English Lecture on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (around October 26, 2011)
On the Board:
Symbol = Many meanings
Emblem + Allegory = One meaning
Picture of an axe and a sword
C. Stephen Jasger
The Origin of Manners
c. 939 - 1210 > manners emerge in Western Europe
“Not erasing the board after a lecture is like not flushing the toilet after you are through” - Albert
- The court of King Arthur is presided over by a proud, boyish, excitable King. Everything was
not right as it should be in the court of a Christian King
- Suddenly the Green Knight comes in. What does the Green Knight stand for? He ‘hurtles’ l.36
into the room. Maybe he represents the raw vitality of nature. The court of King Arthur has
become openly sophisticated and artificial.
- Gawain goes into the raw world of harsh cold seasonal change.
- He goes at Advent, a time of preparation and waiting for Christians.
- Colour: l.150-231 that he is green as green can be. Everything about him is green which has
led some ctritics to believe that he is a vegen god. That he was a Nature God.
- Gold is associated with him too. Green and gold are the colours of the winter Solstice.
A residue perhaps of mithraism, a roman religion that worshipped the Sun.
- There are residues of beliefs from long ago in our modern world
- In this time Christian Writers thought that green was associated with death because corpses
turned green (prior to invention of embalming) Green is a colour associated with the
- Also associated with the devil (green tail).
- He for sure is supernatural looking, larger than life, and associated with death. He comes from
the North, which is also associated with death and the devil.
- The Green Knight seems to be an extraordinarily ambiguous figure.
- l.203-209: The Green Knight does not wear armour. He does not come to fight or make war,
but he comes unprotected presumably with a peaceful purpose.
- He comes with two adjuncts. A symbol suggests many meanings, but an emblem or
allegory has a one to one relationship with a particular abstraction relevant to the
poem. - The Green Knight carries a ‘holy branch’ explained as an emblem of peace. He also
carries an axe (huge, razor-sharp, terrifying instrument of destruction) Danish axe,
that Rasmus’ancestors would have wielded.
- Christianity teaches that death is not treated with fear, should be accepted.
- For someone who holds to the chivalric code of manners, this should be confronted
with acceptance, an agreement to house him in order to make him comfortable and to
understand what he’s doing here.
- How are the court going to treat and understand the Green Knight?
- If you understand medieval nature and society, there is a pyramid shape. God, King,
Aristocracy, etc. From a Christian Perspective, the Knights should deal properly with the Knight.
- But this does not happen. The Knight is not very polite. To call the King a ‘captain’is sarcastic
- l.309-310 He criticizes Arthurs house. He is calling Arthur an ineffectual leader, a bad thing, a
poor Christian, a douchebag. And he is calling the knights a bunch of weak, cowardly, ineffectual
men who do not warrant the reputation that they have.
- The round table has to show that these insults are false, they have to be true to the
chivalric code. They must not be discourteous. Will their value system hold? Will it be
workable in this context?
- They have to be good samaritans, hospitable to him.
- Here is a violent, potentially dangerous character. But they can not show violence to him, they
have to be courteous.
- Their reaction: They see him as a fairy. They are stunned by his words and go so silent. Many
were terrified with this figure, which they should not be. They should be able to solve this
problem with their Christian values.
- l.252 Arthur welcomes the Green Knight, compliments him. He is keeping up the code of
courtesy here. But the Green Knight continues to insult the court. At l.280 he calls Knights
- Now Arthur starts to break down, showing pride and anger (Seven Deadly Sins)
- l.317 (just before a bob/wheel?) Blood for sheer shame shot into his face, and pride.
- Sir Gawain l.341-360 steps forward to accept the challenge. He does so with Christianity: he
does so with calmness, humility (cure for pride, takes pride down), he does so with extreme
courtesy. Terrific manners unflawed by Arthurs anger.
- l.343 he says “I am Chuck Bass”basically. Hahaha
- He asks the Kings permission to accept the challenge. Super courtesy.