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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Study Questions

1.

The host’s wife goes after the man she wants, and uses a great deal of rhetorical and argumentative skill to seduce him. To what extent would you describe the host’s wife as a powerful or progressive female character?

The host’s wife appears to exercise a great deal of agency. Unlike Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, who sits silently passive amidst the courtiers at Camelot, the lady of Hautdesert speaks, thinks, and acts. Gawain considers the host’s wife even more attractive than Guinevere, and, clearly, the lady aims to give this impression—she wears revealing clothing that bares her breasts and back. She does her hair up elaborately, and it is possible to read line 952 as a statement that she wears makeup. The host’s wife crawls directly into Gawain’s bed once she has decided to seduce him, not waiting for him to come to her like a proper courtly lady.

In many ways, this lady seems more modern than a medieval woman. She chooses her lovers for herself and pursues her own desires, and she shows a keen ability to read people and a shrewd talent for arguing. When simple seduction fails to convince Gawain, she shows that she knows how to get under the knight’s skin by questioning his reputation and accusing him of discourtesy. Also, she is literate: in lines 15121519, she mentions having read romances. The verbal battle that ensues between the lady and Gawain escalates in intensity every day, and it seems possible that she eventually would have won if Gawain hadn’t left the castle. She shows herself to be every bit as clever at arguing as Gawain, if not more so.

Yet the Gawain-poet limits the lady in some interesting ways. First of all, he never gives her a name. Guinevere and Morgan le Faye, the other major female characters, both possess names, but the host’s lady—arguably the most important of the three women—remains anonymous. Furthermore, we discover at the poem’s end that the host’s wife is not in fact her own agent. Though she clearly possesses beauty, intelligence, and skill, her use of all three is authorized and legitimized by her husband. To this extent, the lady acts on his behalf in seducing Gawain. In the most negative reading, Bertilak acts as his wife’s pimp; in the most positive, the two act as partners. In any case, the lady does not act independently.

Of course, we also discover that Bertilak acts on behalf of Morgan le Faye, another woman. The most powerful agent in the story turns out to be a female character after all, but we learn so little about her and her motives that she remains as much of an enigma to us as Guinevere does. We don’t even know the name of the female character we know best (the host’s wife), and the other central female figures we know only as types (the beautiful queen, the evil witch). In his portrayals of women, the Gawain-poet exposes and subverts a variety of stereotypes, but his own opinion about how much agency women have or should have remains obscure.

2.

What are the three reactions to Gawain’s sin at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? How do they compare to one another?

At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we encounter opinions of how bad Gawain’s sin really was from three sources: Bertilak, King Arthur, and Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain’s view of his own sin seems harsh. When he realizes that the Green Knight and the host are the same man, Gawain curses himself, saying, “Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! / In you is villainy and vice, and virtue laid low!” (23742375). He proceeds to deprecate himself as a coward who has fallen short of his chivalric code. He calls himself a “faulty and false” knight (2382), and asks if he can regain the host’s “good grace” (2387).

Though he initially chastises himself, Gawain goes on in lines 24112428 to recall several Bible stories about men who sin because of women. The host’s wife exposed Gawain’s flaws, he claims, just as Eve exposed Adam’s, Delilah exposed Samson’s, and Bathsheba exposed David’s. Though Gawain couches his discussion of the “wiles of a woman” in terms of a woman’s ability to make “a dullard . . . dote” (2414), he comes close to blaming the lady for his own downfall. Gawain decides to keep the girdle not only as a reminder of his fault, but as a sign for others, metaphorically equating himself with Cain (the son of Adam and Eve and the first murderer) who bore a mark so that everyone could recognize him as a sinner. Gawain’s sin seems much less profound than Cain’s, yet his decision to wear the girdle as a “sign of excess” (2433) that recalls “[t]he faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse” (2435) aligns him with one of the greatest sinners in the Bible.

Arthur’s reaction to Gawain’s account of his sin differs radically from Gawain’s own. The Gawain-poet refers to Gawain’s telling the knights and ladies of Camelot about his encounter at the Green Chapel as a confession of his “cares and discomfitures” (2494). When Gawain unveils the scar and shows them the girdle, blushing for shame, Arthur and his followers laugh out loud. For Gawain’s sake, all the knights and ladies take up the girdle as a symbol, wearing green silk baldrics on their arms. We might read this moment as Arthur acknowledging that all men are sinners and, by sharing in Gawain’s misery, offering him comfort. On the other hand, there is something too lighthearted about Arthur’s response, which recalls the youthful, inexperienced, jovial court in Part 1. Gawain has clearly outgrown such an outlook, but Camelot essentially turns Gawain’s mark of weakness into a fashion statement.

By far, Bertilak has the most moderate of the three reactions. He claims that Gawain’s morally exceptional behavior impresses him, even though Gawain kept the lady’s gift of the girdle a secret. Bertilak says that the difference between Gawain and other knights is like the difference between a pearl and peas. He admits that Gawain has flaws, but he spares him from the fatal blow out of an appreciation for how well Gawain stood up to the tests. Though at first it seems that Bertilak believes only in the letter of the law, in Part 4 he shows a justice tempered with mercy. Bertilak is realistic about what happened and therefore seems best suited of the three men to judge the severity of Gawain’s sin.

3.

Names—or a lack thereof—play an important role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Discuss a few of the ways that the naming process or a name itself functions in the poem.

The Gawain-poet investigates whether naming can fix, contain, or transform physical reality, and names in the poem function in multiple ways. Proper nouns can contain or transfer reputation or status. For instance, at the beginning and the end of the poem, the author refers to the way great cities are named. Rome is named for Romulus, Tuscany is named for Ticius, Lombardy is named for Langaberd, and Britain is named for Brutus. By virtue of its name, Britain maintains a connection with ancient Troy, Brutus’s native city. In a related way, the Green Knight challenges Arthur’s court, referring to the “renown of the Round Table” (313). Later in the poem, the lady uses a similar strategy when she claims that her “guest is not Gawain” when she feels he has failed to live up to his reputation as a courteous knight (1293). The poem shows that names can contain reputation and transfer status; as such, a name must be defended against defamation so that it can legitimize the power of that to which (or whom) it refers.

As a concrete noun, a name can allow for a detailed knowledge of a thing or a person. For instance, the Gawain-poet names the individual parts of Gawain’s armor and uses the same technique when describing the host’s court, Arthur’s feast, and the different parts of each hunt. This kind of naming renders the poem tactile for the reader, as we get to know certain things, processes, people, and places intimately by knowing their specific names. Yet this kind of knowledge juxtaposes the utter ineffability of other things, concepts, and people in the poem. For instance, the host, his wife, his castle, and the old woman all remain nameless, adding to the sense of suspense and foreboding surrounding them. We know how many turrets the castle has, but we don’t know the name of its lord. In this way, names can reveal certain kinds of knowledge and expose certain kinds of ignorance regarding the physical world. Like the pentangle and the girdle, both of which are symbols whose meaning fluctuates and refuses to remain stable throughout the course of the poem, names prove to be empty signifiers. Ultimately, the Gawain-poet points out that the name frequently fails to mediate between objective reality and man’s subjective comprehension of it.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why might the Gawain-poet wish to frame his Arthurian, courtly romance within the context of classical epic?

2. What different ideological systems govern morality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Do they seem to compete with one another, or do they overlap? Which systems appear to dominate by the end of the tale, and why?

3. What forms of love (brotherly love, spiritual love, courtly love, erotic love, and so forth) exist in the text, and in what types of relationships do they appear (friendships, marriages, relationships with God, and so forth)? Does love most commonly manifest itself as suffering or as ennoblement? Why do you think so many scholars analyze this text as part of the courtly love tradition?

4. In Part 4, the Green Knight and Gawain agree that all their problems can be blamed on women. Do you think we’re meant to take the “woman blaming” ending seriously or to question it, and therefore (perhaps) to question the entire misogynist tradition to which Gawain alludes?

5. Many scenes and characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are doubled or multiplied. Why do you think the writer structures his poem this way? What effect does the repetition of passages have on the reader? How does this formal element of poetic composition relate to what is happening at the content level? You might choose one doubled scene (like Gawain’s departures from Camelot and Hautdesert) or character (Bertilak and the Green Knight) or something otherwise multiplied, like the “five fives” of Gawain’s pentangle.

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