Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval romance, a long poem resembling
an epic in its focus on heroic deeds. Unlike an epic, however, a medieval
romance is light in tone, and its content is at times fantastic and magical.
In a medieval romance chivalrous knights pay homage to lovely ladies. The
knights are often pure in heart and soul, although sorely tempted by the
wiles of beautiful women. There may be merriment and singing. The manuscript
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appeared circa 1375, although
it may have been written some years earlier. Because the original language
of the poem is difficult for the modern reader, it appears today in translations.
This study guide is based on Jesse L. Weston's public-domain prose translation
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 1898.
author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has never been identified.
He or she wrote with considerable skill and sophistication, using specific
details and vivid imagery to develop the story. Three other works—The
Pearl, Purity, and Patience—are
also attributed to this author.
action takes place in Medieval England and Wales in the age of the legendary
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The story begins at Arthur's
castle at Camelot when his nephew—the doughty
Sir Gawain—takes part in a test of valor proposed
by a visitor, a giant of green complexion and attire. The scene shifts
to the countryside, then to another castle, then to the countryside, then
to the valley of the giant—the centerpiece
of which is a mysterious Green Chapel—and
finally back to Camelot. The location of Camelot, if it existed, is uncertain.
Some legends place it in Monmouthshire, Wales. Others place it in England
in Corneal, Soberest, or Hampshire.
Sir Gawain: Brave,
chivalrous young knight of Camelot who is the nephew of King Arthur and
Morgan le Fay. He takes up the challenge proposed by the fearsome Green
King Arthur: Ruler
of the legendary Camelot.
Green Knight / Bernlak
de Hautdesert: Giant of green complexion and attire who pays a surprise
visit to Camelot at Christmastide to challenge the knights to a test of
bravery. The narrator reveals him at the climax as Bernlak de Hautdesert.
Magic worked by Morgan le Fay enabled him to assume the guise of the gigantic
Morgan (or Morgain) le
Fay: Half-sister of King Arthur and aunt of Sir Gawain. (She is the
daughter of Ygraine, Arthur's mother, and Ygraine’s first husband.) She
resides at the castle of Bernlak de Hautdesert as the companion of Bernlak
wife. From books and from Merlin the Magician, Morgan le Fay learned sorcery
and was particularly skilled in the arts of healing and changing shape.
Some accounts depict her as sinister and others as generous and beneficent.
She became an enemy of Queen Guinevere after the latter banished Guitar,
Morgan paramour. It was Morgan who enabled Bernlak de Hautdesert to change
into the Green Knight in order to work a jest against Camelot, frighten
Guinevere, and test the mettle of young Gawain.
The Lady: Bernlak's
beautiful wife. She participates in the scheme of Morgan and Bernlak.
Guide: Man who leads
Gawain to a high place overlooking the valley of the Green Knight and the
mysterious Green Chapel at which Gawain is to meet the Green Knight.
Knights of the Round
Table: Besides Gawain, these include Ywain, Erec, Sir Dodinel le Sauvage,
the Duke of Clarence, Lancelot, Lionel, Lucan the Good, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere,
Sir Mador de la Port, and Agravain à la dure main.
Guest at Camelot.
Clergyman who hears Gawain’s Confession.
Porter: Man who greets
Gawain at the entrance of Bernlak castle.
Ladies, Servants, and
Others at the Courts of Arthur and Bernlak Gringalet: Gawain’s
is the merriest of Christmastides at Camelot, the fabled city of King Arthur.
Singing, dancing, feasting, lively conversation, and a turn or two at jousting
entertain the king and his queen, the fair Guinevere, and the noble knights
and ladies of the court. .......On
New Year’s Day, all attend Mass in the chapel, then exchange gifts and
sit down to a feast of meats, dainties, beer, and wine. After servants
set before them the first course, a gigantic man with a green complexion,
green beard, and green clothes rides into the hall on a green horse. In
one hand of his hands is a holly bough; in the other is a huge axe of green
steel and gold with an edge razor thin. He asks, “Where is the ruler of
this folk?" .......While
everyone marvels at the strange knight, Arthur identifies himself as lord
of the castle and welcomes his visitor. After praising the warriors of
Camelot, the Green Knight announces that he comes in peace, as suggested
by his holly bough, but wishes the king to grant a request. If it is combat
he seeks, Arthur says, he shall not lack for a foe. .......“Nay,
I ask no fight," the Green Knight says. “Were I clad in armour on my steed
there is no man here might match me." .......Instead,
he proposes a “jest" in which he will exchange blows of his axe with a
knight. The Green Knight will receive the first blow as he sits, unarmed.
The wielder of the axe will then bare himself to an axe blow a year and
a day hence. The Camelot knights sit in amazement while the gigantic man
surveys them with eyes burning red beneath green eyebrows. After none of
the knights speaks up, Arthur accepts the challenge and takes up the axe.
Then Sir Gawain says, “I beseech ye, my lord, let this venture be mine."
Arthur gives him the axe and a blessing. The Green Knight tells Gawain
that he may keep the axe after dealing his blow. In one year, Gawain must
seek out the Green Knight wherever he is and bare himself to the giant’s
Gawain strikes, the axe severs the head, which rolls forth while blood
spurts from the neck. But the Green Knight retrieves his head and holds
it high. It speaks,
telling Gawain that in his search for the Green Knight a year hence he
has only to mention to anyone that he seeks the knight of the Green Chapel
and “thou shalt not fail to find me." The Green Knight then gallops out
of the hall. Turning to Guinevere, Arthur tells her not to be dismayed,
for “such craft is well suited to Christmas-tide when we seek jesting,
laughter and song, and fair carols of knights and ladies." To Gawain, he
says, “Now, fair nephew, hang up thine axe, since it has hewn enough."
And all is mirth and minstrelsy again as the feast continues. .......The
months pass swiftly and the Michaelmas moon, heralding the feast of the
Archangel Michael on September 29, breaks over Camelot. Gawain lingers
a month more at court, mulling the peril awaiting him. At a feast on All
Hallows Day (All Saints' Day), November 1, Gawain tells Arthur he will
leave on the morrow. All the knights gather around him—Ywain,
Erec, Sir Dodinel le Sauvage, the Duke of Clarence, Lancelot, Lionel, Lucan
the Good, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, Sir Mador de la Porte—to
give him counsel and support. The next day, the bearers of his armor set
it out on a carpet and dress him in a silk doublet, steel shoes, greaves
with shining kneecaps, gloves, mail, surcoat, and all the rest. .......Waiting
to receive him is his horse, Gringalet, outfitted with a gleaming saddle.
Gawain sets his helmet—topped with a circlet
of diamonds—upon his head and takes up his
shield, red with a pentangle of gold. Then he spurs his horse and rides
off, striking sparks from the stones. Sad is all of Camelot for the noble
knight, who will surely meet his death. .......Gawain
spends his nights alone with his steed, with only God to counsel him. As
the days pass, he nears northern Wales, crosses fords, and comes to a wilderness.
Along the way, he asks everyone he encounters about the Green Knight, but
no one knows of him. Proceeding, he climbs cliffs and crosses streams,
fighting many a foe—wolves, dragons, bulls,
bears, wild men. When the cold sets in, he sleeps on bare rocks, glazed
with sleet. .......On
Christmas Eve, he prays to the Lord and his mother, Mary, to lead him to
a shelter where he may attend Mass and the morning matins. After raising
his hand and making the sign of the cross, he spies a great castle surrounded
by a moat, huge trees, and a palisade. Thanking Christ for his good fortune,
he rides to the entrance of the thick-walled fortress and calls out. When
a porter looks over the wall, Gawain begs lodging. After the porter receives
permission from his lord, he lowers the drawbridge and a company within
kneels in respect to receive him. Then the gates open and he rides in.
Groomsmen take his horse, and knights and squires receive his helmet, sword,
and shield and lead him into the hall to a blazing fire. The lord welcomes
him, saying, “All that is here is your own to have at your disposal." .......Gawain
thanks and embraces the knight, an older man of great stature who appears
strong of limb and stride. The host takes Gawain to a chamber with silk
curtains around the bed and sumptuous carpets on the floor. Gawain receives
fine robes to wear and sits in an embroidered chair near the fireplace.
Servants set up a table and bring him fish, meats, and other food. When
he announces his identity, all in the castle rejoice at having the honor
of hosting a famous knight. .......In
the evening, Gawain attends evensong in the chapel with the lord while
his lady sits in an enclosure. Afterward, the lady, one of the fairest
women Gawain had ever seen, greets him with her elderly companion at her
side. The latter is wrinkled and yellow and wears a white wimple (a type
of veil) over her chin. Her plainness contrasts sharply with the extraordinary
beauty of the lord’s wife. .......The
lord and lady go with Gawain to the fireside in his chamber. There they
enjoy wine, spices, jests, and merriment. .......On
Christmas Day, Gawain has the honor of sitting next to the lady during
a sumptuous feast. Trumpets and drums sound, and merry pipes blow. Feasting
continues on December 26 and 27. On the latter day, St. John’s Day, Gawain
bids the lord farewell. When the lord asks him why he must leave so soon,
Gawain informs him that he must find a place called the Green Chapel by
New Year’s Day. The lord then tells Gawain he need not hurry off, for the
chapel is not two miles away. Gawain agrees to stay. The lord will be hunting
on the morrow, but he tells Gawain to remain behind and rest to restore
himself from his hard journey. The lord’s lady will keep him company. The
lord then proposes an exchange: He will give Gawain the prize of his hunt
if Gawain gives him a gift he receives during the day. Gawain agrees to
the proposal. .......Early
the next morning, the lord rides to the hunt with a company of men to the
sounds of bugles and barking dogs. By and by, the hunters track down hinds
and does, and the arrows whistle and find their marks. Meanwhile, the lady
enters Gawain’s chamber and bids him remain in bed while she chats “with
my knight whom I have captured." They talk past mid-morning until the lady
makes to leave and says, “So true a knight as Gawain . . . would never
have tarried so long with a lady but he would of his courtesy have craved
a kiss at parting." Gawain says, “I will do even as it may please ye,"
and she lowers her lips to his, then quietly leaves. Gawain rises, goes
to Mass, dines on hearty fare, and enjoys himself the rest of the day. .......When
the lord returns, he gives his bounty of game to the Camelot knight as
his part of the bargain they struck. Gawain greets him with a kiss, saying,
“ Take ye here my spoils, no more have I won; ye should have it freely,
though it were greater than this." The lord asks Gawain where he won the
kiss and whether he won it through his own facility. But Gawain says, “Ask
me no more: ye have taken what was yours by right, be content with that."
Then they laugh, talk, drink, and agree that on the following day they
will again exchange boons with which fortune favors them. .......At
dawn, the lord rides out with his men. This time, they track a boar that
menaces the dogs. So thick is his hide that the arrows cannot penetrate
it. When it turns on the hunters, all draw back except the lord, who chases
after it blowing his bugle. .......At
the castle, the fair lady again comes to Gawain, sits by his side, and
asks why he does not greet her with a kiss in exchange for the one she
gave him the day before. Gawain refuses to be so bold with the lady of
the lord, but he says, “I am at your commandment to kiss when ye like,
to take or to leave as ye list." The lady favors him with a polite kiss.
Afterward, they talk awhile. She says knights like Gawain are known to
perform wondrous deeds of valor for their ladies and bring them joy by
showing love. Yet Gawain has not spoken of love, she says. He ought to
teach her about it—“show some little craft
of true love." But Gawain says she knows far more about love than he will
know in a lifetime. All he can do, he says, is be her servant. After they
talk and jest awhile, pleasantly passing the time, she kisses him again
before leaving. .......Afterward,
Gawain attends Mass and eats dinner with young women of the court while
the lord and his men continue to chase the boar, which has killed some
of their best dogs. Tired of running, the beast turns on them, foaming
at the mouth. The lord’s men, many of them wounded by the tusks, keep back.
But the lord himself dismounts and draws his sword. The boar charges his
foe, and they tumble and roll into a stream. There, the lord drives his
blade into the heart of the beast, and the dogs drag it to shore. The men
cut off its head, fasten its feet to a pole, and make their way home. .......At
the castle, the lord summons the household and tells them the tale of his
hunt, then presents his trophy to Gawain. In return, Gawain kisses him
twice and says they are even. Afterward, they all sit down to music and
a fine feast, with the lovely lady sitting near Gawain and stealing looks
at him. Gawain and the lord agree again to exchange gifts the following
the morning, the lord and his men ride again to the hunt, this time finding
a wily fox to follow. Meanwhile, the lady, dressed in a luxurious mantle
and bedecked with diamonds, calls upon Gawain. They exchange pleasant conversation,
but the knight is wary lest he say or do anything untoward, for he respects
his host, the lord. When she tries and fails to make him kiss her, she
kisses him, then asks him for a token—perhaps
a glove—before she leaves. Gawain says she
deserves the most precious gift in the world, “but it is not to your honour
to have at this time a glove for reward as gift from Gawain. . . ." In
response, she presents him a gift, a gem-studded gold ring, but he refuses
it. “I have [no gift] to give, and none will I take," he says. .......When
she offers him her green sash as a less ostentatious gift, Gawain refuses
it also. However, he changes his mind when she tells him of its astounding
power: The knight who “bears it knotted about him" cannot be defeated by
any man or any magic. Obviously, such a charm would serve him well at the
Green Chapel. When he accepts it, she makes him promise to keep the gift
a secret from her husband and all others. After the lady leaves, Gawain
ties the sash about him beneath his robes, then goes to the chapel and
confesses his sins to God through a priest in the sacrament of Penance.
Afterward, Gawain keeps company with the young ladies, caroling and making
lord brings home his hunting trophy, a fox skin. Gawain greets him with
more kisses as his part of the bargain, and the lord gives him the fox
skin. While they celebrate New Year’s Eve, the lord says he has assigned
a guide to accompany Gawain on his journey to the Green Chapel in the morning. .......Gawain
awakes before dawn. A chamberlain makes ready his horse, Gringalet, and
brings Gawain his garments and armor. After the knight petitions Christ
to bring good fortune to his hosts, the drawbridge creaks down, the gates
rise, and Gawain rides off with his guide into the January cold. They travel
up hills, across moors, and through mists and forests until they reach
a high place overlooking the valley of the Green Chapel. The guide urges
Gawain to go no farther, saying,
The place whither
ye go is accounted full perilous, for he who liveth in that waste is the
worst on earth, for he is strong and fierce, and loveth to deal mighty
blows; taller is he than any man on earth, and greater of frame than any
four in Arthur's court, or in any other. And this is his custom at the
Green Chapel; there may no man pass by that place, however proud his arms,
but he does him to death by force of his hand, for he is a discourteous
knight, and shews no mercy.
I will to the chapel
let chance what may, and talk with that man, even as I may list, whether
for weal or for woe as fate may have it. Fierce though he may be in fight,
yet God knoweth well how to save His servants.
The guide then tells Gawain
he will come upon the Green Chapel by riding to the bottom of the valley
and turning left. Saying he will not continue on with Gawain for “all the
gold on earth," the guide turns around and rides off. .......In
the valley, Gawain sees only a large mound rising next to a brook. After
riding up and tying his rein to a tree branch, he inspects the mound and
concludes it is an oratory overgrown with grass, a place where the devil
himself may conduct his rites. “'Tis the foul fiend himself who hath set
me this tryst, to destroy me here!" he thinks. .......Then
he hears the tremendous whirring of a grindstone spinning against metal.
It comes from a crag beyond the brook. Soon the Green Knight emerges from
a cave with a huge axe and poles across the brook with the handle of his
weapon. When Gawain approaches him, the giant reminds him of their covenant.
Gawain says, “Make thou ready for the blow and I shall stand still and
say never a word to thee." .......Gawain
bares his neck. When the axe falls, Gawain shifts to one side and the blow
misses. The giant berates him for cowardice, and Gawain vows to remain
still for a second blow. The Green Knight then brings the axe down but
stops it short of its mark, saying Gawain must pull aside his hood. Gawain
complies. When the knight wields the axe a third time, it breaks the skin
and draws blood—but that is all. Gawain rises,
dons his helmet, takes up his shield, and draws his sword, saying he has
withstood the blow and thereby fulfilled his pledge. If the Green Knight
strikes again, Gawain says, he will wield his sword. .......Leaning
on his axe, the big man reveals that he knows all about Gawain's “magical"
sash and his conversations with the lady, who is the Green Knight’s wife.
The first two blows of his axe were tit for tat for the first two kisses
the lady gave Gawain. The third blow—which
only broke skin—was for the other attentions
of the lady. He had sent his wife to test Gawain, the Green Knight says,
and, “in sooth I think thou art the most faultless knight that ever trode
earth." Gawain berates himself for wearing the sash, which he now sees
as a sign of cowardice, and for keeping it a secret. Then he removes it
and gives it to his foe, saying, “Now am I faulty and false and have been
afeared: from treachery and untruth come sorrow and care. I avow to thee,
Sir Knight, that I have ill done; do then thy will. I shall be more wary
Green Knight laughs, saying Gawain has confessed his sins and did in fact
bare himself to the axe. Therefore, he is free of wrongdoing. He returns
the sash as a token of Gawain’s adventure and bids the young knight return
with him to his castle to pass the rest of the holiday. Gawain bemoans
that he was made to look a fool by women’s wiles, but comforts himself
that he is in the company of Solomon, Samson, and David—all
of whom succumbed to women’s charms. He accepts the sash not as a trophy
but as a sign of his weakness. .......The
Green Knight then identifies himself as Bernlak de Hautdesert and says
Morgan le Fay, mistress of Merlin (the legendary magician), has lived for
a time in his house “and there is none so haughty but she can bring him
low." It was she who taught Bernlak to assume his fearsome guise. And it
was she who sent him to Camelot to work a feat of magic that would “betray
your wits" and frighten Guinevere. Morgan, he says, is Gawain’s aunt as
the half-sister of Arthur. He then invites Gawain back to his castle, where
he is truly loved by all. But, after wishing Bernlak well, Gawain rides
off instead and undertakes many an adventure in which he is victorious.
After a time, his neck heals, and at long last he rides into Camelot. All
within hail him, and he recounts his story, leaving out no detail. He shows
them the scar on his neck, as well as the sash he accepted in secret and
wore as a talisman to protect him. ......"This
sash] is the bond of the blame that I bear in my neck," he says. "This
is the harm and the loss I have suffered, the cowardice and covetousness
in which I was caught, the token of my covenant in which I was taken. And
I must needs wear it so long as I live, for none may hide his harm, but
undone it may not be, for if it hath clung to thee once, it may never be
the king and the court laugh at the tale while comforting Gawain. The knights
and ladies then decide to wear a green baldric (belt or sash that winds
across the chest from a shoulder to the opposite hip, then up the back
to the shoulder) in support of Gawain. .
story begins and ends at Camelot. Between the Camelot episodes are an episode
in the wilderness, an episode at Bernlak's Castle, another episode in the
wilderness, and an episode at the Green Chapel in which the Green Knight
(Bernlak) wields the axe against Gawain. Thus, the plot structure is balanced,
with two Camelot episodes, two wilderness episodes, and two episodes in
Bernlak's domain (at his castle and at the Green Chapel).
study guide is based on Jesse L. Weston's public-domain prose translation
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The original text is in Middle
English and largely unintelligible to all but Middle English scholars.
In his preface to the first edition of the translation, published in 1898,
Weston describes the structure, language and style of the poem as follows:
poem, or, to speak more correctly, metrical romance, contains over 2500
lines, and is composed in staves [stanzas] of varying length, ending in
five short rhyming lines, technically known as a bob and a wheel,—the
lines forming the body of the stave being not rhyming, but alliterative.
The dialect in which it is written has been decided to be West Midland,
probably Lancaster, and is by no means easy to understand. Indeed, it is
the real difficulty and obscurity of the language, which, in spite of careful
and scholarly editing, will always place the poem in its original form
outside the range of any but professed students of medieval literature,
which has encouraged me to make an attempt to render it more accessible
to the general public, by giving it a form that shall be easily intelligible,
and at the same time preserve as closely as possible the style of the author.
that style, in spite of a certain roughness, unavoidable at a period in
which the language was still in a partially developed and amorphous stage,
is really charming. The author has a keen eye for effect; a talent for
description, detailed without becoming wearisome; a genuine love of Nature
and sympathy with her varying moods; and a real refinement and elevation
of feeling which enable him to deal with a risqué situation with
an absence of coarseness, not, unfortunately, to be always met with in
a medieval writer. Standards of taste vary with the age, but even judged
by that of our own day the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
comes not all too badly out of the ordeal!
faces both external and internal conflicts. The main external conflict
is his contest with the Green Knight. Secondary external conflicts include
his struggle to find the Green Chapel during harsh weather and his encounters
with wild animals. His internal conflicts include his struggle to restrain
his physical attraction to the lady, his trepidation at having to submit
his neck to the axe of the Green Knight, and the shame he feels after resorting
to a talisman (the sash) to protect himself. .......In
the first of the three internal conflicts, Gawain faces a no-win situation.
On the one hand, refusing the lady's request for a kiss would uphold his
loyalty to his host but offend the lady, the host's wife. On the other
hand, granting her request for a kiss would uphold the courtesy a knight
is expected to show a lady but offend her husband. Gawain decides to weasel
out of his dilemma: Instead of bestowing kisses, he accepts them passively
but does not tell the lady's husband about them. What Gawain did not realize
(or chose to ignore) was that as a knight his first duty was to God and
the moral law. Relationships with humans are secondary to this covenant. . .
climax occurs when Gawain discovers that the Green Knight reveals that
his grazing axe blow was a feint intended to expose Gawain as a less-than-godlike
warrior who resorted to a charm (the sash) to protect himself.
tries to be the perfect knight. And he is indeed brave, chivalrous, respectful,
self-confident, and deeply religious. But during his sojourn at Bernlak's
castle, he accepts on several occasions—though
he does not invite—the kisses of Bernlak's
wife, a woman of surpassing beauty. In addition, he accepts from her a
sash that he believes will make him invulnerable to the axe blow of the
Green Knight. He keeps secret all that passes between him and the lady.
These episodes reveal Gawain as a flawed human, a young man who is less
than he thinks he is. Here is why:
Passive acceptance of the lady's
amorous advances is no less reprehensible than active acceptance. His action
wrongs his host.
Accepting the sash impugns his
bravery and self-confidence, for it reveals him as doubtful of his ability
to defeat the Green Knight.
Keeping secret his acceptance
of the sash—and the kisses—makes
him seem devious and disloyal.
In the end, Gawain rides away
chastened, with a more realistic opinion of himself.
their wiles, Morgan le Fay and the lady teach Gawain a lesson that enlightens
him about himself. It was Morgan, not Bernlak, who contrived the scheme
to deceive the court at Camelot. “She sent me in this guise to yon fair
hall to test the truth of the renown that is spread abroad of the valor
of the Round Table," Bernlak tells Gawain." She taught me this marvel to
betray your wits, to vex Guinevere and fright her to death by the man who
space with his head in his hand at the high table." Bernlak wife playas
a key role in the scheme.
Friendship and Camaraderie
entire court of Camelot supports Gawain as he leaves Camelot to find the
Green Knight. When he returns from his adventure downcast and embarrassed,
the knights and ladies comfort him and decide to wear a green sash in solidarity
Pentangle on the Shield
Gawain's shield is a golden pentangle against a field of red. A pentagle
is a star with five points. Because the lines forming the pentangle on
Gawain's shield are continuous and never broken, the star is a symbol of
integrity; it signifies that all the knightly virtues and moral values
of the knight who bears the shield are intact in the knight's character.
Whether these virtues and values will remain intact after Gawain leaves
Camelot to find the Green Knight becomes a key question in the story. The
narrator of the story explains and describes the pentangle, including the
symbolism of each point of the star, in this way:
why that noble prince bare the pentangle I am minded to tell you, though
my tale tarry thereby. It is a sign that Solomon set ere-while [some time
ago], as betokening truth; for it is a figure with five points and each
line overlaps the other, and nowhere hath it beginning or end, so that
in English it is called "the endless knot." And therefore was it well suiting
to this knight and to his arms, since Gawain was faithful in five and five-fold,
for pure was he as gold, void of all villainy and endowed with all virtues.
Therefore he bare the pentangle on shield and surcoat as truest of heroes
and gentlest of knights. For first he was faultless in his five senses;
and his five fingers never failed him; and all his trust upon earth was
in the five wounds that Christ bare on the cross, as the Creed tells. And
wherever this knight found himself in stress of battle he deemed well that
he drew his strength from the five joys which the Queen of Heaven had of
her Child. And for this cause did he bear an image of Our Lady on the one
half of his shield, that whenever he looked upon it he might not lack for
aid. And the fifth five that the hero used were frankness and fellowship
above all, purity and courtesy that never failed him, and compassion that
surpasses all; and in these five virtues was that hero wrapped and clothed.
And all these, five-fold, were linked one in the other, so that they had
no end, and were fixed on five points that never failed, neither at any
side were they joined or sundered, nor could ye find beginning or end.
And therefore on his shield was the knot shapen, red-gold upon red, which
is the pure pentangle.
Words From the Story
Ave: Ave Maria, or
Hail Mary, a prayer said by Roman Catholics.
betide: Happen or
Belt or sash that winds across the chest from a shoulder to the
opposite hip, then up the back to the shoulder. It may be used to support
a sword, dagger or horn.
Tunic of chain mail.
mail: Flexible metal armor.
Servant assigned to a bedchamber.
Exemplary conduct expected of a knight; a knight's code of behavior.
Creed, or profession of belief, in the Roman Catholic Mass. The Credo (Latin
for I believe) is called the Nicene Creed. It is sung or recited.
Armor pieces protecting the thighs.
Armor covering the lower leg, from the knee to the ankle.
Coat of chain-mail armor.
Woods encompassing only a small area.
A name for the land ruled by King Arthur.
Prayers recited early in the morning.
In Roman Catholicism, the feast day of St. Michael, an archangel, on September
Ages: Period of history beginning about AD 400 and lasting until 1500;
period between ancient and modern eras.
The Lord's Prayer. Also called the "Our Father."
Another name for a fox in folklore and fables.
Cross of Christ.
Aspiring knight who attends a knight and is second in rank to a knight.
Tunic, or loose-fitting garment, worn by a knight over his armor.
Alternate spelling of ventail, movable covering for the face on
the front of a metal helmet.
Know, suppose, imagine.
age of kings and castles, or the Feudal Age, was born in Europe in the
dawning shadows of the Dark Ages. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the
late Fifth Century AD, its former territories in central Europe had to
fend for themselves. In time, without the might of the imperial Roman sword
to protect them, these territories fell prey to Viking invaders from the
north and Muslim invaders from the south.
the 730's, the Muslims had penetrated central Europe through Spain. However,
Charles Martel, the ruler of the kingdom of the Franks in northeastern
Europe and southwestern Germany, repulsed the Muslims with soldiers granted
land in return for military service as horsemen. (Horse soldiers, or cavalry,
had the speed and maneuverability to quell the Muslim threat.) This arrangement—granting
land in exchange for service—was the founding principle of feudalism.
Franks continued to stand as a protective bulwark under Martel's successors,
Pepin the Short and Charlemagne. But after Louis I the Pious assumed power
in 813, the Franks commenced fighting among themselves over who should
succeed to the throne. This internal strife, along with Viking attacks,
resulted in the eventual breakup of the Frankish kingdom. In 911, Viking
marauders seeded themselves in western France, in present-day Normandy,
and took root. By the late 900's, much of Europe (France, England,
western Germany, northern Spain, and Sicily) had evolved into a land of
local kingdoms in which rulers took refuge behind the walls of castles
and leased land to people willing to protect and maintain a kingdom against
rival kingdoms or outside invaders. The feudal system of offering land
in exchange for service then bloomed to full flower.
king of a domain granted an expanse of land (fief) to selected men
of high standing in return for a pledge of allegiance and military service.
These men, who came to be known as great lords (or grands seigneurs)
then awarded portions of their land to lesser lords, or vassals, for a
similar pledge of loyalty, or fealty, as well as dues and an agreement
to fight the lord's enemies. In return, the great lord met the everyday
needs of the vassals. Knights, highly trained mounted warriors, were the
backbone of the great lord's army. Failure by a great lord or a vassal
to live up to a commitment, or warranty, was a felony, a
crime punishable by loss of the offender's title, land, and other assets.
In severe cases, the offender sometimes lost his life or a limb.
a King or Great Lord Gave ---> Land
a King or Great Lord Received ---> Protection (Military Service)
Land and Its Workers
estate on which a lord lived was called a manor. Peasants, or serfs,
were attached to the land as property. They paid rents and taxes, farmed
the land and performed many other servile duties. Sometimes freemen also
worked the land. The lord exercised full political and social control over
Was a Castle?
castle was a walled fortress of a king or lord. The word castle
is derived from the Latin castellum, meaning a fortified place.
Generally, a castle was situated on an eminence (a piece of high
ground) that had formed naturally or was constructed by laborers. High
ground constructed by laborers was called a motte (French for mound);
the motte may have been 100 to 200 feet wide and 40 to 80 feet high. The
area inside the castle wall was called the bailey. Some castles
had several walls, with smaller circles within a larger circle or smaller
squares within a larger square.
outer wall of a castle was usually topped with a battlement, a protective
barrier with spaced openings through which defenders could shoot arrows
at attackers. This wall sometimes was surrounded by a water-filled ditch
called a moat, a defensive barrier to prevent the advance of soldiers,
horses and war machines. At the main entrance was a drawbridge,
which could be raised to prevent entry. Behind the drawbridge was a portcullis
[port KUL is], or iron gate, which could be lowered to further secure the
castle. Within the castle was a tower, or keep, to which castle
residents could withdraw if an enemy breached the portcullis and other
defenses. Over the entrance of many castles was a projecting gallery with
[muh CHIK uh LAY shuns], openings in the floor through which defenders
could drop hot liquids or stones on attackers. In the living quarters of
a castle, the king and his family dined in a great hall on an elevated
platform called a dais [DAY is], and they slept in a chamber called
age of castles ended after the development of gunpowder and artillery fire
enabled armies to breach thick castle walls instead of climbing over them.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. In planning their trick,
did Morgan le Fay and the Green Knight foresee that Gawain would accept
the challenge? (In other tales about the Knights of the Roundtable, Gawain
frequently appears as headstrong and reckless in his willingness to accept
challenges and prove his mettle.)
2. When the lady tells Gawain
that the sash is a talisman that will protect him, he does not doubt her.
Does his belief in its power reveal him as naive and gullible?
3. Interpreters of the story
speculate that the color of the knight and the sash, green, has special
meaning. Some say it signifies evil; some say it represents spoilage, corrosion,
and death. Still others maintain that it suggests rebirth and growth, like
the green plants of spring. What do you believe the color symbolizes in
4. Write an essay that attempts
to explain the motives behind the decisions Gawain makes.
5. In an argumentative essay,
take a stand on whether stories about King Arthur and his knights are based
on historical persons.