For the Love of a Lady - Chivalry Abandoned. Life After Guinevere, the Story of Gawain and the Green Knight.
After Falling Into Love's Trappings, Sir Gawain Finally Finds the Green Knight and Learns Humility.
In this passage, Sir Gawain interprets his surroundings, his opponent and his position through his five senses (SGGK line 2193), mainly through those of sight and sound. I would like to discuss how this passage teaches, in its context, the lesson that we cannot depend on merely what our senses tell us is true.
There is Gawain’s sense of sight. In lines 2189 and 2190 the terrain Gawain sees is described using unfriendly visuals such as “weed” and “desert.” In lines 2191 to 2194 the Green Knight, though unseen, is associated with this terrain, described firstly in a visual way as the Devil and green in colour. His qualities, by association to the terrain and the Devil, are perceived as unholy and fiendish. The reader by now accepts, like Gawain, that an evil creature must inhabit this sinister place. The reader, visually engaged, sees what Gawain sees and climbs inside his feelings.
But is everything as it appears? Is the Green Knight pure malevolence? Not so.
In lines 2195 and 2196 the author cleverly scribes the transition from Gawain’s senses to his actions. From lines 2196 onwards Gawain moves. He surveys his surroundings. He is bodily present in the scene.
There is his sense of sound. Gawain “hears” his surroundings. In line 2199 the “weird,” “clattering” sound uncannily rattles his super-heightened senses. This heightens the reader’s anticipation for what is to come by calling out to the reader’s own sense of hearing. The sound of the axe being sharpened, along with its comparison to the sure and steady danger of a wild water mill (SGGK 1998, p. 107) transfers Gawain’s own spine chills to the reader, echoes the feelings of Gawain.
But is everything as it sounds? Is death imminent? Not necessarily.
By lines 2208 to 2211, Gawain has summoned God’s strength enough to declare, “No noise will make me afraid.” It is at this point, with the introduction of the almost mantra-like ‘bob and wheel’ (SGGK lines 2207 to 2211), that Gawain musters up his courage based on “God’s will” which is for him indisputable. Gawain is here consoled that death is preordained for him by the omnipotent God to whom he is devoted. Before line 2208, it is Gawain versus the Devil. From line 2208 Gawain involves his God in his plight, as he has done previously in the poem thus far.
This extends the theme of the near-perfect, almost Christ-like (SGGK 1998, p. 98) Gawain and his close relationship to God and Mary. I believe that it is his Godly honour that moves Gawain to sacrifice his life in place of King Arthur’s in answer to the Green Knight’s initial challenge, that sets him on his journey to find the Green Knight a year later, and that prevents Gawain from giving in to the Lady’s adulterous urges. But it is this very notion of Gawain’s honour that is soon to be called into question (SGGK 1998, p. 107).
Gawain’s senses and his Godliness are not infallible. His overly simplified sensory Biblical outlook proves faulty, leads to his humiliation. Gawain learns that not everything is what it seems to look or sound like. Evil is not pure evil, good is not pure good, imperfections and exceptions exist, and his judgments will not always prove true. Such is magnified by this particular stanza, the outcome of which surpasses his judgments.
This is the point of the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which I find most significant. The Green Knight, contrary to how he looks and sounds, is not his malevolent portrayal. And, in like manner, Sir Gawain is not as trothed as he appears.