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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?


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