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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fit I (Boroff translation):

Vocabulary alliterative revival, alliterative verse, archetype, bob-and-wheel, fit, folkloric motifs, leitmotif, medieval romance, temptation motif.

Introduction: What is a medieval romance? How is a medieval romance different from our modern sense of the word romance?

Lecture: What is a wheel-and-bob? Why is this poem considered part of the alliterative revival? What is the alliterative revival? Why can't the other guests start eating without Arthur?

Why do you suppose the poem begins with a reference to Troy? (What did the 14th-century British people mistakenly believe about their ancestors?)

When the Green Knight states that wants to speak to the leader, the text reads, "He swaggered all about / to scan the host so gay; / He halted, as if in doubt / Who in that hall held sway." What is the Green Knight pretending to be uncertain about? Why is that obviously strange, given the arrangement of the feast? Why is that an insult to King Arthur?

Reading Questions:

  • After opening with a discussion of Troy, what is the setting of the poem's opening in terms of time and place? (Be more precise than "Britain.") What time of the year is it? Why are all the knights gathered in this location?
  • Where did the narrator first hear this story, according to his words in the second stanza?
  • What are some of the amusements the court participates in as part of the celebration? (see stanzas three and four).
  • When Arthur is first introduced, how is he described? What vow has Arthur made to himself out of pride? How does this interfere with the guest's dinner?
  • What are some the possible entertainments Arthur proposes?
  • As soon as the trumpets finish their flourish for the first dish, who shows up at the hall?
  • When the poet describes the strange intruder, what is the first trait he notices as unusual about this weird knight? (Hint, he doesn't notice the color first!) What's the second thing he notices?
  • What is unusual about the strange knight's clothing? About his horse? What are some of the decorations on his saddle?
  • What is unusual about the strange knight's hair-do?
  • In the tenth stanza, the poet lists some of the things the knight is not carrying or wearing. What are these items? Why might the narrator think it odd that the knight doesn't carry or wear these things?
  • What does the strange knight carry in one hand? What strange item does he carry in the other hand?
  • How long is the head of the ax-haft that the Green Knights wields as a weapon?
  • When the Green Knight demands to speak to Arthur, what do folk deem (think) the Green Knight is? How do all the guests initially react to his outrageous demand, and what do they say? (trick question!)
  • When King Arthur greets the Green Knight, he states "The head of this hostelry Arthur am I." What is a hostel? Why is it ironic that Arthur says he is the head of such a place? (i.e., what is Arthur implying about the way the Green Knight is treating King Arthur after barging into his court without invitation?)
  • What evidence the Green Knight offer that his purpose is playful and non-violent?
  • What reason does the Green Knight offer for not wanting to fight with the men he sees sitting on the banquet benches?
  • What prize will one of King Arthur's knights win if he agrees to play the game with the Green Knight (and lives)?
  • If the Green Knight survives the blow from one of King Arthur's knight, what will he get to do to that knight? What date or duration is the set time for this "payback"?
  • What color do we learn are the Green Knight's eyes when he stares out over the crowd to intimidate them?
  • Before Sir Gawain steps up to play, who first leaps down out of anger to play the game? Why is this a really bad idea politically when it comes to the welfare of Camelot?
  • Note Gawain's requests and his language in lines 341-60. He asks permission to play the game instead, and he asks permission to get up and leave the table, and he asks permission to stand by the king (if such an action does not displease Gwenevere). What do these requests and his diction reveal about Gawain's character? How is this a foil or contrast for the Green Knight's behavior at the party?
  • Why does Gawain say it will be no great loss if he dies while playing the Green Knight's game?
  • What is Gawain's familial relationship to King Arthur? How is he related to him?
  • King Arthur says, "Keep . . . what you cut with this day, / And if you rule it aright, then readily I know, You shall stand the stroke it will strike after." What advice is he giving Gawain with these words? What does such advice reveal about King Arthur's understanding of the Green Knight's powers?
  • What does Sir Gawain want to know about the Green Knight before he strikes the blow? What does his question reveal about Sir Gawain's understanding of the Green Knight's powers, which contrasts with King Arthur's understanding?
  • When the Green Knight bows down and extends his neck in order to have his head chopped off, what does he carefully move out of the way so his neck can be clearly seen?
  • Where does the Green Knight's head roll after it is chopped off? How do you imagine the guests reacted when they found it there?
  • Where does the Green Knight's head tell Sir Gawain to come before New Year's Day of next year? What does he say will happen if Sir Gawain does not show up?
  • What does Arthur tell Queen Gwenevere when she looks horrified at what just happened?
  • What does Arthur ask Gawain to do with the ax-blade he has won?

Sample Passages for Identification--Be able to identify what work these quotations come from, what the author is (if known), what character (if any) is speaking, and briefly comment upon the quotations significance or importance in the work:

A. But [the King] would not eat till all were served;
So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;
His life he liked lively--the less he cared
To be lying for long, or long to sit,
So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.
And also a point of pride pricked him in heart;
For he nobly had willed, he would never eat
On so high a holiday, till he had heard first
Of some fair feat or fray some far-borne tale,
Of some marvel of might, that he might trust,
By champions of chivalry achieved in arms.

B. Great wonder grew in hall
At his hue most strange to see,
For man and gear and all
Were green as green could be.

But in his one hand he had a holly bob
That is goodliest in green when groves are bare,
And an ax in his other, a huge and immense,
A wicked piece of work in words to expound:
The head on its haft was an ell long.

D. This horseman hurtles in, and the hall enters;
Riding to the high dais, recked he no danger:
Not a greeting he gave as the guests he o'erlooked,
Nor wasted his words, but "Where is," he said,
"The captain of this crowd? Keenly I wish
To see that sire with sight, and to himself say my say."

E. "But as the praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high,
And your court and your company are counted the best,
Stoutest under steel-gear on steeds to ride,
Worthiest of their works the wide world over,
And peerless to prove in passage of arms,
And courtesy here is carried to its height,
And so at this season I have sought you out.
You may be certain by the branch that I bear in hand
That I pass here in peace, and would part friends."

F. "If any in this house such hardihood claims,
Be so bold in his blood, his brain so wild,
As stoutly to strike one stroke for another,
I shall give him this ax, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes,
And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit. . . .
And I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor,
So you grant me the guerdon to give him another sans blame
In a twelvemonth and a day
He shall have of me the same;
Now be it seen straightway
Who dares take up the game."

G. "Would you grant me the grace . . .
To be gone from this bench and stand by you there,
if I without discourtesy might quit this board,
And if my liege lady misliked it not,
I would come to your counsel before your court noble.
For I find it not fit, as in faith it is known,
When such a boon is begged before all these knights,
Though you be tempted thereto, to take it on yourself. . . ."

H. . . . "Forget riot to go as agreed,
And cease not to seek till me, sir, you find,
As you promised in the presence of these proud knights.
Tot he Green Chapel come, I charge you, to take
Such a dint as you have dealt--you have well deserved
That your neck should have a knock on New Year's. . . .




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