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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Gawain's failure in the five social virtues by accepting the Lady of Hautdesert's lace affect the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain fails by putting concern for his own life over upholding the five social virtues. He's not acting out of generosity or pity when he accepts the green lace; he's simply taking the magical talisman to survive the duel. Gawain is mortal, and he fears death; this fear leads him to make decisions that break the virtues of the pentangle and the endless knot. But the Green Knight doesn't blame him in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16 for making a decision "because ye loved your life." He knows Gawain is struggling between his nature as a man and his flawless reputation as a knight. Gawain's failure affects the plot by giving the protagonist a moral journey that goes full circle, and allowing him to learn a lesson in the end. His triumphant return is also given a twist. He's wearing a prominent symbol of his flaws. This feature of Gawain's story adds a new plot element to the hero's homecoming—the hero's own transformation.

What is the significance of the ways in which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mark the passage of time?

Time is seasonal in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Stanzas 1 and 2 of Fytte the Second mark the progress of the four seasons and the emotions that accompany them. The transition from autumn to winter shows the uncertainty Gawain faces in his quest, symbolized by the shorter, darker days of winter. Stanza 1 of Fytte the Fourth again emphasizes the menace of the winter weather on the New Year's Day of Gawain's second duel: "The day drives on to the dark, as God bids, but outside wide storms wakened in the world." God is positioned as being in control of the weather. Time is measured historically in Stanzas 1 and 2 of Fytte the First. These stanzas place Britain in the context of empires that rose and fell, such as Troy and Rome. Finally, time is measured liturgically by the church calendar. New Year's Day was a holiday with religious meaning in ancient Britain. Gawain learns his own need for confession and rebirth on New Year's Day, a day associated with repentance and new beginnings.

How does the journey of the hunt parallel the bedroom scenes in Fytte the Third of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain and the Lady of Hautdesert bear similarities to the hunted animals. On the first day, Bertilak and his men shoot defenseless female deer. Meanwhile, in Fytte the Third, Stanza 4, the Lady of Hautdesert threatens (playfully) to tie up Gawain, presenting him, too, as prey to be caught, and calling him "my knight that I have caught." She tries to tempt him to the sin of lust, a sin represented by both the female deer and the sexually aggressive male deer the hunters avoid. On the second day, the boar presents more of a danger to the hunters than the deer did, just as the Lady of Hautdesert presents a greater danger to Gawain. She begins to attack his reputation as a knight, wondering why he's never spoken of courtly love. In Fytte the Third, Stanza 16, Gawain defends himself "fairly that no fault appeared" just as Bertilak defends himself single-handedly against the boar. The hunters begin to feel fear for the first time, a fear that parallels Gawain's impending anxiety about his duel. On the third day, the Lady of Hautdesert describes herself in Fytte the Third, Stanza 26 as "of all creatures in the world most wounded in heart," positioning herself as helpless quarry. But she's actually using Gawain for entertainment. Her cleverness in getting Gawain to accept the green lace recalls the cleverness of Reynard, the fox the hunters pursue all day and into the night. Reynard is able to elude them for most of the day by darting through the woods. The visceral scenes in which the deer and boar are cut up for food demonstrate both the fragility of all mortal life and the breaking down of Gawain's defenses. Like the prey, he is fragile and fearful for his life in the duel with the Green Knight.

In Fytte the Fourth of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, why does Gawain compare himself to biblical men who have been tempted?

In Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 18, Gawain compares himself to Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David, four men described in the Bible as succumbing to sin or temptation because of a woman. Gawain's experience with the Green Knight may have humbled him, but he still wants to defend his knightly identity as a man who wants to serve a higher cause. So he names men he respects in a religious and historical tradition—men who he says were "excellent above all others under the heavens"—to remind himself that any man, no matter how good he is, can succumb to temptation. He's particularly repelled by the "wiles of women," blaming the Lady of Hautdesert for his failure to uphold his virtues, and looking for a historical precedent to female temptation.

How is Christmas important in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Christmas in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a season of celebration and joy, lasting many days. Like the holly twig the Green Knight holds, in Fytte the First, Stanza 3, the Christmas season represents a respite or relief from the long, dark winter. This jovial atmosphere allows the Green Knight to present his challenge as a form of entertainment and as a way to further malign Arthur's court by suggesting they can't handle a real duel. Feasts and games are combined with religious observances and chapel attendance. Christmas in the Christian tradition is a time for spiritual growth. When Gawain stays in Bertilak's castle during the Christmas season, he's able to relax and celebrate the holiday, but he also reflects on the tests of his character. Both Christmas and New Year's are traditional times to celebrate Mary as the Mother of God, or the woman who gave birth to God. The reader learns in Fytte the Second, Stanza 7 that Mary occupies the role of protector for Gawain; as the "Queen of Heaven," she represents one of the five points on his pentangle.

How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrate transformation and disenchantment?

Gawain is transformed in physical and symbolic ways. Physically, he has a cut on his neck from the Green Knight as a reminder of his failure. He describes the cut as "evil" and "loss." Symbolically, he didn't live up to the virtues represented by his pentangle. He does not return as the knight "devoid of every villainy, adorned with virtues" who left Camelot. The Green Knight transforms from a human to a supernatural form and back again. This "disenchantment" occurs when he reveals his true name to Gawain. Bertilak's castle also undergoes a disenchantment. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 12, the castle appears magically after Gawain has been walking through rough terrain. He prays in thanksgiving, thinking the castle was sent by God to save him. Later, when he sees the green chapel in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 8, he thinks diabolical forces may be behind its existence. At the end of Fytte the Fourth, Gawain learns that both Bertilak's castle and the green chapel were placed deliberately by Morgan le Fay's magic. The disenchantment comes with the revelation of truth in Stanza 19—just as when Gawain learned hard truths about his own ability to withstand temptation, and dealt with the "disenchantment" of his own flawless reputation as a knight.

How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight juxtapose and contrast salvation with temptation?

According to Christian doctrine, salvation can be achieved only when the sinner recognizes his sin, repents, and accepts forgiveness. Temptation is an unfortunate result of living in the human world. Salvation takes place in the spiritual world. Gawain tries to live in both worlds at once. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 7, when the narrator describes Gawain's five virtues and areas of faithfulness, Gawain is called "faultless" in his piety. Gawain thinks of Mary and Christian values "wheresoever this man was hard bestead in the melee"—whenever he is tempted to sin in the world. His faultlessness during his first two days with the Lady of Hautdesert positions Gawain as an example of salvation, while the lady is an example of temptation. She talks about love and chivalry but not about spiritual faith. Gawain has to look to Mary, a religious icon, in Fytte the Third, Stanza 25 for salvation while he is being tempted.

What does Gawain discover about himself at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain discovers he can't be a perfect knight. He's imperfect in his loyalty to his host. His salvation is entirely up to the mercy of others—he can't save himself. Gawain learns he's susceptible to "villainy and vice" as much as any man. This shift in his thinking is symbolized in what he wears. When he puts on his armor in Fytte the Second, Stanza 3, he's convinced of his own unending virtue and ability to meet "stern and strange destiny." When he puts on the green lace in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 19, the lace reminds him of "the fault and the deceit of the crabbed flesh." The armor represents his knightly identity, and the lace represents his human identity. He learns that even the best of knights are limited and mortal.

In what way does the green lace save Gawain's life in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 2 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The green lace does not help Gawain in the way he expected, because the object fails to save his life in an honest duel. What truly saves his life is the Green Knight's generosity. The Green Knight could easily have killed him, which Gawain knows even after he puts on the lace and rides off with the servant. The lace gives him the courage to "await his doom without resistance." But the Green Knight shows Gawain that he can't escape his eventual death. As a sinner, Gawain is mortal and can't achieve immortal powers. He flinches out of instinct the first time the Green Knight tries to strike him, showing that despite Gawain's faith in the magical object, he'll always be afraid of pain. The green lace doesn't bring him immortality or salvation, but humility and a different perspective.

Why does the Green Knight tell Gawain in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16, "loyalty failed you"?

Gawain failed in loyalty to his host by not revealing everything he'd won from the Lady of Hautdesert on the third day, as Gawain and Bertilak agreed to do in the "exchange of winnings" game. As Bertilak tells him, "A true man truly restores"—meaning that a knight as good as Gawain claims he is would always tell the truth, even at the expense of his life. The Green Knight does not consider Gawain's failure a large one. All things considered, he thinks Gawain is still "the most faultless hero/that ever went on foot." But he won't lie to Gawain about his true nature. The Green Knight's seemingly magical omniscience allows him to see how Gawain acts when he thinks no one is watching, the true test of character.

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