Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fyts 1 and 2

Source, Structure and Themes

Source: British Library MS. Cotton Nero A.x (unique), where it is the last of four alliterative poems written in West Midlands dialect (Pearl, Pacience [Jonah], Cleanesse [Falls of Lucifer & Adam; Flood; Abraham and Sarah; Lot & his family; destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Nebuchadnezzar's profanation of the vessels & punishment; Belshazzar's feast & doom; Daniel on Nebuchadnezzar's conversion; concluding peroration], and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). All four poems emphasize moral issues, expressing spiritual values in courtly and chivalric terms, especially those unique to its local dialect.  "Sir Gawain" also draws upon a Welsh/Celtic narrative tradition of romances about Gawain as the best of Arthur's knights, a tradition older than that of Lancelot, who was a French "import" into the Arthurian tradition and supplanted Gawain as the favored knight.  Gawain tales typically involve challenges to the Arthurian court by outlandish males from the wilds of northwest England, or fabulously ugly females from the same region.  In several of these tales, Gawain undergoes a "bed test" with the host's wife and/or daughter, and in some he also must play a "beheading game" with his host.  For a summary and analysis of the plots of these tales (including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale"), see Joe Turner's (Goucher '05) web page, "'His name was Syr Gawene': The Flower of Wales."  The Pearl-Poet's adaptation of this tale type, like Chaucer's, has much to teach us about Medieval poets' creativity and imagination.  Whereas Chaucer diminished and radically reshaped Gawain's role to serve the character of the tale's teller, the Wife of Bath, the Pearl-Poet thoroughly enhanced the development of every one of the characters and gave the resulting tale a formal shape, both in its individual stanzas and in its overall structure, that makes it stand on its own as one of the outstanding works of Middle English literature.

Manuscript: MS Cotton Nero A.x has been digitized and is available for free on the Web at  Pearl is the first poem in the sequence, followed by the two more openly didactic poems ("Pacience" and "Cleanesse"), and Gawain is the last poem in the manuscript.  It begins on folio 90r (or 94r--there are two different folio numbers on this section) with the illumination of the headless Green Knight addressing Gawain and the rest of Arthur's court.

Genre and Plot: While generically identifiable as an Arthurian romance of the "Gawain" group, it shares characteristics with the Breton lais (faerie vs. court conflict, stanzaic structure, narrator’s reference to audience and characters suggestive of live performance, emphasis on "mixed" dramatic tone). It also resembles the dramatic structure of a moral fable whose outcome is intended to carry a didactic lesson. The plot splits naturally into four parts, not quite coincident with the fyts or stanza groups into which it is divided. First, the Green Knight lays down his New Year’s challenge to Arthur’s court and Gawain accepts it. Second, a year later, Gawain goes to seek the Green Knight. Third, Gawain finds welcome refuge in a castle set in a wilderness, and accepts the hospitality of his host and host’s wife, who test his chastity and loyalty. Fourth, Gawain faces the Greek Knight’s deadly challenge, receives a surprising revelation, and returns to court with his tale.

Overall Structure: 2530 lines arranged in stanzas of varying lengths. In all modern editions, the stanzas are divided into four parts of "fyts," corresponding to lines 1, 491, 1126, 1998 of the manuscript, because those lines begin with the largest and most ornate capitals used in the text. (The authority of this division scheme has been attacked and the reader is encouraged to experiment with alternatives—for reference, other capitals occur at lines 691, 753, 1421, 1893, and 2259.) According to this four-part division, the fyts contain varying numbers of stanzas and lines corresponding to a rough rising and falling dramatic structure which peaks in Fyt 3’s paired seduction and hunt scenes (21/490, 24/635, 34/872, and 22/539). The last two lines of the poem’s basic stanza (2524 and 2525) repeat with variation two lines from the first stanza (13 and 1), and most significantly, the last and first lines are the same, as are the last and first lines of Pearl.

Beneath line 2530, a hand other than the scribe’s has added, in blue ink, "HONY SOIT QUI MAL PENCE," the motto of the Knights of the Garter (founded by Edward III, c. 1348). [After the king’s mistress lost her garter on the dance floor, the king is said to have defuse the potentially embarrassing situation with the gallant and interesting assertion "Shame be to him who evil thinks."] Scholars doubt the poet intended the association, but it may represent a reader’s interpretive response to the poem (i.e., this is a situation in which there is no inherently shameful thing, but interpretations of it may bring shame to the interpreters).

"Bob-and-Wheel" Stanzaic Structure: the base stanza contains a varying number of unrhymed, four-stress alliterative lines linked by a one- or two-stress "bob" to a rhyming three-stress four-line "wheel." The bob-and-wheel rhyme scheme is ababa. Often, the bob-and-wheel turns to comment upon the action of the base stanza, and at times the bob contains key thematic value words.

Sound:  Here are some short passages to help you hear the West Midlands Middle English.  It's still Chaucer's vowels and consonants, but the diction is western and northern dialect, and the spelling reflects a rougher "burr" like Scots.  If you want to hear the first stanza read aloud, try Thomas Rendall's recording at the SMU Arthuriana web page.  To hear the first 19 lines read in a female voice, click here for Marie Borroff's recording, number 5 on the Norton Anthology's online support page. 

Major Thematic Issues:

Gift Giving and Closure--medieval culture is largely pre-monetary, in that it operates by exchanges of labor, services, agricultural products, and luxury gifts more than by exchanges of money.  Cash is for evening out the difference in the exchanges of traders, and only gradually does cash, itself, become a primary element in the daily life of average people (and mainly after the New World's Amerindian empires are plundered for their gold and silver).  The rules for gift-giving have been analyzed by anthropologists, and gift-giving games such as those played in this poem impose very interesting constraints on the behavior of competitors.   The poem observes the play and "scores" it as a means of creating and resolving plot tensions.  For more on the poem's crucial gift-giving game structure, click here.  Click the following hyperlink to see a late-Medieval image of New Year's Gift Giving--the January page of the Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, a famous illuminated manuscript prayer-book whose month-pages illustrate seasonal activities set at the Duke's numerous estates, starting with the holiday feast.  For more images related to events in the poem, click here.

Green vs. Gold—the natural world, represented by the "aghlich mayster" who is "oueral enker grene," challenges Arthur’s golden court in several ways: power, courtly sophistication, wisdom, courage, and. above all, integrity. Since he can appear either as a marvelous vegetative symbol or the marvelously energetic and generous host, Bertilak, he sets up two kinds of test for Gawain as Arthur’s representative. Can he act as he is said to be able to act? Can he be generous, brave, sensitive to court protocol, attentive to faithful to their religion, with its supernatural claims?

Codes of Chivalric, Christian, and Courtly Values--in romance, the code of knightly behavior tends to be the most privileged set of rules, sometimes rising above erotic "courtly" love, and even above Christian conduct, in its importance as a guide of behavior and a measure of character.  Gawain's identity incorporates all three value systems as he is first guided by chivalric standards in answering the Green Knight's challenge, then dressed in Christian values, most notably in his shield, and finally cast as the expert in love by the Host's Lady.  Abiding by the court's standards of chivalry (see above, the "gold" world's test) can shake any character's integrity, but putting on that shield adds an enormous burden to the protagonist's duties as a Christian knight.  For a classical comparison, consider the Iliad's Achilles, whose shield bears upon it the entire world and all the significant components of human social life in a never-ending circular pattern.

Challenging Male/Female and Animal/Human Binary Oppositions—when the host’s wife "captures" Gawain three mornings in a row, she reverses the gender dynamics scripted for both of them in Arthurian romance. When Gawain puts on her "girdel" (1829), he is cross-dressing, albeit secretly (a not uncommon practice among transvestites in cultures which repress the practice). The kisses he trades with the host are interpretable as the normal "salute" given by hosts and guests in most courts of medieval Europe, but since these are kisses Gawain has "won" from the host’s wife, and they are kisses he gives the host in lieu of explaining from whom he had them, Gawain’s gender-role becomes quite complex. Note the Green Knight’s explanation that "that tappe" of the ax on Gawain’s neck was his payment for Gawain’s failure to reveal the girdle—so the neck wound rewards the secret adoption of a female signifier. Why does the poet construct the Green Knight as such an outrageously testosterone-rich figure, especially in his role as the host? Why is the lady so aggressive, and why is Gawain so passive? Does this explain Gawain’s sudden burst of misogyny upon being informed of the women’s role in his deception (2411-2428)?

Gawain’s host hunts three animals whose deaths and butchery are described in intimate detail. After the hunt, which we follow from the deer’s perspective, the deer’s body becomes reduced to ritually named parts in a celebration of mortality which feeds all manner of species until the best cuts are presented to Gawain as his "prys" (1379). The poet similarly gives full attention to the deaths of the boar and fox, and to their transformation into inanimate but valuable body parts, all of which find their way to Gawain. What is the poet’s attitude toward these ceremonial killings? How does the repeated butchery of the animals relate to the scenes of refined bedroom word-play with which they alternate? What kind of animal is a "Gawain," and what does the poet expect us to feel because of that?

Seasonal Change and Seasonal Renewal: Gawain as "sacrifice"—both Christian and pagan calendars are governed by a cycle of abundance and dearth, ritual sacrifice and renewal. Gawain, like the Green Knight, takes part in a blood-letting ceremony which occurs at the turning point of the new year. If we keep in mind that the Christian calendar traced the beginning of the year to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, this tale’s Christian "exterior" (built of the symbols on Gawain’s shield and the routine observance of ritual) may actually contain a more profound Christian "interior" in which Gawain becomes a kind of Christ. If so, how does this square with the motivating presence of "Morgne the goddes" (2452)? Why would the court of King Arthur need a Christ-figure? Would the poet expect his audience to reach this conclusion easily, or is it something hidden from all but the expert reader? Would this have anything to do with the way we should read Pearl, assuming as most scholars do that both poems are by the same author? (Gawain is the second knight in Arthurian romance who sees "the blode blenk on the snawe" [2315]; the first, Percival, sees it fall from the holy lance in the Grail’s procession and suddenly realizes the significance of the vessel, his Lord’s sacrifice, and his own naïveté.)

Court Laughter and the "Garter"—what are we to make of the court’s jovial response to Gawain’s anguished and angry confession of his fault? Is shame all a matter of interpreting the facts (what one may "pence") or are there some facts which, in and of themselves, are shameful, requiring confession, contrition, penance and forgiveness. If this works for shame, can sin be handled the same way as shame? How does the court’s laughter relate to the laughter of the Green Knight? Many people can laugh at the same event for differing reasons—for what range of response does the poet prepare you by the end of the poem?