dynttez dryghe” is stressed with the alliterative force on the last two words and in hindsight we understand why the poet would choose to single out the importance of failing to withstand a blow from this man.
As well as using alliteration as a means of highlighting particular aspects of the passage, the Gawain poet employs repetition to ensure that the reader notes what will later prove to be of importance:
Whether had he no helme ne hawbergh nauther,
Ne no pysan ne no plate that pented to armes,
Ne no schafte ne no schelde to schwue ne to smyte,
Bot in his on honed he hade a holyn bobbe,
The use of anaphora in the repetition of “ne no” intensifies the image of the armourless knight and establishes that he has come without protection and not to seek armed combat. The knight reinforces this intention later when he asserts that he could have arrayed himself in “feghting wyse” but instead he seeks to “passé as in pes, and no plyght seche.” This peaceful motive is symbolised by the “holyn bobbe” that he carries in his hand.
However, if this holly branch is a reassurance of seasonal peace and harmless intention, it is starkly juxtaposed with the confirmation of a threat in his other hand; the terrifying battleaxe. The two objects are emblems of the ambiguity of this figure and their antithetical nature stresses the opposing sides of this strange green being; he can simultaneously seem to deny imposing a threat and yet still raise the possibility of being one by wielding such a vicious instrument “schapen to schere as scharp rasores.” This combination of dramatic opposites in the description of Gawain’s challenger establishes the uncertainty of his identify; an uncertainty which remains until the poem’s conclusion.
Thus, even before he speaks, the knight’s towering appearance and bewildering ambivalence award him a great power and authority. When he does speak his words amplify this assertion of power and leave his onlookers speechless and unable to answer him. The knight’s speech, like his appearance, is filled with an ambiguous resonance; he is brusque and his words are curt but he still manages to fulfil customary protocol and be considered worthy of “cortaysye” by asking a formal request of Arthur. He is powerfully self-assured and the monosyllabic force of “nay” in his response to Arthur establishes his defiance against the preconceived idea that he comes to fight. The tone of the green knight’s speech is of great importance and his words are edged with cynicism and jesting mockery:
He has come to examine the great renown that he has heard many speak of but his intention is presented not as one of admiration but of scepticism. Although Arthur’s court has an impressive reputation of the best knights within the best surroundings the Green Knight has come to challenge this opinion and to consider whether it is right for the court to be “lift vp so hyghe.” The parenthetic inclusion of “as I haf herd crap” implies that although word of mouth elevates Arthur and his men, the Green Knight is reluctant to follow suit until they have proved their worth.
These doubts over the worthiness of Camelot are brought into clearer focus by the arrogant claim that “here is no mon me to mach” and the challenge is presented as a standard that must be lived up to if these knights, who he so sarcastically belittles by dubbing them mere “berdlez chylder”, are to demonstrate their boldness of blood. The challenge is set up as though he expects no one to be brave enough to accept it; he is scrutinising the reputation that he feels has been unfairly awarded to this court and his assertive claims of “I schal” are left waiting for a response from any “hym” who is courageous enough.
The poet creates an effective build up of tension as the challenger “wayte quo-so wolde ryse” and the stunned stillness of Camelot is contrasted with the fierce and restless movements of the knight before he draws himself up to his full height, an impressive feat when we are later told that he is “herre then ani in the hous by the heded and more”, before his outburst of accusations. By listing all of Camelot’s supposed virtues the Knight can effectively puncture the inflated egos of Arthur and his men. He states each of the qualities they are praised for; pride, conquests, fierceness, wrath and powerful speech and then, by suggesting that all of these are lacking in the court, brutally undermines Camelot’s good reputation:
‘What, is this Arthur’s hous,’ quoth the hathel thenne,
‘That al the rous rennes of thurgh ryalmes so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye and your conquests,
Your gryndellayk and your greme, and your grete wordes?
The rude imposition of his questions penetrates the chivalric exterior of the court and succeeds in provoking an embarrassed and defiant reaction from Arthur.
The poet defies our expectations once more with the use of one of his short interludes of cross-rhymed verse when attention shifts from Arthur’s acceptance of the challenge to the interruption of Gawain. Gawain’s claim that ”this melly mot by mynne” presents an unexpected twist in the action expected to befall and instead of Arthur and the Green Knight opposed, we have the alignment of two new challengers. Gawain, unlike the man he faces, is the epitome of courtesy and his humble self depreciation is in direct opposition to the knight’s self assurance. Whereas the one declares his superiority Gawain begs that although “I am the wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feeblest” he be granted, in the same way that we have seen the knight granted, his request of taking the king’s place. The poet’s use of superlatives in depicting Gawain’s attitude carefully casts him into the mould of the modest romantic hero.
In the speeches to Gawain before the challenge takes place there is a shift in the Green Knight’s diction as the poet increases the instance of legalistic terms and business like phrases:
Refourme we oure forwardes, er we fyrre passé.
In contrast to the many instances of elaborate description and the decadent nature of Gawain’s speech in his entreaty to the King, the Knight’s words are characterised by their brevity and formality; clearly this challenge is to be perceived as a binding contract. The emphasis placed on “fayth” “trust” and “trawthe” establishes the solemn and incontestable nature of this agreement; it is not to be entered into lightly. This sense of finality and the impossibility of opting out is clarified by using “thou schal” as Gawain’s participation in the challenge becomes an inevitability. The use of language related to law and commerce in this transaction places the exchange in a sphere that the contemporary reader could understand. A “couenaunt” or “contract” was, and still is, the technical legal term for a written or verbal agreement and by use of this idiom of English law the readers understand that Gawain has no choice but to make good of his word.
After placing the terms of the challenge in the Green Knight’s hands, the poet continues to assert the stranger’s authority by the demand that Gawain give his name. Gawain offers his identity in expectation of an exchange but the poet refuses to provide one and maintains the unsatisfied curiosity and expectation he has installed hitherto by keeping the knight’s identity a secret. Gawain utters the same concerns that are in the minds of each court member and reader:
I wot neuer where thou wonyes, bi hym that me wroght,
Ne I know not the, knight, they cort ne this name.’
By repetition of “ne” Gawain reinforces all the unknowns about this knight, and by refusing to give his own name this Green Knight eludes any attempt to identify him. Gawain’s identity has been readily disclosed but knowledge of who the knight is and where he dwells is made dependant upon certain conditions, conditions that can only be met “quen” the blow has been made. Even after Gawain has done his bidding the stranger provides only a vague statement about his whereabouts that gives no indication to his true character, he elusively remains just “the knyght of the grene chapel.”
The poet does not aid in clearing our foggy impression of this character and actively strives to increase the ambiguous nature of the knight by shifting the titles applied to him. As we are confronted with his multifaceted appearance and personality and strive to find some middle ground between monstrosity and normality the poet resists our efforts by calling him one of any number of names; from “aglich mayster” he is elevated to “gome’, “schalk” and “freke” before proceeding to “renk” and “hathel” and finally he is simply dubbed the “green knyght” as one of equal importance to Gawain the ‘goode knyght” who he stands beside.
After the complex and detailed language needed to explain the formal agreement the author continues the tense build up to the impending strike by another rhyming respite. The interceding quatrain delays the blow further and intensifies the growing anticipation:
To now thy grymme tole to the,
And let se how thou chokez.’
‘Gladly, sir, for sothe’
Quoth Gawan; his ax he strokes.
The lengthy preamble to the challenge comes to a head as all that has gone before is reduced into a brief statement from each opponent tightly bound within the structure of the cross rhyme. The visual emphasis on Gawain fingering the edge of his blade is created through a simple monosyllabic statement that prepares the reader for the ensuing event.
Visual imagery is crucial to the description of the blow and, in a similar way to the above lines, there is a clever alternation between the stances of the two men. Alliteration heightens the detailed picture painted by the language and is complimented by onomatopoeic words creating the gruesome sound effects of the blade’s impact:
That the scharp of the schalk schyndered the bones,
The situation descends from the realm of the vaguely familiar to something incomprehensible as the Knight leaps into a rapid course of headless actions related in a singular unravelling sentence. The image of “that vgly bodi that bledde’ reverts us back to our monstrous first impression of the knight and his fierce movements and bewildering ability to speak as a severed head corroborate Camelot’s initial assumption that he must be somehow supernatural. The poet allowed our concentration on the extraordinary elements of this strange figure to lapse through courtly speech and the digression between Gawain and Arthur but now the horrible image of the head dramatically reasserts his phantom qualities. The Knight, beheaded though he may be, retains his authoritative force and the control that he wields is heightened by his vile and bloody appearance. His words are strikingly commanding and the imperative orders to Gawain force attention back to the plot that will proceed from this point; Gawain chose to accept the fate awaiting him at the Green Chapel and he is charged to keep his agreement. The necessity of this agreement being fulfilled is emphasised by the declaration that Gawain’s reputation depends on it:
Therefore com, other recreaunt be calde the behoves.
The reader is reminded that Gawain’s reputation is also the reputation of Camelot. He is a member of the Fellowship of the Round Table and thus failure for him to comply with the terms is failure for Camelot to live up to the great name it holds so dear, the same name which the knight seeks to slander.
The departure of the Knight is portrayed with the same fluency of alliteration and suddenness with which he arrived and leaves his dumbfounded audience only able to utter the question “What thenne?”
To quat kyth he becom knew non there,
Neuer more then they wyste from quethen he watz wonnen.
The action sequence comes round full circle with this reference back to the knight’s dramatic entrance and this completed section of narrative allows events to resume as before. With the Knight’s apparent vanishing into thin air Arthur can finally get down to his grub after being satisfied with a “meruayl” and the “comelych queen” and her ladies can continue with “Laykyng of enterludez, to laghe and to syng.” This lapse in tension is achieved through the intercessory verse that writes the strange event off as merely a wonderful “selly.” Gawain, however, is not allowed to cast events ideally aside as the others seek to do and the concluding words of the narrator echo the commanding tone of the Green Knight himself:
“Now thenk” shadows the imperative force of the earlier order to ‘loke” and it is a harsh reminder to the hero that he must not neglect what he has agreed to. This final stanza of the first fitt is employed not only to look backwards to what has just taken place but also as a projection forwards into the rest of the narrative; Gawain has taken on a challenge and the reader now eagerly awaits the result of it.
The Green Knight’s dramatic entrance into the poem is a crucial moment in the story. Burrow suggests that amongst all of the detailed physical depiction and meticulous relating of events “The most remarkable feature of this description…is its richness and variety of suggestion”3 and this is certainly an impressive attribute of the poet. By creating such ambiguity around this central figure, The Gawain poet causes his reader to speculate on the true identity and intention of this faceless knight and to wonder why he was so insistent on learning Gawain’s name whilst refusing to give his own. The Knight’s ability to be at once menacing and magical, courteous and hostile, is bewildering and our failure to place him is the perfect impetus for an adventure of intrigue and uncertainty. Gawain must travel towards an unknown destination to meet an anonymous figure and the narrator’s mysterious description of this enigmatic persona has whetted our curiosity so that we too are waiting in anticipation for the final challenge.
1 W.A.Davenport “The Art of the Gawain Poet”, Univeristy of London, The Athlone Press 1978.
2 Ad Putter “An Introduction to the Gawain Poet”, Longman Press, 1996
3 Burrow “Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, p.13