The Character of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

June 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the most general sense, the Green Knight is an anomaly to the story of ” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the only supernatural element in what is otherwise a very believable and wholly real rendering of a specific length of time. Gawain is momentarily tricked into believing‹or, rather, hoping‹that the garter is magical in nature, but both his fear and the Green Knight dispel him of that heathen notion. Thus on the one hand the poet warns us of the danger of accepting the supernatural qua supernatural, while on the other he demands that we understand the Green Knight to be an expression of the “power of Morgan le Fay,” who is “well taught in magic arts.” The effect of this then is to thrust the Green Knight into an even greater shroud of mystery than normal for Arthurian tales, which usually feature a whole cast of impossible characters. From this isolated line of thought, it would seem as if the Green Knight ought to be held only to his own, strange, separate rules. Since he is the sole fantastical creature, why should he conform at all to any rules of the court, the rules of dress, the rules of promise-keeping, in short, the rules of chivalry? Why should he not be rather more like Grendel of Beowulf, a disgusting, evil thing, virtually indescribable, whose sole rules are the rules of mayhem? The simple answer that one must expect a chivalrous adventure of sort come Christmas Eve proves itself quickly to be a cheap escape to this question: the legend at court as The Quest of the Holy Grail lays it out is that the adventure must present itself before Arthur sits down to eat, whereas in Sir Gawain, “the first course [had] been properly served to the court, when there bursts in at the hall door a terrible figure.” Abandoning this artificial paradigm gives us no alternative but to ask how it can be that this “aghlich mayster” can at the same time be yet another “hathel” on a horse. The poet accomplishes this ingenious conflation of the unknown horror (i.e. the “green”) and the honest challenger (i.e. the “knight”) just a few lines after the Green Knight¹s most unchivalrous entrance into the court. The poet says he “believes” him to be “half a giant” and yet “of all men I judge him the largest.” From the first, then, the Green Knight is in the gray, that incomprehensible space between monster and man. From this point on, the opposites continue to collapse in that one figure. His “back and chest… was foreboding” while “his belly and waist were becomingly trim.” He rides “without shoes on his feet” yet he is adorned in “shining array” just as intricate and perfect as the ceremonies of Arthur¹s court. A thousand other little touches of description abound to the same haunting effect.What is more fundamental in giving us the sense of the walking contradiction is the knight¹s challenge itself. In proposing a trade of blows, the green man inverts another paradigm of the literature, as this is no trade of blows in the conventional sense. He asks rather to stand there and face one single strike of the axe, against which he will not defend himself, in exchange for the opportunity to do likewise. The test then is no test of battle as both the reader and Arthur expect, but instead a test of ethos. Challenging a knight to a confrontation in itself is the stock and trade of an unexpected visitor, but the twisted game of the Green Knight demands that the combatants do not combat. The poet has framed the most unseemly question in the pomp of the normal. In a sense he challenges his readers to confront the rules of chivalry‹that one accept a challenge, provided it seems difficult‹in a foreign context, outside of what we expect that challenge to establish, namely, who is the best fighter. The rules of knighthood are pitted against their aim, in the same way that the monstrous qualities of the Green Knight are pitted against his honesty.

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