Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Truth

1

‘[Y]ou have gladly gone over, in good discourse, The covenant I requested of the king in full, Except that you shall assent, swearing in truth, To seek me yourself, in such place as you think To find me under the firmament, and fetch your payment For what you deal me today before this dignified gathering.’

The Green Knight switches from fighting King Arthur to fighting Gawain, and he wants to make sure that Gawain fully understands and agrees with the terms of his challenge. His speech shows an almost lawyerly attention to the covenant details that Gawain must agree to. He insists that Gawain swear “in truth,” a redundancy that shows the Green Knight’s concern with truthfulness as well as his emphatic desire to conclude the contract specifically with Gawain and not a surrogate. Gawain needs to voluntarily agree to submit to the Green Knight’s repayment of Gawain’s blow. After Gawain swears an oath to do so, the Green Knight feels satisfied.

2

I intend to tell you, though I tarry therefore, Why the Pentangle is proper to this prince of knights. It is a symbol which Solomon conceived once To betoken holy truth, by its intrinsic right. . . . Therefore it goes with Sir Gawain and his gleaming armor[.]

The narrator explains that Gawain now wears a new symbol on his shield as he sets out to find the Green Knight: a pentangle or five-pointed star. In the poem, the poet goes to great lengths to describe the many ways in which Gawain, like the star, embodies holy truth, a specifically Christian set of virtues and values. Wearing the symbol on his shield, Gawain thus becomes an embodiment of the Christian spirit riding north into a hostile wilderness to do battle against the strange and unholy—pagan and, therefore, evil—Green Knight.

3

‘Moreover,’ said the man, ‘Let us make a bargain That whatever I win in the woods be yours, And any achievement you chance on here, you exchange for it. Sweet sir, truly swear to such a bartering Whether fair fortune or foul befall from it.’

Like the Green Knight, the Host proposes a game of exchange. Instead of exchanging blows, they will exchange the gifts they win. As the Host points out, the result of this bargain may be good luck or bad. The stakes seem much lower than trading axe blows, and Gawain refers to the bargain as “sport.” Nevertheless, the Host asks Gawain to “truly swear” to stick to their bargain, and Gawain says he will. Both men take this promise seriously—the Host for his own purposes, Gawain because he lives by true and honest principles.

4

‘Gawain,’ said the green knight, ‘may God guard you! You are welcome to my dwelling, I warrant you, And you have timed your travel here as a true man ought. You know plainly the pact we pledged between us[.]’

The Green Knight acknowledges that Gawain has kept his promise to arrive at the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day. Gawain appears true, meaning, true to his word. Little does Gawain realize that the keeping of the promise—as well as another promise—served as the whole point of the contest. By arriving as promised, despite expecting to be killed, Gawain will be spared his life. The Green Knight may hint to that when he says, “may God guard you!” God’s protection would seem to guarantee Gawain’s survival of the trial to come.

5

‘Truth for truth’s the word; No need for dread, God knows. From your failure at the third The tap you took arose.’

The Green Knight explains why he gave Gawain one small tap of his axe: In one instance Gawain was not true to his word, and therefore not true in his words. He did not tell Sir Bertilak, his host, that Lady Bertilak had given him her girdle. She had begged Gawain to keep her gift secret and he had promised to do so, and he only took the gift because such an action would protect his life. For those reasons, the Green Knight considers Gawain’s failure to tell the truth to be only a misdemeanor and forgivable.