Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part II

This part of the poem takes the reader all the way through the following year as far as the fourth day of the Christmas festival, with a series of catalogs, rituals, and merriment.  The year, defined by the structure of Gawain’s quest and the shape of Christian liturgy, fuses these two inevitable processes into a focused enactment of faith and duty.  One must remember that one important purpose of literature in the late Middle Ages was to entertain.  Not all nobles were literate, and long winter evenings were enlivened by the reading of stories to the assembled residents of a castle or manor by a scholar or other person of letters.  Embellishment, significant detail, formal actions all gave richness and energy to the basic story.

In a couple of stanzas, the poem gets Gawain and Arthur’s court to All Hallows Day.  There is the process of the church’s year from the rich warmth of Yule through the “cold cheer of Lent,” to Michaelmas and beyond.  Then there’s the cycle of the seasons, through the harsh winter to the slow, uncertain coming of an English spring and summer, when “Zephyr sighs low over seeds and shoots” (is it the poet or the translator channeling Chaucer?) to the colder winds of harvest time.

When November comes, the courtiers become even more compassionate toward Gawain, and our hero knows he has to prepare to travel to fulfill his vow to the Green Knight.  He and his friends keep a cheerful demeanor, saying “with tranquil eye: / ‘In destinies sad or merry, / True men can but try.’”  More than two centuries later, a melancholy Dane similarly said “readiness is all” and accepted his own fate.  But for Gawain, the odds of survival look long indeed.  No medieval romance is complete without a description of the arming of the hero, so in due course Gawain’s clothing from top to toe and back, his horse (Gringolet), his helmet, and his shield get intricate attention.


Pentacle on Gawain’s Shield

Most important is the decoration of his shield, particularly the five-pointed star in which “every line is linked and locked with the next,” in an endless over-and-under weaving pattern.  The detailing of the mystical significances of the number five goes on for quite some time: five senses, five fingers, five wounds of Christ, Mary’s five joys in her Son, and the five ethical virtues that Gawain followed—generosity, brotherly love, pure mind, perfect manners, and compassion.  Five fives.  Interestingly, they begin with the physical, touch on the spiritual, and end up in the ethical realm.  Gawain’s actions are predicated on his control of his own mind and body, and on his embodiment of the principles of his religious faith.  They involve honesty, honorable motives, and humility.  All of these things will be tested in the adventure to come.

At last Gawain is on his way through the wilds of North Wales.  He keeps the islands of Anglesey on his left, so he’s tracking through Anglesey itself, northward deep into the Celtic land where place names begin with the dreaded double “L” and the only “vowel” is often “y.”  That land is filled with challenges from the rugged terrain, hostile men, and wild beasts of many kinds.  “Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves, / . . . And giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps.”  He’s pelted by freezing rain, surrounded by frosts and icicles.  And he’s sleeping outdoors, where the “birds unblithe upon bare twigs / . . . peeped most piteously for pain of the cold.”

gawain castle

Gawain Rides Toward Magic Castle

Christmas Eve comes, and Gawain is alone, freezing, lost, and miserable.  And then comes one of the most enchanted magical moments of medieval literature.  As night falls, in his desperate straits, fearing he will miss Christmas Mass and Matins, he prays to God and to Mary for “some harborage” for proper Christian worship, not his own physical comfort.  He crosses himself and “cries / On Christ in his great need.”  And all of a sudden, as he crosses himself for the third time, he becomes aware that where there had been nothing there was something, “a wondrous dwelling, / Within a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs.”

Thanking Jesus and Saint Julian the Hospitaller, he approaches to find “a castle cut of paper for a king’s feast,” a place as delicate, fine, and fanciful as those illustrated in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.  There follow three days of piety, feasting, and merriment, worth reading for their fine details projecting warmth and plenitude.  Gawain is treated as an honored guest.  He meets the host, a well-spoken middle-aged man of “massive mold” with a beard, and the lady of the place, whose flesh, hair, face, and body are all “toothsome.”  Before long she’s greeted him with a light embrace and a “comely kiss.”  Her companion is a short, bleary-eyed, black-browed old crone, who somehow radiates the essence of Morgan le Fay, dangerous and enchanting sorceress of Arthurian legend.  So a warning symbol intrudes among all the elegant, warmly joyous socializing.  Gawain, however, is too bedazzled by the genteelly seductive hostess to see it.

After the third day of Christmas reveling, the Day of St. John the Evangelist, the guests prepare to “go in the gray morning.”  The host pulls Gawain aside and asks him to stay on, but Gawain explains his quest, his need to find the Green Chapel by New Year’s Day.  The host assures Gawain that the Chapel is nearby, and he won’t have to leave until the morning of his appointment.  He then proposes a “Gift Exchange” game (no, not what we do in department stores on December 26) for the following three days, up to and including the eve of the new year.  The host will depart early to hunt, while Gawain, the guest, sleeps in.  At the end of the day, the two will exchange whatever they have won, on the hunt or in the castle.  As with the beheading game, it seems that our hero is in a contest he can’t lose.  But the reader remembers that the first game did not turn out as expected.   All the “threes” that are set up in this Part reflect symbolic folklore motifs (cf. Goldilocks’ bears, Cinderella and her two sisters, little pigs, and so on): three signum crucis gestures, three days of Christmas revelry, three days to come in which gifts are exchanged, three hunts, three mornings in the castle, the threesome of host, hostess, and guest.  The reader has been alerted to look for significant patterns in the next Part.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

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