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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem written by an unknown author during the fourteenth century. The story and language are similar to those in Beowulf, which was written several centuries earlier also by an unknown author. Both poems are adventure stories, in which the young heroes belong to a warrior culture and must face an evil supernatural being. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depicts an unfortunate time for Sir Gawain, a loyal, brave and honored member of King Arthur's Round Table. During Sir Gawain's adventure to locate the Green Knight, he must endure many trials that will test his knightly traits. He will be presented with situations that will test his loyalty and honesty, and by being a knight true to word and honor, his life will be spared by the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain, one evening during the New Year's feast, seals his fate by accepting a challenge presented by an unknown Green Knight. A Green Knight rides into the dining hall of King Arthur and challenges his court to a Christmas game, which is a beheading contest. Sir Gawain volunteers to strike the Green Knight with an ax. However, in a year's time, the Green Knight must do the same to Sir Gawain. After Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, the evil creature picks up his head, mounts his horse, and states, "Sir Gawain, forget not to go as agreed, And cease not to seek til me, sir you find, As you promised in the presence of these proud knights. To the Green Chapel come, I charge you, to take Such a dint as you have dealt-you have well deserved That your neck should have a knock on New Year's morn." (Norton 167) In the rest of the poem, we see Sir Gawain, a year later, venture out in search of this Green Chapel. Along his journey he will be faced with many tests that will challenge his honesty, courtesy, and truthfulness.
The passage from lines 928-994 reveals the characters of the lady and the hag, and also further describes the lord of the castle where Gawain is lodging. After dinner and mass have concluded, we are introduced to the lady of the castle, as she "Came forth from her closet with her comely maids." (Norton 178) Prior to her appearance, she has been secluded from the rest of the court during mass with her maids, signifying the extreme dignity of the lady. The author describes the extreme beauty of the lady, "The fair hues of flesh, her face and her hair And her body and her bearing were beyond praise, and excelled the queen herself" (Norton 178) The lady's beauty is so remarkable that she is described here as more beautiful than Guinevere. Her complexion is fair, and her clothing is red and shows off her body. It is clear from her appearance that she is a very seductive woman. The lady is also wearing a high silk headdress covered with pearls. The color of red and the rich silk garment signify her royalty. She is viewed as an important figure by the court. Later in the text, she tries to seduce Sir Gawain while her husband is out hunting. Her beauty will test whether or not Sir Gawain can keep his promise to the lord of the castle. Sir Gawain already shows a little spark between the two of them in his response to meeting the lady: he quickly goes over and greets the fair lady with a kiss.
In this part of the text, we are also introduced to an old hag, who accompanies the lady of the castle as her chaperone. The old hag is described as "short and thick of waist, Her buttocks round and wide; more toothsome, to his taste, was the beauty by her side." (Norton 178) Here the author is painting a picture in the reader's mind of the hideous appearance of the old hag as she stands next to the fair lady, enhancing the lady's beauty.
This old hag will prove to be a magical element in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as she is not what she appears to be. This type of element has also been introduced in other literary works such as "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Towards the end of each story, the hag transforms into another form, usually a beautiful dame. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the old hag is later identified as Morgan Le Faye, sorceress and King Arthur's half-sister who can assume any shape. This shows us that one must never judge the appearance of another and base judgements on beauty alone. It is the inner person one must be conscious of.
The final character that is described in this section is the lord. In the beginning of the passage, he is viewed as a serious, stern man who calls for his royal robe to wear through the mass. But, after indulging himself in spiced wine, he becomes rowdy. He accomplishes this by taking "his hood from his head and he hangs it on a spear, and offers him openly to the honor thereof Who should promote the most mirth as that Christmas feast." (Norton 179) The lord clearly is under the influence as he prances around the dining hall, wanting to partake in festive sports. Gawain at this sight proclaims that he is grateful for the meal and "retires to bed straightway." (Norton 179) He is obviously tired and has had enough excitement for one day.
So, as you can see, in this passage, we are introduced to the beautiful lady and the old hag, who later in the text are key elements in the fate of Sir Gawain. All three characters are in some way, shape, or form are related to the Green Knight. For the time being, Sir Gawain is resting comfortably in the castle he has stumbled upon, but the beautiful lady will soon put him in a predicament that will test his will immensely. The old hag is also an important element in the text, as she will too surprise Sir Gawain, by actually being Morgan Le Faye in disguise. The whole plot of the story is an evil scheme planned by Morgan. She wants to afflict Guinevere with evil and frighten her to death. Sir Gawain has gotten himself into a complex predicament, and in further reading of the text I was interested to see how his fate plays out.
1. Abrams, M. ed. etal. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. vol. 1. 6th edition. New York: Norton and Company: 1993, 253-281.
2. Online. Internet. HTTP://www.wol.pace.edu/grendel/prjf72c/pics.html Date Consulted 11/27/00 (Picture)
3. Online. Internet. HTTP://csis.pace.edu/grendel/projs3b/gawain.html Date Consulted 11/27/00 (Picture)