Summary and Analysis
Lines 491–619 (Stanzas 22–28)
The seasons change — winter, spring, and summer — until fall arrives. Gawain begins to think of leaving. The king holds a feast for him on All Saints' Day. The court makes merry, but they are sad, thinking of Gawain's fate. The next day, he dresses in his armor and goes to Mass. Gawain's shield bears the emblem of a pentangle; the poet explains how this figure symbolizes Gawain's virtues. The court bids him a sad farewell, and Gawain sets off on his journey. He wanders through the wilderness, fighting many strange enemies and the bitter winter weather. On Christmas Eve, he prays to the Virgin Mary to aid him, fearing he will not be able to hear Mass on Christmas.
The poet opens these lines with an unusual observation: He calls the incident at Camelot a "hanselle," or gift, that comes to Arthur because he asked for a wonder, or "aventurus." The poet does not explain how the impending doom of Arthur's finest knight can be a gift — that will not become apparent until the end of the poem — but the description carries through the theme of gift-giving in this Christmas poem.
Gawain's allotted year passes quickly in these lines. The poet devotes considerable attention to the changes taking place in the natural world as the seasons cycle onward. Although the details of the description, such as the warm showers and singing birds of spring, are conventional in medieval poetry, the poet handles them with an especially light touch. The passage of time is marked by the movement of the natural seasons, but also by the seasons of the church. This delicate counter-balancing of the natural world with the world of human society is a constant tension within the poem.
During the penitential season of Lent, medieval Christians were expected to fast and refrain from eating meat. (Fish was not considered meat, hence the poet's humorous line about Lent "trying the flesh with fish.") Gawain begins thinking about his upcoming obligation on Michaelmas, September 29, the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. Michaelmas was a harvest-time holiday, and it was traditionally the time when wages were paid and debts were settled, an appropriate touch given Gawain's circumstances. St. Michael often appears in medieval paintings holding a balancing scale in which he weighs the souls of the dead, to determine whether they will go to heaven or hell. Michael was the standard-bearer of the armies of heaven and is often shown battling Satan. For this reason, he was invoked as a protector of Christians against evil.
Gawain stays at court until All Hallows' Day, or All Saints' Day, November 1, on which all Christian saints were honored. The following day, when Gawain actually sets out on his journey, is All Souls' Day, when all of the faithful dead are remembered, and the Mass Gawain attends that day would have been, in essence, a funeral service.
The "arming of the hero" sequence was a convention of epic poetry and of Arthurian romance, but the poet displays a thorough and entirely realistic knowledge of contemporary armor in the description. The emphasis seems to be on artifice and magnificence as much as military might: Gawain's armor is richly gilded, and he stands on a luxurious red silk carpet to receive his armor. Red and gold become Gawain's colors in the poem, in contrast the Green Knight's green and gold. Because it is the color of blood, red represents life, and it also symbolizes love, the passion of Christ, and the inspiration given by the Holy Spirit. Some details of Gawain's costume are similar to Green Knight's. Like him, Gawain has birds and flowers embroidered on his clothing, and knots also figure in the description. Both knights sparkle with jewels, though Gawain's are in the circlet of diamonds on his helmet. In medieval belief, diamonds were thought to offer protection against evil and to give courage to the wearer.
Gawain's shield is a crucial symbol in the poem, and the poet explicates its symbolism in detail. The red shield is decorated with a gold pentangle (also called a pentagram), the familiar five-pointed star drawn by connecting five lines. The pentangle was almost always associated with magic, as a protective talisman, and the Christian moral symbolism the poet ascribes to it seems to be his own invention. This combination of magic and religion is not necessarily unusual for the medieval period, but magic was normally condemned by Christian writers, so an unresolved tension surrounds this symbol. The poet runs through a veritable catalog of medieval symbolism for the number five; in fact, he gives Gawain a pentad of virtues, five for each one of the five points on the pentangle. Gawain is faultless in his five senses, indicating his moderation and purity. He is also faultless in his "five fingers." The meaning of this is obscure, but it may refer to a medieval allegory of five virtues; compare also Chaucer's Parson's Tale, lines 853–863, where the devil has five "fingers" or sins (in that case, all associated with lust) to catch humanity.
Another suggestion, made by Richard Firth Green, is that the five fingers refer to a ritual accompanying the medieval trial by battle. If so, the reference emphasizes Gawain's role as Arthur's designated representative on this dangerous mission. Gawain contemplates the five wounds of Christ on the cross (often said to correspond to the five senses) and derives his courage from thinking on the five joys of the Virgin Mary. Medieval lists of the joys (joyful events) in the life of Mary varied in number — five, seven, and fifteen being most common), but these five are probably the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Assumption. A picture of the Virgin holding the infant Christ appears on the inside of Gawain's shield, reminding readers again of his chastity, his Christian devotion, and his status as Mary's knight.
Finally, the poet names Gawain's five virtues: "fraunchyse" (generosity), "felawschyp" (fellowship, fellow-feeling), "clannes" (purity, chastity), "cortaysye" (courtesy), and "pité." Scholars disagree about the meaning of this last word. A few translators render it "piety," which was often mentioned as a primary knightly virtue. However, most translators choose "pity" or "compassion," a reading further supported by reference to I Corinthians 13:13, which states that the greatest virtue is love or charity; the poet likewise says that "pité" is the virtue that surpasses all other points. The poet's word "poyntez" is a clever pun, because it can mean "virtues," but can also refer to the "points" of the pentangle. Most importantly, the pentangle is "in bytoknyng of trawthe," a symbol of truth that is perfect, intertwined, and indivisible, like the endless knot the poet calls it. The knot cannot be perfect if any one part of it fails, because all are linked. It is a difficult standard for any human being to live up to, even a hero as perfect as Gawain.
Incidentally, fives also appear as a structural element in the poem. The bob-and-wheel is always a group of five rhymes, and the first line of the poem is repeated at line 2,525 (25 = 5 x 5). The entire poem is 2,530 lines, or 2,525 + 5. While such devices may seem absurd to modern audiences, number symbolism was far more important in the medieval world than it is today, because it was thought to reflect the divine geometry by which God ordered the universe. Use of significant numbers to determine the length or structure of a poem was, therefore, not unusual. (For more information on medieval numerology, consult Vincent Hopper's classic book, Medieval Number Symbolism.)
Gawain's journey takes him through real places in Wales and northwest England as well as the fantasy landscape of romance. Along the way, he encounters the standard dragons and monsters of romance tradition (although the poet passes over these without much comment) as well as the more familiar enemy of extreme cold. Once again, the poet's attention to detail makes the fantastic seem immediate and real, and the description of winter weather is both beautifully presented and convincingly unpleasant. Wandering in the wilderness has a long association with spiritual trial, from the desert wandering of Moses and the Israelites to Christ's temptation in the wilderness to Dante's wandering in the wilderness at the beginning of the Divine Comedy. These associations suggest that there is more at stake than Arthur's court or even Gawain himself realizes. The court mourns the passing of so noble a hero, lamenting that he should have become a duke, thereby emphasizing the worldly status that Gawain is losing. Meanwhile, Gawain puts up a stoic front, saying that a man can only endure his fate.
The turning point comes in a forest of tangled oak, hazel, and hawthorn, all trees associated with magic and the faery world. It is Christmas Eve, and Gawain pleads with the Virgin Mary to help him find a place to hear the Christmas Mass. Gawain's spiritual trial has not yet ended, but it is about to enter a new and less obviously heroic phase, in which dragons and monsters are replaced by far more subtle opponents.
Zephyrus in Greek mythology, the god of the west wind (and thus representing the warm breezes of spring).
Yvain, Eric, Dodinal de Sauvage, Duke of Clarence, Lancelot, Lionel, Lucan, Bors, Bedivere, Mador de la Porte famous knights of Arthurian legend. The listing of knights' names is a typical device of Arthurian romance.
Gringolet (or Gryngolet) the name of Gawain's horse, who according to legend could run ten miles without tiring.
gules in heraldry, the term for the color red.
caparison an ornamental drape covering the saddle or harness.
baldric a strap worn across one shoulder and fastened under the opposite arm, usually to support a sword or shield.
Solomon one of the Kings of Israel, famed for his wisdom. Medieval popular belief held that Solomon's wisdom included knowledge of magic.
Logres Arthurian name for the kingdom of Britain.
Anglesey an island off the northwestern coast of Wales; several small islands are associated with the main island.
Holy Head possibly Holy Head in Anglesey; may also be Holywell on the Welsh coast, where according to legend, the virgin St. Winifred was beheaded for refusing the advances of a local prince; St. Beuno restored her head and raised her from the dead.
Wirral a region in northern Wales, famous in the Gawain-poet's day as the haunt of criminals.
Pater, Ave, and Creed the "Pater Noster" or Lord's Prayer (Latin for "Our Father"), the "Ave Maria," ("Hail Mary") a prayer to the Virgin, and the Apostles' Creed, a statement of Christian belief.
Matins one of the seven "canonical hours" or prayer services that marked time during the medieval day. Matins was the service at midnight.