Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary and Analysis
Fitt II Summary:
The second part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens with a lush, detailed description of Nature and the passing of the year. After the Christmas feast and the Green Knight's challenge, the winter passes into a fair, green springtime and then a rich, joyful summer. But eventually harvest season approaches, the leaves fall, "and so the year descends into yesterdays, / And winter returns again as the world requires" (Gardner ll. 530-1). At this point of the year, Gawain remembers his agreement with the Green Knight and so, at a Michaelmas feast, sadly bids farewell to Arthur's court. Although Gawain pretends not to be bothered by the upcoming Quest, all the lords and ladies are silently sorrowful that a knight as worthy as Gawain must go to his doom by receiving the exchange blow from the Green Knight.
The next few stanzas are dedicated to a meticulous description of Gawain as he dons his ornate armor the next morning. Both he and his horse Gringolet are richly attired: Gawain's helmet, for example, has a priceless veil embroidered with parrots and turtledoves, and above that he wears a diamond-studded crown. But most important of all is his shield, which bears the emblem of the Pentangle, the five-pointed star. The poet pays particular attention to the Pentangle, the emblem of truth, known everywhere as "the endless knot." It is particularly suitable for Gawain because the five points of the star represent the five different ways in which Gawain, like purified gold, embodies faultless virtue. These five ways are in themselves five groups of five: 1) he is perfect in the five senses; 2) his five fingers are unfailing; 3) his faith is fixed firmly on the five wounds which Christ received on the cross; 4) he draws his strength from the five joys Mary had through Jesus; and 5) he embodies, better than any other living man, the five virtues. These virtues are Franchise, Fellowship, Cleanness, Courtesy, and above all, Charity.
On the inside of his shield is an image of the Virgin Mary, to which Gawain would look as a source of courage.
Once armed with his shield, Gawain rides away from Camelot, the court mourning that such a young, faultless knight should sacrifice his life as a result of a silly Christmas game. Gawain rides for months through a rough, unfriendly, and godless land. Often alone, Gawain has no friends but his horse and talks to no one but God. And no one he encounters knows of the Green Knight or the Green Chapel. Gawain battles with beasts and giants in his travels and struggles through a harsh, cold country which would have killed a weaker or more faithless man. On Christmas Eve, after toiling through a daunting wood, Gawain beseeches the Lord and Mary to guide him to some haven where he may attend mass and properly pray on Christmas morning. Almost immediately, Gawain stumbles upon a moated fortress, a beautiful castle with strong defences and intricate architectural flourishes. Awed and grateful, Gawain asks the porter of the castle for entrance and is greeted by a great, joyful, and eager company. He is welcomed by the lord of the castle, a massive, civilized, capable-looking man who sees to it that Gawain receives the best of care. Gawain is dressed in luxurious robes, and -- looking as refreshed and radiant as the spring -- he is brought to a lavish table and fed the best of wines and food. Eventually, his company learns that he is none other than Sir Gawain of Arthur's court, and they are delighted to have such an honored personage in their presence, the embodiment of good breeding and chivalry himself.
After dinner, the company attends the Christmastide mass, where Gawain meets the lady of the castle. She is incomparably beautiful, even lovelier than Guinevere, and she is accompanied by an ancient noble lady, whose utter ugliness enhances her own beauty. Gawain is pleased to meet her, and their companionship deepens the next morning at the Christmas Day feast. They are seated next to each other, while the ancient lady is given the highest seat, and the lord the next highest. A third day passes in revelry, and on the day of St. John, the guests of the castle leave to go home. Gawain thanks the lord and declares himself his servant, but regrets that he must leave the next morning to continue his quest. The lord, however, reveals that the Green Chapel is but two miles away, so Gawain must stay for the remaining three days and relax in bed. Jubilant, Gawain again declares himself the servant of the lord, ready to do his bidding. The lord decides that the next day, Gawain will stay in bed until attending high mass and dinner with the lady of the castle; in the meantime, the lord himself will rise at dawn to go hunting. He suggests one more thing: whatever he wins in the forest tomorrow will be given to Gawain, and in exchange, whatever Gawain wins in the castle during the day he must give to the lord. Gawain agrees to this bargain, and the lord calls for more wine and revelry to celebrate their game.
Fitt II Analysis:
Description of Nature: The first two stanzas of Fitt II are notable for their lovely description of Nature and the passing of the seasons. The poet portrays Nature as an ever-changing world which sustains the human world and yet is not affected it, always continuing forward in its yearly cycle. Thus, as much as Gawain would like to avoid the impending meeting with the Green Knight, the year moves forward inexorably and the seasons push along to winter again: "A year turns all too soon, and all things change: / The opening and the closing are seldom the same" (Gardner ll. 499-500). The overall picture enhances the superior power of Nature in its creative and destructive aspects through springtime back to winter and the insignificance of human actions and emotions in comparison to the natural world.
The next description of Nature emphasizes this disparity even more, as the despondent Gawain, a solitary human figure, traverses a great and desolate wasteland in search of the Green Chapel. On his journey he encounters all the malevolent, destructive aspects of Nature: vicious beasts, cold rain, wild forests, ragged moss, treacherous bogs. Again, Nature is an overpowering world that belittles the individual human. The one thing that saves Gawain from destruction is his faith in God, and in a larger sense, it is only this religion which can guide and rescue the human from the dangerous world around him. Faith in God enables mankind to negotiate and survive the forces of Nature, both those natural forces outside and within him.
Imposing Form and Deconstructing the Romance: In contrast to this wild, untamed world of Nature, the Gawain-poet also presents us with the seemingly ordered and carefully crafted world of human society. We have already glimpsed this world in Fitt I, as epitomized by Arthur's lavish court, but in Fitt II, the poet digresses into long, somewhat technical descriptions of Gawain's armor, the architecture of the mysterious castle, and luxurious court within it. These detailed passages, with their technical language and excessive description, create a sense of extreme artifice in the human world. The embroidered fabrics, the skillfully cooked fish, the intricately ornamented castle, the expertly crafted armor these all stand in direct contrast to the ever-changing, primal world of Nature. On a larger level, these human constructions (armor, architecture, cuisine, etc) impose form on the natural world. They are a means by which humans control their own sphere within the larger world and establish a sense of order. By listing the technical details of these human productions, the poet opposes society, order, craftsmanship, and artifice against unbridled nature, wildness, fertility, and destructiveness.
But the Gawain-poet is not so simplistic in his portrayals of these two opposing worlds. He does not praise the civility of the human world over the wildness of Nature. In fact, his representation of human society is subtly complicated: he seems to be implying that perhaps human society is not as wonderful and ordered as it strives to be. Just as in Fitt I, with the descriptions of Arthur's court, the poet verges on the excessive. Is he merely glorifying the appearance of the castle, the armor, the banquet-hall, or does he ask if this is perhaps too much, too lavish, too superficial? In all these descriptions there is such an emphasis on externalities and sensuality appearances, the texture of the fabrics, the taste of the food that there seems to be a distancing from the spiritual. Indeed, doesn't Gawain appear to be closer to God when he toils alone through the forest than when he revels at a royal feast?
In questioning these constructions and forms, the poet eventually questions the romance genre itself. As we pointed out in Fitt I, the conventions of the romance include such lavish descriptions of feasts, armor, and clothing. But by subtly undermining these descriptions, perhaps the poet is deconstructing the romance and its reason for creating such constructions. Ultimately, what is the purpose of the romance genre: is it merely another false construction, a product of human society that eventually separates us from our spiritual selves and the natural world? The romance, like the excessive feasts and armor of the poem, perhaps strive to impose form on nature but in a way that only serves to confuse and superficialize the human soul.
Chivalric Values: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is often noted for its complicated commentary on chivalric values, one of the most important conventions of the medieval romance and of medieval society. In Fitt II, we see Gawain as the idealistic knight, the very embodiment of chivalric values. The poet writes: "Like purified gold, Sir Gawain was known for his goodness, / All dross refined away, adorned with virtues/ A man still undefiled, / And of all knights most gentle." (Gardner ll. 623-39) Here we have the metaphor of gold which appeared in Fitt I (see Symbols under Analysis for Fitt I); again, the allusion is to the medieval process of alchemy, in which gold was seen as the final, perfect product of a long, refining process the metallic symbol of divine transcendence. With such a metaphor, there is no question here that the poet intends to portray Gawain as the ultimate paragon of medieval virtue and chivalry. To emphasize this, he delves into a lengthy explanation of the pentangle on Gawain's shield, stressing how Gawain possesses, better than any other man, all the five points of Christian and chivalric perfection. (See Symbols below.)
Gawain is also notable because he believes so fully in these societal values. For him, there is no question as to whether or not he should set off on this quest, as unpleasant as it is. He volunteered to undertake the Green Knight's challenge from his sense of chivalric duty. He insists on keeping his side of the bargain, again, as part of his chivalric duty. The poet makes clear that Gawain is guided and protected entirely by his sense of morality, both Christian and chivalric, which is symbolized by the shield with Christian and chivalric symbols on it.
But is this enough protection for one as idealistic as young Gawain? As the poem progresses into Fitts III and IV, Gawain will be confronted with numerous challenges to his strong moral idealism. Thus far in Fitt II he has survived the natural perils of his journey largely as a result of his own Christian piety. But eventually he will encounter perils that come from other members of society and from within his own human nature. Will his unerring moral sense be enough to protect him from these more disguised forces? And are Christian and chivalric perfection enough to make a man whole? This ultimately is crux of the poem. Throughout, the writer questions the viability of societal values when pitted against human nature and societal imperfection.
Through his excessive descriptions of luxury and revelry, the poet has already implied the weaknesses and superficiality of human society. Gawain himself seems too perfect, too idealistic to survive unscathed in the less-than-perfect human world.
The Fall of Man and the Castle as Paradise: When describing this less-than-perfect human world, medieval writers frequently would allude to the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. According to the Bible, Man was intended by God to be a perfect creature, and the first man, Adam, originally lived in an untouched Paradise (the Garden of Eden), along with the first woman, Eve. They lived in a state of perfect, ignorant bliss, like children, and did not have to work to survive. But Eve was eventually tempted by Satan, became (sexually) curious, and convinced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. As punishment for their Original Sin, they were thrown from Paradise to earth, where mankind has since had to labor in order to survive. Hence, the Fall of Man, the ultimate metaphor for the loss of human innocence.
You may wonder what this Biblical story has to do with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem is certainly not an outright parallel, but there are many allusions and motifs. Gawain, like Adam and Eve in the beginning, exists as a purely faultless creature, even ignorant in his idealism. Perhaps he, too, will eventually lose his innocence and undergo a fall from the paradise of ignorant bliss. Paradise is perhaps also symbolized in the poem by the shining image of the castle, towering over the dark forest. Medieval literature and art was full of such images of Paradise; often it appeared as an oasis, a garden, or a castle amidst a threatening desert or wasteland. In Gawain, we clearly have this medieval convention, but perhaps this castle as welcoming and as luxurious as it first seems to Gawain is not the bastion of moral virtue and perfection that the original Eden was. This castle is a complicated symbol, for it appears to have all the trappings of a Paradise; it appears to Gawain immediately after he has prayed for salvation in the dark forest, and the descriptions of its architecture emphasize its strength and impregnability. But as we will see, there is much more to this castle and its inhabitants than simple appearances. And for Gawain, learning this lesson may be akin to falling from his original moral perfection.
Symbols in Fitt II: In the previous paragraphs, we have already explained the significance of the castle as a symbol: it seems to be the very symbol of salvation and Paradise for Gawain, harking back to a medieval convention of castles as Paradise. But perhaps it is not as morally pefect as the Biblical Paradise, and the excessive, technical descriptions of the castle's superficialities seem to imply this falseness.
One other symbol dominates Fitt II, and this may be the most important symbol in the poem: Gawain's two-sided shield. There are several things one can say about the shield. On one level it functions as both his form of physical protection and as his symbol of moral protection. Gawain as a character drives his strength from his belief in Christian and chivalric values, and the shield is the perfect representation of this, protecting him from physical dangers while serving as a reminder of his spiritual and moral beliefs. The Pentangle on the outside can be seen as a symbol of chivalric values; indeed the five virtues of Franchise, Fellowship, Cleanness, Courtesy, and Charity quickly summarize the chivalric code. The image of the Virgin Mary, on the other hand, obviously symbolizes Christian faith. Thus, Gawain displays his chivalric beliefs and behavior outwardly to the rest of society, but Christian faith -- as symbolized by the image of Mary on the inside of his shield Christian faith is his inner strength.
One further interpretation of the shield should be mentioned. Recall again the role that Celtic, pagan mythology plays in the poem. The Pentangle is often seen as a pagan, and not a Christian, symbol, so it is unusual that it should appear on Gawain's shield, with the image of Mary on the reverse side. The two-sided shield, with a pagan symbol on one side and a Christian symbol on the other, can thus represent the dual pagan-Christian nature of the story. Furthermore, the poet writes that the Pentangle is noteworthy because it is an "endless knot" it has no beginning and no end, and wherever you start, the beginning ultimately becomes the end. In this way, the Pentangle comes to resemble the yearly cycle which the poet described so beautifully at the start of Fitt II again, something endless with no beginning or end. Just as the circularity of the year testified to the superior, replenishing power of Nature, the endless Pentangle on Gawain's shield may also allude to the eternality of Nature and the need to balance this with a strong faith in religion.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Essays and Related Content
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- About Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Character List
- Major Themes
- 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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