliteration15Alliterative Verse• Uses internal rhymes (alliteration and assonance),falling on stressed syllables within each line.• This rhyming was typical of verse that was meant tobe read aloud in performance – in oral delivery.• The SOUNDS of each line communicate meaning inaddition to the words themselves.• Read aloud and LISTEN to the music ofthe stresses,the sounds andthe language.16Summary (lines 1–36)• In order to locate its setting, the poem begins by evoking eventsin the distant ‘historical’ past (the fall of Troy, the founding ofRome, the founding of Britain by Felix Brutus).• It emphasises the uncertainty and the instability of events: theFALL of Troy leads to the FOUNDING of Rome; ‘war’ alternateswith ‘joy’ which alternates with ‘terror’; ‘delight’ is balanced by‘horror’.• Britain was a place of fighting, mischief and troubled times (20–22), but also of marvels (23).• King Arthur brings stability and is most famous for courtesy (26).• The poet will tell the story of one of the most amazing ‘marvels’to have happened in Arthur’s court.• A marvel: something unusual, amazing, miraculous,supernatural.
517Lines 37–84• It is Christmas time (37); more specifically, New Year’s Day(60). (Twelve days of Christmas = 25 December – 5 January.)• The setting is Arthur’s court at Camelot. Everyone is taking partin festive events, jousting, dancing, singing.• Everyone is beautiful, youthful and happy:All in that hall were beautiful, young and, oftheir kindThe happiest under heaven, (54–56)‘For al was this fayre folk in [their] first age’• They exchange gifts (and kisses), then prepare for a feast, forwhich Queen Guenevere has place of honour under a canopy ofexpensive draperies.18Lines 85–129• The king is restless, and refuses to sit down until everyone hasbeen servedHe was in a merry mood, like a mischievous boyHis blood burned, his restless mind roused him (86, 89)• He will also wait until eitherSomeone has told a story of adventureorSomeone comes into the hall to challenge them to battle orsome other adventure• Arthur wants something unusual to happen – either in a story,or in real life.• The feast continues; everything is of the best quality; everyoneis happy; everything is perfect …• Or is it? Why does Arthur wait for something unusual? Issomething missing? Is peace not good enough?19Poetic Technique• Note how the poet lavishes attention on the smallest details …• ‘Zooming’ technique• But he also gives subtle hints that there are important issueslying below the surface of what he is describing• (1) Arthur’s court is youthful, joyful and energetic• But this could also mean that it is inexperienced / untested /maybe even impulsive / reckless• Is Arthur being reckless in calling for a ‘marvel’?• (2) The feast is magnificent, lacking in nothing …• Is there an element of smugness / self-satisfaction here?20The arrival of the Green Knight• The poet hints that everything is about to change because‘another sound was stirring’ (132): something is approaching …• Just as people were turning their attention to their food …• When there hove into the court a hideous figure[‘aghlich mayster’]Square-built and bulky, full-fleshed from neck to thigh. (136–37)• It’s a huge figure of a man, who may even have been ‘half-giant’[‘half-etayn’].• NB The word ‘giant’ [‘etayn’] has associations with savagery,monstrous wild creatures that eat men, women & children• BUT this figure is also ‘the mightiest of men’ and ‘a handsomeknight’ with an elegantly shaped body (141–44).• What is he? Giant or huge man? Hideous or handsome? Thepoet indicates that he’s both, and Arthur’s court can’t decide.
621‘Giant’ (‘etayn’)– associations withsavagery, monstrous wildcreatures that eat men,women & children22• The poet draws the reader into the sense of astonishment anduncertainty experienced by Arthur’s court.• They don’t know what they are looking at.• The newcomer is a huge, well-dressed man – but everythingabout him is green:Not only was this creatureColossal, he was bright green —• The poet’s gaze takes in the knight’s magnificent clothes andjewels• These indicate that he’s someone from a very wealthy,cultivated background;• We begin to think that it’s only his clothes and decorations thatare green.• But slowly we become aware that the whole man is green, andso is his horse.• WHAT IS HE? Is he giant or man? Human or supernatural?• We share the uncertainty of Arthur’s court as they stare at theGreen Knight (GK).23Lines 179–249• The knight’s appearance is also extraordinary in the way his hairand his beard reach down to his elbows• His horse’s mane is also elaborately decorated• Is he a threat? The poet emphasises that he wears noprotective armour, but he carries:• (1) A branch of green holly(a sign of peace); and(2) An enormous axe,richly decorated• A new ambiguity: does he stand for peace (holly), or for war(the axe)? 24Lines 179–249• The knight’s appearance is ambiguous and confusing, but hisbehaviour is downright rude:‘Where is’, he said, ‘The leader of this lot?’[‘Wher is’, he sayd, ‘The governour of this gyng?’]• It should be obvious who is the king, but the GK pretends thatit’s not. (An obvious insult.)• The court is stunned by the sight of the GK (Arthur wanted amarvel!), but the poet emphasises that no one spoke for anotherreason:• They are waiting for Arthur to reply. Courtesy demands that heidentify himself (247).• Courtesy is being identified as an important value.
725Lines 250–365• Arthur courteously invites the GK to join them• But he refuses: he’s there because of the high reputation ofArthur’s knights for valour and courtesy.• The GK says he wants no battle – then insults the knights as‘beardless boys’• What he wants is an exchange of blows – with his huge axe• The court goes silent with astonishment, prompting the GK tolaugh at them all• Arthur is furious, takes the axe and starts practising with it• Then Gawain intervenes …• With elaborate courtesy he asks Arthur to allow him to take upthe challenge (340–361)26Courtesy and Chivalry• Courtesy – politeness, good manners, being respectful orconsiderate, gentle, doing something out of generosity ratherthan because you have to• Courteous – ‘having manners fit for a royal court’;knowing how to behave; cultivated, refined, polished, civilized• The opposite of being brutal, ferocious, harsh – everything thatwas expected of a fighter in a military society.27Courtesy and Chivalry• Chivalry / Chivalrous: being polite, behaving well• Chivalry – The qualities of an ideal knight: courage, honour,courtesy, justice, readiness to help the weak• Developed into a religious, social and moral code governingbehaviour ON and OFF the battlefield• Courtesy and Chivalry expressthe essential social and ethicalprinciples of medieval knighthood.• Arthur’s court is famous for itscourtesy and chivlary• The Green Knight challenges thecourt to live up to its reputation• The poet is questioning his society’sability to live up to its own values28The ‘Beheading Game’• Arthur wanted a marvel – he seems to have got more than hebargained for!• The GK makes Gawain identify himself, and repeat the terms ofthe ‘game’.• He also makes Gawain swear by his troth [‘trawthe’] that he willhonour his side of the bargain.• They make an agreement, a pact – a form of contract; a verbalundertaking; a covenant (393).• What does that mean? What should it mean?• Should all promises be kept? – even if circumstances change?• Note how the poet focuses again on the smallest details of thebeheading and what follows …
829The ‘Beheading Game’• The Green Knight has identified himself and his abode – butremains just as mysterious as ever.• Note the poet’s question: ‘And so?’ (462)• Life returns to normal; Arthur reassures the queen; they areserved double helpings of dainties …• ‘Until at last / night fell’ (485–6)• Lines 487–90: The poet seems to be speaking directly toGawain, but is also perhaps giving a sense of Gawain’s ownthoughts.• The experience has set him apart from the others, and it hasbecome his burden.• Gawain has already been initiated into something that liesbeyond the experience of his fellows30Romance and Realism• Romance – a fictional narrative, usually about adventure or love,or both, that also involves an element of fantasy• Realism – accurate representation of the ‘real’ world• The Gawain-poet mixes these two elements / genres31Structure of the Poem• Divided into four main sections called ‘Fitts’• Fitt 1 – Arthur’s court; New Year festivities;the arrival of the Green Knight• Fitt 2 – The passage of the seasons; Gawain’s departure; theWinter Journey.• Begins with a veiled warning:… if the game grew serious, think it no surprise,For if men are feather-wits when the wine’s flowingTime races on, nothing remains unchanged;Our endings rarely square with our beginnings.• How is this ‘Game’ going to end?32491–566• The passing year is described in terms of the cycle of theseasons – the changing natural world• The year dwindles, all days seem yesterdays (529)‘And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony’• Michaelmas (religious calendar): 29 Septemberthe day when debts have to be repaid• All Hallows Day (1 November)• Gawain prepares to fulfil his side of the bargain‘Kind or severe, We must engage our fate.’ (564–5)• He never questions whether he should keep his promise• A promise is sacred
933The Arming Scene• Shows the poet’s delight in details; he wants to depict events asrealistically as possible (we’re not just in a fairy tale)• Colour symbolism: Gawain’s colours are red and gold• Gawain’s Shield – The Pentangle (the ‘endless knot’)• ‘A sign and token of truth’(625–6)• Five points each symbolisefive virtues34The Pentangle• Five points each symbolisefive virtues:• Five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste,smell)• Five fingers (sword hand?)• FAITH in the five wounds of Christ• Courage from the five joys of Mary• Group 5 (qualities of a good knight):GenerosityGood fellowship (reliable)Cleanness = purityCourtesyCompassion• The endless knot: everything is intertwined35LogresNorthWalesAngleseyHolyheadWirrallPoem written36Gawain’s Winter Journey 691 ff.• Gawain must search out his destiny. (His QUEST.)• Poet mixes real landscapes (genuine geography) with romanceelements (dragons, ‘wodwos’ = wild men of the woods, giants)(721–22)• Poet is most interested in the human experience of being alonein the wilderness in the middle of winter.• Gawain’s suffering and determination are stressed.• But he is not alone: Note the the little birds (745–6):Hunched on bare branches, doleful birdsPiped out pitiful calls in the bitter cold.With mony briddes unblythe upon bare twyges,That pitously ther piped for pyne of the colde.• Gawain’s suffering are shared by other creatures too.• But his prayers are answered: he has arrived somewhere
1037Hautdesert – Safety• Note how the castle appears mysteriously through the trees –Gawain is astonished. Is it real?• He is welcomed, first by the servants, then by the lord of thecastle.• The interior supplies the opposite of everything Gawainexperienced in the wilderness: an island of civilisation.• When they find out who Gawain is, the retainers are overjoyed(916 –), calling him the ‘prince of courtesy’.• In chapel, Gawain sees the lady of the castle, who seems to himimmensely beautiful.• Everything is perfect – Gawain can relax.38The Exchange of Winnings• Even better: Sir Bertilak tells Gawain that the Green Chapel isnearby – so he can relax until New Year’s Day.• Bertilak will go hunting and Gawain can rest in his room untilNew Year.• He proposes a bargain: at the end of each day they must eachgive the other what they have ‘earned’ (‘won’) – the Exchange ofWinnings. (Another Christmas game!)• Gawain accepts another set of obligations …It seems innocent, but is it?• What can Gawain ‘win’ during his time in the castle?39Fitt 3• Three days: 29 – 31 December• Central to the poem• Alternates between Bertilak in the field and Gawain in his bedover three successive days• Bertilak hunts three types of game:• Day 1: A herd of deer• Day 2: A ferocious wild boar• Day 3: A fox• The poem cuts from hunt to bedroom, back to hunt, and then tothe Exchange of Winnings.• Note the interweaving of the story, suggesting a connectionbetween the events in the field and the events in Gawain’sroom.40Day 1• Hunting – the favourite sport of the medieval aristocracy.• The poet emphasises thethrill of the chase, but also theterror of the hunted animals.• Hunt is an image of vigorous,healthy outdoor activity.• Narrative then turns to Gawain,half asleep, dozing in his bed.• READ: 1178 –• Gawain in bewildered,embarrassed: he pretends tobe asleep, but can’t do so forever.• His thoughts: what does this mean? What can the lady want?
1141Gawain and the Lady• The lady’s intentions are never entirely clear because of theambiguities of courtly language.• READ: 1208 –• 1251–54:There are many ladies who would love beyond the worldTo hold you in their power, as I have you now,To while away the time with tender words,To find solace in love, free at last from sorrow.• Does she want to talk about love? To hear talk about love?Or does she want to make love to her?• Her words and actions could be interpreted either way.• Gawain gives an innocent meaning to everything she says.• BUT: The situation is not too ambiguous:He is naked in bedShe is pinning him down and leaning close to him 42Gawain’s Dilemma• Body language vs Spoken language• The lady seems to be trying to seduce him. He cannot respondbecause:• To respond would be to commit adultery – a mortal sin.• It would be contrary to his principles of purity (‘cleanness’).• Would be a betrayal of his host.• He believes he is likely to be killed in a few days’ time.• He also dare not acknowledge her seduction in case he’smisinterpreted it. She might then be outraged.• So he steadfastly interprets her words in their most innocentsense.• Their talk is like a sword-fight in which Gawain has to deflect herattacks …43The Kiss• Just as Gawain thinks it’s all over … READ: 1290–• The lady reprimands him for lack of courtesy: he hasn’t askedher for a kiss.• Another dilemma: he can’t be discourteous; but he can’t riskasking her for a kiss.• So he manoeuvres her into giving him a kiss.• He has now received (‘won’) something, which he has to handover to Bertilak.• Contrast: Bertilak’s ‘winnings’: substantial, physical, calculable.• How do you evaluate (put a value on) a kiss?• Depends on HOW you got it. WHO you got it from. WhatSORT of kiss it is. What lies behind it: i.e. What does it mean?• Gawain refuses to answer these questions: they’re not part ofthe bargain. 44Days 2 – 3• Follow the same general pattern – but note the variations.• Day 2: Gawain is ready, waiting. READ 1468–• He takes the initiative, but even so it’s a hard fight.He also gets two kisses.• Day 3: Gawain is fast asleep, having troubled dreams, and thelady is at her most seductive: READ 1731–• She does everything she can to wear him down, and he onlysucceeds because of divine intervention: 1768–• He can’t avoid receiving three kisses – but then she changesdirection.• She asks for a love token; then offers a love token• Finally, she offers her belt because it has the magical power toprotect the wearer’s life.• NOTE: the belt is green and gold!
1245Gawain’s Conflict• He promises the lady that he will conceal the belt – a newpromise that CONFLICTS with his pact with Bertilak.• He breaks troth / fidelity with Bertilak.• Not for a secret love affair, but because he is afraid for his life.• Does it matter?• Hunts and Bedroom Scenes – any connections?• No exact equivalences, but there is a suggestiveness:• Like the deer on day 1, Gawain is caught unawares• Like the boar on day 2, Gawain is fiercely defensive• Like the fox on day 3, Gawain has to twist and turn; finally, hewants to escape a deadly blow, and falls victim to somethingelse: READ: 1893–46Fitt 4 – New Year’s Day• New Year’s Day approaches: READ 1998–• The raging storm outside appears to mirror the emotional storm thatGawain is experiencing• When Gawain arms himself –the poet doesn’t mention hisshield. Rather, he describeshim putting on the greengirdle. READ 2025–• Gawain’s guide providesfurther temptation – he’llhelp Gawain to escape aterrible monster.(Temptation can come in many forms.)READ: 2097–• Gawain’s answer: 2126–2139.• Gawain finds the Green Chapel. READ 2160–218847The Beheading• He hears a blade being sharpened – again testing his resolve andcourage• READ: 2220–2330• The Green Knight raises the axe three times, but only the third blowtouches Gawain• The Revelation: he is Bertilak, transformed by magic into the GreenKnight, and he has been testing Gawain for days• The cut on the neck is to repay Gawain for his fault in keeping thegreen girdle.Beheading (agreement)Beheading (fulfilment)Exchange1Exchange1Exchange2Exchange2Exchange3Exchange3Temptation1Temptation2Temptation3
1349Gawain’s Test(s)• Gawain believes there is only one big test – the beheading• He discovers that the big picture depends on his behaviour whenhe was most off guard (day-to-day little pictures)• The MAIN test in life does not have to be dramatic, heroic, epic• If you pass the little tests in life, the outcomes of the major tests willhave been decided• The Green Knight’s judgement:‘You’re the most faultless warrior who walks on foot!As a pearl is more precious than a snow-peaSo is Gawain, upon my oath, among other knights.’ (2363–5)Gawain’s response and judgement: READ (2369–2388)He accuses himself of: cowardice, covetousness, fear, falseness,faithlessness, being fooled by a woman. (A little hysterical?)50• The Green Knight disagrees: READ 2389–2399• The Green Knight is like a priest absolving Gawain of his ‘sin’because of his• ContritionConfessionPenance• But Gawain is mortified: READ: 2429–• Gawain will keep the girdle and wear it ‘as a sign of my fault’ (2433)• Whose judgement should we accept?Judging Gawain51• READ 2498–2520• Arthur and his court comfort Gawain and adopt the green girdle for‘fellowship’• Because they haven’t learned anything?• Or because Gawain’s principles are so lofty that no one could liveup to them all the time.• They agree with the GK that Gawain has done as much as anyonecould hope to do, and more.• No one is perfect; we are all bound to fail some time.• Poet suggests that that’s why we need tolerance andunderstanding, as well as a forgiving God (2527–9).• But he lets the poem fade away, back to Troy (2521–26), leavingYOU to decide.Camelot52• Courtesy, humility, chastity, covetousness, cowardice, bravery,truth, untruth, faith etc — These are all abstract concepts.• But the poet also makes you aware of the daily experience of aliving individual; even of a little bird ‘peeping piteously for pain ofthe cold’.• Abstract concepts can guide us, but we have to LIVE throughchallenges every day, and sometimes it’s difficult to rememberthose grand principles.• Every day is a test, a challenge, so you should ALWAYS be doingthe best you possibly can.Principles and Individual Experience