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Passage analysis

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an anonymous fourteenth-century poet in Northern dialect, combines two plots: "the beheading contest, in which two parties agree to an exchange of the blows with a sword or ax, and the temptation, an attempted seduction of the hero by a lady" (Norton p.200). The Green Knight, depicted as a green giant with supernatural powers, disrespectfully rides into King Arthur's court and challenges the king to a Christmas game -- a beheading contest. Sir Gawain, a young, brave and loyal knight of the Round Table, acting according to the chivalric code, takes over the challenge his lord has accepted. The contest states that Sir Gawain is to chop off the Green Knight's head, and in one year and a day, the antagonist is to do the same to the hero. The whole poem is constructed in a way that leads the reader through the challenges that Sir Gawain faces -- the tests for honesty, courtesy, truthfulness. Throughout, we see his inner strength to resist the temptations.

Lines 566 through 634 portray the hero as he dresses up and gets ready to go to find the Green Knight on November first, almost a year after the beheading contest in the king Arthur's court. Remembering the beheaded Green Knight on the horse with his head under his arm, King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table try to talk Sir Gawain out of going on this dangerous and, possibly last, mission, but the hero, keeping his part of the bargain, acts as the true and honorable knight should act: he goes to find the villain.

The first stanza depicts the protagonist who orders his armor to be brought to him. A rare and expensive carpet is brought and spread on the floor. Then the hero is dressed in the "coat of Turkestan silk"(Norton, p.214, l.571), "kingly cap-`a-dos with a lustrous fur"(Norton, p.214, l.572-573), steel shoes, plates to protect the knees "affixed with fastening of the finest gold" (Norton, p.214, l.577), protective plates for the arms, gloves, "sharp spurs to prick with pride"(Norton, p.214, l.587) and "silk band to hold the broadsword"( Norton, p.214, l.588-589). The hero's helmet, "embellished with the best gems"(Norton, p.214, l.609) and "with diamonds richly set"( Norton, p.214, l.617), has been made by many women who had to work for seven years in order to create such beauty. Besides being very heavy, the knight's suit is also described as being composed and decorated with the most lavish and expensive materials such as silk, gold and diamonds. This strikes the reader as being odd. When we first meet him, Sir Gawain describes himself as poor, humble, insignificant and the weakest of all the knights, and, yet he has such goodly clothes and armor. This little detail could be overlooked (because, after all, the hero is King Arthur's nephew), but it makes the contemporary reader realize that the things in the King Arthur's court are not always what they appear.

Sir Gawain "heard the mass and honored God humbly" (Norton, p.214, l.593) before the long journey. The word that captures the reader's attention and has important meaning and significance in relation to this passage as well as to the poem as a whole is "humbly." The hero thinks of himself as being humble and courteous (and he is proud of it), but the development of the action brings the protagonist to realize that he might not have been as humble as he once thought himself to be. The testing of his honesty and truthfulness by the baron Bercilak reveals at the end the true nature of Sir Gawain: he is a human with the desire to preserve his life, and for that, he even hides the truth. At the time the hero sets out to leave the Camelot, he is sure of his strength. Parting with his uncle and his comrades, he courageously departs from his home.

The knight's relationship with his horse has always been a very special one. On his journey, Sir Gawain's horse, Gringolet, is his friend and comrade. To honor and to show respect to the horse, Gringolet is also dressed up in very expensive armor. Moreover, the horse is the only companion for the knight on his long trip and his only support in the battles with evil and mysterious forces.

Sir Gawain's shield has the greatest significance in this whole passage because of the hero's emblem, the pentangle, portrayed on it. In fourteenth-century England, the pentangle (or the five-pointed star) is also called the endless knot because it could be drawn without taking the pen from the paper. King Solomon devised this sign to be "a token of truth" (Norton, p.215, l. 626). As Brian Stone points out in his article "Gawain's Eternal Jewel," "truth in the sense of good faith remains the chief concern of the hero" throughout the entire poem. Therefore, the emblem is an essential part of Sir Gawain's apparel as truthfulness is an essence of his character. The pentangle's symbolic significance lies in the number five:

   "It is worth emphasizing the 'fiveness'
   of the multiple concept of 'truth':
   the five wits and five fingers make up
   the spiritual and physical human self
   which can practice virtue or vice;
   the five wounds of Christ and
   the five joys of the Virgin
   stand for the heaven's grace and
   power in man's moral and spiritual life;
    and the 'pure five' virtues
   [liberality, brotherly love, purity of mind
    and manners, courtesy and compassion]
   make up the 'truth' of which the whole
   pentangle is the emblem" (Stone).

This truth is established as the knight's symbol immediately before he sets out on his quest.

Sir Gawain tries to live by high standards. When he shames himself by not telling the truth to the Green Knight, he faces the painful reality: he is not the courteous, truthful and humble knight he thought himself to be. The fact that his peers do not understand Gawain's desire to wear his baldrick as a mark of shame makes it even harder for him to bear his shame. The passage from lines 566 to 634 brings forth the idea of truth, from which the rest of the poem's action evolves; it remains the central concern of the adventures and of the poem itself. As Sir Gawain leaves Camelot to search for the Green Knight, he sets on the quest to "retain his self-respect as a virtuous and religious knight" (Stone), which gives the poem its "final and only discernible shape" (Stone).