Analysis of the work
The Characteristics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
As one of the most influential works in medieval English Literature,
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a representative of medieval English
Romance. This genre, which appeared in Old French literature of the
twelfth century, features in a tale of adventure in which the main figures
are knights, kings, or distressed ladies, motivated by love, religious
faith, or mere desire for adventure. Medieval romance often refers
to the narrative of chivalric adventure that are set in a distant time
or place and involve elements of the supernatural; and romance heroes are
usually of high birth, and the world of romance is a world in which magical
transformations are always a possibility. Compare this work with
Beowulf (an epic), we can discover some differences. For example,
the epic reflects an heroic age, whereas the romance reflects a chivalric;
the epic has weight and solidity, but the romance exhibits mystery and
fantasy; the tragic seriousness of the epic is not matched in the lighter-hearted
romance; the epic uses observes narrative unity while the structure of
the romance is loose; love usually absent or of minor interest in the epic,
is supreme in the romance; the epic uses the dramatic method of having
the characters speak for themselves, whereas the reader of a romance remains
conscious of a narrator (many ideas of the above passage are from A Handbook
to Literature, edited by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stresses the idea of a lesson
in chivalry and knighthood. Chivalry, often implies as a kind of
polite, kind and unselfish behavior especially by men towards women, in
Middle Ages refers to the set of rules and conventions which knights had
to follow. In this work, we can clearly discover that Sir Gawain
in order to protect the king, takes part in the game the Green Knight offers
at Christmas night. However, we can also discover the irony when
we read the work. For example, on page 207, line 236-38:
All the onlookers eyed [green knight], and edged nearer;
And awaited in wonder what [green knight] would do.
From these lines we can see that the knights who should protect the
king are scared by the green giant and none of them would confront with
him. Also from line 308-10, we can realize that the green knight
also teases the knights who should protect the king:
When the court kept its counsel [green knight] coughed aloud,
And cleared his throat coolly, the clearer to speak:
“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said that horseman then,
“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide?
These lines show that the knighthood, which was so honored in Medieval
culture, is somehow distorted and this kind of spirit is used as a kind
In addition, in this work, we can see that “green” is a kind
of dominant color. Why Green Knight? We often associate green
with nature. As a result, the sudden appearance of the green giant
in the Christmas night seems to indicate the unexpected difficulty and
challenge in human world. And like what Grendel and the dragon in
Beowulf, Green Knight seems to suggest the test given to human beings.
This test examines the loyalty of the knight his values of Christianity
(chastity, honesty, fortitude and faithfulness).
This work is also a form of holiday tale. Holiday tales often
narrate the celebration of harvest; however, the danger often happens during
the crazy celebration. The tales are usually covered with colorful
adventure and marvels. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we can
see the contrasts of inside and outside of the house. Outside of
the house is the bleak winter, while inside of the house is warm and everyone
celebrates the victory from the battle. This celebration leads more challenge
to the knights and there comes the green knight. Furthermore, the
darkness outside of the house also symbolizes the danger and the disorder
in the world of human beings.
and Virgin Mary
The pentangle is a symbol of five virtues which knight should follow:
generosity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy and pity. In line 640,
we see Gawain is said to be “faultless in his five senses and unfalling
in his five fingers,” the requirement of natural perfection which is put
on Knight actually is an ideal code posed on Knight’s behaviors.
Besides, Gawain’s shield also contains a portrait of Mary on the inside.
In this way, we see that Christian spirit is one part of so called “knighthood.”
In other words, the elements of Knighthood should be not only loyalty to
his lord but also devotion to Christ. The depiction of the pentangle
occurs when Sir Gawain is preparing to gear up for his quest for the Green
Knight. Gawain’s gear is described in great detail, including its
color, making and finery (which is on page 214 to 215). His armor
is meant to serve as a means to protecting his physical being; it is distinctly
secular in its abilities. Meanwhile, the shied with pentangle and
portrait of Mary serves as spiritual values to keep Gawain’s spiritual
purity. However, the armor which is put on Gawain’s body and the
shield Gawain holds create a conflict between secular ideas and high religious
values. In part I and Part II, we see Gawain still can stand on his
own field as being a knight, like in the line: “As to his word must true
/ And in speech most courteous knight”, but then as the plot develops,
Gawain finally fails to keep his honesty since he lies to the master of
castle. Actually, we can find a meaningful passage in page 220.
Sir Gawain removes both his shield and gear, and wears materialistic wrought
clothing. In other words, as he removes his shield and gear, the
material and physical desire now is unconsciously taking over the high
religious values and the code of knighthood. This hints us that Gawain
is going to step into secular garb while removing gear and shield.
Furthermore, we can take a look at how Gawain describes the master’s lady.
We skip the beginning part of this description, we just move to the line
968-69, “more toothsome, to his taste.” This obviously is not a proper
way for Gawain to view a wife of a lord as “toothsome” who is giving him
safe harbor for the next several nights, especially he is renowned as the
Virgin Mary’s Knight.
Through Gawain’s quest, we see Gawain’s personal growing up and rebirth.
However, as he struggles, we see the virtues which pentangle and portrait
of Mary tries to contain are filled with difficulty for a knight to carry
Comparisons and contrasts with Beowulf
Beowulf is written in old English and it is an epic.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in medieval English and it
is a chivalric poem. Therefore, they represent two different types of hero,
epic hero and chivalric hero.
A. The Virtues:
No mater Beowulf or Sir Gawain, they both possess the qualities of
valor, military, prowess, loyalty, generosity, and skills in battle and
honor. They both are very brave and courageous to fight the giant or monster.
They are loyal to their king or lord. Beside, the honorable code is also
important to them. They never fight with a foe that is weaker. They want
a fair fight.
B. The journey of quest
They both have a journey of quest. Beowulf travels to Hrothgar’s court
to battle Grendel and his mother. Sir Gawain travels through the land for
a year in search of the Green Knight and find Bercilak’s castle. They pass
through all difficulties to gain triumph. It is symbolic. As a hero, they
must pass all kinds of difficulties and defeat all enemies to win the final
C. A feudal court
The social background of both works is under the Feudalism and
hierarchy. The higher-class people who owned the warriors and knights to
help them controlled the society. Like the Beowulf and Sir Gawain, they
are the knights of their lord and they have to be loyal to their lord.
By helping their lords to gain lands and fame, they gain fame and fortune.
D. Insurmountable odds
They both face and stand up to the insurmountable
odds, the great challenges: Beowulf and the dragon, sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, and the dragon and the Green Knight are represented the huge
and supernatural power.
A. Purpose of fighting
In Beowulf, the idea of the hero is as a savior. He must fight for
the survival of his people and tribe. The epic hero fights only when the
circumstances requires. They do not just fight for fighting. In Sir Gawain,
he fights not only for his people but also for his ideals. Tribe and people
are not his only reasons to fight. Besides, the chivalric hero sets out
to find a test which he can prove himself by fighting. The reasons for
chivalric hero to fight are more than epic hero.
B. The tone
The tone in Beowulf is very solemn and gloomy. The poem begins and
ends with a funeral whereas the tone in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
is merrier and happier, which begins and ends with a celebration. The world
of Sir Gawain seems magical and merry, whereas the world of Beowulf is
mythical and serious.
C. Divine and Humanistic
In Beowulf, the hero is a great person who is semi-divine,
larger than human and people are attracted by his valor, courage and so
on. However, in Sir Gawain, the chivalric knight must know temperance,
courtesy, a reverence for women and courtly skills. It is not enough if
he only performs well on the battle field. He must present at court. The
chivalric hero is more humanistic. Like a human being, they are also selfish,
fearful, temptable and so on. This is very different from the epic hero.