Notes on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn
My thinking about the structure and meaning owes a great deal to a course taught by Professor Edward Vasta at the University of Notre Dame, ca. 1979/1980. In particular, the sections of this page called The Pentangle and Gawain’s “Fyft Fyue” rely on notes from that course.
Scroll through the notes or jump to one of the following topics:
- Manuscript and Miscellaneous
- Artifice: The Imposed Duple Structure
- The Inherited Romance Structure
- The Archetypal Plot
- Descent Themes in SGGK
- SGGK’s Four Parts
- The Pentangle (619-65)
- Gawain’s “Fyft Fyue” (640-55)
- The Hunts (Part III)
- Thirteen Points about SGGK’s Plot and Meaning
Manuscript and Miscellaneous
MANUSCRIPT: Cotton Nero A.x, Art. 3, in the British Library. The four main divisions of the poem are marked by large colored capitals; smaller colored capitals appear as initials in lines 619, 1421, 1893, and 2259.
HAND: ca. 1400
DATE OF POEM: all signs indicate (vaguely) late 14th century.
DIALECT: not simple and self-consistent—(1) traditional poetic vocabulary; (2) English and Scandinavian words of restricted currency; (3) many French words (62% of vocabulary); (4) variants of form and pronunciation used in “alliterative tradition.” The basis, however, is doubtless NWMid.
VERSE FORM: the “Gawain stanza” —a varying number of alliterative long lines terminated by a “bob & wheel,” five short rhyming lines (ababa). The bob and wheel sums up, offers gnomic commentary, etc. The danger of such a stanza form is that the narrative may have a tendency to proceed by jerks. The poet avoids that danger by tying the bob and wheel in with the long lines in various ways.
GENRE: a romance—GGK has all the conventions, but is no simplistic tale of love and adventure. Rather, these elements are a means for a test of character. GGK has unity: note symmetry of structure (beginning and end, three temptations and hunts, etc.). Both stories provide a test—(1) fidelity to oath, (2) principle of chastity—of “knightly virtue,” as nearly always in romance, but one senses that SGGK is not offering mere lip service to the ideal. For a more typical romance (though, in my judgment, still a fine poem), see Sir Launfal. For an extensive analysis of the genre of SGGK, see Arlyn Diamond, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Alliterative Romance,” Philological Quarterly 55 (1976) 10-29.
Artifice: The Imposed Duple Structure
The bob-and-wheel ending each verse paragraph creates, of course, a “closed” structure, avoiding the endless monotony of narrative, providing relief from the heaviness of the alliterative long line (both with shorter lines and with rhymes), and increases the sense that SGGK is like a string of glittering gems. Similarly, the overall structure of the poem is closed, with an end to match the beginning (see 1-29 and 2522-30). This is only one set of doubles in the poem, however:
New Year : New Year
Arthur’s Court : Return to Arthur’s Court
Arthur’s Court : Bertilak’s Court
Beheading at Arthur’s Court : "Beheading” at the Green Chapel
and so on. The poem’s division into four parts emphasizes the pervasive duple scheme as well.
The Inherited Romance Structure
The Archetypal Plot
Descent Themes in GGK
SGGK’s Four Parts
- The Green Knight’s Advent
- Sir Gawain’s Agreement and Stroke
Sir Gawain’s 5 × 5 Virtues
- His Search for the Green Knight
- His Arrival and Welcome at the Castle
- His Meeting with the Inhabitants and His New Agreement
Three Days of Exchange
- Many Fat Deer : 1 Kiss
- A Boar : 2 Kisses
- A Fox-Fell : 3 Kisses (and 1 lace withheld)
- The Tryst at the Green Chapel and Gawain’s Return
The Pentangle (619-65)
1. “Fiue wyttez” (five senses): may indicate that Gawain did not sin through sensual indulgence, but cf. “fyue wyttez” in 2193 (st. 88), where wyttez have most to do with intelligence, ability to understand a situation, etc.
2. “Fyue fyngres” (five fingers): no special significance is apparent here; may signify manual competence or physical strength. Some critics refer to the use in some devotional manuals of the image of the five-fingered hand.
3. “Fyue woundez” (Five Wounds of Christ): a typical subject of meditation; here Gawain’s fealty (Borroff) or faith (Tolkien, Vantuono) is said to depend on them. The original afyaunce vpon folde ‘trust upon earth/in the world’ may be understood as “trustworthiness” if we see the outward-directed virtue as reflecting something inside Gawain.
4. “Fyue joyez” (Five Joys of Mary): a variable list, but usually Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, Assumption; here Gawain’s force (Borroff) or valour (Tolkien) or bravery (Vantuono) is said to derive from them (forsnes ‘fortitude’ in the original).
5. The “fyft fyue” are the social virtues (for which see the next section).
Gawain’s “Fyft Fyue” (640-55)
|fraunchyse ‘generosity’||free-giving||beneficence boundless||generosity|
|clannes [ Note 1 ]||chastity||pure mind||cleanness|
|cortaysye [ Note 2 ]||chivalry||(pure) manners||courtesy|
|pité [ Note 3 ]||piety||compassion||pity|
The Hunts (Part III)
Each “hunt” has four parts:
Hunt #1, DEER
- Opening of the Hunt (1133-78; sts. 46-47)
- Bedroom Scene #1 (1179-1318; sts. 48-52)
- Completion of the Hunt (1319-66; sts. 53-54)
- Exchange of Winnings #1 (1372-96; st. 55)
Hunt #2, BOAR
- Opening of the Hunt (1412-68; sts. 56-58)
- Bedroom Scene #2 (1469-1560; sts. 58-61)
- Completion of the Hunt (1561-1620; sts. 62-64)
- Exchange of Winnings #2 (1635-47; st. 65)
Hunt #3, FOX
- Opening of the Hunt (1688-1730; sts. 67-69)
- Bedroom Scene #3 (1731-1893; sts. 69-74)
- Completion of the Hunt (1894-1923; sts. 76-77)
- Exchange of Winnings #3 (1924-49; st. 77)
- Hunts 1 and 2 have brutal “dressing scenes” ; hunt 3 does not. Why the difference?
- The parallels between hunt and bedroom are not straightforward and not always truly parallel: sometimes the hunted animal’s chracteristics seem to describe the hunter/huntress rather than the hunted. Can we explain this apparent asymmetry?
Thirteen Points about SGGK’s Plot and Meaning
1. Note worldliness of the talk—a typical Arthurian setting and court (cultural advancement, refinement) (lines 25-26, st. 2). This is a traditional plot item and not necessarily, then, a critique of Camelot.
2. Morgan’s Plan (2444-63, sts. 98-99): (Bertilak is a vassal of Morgan la Fay.) Morgan’s function is to “tame” “hawtesse” universally (2454, end st. 98); in relation to Arthur’s court her function is “to assay þe surquidrie” (surquidrie may be translated ‘high self-regard’ ). Morgan wants to take away the Round Table’s wyttez (2459) and to frighten and kill Guenevere [ Note 4 ] (2460): her plan is not to test Gawain; he is involved as a matter of chance.
3. Arthur’s court is thrown into confusion, as Arthur himself seems to be (301 ff., st. 14 f.). Gawain of his own free choice steps into this situation: he has not been chosen. He takes it up in order to save a bad situation: he apparently does not have a “game mentality.” This is Gawain’s FIRST TEST, and he becomes the single effective respondent to Morgan’s challenge (cf. Arthur’s somewhat hysterical reaction). Gawain keeps his wits: it is a mental test (witan ‘to know’ ). I am taking wits as referring to mental capability here, thus seeing this as a test of the first point of the pentangle ("fyue wyttez” ), though actually the entire knot is tested each time one point is tested.
4. Gawain’s SECOND TEST is to strike the blow properly (366-74, st. 17). Information regarding the Green Knight is contingent on his striking the blow properly (see 405-11, st. 18). This is a test of the second point of the pentangle ("fyue fyngres”—physical dexterity).
5. Gawain’s THIRD TEST is to keep his word ("keep faith” ), despite opportunities and reasons to get out of it (see st. 24, esp. 549, 563-65; and see 674-83 regarding imprudence). This is a test of the third point of the pentangle—“all his afyaunce vpon folde watz in the fyue woundez” (642, st. 28).
6. Gawain is going off into the unknown (destiny): this is still not a game mentality for Gawain (see 563-65, st. 24: “Quat schuld I wonde? / Of destinés derf and dere / What may mon do bot fonde?”). The Green Knight’s world is operating on a different plane from Gawain’s.
7. Gawain’s armor (566 ff, st. 25 ff.) is “dress armor”—possibly emblematic (see, e.g., Caxton or Hay), representing the values and character of the one who wears it. [ Note 5] ]
8. Gawain’s shield (619 ff., st. 27 f.): RED signifies humility, the blood of Christ (in medieval medical lore, red promotes healing); GOLD signifies perfection. Five virtues in three groups: (1) 5 wits and 5 fingers have to do with the relationship of the human being to SELF; (3) 5 wounds (hope in salvation—fealty/faith toward God and man—corresponds to wits, since mental) and 5 joys (inspiration—a spiritualized courtly relationship—has to do mainly with physical strength and so corresponds to fingers) have to do with the relationship of the human being to GOD; (3) 5 social virtues have to do, obviously, with the relationship of the human being to SOCIETY. [ Note 6 ]
The pentangle as a whole, “þe endeles knot,” is a symbol of perfection ("trawþe,” but in what sense?). Aquinas [ Note 7 ] asserts three requirements for perfection: (1) nobility, (2) completeness, and (3) integrity—all parts united in harmony as in the pentangle. The ultimate test is not, then, of one of the named virtues or their related virtues, but of the endlessness of the knot. (Gawain gets himself into two diametrically opposed promises when he agrees not to tell the lady’s husband about the girdle, and thus the knot is broken. Paradoxically, the break in the knot is healed by the break in his neck.) The shield also represents the ideals of Camelot: when Gawain’s endless knot breaks, so does the knot of Camelot. When the court takes on the green girdle, they accept the scar—admit that the court is not perfect—but claim, as well, “redemption.”
9. The FOURTH TEST is the journey from Camelot to Hautdesert, a journey that appears to be supernaturally guided (by God or by Morgan?) (see 395-96, st. 18; 549, st. 24; and 736 ff., st. 31). This is a test of the fourth point of the pentangle, physical prowess based on devotion (see his prayers to Mary, etc.). That the castle appears in answer to Gawain’s prayer implies, perhaps, that Morgan’s power is in the poem akin somehow to God’s.
10. Hautdesert: the kind of court courts try to be, in the fashion of Camelot: Gawain is treated here as a man from the source of courtliness.
11. The bedroom tests may not be a part of Morgan’s original plan: the Green Knight specifies only the Beheading Game as due to Morgan (see 2361 and 2456 ff.). The three days’ temptations are assigned to Bertilak and his wife and are improvised from day to day. Morgan’s Plot = DESTINY (long term); Bertilak’s Plot = FORTUNE (short-term chance encounters). This suggests an analogue to the Great Chain of Being, with destiny and fortune acting as executive officers of a sort for God:
Human life experiences Fortune as the rule and may sometimes catch a glimpse of Destiny. Providence remains veiled. Morgan’s and Bertilak’s plots are integrated in the poem, retaining the hierarchy of destiny and fortune.
Probably the most influential discussion of these issues in the Middle Ages was that found in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy.
12. Gawain (a) knows there is a Beheading Game, (b) knows that he is being tempted, and (c) that he is in a day-to-day Exchange of Winnings game; but (d) he does not clearly know that or how they are related, nor does he understand the minds behind the games. Gawain knows the short term better than the long term, and the more he knows, the more he takes on a game mentality; but nothing is fully clear to Gawain, and he is never in complete control. Gawain’s predicament is analogous to the human predicament as medieval theology understood it:
13. The FIFTH TEST is the temptations and the three gifts; it tests especially the fifth point of the pentangle, the social virtues. Gawain falls: his acceptance of the girdle is not a fault; his hiding of it is a potential fault; his actual withholding of it from Bertilak is his fall. Had he given it back to the lady, he would have erased his potential fault. The real fault, from Gawain’s point of view, is that the fact of mortality induces him to break the endless knot. Thus two effects of original sin are reasserted: cowardice (bodily mortality) and covetousness (willful cupidity). His nature as a man is asserting itself against his nature as a knight.
The girdle comes to represent man’s original fault of nature, yet Gawain wears it as a source of inspiration (a paradox rather like the notion of the felix culpa). The girdle takes on seven specific meaning-functions:
- a reminder of the “games”
- a badge of Gawain’s slightly nicked perfection;
- an addition to Gawain’s shield (green = shame [ Note 8 ]; red = humility/blood of Christ);
- an emblem of the almost-perfect Camelot;
- a mark of Morgan’s victory (she has shown that Camelot is not perfect);
- an emblem of the almost-perfect nobility achievable by man; and
- a symbol of the paradox of Divine Providence, which elevates mankind by putting obstacles in its way that could, and often do, lower it.
The laughter at the end is the poet’s own glad acceptance of the lot of man, the paradox embraced.
A. C. Spearing has written: “If one accepts provisionally the sequence Purity, Patience, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . . ., one finds the non-human power with which man is confronted becoming more remote and indefinable.” Spearing thus identifies the “central and repeated subject of a confrontation between man and something more than man” and finds these poems embodying “the central fact of the human situation: that man lives in a world he did not make, and is at the mercy of non-human powers.” [ Note 9 ] With that reading of SGGK in mind, and with the affirmation of the ending’s laughter in our ears, it seems appropriate to conclude these notes with a similar recognition and affirmation in a much earlier poem—the biblical book of Job [ Note 10 ]:
I know you can do all things
and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words
cover my design with darkness?
I have spoken of the unspeakable
and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak;
I will question you: please, instruct me.
I had heard of you with my ears;
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust.
[ Note 1 ] Clannes ‘cleanness’ meant not only “chastity,” but also the wider concepts of “sinlessness” and “innocence.” See SGGK’s sister poems Pearl and Cleanness. [Return to text.]
[ Note 2 ] Cortaysye ‘courtesy’ was a word of great range and power, as Tolkien has pointed out; it embraces all chivalrous conduct, from courtly politeness to compassion and nobility of mind, and is even used elsewhere in the Gawain-poet’s works in reference to divine grace (see Pearl). [Return to text.]
[ Note 3 ] Pité: ‘pity’ and ‘piety’ are both possible meanings of this form at the time of the poem; since Gawain’s piety is already developed in the third and fourth points of the pentangle, pity in the general sense of “compassion” may be most appropriate here. [Return to text.]
[ Note 4 ] Morgan hated Guenevere because Morgan had had an affair that was noised about by Guenevere; Morgan made a chapel which one couldn’t escape if he was faithless in love. See Tolkien and Gordon’s note to line 2460. [Return to text.]
[ Note 5 ] For an often-cited biblical reference to emblematic armor, see Eph. 6:10-17. [Return to text.]
[ Note 6 ] The description of Gawain's shield appears to be modeled on descriptions of Arthur's shield. Laȝamon's Brut describes the latter shield thus: “He heng on his sweore ænne scelde deore; / his nome wes on Bruttisc Pridwen ihaten; / þer wes innen igrauen mid rede golde stauen / an onlicnes deore of Drihtenes moder.” [Return to text.]
[ Note 7 ] St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274. Greatest of the scholastics, a Dominican monk, philosopher, and theologian. [Return to text.]
[ Note 8 ] Note that the Green Knight has been sent to shame Camelot. Green is, actually, rather complex in its symbolic uses: on the one hand, it suggests vegetation, Nature, “natural magic,” the Earth, and what is “untamed” ; on the other, it suggests sickness and decay; it is opposed (in the medical manuals) to red, which promotes healing. As a liturgical color it may be supposed to suggest times of spiritual growth (though I don't have information at hand about its medieval liturgical uses). [Return to text.]
[ Note 9 ] The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970) 30-31. [Return to text.]
[ Note 10 ] Quoted here from The Book of Job, trans. Stephen Mitchell (San Francisco: North Point, 1987) 88. [Return to text.]