Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Dense Forest of Symbols

An anonymous poem of 2,530 lines, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in a single manuscript containing three other Middle English poems, all perhaps by the same author. Written around 1375, Gawain is the finest of the English romances in the Arthurian mode and one of the last.

Sir Gawain

Gawain survives in a single manuscript that contains three other poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. It is usually assumed, on the basis of linguistics studies, that all four poems are by the same author, who is usually called the “Pearl Poet.” The poem itself is 2,530 lines long and written in alliterative verse. It is a form that has not really been seen very much since the eclipse of Old English literature. The vernaculars of 12th-and 13th-century Europe generally preferred elaborate rhyme schemes rather than schemes of alliteration.

Let me just give you an example from the opening section of Gawain. This is a modern English translation, but nevertheless, the alliterations are very clear:

The King lay at Camelot at Christmas time,

With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.

If you say that out loud, you can hear the “k, k, k,” and the “f, f, f,” sounds; these alliterations run throughout the poem. Scholars have long spoken of an alliterative revival in the 14th century, but it is important to bear in mind that at the very same time, there was a tremendous explosion of literature in Chaucer’s London dialects as well.

A Traditional Arthurian Character

It wasn’t until Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his history of the kings of Britain, between about 1139 and 1147, that anyone treated the matter of Britain seriously in a Latin work. Despite being called a history, there was a great deal of legend to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of the world of Arthur in Latin, he gave the materials a kind of authenticity that they had not previously possessed.

Gawain’s popularity was really unprecedented among the Arthurian knights. Gawain—not the now popular Lancelot—is the one who turns up again and again in literature.

What resulted was an outpouring of Gawain stories in French and German romances and in no fewer than a dozen different English versions. Gawain’s popularity was really unprecedented among the Arthurian knights. Gawain—not the now popular Lancelot—is the one who turns up again and again in literature. It’s not surprising that this wonderful 14th-century romance would have been focused on Gawain rather than on one of the other characters from the Arthurian cast.

Gawain is one of the traditional Arthurian characters. Even in early Celtic renditions, Gawain appears as Arthur’s great-nephew. He is always the king’s support, the king’s great protector. He’s young, brave, loyal, and courteous—Gawain always seems to embody these qualities more than any other knight of the Round Table. That having been said, the author of Gawain felt free to tinker with those conventions.

Gawain and the Green Knight is both a straightforward adventure and a mystery tale. It can be read on one level as just a great story, but it is also a dense forest of symbols.

A Violent Christmas Game

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Arthur and his knights are gathered at Camelot. It is Christmas. The scene is one of great merriment. Arthur, however, insists that he will not eat—and that means that no one else can eat—until someone tells a tale of adventure. Before anyone can tell a tale, an enormous and hideous green knight bursts through the doors of the hall.

Arthur, the perfect host, courteously invites the stranger to join the celebration but the knight declines. He says that he has come because he has heard of the court and wishes to challenge the men to a Christmas game. The game that the Green Knight proposes is this: trading one blow for one blow; one is to be delivered now, and one is to be delivered a year hence. The Green Knight offers his own battle-axe to whomever wishes to accept the challenge.

The Green Knight courteously offers his neck. Gawain strikes a mighty blow and severs the Green Knight’s head. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the knight reaches down, picks up his head, puts it on, gets on his horse, and rides away.

Gawain leaps from his seat and insists that he be the one who is allowed to accept the challenge. The Green Knight courteously offers his neck. Gawain strikes a mighty blow and severs the Green Knight’s head. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the knight reaches down, picks up his head, puts it on, gets on his horse, and rides away, reminding Gawain that he must appear a year later at the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day.

The astonishment of the people at court abates and the feast goes on. The story fast-forwards to All Saints’ Day of the next year, November 1, when Gawain must prepare to leave.

A Curious Kind of Refuge

For several weeks he traverses a cold and mysterious landscape, then comes upon a grand castle. It is coming to be Christmas time and he is hospitably invited into this great castle where he is encouraged to join the celebration. He is treated to every possible consideration. The lord of the castle proposes that someone devise a Christmas game.

Gawain says he would really love to join in the merriment of the games, but that he is honor-bound to go to the Green Chapel by New Year’s. The lord of the castle tells him not to worry, the chapel is very nearby, and then he introduces the game. Each day the lord will go hunting while Gawain stays in the castle. At the end of each day, they will exchange what each has caught. The lord of the castle goes hunting, of course, and catches various prey. Gawain, meanwhile, is in the castle, where he is subjected to the amorous advances of the lady of the castle. Gawain courteously refuses the lady, but each day, they exchange a kiss. Rather comically, at the end of each day, the lord of the castle comes back and hands over to Gawain his prey from that day’s hunt, and Gawain kisses the lord of the castle.

On the third day, the lady of the castle gives Gawain a green sash that will allegedly protect him from any evil or misfortune. When the lord returns, Gawain decides not to hand over the sash. The next day, Gawain gets directions to the Green Chapel. He takes his leave, and he goes on to acquit himself there of his debt.

Gawain and the Green Knight Meet Again

Upon arriving, Gawain is welcomed by the Green Knight, who praises him for coming. Gawain prepares himself to receive his blow. The Green Knight goes to swing his axe and Gawain flinches. Gawain prepares himself again. The Green Knight prepares to swing his axe a second time and again, Gawain flinches. The Green Knight chides him. He says, “Stand up and take this like a man.” Gawain says, “All right. Get on with it.” Now he sets himself and the Green Knight prepares to swing for the third time. The Green Knight deliberately gives just a glancing blow. Gawain leaps up and the lord reveals that all of this has been an elaborate game of his own devising. He knows about the kisses and the green sash. Finally, he reveals himself to be Bercilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle.

Gawain confesses his error, confesses his deception, and regrets his lack of courage, but Bercilak tells him that he, Gawain, has not dropped at all in anyone’s esteem.

Layers of Complexity

painting of Arthur and his knights at the Round Table
Arthur and his Knights at the Round Table

Gawain returns to Camelot. He tells his tale to the assembled knights of the Round Table, and all the knights, at Arthur’s prompting, don green sashes in solidarity with Gawain.

That’s the story. It’s quite an interesting and powerful story, one that can be read by readers of almost any age. If we try to begin working our way beneath the surface of this story, if we try to interpret Gawain, we find that we get many layers of complexity.

From the lecture series King Arthur: History and Legend
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aught by Professor Dorsey Armstrong