Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Important Quotations Explained

2
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.
         (495499)

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.