Sir Gawain and the Green Knight By Anonymous Summary and Analysis Lines 1,998–2,159 (Stanzas 80–86)

Summary

New Year's Day brings a terrible storm, and Gawain has not slept well. He puts on his fine armor and ties the lady's belt around his waist. His horse has been well cared for, and Gawain silently wishes blessings for his good host and hostess. His guide leads him to a hilltop near the Green Chapel. The guide warns him of the terrible creature who lives there and advises Gawain not to go. The guide says he will keep Gawain's secret if Gawain flees. Gawain says that he cannot act so cowardly, even if the guide keeps it secret. The guide tells him the way, and then leaves him there, and Gawain puts his fate in God's hands.

Analysis

The wild winter storm that comes on New Year's Day reflects Gawain's troubled state of mind as his appointment draws closer. Gawain is still fearful of the outcome, evidenced by the fact that he is doing the medieval equivalent of watching the clock, listening for the cock's crow each hour of the night. Gawain puts on his beautiful armor again, although it will not help him now because he must willingly submit to the Green Knight's ax. (Perhaps, in good Old West style, he intends to die with his boots on.) When he is armed, he ties the lady's belt over his clothing, making no effort to conceal it. The poet comments that the belt is bright green against Gawain's red surcoat (the garment he wears over his armor), making it even more obvious. Ironically, it is tied over his own emblem, the pentangle, which was embroidered on his surcoat. Certainly Gawain does not expect to see his host or hostess again, having said goodbye to them the night before, but his lack of effort to conceal the belt may also mean that he does not consider wearing it an impropriety. The poet emphasizes that Gawain does not value the belt for its richness (or, by implication, for the lady's love) but strictly to save his life.

Despite his questionable encounters with his hostess, Gawain leaves the castle with the warmest of good wishes for its occupants and deep gratitude for the kindness he has received there. The poet offers these sentiments as Gawain's inward thoughts; they are not spoken aloud to anyone, so readers have no reason to question their sincerity. Gawain's generous character shines in this passage. He displays the fellow-feeling and generosity of spirit for which the poet praised him in the discussion of the pentangle (lines 640–665).

Gawain's encounter with the guide is one of the more curious episodes of the poem. Having left the castle, Gawain still is not free from temptations. The guide offers him one last chance to save himself: He advises Gawain to run away and offers to keep Gawain's departure a secret. The cagey guide prefaces his offer with a vivid description of the cruel monster that waits for Gawain at the Green Chapel, just to give the temptation maximum impact. The guide's knowledge of the monster is peculiar, considering that Gawain has met no one in all his travels, with the singular exception of his host, who has even heard of the Green Chapel. While the guide's actions are never explained in the poem, most readers have assumed that he is, like the lady of the castle, involved in the host's deception of Gawain, or else that he is the mysterious shape-changing host himself, who has been so fond of tweaking Gawain's fears at the castle. Gawain's response to the temptation is what one would expect from a perfect Christian knight: Gawain could not live with himself if he behaved like a coward. Gawain says he will accept his fate and that God can find ways to save those who do His will. Here again, the best features of Gawain's character are in evidence.

The guide leaves, handing Gawain a helmet and spear. Many critics have found in this line echoes from Ephesians 6:10–17, which exhorts Christians to "put on the full armor of God," including the "shield of faith" and the "helmet of salvation," as defense against the evils of the world and the temptations of the devil. If the poet is deliberately referring to this passage, it suggests that Gawain's true battle is spiritual, rather than merely physical. This connection is strengthened by Ephesians 6:14, which refers to girding one's waist with truth. Gawain cannot claim any such support; he will call the belt "the token of untruth" at line 2,509.

Glossary

Greece The poet's phrase is "the gayest into Greece," meaning there is no finer armor than Gawain's from here to Greece (that is, very far away). A similar phrase appears in Pearl.

Hector From the Iliad, a prince of Troy famous for his skill as a warrior.

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