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“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Epic Poem Analysis

The epic poems can be regarded as “a beautiful fiction, producing a lovely, apotheosized version of the self with the capability of camouflaging one’s failings and the uncertainties of life” (Weiss 1). Thus works representing this genre of literature could be considered fairytales for children unless they were of great interest for scholars dealing with the Middle English period of literature; and the events described in the epic poems may serve nearly historical evidence for the events of that period. The period of the Middle English literature is extremely rich in works which are of great value and interest for scholars conducting research in sphere of linguistics and language and literature study.

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One of the most predictable plots of the epic stories is the hero who beats the enemy. Sometimes the hero can be represented as the honorable chevalier as one can observe in the epic poems of the Arthurian period, thus a noble knight whether he is poor or rich; famous for his heroic deeds or is a new guy in this business; enjoys success when dealing with the fair sex or feels absolutely shy before women. Thus one can imagine a vivid picture of a knight and endow him with all the features you wish. But now we are talking about a certain epic poem, it is called “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The title gives us some information about the events which can be observed in the poem even before reading it. Thereby the main characters of the poem are a certain Sir Gawain, and no less mysterious than the Sir is the Green Knight. From the title we can one more conclusion – Sir Gawain is not a usual knight, but a person possessing nobility rank.

First thing that should be analyzed is the way Arthur was going to entertain himself and his guests as this scene appears in the very beginning of the poem and attracts attention of the reader. “The interesting thing about most of these entertainments is that rather than simply tableaux or pageants, they came increasingly during the middle ages to involve aristocratic patrons directly in the activities in a dramatic way” (Weiss 1).

Thus the most striking thing is that Arthur wanted to have fun whatever it would cost his people. The king refused to eat until a challenge would be sent at his court during the feast or he would hear some strange news. This wish was very strange but it did not surprise the people that were present on the feast, the king’s wish seems strange for us but it did not for them. The way of entertainment was playing a crucial role in the mood of the great king and his people understood perfectly the risk and the glory that might arise of it, it was considered “a serious declaration of their status and worth, and paradoxically, as the kind of diversionary, inconsequential activity that working classes understood play to be” (Weiss 1).

The play could be cruel and bloody, and the person who made up the mind to entertain the king could be doomed to death and glory, shame and honors, as the life in court caused a certain risk for those who were ready to dance attendance on the great king. The strangeness of the king’s wish lies in the diversities of the opinion on this issue of the poem’s contemporaries and the modern people. Thus it is strange only because it seems strange to us, though it did not seem strange at all to the people on the feast.

So, when the king vowed not to eat until the strange entertainment would take place, the Green Knight appeared. Was it ill fate or just coincidence, but the Green knight asked someone to accept his challenge. Everyone stand still as no one wants to take a risk of being killed for sake of king’s entertainment. Then King Arthur takes up the challenge fearing that his court ca be shamed. At this moment Sir Gawain offered his help. But one more contradictory fact was missed; when the huge figure of the Green knight appeared in the door of the hall, he had a holly branch in one hand and a battle-axe in the other, telling the people that he came in peace. Is not it strange? The person who comes in peace cannot hold weapons in the hand, as it is a direct indication of hostility. On the other hand we should keep in mind the time of the events described in the poem. In the Medieval era all knights possessed weapons, and the holly branch in one hand and the battle-axe in the other were integral part of the crusades. Thus, Sir Gawain took up the challenge to show his loyalty to the king: “In Sir Gawain, the hero finds himself in danger of losing his life as a consequence of his participation in what his challenger insists on calling ‘a Cristmasse game’” (Weiss 1).

The game was doomed to end with someone’s death. Fortunately, Sir Gawain was courageous and strong enough to chop off the Green Knight’s head, but there was another reason for the defeat of the Green Knight; he declared that he would not strike the opponent until a year hence. Thus Arthur understated “the danger and significance of the Green Knight’s “game” by referring to what the court has just witnessed as mere entertainment” (Weiss 1). From this point of view everything seems to become clear, as the only strangeness consists in the great difference of opinions on one and the same issue. Moreover, we can see that King Arthur did not become anxious about the appearance of the Green Knight; he did not consider necessary to reject the Green Knight’s challenge; the great king did not show sorrow or compassion when the green Knight was defeated, as he was interested only in the way of entertainment, but paid little attention to the results or consequences of the fight.

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Nevertheless Sir Gawain did not seem to be anxious about the impending events. He was to fulfill his promise and to find the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight was going to behead his opponent. “The courtiers assume Gawain to be under a serious obligation–it is apparently not a game he can simply quit or decline to continue playing” (Weiss 4). Thereby Sir Gawain was noble enough to accept the challenge and to redeem a promise to let the Green Knight chop off his head in exchange for the same right.

The next issue I am going to analyze is the symbolism of the objects in the epic poem. The first symbols were already mentioned. These are the objects that the Green knight held in his hands, the battle-axe and the holly-branch. These two objects symbolize not only the peaceful intentions as the Green Knight stated, but the hostile ones, as the weapons cannot be regarded as the sign of peaceful intentions and cannot be the object that gives the right to bring peace. These two objects in the hands of the Green knight possess contradictory senses, as how the holly-branch and the battle-axe can both be the symbols of peaceful intentions. The only explanation arises from the history and the period to which the poem refers. As the period of the Middle Ages was the period of the noble actions, knights and crusades. And as a vigorous and dedicated action in favor of a cause was taken in the name of the religion, the knights were considered the people that could change the religion, and could make it in the name of holly church, and thus their hostile intentions were justified in the eyes of people.

The next symbol that appears in the poem is the agreement made during the feast when the Green knight asks someone to take up the challenge and in exchange he would behead the adversary a year hence. It was an agreement based on mutual trust, chivalry, nobility and honesty, as both opponents were the knights and had to adhere to the principles of knighthood. The next agreement takes place when the master of the beautiful castle in the wood Bertilak makes an agreement to Sir Gawain before setting out for hunting. After this the noble knight must have become alerted, as the agreement has already led him into trouble and he does not know the way out. But Sir Gawain is a courageous person and he redeems his promise. As the people in the poem live in the period of knights and King Arthur, everything is based on confidence.

There are some more symbols in the poem as it is written in the manner of chivalry and presupposes the appearance of hidden senses and double nature of events and objects. The next symbolic object is the sash given to sir Gawain by noble Lady Bertilak. She tries to seduce the knight but he resists the temptation. And as the agreement consists in exchange – the game Bertilak kills in exchange for whatever Sir Gawain receives during the day – the noble knight had to give Bertilak a kiss after the first day, two kisses after the second day, and three ones after the third day. But there appeared one serious obstacle. As during the third day Lady Bertilak was not only trying to seduce the noble knight but also gave him her sash, as he refused to take a precious ring. The sash was believed to possess magical powers and was aimed to help Sir Gawain to defeat the Green Knight or at least not to let him die. The sash could make its owner incapable of being hurt by any kind of weapon.

Thus in every kind of literature describing the hero and his enemy (another knight, a dragon, an evil wizard) there is a certain object possessing magic powers which seems to protect the main character from the weapons of his opponent. “No doubt many other such talismans went unrecorded as people took for granted their efficacy in averting lightning and other evils from their buildings” (Hardman 3). There could be another object possessing magic properties but this time it was the sash of Lady Bertilak.

“Examining the details of the giving, acceptance, and wearing of the girdle in the light of some of the peripheral religious devotions discussed above may recall a variant of the common practice of carrying written amulets bearing the names of God for protection from harm, a magical’ belief not necessarily at odds with conventional Christian piety” (Hardman 8).

Thus the sash did not necessarily possess magical powers, because if the person believes in magic, the object possesses some powers; and if not, the sash believed to be magical by one person would never help the one who does not believe. The other thing is that Sir Gawain was dishonest with the Lord of the beautiful castle, and on the third day did not give him everything that he received during the day; he gave him only three kisses from Lady Berilak and concealed the magical sash from his view.

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The first thing is that Sir Gawain did not follow the agreement which was an obvious trap, the second thing is that Lord Bertilak did not introduce himself as the Green Knight, and during the three days was examining Sir Gawain.Finally comes the day when sir Gawain has to meet the Green Knight and to let him chop off his head not having the opportunity to defend himself. Sir Gawain puts the magical sash on his neck. The Green Knight makes two attempts to behead Sir Gawain; but the first time Sir Gawain flinched, the second time the Green Knight only checks the blow, but the third time the Green Knight nicks the Gawain’s neck, though does not behead him.

After that the Green Knight introduced himself as Bertilak, and told Sir Gawain the reason of being so cruel. As he and his lady were under a spell of the evil sorceress. The two times that Lord Bertilak missed the neck of his opponent were given as a reward for rejecting seductions of Lady Bertilak, and the third hit was for being dishonest and for taking the sash.

The epic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the best examples of the works of English writers. It is written in the form of story which is narrated by the Gawain-poet. It seems that you are not reading the poem but listening to the poet who narrates it. The poem is very interesting from the point of view of the language. Though there are a great number of variants of translation, the original variant of the poem should be read.

The poem is full of hidden meanings and symbolism. Thus there are such symbols as the holly-branch and the battle-axe in the Green Knight’s hands, the agreement maid by two noble men and not fulfilled in the full sense by one of them, the sash of Lady Bertilak believed to possess magic powers and aimed at protecting its owner of the weapons

The poem raises such problems as adherence to traditions, performance of the promise given to a stranger, being honest and loyal. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the masterpieces of the literature of the Middle English period, as it describes the actions and themes common to all the pieces of literature of that period but makes everything seem extremely unusual.

The epic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a bright example of the piece of literature representing Middle English period. The lifestyle of the Arthurian times can be contrasted to the modern, though the themes of honorable chevaliers and valorous actions raised in the epic poem are the object exciting envy in our contemporaries.

Works Cited

Weiss, L. Victoria. “The Play World and the Real World: Chivalry in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’”. Philological Quarterly 72 (1993): 10. Web.

Hardman, Phillipa. “Gawain’s Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Medium Aevum 68 (1999): 247. Web.

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