Chivalry. Imp. ideal. Complex rules for warfare between Christian. The enemy is my brother. Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376) & Bertrand du Guesclin, the Eagle of Brittany, had sworn an oath of friendship @ a holy mass. Edward captured Bertrand. Negotiated ransom. Bertrand wanted to pay 100,000 florins, Edward refused. Wanted to pay less. Bertrand refused to pay less than 70,000. Set free to raise money. The first installment, 30,000, came from Joan of Kent--the wife of Edward! (Aho 87-89). Yet the same Black Prince at the siege of Limoges (1370) killed 3,000 unarmed men, women, & children. WHY? Lower class. The rules were different for aristocracy. When we imagine ourselves in such an era--medieval England or pre-war South (Old South Week), we put ourselves in the aristocracy.

1939 Premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. Gala ball--the only blacks present were members of a black choir dressed as slaves. There was a 10-year old boy in the choir dressed as a "pickaninny" who was the son of the pastor of the church that supplied the choir. The boy's name was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was not known for his nostalgia for the Old South.

The work is a romance compared to the epic in Beowulf. One main difference is that the relationship between men and women comes to the fore. The social system has developed also over the tribal system reflected in Beowulf.

TIME in Gawain is cyclic, degenerative, & regenerative.

Cyclic. Troy, Rome, Camelot. All rose & fell. The Arthur myth imp. to the court of Richard the Lion-Hearted & forward (13th & 14th centuries), the general time of this work (Johnson 43).

Degenerative. Present a fall from the golden past. Part of pagan & Christian mythology (Eden & Pandora). Winter is the era of the poem. Spring would be higher. Tracing of the year as degenerative (lines 498-535; Johnson 50). "Gawain's year is especially brief and gives us evidence of how illusory spring or youth may be" (Johnson 51).

Knight's challenge is not understood by Gawain. He is questioning the reality. Are they as great as their glory, or is the glory empty (Johnson 50)?

Regenerative. Relationship to church calender (Johnson 54-55--on the Gawain table). Gawain comes to realize his sinfulness & his need for regeneration. Johnson, Lynn Staley. The Voice of the Gawain-Poet . Madison: U. of Wisconsin Pr., 1984.

The Poem. (Numbers refer to lines in the poem)

Part One-The Challenge

1ff. Troy fell. WHY? Paris breached xenia / hospitium by eloping with his host's wife Helen.  Rome & British Arthur descended from Troy.

85 Arthur's restlessness--heedless youth leads to challenge (Johnson 50). His faults invite attack the way that we saw happen to Hrothgar in Beowulf.

135ff The green knight arrives. He is green in the winter, which is significant. Holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees are STILL part of Christmas, affirming life during the time when the days are their shortest.

206 The green knight carries holly.

280 The knight doesn't see anybody worthy of fighting-they are all "beardless children." He criticizes the youth of Camelot. He'll just let somebody chop off his head as a "Christmas game."

450 Gawain is to find the Green Chapel in a year to receive his stroke.

Part 2-The search

495-536 The year passes quickly until November 1 (All-Hallows' Day) arrives, bringing us around to the winter season which is the focus of the poem. Gawain must gear up to face the knight.

566ff An Ekphrasis of his armor and especially of his shield. It has a gold pentangle on a red shield. In an ekphrasis, the action of a story stops so the author can describe some object. Shields are especially important in such descriptions. The Pearl Poet is writing in the tradition of the shields of Achilles (Iliad), Aeneas (Aeneid), Athena (the Parthenon). A token of truth. Gawain's special number is 5,and the pentangle is his shape.

592 He starts off by going to mass, showing his devotion.

638 Gawain had a lecherous reputation. Here, he's supposed to be both most true AND most courteous (to ladies)--hard to be both. His lecherous tendency is present--most knights just turn ladies aside. He has to struggle to be virtuous.

line 620ff

What the pentangle symbolizes

  1. Five senses faultless.
  2. Five fingers that never failed
  3. Five wounds of Christ
  4. Five joys of Mary
    1. Annunciation
    2. Nativity
    3. Resurrection
    4. Ascension
    5. Assumption
  5. Gawain's five virtues
    1. boundless beneficence,
    2. brotherly love
    3. pure mind
    4. manners
    5. compassion
649 Mary inside shield. His patron of purity.

655 virtues linked-if one fails, all fail.

662 The line of the pentangle eventually returns to the beginning point.


A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell 30)

715-725 He proved his worth by defeating numerous "monstrous foes"-snakes, bulls, bears, (oh no!) boars, giants, etc.

750 Prayer--his supernatural aid.

757 Pater & ave. He prays the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" prayers that are a part to Catholic devotion.
Pater noster, Qui es in coelis, sanctificetur nomen Tuum; adveniat regnum Tuum; fiat voluntas Tua, sicut in coelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie; et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; et ne nos inducas in tentationem; sed liberanos a malo. Amen.  Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. Amen. 
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum; benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen. 
763 "Signs himself thrice." Makes the sign of the cross 3 times.

768 He finds a "wondrous dwelling" surrounded by green plants. This indicates that he is approaching the Green Giant, even though he does not know it.

774 Prays to St. Julian, the patron saint of hospitality. As in Beowulf, the guest-host relationship is sacred. With no hotels available, a person had to rely on the kindness of strangers.

802 "A castle cut of paper." The place looks life some kind of doll's house. Like the gingerbread house, it is an indication of its magic qualities.

774 patron of hospitality.

810  They greet the knight errant ("erraunt" in the original).  Errant here has a double meaning based to its Latin root errare.

  1. To wander around.  The knight errant was one who went around doing good, like a police officer on patrol.
  2. To wander astray.  The Latin errare is the source of the term "error" as well as the term "errant."  "Errant" can mean one who has fallen into error, and that secondary meaning is present in this context. Gawain is a knight in danger of going astray.  He is entering the sphere where he can lose his way.  Out fighting monsters, he was safe enough.  But what can protect him against himself?
844 His host is of middle age, not a kid like those in Camelot.

856 They put him in a very nice bedroom, where much of the action will take place.

905 He reveals that he is the famous Gawain, and they react the way many would react to a rock star (Elvis, perhaps), a movie star, or a great athlete. The only figure approaching his image in modern culture is perhaps that famous cold warrior, James Bond.

922 Savior's birth=Christmas

940 The lady of the house comes to meet him. She is young & beautiful, in contrast to the old crone who came with her.

967 He finds the beautiful young to be "toothsome," or beautiful. The lecherous side of Gawain is evident at this moment.

970 He bows to the old woman, kisses the wife, and speaks courteously to her, i.e., he flirts with her.

1010 He flirts more with her.

1050 He tells his host about his quest. The host assures him that he is very close to the Green Chapel and invites him to stay until the day he meets the Green Knight.

1090 The host will go hunting every day while Gawain rests up for his meeting with the Green Knight. The wife will entertain Gawain. Thus the host trusts Gawain's integrity.

1100 "A-hunting I will go." Did Elmer Fudd translate this?

Part Three. The Temptation

The lord of the house goes hunting every morning for three days. What he is hunting outside symbolizes the temptations Gawain faces inside.

1st Temptation

1180 The wife responds to him the way many women respond to the presence of a celebrity. She shows up in his bedroom.

1210 She threatens to tie him up.

1222 Now she threatens to hold him down to keep him in bed. That's just where she wants him. He can't just throw her out, because that would ruin his reputation for COURTESY w which is being skilled in courtly behavior, especially courtly love. In a class and an era where marriages were arranged, love often took place outside of marriage. Courtly love was the kind of love of a knight for his lady, and this lady wants to avail herself of his services. She accuses him of not being very courteous to her.

1243 He's not THAT Gawain. Why can't he act on his lust this time? It would betray his relationship with the host. The beginning of the poem reminds of the Trojan war, and the crime behind the Trojan war was that Paris had an affair and eloped with his host's wife, Helen. For him to betray his host would cost him his honor and his life.

1244 He must think she's ugly to treat her this way.

1300 She accuses him of not being Gawain, who would have kissed her. The kiss.

1385 Gawain and the host exchange their prizes of the day-Gawain gets the deer the host killed, and Gawain gives the host the kiss he received. He won't tell where he got the kiss because that wasn't part of their covenant. This is another reason for not having sex with her. He doesn't want to have to have sex with the host.

2nd Temptation

1520 This is the second day, and she tempts him as she did the first. She wants to know why he's not living up to his reputation.
"Instruct me a little, do,
While my husband is not nearby."
1547, 1660 His honor prevents him from doing what she wants, but he really wants to. She has "stirred his stout heart."

3rd Temptation

This is the day of the fox-hunt.

1742 She shows up in his room "Hir brest bare bifore & behinde eke." She displays her breasts & back for him. And you thought the South was hospitable. What will become of our young hero?

Great peril attends that meeting
Should Mary forget her knight. (1768-1769)
Or the knight forget his Mary. Mary, the patron of purity, is inscribed on his shield. What about on his heart?

1829 She offers him her girdle, which is sexually suggestive. It's like giving him her underwear. Only this is magic underwear, er, a magic girdle It can prevent him from being injured in a fight. He gives his host the kiss she gives him, but break faith be not giving the girdle.

1982 He takes his leave, & the women are sad to see him go. Elvis has left the building & is going to meet his fate.

Part 4: The Green Chapel

2035 He took the girdle, green of course, to protect him.

2100 A warning about the Green Knight, who is supposedly mean and green.

2180 The chapel's not much to look at. It's like a cave covered in grass.

2220 The Green Knight is sharpening up a nice Danish ax.

  1. The first time he swings, Gawain flinches. The knight reproves him. (2270)
  2. The second time he swings but draws back before he strikes Gawain. Gawain doesn't flinch.
  3. The last time he swings, he barely scratches Gawain's neck. Having received the blow, Gawain has kept his promise, and he prepares to fight rather than allow the Knight to strike him again.
Note the significance of this day in Sir Gawain's year. It is the Feast of the Circumcision, the day when Jesus would have been circumcised. The knight's strike does something similar to Gawain. It also symbolized the Resurrection. Gawain in a sense receives his life back now that he will not die today.

If the knight's color is green, Gawain's is red. The blood that comes from his neck thus matches his general color.

2340 The knight explains the three strikes.

  1. The first time signified the agreement they originally made & Gawain's keeping of it.
  2. The second time signified the two kisses that Gawain did give the host, who was the Green Knight. He again kept his word.
  3. The third time signified Gawain's partial failure in keeping the girdle. He therefore hit Gawain that time. It was a set-up all along, and the host had intentionally sent his wife to tempt Gawain.
2371 "All of the blood of his body burned in his face." Realizing his failure at last, Gawain blushes-he turns red.

2375 He realizes that all his virtues have failed him in this one lapse & repents.

2397 The Green Knight gives Gawain the green girdle as a token of his weakness. He has achieved the maturity of recognizing his own failure and his need for forgiveness. He has gotten beyond the overconfident self-righteousness of youth.

2412 Gawain talks of the wiles of women. Adam & Eve, David & Bathsheba, Solomon & his idolatrous wives, Samson & Delilah. He does not mention the Wife of Bath or Phyllis & Aristotle, but we see the same dynamic at work. The wife was more dangerous than the ax.

But as a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes
When I ride in renown, and remember with shame
The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse. (2433-2435)
2446 Morgan le Faye is the source of this sorcery.

2506 The green girdle will be the sign of Gawain's "cowardice and coveting." Ironically, this is the boon he brings back to his community to reduce the pride of the whole court.

2517 The whole court agrees to wear a similar girdle as a sash as a sign of their own weakness and of their knowledge of that own weakness. It also becomes a sign of sin and regeneration. Thus begins the "Order of the Garter."

2525 The story ends with a reference to Troy-Gawain has been delivered from making the same mistake his Trojan predecessor Paris did.