Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider,
And the hair of his head was the same hue as his horse,
And floated finely like a fan round his shoulders;
And a great bushy beard on his breast flowing down,
With the heavy hair hanging from his head,
Was shorn below the shoulder, sheared right round,
So that half his arms were under the encircling hair,
Covered as by a king’s cape, that closes at the neck.
Gawain, pp. 27-28
Gawain gripped his axe and gathered it on high,
Advanced the left foot before him on the ground
And slashed swiftly down on the exposed part,
So that the sharp blade sheared through, shattering the bones,
Sank deep in the sleek flesh, split it in two. . .
Yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter one whit,
But stoutly sprang forward on legs still sturdy,
Roughly reached out among the ranks of nobles,
Seized his splendid head and straightway lifted it.
Gawain, pp. 36-37
These two passages exemplify the two extremes of the Gawain poet’s narrative time structure. The first passage is just a fraction of the Green Knight’s introduction to the story. Time in this section is slowed down to the point of becoming a still frame shot of the Knight’s hair. The second passage moves much more quickly, showing Gawain beheading the Green Knight and the Knight picking up his severed head, both in section 19. The purpose of both of these passages’ different pacing is to demonstrate the might of the Green Knight, and to make him into a formidable challenge for Gawain.
The story that has progressed quickly up to the first passage slows down to show the knight’s every detail, which stresses his importance in the text and his power to intimidate as a character. Everything about the first passage illustrates the Green Knight’s prowess. The first two lines display the knight’s status as a member of the supernatural realm: “Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider,/And the hair of his head was the same hue as his horse.” It is no wonder that the Green Knight catches the eyes the knights of King Arthur’s court— he is dressed in green, has green hair, and he rides on a green horse. Dressing all in green might have been striking enough, but he jumps from being merely eye-catching to abnormal with his hair color and his horse, since no men or horses have naturally green hair. Thus, the Green Knight is established as being otherworldly from the start, which already makes him intimidating without his being immensely muscular.
The Gawain poet also writes that the Green Knight has “a great bushy beard on his breast flowing down.” This harkens back to The Poem of the Cid, in which the Compeador takes pride in his long beard that has never been plucked. For the Cid and for the Green Knight, their long beards stand as symbols for their virility. Their bushy facial hair establishes them clearly as men, for women and children cannot grow beards.
What comes next is a description of the Green Knight’s long hair. The Gawain poet writes that the Green Knight’s heavy hair that hangs below his shoulders is so long that “half his arms were under the encircling hair,/Covered as by a king’s cape, that closes at the neck.” The sheer length of the Green Knight’s hair is supernatural in itself; it is unheard-of for a human male to grow his hair long enough that it covers half of his arms. Furthermore, the poet says that the Green Knight’s hair is as long as a cape— most importantly a king’s cape. The poet’s comparison of the Green Knight to a king also increases his prestige.
The mere fact that so much narration is spent describing the Green Knight adds to his importance. The poet fully describes every single detail of the knight— which contrasts starkly from the second passage, where in a matter thirteen lines, Gawain chops the knight’s head off, the knight’s head rolls on the ground, and the beheaded knight finds his head and lifts it. The speed of this passage acts as a disservice to Gawain’s abilities as a mighty warrior. One may argue that Gawain seems to have the upper hand in the dispute because of his skillful axe wielding: “Gawain gripped his axe and gathered it on high,. . ./ And slashed swiftly down on the exposed part,/So that the sharp blade sheared through, shattering the bones,/Sank deep in the sleek flesh, split it in two.” Gawain in these sentences wastes no time, and is able to slash quickly enough to slice all the way through the Green Knight’s skin and bones and separate his head from his shoulders.
It would seem that Gawain’s ability to easily behead the Green Knight would stand as a testament to his skill as a knight, but the Green Knight defies him of this satisfaction: “Yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter one whit,/But stoutly sprang forward on legs still sturdy,/Roughly reached out among the ranks of nobles,/Seized his splendid head and straightway lifted it.” The poet makes sure to note that even when having his head cut off, the Green Knight is so fearless and strong that he does not falter, much less fall to the ground, from the axe’s impact. As soon Gawain beheads him, he “sprang forward” to retrieve his head. The word “sprang” makes the Green Knight even more supernaturally powerful than he would have been just for surviving a normally fatal wound— not only does he not die from beheading, and not only is he able to find his head without eyes to guide his search; he finds his head in a lively, enthusiastic fashion, instead of just walking to find it or stumbling around, blinded. Thus, as soon as Gawain thinks he has honored his lord, King Arthur, the Green Knight disgraces him by transforming what should have been an impressive feat into an ineffective act that did not even harm him.
The result of these passages’ amplification of the Green Knight’s power is to make in him a towering obstacle that Gawain must surmount. This follows the pattern of all the Medieval Literature texts so far in class: in The Song of Roland, Roland must overcome the treachery of Ganelon and the multitudes of Moorish soldiers; in The Poem of the Cid, the title character must defeat several armies, both Christian and Moors, as well as the Infantes of Carrión; in Erec and Enide, Erec must prove to his wife and his peers that he is not a recreant by seeking adventures across the countryside; and in Yvain (The Knight with the Lion), Yvain must prove to his wife that he is worthy of her by saving her friend, Lunette, from corporal punishment. In each of these stories, the protagonists are faced with a major obstacle, but they end up victorious, felling whatever enemies may come in order to prove their worth as warriors. Sir Gawain’s major obstacle is the Green Knight, whom he must defeat to prove to himself and King Arthur’s court that he is no longer “the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom” (34), but instead should be known as Arthur’s most cherished knight. If the Green Knight were a weaker opponent, Gawain’s coming victory over him would not be as impressive
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Trans. Brian Stone. New York: Penguin Books, 1974.