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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the importance of the number five in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The number five represents the symmetry of Gawain's pentangle. The pentangle, a five-pointed star drawn with connected strokes, is an ancient symbol representing Christianity: "a sign that Solomon set formerly as a token of truth" (Fytte the Second, Stanza 6). Traditionally, the pentangle's five points represented the five wounds of Christ. Symmetry and balance are important in medieval texts, and the design of the pentangle shows both. Each of the five points is connected in the shape, which can be drawn with one stroke as an "endless knot." To Gawain, the pentangle is symbolic proof of his five virtues (Fytte the Second, Stanza 6: "forever faithful in five things") and five areas of faithfulness (Fytte the Second, Stanza 7: "in each of them five ways"). The number five is also structurally important to the poem. The last five lines of each stanza in the poem, a set of lines known as the "bob and wheel," provide summary and commentary on the events of the stanza.

How does the Lady of Hautdesert use the traditions of courtly love to manipulate Gawain during Fytte the Third of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

In the tradition of courtly love, a knight sacrifices for his lady, putting her desires above his own. The Lady of Hautdesert asks Gawain to do the same for her. She asks for a kiss each day, and she spends time in Gawain's room, although he's uncomfortable being alone with the wife of his host. Gawain feels obligated to serve her out of chivalric politeness, saying in Fytte the Third, Stanza 6, "as your devoted servant I hold you my sovereign." The lady blames him for not standing by his words and expressing physical affection. On the second day, she even challenges his politeness, claiming in Fytte the Third, Stanza 15 that she can't believe "a man of such quality should not follow the conventions of good society." In Fytte the Third, Stanza 29 on the third day of the challenge, she offers him a gift, knowing he'd be considered rude and impolite if he refused. She manipulates him into making a promise to her that directly contradicts the earlier promise he made to Bertilak.

How does the Lady of Hautdesert escalate her demands during the three days of the challenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

On the first day, the Lady of Hautdesert appeals to Gawain's lust. She's kind and flattering to him, and asks for a kiss when she leaves the room. She only hints at her distrust in his reputation by saying in Fytte the Third, Stanza 6, "that ye are Gawain, it goes not in my mind." On the second day, she builds on the request she made the day before, positioning herself as Gawain's teacher in love, while emphasizing that the teaching isn't her job—it's Gawain's. She becomes much more direct in Fytte the Third, Stanza 15, calling Gawain rude and asking if he finds her dull. Instead of flattering him, she begins deliberately trying to "[win] him to wrong" in Fytte the Third, Stanza 16. On the third day in Fytte the Third, Stanza 28, she has already identified herself as his lover. Previously, the two simply exchanged words, but now she demands a physical token of his affection—something he can't deny.

Over the three days of the challenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, how does the hunt become more difficult for Bertilak de Hautdesert?

The first day, Bertilak and his men hunt female deer, an easy target. The deer are scared quickly, and the hunt is over in two stanzas: 1 and 2 of Fytte the Third. While the female deer are defeated, Bertilak's wife, the poem's representation of femininity, is just beginning her own successful quest. The second day, Bertilak meets a male foe, a boar, who is more aggressive. Instead of standing still as the deer did, the boar runs as far as he can into the river. The boar himself is intimidating. In Fytte the Third, Stanza 17, Bertilak's men are afraid of "the tusks of that savage and crazed beast." Bertilak fights with him personally and alone, whereas on the first day he was accompanied by his men. The third day, Bertilak encounters a seemingly less scary foe, a fox. But the fox is intelligent and good at hiding. The hunters don't fear him; they just can't find him. The wiliness of the fox, Reynard, shows how wit and intelligence can defeat someone more easily than can physical strength.

How is winter weather significant in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The poem's action takes place in winter. The weather mirrors Gawain's mental state. As the poem's second winter approaches in Fytte the Second, Stanza 2, and "all ripes and rots that which formerly flourished," Gawain is growing anxious. His journey to the green chapel and to Bertilak's castle is also shrouded in cold and the menaces of winter weather, emphasizing the difficulty of his quest. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 10, he sleeps "near slain with the sleet" with "hard icicles" hanging over his head, and he rides through frozen rain. The cruelty and randomness of nature and winter is also linked to the Green Knight, whose color represents a mysterious, wild connection to nature.

How does Gawain think he has shown "cowardice and covetousness" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Before Gawain accepted the green lace, he was willing to risk his life for honor. Once he saw a way to protect his life and keep his reputation intact, he took it. When Gawain learns that the Green Knight knows why he took the green lace, Gawain realizes it was a cowardly act. He didn't honor his agreement to Bertilak, and he went into the duel believing he had a secret weapon to save him. Covetousness involves Gawain's putting his own desires ahead of the needs of others. His lust for the Lady of Hautdesert didn't compel him to accept the gift, but it made him more susceptible to her arguments. He realizes he has deceived and lied to Bertilak as a result. His cowardice also prevented him from standing up to the lady when she offered the green lace in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16: "cowardice taught me/to make a truce with covetousness."

Why does Gawain's opinion of himself throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differ from others' opinions of him?

Gawain believes he's the weakest knight in Arthur's round table. He accepts the Green Knight's challenge in Fytte the First, Stanza 16 not because of his fighting skill, but because he feels his death would have the least impact on the court. Instead of boasting about his success in beheading the Green Knight, he strives to remain chivalrous and kind. Gawain believes humility is a knightly virtue. He also exercises humility in his conversations with the Lady of Hautdesert, telling her she could have chosen a much better knight to worship. The members of both Arthur's and Bertilak's courts admire Gawain more than he admires himself. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 17, Bertilak's court looks to him as an example of courtesy and good manners. Their high opinion of Gawain is based on stories they have heard. Gawain tells the Lady of Hautdesert in Fytte the Third, Stanza 6, "the praise that they accord my deserts is but idle"—his admirers in the court don't know him well enough to judge his character. Gawain is more critical of himself because he knows his inner flaws.

What role does the Lady of Hautdesert's physical beauty play in the outcome of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The narrator describes the Lady of Hautdesert's looks in superlatives, calling her in Fytte the Second, Stanza 18, "fairer than all the others" and describing the jewels she wears as a symbol of her wealth. She is described in mythical terms, as a woman whose beauty is surreal. Her appearance is also contrasted sharply with that of the older Morgan le Fay. This description foreshadows the rest of the poem in which the lady uses her looks as a weapon against Gawain. Each day, she wears more seductive clothing in an attempt to make Gawain engage in an affair. By showing Gawain's struggle to resist the physical attractiveness of a woman, in accord with his strong moral convictions, the narrator demonstrates the difficulty of mastering the virtue of courtesy.

What is the significance of Morgan le Fay to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's narrative?

Morgan le Fay's plan to frighten Guinevere, which the reader learns about in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 20, is a direct threat to Arthur's court. She is related to Arthur and familiar with Camelot, and she knows all is not as well in Camelot as it appears to be. In this way, she can also be seen as an important moral corrective. Her enchantments have exposed Gawain, and the castle of Camelot that he represents, as imperfect. Arthur has been exposed as an even more flawed leader because of his careless engagement with the Green Knight and his false assurances to Guinevere that the Green Knight's appearance was only a game. Her physical unattractiveness represents magic's ability to hide someone's true nature, just as the Green Knight withholds his true identity from Gawain.

In what ways is deception an important part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's plot?

Gawain deceives Bertilak by failing to tell him about the green lace, and by breaking the rules of their "exchange of winnings" agreement to exchange everything they won during the day. His deception leads the plot to its climax, and shows how Gawain is experiencing internal conflict. He wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to save his own life. Bertilak deceives Gawain by not letting him know the true nature of the "exchange of winnings" game—a test to prove Gawain's faithfulness—and by presenting himself in a different form as the Green Knight. This deception serves to trick the reader and the protagonist. The narrative is given an extra layer of mystery and meaning once the reader realizes the challenge isn't what it was thought to be. Gawain learns a lesson from the Green Knight's deception and becomes a better knight himself, but he still knows the Green Knight didn't tell him the truth. The narrator leaves moral conclusions about deception and honesty up to the reader.

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