Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – The Literature
• Author: Unknown
• The Pearl Poet
• The Gawain Poet
• Written in 14th Century
• Sir Gawain – the story’s protagonist.
• A loyal knight to King Arthur, as well as his nephew.
• Gawain goes on his quest to meet the Green Knight in order to uphold his knightly values.
Major Characters – The Green Knight
• Green Knight
• Sir Gawain’s main opposition in the story.
• He is a richly decorated knight, who has green skin and hair.
Major Characters – King Arthur
• King Arthur
• The king of Camelot.
• Uncle of Sir Gawain.
• It is at his celebration feast that the Green Knight challenges the court to a game.
• Bertilak’s Wife
• – During the competition between Gawain and her husband, she tests Gawain’s integrity and honesty
• Morgan le Faye (The old lady)
• Powerful sorceress trained by Merlin. Assists Lady Bertilak in testing Gawain
• King Arthur’s wife and Queen. Seated next to Gawain during the court’s feast.
Settings - Camelot
• The holiday celebrations take place at King Arthur’s castle in Camelot.
• It is here that the Green Knight challenges Gawain to exchanges blows with him.
Settings – Bertilak’s Home
On his quest to meet the Green Knight, Gawain stays here for a short period of time.
Settings – The Green Chapel
The supposed home of the Green Knight.
Gawain is sent here to keep his end of the bargain which he made with the Green Knight at Arthur’s holiday celebration a year prior.
1. Men often act macho to try to impress women. 2. Women are impressed when men act macho. 3. There are many double standards in society regarding men and women. 4. Women should be treated equally to men in all aspects of life. 5. The expectations for the ability of women should be equal to that of men
in every career. 6. Chivalry is dead. 7. If a married man/woman is unhappy he/she should seek companionship
elsewhere. 8. The lives of kings are worth more than the lives of peasants. 9. Most people try to live their lives by proper morals and virtues. 10. It is worth it to die to save one’s honor.
• Gawain’s struggle to decide between his duties as a knight and the worth of his own life
• Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and cuts off his head.
• The Green Knight survives the blow and Gawain is then required to maintain his half of the challenge.
• Gawain meets the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.
• After taking his first two swings, the Green Knight nicks Gawain on his third swing, only slightly cutting his neck.
• Shame and mortification
• Statement of Sin: Gawain admits cowardice, covetousness, and untruth
• Request for penance
Examples of the Code of Chivalry
• Thou shalt defend the Church.
• Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
• Live to serve King and Country.
• Live to defend Crown and Country and all it holds dear.
• Live one's life so that it is worthy of respect and honor.
• Live for freedom, justice and all that is good.
• Never attack an unarmed foe.
Examples from the Laws of Courtly Love
• Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and shalt embrace its opposite.
• Thou shalt keep thyself chaste for the sake of her whom thou lovest.
• Boys do not love until they reach the age of maturity.
• When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
• No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
• No one can love unless he is propelled by the persuasion of love.
-a motif is the recurrence of an object, concept or idea within a piece of literature.
-one of the largest motifs presented in Sir Gawain is the use of color…how is this true?
• In medieval symbology, red signifies humility as the blood of Christ
• Gold signifies perfection. • Gawain’s shield – a tool of protection • Green – symbolizes fertility and
rebirth • Axe – a symbol of execution • Holly bob – associated with death and
ghosts • An analysis of “Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight” indicates that symbols are prevalent in the poem and the Gawain-poet intended to use these symbols as tools of hidden meanings.
• The Pentangle – five-pointed star, a symbol of truth, virtues, and value
• The green girdle – represents cowardice and excessive love of a mortal life.
• The green girdle is also a symbol paralleling the crown of thorns that was worn by Jesus during crucifixion.
• Most of the symbols in this story dwell on the subjects of death, human triumph, defeat, temptation, and honor.
• Immediately upon reading/hearing these lines about the Green Knight who has burst into Arthur’s Christmas festivities, wearing gold spurs, the audience would know that he was a guy not to be messed with.
• He was got up in green from head to heel: a tunic worn tight, tucked to his ribs; and a rich cloak cast over it, covered inside with a fine fur lining, fitted and sewn with ermine trim that stood out in contrast from his hair where his hood lay folded flat; and handsome hose of the same green hue which clung to his calves, with clustered spurs of bright gold; (ll. 151-55)
Why the Green Knight?
• In medieval England, the “Green Man” was a pagan representation of nature. The “Green Man” was not Satanic but did symbolize the nature worship that characterized pre- Christian tribal paganism.
• The “Green Man” is not evil but is also not Christian a battle between any of Arthur’s knights and any creature reminiscent of Britain’s pagan past is, by extension, a battle between “good” and “evil” – or between the Christian piety of Arthur’s knights and their tribal, non- Christian predecessors.
Sir Gawain’s Shield
• In the poem, Gawain’s shield is very clearly described as a golden pentangle on a field of red.
• The pentangle, the poem goes on to tell us, represents Gawain’s Five Fifths.
• The pentangle is also called the “endless knot.”
• Gawain was said to possess five qualities – one for each of the pentangle’s points – wherein he far excelled all other knights.
• The first of these “Five Fifths” was his faultlessness in his five senses.
• The next (second) of these “Five Fifths” was his faultlessness in his five fingers.
• The next (third) of these “Five Fifths” was the strength Gawain drew from his devotion to the “Five wounds of Christ.”
1.One through each of his hands or wrists
2.One through each of his feet
3.The final wound in the side of Christ
More on the “Five-Fifths”
• The last of these “Five Fifths” was Gawain’s well-known practice of the “five social graces.”
• The five social graces which Gawain exemplifies above all others are:
4.pure manners (courtesie)
Gawain Faced Five Challenges
1.to voluntarily confront the Green Knight
2.to strike his blow properly
3.to keep his vow to meet the Green Knight in a year and a day.
4.to survive journey to the green chapel
5.to resist the lady’s temptations
Gawain’s Fifth Challenge
• The FIFTH TEST are the temptations and the three gifts; it tests especially the fifth point of the pentangle, the social virtues.
• Gawain fails: his acceptance of the girdle is not a fault; his hiding of it is a potential fault; his actual withholding of it from Bertilak is his fall.
• Had he given it back to the lady, he would have erased his potential fault.
• The real fault, from Gawain's point of view, is that the reality of his own mortality induces him to break the endless knot.
• Thus two effects of original sin are reasserted: cowardice (bodily mortality) and covetousness (willful cupidity).
• His nature as a man is asserting itself against his nature as a knight.
Chastity? Piety? Respect for the King?
• Gawain knows that he is facing certain death – and SOON – when he finally confronts the Green Knight and accepts his half of the bargain.
• Why would he still adhere to courtesie and resist the Lady’s temptation?
Read the literature, take notes, and prepare for the essay exam.
(c. 12th century)
What do I need to read?
“The Canterbury Tales General Prologue”
“The Miller’s Prologue and Tale”
“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”
“The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale”
Who is the author?
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400). Called the Father of the English Language as well
as the Morning Star of Song, Geoffrey Chaucer, after six centuries, has retained
his status as one of the three or four greatest English poets. He was first to
commit to lines of universal and enduring appeal a vivid interest in nature, books,
As many-sided as Shakespeare, he did for English narrative what Shakespeare did
for drama. If he lacks the profundity of Shakespeare, he excels in playfulness of
mood and simplicity of expression. Though his language often seems quaint, he was
essentially modern. Familiarity with the language and with the literature of his
contemporaries persuades the most skeptical that he is nearer to the present than
many writers born long after he died.
---Courtesy of Compton’s Learning Company
Chaucer’s father, an influential wine merchant, was able to secure Geoffrey a
position as a page in a household connected to King Edward III. Chaucer’s duties as
a page were humble, but they allowed him the opportunity to view the ruling
aristocracy, thus broadening his knowledge of the various classes of society. While
serving in the English army, Chaucer was captured and held prisoner in France.
After his release, he held a number of government positions.
While in his twenties, Chaucer began writing poetry, and he continued to write
throughout his life. Over the years, his writing showed increasing sophistication
and depth, and it is recognized as presenting penetrating insights into human
character. In The Canterbury Tales, critics say that the author shows an absolute
mastery of the art of storytelling.
The Canterbury Tales are also said to present “a cavalcade of fourteenth-century
English life” because on this pilgrimage to Canterbury the reader gets to meet a
cross-section of the people from Chaucer’s time.
Canterbury, located about fifty miles southeast of London, was a favorite
destination for pilgrims. In fact, Chaucer himself made a pilgrimage there. While
he did not set out on the pilgrimage looking for material to use in his writing, he
was so impressed by the mix of company that he had met at the Tabard Inn that
he was inspired to write what was to become his masterpiece.
Selected Canterbury Tales Terms and Definitions
Allegory - a story that represents abstract ideas or moral qualities. As such, an
allegory has both a literal level and a symbolic level of meaning. Example: Gulliver’s
Allusion - a reference to a person, place, poem, book, or movie outside of the story
that the author expects the reader will recognize.
Fable - a story that presents a moral or practical lesson. Generally, there are
talking animals in fables. Example: Aesop’s Fables.
Hyperbole - exaggeration for emphasis; overstatement. Example: I’ve told you a
million times to…
Irony - a subtle, sometimes humorous perception of inconsistency in which the
significance of a statement or event is changed by its content. For example: the
firehouse burned down.
Litotes – a conscious understatement that achieves the opposite effect of the
statement itself. Example: I like money a little.
Satire – using humor to ridicule. Example: Animal Farm
Structure of The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a “frame story”; it includes within it other stories. The
frame in this case is the story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury made by twenty-nine
pilgrims. Within the frame are twenty-four individual stories told by the pilgrims.
The stories told by the pilgrims are familiar tales, but here they are retold in a
brilliant fashion by most impressive storytellers.
The pilgrims themselves are described in the Prologue to the tales. In the
Prologue, we see that the personality of each pilgrim is unique but that the
character traits they exhibit are universal. People from three main segments of
medieval society are brought together through the vehicle of the pilgrimage:
church people, nobility, and common people and/or tradesmen.
The General Prologue
Setting: The story opens at the Tabard Inn in Southwark is a town fourteen miles
from London where pilgrims meet to begin the journey to Canterbury. It has been a
long winter, but spring has arrived so it is time to make a religious pilgrimage.
While the trip has a religious shrine as its destination, the pilgrimage will not be
without its social aspects.
Note: Keep in mind that in Medieval times the Catholic Church, which was for all
practical purposes the only religion in Europe prior to the Reformation, played an
important part in everyone’s life. Daily life could be terribly hard, and sometimes
all that would make it bearable was the thought of a pleasant afterlife with God in
heaven. Consequently, after the king and the nobility, the church was the third
most powerful institution in this society.
As we will see in The Prologue, within the church there is a social hierarchy of
roles and positions. Thus, for example, we will see that the monk obviously comes
from a higher social class than the Pardoner.
The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
Allusions to the Bible
The Noah referred to in the tale is from the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark in
which Noah, informed by God of the coming of a great flood, builds an ark and
thereby saves his family while everyone else perishes.
Concepts Familiar to Chaucer’s Readers
May/December Weddings. This is the marriage of an older, often rich but foolish
man to a very young and pretty wife. In stories, the older man usually winds up a
cuckold and it is thought by readers that he gets what he deserves for being so
foolish as to get married to someone much younger than he.
Cuckold: This word is used both as a noun and a verb. In stories the husband is
cuckolded or is made the cuckold when someone else has a sexual relationship with
The cuckolded husband is the target of much comic ridicule in the stories from the
Middle Ages and centuries afterwards. During this time it was the belief that
older people should marry older, not younger people; thus the May/December
Wedding violates the natural order of things.
The setting for The Miller’s Tale is Oxford, England, at the time the story is being
Genre: A fabliau (pl., "fabliaux"), a French invention that depicts bourgeois
characters in satirical or openly comic plots involving unlikely and complex
deceptions, usually concerning sex and/or money. There are considerably more
fabliaux in French than in English, and Chaucer’s are by far the most sophisticated
in Middle English because they often combine elements of several fabliaux into one
tightly structured plot. Critics are divided on the issue of whether the fabliaux
were intended for noble audiences because the tales made the bourgeois look so
bad, or were intended for the bourgeois, themselves, indicating that they had a
strong appetite for seeing themselves satirized in literature. The middle ground
seems to be that they could work for a mixed audience which might include worldly
nobles (excluding those given to extreme religious devotion, of course!) as well as
broad-minded and self-confident men and women of the city.
• Nicholas, a clerk or student at Oxford who has spent more on his "sound
system" and on parties than he has on his studies—we know the type.
• John, the "townie" carpenter, whose trade has made him wealthy enough to
own a house big enough that he might rent rooms to the clerk, as well as
dressing his young wife in the most outrageously expensive clothing she
• Alison, the carpenter’s "townie" wife, overflowing with energy and taking
life’s challenges as comedy whereas John, older by far, is ready to see
• Absolon, a clerk, possibly also an Oxford graduate, who now serves the
priest in the cathedral but who, like Nicholas, is far more interested in
dressing well and pursuing the ladies of the town.
• Gervase, the smith, a somewhat enigmatic figure who supplies a key tool for
Absolon's revenge--he works at his hot forge in the cool of the night and,
apart from lovers, is apparently the only one awake until the cries of "Out
harrow!" summon the townsfolk in an informal posse.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
Sources: This tale is a satire in the form of a fairy tale. It is a twist on an old folk
tale which shows up in one of the Arthurian romances about Sir Gawain. The tale is
a parody of an “exemplum”, a moral tale that was used by preachers to show people
how they should act.
The Battle of the Sexes To understand Dame Alice, you have to understand, as
the pilgrims did, the place of women in Medieval society. At this period of time,
women were little more than their husband’s property, and they had few legal
rights of their own. To cope in this situation, the only weapon a wife had was the
granting or withholding of sexual favors.
Even here, however, the Church’s teaching on sex, which was that sex was only for
procreation and everything else was lust, could diminish a woman’s chances of
successfully fighting back. In this context, the Battle of the Sexes may not be a
fight to see who will dominate in a marriage so much as the fight of a women to
establish herself as a person with equal rights. As you listen to Dame Alice of Bath
in the prologue and in the tale she tells, keep in mind this socio-historical context.
You will also note that sex and bodily functions were talked about in mixed company
quite openly in this period.
Audio File: Click on the link to listen to the Wife of Bath’s General Prologue read to
you in Middle English.
Genre: The prologue might be called a fictional autobiography, a confession, a
mock sermon or an apologia (L., defense). Persuasive as Chaucer’s Wife’s voice may
be, however, do not mistake it for true autobiography. Chaucer’s immediate source
for many of the opinions and strategies described in the prologue are two
characters from the Roman de la Rose (by Guillaume de Lorris, 1237, and Jean de
Meun, 1275): La Vieille (the Old Woman) and Le Jealoux (the Jealous One). He also
draws upon the vast literature of anti-feminist theologians to characterize the
views of her husbands, especially Jankyn.
Characters: a rapist knight (unnamed), Arthur’s queen (unnamed), and the "loathly
lady" (unnamed) he meets on his quest.
The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
The Pardoner will offer a sermon as a performance, part of a process-analysis
under the rubric "present company excepted" in which he takes the pilgrims into
his confidence. He claims that although his theme is always "Radix malorum est
Cupiditas" (greed is the root of evils), he nevertheless, ironically, is obsessed with
appropriating money (like the Wife's obsession with authority and the book), and
doesn't care about the remission of sins. He explains how he uses his position to
manipulate "lewed peple". Without his usual audience, the soliloquy is self-
destructive, and maybe self-hypnotic.
Aware of his isolation, the Pardoner's attempts to rejoin society are misguided,
partly due to his insensitivity. He attempts to join here by proving his superiority.
He has to be intellectual to survive, but this may have turned into egomania. He
scorns his usual low-class audience and thinks this more educated group will share
his opinion. So it's a demonstration of his typical con -- how he manages to survive
and manipulate audiences, but it involves his moving back and forth between
The Pardoner’s purpose is to save souls; however, he does everything he can to earn
money. The irony is that the Pardoner is very guilty of the sin of avarice himself.
He uses ways of getting people to repent from avarice as a means for acquiring
more money for the church.
The archetype behind the Pardoner is Faus Semblant (False-Seeming) "a
professional hypocrite who pretends to holiness that he possesses not at all.
Chaucer's Pardoner sermonizes in a confessional of self-destruction. He's
dreadful, vital, and fascinating. For us, he's his own worst enemy.
Genre: The prologue may be a "literary confession" or "Vice's confession," like the
"Wife of Bath's Prologue" in some interpretations but with absolutely no ambiguity
about the speaker's viciousness, despite his cheerful demeanor. The tale, itself, is
a "novelle" or short story of a type often used in sermon exempla. The old man who
directs the young men to their doom is variously interpreted as everything from
Jesus, the Devil, God's mercy, and the Wandering Jew.
Characters: The Pardoner and his victims, in his Prologue's delirious self-
dramatization of his ruthless frauds; three riotous young men, their deceased
buddy, a young "knave" who knows how to tell a story, an old man who cannot die,
and "a privee theef men clepeth Deeth / That in this contree al the peple sleeth"
The tale is an exemplum on avarice. (Exempla are stories that illustrate a theme in
preaching, usually found in collections.) The setting is dramatic this time, taking
place in a tavern to set the innate hypocrisy here. Although avarice is the focus,
the Pardoner includes drunkenness, gluttony, swearing, gambling, and maybe other
sins; his choices probably depend on which sins can be made to sound most exciting.
The Pardoner has a detailed knowledge of low life. He does not euphemize sin: it's
truly nasty here. He seems to have control over the sequencing of the other sins
he incorporates too. But is he talking about gluttony? Or something else?
O wombe! O bely! O stynkyng cod,
Fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun!
At either ende of thee foul is the soun.
How greet labour and cost is thee to fynde!
Thise cookes, how they stampe, and streyne, and grynde,
And turnen substaunce into accident
To fulfille al thy likerous talent!
Out of the harde bones knokke they
The mary, for they caste noght awey
That may go thurgh the golet softe and swoote.
Of spicerie of leef, and bark, and roote
Shal been his sauce ymaked by delit,
To make hym yet a newer appetit.
(The Pardoner’s Tale – from www.librarius.com, lines 534-546)
There's no formal separation from the tale here, since the Pardoner goes right
into further self-parody? or more of the con? Is he still addressing his usual
church audience? The abrupt shift is disorienting.
The fake relics function as an extension of the Pardoner himself. Is he selling
relics as a misguided way to include himself? Is he drunk? Was this all a game and
he misjudged that the audience was laughing with him all along? Does he despise
this audience too?
Whom is the joke against? Against the Host to ingratiate himself to the others?
Whatever his reasons -- avarice, good-fellowship, humor -- he concludes his sermon
with an offer to sell his pardon to the pilgrims even after all he has told about his
own fraudulence. Ironically he picks the worst possible victim, that rough, manly
man who might be supposed to have a natural antipathy for the unmasculine
The Host misreacts. It's a disaster and a bad call on the Pardoner's part when the
Host is pulled in against his will. The Host offers an angry reaction, not at all joking
now, metaphorically cutting off the Pardoner's tongue. The Pardoner never reacts
and is effectively shut up; we won't hear from him again. The pilgrims laugh --
nervously? They're reacting to what? The Knight levels out the social surface and
the tensions are diffused with a kiss of friendship.
What do I need to know? 1. Explain how The Canterbury Tales is a profile of fourteenth century life.
Use specific examples from the text.
2. Characterize Chaucer’s treatment of women in The Canterbury Tales. Use
specific examples from the text.
3. Choose any two characters from any tales we read and tell how they are
4. How do the tales reflect life in the 1300s?
5. Explain the importance of the character of Harry Bailly.
6. Describe the portrait of the clergy as painted by Chaucer in The Canterbury
Tales. Was it an accurate picture?