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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In what ways does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight show narrative symmetry?

The plot begins and ends on a winter holiday. Fytte the First describes Christmas and New Year's celebrations in Arthur's court. Fytte the Fourth also depicts New Year's celebrations in Bertilak's court. The physical journey of the main character is circular—Gawain returns to the place where he began, at the time of year when his quest began. Fytte the Third shows symmetry during the challenge between Gawain and Bertilak. Bertilak goes on three hunts, and Gawain experiences three separate temptations. Both Fytte the First, Stanza 1 and Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 22 make reference to the end of the Trojan War—"after the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy"—and to the many wonders of Arthurian times. These bookended references give the poem a sense of historical importance.

What elements make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a romance?

The medieval romance is an adventure story, but it also deals with courtly values. A romantic hero fights to preserve ideals such as truth, love, and honesty. In the process, he might learn something about himself. Gawain's struggle is frequently internal and psychological, as he debates with the Lady of Hautdesert and faces his failure with the Green Knight. The romance also involves elements of the supernatural. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight's appearance and his ability to survive his beheading are the result of enchantment by Morgan Le Fay. A medieval romance's treatment of love differs from that of a contemporary romance novel. Sir Gawain's struggles with the Lady of Hautdesert do involve sexual feelings, but in the bigger context of his need to overcome those feelings and behave toward her with chivalry.

How does Gawain use his five virtues (or social graces) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain's five virtues are listed in Fytte the Second, Stanza 7: generosity, fellowship, courtesy, pity, and purity. Gawain shows generosity in his willingness to be humble throughout the poem, including his acceptance of the Green Knight's challenge and his confession of sins in Bertilak's castle chapel. He shows fellowship, or brotherly love, through his appreciation of Bertilak's hospitality and of the castle residents' willingness to serve him. He demonstrates courtesy, a chivalric virtue, by accepting the Green Knight's challenge at Camelot and defending Camelot's honor. He uses pity, as well as courtesy, to treat the Lady of Hautdesert with respect as they spend time together. His commitment to purity keeps him from engaging in the affair, which would have made him fail the Green Knight's test. The Green Knight sees his success in each virtue and in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16 calls him "the most faultless hero that ever went on foot."

In Fytte the Fourth of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, why does the Green Knight change the terms of the blow in the green chapel?

The Green Knight honors the initial agreement. The agreement between the two knights was for each knight to take one blow. Gawain dealt one blow in Arthur's court, and the Green Knight told him to come to the green chapel and "receive such a blow as thou hast dealt." But the Green Knight swings his axe three times, which confuses Gawain. As the Green Knight explains in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 15, he wants each of his blows to correspond with Gawain's actions. According to their agreement, he plans to deal only one blow that causes physical pain. The Green Knight points out he's kept the terms of the deal: "Nobody has here unmannerly mishandled thee ... I promised thee a stroke and thou hast it." He describes his first fake strokes as "[menacing] you merrily," continuing his disguising of the moral lesson as a game.

In what ways does Gawain show his loyalty to King Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

When the Green Knight first states his challenge in Arthur's court, Gawain lets Arthur attempt the challenge first. He doesn't speak up over his leader. He offers to try the challenge in Fytte the First, Stanza 15 only after Arthur has had a chance. Gawain also keeps his commitment a year later, knowing he is a representative of Arthur's court. In Fytte the Fourth, Gawain's loyalty to King Arthur increases his motivation to be seen as a courageous knight, not a coward. In Stanza 20, his loyalty also prevents him from taking up the Green Knight on his offer to return to Bertilak's castle. Gawain knows he needs to return home, and once he's home, he's honest about where he succeeded and where he failed in the challenge.

Which characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mock others for not accepting challenges, and why?

Reputation and honor were important in Britain's Arthurian culture, as they are in many cultures. The narrator makes many references to the stellar reputation of Arthur's court and the stories he himself has heard about Arthur. Accepting challenges as chivalric obligation—part of the chivalric code—was one way the court held up its reputation. The Green Knight mocks Arthur's court in Fytte the First, Stanza 13 for staring at him in shock, calling them "beardless children about on this bench." He's goading the men to accept his challenge by belittling their public image as warriors and heroes. The Lady of Hautdesert seduces Gawain by way of challenge, appealing to his pride and mocking him gently in Fytte the Third, Stanza 15 when he refuses: "Why are ye so rude who are so praised?" She also claims in Fytte the Third, Stanza 14, "I taught you about kissing." The other residents in Bertilak's castle thought Gawain would teach them about courtly love, and Bertilak's wife mocks him by placing herself as his instructor—she knows more than Gawain, the famous knight, about the concept of courtly love, which is central to knighthood.

To what effect does The Pearl Poet portray bargains and challenges as games in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The Pearl Poet uses the lighthearted jesting of his characters to hide serious moral tests. The Green Knight disguises his challenge as a "Christmas game," part of the Yuletide entertainment, to hide the real nature of the test. He explains in Fytte the First, Stanza 14 that Morgan le Fay sent him to see if "the great renown of the Round Table" is earned or not. He further tests the court by telling them condescendingly in Fytte the First, Stanza 13 that he doesn't want to fight any of their knights: "there is no one here to match me, their might is so weak." The Green Knight continues the game in his second duel with Gawain when he fakes two strokes instead of hitting Gawain directly. When Gawain grows angry at the Green Knight's unwillingness to fight, the Green Knight responds with a "huge laugh," indicating a sense of levity. Bertilak (who is also the Green Knight) plays a different kind of game with Gawain, again in the Yuletide season. Bertilak suggests his game by pretending it's a friendly show of hospitality to his guest. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 23, he tells Gawain, who he says must be hungry and tired, to "linger in your loft and lie at your ease" without letting him know his actions will be part of the game, too. The Lady of Hautdesert is playing a game of wits and words with Gawain. She sincerely requests his affection, hiding the real stakes of the challenge. In Stanzas 28 and 29 of Fytte the Third, she offers him a gift out of what she says is generosity, then comes up with an explanation to trick Gawain into accepting the gift. Gawain doesn't know that any of these challenges are connected. He's playing a game, too, although he doesn't understand his role.

What role does surreal or supernatural imagery play in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Surreal imagery increases the tension between the known world and the lesser-known pagan world. The Green Knight's fantastic appearance, his ability to speak and ride after his head is severed, and his hidden and nearly invisible dwelling all paint him as an agent of a magical, powerful force humans cannot understand. Christianity, the religion of Gawain, has a similar focus on mystery—faith in what humans cannot understand. Through the Green Knight's challenge, Gawain learns to accept his own human imperfections and mortality. The supernatural element of the enemy also tests the faith of Arthur's court. When the members of Arthur's court first see him, they imagine him "for phantom or faery" in Fytte the First, Stanza 11—a creature from an inhuman realm. Arthur may consider the Green Knight part of the Christmas entertainment, when he says in Fytte the First, Stanza 21: "I can not deny that I have seen a marvel." The court is more astonished than terrified, and they can't reconcile with reality the spectacle they see in Fytte the First.

How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contrast pagan and Christian images?

The holly twig the Green Knight carries in Fytte the First, Stanza 10 is a traditional Christmas symbol. It represents the rejuvenation and rebirth of the Christmas season in the cold winter weather: it's "greenest when groves are bare." The Green Knight's appearance contrasts this symbol with the "merciless" nature of the sharp axe and the menacing nature of the Green Knight's appearance. The chapels in Arthur's and Bertilak's castles are contrasted with the green chapel, which Gawain thinks is a place the devil would pray. The green chapel is described in Fytte the Fourth, Stanzas 8 and 9 as rough and unfinished, a "rude dwelling" which is "hollow" and "overgrown with grass." The green chapel has not been touched by civilization. Arthur's castle, by contrast, is filled with chivalric, righteous heroes, "the rich brethren of the Round Table." Nature is associated with paganism as well. As Gawain rides through the untamed wilderness in Fytte the Second, Stanza 11, he prays "Christ's cross speed me" and fears he will "never survive to see the service of that Sire who on that very night was born of a lady to quell her pain"—a reference to the Mass and to Jesus Christ's birth on Christmas night.

Why is it important that the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to be superhuman?

The Green Knight embodies the force of Merlin and Morgan le Fay's magic. Morgan le Fay has a history of using her magic to oppose Arthur and Guinevere, and her actions toward Gawain are in line with this tradition. The Green Knight acknowledges in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 19 the supernatural power of her "deep learning" and "hard-won skill" in using Merlin's magic. Morgan le Fay uses the Green Knight specifically to expose Gawain's and Arthur's pride as the ineffective defense mechanism it is against their mortality: "no person is so haughty but she can tame him." The Green Knight is given characteristics similar to a deity. His glances in Fytte the First, Stanza 9 are like "bright lightning" or a devastating force of nature. His ax is a man-made weapon, but in the Green Knight's hands it becomes a tool of retribution—like the retribution of a god. Gawain, like all mankind, is at the mercy of forces more powerful than he is. In order to learn humility and relinquish pride, Gawain and Arthur's court have to be confronted with a threat that shows them how powerless they are. The Green Knight's extraordinary size, and the wisdom he conveys to Gawain in Fytte the Fourth, also position him as a spiritual or moral teacher in a godlike role.

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