Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Study Guide

Pearl Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Fytte the First, Stanza 15–17 | Summary

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Summary

Fytte the First, Stanza 15

King Arthur says the Green Knight's request is foolish, but he asked for it. He raises the axe and is about to attack when Gawain speaks from the table and asks to take the challenge.

Fytte the First, Stanza 16

Gawain says he's the "weakest" and "feeblest of wit" of all the knights. His life would be the least significant loss. What is more, he's related to King Arthur as his nephew, and his only nobility comes from the family blood. So he asks the court to confer on whether he should accept the challenge. The court decides he should.

Fytte the First, Stanza 17

Arthur gives Gawain the axe and says Gawain can withstand any blow the Green Knight gives him. At the Green Knight's request, Gawain formally introduces himself and accepts the Green Knight's terms.

Analysis

Arthur, the greatest of all the knights, looks inept in this passage. This may have been the Green Knight's intent, because he's no more affected by Arthur's attempts to slay him "than if some one had brought him a drink of wine."

Does Arthur really mean to strike the Green Knight, or does he just want to make a show of accepting the challenge to save his pride? It's unclear. Either way, he opens the door for Gawain—who is loyal to Arthur, and would not take the challenge before the king tried—to position himself as the would-be hero of the story.

Gawain's speech in Fytte the First, Stanza 16 is self-deprecating and falsely modest. He overdoes it a little, demonstrating one aspect of courtesy, an important knightly virtue, by acknowledging the higher status of others. His skill as a knight is evident to the entire court, and his persistent downgrading of his own accomplishments rings false. In fact, by acknowledging the higher status of others and his own weakness, he actually draws attention to his own skill and to the cowardliness of the other knights, who do not rise to the challenge. But the court clearly respects him enough to let him take the challenge.

After Arthur hands Gawain the ax and vouches for his prowess in Fytte the First, Stanza 17, Gawain's honor is at stake. The agreement he makes with the knight is a legal contract. It tests Gawain's virtue of troth, a term that implies both his truthfulness and his fidelity or integrity. The reader wonders whether Gawain will be able to keep his word. Arthur believes Gawain will survive the challenge, out of wishful thinking or inability to accept the severity of the situation, but other observers later in the poem will be less certain.

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