Gawain and the Green Knight Lines 130 – 490

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Nicola Harding 12th February 2005

Gawain and the Green Knight

Lines 130 – 490
In this extract we are introduced to the infamous Green Knight of the poem’s title. The Knight makes a sudden and violent entrance into the narrative and shatters the traditional merry making of Arthur’s court by throwing Camelot into confusion with his unexpected presence. The lines of this extract not only serve as an introduction to this strange character but also mark the beginning of the Gawain’s adventure. Arthur, and the Romance genre, demand an “outrage awenture” for the continuation of the narrative and this is what the Green Knight provides us with. The word “adventure” comes from the old French “avenir” meaning to arrive or occur and the Knight’s abrupt arrival fulfils this definition and propels the hero and reader forward into the main body of the poem.

The knight’s entrance is immediately set apart from the preceding lines by the narrator alerting our attention to “an other noyse” distinct from Camelot’s customary musical instruments:

For vnethe watz the noyse not a whyle sesed,

And the first cource in the court kyndely serued,

Ther hales in at the hale dor an aghlich mayster,

The trumpets have not yet had time to fade away nor the feasters chance to finish their food before a strange new sound invades into the court and the Knight bursts onto the scene. This musical precursor to his entrance is a fitting introduction to the knight as both he and the sound that presents him are strikingly set apart from the normal activities of an Arthurian feast.

The knight’s entrance delays the action of the narrative as the poet makes way for ninety lines dedicated to his description. The great deal of detail awarded to this character establishes for the reader what each of Arthur’s men soon realises; not only is the knight’s appearance strange but this strangeness makes it impossible to pin him down as one thing or the other; he resists having an accurate description applied to him.

This ambiguity is asserted straight away by the juxtaposition between a monstrous first impression and an undeniably human one:

Half etayn in erde I hope that he were,

Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,

The narrator restrains himself from calling this “aghlich mayster” a giant and acknowledges, albeit reluctantly, that he must be a man. The passage aligns a series of contrasts between the grotesque frightening aspects of this character; his imposing size, “lymes so long and so grete”, and “bodi sturne”, and those aspects which place him amongst the known and the recognisable; his good proportion and fair features. He is at once both hideously abnormal and yet also, the narrator concedes, still capable of being classified alongside the other persons of court.

The Gawain poet’s verse is distinctively alliterative and this alliteration is employed to amplify his descriptions and give fluency to the course of action. Another device used effectively by the poet is to alternate between expansive expressions in his longer lines and brief condensed statements encapsulated in the cross-rhymed four line stanzas that are interspersed through out the poem:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,

Set in his semblaunt sene;

He ferde as freke were fade,

And oueral enker-grene.

After struggling to weigh up what is both ordinary and extraordinary about this mysterious stranger through a series of detailed long lines, the poet tactfully resorts to this intervening episode that serves to sum up his description and the reaction towards him. This singsong like interlude is also employed to introduce a new element of his appearance and shifts focus of the poem onto the importance of his green attire. The shift is successfully achieved by repetition of the word “grene” in the first line of the next stanza; intricate overlapping in this way is a common tendency of the Gawain poet and it gives the impression of continuous progression from one part of the narrative to the next.

As the description progresses to deal with how the knight is arrayed the pattern of contrast is continued. The narrator provides a vivid and detailed depiction of the knight’s clothes and the stranger’s attire is accommodated into the norm of romance description. Davenport suggests that ‘by his clothes Camelot would recognise him as one of themselves, an aristocrat”1 and the description does align the knight with other romantic characters. He has the necessary accessories of a “strayte cote”, “mere mantile” lined extravagantly with fur and “wel-haled hose” but these default items are consistently undercut by the emphasis on the strange colour that everything is composed of. This emphasis is achieved by numerous green references which undermine the “sheer plausibility of their [the knight and horse’s] accoutrements”2 by reminding the reader of the shocking green colouring. Each item, separated by its individual charm and elegance, is then encompassed into the monstrous greenness of this man so that the various elements combine to form the whole impression of one “graythed in grene” with “alle his vesture uerayly…clene verdure.”

The narrator’s omniscient stance and his eye for detail ensures that nothing, no matter how minute, is excluded from the description:

That were to tor for to telle of trifles the halue

That were enbrauded abof, with bryddes and flyghes,

With gay gaudi of grene, the golde ay inmyddes.

With an adynaton he expresses the difficultly in providing an adequate description but endeavours to do so nonetheless and describes the intricate patterns of embroidery upon the silk. It is this intent concentration on each tiny facet of the overall image that makes this image such a source of wonder.

The description is at once elegant but excessive and although the knight’s appearance seems to slot itself into the courtly stereotype there are frequent anomalies that heighten his strangeness:

Fayre fannand fax vmbefoldes his schulders;

A much a berd as a busk ouer his brest henges

The shocking green hue of his face and hair is intensified by the quantity of both and the simile comparing his wild beard to a bush creates a reference to a world outside of the cosy walls of Camelot; although the fashionable gold and green trappings of his horse and its “bellex ful bright of brende golde” belong to the courtly world of Arthur and his knights, the fierce discrepancies against the courtly model set the green knight far apart from his hosts into the realm of “fantoum and fayreghe.” This notion of otherness is epitomised by the other knights’ simultaneous fascination with and fear of him:

Such a

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