Tag Archives: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

“Keeping your promises is very important in ‘Gawain’…”

We’re referring here once again to the ever-interesting (and, for student writers, ever-risky) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My student is correct that keeping promises is important in the poem. It is a mark of honor not only for the individual knight but also for the reputation of the Table Round altogether. Morgan-le-Fay has set out to destroy the credibility of Camelot, and the ploy she uses is the famous beheading game between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain takes the dare to strike G.K.’s head from off his shoulders with an axe, agreeing to search out the Knight a year later and receive a comparable blow. Severed, the head reminds Gawain of his promise; the reader then watches the months go by as Gawain anticipates fulfilling the agreement with growing dread. But he sets off in good time to keep the appointment.

After a difficult journey he happens on a delightful castle where he rests, exchanges promises in an evidently less deadly game with the castle’s lord, flirts with the lady, hears Christmas Mass, and duplicitously secretly accepts a sash that supposedly will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe.

On his way once again, he is offered an “out” by his guide: run away and the guide won’t tell. But Gawain keeps his promise; and the Green Knight, impressed with Gawain’s essential honesty and pluck, lets him off with the merest nick.

Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that his honor was proven flawed; but the lords and ladies are so proud of him that they all don green sashes like the one he considers his badge of shame.

And Morgan-le-Fay loses, this time.

My student understands that the promise Gawain makes is of critical importance:

“Keeping your promises is very important in Gawain because it shows you are a man of your word.”

She should have stopped at “important,” but she felt compelled to go on. “Explain why it’s important,” she must have urged herself—and that was a good instinct. But her explanation is no such thing: it is a circular, or self-defining, definition. “Keeping your promises,” she’s saying, “is important because it shows you keep your promises.”

Now, I believe she meant more than that. Keeping your promises proves that you are a man of honor, perhaps. The behavior of keeping promises attests to the knight’s integrity of character. Something like that. And if that’s what she meant, she was right. She was right, too, that the first clause is insufficient to make that full point.

But the second clause is insufficient to make it, too, because it’s virtually identical with the first. It adds nothing, amplifies nothing, explains nothing, contextualizes nothing, clarifies nothing. The cause-effect connection promised by “because” is never earned. All the second clause does is make the sentence feel as if it says something, feel finished, feel significant.

Her instincts are fine. But her sentence promises more than it delivers.

Kind of like Gawain, if you want to be cynical about it.


“Three animals hunted by the lord in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ were…”

No power at home since Monday evening, thanks to Sandy. I’m snatching a moment from office hours at my (inland) school to do a post that really needs no comment.

This is one student’s answer to a little 3-point gimmee on the Midterm Exam (well, I thought it was a gimmee…).

“Three animals hunted by the lord in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were a rooster, a fox, and a wild bore.”

Okay, a brief comment. The lord hunted, in order, a deer, a boar, and a fox. I think the rooster sneaked into this student’s memory by way of Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which featured a rooster and a fox. The boar should have gotten into the answer, and might have if the student had been a close reader instead of primarily an in-class listener.

As for the wild bore… well, I hope the lord got ‘im.

“The Green Knight is obviously immortal…”

What is it about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that lures unwitting students into language tangles?

In an earlier post on this poem, I included a link to the text. Briefly, though: King Arthur and the good people of Camelot are celebrating the Christmas/Yule holiday. Arthur says he never likes to sit down to eat until he has heard a good story or seen a good trick. Right on cue, enter the Green Knight— a man green of garb and green of skin and hair, mounted on a horse caparisoned in green—to challenge Arthur to a game of exchanged blows. Unwilling that his uncle and king take such a risk, and perhaps eager to begin to build a reputation, young Sir Gawain steps forward to accept. His task: to attempt to chop off the head of the Knight. The exchange: in a year and a day he will present himself at the Green Chapel so the Green Knight can attempt to chop off his head. Gawain swings the axe, and the Knight’s head goes rolling across the room. Said Knight strolls over and picks up his head, which speaks to confirm the later appointment. A year later, Gawain does manage to find his way to the Green Chapel (adventures, risks, temptations, another game of exchanges, etc., as appropriate) and present his neck for severing. As a grade-school book-reviewer would say, “To find out how it ends, read the book!”

Anyway. My student here begins her sentence credibly, although calling the Green Knight’s immortality “obvious” is dependent on what happens after he appears: his immortality is demonstrated, not visible.

But, as is so often the case when I present a Horror with ellipses, there is more to come:

“The Green Knight is obviously immortal, having survived a decapitation and his green complexion.”

I think I knew what she meant: he survives decapitation, making him evidently immortal, and his skin is green, suggesting that he is otherworldly, perhaps not mortal. But, luckily for a tired reader and a future blog, she didn’t write that, did she?

The “and” joins equal elements; here, it joins two direct objects (decapitation, complexion) of the verb “survive.” So the Green Knight survives decapitation AND he survives a green complexion.

Perhaps that’s not such an unusual idea to occur to a young woman just emerging from her teens. Adolescence is a difficult time for most of us, and a cruel time for many. A bad complexion can be a real social handicap for boys and girls alike—the “eeeeuuuuww” factor is powerful. We talk about kids “surviving” their adolescence, or “surviving” high school: why not talk about people “surviving” their complexions?

I remember seeing on “late-night” television, years ago when I was still pretty young, the 1948 movie The Boy with the Green Hair. Very little of it remains in my actual memory, except that the hair was meant to single him out so he could become a voice against war but the townspeople either shunned or attacked him and he had to run away. Wikipedia gives a more comprehensive description of the film here. I’m tempted to look for it; it sounds more interesting than my young self could have understood. But for the purposes of a discussion of Sir Gawain, what’s significant is that the boy had a really hard time after his hair turned green, so we can imagine how hard having green skin—less removable, certainly!—would be.

Feel free to sing a few lines of Kermit’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” here.

If you can survive being green in a world of people whose skins are various shades of brown ranging from ivory to ebony, you can probably survive anything. And if you can survive anything, that would make you, um, immortal.