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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


The Manuscript  

Cotton Nero A.x. 1375-1400


Original Text: Poetic form and devices  

Alliterative Revival Bob and Wheel   

Bob: one line of two or three syllables Wheel: four three-stress lines Entire structure rhymes ababa


The Structure of the Poem 

Three Gawains:   

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Courteous and brave brother of Round Table Flawless exemplar of Christian chivalry Flawed everyman

ABA structure of first half Fabliau-like parallels


Romance Genre   

Set in a remote place and time Incorporates the marvelous, miracles Hero is “superior in degree to other men and to his environment” May involve conventional testing plot    

Tester is unrealistic and remote Test is extreme Hero follows higher or conflicting virtues Tester relents and allows hero to fulfill lower virtue (example: God and Abraham)


Departures from Romance   

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Calendar/cyclic time and some real places Hero is one of us, not superior to us/environment Tester is split: malicious magic Morgan and likeable Gawain fails the test because he is human/sinful Realism may result from 13th-14th century “penance campaigns,” church ideals. Mixture of romance and realism leaves the reader wondering what rules govern this world.


Characters 

Sir Gawain: representative, not elect Green Knight: ambiguous nature  

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Green body: supernatural Green and gold equipment: courtly youth Holly bob: life, peace Axe: war


The Game       

Gratuitous (thus romantic, not heroic) Governed by rules (romantic, not heroic) Seasonable (customary Christmas drama) Quasi-legal (rules are reiterated) Tests important knightly virtues Involves seemingly inevitable death Ernest/game ambiguity makes it possible for Gawain to treat the obligation lightly, but does not make it right for him to do so (Burrows 24).


The Pentangle 

“Truth”    

“Loyal to people, principles, or promises” Possesses “faith in God” “Without deceit,” “sincere” “Upright and virtuous”

The Fifth Five: Five Virtues 

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Generosity, companionableness, courtesy, pure mind, compassion Secular and social Interdependent


Fabliau 

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Fabliau: parallelism; sexual favors are commodities Lady maneuvers based on her misconception of Gawain – courtesy is all Courtly ladies can pursue Kisses are not adulterous


The Hunt and the Bed 

In both, day three represents a departure from the noble conduct of days one and two. 

Deer/boar are noble; fox is ignoble

In both, the victim . . .  

Flees an adversary (hounds/lady) Retreats from prospect of another adversary (Bercilak/Green Knight) Succumbs to original adversary (hounds/lady)


The Girdle 

Green and gold (should remind reader of Green Knight) Not accepted for monetary value or beauty Gawain acts differently after his fall:    

Gawain goes to Confession, not Mass Gawain awaits host, instead of host calling Gawain goes first, not host Gawain wears blue, color of faithfulness


Arming/Journey  

Green girdle added to arming Neither unqualified condemnation nor uncritical indulgence Variation from departure from Camelot – Gawain does not hear Mass – odd for day of death Qualities of Death ascribed to Green Knight  

Indiscriminate/universal/inevitable Must be faced alone (guide turns back)


Recognition of Characters in Arthurian Legend  

Green Knight is Bercilak de Hautdesert. Morgan la Faye, Gawain’s aunt, orchestrated events to humiliate the Round Table. The exchange game was the real test.


Confession   

Replaces false confession at Hautdesert Shame and mortification Reparation: Gawain returns girdle (and it is given back to him) Statement of sin: Gawain admits cowardice, covetousness, untruth Request for penance (Bercilak refuses)


Judgement  

Condemnation – Gawain did sin Mercy – Sin was from love of life, not from lower passion or malice Contrasting responses show decorum 

Bercilak shows comparatively more mercy, for Gawain is more prone to despair than to presumption Gawain shows wounded pride, but is harsh on himself

Problem of shifting blame to women – perhaps to make Gawain’s behavior realistic?


His Return 

Symbols   

Contrasting responses again show decorum  

Gawain’s cut is healed. Gawain wears the girdle. Court adopts the girdle. Gawain is ashamed The court downplays his sin

What does the court’s adoption of the girdle really mean?


Concluding

Source: Burrows, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

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Tale strives to combine romance and realism. Tale does not prove that courtly and Christian values inherently conflict, rather only that Gawain is human/sinful. Gawain’s experience represents the “fundamental cycle of experience” – “social living, alienation, self-discovery, desolation, recovery and restoration” (Burrows 186). Openness and ambiguity pervade the text. Does Gawain take responsibility for his actions?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  

Breakdown of the tale