Questions for Reading, Interpreting and Writing: Sir Gawain

February 6, 2009 at 2:17 pm 1 comment

Good Friday morning.

Below are a series of questions for thinking and responding. I have offered some key quotes from the poem as a way to explore specific places in order to understand the whole of the poem. For your weekly writing, you may choose one or two questions I post, or anything else that interests you, and write a page or so response. This is a space for your to write freely, creatively, and unedited. I am not grading your weekly writing on content, but just that you do it. Consider this writing an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for a possible paper, and as an opportunity to explore interpretive approaches to the readings by writing down your thoughts. You are welcome to put your weekly writing in the Journals Section on Campus Cruiser, or on a Word document you attach in an e-mail. Most importantly, this shouldn’t be high pressure, but a relaxing and free way to explore on ideas, confusions, questions, thoughts, etc.

Even if you don’t choose to respond to one of these below, it is helpful to read the passages and the questions anyhow, for it will help you to piece the poem together and to interpret it.


Lines 85 – 94.

But Arthur would not eat till all were served;

So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;

His life he liked lively–the less he cared

To be lying for long, or long to sit,

So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.

What does the description of King Arthur say about him as a king? What does it say about Camelot? Why is this description important in the context of the poem, particularly in the beginning in which Camelot is depicted in full party mode?

Lines 309 – 315.

“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said the horseman then,

“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide?

Where is now your arrogance and your awesome deeds,

Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?

Now are the revel and renown of the Round Table

Overwhelmed with a word of one man’s speech,

For all cower and quake, and no cut felt!”

Why are the words of the Green Knight to Camelot important?  What does it say about that which he challenges them in his test, the Beheading Game?  What is he testing?


Lines 763 – 768.

No sooner had Gawain signed himself thrice

Than he was ware, in the wood, of a wondrous dwelling,

With a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs

Of many a tree great of girth that grew by the water–

A castle as comely as a knight could own,

On grounds fair and green, in a goodly park . . .

What is important about this vision of the Baron’s Castle, popping up out of thin air after Gawain prays to God and Mary that he won’t freeze to death?  What about the manifestation of the castle should make Gawain suspicious?  Why doesn’t he seem to notice anything symbolic about it? What do you think the poet intends the reader / audience to know about the Baron’s castle?


Lines 1770 – 1776

For that high-born beauty so hemmed him about,

Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs,

Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse.

His courtesy concerned him, less crass he appear,

But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin

And  belie his loyal oath to the lord of the house.

“God forbid!” said the bold knight. “That shall not befall!”

In this moment with Gawain on the third night of his “test” at the Baron’s castle, he attempts to resist the scantily dressed Lady once again. How does this passage reflect the codes and paradoxes of Courtly Love?  What is Gawain’s excruciating position?  How are the last three lines in  particular a foreshadowing and an irony, knowing what Gawain does shortly?

Lines 1851 – 1858.

“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,

If he bore it on his body, belted about,

There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,

For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.” [The Lady to Gawain]

Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought

It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come

When  he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:

Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!

Gawain accepts the Lady’s offer of the magical Green Girdle. This is the crucial moment of the poem. On what levels does Gawain greatly fail (fall) here?  In a Christian context, what does his action (accepting the green girdle) represent? What does it say about him as a human being and as a knight?  How harshly do you think we should or are meant to judge him?


Lines 2357 – 2368.

For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,

My wife is was that wore it; I know well the tale,

And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,

And the wooing of my wife–it was all my scheme!

She made trial of a man most faultless by far

Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;

So it is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.

Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,

But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,

But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.”

The Green Knight reveals himself to be the Baron of the Castle. He does so jovially, all in good humor. How does he address Gawain here, and how does he judge him?  He claims that Gawain’s only two faults were lacking a little loyalty with his wife, and loving his own life. How do you think the poet wants us to judge Gawain based upon this, particuarly in a Christian context?



Entry filed under: Assignments, British Literature.

Symbols. The Centrality of Symbolic Expression in Sir Gawain. Geoffrey Chaucer: Some Background to the Poet and his Times.

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Paul Small  |  February 7, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Sir Gawain & the Green Knight
    Lines 85-94

    I think we’re given a description of Arthur here because it not only alludes to a youthful Arthur, but also seems to foreshadow a bit of some challenge that is to come to Arthur. We’re given the sense of a younger, confident Arthur with a touch of arrogance as well. Yet his chivalry remains in tact with the first mention in the description that he will not eat until all is served and then seems to go on into the allusion of a youthful Arthur who is definitely at the head of the table in Camelot. With mentioning of his young blood and brain so wild, I think the poet is connecting Camelot to a younger generation. The story was obviously for nobility, maybe it was intended to be a story for the younger nobles who could use it to look up to Arthur? I think this suggests that the poet was not youthful himself though because it doesn’t seem like he would go out of his way to point out youth if he were young himself. I feel like it does foreshadow the Green Knight’s arrival because it talks about how Arthur did not want to eat until he had heard of a great story of bravery. It may be pointed out because Arthur eventually will get his entertainment with the Green Knight’s arrival.

    Lines 309-315

    The words of the Green Knight are important here because he is challenging, and in some ways mocking, the court of Camelot. This was probably a first in stories or at least a rarity that the integrity of Camelot was questioned. It also seems to be a jab at Arthur in a direct way of testing his virtue. The true knight that he was, Arthur theoretically would not be able to back down from any challenge. Perhaps the Green Knight knew this and was really seeking Arthur to take the challenge? The poet gives us the impression that Gawain intercepted the challenge from Arthur for his own virtue, but the end of the poem suggests to me that the Green Knight set Gawain up, knowing he was in need of virtue and gave him a golden opportunity to gain it. The entire story after the challenge seems to me like Gawain has been baited all along.


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