|The headless horseman got nothing on the Green Knight!|
There is only one surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is within a book nestled between some poems by the same author. From the line numbers to the rhyming, the poem is the work of a unique creative talent. None of the poems exist anywhere else in the medieval world; possible that a hermit wrote them but prof. Armstrong deems this unlikely.
Many scholars consider the Green Knight to be the finest piece of writing ever produced in medieval England. The author combined poetic genius, creativity, and even a kind of mathematical precision to create a text unlike any other, one which has narrative shifts, divergent story lines, and more in its pages, something unparalleled for its time.
The poem uses sophisticated mathematics; at its basic structural level, however, the poem is 2530 lines which uses 101 alliterative verse stanzas, each of which concludes with a rhyming section called a ‘Bob and Wheel.’ On another level, the poem is structured like a set of nesting boxes: the poem begins with mention of Troy and ends with Troy; meanwhile, if we move inward, to the poem’s content, the next ‘frame’ is the court of King Arthur. The content then proceeds to the coming of a mysterious knight, the adventure of Gawain, then a happenchance of a strange castle, whereupon the hero is tested by a seductress as hunting scenes replicate an ‘in’ and ‘out’ pattern and mimic the temptations faced by Gawain.
The story is simple: a literal Green Knight visits King Arthur’s court to challenge Arthur’s knights to a contest—one of them must strike him with all of their might, and bear a similar blow one year hence. So, Gawain accepts the challenge and decapitates the green man, only to have the man pick up his head and return to his horse. So, a year later, Gawain sets out on his quest.
He happens upon a castle in the woods with a man named Birdlack as lord. He offers Gawain lodging and asks him to stay some days before his beheading appointment; he makes a wager with Gawain—he’ll go out hunting every day and give whatever he catches to Gawain, so as long as Gawain to give anything he manages to get while lounging around the castle.
This is the “Exchange of Winnings/Temptation” motif. He accepts. Birdlack kills a bird, a deer, and a fox. Back at the castle, meanwhile, Gawain is trapped in his bed each morning by the lady of the castle. Gawain cannot be rude to the lady or give himself up, sexually, to the lady. Each compromise is a chaste kiss; one day one, Gawain gives the lord a kiss, in the second, two kisses for each of the kisses given to him by the lady. It is an interesting point raised by the poem, that it raises the possibility of same-sex intimacy had Gawain given himself up to the lady; interesting because it brings it up only to shut down the option of homosexuality.
Each of the animals that the Lord kills appears to be a reflection of the tactics of the lady in her attempt to seduce Gawain. Day one, she is shy and innocent, like the deer that Birdlack kills; on day two, she is more aggressive, like a boar, a very dangerous animal; on the third day, she behaves cleverly, like a fox. Ultimately, she convinces Gawain to accept a green sash under the premise that it will protect him from harm while the lady pressures him to keep it a secret from her husband.
Gawain’s honor is the crux of the final section. Is he a believer in his God or his magic sash?
Gawain keeps his appointment. The axe is about to come down on his neck but the green knight hesitates when he sees Gawain flinch. Gawain retorts that he is the same Gawain that the green knight met at court, and implores the green knight to strike at him. He takes another swing but only passes a hair-think scratch on Gawain’s neck. Gawain leaps to his feet, marking his promise as kept.
The Green Knight reveals that he is, in fact, lord Birdlack. He says that he sent his wife in to tempt him every morning. With aims and free will, the text is riddled with contradictions. But Gawain is only upset that he kept the sash from Birdlack; though Birdlack says that it is of no issue and that anyone in Gawain’s position would have done the same, Gawain tears the sash off and to berate himself. Birdlack attempts to gain Gawain back to his court so they might have a laugh about the whole ordeal, but Gawain is deeply ashamed and cannot fathom doing so, only to return to King Arthur’s court and bear his shame as a kind of penance. But, it is revealed that the beheading contest was arranged by Morgan Lefay, disguised as an ugly woman at the green court, who used her magic to have the Green Knight survive Gawain’s blow; she did it in an attempt to scare Queen Guinevere to death. When Gawain returns to court, he retells his adventure and expects shame from his fellow knights at his actions, but the reverse is true, and the other knights all decide to bear a green sash in sympathy of Gawain.
The beginning section with Gawain riding off, and its parallel section at the end, make up what is called the “Beheading Contest” motif. In the Celtic tradition this is a familiar story, but in the hands of the Gawain-poet, it is dramatically altered. Even in the Arthurian tradition we see change, possibly even push back against the French Arthurian tradition with the signaling of Gawain, instead of Lancelot, as the primary heroic figure. Around this time several Gawain stories start to pop up.
The Green Knight, bearing holly, may belong to an ancient tradition which could symbolize the conflict between civilization and nature. Since he bears an ax, the knight is not actually a knight.
At the end of the poem, there is a line which marks it as a potential piece of property of the Order of the Garden, a sect of noblemen who would have been well-educated. Ultimately, the poem bears an interest of the community and the individual.