Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary and Analysis
Fitt IV Summary:
The final, dreaded episode of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the day of Gawain's exchange stroke opens ominously with a fierce winter storm that keeps Gawain up at night. Before dawn on New Year's Day, the knight is awake and getting dressed, garbing himself in rich, bejeweled clothes -- most importantly the green girdle which the lady had given him. With the servant accompanying him, Gawain mounts his horse Gringolet and leaves the castle, thinking fondly of the court and his host and hostess. Gawain and the servant travel through a somber, snow-covered landscape, and at the top of a hill, the servant stops and begs Gawain to reconsider his mission. He warns that the Green Knight is a horrible, cruel monster: huge, merciless, someone who kills for pure joy. The servant begs Gawain to run away; he would not tell anyone. But Gawain refuses to run, as that would prove himself a cowardly knight. Resigned, the servant leaves Gawain with the final directions to the Green Chapel, and the knight moves forward through a rough, ominous wood to an ancient cave. Gawain marvels at the deserted ugliness of the place, fearing that he might encounter the Devil himself in such a place.
Suddenly, Gawain hears the sound of a blade being sharpened on a grindstone, but the terrified knight resolves to continue and calls out for the Green Knight. He is answered and in due time, the Green Knight, huge and formidable as before, meets Gawain with a monstrous axe. He welcomes Gawain, praising him for maintaining his part of the agreement and asking him to remove his helmet, so the exchange stroke can be received. The horrified Gawain exposes his neck, but at the last moment, he flinches from the axe and the Green Knight stops to yell at the cowardly Gawain. Gawain promises not to move the next time, but the second attempt stops short as well, enraging Gawain. On the third stroke, the Green Knight splits the skin on Gawain's neck but that is all the injury done. An elated Gawain quickly leaps up to defend himself and remind the Green Knight that the agreement allowed for one stroke of the ax only.
The Green Knight explains his unusual behavior: he and the lord of the castle are one and the same man, and the two feinted ax strokes represent the first two days of the game, when Gawain faithfully gave everything he won that day to the King. But that third day, Gawain did conceal the sash from the King and as a result is punished by the slight scrape on his neck. The lord reveals that he arranged his wife's advances upon Gawain, but having seen the result, he is convinced that Gawain is the finest man alive, his one failure stemming understandably from his love of life. But Gawain is harsher on himself, cursing his cowardice and covetousness and rejecting the green sash which made him guilty. The Green Knight forgives Gawain, urges him to keep the sash as a token of their struggle, and invites him back to the castle to celebrate the New Year. Gawain declines, sends his wishes to the two noble ladies, and laments on four Biblical figures (Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David) who were all ruined by the wiles of a lovely woman. He agrees to keep the girdle to remind himself of the "fault and frailty of the foolish flesh" (Gardner l. 2425). To answer Gawain's question, the Green Knight reveals himself to be Bertilak de Hautdesert, servant to the sorceress Morgan le Fay. It was Morgan who engineered the entire game, sending Bertilak down to Camelot so that Guinevere would be shocked to death by the staged beheading. In fact, Morgan was the ancient noble lady at Hautdesert castle and is the scheming half-sister to Arthur, the kindg's traditional nemesis. Despite Bertilak's invitation, Gawain decides not to return to the castle for more merriment, and moves back to Camelot, traveling "through the wild woods of the world" with the green girdle on his shoulders. Once at the Arthur's court, Gawain is greeted with much cheering and joy from Arthur, Guinevere, and the others. He recounts his entire adventure, but is ashamed when he tells of his ultimate failing as a result of the green girdle. Nevertheless, Arthur and the courtiers, unaware of Gawain's shame, adopt the green baldric as a heraldic token in honor of Gawain. From there, the poet concludes in much the same way he opened the poem, praising Arthur, moving back through Brutus to the siege of Troy. The final two lines implore Jesus Christ for bliss.
Fitt IV Analysis:
Description of the Natural World: Fitt IV is filled with some of the poet's most striking images of the desolate, wintry world of Nature. The first stanza alone describes a terrible storm on New Year's Eve, emphasizing Gawain's sense of dread as he fearfully anticipates the meeting with the Green Knight. This is a good example of pathetic fallacy, a literary device whereby the weather and the natural world echo the emotions of a character. Here, the night storm reflects Gawain's dread, but it also heightens the sense of an overpowering, superior force of Nature which mankind cannot possibly contend with. The effect is the same as the descriptions of Nature in Fitt II: the individual human is belittled when compared to the magnitude and power of the natural world. As Gawain and the servant approach the Green Chapel, there are more remarkable descriptions of Nature. Always, it is a cold, intimidating, barren world they are moving through; the bleak, dead surroundings heighten the bleakness of Gawain's task and seem to foreshadow his own doom.
The servant's frightened outburst at the end of the Green Chapel serves much the same purpose. Just as the poet described the terror of the natural world during the journey, the servant here describes the terror of the Green Knight. Here, too, is an overpowering, superior force that seems impossible to contend with. In this way, there is an implicit linking of Green Knight with Nature (see "The Green Knight Revealed" below). This, of course, has been the association all along since the poem's start, but here, nearing the suspenseful climax of the story, the extreme horror of the Green Knight and of Nature are magnified to dizzying proportions. It is the poet's clever way of building suspense, while also emphasizing the nobility and idealism of Gawain's character. For all his dread and all the warnings from other humans, Gawain will not abandon his chivalric duty to uphold the terms of the agreement. He remains courageous in the face of imminent death and a terrifying force of Nature.
The Futility of Human Constructions: Just as Fitt II had detailed descriptions of nature and armor, so too does Fitt IV. Stanzas 2 and 3 concentrate on Gawain's careful arming of himself on New Year's Day. It is very similar to previous descriptions of armor we have encountered before: in Fitt I with the Green Knight and in Fitt II with Gawain before setting off on his quest. But at this point in the story, the meticulously polished armor and clothing bear a particular irony for the reader and for Gawain. No matter how strong or how beautiful his armor is, it still will not save him from the impending blow of the Green Knight. Why, then, go through this ritualistic arming process, when it will ultimately prove futile?
The poet seems once more to be hinting at the futility of human constructions, with his ironic description of the elaborate, but ultimately useless armor. The poem thus far has been filled with such elaborate, technical descriptions of armor, castle architecture, the cutting of the hunted deer. All these are elements of medieval aristocratic life which are meant to enhance the sense of the noble and the refined in medieval society. But here finally, such an elaborate, ennobling social construction (the armor) is pitted against the finality of death, and it proves to be useless.
To go further, is the poet again implying the futility of human constructions like the romance genre and our moral code? The conventions of the romance have been mocked in a way: the grand armor is useless, the language of courtly love has been used not to ennoble but to deceive and seduce. And the greatest human construction of all the moral code which guides the faultless Gawain has crumbled under the natural, primal threat of death.
The Green Knight Revealed: The character of the Green Knight is key to understanding the theme of nature and human society in the poem. Recall again that in Fitt I he appeared as a liminal figure between the natural and the human worlds: with a civilized look to his armor and clothes, yet clearly Otherworldly. Here in Fitt IV, we realize that the Green Knight has been in the story all along, in the guise of Lord Bertilak, Gawain's host during the holidays. Certainly both we and Gawain are surprised, but what does this revelation say about the relationship between the natural and the human worlds?
Scholars such as Brian Stone have argued that the Green Knight is essentially a stand-in for the Devil, a trickster who changes identities, appears always invincible, and challenges humans to abandon their Christian and moral principles. Gawain, for example, is certainly tempted by the sensual luxuries of Bertilak's court and by the sexual advances of Bertilak's wife. Just as the Devil frequently makes bargains with hapless human beings in folktales and medieval stories, the Green Knight also makes bargains (two in fact) with Gawain. Gawain even comments that the Green Chapel seems like a place where one would meet Satan himself. And the description and name of the Green Chapel are in some ways a parody of the clean, welcoming, sanctuary of the Christian church, the House of God. Pacts with the Devil traditionally ended with the human giving up his soul, and one can even argue that by the end of the poem, Gawain does seem to have lost his soul or at least, the moral faith that guided his soul.
But it is possible to view the devilish role of the Green Knight as merely a medieval Christian overlay to a pagan figure, where the conflict between the human and the Otherworldly/natural has been transformed into a conflict between the Christian and the Satanic. Indeed, the Green Knight, in both his forms, seems to maintain an innate link with Nature. As Bertilak, he still carries a unique, instinctual natural-ness, as evidenced by his prowess and physicality during the hunts in Fitt III. With Bertilak ranging through the wild forests and Gawain in bed having a diplomatic, flirtatious conversation with Lady Bertilak, it seems there could be no greater polarity between the vigorous natural world and the guarded human world.
If the natural vs. the human is the real conflict, then Nature would seem to have won out in this story, for the human constructions (as we have seen above) have proven to be futile and Gawain ultimately lets himself be guided by his own natural impulse to survive. But what confuses everything at the end is the revelation that none of this has been, in a sense, genuine, and that all of it has been a carefully engineered construction, planned by Morgan le Fay. In a sense, it isn't at all Nature or the "all-natural" Green Knight that Gawain has been contending with, but merely the machinations of another human being, driven by human jealousies and emotions, and dependent on constructions and artifices just as elaborate as those we have already encountered in the other human characters. In this light, Gawain's challenge hasn't been natural in the least, but instead the very definition of artificial.
Morgan le Fay, Gawain's "Misogynistic" Speech, and the Fall of Man: With the revelation of Morgan le Fay's villainy, nothing is as it seems, and the Green Knight, instead of the dynamic embodiment of Nature, ends up as the puppet of a relatively minor character in the story. Again, many critics have objected to the final explanation in Fitt IV, that it seems forced, doesn't "ring true," and that the poet was merely giving into the conventions of the larger Arthurian genre. Whether or not this is true, and whether Morgan's character really does play a vital role in a complex story or is merely a tack-on, the mention of her does cause Gawain's outburst in the eighteenth stanza, where he mentions Biblical figures who have been deceived by women. This speech is often labeled "misogynistic" (woman-hating) and out-of-character for Gawain. It may even reveal the underlying misogyny of the poet himself.
But Gawain's speech, drawing upon Biblical parables, relies upon his fervent faith in Christian morality. Shattered by the realization that everything has been a false game, he seems to be angrily lashing out at the weakening vices of "cowardice and covetousness" and the predatory women that prey upon such vices. Bertilak himself helps to draw the parallel between Morgan and the dangerous Biblical women when he talks of how Morgan gained her skills in sorcery by seducing Merlin. Needless to say, the same trope of the temptress lies (as we have seen) in the figures of Eve and Lady Bertilak. Only now, with Bertilak's explanation, do the lady's seductive actions seem to bear a more planned, but somehow more sinister motive to the entire game. But the basic motif remains the same: the temptress, the Paradise which is no longer, and the Fall from innocence. Here, Gawain's Fall comes with the realization that his entire quest has been an artifice, a mere game, and as a result, his moral belief in the world around him is shattered.
Gawain's Disillusionment: The final episode, where Gawain returns to Arthur's court, only serves to drive home his sense of disillusionment. Already, Gawain's trust in things has been weakened by the realization that he has been played all along by Sir Bertilak, Lady Bertilak, and Morgan le Fay all of whom appeared, at first, to be respectable, noble characters. But when he arrives at Arthur's court, their inability to see his moral failure ruins his moral conviction even more. Why is it that the noblest court in all of Britain cannot understand his moral dilemma and celebrates his cowardice as courage? The poem even ends with Gawain in a moral quagmire, bearing his green girdle as a mark of shame, while the rest of Camelot continues to celebrate and raises the green girdle in blind admiration of Gawain. It is a complex ending, and certainly not the conventional sense of resolution that is found in most romances.
Yet, as we have realized by now, the poet does not aim to simply re-create the romance genre and its chivalric code, but also to question it. Gawain's final disillusionment has been foreshadowed all along by the poet in his excessive, overly technical descriptions of romance conventions. If previous in Fitt I, we got the sense that Camelot's lords and ladies were a bit shallow and too decadent in their revelries, then our suspicions are confirmed here, when Gawain returns to this glowing world at the end of the poem. Arthur's court is still reveling, and yet, they do not have the moral seriousness to realize Gawain's dilemma. Perhaps this world this supposed epitome of human civility and chivalry does not glow as brightly as it once did for the idealistic knight.
Ultimately, the poem implies the loss of the importance of chivalric values, for as Gawain has learned, they do not always bring peace to the individual soul.
Narrative Structure and the Mythic Journey: Finally, it is important to note the narrative structure of the poem, the way in which the events of the poem are patterned and what these have to do with the themes. If we look closely, we can notice that the fitts seem to alternate in terms of similarity of events. For example, the first fitt takes place within a royal court, the second fitt is a perilous journey outdoors which ends at another royal court, the third fitt alternates between the setting of the royal court and the perilous outdoors, and the final fitt is again a journey outdoors that ends at the same, original court of Arthur. Notice, for one, that the poem's setting alternates between the outdoors (the natural world) and the royal court (the human world). Gawain begins safely in the human world, and is fully confident in the rules of chivalry and morality which supposedly guide human society. But after taking his perilous journey into the natural world and encountering many challenges (both natural and society), he returns to the human world not with a reaffirmed confidence in its safety and righteousness, but instead with a nagging uncertainty about the moral code he once believed so strongly.
This is quite different from the conventional narrative structure of conflict and restoration a structure which goes back as far as the Celtic myths which lie at the roots of the poem. Pre-Christian Celtic myths often had motifs of exchanges between the human world and the Otherworld, with the time period of a year and a day commonly used. A mythic interpretation of the poem would have the Green Knight as an Otherworldly lord and Gawain's journey from Camelot into a terrifying, strange land as the hero's archetypical descent into the Otherworld or Underworld. (Some examples of the Otherworld journey include Aeneas' descent into Hades in the Aeneid or more closely related to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- the Irish hero Cuchulainn's journey to the Otherworld in the Celtic myth "The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn.") In most cases, the hero undertakes the journey to right some previous wrong or restore balance to the natural order. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poem's symmetry would suggest that the natural order has been restored, as the New Year dawns brightly on Arthur's court, but this masks the fact that within Gawain's individual soul, the moral order has been uprooted.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Essays and Related Content
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- Summary and Analysis of Fitt II
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- Summary and Analysis of Fitt IV
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