There hurtles in at the hall-door an unknown rider,
One the greatest on ground in growth of his frame:
From broad neck to buttocks so bulky and thick,
And his loins and his legs so long and so great,
Half a giant on earth I hold him to be,
But believe him no less than the largest of men,
And the seemliest in his stature to see, as he rides,
For in back and in breast though his body was grim,
His waist in its width was worthily small,
And formed with every feature in fair accord
Great wonder grew in hall
At his hue most strange to see,
For man and gear and all
Were green as green could be.
This quotation from Part 1 describes the Green Knight’s first appearance in Arthur’s court, and it serves as our introduction to the mysterious character as well. The Gawain-poet’s description employs hyperbole, as in the superlatives “greatest,” “largest,” and “seemliest.” The poet’s repetition of the word “so,” and his insistence that the knight stretches the limits of ordinary reality—he is “[h]alf a giant on earth”—reinforce this hyperbole and contribute to our sense that the Green Knight is larger than life. The poet’s comparison of the Green Knight to a half-giant may be an allusion to a passage in Genesis just before the story of Noah that claims that fallen angels and human women mated together to produce superhuman, wicked children, precipitating God’s punishment in the form of the flood (Gen. 6:1–4).
After claiming that the Green Knight looks like a giant, the poet goes on to reassure his audience that the Green Knight is in fact a human being, even an extremely good-looking one. With fair features and a form composed of clean lines (broad shoulders tapering into a thin waist), the Green Knight cuts a beautiful figure. The description builds up to the bob—“was he”—with increasing suspense, and not until the wheel do we learn that the beautiful knight is green. In this passage, the poet uses the bob and wheel as a tension-creating device, snaking us through a lengthy description before we get to the important revelation of the knight’s green color in the last quatrain. This style also lends a sense of foreboding to the Green Knight, who looks almost human, but whose gigantic stature and green complexion seem to associate him with the supernatural—and, worse still, with some kind of primitive evil.
Gawain was glad to begin those games in hall,
But if the end be harsher, hold it no wonder,
For though men are merry in mind after much drink,
A year passes apace, and proves ever new:
First things and final conform but seldom.
This passage from the beginning of Part 2 describes the passage of time, a phenomenon that the poet exploits to highlight the necessary mutability of the natural world, including mankind. No matter what any man does, he will be touched and changed over time. The poem opposes the circular nature of a year, which “proves ever new,” to the linear nature of human experience, which in Gawain’s case changes from merriment to harsh conditions in the span of a year. The extremity of these two conditions brings to mind the inevitability that individuals will be affected by forces outside themselves.
The Gawain-poet warns his readers not to be surprised if his story ends unhappily. He suggests that the way to deal with the inevitable shifts in their fortunes is to maintain a light approach to life. In the original language, the author employs a metaphor in the last line that gets lost in translation. A more literal translation of that line is “the beginning and the end fold together but seldom.” This metaphor compares life to a string or a piece of fabric that doesn’t fold together evenly and neatly, recalling the Fates of classical mythology, who measure out man’s life with thread. It also highlights one of the poem’s central concerns, the relationship among birth, death, and rebirth.
[T]here hoved a great hall and fair:
Turrets rising in tiers, with tines at their tops,
Spires set beside them, splendidly long,
With finials well-fashioned, as filigree fine.
Chalk-white chimneys over chambers high
Gleamed in gay array upon gables and roofs;
The pinnacles in panoply, pointing in air,
So vied there for his view that verily it seemed
A castle cut of paper for a king’s feast.
The good knight on Gringolet thought it great luck
If he could but contrive to come there within
To keep the Christmas feast in that castle fair
This passage describes Gawain’s first sighting of the host’s castle, in Part 2 of the poem. Starving and freezing, Gawain prays to Mary to find a place where he can celebrate Christmas Mass, then looks up suddenly to notice a building he hadn’t seen before. The Gawain-poet describes the building as a kind of fairy castle, with countless, skillfully crafted towers and spires, all gleaming white. In this passage, the poet gives us a number of clues about the true nature of the castle and foreshadows the revelation at the end of the poem that the host and the Green Knight are the same person.
At this point in the poem, Gawain begins to look very much like a pilgrim. He wanders through the wilderness praying and fasting, looking for a sacred place. What he finds is the host’s castle, whose incredible beauty represents a holy answer to his prayer. To Gawain, the castle looks “grand and fine,” and to a medieval Christian reader, it might sound very much like the legendary New Jerusalem of Revelations. In the Christian tradition, the physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem provides an allegory for the spiritual pilgrimage of the human soul to heaven. Here, the fantastically pure towers might at first blush seem to evoke the holy city. However, the poet tells us the castle also looks as though it were cut out of cardboard or paper. Though it appears to be a safe haven, and even like the heavenly city to which all Christian souls should aspire, the poet lets the reader know that this castle is a mere facade. Gawain does not realize his mistake until Part 4.
“Sir, if you be Gawain, it seems a great wonder—
A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed,
And cannot act in company as courtesy bids,
And if one takes the trouble to teach him, ‘tis all in vain.
That lesson learned lately is lightly forgot,
Though I painted it as plain as my poor wit allowed.”
“What lesson, dear lady?” he asked all alarmed;
“I have been much to blame, if your story be true.”
“Yet my counsel was of kissing,” came her answer then,
“Where favor has been found, freely to claim
As accords with the conduct of courteous knights.”
In Part 3, Gawain and the host’s wife have this exchange on the second morning of Gawain’s game with the host. The lady’s comments highlight the tension between courtesy and chastity, a tension she exploits in an attempt to get what she wants. The lady starts out by challenging Gawain’s name and reputation, claiming that her guest cannot be the real Gawain, because that famous knight would not forget to be “gracious.” She likens him to an errant student who has forgotten his lesson from the day before and herself to his teacher. In doing so, she calls upon a huge store of cultural imagery from the courtly love and classical traditions.
In the courtly love tradition, the beloved lady ideally works as a kind of erotic teacher, instructing the lover in proper spiritual comportment as well as in the courtly “art of love.” The courtly lady is supposed to ennoble her knight by teaching him how to be a proper lover and a better man. At the same time, the host’s wife evokes the classical tradition of education, in which female allegorical figures such as Lady Grammar and Lady Philosophy are responsible for the education of boys and men. Not only does the lady construct herself as Gawain’s sexual teacher, but she also imagines herself as his schoolmistress in the arts of speaking and behaving properly. The courtly and the classical traditions are by no means mutually exclusive, but their cooperation here lends force to the lady’s attempts to persuade Gawain to give up his chastity, as Gawain’s troubled response attests.
But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder,
And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty—
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter
Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For these were proud princes, most prosperous of old,
Past all lovers lucky, that languished under heaven,
And one and all fell prey
To women they had used;
If I be led astry,
Methinks I may be excused.
In this quotation from the end of the poem, Gawain compares himself to famous biblical figures who were led astray by the deceitful tricks of women. However, the examples Gawain names are increasingly dissimilar to him, so that each example weakens his argument further until it falls apart completely when he compares himself to David. Eve beguiled Adam into eating from the Tree of Life in a way similar to the way the host’s wife beguiles Gawain, but the serpent had already beguiled Eve, which partly excuses her action—just as Morgan le Faye charmed the host and his lady. Delilah tricked Samson, but she did so on behalf of her own nation, and Samson knew he could not trust her. Samson therefore is to blame in part for Delilah’s betrayal of him. By far, the most clear-cut of the examples is that of David and Bathsheba. David saw Bathsheba, whom he knew to be a married woman, bathing on top of her roof and had her brought to his palace, where he slept with her. She conceived a child, and David sent her husband, his loyal supporter, out into the front lines of battle to be killed. As punishment for David’s sin, God killed their child. Since the men Gawain mentions, David in particular, are all partly responsible for their own downfalls, Gawain’s attempt to foist the blame for his sin onto the host’s wife gains little credence from these biblical examples.