Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Important Quotations Explained

3
[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
and bright.
      (794806)

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.