Summary and Analysis
Lines 2,479–2,530 (Stanzas 100–101)
Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the green belt like a sash. The whole court rejoices to see him safe and hear his marvelous tale. Gawain explains that he will always wear the sash to remind him of his fault. The king and courtiers laugh about it and decided they will also wear green sashes for Gawain's sake.
Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the Green Knight's belt like a baldric — that is, looped over his right shoulder and knotted under his left arm. The arrangement is significant because it puts the bright green band over Gawain's symbol, the gold pentangle on a red background. In heraldic terms, the green stripe is a "bend," and it essentially remakes Gawain's own emblem. Gawain calls the belt "a token of untruth," in contrast to the pentangle, which was a token of truth. In Gawain's interpretation, this new symbol constantly reminds him of his shame and his failure to achieve the kind of perfection represented by the pentangle.
The reaction of Arthur's court to Gawain's self-proclaimed shame has provoked considerable disagreement among interpreters of the poem. The poet says that the court responds with laughter, but is it the laughter of mockery, of friendship, or of relief? One view holds that the court's laughter is a reflection of their ignorance and immaturity. Unable to understand the spiritual trial Gawain has endured, they make a game out of it, turning Gawain's badge of shame into a shallow fad. In this interpretation, Gawain has achieved important self-knowledge, but the inhabitants of Camelot have not. Gawain has changed, bearing the literal and figurative scars of his experiences. The court's inability to achieve such spiritual insight points toward the eventual downfall of Arthur's rule.
Another view holds that the court's laughter is an appropriate reaction to the events, perhaps more appropriate than Gawain's insistent guilt and high seriousness. Gawain judges his sin from the standard of perfection, from which even the smallest flaw is a irreparable harm. The court's laughter reflects the element of comedy in the poem; after all, the story has a happy ending. The court receives Gawain back as one of their own, sharing in his guilt out of love for him, and admitting by wearing green sashes that they all have some measure of guilt. The world of human affairs is a place of mixed right and wrong. Laughter acknowledges the imperfection of human affairs and proposes a moderate and tolerant reaction to human failings. Gawain is an idealist; the court (like the Green Knight) are realists.
Readers continually disagree about whether Gawain's self-condemnation is justified or unreasonably harsh. Gawain's standard, the chivalric standard, is that of perfection, and judged against this standard, he is, indeed, hopelessly flawed. As the poet shows, when one part of the perfect knot of truth unravels, it ceases to be. However, judged against the standards of the world — as Bertilak and Camelot judge Gawain — he is still a shining example of knighthood. He has achieved hard-earned self-knowledge that allows him to rise above his flaws. He may not be perfect, but in the world of flawed human beings, of mixed "bliss and blunder," he is very good.
The poet ends the poem where it began by referring once again to Brutus and the fall of Troy. In fact, the poem's first line is repeated at line 2,525, literally bringing the poem full circle. The poet closes with a two-line invocation to Christ (who "bore the crown of thorn") and an "Amen." While pious endings to secular poems were conventional, critics have sometimes singled out the Gawain-poet's closing as particularly clerical in tone.
The final line of the poem, "Hony soyt qui mal pence," is particularly puzzling. Most scholars have considered it a later addition, not the work of the poet, and possibly not even the work of the scribe who copied the rest of the manuscript. The line is the motto of the Order of the Garter, usually translated, "Shame to him who thinks evil of it." The Order of the Garter was founded by King Edward III in 1348 to honor the knights who loyally fought with him in France. The Order's emblem is a blue garter, rather than a green belt, although the "garter" looks much like a belt. Tradition says the motto originated while Edward was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury and her garter fell off. Edward picked it up and fastened around his leg, admonishing the amused onlookers with the line that became the Order's motto. Despite the romantic tale, the garter may simply be a buckled strap, a common enough piece of equipment on any knight's gear. The motto may also refer to Edward's claims to the throne of France, one of the principal causes of the Hundred Years' War and the subject of criticism by Edward's opponents at home and abroad.
Regardless of whether the poet intended the line to appear, the association between the poem and the Order of the Garter is an obvious one to make. Edward had a personal fascination with King Arthur, and Edward's original plan for the Order of Garter, first proposed around 1344, had been for a re-created Round Table. Both Gawain and the Order received their emblem from a lovely lady, and the garter and the belt are similar in form. Whether this association is positive or negative depends almost entirely on one's interpretation of the moral status of Camelot at the close of the poem. If the court's adoption of Gawain's green sash is cynical, the reference to the Order of the Garter may be a criticism of the Order, perhaps as a false imitation of a chivalric ideal. If the court's adoption of the green sash is sympathetic, the reference may be praise of the order's ideals.
It may not, finally, be possible to deduce the meaning of the motto or its precise association with the poem. However, the ambiguity of the motto is a fitting ending to a poem full of ambiguities, and it does reflect one of the poem's overriding concerns: The idea that things are not always what they appear and judgments made are not always final.