Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Essay

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" tells the story of Sir Gawain as he journeys to meet his supposed death at the hands of the titular Green Knight, having promised to appear a year and a day following their first meeting. Gawain's journey from King Arthur's court, across England, and finally to the Green Chapel serves to demonstrate and comment upon the chivalric code professed and practiced in King Arthur's court, because it sees Gawain enacting the kinds of deeds the narrator lauds at the beginning of the poem and that the Green Knight mocks Arthur's court for failing to live up to. The chivalric code of Arthur's court relies nearly entirely on appearance, and the narration includes extended sequences describing the act of dressing and clothing itself. The arrival of the Green Knight may be read as an effort to intentionally disrupt this reliance on appearance and performance as a means of demonstrating its foolhardy nature. By examining certain sequences in which clothing and the act of dressing are described in detail, it becomes clear that the Green Knight serves to instruct Gawain against the dangers of relying on appearance and performance, a lesson that Gawain takes away in the form of his shameful green girdle (the point of which Arthur's court entirely misses by fetishizing it into a mark of pride.)

The first location where one may find Arthur's singular focus on appearances comes even before the story proper, when the narrator informs the reader that "of all the kings who e'er o'er Britain lords have been, / Fairest was Arthur all, and boldest, so men tell" (26-27). These lines follow the narrator's mentioning a number of historical figures and leaders, and the fact that the narrator chooses to highlight Arthur's appearance above all else demonstrates that at least for Arthur and the society of his reign, appearance is the foremost concern (although admittedly, bravery or "boldness" does come a close second).

The description of the feast which follows immediately afterwards continues this concern with appearance, mentioning that "no fairer ladies e'er had drawn the breath of life" than those in attendance at Arthur's court, calling Arthur himself "the comeliest king," and in general noting that "all this goodly folk were e'en in their first youth" (53-55). The rest of the narration prior to the Green Knight's arrival concerns itself with describing the scene of the feast, the seating arrangements of the various castes on display, and some of the particulars of people's clothing and ornaments, such that the feast is revealed to be as much a performance of social roles and mores as a celebration. However, this preoccupation with appearances seems to be a symptom of the narrator's fascination, and not Arthur's court, until the arrival of the Green Knight and the narrator's subsequent shift in visual focus.

When the Green Knight rides into the midst of Arthur's court, the narrator begins not by describing his most obvious visual feature but rather spends some ten lines poring over his stature and physical features, describing him as "fierce and fell, / highest in stature he, of all on earth who dwell!" And noting the particulars of his body parts, even to the point of a possibly ribald remark: "his loins and limbs alike, so long they were, and great" (136-146). Thus, even though the narrator continues on to describe the entirety of the Green Knight's green clothing and ornaments in obsessive detail, the dramatic introduction of such an imposing body into the court seems to create a kind of narrative rupture, because even the narrator is unable to continue focusing on the less-substantial ornaments of royalty and instead must direct his or her attention to the sheer physicality of the Green Knight.

Of course, the Green Knight's abrupt arrival is intentional, as he is on an errand to discover if Arthur's knights truly live up to their reputations or are simply aggrandized through the careful maintenance of appearance and courtly manipulation, so the arresting effect of his bodily form can be seen as intentional on the part of the Green Knight and his magical benefactor, Morgain la Faye (2455-7). With this in mind, even the narrator's subsequent description of the Green Knight's attire reveals the court's preoccupation with appearance and dress, because the almost comical overabundance of green may be read as intentionally conceived by the Green Knight and Morgain in order to manipulate Arthur and his court by playing to their preoccupation. Thus, the Green Knight's appearance serves the dual purpose of introducing a virile, dangerous physicality into the gilded, performance-based set of Arthur's court while simultaneously using that attention to appearance and performance in order to ensnare the court in the Green Knight's machinations.

To see how fully King Arthur's court seems to have missed the point of the Green Knight's challenge, one need only look as far as the positively gratuitous scene of the dressing of Gawain and his horse. The narrator begins the scene of this nearly religious ritual by noting that "a carpet on the floor they stretch full fair and tight, / rich was the golden gear that on it glittered bright" (568-569). The carpet is a little stage for Gawain to stand upon while his men (and the narrator) put his clothes on for him piece-by-painstakingly-described-piece. The narrator spends the next twenty-two lines describing each part of Gawain's outfit, from his "thongs all tightly tied around his thighs so stout" to the caps of the knees on his "greaves, of steel" which were "longed thereto polished" so that they were "full clean" (575-76, 579).

Immediately afterwards Gawain goes to church so that everyone can see his shiny outfit, and then the same process is repeated with Gawain's horse, albeit with out the carpet (590-603). Finally, the scene ends with the narrator describing what Gawain and horse look like together, before Gawain leaves and true to form, everyone in Arthur's court is "grieved for that comely knight" (604-669, 673). This extended sequence serves to demonstrate how fully Arthur's court is reliant on appearance and performance as a means of structuring its entire social dynamic, and in particular the extensive explanation of an image on Gawain's shield is especially effective in demonstrating how these extended descriptions of clothing and the act of dressing serve to point out the comedy in Arthur and company's misguided fascination with appearance.

One portion of Gawain's shield has a pentangle on it, which "is in figure formed of full five points I ween, / each line in other laced, no ending there is seen," and according to the narrator, each of the five points represent a set of five things which describe some part of Gawain's character (626-627). For the purposes of this study, the most important of the five points on Gawain's shield is that one which represents how "first was he faultless found in his five wits," considering how the remainder of Gawain's adventure consists of him being outwitted (639).

In fact, it seems reasonable to read the entire rest of Gawain's time at the Green Knight's castle as an elaborate joke made possible precisely because of Gawain's belief in his own skill and cunning, as evidenced by his fancy clothes and pentangle-adorned shield. Essentially, the Green Knight and his court first dress Gawain up in fancy clothes so he feels at home, and then they proceed to get him drunk every night so that he has (what can be read as) a hangover while they go off to do visceral, violent physical activity, enacting the bold, adventurous ideal supposedly embodied by the chivalric code of Arthur and his knights. Of course the whole joke relies on Gawain being tricked into believing that a girdle would keep him from dying when someone tried to cut off his head, because like the rest of Arthur's court, his confidence lies not in any demonstrated skill but rather in his appearance and clothing.

Of course, the Green Knight abstains from killing Gawain, and although his explanation is limited to suggesting that he only did it because Gawain is such a wonderful knight that he had to test him, he suggests that Gawain keep the girdle as a reminder of his time there (2394-98). Gawain does keep the girdle, and returns to Arthur's court wearing it as a sign of shame, so that "when for prowess fair in arms I yield to pride, / I'll look upon this lace, and so more humbly ride" (2435-36). In a sense, for Gawain the girdle becomes a reminder that it is in fact only a girdle, reinforcing the lesson against relying on appearances and performance which he learned during his time with the Green Knight. Like always, Arthur's court serves as the ultimate comic relief, completely missing the point of Gawain's story and deciding that everyone should wear a green girdle "in honour of that knight" who was dumb enough to think that a piece…[continue]

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