Summary and Analysis
Lines 2,160–2,388 (Stanzas 87–95)
Gawain rides off alone in search of the Green Chapel. He sees a low mound off in a clearing and hears a strange noise like the sharpening of a blade. Gawain calls out, and the Green Knight appears, carrying a huge ax. The knight tells Gawain to prepare to receive the blow he was promised. Gawain does so, but as the ax is falling, he sees it and flinches. The knight pulls the blow and mocks Gawain for his cowardice. Gawain promises not to flinch again, and the knight raises his ax. The knight pulls the second blow, but this time Gawain has not moved.
The knight finally strikes Gawain, but gives him only a small cut on the neck. Gawain springs up and grabs his sword, telling the knight he will defend himself now that he had taken the promised blow. The knight tells Gawain that the first two blows were for the first two nights at the castle, when Gawain fairly repaid him his wife's kisses, and the small cut was for Gawain's falsehood on the third day. The knight says that he sent his wife to test Gawain, and he found Gawain the most perfect knight in the world, but Gawain failed to keep faith, although only out of fear for his life. Gawain is overcome with shame and confesses his fault, asking forgiveness.
The dramatic resolution of the Green Knight's game comes in these lines, as Gawain discovers that his expectations have been entirely wrong — and not least of all, he is wrong about his notion of exactly how he is being tested.
First, the supposedly famous Green Chapel is not the building Gawain expects, but a hole in the ground. The poet describes it as a low, smooth mound covered with grass, with openings at the ends and the sides, indicating that it is oblong. This description makes the Green Chapel sound like a barrow, an ancient grave mound, which has been emptied of it contents, so that it looks to Gawain like nothing but an old cave. If it is indeed an empty grave, the Green Chapel is a fitting location for a poem so concerned with renewal and rebirth — particularly on New Year's Day, a day of new beginnings. To Gawain's eyes, however, the place is desolate and cursed. Barrows had a reputation for being haunted, and they were suspect as products of a pre-Christian culture. Critics who believe that the Green Knight is actually the devil get some support from Gawain's thoughts throughout these lines, as he calls the "chapel" a good place for the devil to say his "matins" or prayer service at midnight, the hour when evil is most active. Gawain thinks to himself that the devil has engineered the affair in order to trap him, and he feels this in his "five wits" (five senses), reminding the audience of the pentad of Gawain's virtues.
If the Green Chapel is not actually a barrow, the fact that it resembles a cave may link it to the poem's Celtic mythological source material, in which caves could be entrances to the faery realm. In the great Classical epic the Aeneid, Aeneas makes a journey through the underworld, which he enters via a cave; medieval commentators considered this journey an allegory of spiritual self-discovery. The Green Chapel's ties to the earth and to vegetation can also make it a symbol of fertility. Some critics have even suggested a symbolic connection to the womb, and thus to rebirth.
The poet gets maximum dramatic effect out of the strange noise Gawain hears in this desolate spot, and the alliterative verse effectively imitates the eerie, metallic sound. Even after Gawain has pragmatically resolved not to be scared by mere noises and has announced his presence to his unseen adversary, the Green Knight goes on grinding his ax, just to unnerve Gawain a few moments longer. The Green Knight continues playing cat-and-mouse with Gawain as the knight draws out Gawain's anticipated deathblow. When Gawain flinches, the Green Knight attacks his reputation, much as the hostess did: How could the perfect knight Gawain show any sign of fear? As if this were not enough, the Green Knight stops to praise Gawain when Gawain does not flinch. By this time, Gawain is getting irritated and tells him to get on with it. The Green Knight responds by giving Gawain only a small cut, but enough to make him bleed. The image of Gawain's red blood on the snow adds to the repeated red-white-green symbolism of the poem, and it recalls the red on green of the Green Knight's beheading. Suddenly realizing that he has fulfilled his agreement to take one blow, Gawain draws his sword to defend himself, and here the poet gives the audience a view into the Green Knight's thoughts for the only time in the poem. The knight sees Gawain standing there, brave and spirited, and he genuinely likes Gawain.
For critics who have attempted to identify the Green Knight with the devil, this is a sticking point. Clearly, the Green Knight shares many of the traditional literary qualities of the devil. He wears green, he is fearsome and otherworldly, he is a hunter, and most importantly, he offers temptations — he tests the virtue of the hero by offering opportunities for sin. In fact, some critics have likened Gawain to Job: God has allowed the devil to tempt Job so that he may show his virtues and attain greater knowledge of the good. However, the Green Knight is remarkably fun-loving, and it is difficult to argue that the devil would begin to like one of his victims. The Green Knight himself is high-spirited and brave, just as Gawain is, and in his role as host, he was merry and hospitable. Overall, he appears more mischievous, or perhaps devious, than evil. As the lord of the castle, he also regularly attends Mass, something no literary devil would do. Like much else in the poem, the Green Knight/host is difficult to pin down. He is neither entirely devil nor entirely man; not exactly an enemy, but not entirely a friend.
When the Green Knight finally reveals the plot to Gawain, the knight does not even condemn Gawain; in fact, he praises Gawain as a "pearl among peas." Gawain failed, but only a little. His failing proceeded from the basic human instinct for self-preservation, not from treachery or lust, although his opportunities for those were plentiful. Gawain's own reaction is far different; he condemns himself for "cowarddyse" (cowardice) and "couetyse" (coveting or greed). Cowardice, while not necessarily a sin in the usual sense of the word, is nonetheless a serious failing for this most perfect of knights who is famous for his courage, and it opposes the fourth of his pentad of virtues, the bravery he derived from meditating on the joys of the Virgin. Cowardice also represents a lack of faith for Gawain — although he claimed to put himself entirely in God's hands, his acceptance of the belt belies that. "Couetyse" is the direct opposite of "fraunchyse," or generosity, one of the five virtues the poet ascribes to Gawain. However, covetousness or greed in the usual sense of desiring wealth is not Gawain's flaw here; in fact, the poet has already made clear that Gawain did not want the belt for its material value. Covetousness in this sense means wanting what one should not have. Here, it is a misplaced kind of self-love that values one's personal desires over other considerations. Finally, Gawain says he has betrayed the "larges and lewté," or liberality and loyalty, that belong to true knighthood. "Larges" here means something more like openness or honesty, rather than generosity. By taking the belt, Gawain demonstrated disloyalty to his host, and by keeping it secret, he compounded his disloyalty with deception.
Gawain's first reaction at being exposed has a touch of psychological realism: Angry and defensive, he flings the belt at the Green Knight. However, Gawain immediately admits his wrong and is overcome with shame. While his self-assessment may be harsh, Gawain has the essentials right, and he does not attempt to excuse himself or rationalize his actions. Gawain's confession to the Green Knight certainly feels more authentic than his formal confession the night before. In particular, Gawain's words reflect the three crucial elements of confession: acknowledgement of one's fault, sincere regret, and a desire to make amends.
One detail often lost in these lines is the nature of the green belt, which at least appears firmly resolved: It had no magical power, because the Green Knight tells Gawain he could have killed him if he had wanted to. Nonetheless, Gawain comes out of his encounter bearing only a scratch, so perhaps the belt has had a less magical but equally effective kind of power, in that it has brought Gawain to a greater awareness of himself. In one sense, the belt may have saved Gawain's life after all. The three strokes Gawain receives from the Green Knight recall the dubbing of a ceremony of knighthood, in which the new knight receives three ritual blows on his shoulders. This suggests that Gawain is getting a new chance at knighthood, as well as a new chance at life. Finally, Gawain's penance takes place on New Year's Day, which is also the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, considered in the Middle Ages to be the first time that Christ shed blood for the sins of humanity. The small cut Gawain receives at Bertilak's hands may have symbolic links to the circumcision. For medieval Christians, circumcision symbolized spiritual purification, as in Romans 2:29, where St. Paul describes the true circumcision as that of the heart.
scythe an agricultural tool for harvesting or mowing, consisting of a long single-edged blade set at an angle on a handle. The personified figure of Death is often shown carrying a scythe, so it is appropriate for Gawain to imagine that the sound he hears is a scythe blade being sharpened.
Danish ax a type of battle-ax having an especially long blade.