Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
as translated by Marie Boroff
THE LITERARY WORK
A long poem in Middle English set in the mythic days of King Arthur; composed in the late fourteenth century, but not published until 1839.
Sir Gawain agrees to play a beheading “game” with a mysterious green knight; the knight magically survives the loss of his head, and a year later Gawain faces his own imminent beheading.
The origin of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is obscure. Although nothing is known about the author, a number of educated guesses can be made based on the one surviving manuscript of the poem. It is written in the language of the northwest midlands of England in the latter half of the fourteenth century, and the physical characteristics of the manuscript itself indicate that it was produced at a time very near 1400. Details in the poem support this date; the dress of the characters, the architecture of Bertilak’s castle, and the general emphasis on the luxurious splendor of courtly life all suggest that it was composed c. 1350-1400. An intimate knowledge of the habits and dress of the noble classes is evident as well, which probably means that the poet was in a position to attend aristocratic social events, such as banquets, holiday festivities, and hunting expeditions. The Sir Gawain manuscript also contains three other poems by the same author, involving Christian history and doctrine. Most scholars conclude from this that the actions of Gawain should be evaluated not only from the standpoint of knightly duty, but religious orthodoxy as well. The poem’s “beheading game” is relatively simple, but integrated with it are elements of chivalric romance, moral theology, Arthurian myth, and otherworldly magic that provide clues to traditions and values during the poet’s own era.
The Age of King Arthur
The familiar story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, a wholly literary creation, did not begin to take a form that would have been recognizable to the Gawain poet until the twelfth century in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). It is uncertain where Geoffrey obtained his material on Arthur, but many scholars believe that he simply made it up. Not until the end of the eighth century did Arthur make his first appearance, in the British chronicler Nennius’s The History of the Britons (c. 796), which refers to Arthur as a “commander” who “with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons” in 452 (Giles, p. 408). Nennius lists 12 battles in which Arthur led the British forces; in the last, he supposedly killed 940 men by his own hand. Thus even the earliest account of Arthur bears the unmistakable stamp of legend. Over the next four centuries little was added to the Arthur histories, until Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on them to create the Arthurian myth. It was Geoffrey who, for the first time, presented Arthur as a king, with a court, a castle, and a retinue of armored knights. This Arthur boasted power that stretched across Europe, subduing even Rome’s emperor, but bore little resemblance to the local warlord of the earlier chronicles.
The historical Arthur, if he existed at all, seems to have been a relatively obscure fifth-or sixth-century general who helped defend what remained of Roman civilization in Britain against the invading Germanic peoples—the Angles (from whom comes the name “England”), the Saxons, and the Jutes. His career may have been brilliant (if there is even a germ of truth in what Nennius writes), but his gains were short-lived—the Germanic invaders soon gained complete mastery of England, and the native Romano-British population was either absorbed or retreated to outlying regions such as Wales or Cornwall. Virtually everything now associated with Arthur derives not from the realities of this era, but from the fertile invention of Geoffrey and later authors.
Gawain appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth as Arthur’s nephew and one of his knights. He figures prominently in major battles and serves as Arthur’s ambassador to the Roman emperor. However, he bears little resemblance to the Gawain of later romances; he is neither a knight who seeks or achieves a personal reputation for chivalric valor, nor a legendary lover who engages in amorous pursuits with ladies. In Geoffrey’s history, he is eventually killed by Mordred.
It is no accident that Sir Gawain begins with a reference to the destruction of the ancient city of Troy around 1200 b.c.e. For England in the fourteenth century c.e., Arthur’s Camelot was a high point, a Golden Age when the glory of British knighthood and imperial power was at its zenith. However, this Golden Age harked back more than 2,000 years to another Golden Age—that of the same Troy from which the Romans derived their own foundational myth. According to one Roman tradition, the Trojan refugee Aeneas founded Rome, and thus the city’s imperial and political legitimacy was linked to the glory of Troy. According to medieval tradition, Aeneas’s great-grandson Brutus founded Britain, with the result that Britain’s own national legitimacy was put on an equal footing with that of the ancient Romans, whose Golden Age the English saw as a model to be emulated. The view placed Arthur’s achievements in a larger context of imperial succession, his Golden Age becoming one that repeated itself throughout history.
Looking back to Arthur’s time from the fourteenth century, medieval writers did not attempt to reflect the past with detailed historical accuracy. Rather they set out to project contemporary values and concerns back onto a past that was seen as noble and glorious. When medieval authors portrayed the unity, stability, or noble purposefulness of King Arthur’s court, it was because they thought such virtues were important (and perhaps lacking) in their own time. Fourteenth-century England valued chivalry and knightly honor, and so Arthur’s knights were depicted as unmatched in these respects. By looking back to this legendary Golden Age of exemplary knighthood, writers and audiences of the later Middle Ages could see ideals of chivalry that reflected the way they thought things ought to be in their own time.
The word “chivalry” denotes a broad spectrum of behavior considered essential to the office of medieval knighthood. In fact the word itself comes from the Old French word for “knight.” A chivalric knight exhibited qualities in five main areas of activity—in aristocratic company he was expected to be polite, witty, courteous, deferential to ladies and his superiors, and exemplary in the social graces; in love he was faithful to his lady, and bound to obey and please her to the best of his abilities; in the world at large he defended the weak (especially women and the elderly), bore himself with grace and humility, and upheld the standards of righteousness; in battle he was strong, brave, adept at the use of weapons, loyal to his lord, and merciful to his foe; and in regard to Christian morality and institutions he was to defend the interests of the Church against its enemies, and avoid sin. However noble in theory, these standards of conduct could make life somewhat complex for a knight, because they tended to contradict each other in practice. For example, all knights were in the service of a lord—there were no independent knights (or no good independent knights, at any rate). The rules of chivalry dictated that a knight obey his lord. They also dictated that he keep his word. If one obligation ran counter to another, the knight was in a quandary; what was he to do if his lord ordered him to break an oath, or if he made a promise that ran counter to his lord’s wishes? Further, insofar as the entire notion of chivalry was intimately bound with obedience to both sacred and secular authorities, a knight could find himself with divided loyalties. In the Middle Ages the people who occupied positions of power in the Church were often members of noble families, with vast landholdings, territorial ambitions, and various other preoccupations of an entirely secular nature. Thus, a knight might very well be in the service of a lord who was involved in a dispute with another lord who happened to also be a bishop. To whom did
ARTHUR IN GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH’S THE HISTORY OF THE KINGS OF BRITAIN—AN EXCERPT
“Arthur then began to increase his personal entourage by inviting very distinguished men from far-distant kingdoms to join it. In this way he developed such a code of courtliness in his household that he inspired peoples living far away to imitate him. The result was that even the man of noblest birth, once he was roused to rivalry, thought nothing at all of himself unless he wore his arms and dressed in the same way as Arthur’s knights. At last the fame of Arthur’s generosity and bravery spread to the very ends of the earth; and the kings of countries far across the sea trembled at the thought that they might be attacked and invaded by him, and so lose control of the lands under their dominion. They were so harassed by these tormenting anxieties that they rebuilt their towns and the towers in their towns, and then went so far as to construct castles on carefully-chosen sites, so that, if invasion should bring Arthur against them, they might have refuge in their time of need.”
(Geoffrey of Monmouth, p. 222)
the knight owe loyalty? Complicating the situation still further was a knight’s problematic relationship to women. Knights were bound to defend and protect women, as part of their larger obligation to protect the weak and defenseless. A knight in love with a lady could declare himself her servant, similar to his declaration of obedience to his lord. Chivalry would then dictate that he make every effort to please her, and make himself worthy of her regard. But it is not difficult to image a scenario in which a knight could run afoul of his other knightly obligations by pledging his love to a lady. In fact, he could violate all of them. For example, the archetypal adulterous liaison of the Middle Ages—that between Lancelot and Guinevere—resulted in Lancelot’s breaking virtually all of his vows of chivalry. In becoming a knight of the Round Table, he had sworn to defend the honor of King Arthur—a vow he broke by committing adultery with the king’s wife and by later engaging in open warfare with him. He also failed in his duty to defend the weak, as his actions led to a series of devastating wars that brought great harm to the common people. As a Christian knight, he was not supposed to sin, and yet he did, again with Guinevere. And in his efforts to escape temptation, he would often leave Camelot to engage in tournaments, quests, and other activities appropriate to a knight—activities that ran against the wishes of Guinevere, who wanted him to stay at court.
Lancelot was an active and willing participant in his adultery with Guinevere, but a knight could easily find himself in a no-win situation of a similar kind, and yet be entirely blameless. Chivalric literature abounds with instances in which a knight, with laudable knightly generosity, puts himself at the disposal of a lord and lady who have done him a good turn, such as giving him lodging for the night. Such an offer of service is a serious obligation that cannot be lightly cast aside. What ought a knight to do, then, if the lady makes an adulterous proposal? On the one hand, his obligation as a Christian knight to avoid the sin of adultery, and his obligation in the lord’s service to avoid dishonoring him, would dictate that he refuse. On the other hand, his obligation in courtesy to the lady would demand that, at the very least, he treat her advances with respect and discretion. How can he obey the wishes of the wife without dishonoring the husband? A similar conflict could arise in the case of a knight bound in service to two lords. If these lords made war on each other, to whom should he be loyal? Thus, a medieval knight was often faced with a complex web of conflicting demands upon his sense of chivalric honor, with no practical way to resolve them.
The literary depictions of chivalric activity in the Arthurian romances do not accurately reflect the reality of knighthood in the Middle Ages, especially in the late fourteenth century. Though the romances emphasized the chivalry, courtliness, and manners of its heroic knights, the medieval knight was first and foremost a soldier, whose existence bore an intimate connection to the medieval institution known as feudalism—a term denoting the rigid social structure devised in the early Middle Ages to impose order on a vulnerable and essentially agricultural society. This system (though it was less systematic in practice than in theory) consisted of mutual military obligation between the rich landowner-noble and the knights who defended his interests. A lord would have in his retinue knights who were his vassals—they received land and protection from the lord in exchange for their military service to him. This arrangement was sealed with an oath of fealty; each was bound by a solemn promise to maintain the status of the other. A lord, in turn, could be the vassal of another lord, and all would theoretically be vassals of the king—who was often the vassal of another king. These obligations were not always honored, and accusations of treachery and oath-breaking were commonplace. Knights went to war on a regular basis, bound as they were to defend their lords’ territorial ambitions in the ever-present disputes (local and international) over land that fueled medieval warfare.
Feudal society was thus essentially militaristic in nature; those who had political authority and military strength generally wished to possess more, and maintaining a cadre of well-trained and heavily armored knights was one way to accomplish this. Knights were brought up from boyhood to serve as warriors; years of training in horsemanship, swordplay, and jousting was followed by additional service as a squire (an apprentice of sorts who learned the finer points of knighthood by serving an experienced knight) before they could join the elite ranks of full-fledged knighthood. Certain recreations were practiced as well, and proficiency in these was considered just as much a part of knighthood as expertise in warfare. The forests of medieval England were essentially vast game preserves, offlimits to all but the aristocracy. Hunting (whether with hounds or hawks) was the favored leisure-time activity for the nobility, and knights were expected to know the sport inside and out.
By the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, the feudal system had long been dying. Oaths between lord and vassal were still made, but only for form’s sake; knights served as mercenaries, and fought for whomever paid them the most. Chivalry lived on in poetry and romance, but chroniclers and moralists repeatedly lamented that chivalry was dead. Knights no longer protected the poor as they once had, but now robbed them. In fact, whether or not knights had ever behaved with exemplary chivalry is uncertain; the bulk of the evidence is literary, authored by poets who promoted ideal behavior, rather than reflected actual practice.
In the earlier Arthurian material women hardly appear at all; the emphasis is exclusively on military valor. With the twelfth-century French poet Chretién de Troyes, Arthur’s knights begin to fall into romantic entanglements that serve as motivating forces for their deeds on the battlefield—the knight as lover was as important as the knight as warrior. Certain conventions had to be observed; the lady was obeyed and venerated almost at all costs, and the knight’s wartime exploits were as much for her honor as his. In some narratives, adulterous love was accepted without comment—for example, in Chrétien’s Lancelot (also called “The Knight of the Cart”), Guinevere is abducted from Arthur’s court by an evil knight, and Lancelot goes off to save her. His success owes as much to his intense love for her as to his knightly prowess, yet the tale never refers to the adulterous nature of this love. Later versions of the Lancelot-Guinevere story do take their sin into account, and they must do penance, but the manner of their love is always presented as a characteristic instance of chivalric passion, however wrong. Another famous lover, Sir Tristan, is somewhat exonerated of his guilt for committing adultery with Isolde (the wife of King Mark) by the fact that his love is involuntary—he and Isolde are given a love potion by Isolde’s servant. Gawain is the knightly lover par excellence; in some versions of the account of the last days of Camelot, when Gawain is killed by Lancelot, there is a vast outpouring of grief by women far and wide who bewail the loss of the greatest lover the world had ever known.
The poem begins not in England but in Troy, at the end of the Trojan war—close to 2,000 years before the Age of Arthur. Aeneas flees the ruins of his native city, and founds the city of Rome. His descendants and followers also establish kingdoms, among them Tuscany, Lombardy, and Britain.
The heroic lineage of Arthur’s kingdom being established, the story opens during the Christmas season at Camelot. The entire court celebrates with feasting, jousting, and dancing. Arthur, however, is not satisfied—he vows that he will not eat until something wondrous appears, either in fact or in the form of a tale. His desire is immediately granted with the appearance of “an unknown rider, / One of the greatest on ground in growth of his frame” (Sir Gawain, lines 136-37). Enormous and handsome, the knight is richly arrayed in the finest of clothing. More remarkable is his color—his skin, hair, and clothing are all green, as are his horse, saddle, and stirrups. Riding up to the platform on which Arthur sits, he demands to know who is in charge. Learning that it is Arthur, he says that the widespread fame of the king’s court has prompted him to come play a game. He proposes to submit to a single blow with his own green axe, wielded by a knight of Camelot, who will also get to keep the axe. The Camelot knight will then accept his own blow in return, in exactly one year and one day’s time. The Green Knight’s proposal astounds the court so much that no one responds, whereupon the Green Knight resorts to mockery:
“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said that
“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide
Where is now your arrogance and your
Your valor and your victories and your
(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 309-312)
Shamed, Arthur takes up the Green Knight’s axe.
Arthur’s nephew Gawain then asks permission to respond to the challenge himself, arguing that his own life, unlike Arthur’s, would not be much missed. The members of the court all agree to let
MAGIC, CHIVALRY, AND THE LAW
The exemplar of chivalry in Arthur’s court, Gawain needs no excuse to step in and offer to take the king’s place in the Green Knight’s beheading game; he is bound by oath to defend the king, and the game clearly represents a threat to the king’s life. More problematic is the nature of the Green Knight himself. If the knight’s proposal is a “game,” the manner in which it developed is serious; Gawain chops off the head of another man who offers no resistance. Thus, Gawain’s chivalry could be called into question at the outset, when he gives a blow that he thinks will kill someone who does not deserve it. On the other hand, the knight had offered a challenge that honor demanded be met, and (to put it simply) he was green, and presumably knew what he was doing. His color makes it clear to Arthur’s court from the outset that he is a figure from the otherworld, possessed of supernatural powers. He survives the beheading game, but magically, which means (at least as far as medieval English law is concerned) that Gawain need not uphold his commitment to appear before the Green Knight in a year’s time. Using magic in any adversarial situation in the Gawain poet’s time was an offense, both civil and ecclesiastical, and invalidated the result. But Gawain had given his word as a knight to receive a blow in return, and so is resolved to follow through.
Gawain face the knight, who makes Gawain swear that, in one year’s time, he will seek him out for the return blow. Gawain agrees, and brings the axe down swiftly on the knight’s bared neck. The Green Knight’s head rolls on the floor; blood bursts from his body, but he remains standing. The body walks steadily towards the head, snatches it up, and then swings onto the green horse. Holding the head aloft by the hair, the body points it toward the royal dais. The eyes of the head are open, and the mouth reminds Gawain of his oath, instructing him to come to the Green Chapel the following New Year’s morning or be known as a coward.
Winter, spring, and summer pass, and with the coming of autumn Gawain begins to prepare for departure. The members of the court feign good cheer while Gawain dresses and arms himself. Like the Green Knight, he is dressed splendidly, but unlike him he is armed to the teeth. Most prominent among his accessories is a gleaming red shield, adorned with a golden pentangle—a five-pointed star. As Gawain rides away, members of the court bemoan his likely fate.
Passing through desolate and monster-infested wastelands, Gawain asks everyone he meets about the Green Chapel, but no one has heard of it. Far from home, he must fight for his very survival:
Now with serpents he wars, now with savage
Now with wild men of the woods, that
watched from the rocks,
Both with bulls and with bears, and with
And giants that came gibbering from the
(Sir Gawain, lines 720-23)
He journeys day after day until Christmas Eve arrives, and begins to fear that he will not make his appointed meeting with the Green Knight. He prays to Mary that he might find lodging where he can attend Mass, and upon crossing himself three times, he sees nearby a moated castle. Knocking at the door, he is admitted to a sumptuously furnished interior, and the lord of the castle welcomes him with enthusiasm, telling him that he may stay as long as he wishes. The castle is full of noble guests, who have come to celebrate Christmas the following day. Even before revealing his name, Gawain is treated with great honor—he is clothed in the finest robes and served a splendid feast. When he does reveal his identity, the entire castle rejoices; men say to each other that now that the most honored knight in the world has arrived, they will be treated to a rare display of knightly behavior in its full perfection. At midnight Mass, Gawain is seated at a place of honor by his host’s side. When the Mass is over, the lord’s wife appears. Gawain thinks her beauty beyond praise, exceeding that of Guinevere herself. With her is another Women who is as old and ugly as the lady is young and beautiful. Gawain approaches, greets and kisses the lady of the castle, and proclaims himself at her service. During the lavish feast that follows, he sits deep in conversation with her.
The celebrations continue for three days, whereupon the guests begin to depart. Gawain announces that he too must go, and holds firm despite his host’s entreaties that he stay. When Gawain explains that he must meet the Green Knight of the Green Chapel on New Year’s day (he does not say why), the lord tells him that the chapel is not two miles away, and that he should remain for three more days—on the fourth, he promises, Gawain will be led to the chapel. Grateful, Gawain promises to stay and to do anything the host asks. This elicits a proposal from the host: that the following day Gawain sleep in and be at his leisure, while the lord and his knights go hunting at dawn; the lord’s wife will entertain Gawain with her company throughout the day, and, when the day is over, “whatever I win in the woods I will give you at eve, / And all that you have earned you must offer to me” (Sir Gawain, lines 1106-07). Gawain consents.
Well before dawn the next morning, the lord and his men set out to hunt. The quarry is deer, and the hunt is a great success. Meanwhile, Gawain has awakened in his room to the sound of his door opening; pretending to be asleep, he sees the lady of the castle creep in and come to his bedside. She pulls aside the bed curtains and sits near him until he pretends to awaken, whereupon she begins to flirt with him aggressively, finally offering him her body. He declines with as much grace as he can muster, but as she prepares to leave, she tells him that a knight of Gawain’s reputation, “had he lain so long at a lady’s side / Would have claimed a kiss” (Sir Gawain, lines 1299-1300). Gawain agrees, and the lady leans down and kisses him. When the lord returns that night with his venison, the two men make the exchange: Gawain receives all that was taken in the hunt, and the lord is kissed by Gawain in return. The lord asks Gawain where he came by the kiss, but Gawain refuses to tell him—this, he explains, was not part of the agreement. The next day the events are repeated; this time Gawain is given the fine boar the men have taken, while the lord gets the two kisses that Gawain has received from the increasingly importunate lady.
The events are repeated one final day, during which the lord’s wife, again at Gawain’s bedside, asks him to give her something to remember him by; when he replies that he has nothing suitable to give her, she instead offers him a rich gold ring with a sparkling stone. When Gawain adamantly refuses to accept something so fine, the wife offers him instead her girdle (a sash worn about the waist) of green silk. Again Gawain refuses—until, that is, the wife explains that the girdle is magic: as long as a man is wearing it, “there is no hand under heaven that could hew him down” (Sir Gawain, line 1853). Her only condition is that he not tell anyone about it, lest her husband find out. Gawain accepts the girdle (as he had accepted three kisses from the lady that morning), and then seeks out a priest, wishing to confess his sins. This accomplished, he joins the ladies of the castle in dancing and merriment.
During his exchange with the lord that night, he does not mention the girdle; instead he accepts the spoils of the lord’s third hunt (a fox)
HUNTING IN THE MIDDLE AGES
When not fighting, nobles and knights spent most of their free time in the warlike activities of hunting and hawking. All upper-class households kept horses and hounds expressly for this purpose, hunting regularly whenever a war was not already in progress, and sometimes when it was. Hunting was an almost ritualistic affair, in which a knight could show off his skill in horsemanship, tracking, and dressing the freshly-killed game. Elaborate rules dictated exactly how each of these activities should be performed, and a knight’s standing in court was often substantially influenced by his reputation as a hunter. That Gawain would agree to stay in bed while the lord of the castle went hunting with all the other guests is highly uncharacteristic of a medieval knight, but it serves a literary purpose, So unusual is Gawain’s inactivity at such a time that it draws attention to his being the one “hunted” here—by Bertilak’s wife.
and in return gives the lord three kisses, claiming “all that I here owe is openly paid” (Sir Gawain, line 1941). A final evening of feasting and revelry ensues, and the next morning Gawain takes his leave (not forgetting to wear his green girdle), accompanied by one of the lord’s men, who will lead him to the Green Chapel.
As Gawain and the man accompanying him approach the Green Chapel, the escort becomes more and more frightened, urging Gawain to turn back:
You are rushing into risks that you reck not of:
There is a villain in yon valley, the veriest on
For he is rugged and rude, and ready with his
And most immense in his mold of mortals alive,
And his body bigger than the best four
That are in Arthur’s house.…”
(Sir Gawain, lines 2097-2102)
Gawain replies that he cannot turn back—he has given his word to appear, and to do less would be the act of a coward, something that could not
GAWAIN AND CHRISTIANITY
Gawain is a mighty warrior, but in this poem one of his most prominent characteristics is his piety. Believing that he will meet his doom at the Green Chapel, he makes sure that before he leaves the castle he receives the sacrament of confession. By confessing his sins to a priest and asking God for forgiveness, Gawain exhibits hope that he will achieve heaven after death, since damnation could result from any unconfessed major sin (called “mortal” sin for this reason) after death. Religious devotion is never far from his mind; before he finds the lord’s castle, he prays fervently that he might find lodging—not for comfort’s sake, but so that he can attend Christmas Mass. He is especially devoted to the Virgin Mary, and even has her image painted on the inside of his shield, so that when “his look on it lighted, he never lost heart” (Sir Gawain, line 650). On the front of his shield is his emblem: a five-pointed star, or pentangle. The poet explains the significance of the star in some detail—it was “a sign by Solomon sagely devised / To be a token of truth,” and specifically indicated the chivalric and devotional qualities of Gawain himself (Sir Gawain, lines 625-26). First, he was faultless in his five senses; second, his five fingers never failed; third, he was given to meditating on the five wounds of Christ on the cross; fourth, he attributed his knightly prowess to the five joys of the Virgin Mary (the annunciation of the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God, Christ’s birth, his resurrection, his ascension, and Mary’s own assumption into heaven); and fifth, he possessed five noble virtues—boundless beneficence, brotherly love, pure mind, pure manners, and compassion.
be excused. His escort leaves after pointing out the last leg of the journey—a narrow path leading down into a deep valley. After commending himself to God, Gawain heads down the path.
At the bottom he finds not a chapel, but a small hill by a stream—a strange hollow hill, with a hole in the front, and one on each side. He is perplexed and appalled; it seems to him a hellish place, where “might / The devil himself be seen” (Sir Gawain, lines 2186-87). Then he hears a loud grinding noise, horrible and grating. Echoing the Green Knight’s initial challenge at Camelot (i.e., demanding to know who is in charge), he calls out for whoever has power over the place to show himself. The source of the noise is soon revealed; it is the Green Knight, sharpening an enormous axe on a grindstone. He greets Gawain, and after commending him on being true to his word, asks that he remove his helmet to receive the blow. Gawain exposes his neck, and, feigning cheerful indifference, waits for the Green Knight to strike. As the axe descends, Gawain flinches; the knight chides Gawain, who vows not to flinch again. The second blow is a mere feint; only the third time does the Green Knight bring down the axe with full force, but purposely turns the blow aside, leaving no more than a nick on the side of Gawain’s neck. Dripping blood, Gawain leaps back and throws on his helmet. Drawing his sword, he exclaims: “Have done with your hacking—harry me no more! / I have borne, as behooved, one blow in this place; / If you make another move I shall meet it midway / And promptly, I promise you” (Sir Gawain, lines 2322-25). The Green Knight responds by revealing his identity and purpose: he is the lord from whose castle Gawain has just left, and the three blows were in response to Gawain’s conduct at the castle. The first blow was for the first day, when Gawain carried out the initial agreement faithfully. The second was for the second day, when Gawain truthfully exchanged two kisses for the lord’s boar. The third blow, however, was in punishment for Gawain’s duplicity on the third day in withholding from the lord the green girdle, which by rights should have been surrendered to him the evening after he obtained it. The mildness of the punishment, says the knight, was because Gawain withheld the girdle out of simple fear: “Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there, / But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, / But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame (Sir Gawain, lines 2366-68).
Overcome with fury and shame, Gawain cries out that he has been proved guilty of cowardice and covetousness, and asks how he can regain favor in the knight’s eyes. The lord responds that Gawain has already done penance at the point of his axe, and so is fully cleansed of his guilt—he even gives Gawain the girdle, and asks him to return to the castle with him and celebrate the New Year. With great courtesy Gawain refuses, and asks that the knight send his regards to the lady of the castle. The girdle he gladly accepts, vowing to treasure it not for its beauty, but because it will remind him of his failure and keep him from thinking too highly of himself. At this point he asks the knight his name and is told that it is Bertilak de Hautdesert, and that he maintains his power through the sorcery of Morgan le Fay, who lodges with him. Morgan (presumably the ugly old Women in Bertilak’s castle) is Arthur’s half-sister and Gawain’s aunt; jealous of the majesty of Camelot, she sought to undermine it. The whole beheading game enterprise was her idea, to afflict the pride of Arthur’s court and annoy her longtime rival Guinevere.
After kissing Bertilak goodbye, Gawain returns to Camelot, where he speaks of his exploits to Arthur and the other knights, and explains why he will always wear the green girdle. Arthur and the rest of the court console Gawain, laughing at his discomfiture. They then decide that each knight of the Round Table will also wear a green girdle in Gawain’s honor. The poem concludes as it began, by invoking Britain’s ancient heritage and the fall of Troy.
Of all the knightly virtues, none was more prominent than what the poet calls trawthe, a Middle English word translated variously as “troth,” “truth,” “truthfulness,” “devotion,” and “fidelity.” It involved not only keeping one’s word, but also maintaining fidelity to the vows taken at the ceremony of knighthood, and so it carried with it the entire body of chivalric obligations, both secular and religious. This is a critical concept to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, since its whole narrative energy stems from Gawain’s quest to keep his trawthe, even unto death.
The importance of this idea is indicated in the poem’s opening lines, when reference is made to the “knight that had knotted the nets of deceit” (Sir Gawain, line 3). This knight is Aeneas himself, who was believed in the Middle Ages to have betrayed Troy to its enemy, the Greeks, in order to save his own life. His apparent failure to maintain trawthe is, by implicit comparison, set against Gawain’s struggle to uphold it. When Gawain gives his word to the Green Knight that he will appear at the Green Chapel in a year’s time, he considers this promise inviolable, and undergoes significant physical hardship to keep his word. His only slip in this regard is when he involuntarily flinches at the first swing of the Green Knight’s axe, and he is mortified when the knight jeers at him. His promise to stand still for the second blow is expressed with a resoluteness that recalls his original promise to appear in the first place: “I shall stand to the stroke and stir not an inch / Till your axe has hit home—on my honor I swear it!” (Sir Gawain, lines 2286-87). And stand he does, though he believes he will lose his head.
It is also important to note that Gawain’s only deliberate misdeed in the poem is an offense against trawthe: he fails to surrender the green girdle to the lord of the castle, despite his formal promise to do so. Bertilak, after revealing himself, judges Gawain and so Gawain judges himself back at Camelot. Explaining the significance of the green girdle, he refers to both the flinching and the deception:
This is the blazon of the blemish that I bear
on my neck;
This is the sign of sore loss that I have
For the cowardice and coveting that I came to there;
This is the badge of false faith that I was
found in there
And I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last.
(Sir Gawain, lines 2506-10)
Gawain’s sense of trawthe was fundamental to his self-image as a knight, and his failure (however minor) in this regard was a bitter blow.
The reputation of Sir Gawain—high and low
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Sir Gawain is the very model of knightly virtue, but in medieval Arthurian romance as a whole his reputation was quite varied. In earlier materials he is generally without peer—noble, strong, and fearless, a paragon among Arthur’s knights. In such narratives Gawain was often paired with Sir Kay; Sir Kay would invariably fail through impetuousness, discourtesy, or some other such chivalric transgression, and then Gawain would show him how a true knight should act. However, with the advent of later, more elaborate narratives (especially those involving Lancelot), he grew less exemplary. Lancelot was now the premiere knight, and Gawain was relegated to a secondary position: still brave and formidable, but possessed of certain character flaws, such as a propensity towards seducing maidens and killing people with hotheaded abandon. Towards the end of the Middle Ages he even appeared in lowbrow, farcical poems, where he was treated as a comic figure; a good example is the late-fifteenth century The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, in which Gawain is coerced into marrying a hag. This makes the character of Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight something of an anomaly in that the poet (writing in the late fourteenth century) gives Gawain a preeminent stature at Camelot, a stature at that time usually reserved for Lancelot. Still, Gawain had never entirely lost his appeal to English audiences. Lancelot was, after all, a knight of French origin, and this doubtless contributed to the perennial popularity of Gawain—a thoroughly British knight—in Arthurian poetry in England.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in an alliterative style that had its roots in the ancient poetry of the Germanic peoples. Rhyme was rare in this poetry; instead, each line would normally be divided into two half-lines, each of which would contain two dominant stresses, with a varying number of unstressed elements. Three of these four stressed words or syllables would alliterate with each other, beginning with the same letter or sound. All Old English poetry (such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon —also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) was written in this manner, and some early Middle English poetry as well. With the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French replaced English as the favored language of the ruling classes, and the majority of the surviving poetry written in England from this era is in Anglo-Norman, a French dialect spoken by the English aristocracy that had its roots in the French spoken by England’s Norman conquerors. Along with the ascendancy of the French language in England came new, French styles of versification. In the fourteenth century the old alliterative poetic mode, which almost certainly never died out among the native English-speaking population, revived. Important examples from this “alliterative revival” include William Langland’s Piers Plowman (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) and the four poems by the Gawain poet. At its peak when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, the alliterative revival would not last more than a few decades into the fifteenth century.
A direct source for the narrative content of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has never been convincingly identified. Virtually all of the characters and themes of the poem may be found in earlier materials, but the specific form in which they appear is the poet’s own; for example, it is the only poem where the “beheading game” and the “temptations in the bedroom” motifs appear together. Moreover, these two motifs (each of which possesses its own lengthy pedigree in folklore) are so seamlessly wedded that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has long been viewed as an original work rather than a versified collection of source texts.
The “beheading game” makes an early appearance in Celtic literature, in the Middle Irish Fled Bricrend (“Bricriu’s Feast”), probably composed c. 1100, where the hero Cú Chulainn on two separate occasions must behead a shape-shifting aggressor, and then submit to a return blow from his still-living foe. Each (as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) ends happily, with Cú Chulainn given only a token blow and complimented for his bravery. Elements from Celtic folklore (such as the knight’s green color, symbolizing the “otherworld” of fairy magic) have been recognized as well. Analogues of the beheading game, the temptation scene, and the exchange of winnings motif also appear in French Arthurian sources, which probably influenced the Gawain poet. Perlesvaus (c. 1250), for example, contains a scene in which Lancelot is challenged by a knight with an axe; when Lancelot beheads him, he disappears. When Lancelot arrives a year later for his return blow, he finds the knight’s brother sharpening an axe. Lancelot flinches at the first blow, and the second is never delivered, due to the intercession of a lady. Other French romances have variations on the temptation scene in which Gawain variously accepts or refuses the advances of ladies; in Le Chevalier a I’Epee, Gawain tries to make love to the daughter of his host, but is thwarted by a magic sword, which twice wounds him. His host later informs him that it was all a test; Gawain was not killed because the sword could not kill the best knight (Vantuono, p. 266).
Reception and impact
The text of the poem survives in only one medieval manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x.), which sat for centuries in private libraries before first appearing in print. The first known owner of the manuscript was Henry Savile of Bank (1568-1617), a Yorkshire gentleman. From him it passed to Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), the famous book collector and antiquary, whose library (donated in 1700 to the British government) caught fire in 1731. Fortunately the manuscript containing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was spared, though other medieval manuscripts (like Beowulf) were lost or seriously damaged in the flames.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight disappeared from the literary scene shortly after its composition, not to reappear until its first printed edition in 1839. It had no immediate influence, possibly because the Middle English dialect in which it is written had grown more difficult to read as the years passed. The three poems (“Pearl,” “Cleanness,” and “Patience”) that are bound in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suffered similar neglect. The poem has since emerged as one of the most admired works in English literature, in large part because the editions of Israel Gollancz (1897) and J.R.R. Tolkien (1925) carefully explained the poem’s many difficult words and passages. A much-admired verse translation into modern English by Marie Borroff (1967) preserved the poem’s beauty in a form accessible to the general reader.
The continuing appeal of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doubtless owes much to the fact that its concerns are, quite simply, those of the human condition; a distinguished modern critic of the poem perhaps put it best: “[t]hat the poem still has meaning for the reader today is because, though the vocabulary has changed, the conflict between ideal codes and human limitation still persists” (Benson, p. 248).
Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
Brewer, Elizabeth, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues. London: D. S. Brewer, 1992.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin, 1966.
Giles, John Allen, ed. and trans. Six Old English Chronicles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. London: Longman, 1996.
——. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Rogers, Gillian, et al. “Folk Romance.” In The Arthur of the English. Ed. W. R. J. Barron. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Marie Boroff. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon. 2nd ed. Revised by Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Vantuono, William, ed. and trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
White, Richard. “Introduction.” In King Arthur in Legend and History. Ed. Richard White. New York: Routledge, 1997.