Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary and Analysis
Fitt I Summary:
The poem begins with a lengthy description which establishes the setting firmly in Arthurian Britain. The writer traces the history of Britain from the Trojan War, the founding of Rome by Aeneas, and through to the eventual founding of Britain by the legendary Felix Brutus. Britain is a land of great wonders and strife, but King Arthur has established a court of utmost nobility and chivalry, peopled with the bravest knights and fairest ladies. The poet will now proceed to relate a particularly extraordinary episode from King Arthur's court, which begins at a lavish New Year's celebration in Camelot.
A rich description of the celebration follows, where the poet carefully conveys luxurious details of decoration and attire. There is the incomparably beautiful Queen Guinevere, Arthur himself, and seated in honor around them, various noble knights and relatives of Arthur, including Sir Gawain . We learn that Arthur does not like to begin his feasts until he has heard a great tale or witnessed a great marvel. Indeed, in the midst of the feasting, a wondrous stranger bursts into the hall. The stranger is most remarkable because he is entirely green, and the poet devotes nearly 100 lines to a meticulous description of his appearance.
Giant-like with an enormous green beard, the stranger nevertheless carries an air of handsome civility, wearing sumptuous green and gold clothes and armor. His horse is equally decked in ornate green, and the knight himself holds a branch of holly in one hand and a formidable battle-axe in the other. He demands, somewhat arrogantly, to speak to the ruler of the company, while the court stares on in stunned silence. When Arthur finally speaks, the stranger explains that he has come to this famously valiant court to play a Christmas game. Whoever agrees to play this game will be allowed to strike the Green Knight on the spot, in the middle of the court; in exchange, the Green Knight will strike a return blow upon the volunteer a year and a day hence. None of the court volunteers as the game seems to imply certain death for whomever plays; the stranger ridicules them all for Camelot's supposed bravery. Eventually Arthur agrees to play the game, but as he is about to wield the great battle-axe, Gawain speaks. In polite and self-effacing language, Gawain begs to take up the boon instead, so the life of the king can be spared in place of a knight as weak and lowly as he. The court agrees to let Gawain play, and after restating the terms of the agreement to each other, the stranger gives the battle-axe to Gawain, then exposes his neck for the blow. Gawain cleaves off the stranger's head in one blow, but the stranger does not die, despite the abundant bloodshed. In fact, the body of the Green Knight picks up the severed head, which then addresses Gawain. The stranger charges Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel next New Year's morning, so that he may receive his exchange blow.
After the stranger leaves, Arthur urges Guinevere to continue reveling, while he tells Gawain to hang up the stranger's battle-axe and forget about his new mission for the time being . The New Year's feast continues unaffected, but the poet ends the fitt by foreshadowing the dangerous adventures Gawain must face.
Fitt I Analysis:
The conventions of the romance genre: Gawain appears to fit neatly into the genre of the medieval romance, a French poetic form which had great influence in England beginning in the middle of the twelfth century. The romance has several characteristics: a celebration of warrior society, a setting amidst the feudal nobility, close attention to details of pageantry, and most importantly an emphasis on the chivalric concept of courtly love. This last idea hinged on the relationship between the ideal hero the knight errant and the noble woman he loves. However, in the aristocratic society of chivalry, the most supreme kind of courtly love was for an unattainable woman, often the queen of a knight's lord. A knight's love for this lady would inspire him to braver deeds, just as, in the traditional Arthurian material, Sir Lancelot was driven to great accomplishments by his love for Queen Guinevere Thus, in a larger sense, the code of chivalry focused on the protection of the weak and fair elements of society by the loyal, self-sacrificing knight. But it also included a knight's fidelity to his court and king, and his respect for other warriors and the rules of combat.
It is important to consider Gawain in light of the conventions of the romance genre. All the characteristics of the romance are present, however, closer examination suggests a questioning of the values of chivalry and the typical romance. Does the poet really support these values, even when he writes in the style of the romance? Is there a not a greater irony to his description of conventional romance elements, or to the way the events unfold in the poem? Remember the poem was written sometime in the fourteenth century, at a time when the romance genre was already a dying form. Thus, the poet, while not exactly satirizing the romance, could certainly be expressing his doubts about the values and social institution of the chivalric court by playing within the bounds of the romance genre.
Fitt I and the Romance Genre: From the very beginning, Fitt I corresponds with expected conventions of the romance genre. Among these is the opening exposition which establishes the historical setting via a list of previous battles and legendary heroes. Many other romances and epics (another popular genre of the time) began this way, establishing a link with the legendary past and thereby legitimizing the unfolding content of the current narrative. When the poet focuses upon Arthur's court, this too is a romantic convention, for Arthur and his knights were already a popular topic of romances, serving as the ideal of chivalric loyalty and valor. Again, it is no surprise that the scene unfolds at a great New Year's feast, another romantic convention, for this provides the poet with a chance to display the chivalric society at its greatest and most vibrant. Notice how he describes Arthur and his knights in superlatives, as the most famous knights in Christendom and the handsomest of kings. Superlative mention is also made of Queen Guinevere, her beauty and nobility, with particular attention paid to the details of her dress and accoutrements. Finally, the poet emphasizes Arthur's wish for a great wonder or tale to entertain him at the feast, again an affirmation of the typical view of Camelot as a place of adventure and unparalleled bravery. In all these elements the historical opening, the Arthurian setting, the opulent feast, the superlative portrayal of Guinevere, the lavish attention to detail, and Arthur's desire for adventure in all of these, the poet acts clearly within the convention of the romance.
But perhaps it is not so simple, for as we have noted earlier, the poet seems to be questioning the values of the chivalric romance at the same time he uses the conventions. The historical opening hints at the darker side of British history, writing that war, misery and distress, have alternated with prosperity since the founding of Britain. Already, this is no glorifying portrayal of military values. Also, the superlative description of Camelot verges on the excessive. A poet this skilled in description would surely be able to exalt Arthur and his court in a less simplistic manner. But lines 36-40 are so unsophisticated in their utmost praise of Camelot that we cannot help but question the poet's genuine belief in its glory. Certainly this supposed "greatness" of Camelot is something we will want to consider at the end of the poem, when Gawain has returned to Arthur after his momentous adventure.
In similar ways, the poet's description of the lavishness and merriment at the New Year's feast suggests a certain decadence in Arthur's court. The description of Guinevere thus far is in keeping with romantic conventions of the exalted noble woman, but these portrayals of women will continue to evolve throughout the poem, calling into question the concept of courtly love. Meanwhile, in Line 86 the poet describes Arthur as restless, youthfully light-hearted and rather boyish ("so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered"). While this is certainly a young, attractive King Arthur, in the springtime of life, we get the sense that this Arthur is also somewhat immature, demanding great wonders as an entertainment before his feast, and not as events with serious outcomes and implications. Again, we should consider this at the end of the poem, when Arthur and the court react to the result of Gawain's quest.
For the meantime, Fitt I continues with more subtly ambiguous treatment of romantic conventions. Considerable detail is lavished on the stranger's physical appearance, down to the ornamental knots in the mane of his horse. When the stranger speaks, his half-mocking tone provides another chance to criticize the chivalric court. And surely, the initial silence of the court affirms his censure of Camelot's cowardice, despite its reputation of valor. Arthur responds nobly to the challenge, but the poet describes the wary king in not-so-flattering terms, at least in comparison to the magnificent and towering stranger. Gawain's speech, while deferential and self-effacing, is perhaps too deferential, perhaps hiding a criticism of the other cowardly court members as he begrudgingly accepts the challenge for his king? The repeated terms of agreement between the Green Knight and Gawain serve to reinforce the chivalric code of respect for the rules of combat. Yet for all their seriousness, Arthur at the end of the fitt lightly ignores the implications of Gawain's mission, urging for more revelry and suggesting again, the immature and decadent Camelot of this complicated romance. As the poem progresses and Gawain moves from Camelot to other settings, it will be important to view other romantic conventions as they appear and consider their commentary on the values of chivalry.
Links with Celtic mythology: Another way to view Gawain is to consider its relationship with Celtic mythology, something frequently present in Arthurian material. The Celts, the people who lived in the British Isles prior to the arrival of the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, had a strong body of pagan belief, ritual practices, and stories surrounding those beliefs and practices. Many of the characters in these myths were gods and goddesses; many of their ritual practices and beliefs echoed motifs in their myths. As the Middle Ages progressed and Christianity grew more dominant, these motifs and characters were often preserved in the folklore and literature of the British Isles. Arthurian material is particularly notable for its ties to Celtic myth, for many of the characters and events in these stories resemble gods and motifs in the older myths. In Gawain, there is a constant sense of the Celtic, pagan cosmology underlying the events with the Green Knight and Gawain's quest. As the poem progresses, this becomes especially complicated when set against the obvious Christianity in the story: Christian belief and pagan ritual mingle in intricate ways in Gawain.
Fitt I and Celtic mythology: In Fitt I, this link with Celtic belief is most noticeable in two ways: in the Christmas/New Years setting of the scene and in the figure of the Green Knight. Celtic pagan belief considered the year to be an important cycle in both the human and natural worlds. The Celts designated a certain time of year as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. At this "limbo" time of year, strange, supernatural events were likely to happen and the human world was likely to come in contact with the Otherworld of mystical beings. At the same time, though, the year was made new and revelry often took place to celebrate the new year and release the excess of spiritual energy. Traditionally, this designated time of year took place around November 1 for the Celts, and was known as Samhain. However, with the influence of Christianity and more Continental beliefs, this limbo time was moved to the period between Christmas and New Year's day.
Gawain corresponds with this pattern, with the strange Green Knight bursting in upon King Arthur's court on New Year's day. In this way, he can be seen as an Otherworldly visitor to the human world, as a strange, unaccountable force of nature entering Camelot, the epitome of civilized society. The bizarre beheading game has been seen to represent the ritual slaying and renewal of the year. There are in fact direct parallels between the beheading game in Gawain and an eighth-century Irish myth, "Bricriu's Feast." In this tale, the Celtic hero Cuchulainn must behead an Otherworldly figure at a feast, with similar consequences the apparent immortality of the other figure and the challenge for an exchange stroke a year later. In both cases, the Beheading Game has a ritual, pagan significance, suggesting the regenerative quality of Nature and the turning of the year.
In Gawain, the Green Knight in fact designates the following New Year's day as the date for the exchange blow, thus emphasizing the significance of the year as a cycle of time. And renewal and regeneration are certainly implicit in the Green Knight's immortality, since the beheading has no effect on him. Another clue to his Otherworldly nature would be his green color. Green, as the dominant color in nature, here suggests the natural cycle of rebirth and renewal that is so essential to the concept of the year and, as well, to the character of the Green Knight.
Symbols in Fitt I: The Green Knight himself thus serves as an important symbol in the story. We have already established that he personifies the renewable, indestructible forces of nature, entering human society on New Year's Day. But his description merits a closer look, for the poet does not portray him solely as a figure of terror and foreignness. In fact, the Green Knight is a mixture of the familiar (the civil) and the foreign (the raw). He is opulently dressed and clearly noble, yet his green color and sheer size indicate he is not entirely of this world. Thus, the Green Knight functions as a liminal figure, mediating between the civilized world of chivalry and the unknown world of nature. As we will see later on, he not only signifies the ritual renewal of the natural cycle, but also calls into question the civilized structure of chivalric and Christian values which confront Gawain.
Several specific traits of the Green Knight should be noted in this light. First, he bears in one of his hands a branch of holly and in another a cruel battle-axe. This clearly symbolizes his dual function. On one level it indicates his civilized wish for peace, offset by his potential for destruction. On another level, it symbolizes his understanding of the rules of society, despite his innate link with the natural world.
We should also note the recurring colors of green and gold in the description of the Green Knight. Similar to the battle-axe and holly, the green obviously indicates his raw, natural character, yet the gold implies something different. Gold is, after all, often associated with wealth, royalty, and the ultimate level of society. In medieval times, it was seen as the desired end product of the meticulous process of alchemy, the final possible attainment for human beings. Thus, the gold here brings a note of civility and social greatness to the figure of the Green Knight, in addition to his Otherworldly nature. As the poem progresses, green and gold will continue to take on a greater significance, especially in relation to the character of Gawain himself.
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- Summary and Analysis of Fitt I
- Summary and Analysis of Fitt II
- Summary and Analysis of Fitt III
- Summary and Analysis of Fitt IV
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