• Kim C.

Poor Sir Gawain.


Ok, another class inspired blog. This one is about my Arthurian Legend class, though. We just got done reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is a medieval poem of about 2,531 lines total. It reads more like a short story than a poem, though it is apparent there is some rhyming and alliteration throughout the work. But, the thing I'd like to focus on is the themes running throughout the piece, as well as the symbolism.

The general plot is that during a Christmas feast a knight covered all in green, from his hair and skin to his armor and horse is green, comes through the doors into the dinner-hall. He makes a challenge to King Arthur for a "beheading game." The king is free to take a swing with a huge ax at the Green Knight, and in return the king must come to the Green Chapel in one year's time for a reciprocated blow. However, before the king is able to take the challenge Sir Gawain steps forward to take his spot in the game. After beheading the green knight, everyone watches as the knight picks his detached head up and rides away. Time passes, and finally Gawain leaves to uphold his end of the deal.

On the way, he finds a castle -- which is coincidental and sends off red flags for the reader. He meets the lord of the place, Bertilak, and Gawain is welcomed to stay for a while. During his stay, Bertilak insists on a pact: whatever they gain while the lord is hunting and Gawain is in the castle they must exchange evenly between themselves. On the first day, the lord kills a deer and Gawain manages to get out of being seduced by the lady of the castle, but he still gets a kiss. Therefore, Bertilak gives Gawain the deer, and Gawain bestows a kiss on the lord. Now, in this era men kissing in a courteously fashion was not a taboo thing, nor was it uncommon. Same thing happens on day two with the exception of Bertilak killing a Boar instead of a deer. The same exchange is honored, a kiss and a kill. But, on the third round Gawain screws up. The lady tempts him with a ring, which he politely turns down, but then she offers a green "girdle" or belt that would allow no physical harm to come to him. His fear of being beheaded by the green knight causes him to cave and take the belt. Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the fox he killed, while Gawain does not hand over the belt.

Gawain finally makes it to the Green Chapel and faces the Green Knight, the knight misses him twice but cuts the side of Gawain's neck on the third swing, just enough to draw blood. Then, the knight reveals himself as Bertilak along with the whole scheme he and his wife planned against him. Bertilak was aware the whole time of what the lady had been tempting Gawain with, and what she had given him. He goes to explain that he intentionally missed Gawain twice in honor of the two kisses Gawain was honest about in their game, but cut him as punishment for not handing over the belt as he had promised. Now ashamed, Gawain declares he does not want the belt any longer, but Bertilak requests he keep it. Gawain feels indebted and returns to King Arthur with the belt. After telling all, Arthur declares Gawain is the picture of what a knight should be and orders all of the knights to wear a green belt as a symbol of humanity.

Basically, the tale encompasses the lessons of temptation, honor, keeping one's word, mercy, penance, and forgiveness. There is the overall arcing game of the beheading, then the game within a game is the equal give and take of bounty. The story is a classic medieval tale about a knight who is shown to be simply a man of flesh and bone, that even though he is expected to behave in a specific way, he is still in need of mercy when he fails. There is a lot more I could go into with this piece because it is rife with symbolism, connections to the real world, important aspects of the medieval era, and lessons that contemporary audiences can gain from it. I love this tale!


5 views