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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the significance of the description of Bertilak's castle as Gawain sees it in Fytte the Second of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain is going on a pilgrimage, and he's reached his destination, though he doesn't know it. The castle rises suddenly out of the rough terrain in the woods. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 12, it shimmers and shines through the trees like light out of darkness. The descriptive words paint a picture of an almost magically beautiful place, built well to fear "no wind blast" and adorned with "painted pinnacles." The architecture appears "cut out of paper" in Fytte the Second, Stanza 13. The magnificent appearance of the castle, and its showing up just when Gawain needs it, reflect the idea that the castle, like its inhabitants, is a mirage or a facade: not what it appears to be.

By failing the challenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, what does Arthur show about the future of his court and Camelot?

Arthur is unable to use the ax against the Green Knight, despite his prideful assertion to the knight that "as thou hast demanded folly,/it behooves thee to find it." He offers to fight almost as soon as the Green Knight enters. Arthur is shown to be belligerent and combative when faced with an enemy threat, rather than calm and acting for the greater good. This shows he's beginning to fail in leadership. In Fytte the Second, the other knights of Camelot are disappointed in Arthur for sending Gawain off to the green chapel. Their anger in Fytte the Second, Stanza 8 for sending a knight off for a "Christmas game" hints at the discontent already simmering in Arthur's court. Arthur's failure demonstrates the weaknesses and lack of unity in Camelot.

Why does The Pearl Poet describe the characteristics of the hunted animals in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Each hunted animal demonstrates a different characteristic, which also applies to Gawain and the Lady of Hautdesert: both hunter and hunted. The deer in Fytte the Second, Stanza 2, are "dazed" and "worried," quaking at the first noise the hunters make. Gawain's fright on the first day is similar to the deer's sudden fright. The hunters' concern about sexual aggression with the male deer recalls the Lady of Hautdesert's techniques of seduction—in both the hunt and the bedroom, sex and lust are equated with danger. The boar is described in Fytte the Third, Stanza 17 as large, savage, and physically menacing, with "ugly froth" at the corners of his mouth and a hide so thick it cannot be penetrated by arrows. The boar represents pride, one of the biggest internal foes Gawain faces—the Lady of Hautdesert challenges his pride as a knight on the same day. The animal is fearsome enough to scare off the seasoned hunters, and the lady is eloquent enough to almost make Gawain give in to her. But both Gawain and Bertilak succeed against the odds. The fox is a smaller animal than the boar, but it proves to be harder to hunt in Fytte the Third, Stanza 29. He visually tricks the hunters by running through the woods. His cunning evokes that of the Lady of Hautdesert. Gawain, like the fox, proves he'll use his own craftiness to survive.

How does the third day of Gawain and Bertilak's challenge in Fytte the Third of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differ from the first two days?

On the third day, the narrator does not describe the "dressing scene" of the hunted animal. The fox is the least valued of the animals of prey. Its dead body has no value and is not worth dressing. But the fox is the worthiest opponent, and on the third day the focus shifts from Gawain's safety to his moral responsibility. Reynard the fox, representing craftiness, is the biggest struggle the hunters encounter. They raise a "rich riot" for "Reynard's soul" as he is captured in Fytte the Third, Stanza 31; the language turns the focus from the physical to the spiritual. Threats to Gawain's spirit will be more important than threats to his physical body. On the third day, the Lady of Hautdesert escalates her demands, and Gawain breaks his covenant, putting his virtue at stake.

Why do Arthur's knights choose to wear green laces in Fytte the Fourth of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The green lace is a symbol of Gawain's sin and of regeneration or rebirth (rebirth is also represented by green, the color of nature and of the lace). In Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 22, the knights decide to wear green lace as a sign of their own weakness and sin. They want to support Gawain and show unity among themselves. Because Gawain wears the green lace as a badge of shame, the knights could also be wearing the lace to mock Gawain's failure despite their show of support. This motive shows the weaknesses in Arthur's court that Morgan le Fay wanted to expose. Camelot won't last forever, and its failures will be exposed, just as Gawain's have been. The narrator may be using the green lace to represent the sins that lead to Camelot's downfall.

How are hospitality and generosity significant to the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The chivalric code included hospitality—treatment of a guest—and generosity, one of the five virtues Gawain claims. Bertilak shows hospitality to Gawain in Fytte the Second, Stanza 23 by allowing him to think of Bertilak's castle as his home, and sharing the company of his wife. Gawain feels pressure to respond to this hospitality through his own generosity. Hospitality and generosity dictate that Gawain should be polite to the Lady of Hautdesert when she visits his room (not asking her to leave or denying her requests), and simultaneously be respectful to his host by interacting properly with his wife. Bertilak and his wife are counting on Gawain's inability to be a perfect guest under these circumstances, and set him a challenge based on his knowledge of the chivalric code.

In Fytte the Second of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, why is the description of Gawain's armor important?

The description of each piece of Gawain's armor, which occurs in the form of an ekphrasis, emphasizes his status as a warrior. (An ekphrasis is a detailed description of a meaningful object in a story or poem—the narrator temporarily stops the narrative action to focus on the object's intricacies.) He's going into battle, but because he's a romantic hero, the battle will be for ideals and morals rather than blood. The opulence and wealth the armor signifies—described in Fytte the Second, Stanza 4 as "gilt gear" and "rich coat armour, gold spurs well fastened," indicating that the armor is of high quality—shows the status of the court Gawain belongs to. These details serve to put the reader on Gawain's side, believing in his success. The description of Gawain's shield and its symbols is especially important in Stanzas 6 and 7 of Fytte the Second. A shield and its decorations can reveal what a warrior fights for, and writers like Homer describe the shields of their battle heroes in detail. The symbolism of the pentangle—the five virtues and five areas of faithfulness—shows what matters to Gawain. Medieval literature emphasized symmetry and balance, and the symmetry of the five-pointed star or pentangle is its own symbol of harmony and virtue.

How is the religious icon of Mary important to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian tradition, is the spiritual guide Gawain looks to for inspiration and purity. Mary is represented in the pentangle on Gawain's shield as the "Queen of Heaven." One of his five areas of faithfulness is in the five joys of Mary, as the reader learns in Fytte the Second, Stanza 7. In Fytte the Third, Stanza 25 when Gawain spends his last day with the Lady of Hautdesert, the narrator knows Gawain is getting closer to failure. He says there is "great peril" between Gawain and the lady "unless Mary thought of her knight." The narrator implores Gawain to remember his religious beliefs and commitments, but knows he's merely human—only divine intervention will help him succeed.

In Fytte the Third of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, why does Gawain confess his sins to the priest?

Confession is a religious ritual for Christians. Gawain, clearly concerned with the possibility of sin, likely visited a priest on a regular basis to confess. But Gawain may already be aware he's failed in honesty and loyalty when he accepted the girdle from the Lady of Hautdesert. He goes to the chapel directly after he "cleverly" hides the green lace in Fytte the Third, Stanza 30, implying that he is hiding his sins as well. He doesn't want the error in judgment to linger on his conscience if he dies in the duel, because an unconfessed sin will prevent him from going to heaven.

How does the Green Knight function as a spiritual adviser in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The Green Knight's home is a "chapel," a religious place of worship. He presides over Gawain's challenge as an adviser from afar, telling him in Fytte the First, Stanza 20 to "seek loyally, hero." After Gawain takes his stroke from the ax in the green chapel, the Green Knight positions himself as a moral authority to absolve Gawain's sins. In Stanzas 15 and 16 of Fytte the Fourth, he uses the ax as an instrument to enforce consequences. And he takes on the role of purifier and baptizer, pronouncing Gawain in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 17, "purified as clean as if thou hadst/never forfeited since thou was first born." This statement implies that the Green Knight is aware of, if not knowledgeable about, Gawain's entire record of sins. The Green Knight is also positioned as omniscient, or all-knowing. He is able to observe Gawain's courage when Gawain doesn't know he's being watched. He's also the only character to know the depth of Morgan le Fay's scheme, suggesting connections to a higher spiritual plane.

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