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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight excerpts from Fit IV (Wheeler translation)

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

Character Identifications: Sir Gawain, Arthur, Gwenevere, The Green Knight (Sir Bercilak), Gringolet, The Host (Sir Bercilak in disguise), The Host's Wife, Morgan LeFey.

Lecture Questions:
What is a girdle in medieval terminology?
What is the significance of the phrase "Hony soyt qui mal pence," which appears at the end of the Pearl Poet's manuscript section for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Reading Questions:

  • What special item is Sir Gawain wearing when he goes out to confront the Green Knight?
  • The servant assigned to guide Sir Gawain to the Green Chapel gives Gawain some unsolicited advice. He suggests that since the Green Chapel is so perilous, and since the Green Knight is so dangerous, Gawain should do what? What does the servant promise he will do if Sir Gawain takes his advice?
  • How does Gawain react to the servant's suggestion?
  • What is the architecture like when Sir Gawain comes to the "Green Chapel"? Is it really a chapel? If so, what does it look like? If not, what is the Chapel?
  • What's growing around the Green Chapel? Why is this strange for the time of year?
  • What sound does Sir Gawain hear as he walks around the outside of the Green Chapel? Why would that sound evoke a strong emotional reaction?
  • How does Sir Gawain react when the Green Knight gets ready to swing the ax the first time? What does the Green Knight have to say about that reaction?
  • What does Sir Gawain vow about his reaction when the next swing comes? Does he keep that vow?
  • Why does Sir Gawain get cranky when the Green Knight starts making requests about the position of Sir Gawain's hood?
  • When the Green Knight strikes Sir Gawain with the ax, he leaves a wound. Describe this wound.
  • What does Sir Gawain do after being cut by the Green Knight?
  • After Sir Gawain sees his own blood in the snow, the text says he leaps backward to grab his weapons and helmet. How far backward does he jump? Does that seem plausible to you? Why or why not?
  • After wounding, how does the Green Knight respond to Sir Gawain's frantic words claiming the bargain is now fulfilled and the game is over?
  • When the Green Knight explains himself, why does he say he did not wound Sir Gawain with the first swing? Why does he say he didn't wound Sir Gawain with the second swing? Why did he actually strike Sir Gawain with the third swing, even though Sir Gawain gave him the appropriate number of kisses and didn't commit adultery? What, according to the Green Knight, did Sir Gawain lack? Why doesn't the Green Knight blame or judge Gawain harshly for that failure?
  • Who sent the wife to seduce Gawain, according to the Green Knight?
  • How does Gawain react physically when the Green Knight analyzes Sir Gawain's performance in regards to these tests?
  • Who or what does Sir Gawain initially blame for his failure, citing the events that happened to Adam, Solomon, and Samson in the Bible?
  • What is the Green Knight's real name?
  • What mythical female figure, according to the Green Knight, dwells in the castle? Why did she send the Green Knight to Camelot? According to the Green Knight, his mystical appearance was actually an assassination attempt. Who was supposed to be literally frightened to death by the Green Knight's decapitation? Knowing what we do about the ultimate fate of Camelot, why is it ironic that this mythical figure would seek to destroy Camelot by assassinating this character?
  • Why does Sir Gawain decide to wear the green girdle as a baldric for the rest of his days? What happens to Sir Gawain's complection as he recounts to King Arthur's court the story of his adventure?
  • How does the court comfort Sir Gawain? (i.e., what action do they take in the way they dress to show their support for him?)
  • How is Sir Gawain's attitude toward his performance different than the attitude of both Sir Bercilak and the court at Camelot?

Sample Passage Identifications:

A. "You press onward to a perilous place, for he who lives in that waste is the worst on earth. He is stiff and stern, and he loves to strike others. He is taller than any man on middle-earth . . . And this is his custom at the Green Chapel: no man may pass that place, however proud in arms, without the Green Knight doing him to death by force of his hands, for he is not a noble knight, and he shows no chivalry. It can be a churl or chaplain who rides by that barrow, monk or mass priest, or any other. He finds it as fun to slay such ones as to be breathing himself."

B. "Could this be the Green Chapel? Here at midnight might the deveil say his matins. Now truly is this place a wasteland. This is an ugly oratory, all overgrown with grass, and it seems appropriate that the fellow in green would say here his devotions in devilry. Now I feel in my five wits, it is the Fiend himself who hath arranged this rendezvous, to destroy me here! This is a chapel of mischance! Checkmate! It is the most cursed kirk that ever I came in."

C. "Wait awhile," said one on the bank above his head, "and you shall soon have all I swore to you." Yet for a while the sound of that sharpening and the whetting of his weapon went on before he came forth from a hole in the hill whirling out of a rock-wedge with a wild war-ax, a Danish weapon newly designed, wherewith to deal the blow.

D. "I shrank once, but I won't again, even though when my head falls on the floor, I cannot fit it to the neck once more. But hurry, Sir Knight, by your faith, and bring me to the point. Deal me my destiny, and do it out of hand, for I shall you stand you a stroke and move no more till your axe has hit me--have here my oath."

E. [He] lifted the axe lightly and let it fall accurately with the edge of the blade breaking only the neck's skin. Though he struck swiftly, it hurt no more than one one side where the knife-edge nicked that fellow's flesh. The sharp blade cut through the flesh down to the shear grease so that the blood spurted over his shoulder and shot to the ground.

F. The Green Knight stood back and rested on his axe, setting the shaft on the ground, and looked on the other man as Gawain stood his ground all armed and faced him fearlessly. At heart, he liked it well. Then he spoke merrily in a loud voice, and said to the knight, "Bold knight, don’t be so belligerent. No man here has done you any wrong, nor will I do any harm except by our covenant as we crafted the contract at Arthur's court. I owed you one strike, and you have had it--hold yourself well paid! I release you from any remaining claims. If I had been so minded, I could easily have offered you a more savage strike. . . ."

G. “For it is my clothing you carry, that very same woven girdle; my own wife wove it, that I know for a fact. Now I know well your kisses, and your conversation, and the wooing of my wife, I set it up myself! I sent her to test you, and in truth I find you the most faultless knight that ever walked the world. As a pearl among white peas is more precious than they are, so [are you], in good faith, worth more than frivolous fighters. But you did lack a little, Sir Knight, and you were wanting in loyalty, yet that was for no deceitful deed, nor for wooing of women, but because you loved your life--therefore I do not blame you too much."

H. "I will do that truly," the other said. "I am called Bertilak de Hautdesert in this country. Morgan LeFay dwells in my house, and through her knowledge of sorcerous skills, she has captured many. For long time she was the mistress of Merlin, who knew well all you knights of Arthur’s court. Therefore Morgan the goddess is her name, and none is so high in haughtiness that she cannot humble him."

I. Then joy awakened in that dwelling when the king knew that the good Sir Gawain had come, for it seemed good to him. King Arthur kissed the knight, and also the queen, and many strong knights sought to embrace him. They asked him what had happened, and he told them all accurately: the misfortune of the chapel, the appearance of the Green Knight, the love of the lady, and--at last--the lace. He showed them the nick in his neck that he won for his wickedness at the hand of the knight. He groaned for grief and shame, and the blood flew to his face for shame when he showed it to them.

J. "Behold, king," the man said, and he handled the lace, "this is the bond of the blame that I bear on my neck, this is the loathing and the loss I have suffered due to the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught, the token of the untruth in which I was taken. And I must wear it as long as I live. None can hide his harm nor erase the event, for if sin has touched to you once, it may never be untwined."

K. The king comforted the knight, and all the court also. They laughed loudly at the tale, and they made an agreement that all the lords and ladies who belonged to the Round Table, eah hero in the brotherhood, should wear bound about him a baldric of bright green for the sake of that hero. . . . May CHrist who bore the crown of thorn bring us unto His bliss. Hony soyt qui mal pence!



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