Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Study Guide

Pearl Poet

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide." Course Hero. 9 Feb. 2017. Web. 20 May 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Sir-Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2017, February 9). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved May 20, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Sir-Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight/

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide." February 9, 2017. Accessed May 20, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Sir-Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide," February 9, 2017, accessed May 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Sir-Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight/.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Fytte the Fourth, Stanzas 15–18 | Summary

Share
Share

Summary

Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 15

The Green Knight laughs. He's pleased by Gawain's willingness to fight. He says Gawain has kept up his part of the bargain and is released from his covenant. Then the Green Knight explains his actions. He deliberately held back from harming Gawain badly. His first stroke, a "pure feint" or pretended stroke, was for the covenant he made with Gawain on the first night—which Gawain kept, showing his trustworthiness. The second stroke, also a pretended stroke, was for Gawain's second night of keeping the covenant. The third stroke, which was genuine, was for Gawain's failure to keep the covenant on the third night.

Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16

The Green Knight recognizes the green lace Gawain is wearing. It's his. His own wife gave it to Gawain. He sent her to test him. Gawain mostly did well, proving himself "the most faultless hero/that ever went on foot." But he's not perfect. His loyalty failed him. The Green Knight realizes, however, that Gawain took the lace only in hopes of saving his life, and the Green Knight can't really blame him.

Gawain stands still, shocked and ashamed, as he lets the truth sink in. Then he curses the cowardice and covetousness that threatened his virtue. He takes off the lace and gives it to the Green Knight. Fear of death, Gawain says, made him neglect the "generosity and loyalty" that are the responsibilities of a knight. He confesses he's at fault.

Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 17

The Green Knight acknowledges that Gawain has confessed all his misdeeds and taken a stroke in penance. Gawain should consider his conscience clear. The Green Knight gives him the green lace to remember the adventure by, and to keep as "a genuine token among chivalrous knights." He also invites Gawain to come to the castle next year for a feast—and to reconcile with the Lady of Hautdesert.

Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 18

Gawain declines the invitation politely. He says to give his regards to both ladies of the castle—the Lady of Hautdesert and the older woman who accompanied her.

He knows he's not the only fool who's been tricked by a woman. Biblical figures like Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David were all led by women to their doom, giving up their morals. Gawain's admiration for these men is still strong, knowing their faults.

Analysis

Throughout the poem, the reader has been kept in the same position as the protagonist Gawain, learning details incrementally, or little by little. By Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 15, the reader can put the pieces together and figure out that the Green Knight is Bertilak—and Gawain's words and actions with Bertilak and the Lady of Hautdesert in the "exchange of winnings" game were the real challenges. The duel was only a cover, a true jest. Gawain was never going to die, but he was going to confront his mortality and his flaws.

Given this new information, Gawain needs to reinterpret everything that has happened to him. First of all, the Green Knight is on his side. The Green Knight is pleased to see Gawain "fully armed and devoid of fear." He's also been watching how Gawain's conduct shows the five social virtues represented on his pentangle: generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy, and pity. He seems to have truly wanted Gawain to do well.

What did Gawain do wrong? He withstood two days of the Lady of Hautdesert's testing without succumbing to her. He took the green lace, but the Green Knight seems to understand this action and even to have expected it. His true fault was breaking the covenant with Bertilak by not revealing everything he had won during the day. Concerned with his mortality, Gawain let fear for his life overcome his previous commitment to be honest.

The narrator implies in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16 that Bertilak and his wife agreed she would offer the lace to Gawain as a gift, telling Gawain to keep the secret from her husband. Gawain would then have to choose between his loyalty to the host (generosity and fellowship) and his loyalty to a woman (courtly love). He made the wrong choice. A knight should do anything for the lady he loves—but as Gawain learns, this sacrifice comes at his own expense.

Bertilak and Gawain see this issue differently. Bertilak sees it as Gawain's privileging his own desire for life above their bargain; Gawain is specifically focused on being led astray by a sinful woman. The exact nature of Gawain's fault, or how these two perspectives are meant to work together, is never explained.

The Green Knight also deceived Gawain by hiding his identity and not revealing the true nature of the game. But Gawain isn't angry at the Green Knight: he's angry at himself. His fear for his own life moved him to cowardice, and his desire for the Lady of Hautdesert's approval moved him to covetousness. These are two effects of Original Sin, the sinful state man is born into. He broke the endless knot of his virtuous pentangle. No matter how good a knight Gawain is, he will always be a fallible, mortal human. Until now, he hasn't been willing to accept his flaws or even his human status. As the Green Knight explains, just because Gawain failed doesn't mean he's a coward.

The poem returns to where it began—two men facing each other, both alive. Time in the poem moves in a circular structure, from one Christmas and New Year to the next—a structure associated with pagan time. By granting Gawain absolution, the Green Knight has asserted himself as an authority figure, though not a religious one. He's giving Gawain the green lace as a symbol of how far Gawain has come. At the beginning of the poem, Gawain was self-righteous and confident in his own virtue, despite his falsely modest speech in Arthur's court. His actions—chopping off the Green Knight's head and arming himself with a pentangle representing his virtues—showed how Gawain strived to be flawless.

But the green lace is meant to remind him that he can never be flawless: he will always be subject to failure. The Green Knight may be showing him mercy by leaving him alive, disregarding the earlier bargain for Gawain "to receive such a blow as thou hast dealt"—a blow that chops off his head. The Green Knight breaks the traditional cycle of chivalric competition and honor by allowing Gawain to walk away.

Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 17 starts to show how Gawain has changed through the course of the poem. He didn't expect to fail the test, but he thinks he did. His reaction to his own failure will show maturity and perspective.

Gawain relies on Christian tradition to fortify himself and his conscience. In Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 18, he references an old idea of women as temptresses, beginning with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve tempted Adam to sin against God. The biblical kings David and Solomon famously threatened their power and kingdoms by having adulterous affairs, and Samson gave up his power to the woman Delilah.

It may seem strange for Gawain to be deflecting responsibility here. Personal righteousness is clearly important to him, yet he blames his own failure on a woman. But Gawain's knightly identity is in doubt after his error in honesty. He wants to assure himself that he can be imperfect and still be in the company of noble men—he can still be a knight.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Ask a homework question - tutors are online