Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Seasons

At the beginning of Parts 2 and 4, the poet describes the changing of the seasons. The seasonal imagery in Part 2 precedes Gawain’s departure from Camelot, and in Part 4 his departure from the host’s castle. In both cases, the changing seasons correspond to Gawain’s changing psychological state, from cheerfulness (pleasant weather) to bleakness (the winter). But the five changing seasons also correspond to the five ages of man (birth/infancy, youth, adulthood, middle age, and old age/death), as well as to the cycles of fertility and decay that govern all creatures in the natural world. The emphasis on the cyclical nature of the seasons contrasts with and provides a different understanding of the passage of time from the more linear narrative of history that frames the poem.

Games

When the poem opens, Arthur’s court is engaged in feast-time customs, and Arthur almost seems to elicit the Green Knight’s entrance by requesting that someone tell him a tale. When the Green Knight first enters, the courtiers think that his appearance signals a game of some sort. The Green Knight’s challenge, the host’s later challenge, and the wordplay that takes place between Gawain and the lady are all presented as games. The relationship between games and tests is explored because games are forms of social behavior, while tests provide a measure of an individual’s inner worth.


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