English 201: English Literature to 1700
Prof. Boyer
Reading Questions for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (pp. 156-210)
The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the book (or section, or chapter) before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind. (In the discussion below, page and line numbers in parentheses refer to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1 [2000] unless otherwise indicated.)

Part 1 (lines 1-490)
Part 2 (lines 491-1104)
Part 3 (lines 1105-1997)
Part 4 (lines 1998-2530)
General questions

Important Characters

King Arthur
Sir Gawain, his nephew
the Green Knight
Gringolet, a horse

The lord of the castle
The lord's wife
An old woman at the castle

PART 1 (lines 1-490, pp. 156-168)

1.

Why does the poem begin with the Trojan War, not with King Arthur or Sir Gawain?

2.

What season of the year is it as the actual story begins? Why is that significant? What night is it when the main events of Part 1 take place (line 60)?

3.

How old (more or less) are Arthur and his knights when the story takes place? How do you know?

4.

Why won't Arthur eat his dinner yet?

5.

What is the most unusual thing about the man who rides into the hall? In what interesting way does the author bring us that information? What is the man carrying in his hands (lines 206-208)? How does the man behave when he enters? Whom does he ask for? What initial response does he get?

6.

What does the Green Knight propose? (Note the language he uses in lines 273 and 283.)

7.

How many knights initially offer to undertake the Green Knight's challenge? What arguments does Gawain finally use in asking to be given the challenge?

8.

What happens when Gawain cuts off the Green Knight's head (lines 425 ff)? What do the colors in line 429 remind you of?

9.

What is Arthur's response once the Green Knight has left?

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PART 2 (lines 491-1104, pp. 168-181)

1.

When does Gawain leave Arthur's court?

2.

What color is Gawain's armor? (See lines 603, 619.)

3.

What appears on the outside of his shield? What appears on the inside? What does the pentangle stand for? What, especially, do the fifth five mean? (In the original, the five are fraunchyse, felawschyp, clannes, cortaysye, and pité.) The author stresses that all of the fives are linked (lines 656-661). What happens in such a structure if any one of the elements gives way?

4.

What route does Gawain follow? Can you trace it on the map inside the front cover of the book? What sorts of adventures does he encounter?

5.

The "Christmas Eve" of line 734 is actually the evening of December 23. What does Gawain fear he will miss on December 24 (lines 750-762)? What happens after Gawain's prayer?

6.

How is Gawain received in the castle? How does the lord of the castle respond? How would you describe the lord of the castle?

7.

How well does Gawain maintain his Christmas Eve fast?

8.

What do the castle residents expect once they know it is Gawain (lines 908-927)? In other words, what is Gawain well-known for?

9.

What two women does Gawain meet after evensong? How are they described? How does Gawain behave with the women?

10.

The dates get confusing at line 1020, since one day seems to be omitted. "That day and all the next" of line 1020 refer to Christmas day and December 26 (St. Stephen's Day). "St. John's Day" of line 1022 is December 27. What appears to be missing, according to the poem's most recent editors, is a line or two after line 1022 referring to December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, the last of the three major feasts following Christmas. Thus "the last of their like for those lords and ladies" (line 1023) would refer to the "joys" of December 28, and the guests would "go in the gray morning" (line 1024) of December 29 (which in England is the Feast of St. Thomas à Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by associates of King Henry II on Christmas Day 1170). The three days described in Part 3 are thus December 29, 30, and 31, and at the beginning of Part 4 Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel on January 1.

11.

Why does Gawain tell the lord he has to leave? What surprising news does the lord have for him? What does Gawain then decide to do?

12.

What arrangements does the lord propose for Gawain and himself for the next day? How does Gawain respond?

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PART 3 (lines 1126-1997, pp. 181-199)

1.

What animal does the lord hunt the first day?

2.

What happens to Gawain while he is still in bed? What does he pretend to do? What happens when he finally "wakes up"? What metaphor do the lady and Gawain use in lines 1210 ff.? What does the lady seem to have in mind? How does Gawain respond? Why, as the lady is leaving, does she say "But our guest is not Gawain" (line 1293)? What does she give Gawain?

3.

What happens in the last part of the first day's hunt? What does the lord give Gawain when he returns home? What does Gawain give the lord? What do they agree on for the second day?

4.

What animal does the lord hunt the second day?

5.

What happens to Gawain the second day? How does he respond differently this time? Why does the lady complain? What does she ask him to do (lines 1533-1534)? What is suggested by the narrator's comments in lines 1549-1551? What does the lady give him?

6.

What happens in the last part of the second day's hunt? What does the lord give Gawain when he returns home? What does Gawain give the lord? What do they agree on for the third day? What is bothering Gawain? (See lines 1657-1663.) Note that one part of the pentangle ("cortaysye") is in opposition to another part ("clannes"), and remember what might happen if any part of the pentangle fails.

7.

What animal does the lord hunt the third day?

8.

What happens to Gawain the third day? What is the meaning of the narrator's warning in lines 1768-1769? What choices does Gawain have (lines 1770-1775)? Notice that line 1775 brings in another element, Gawain's oath. What is in question here is his "troth" or truth. (In the original, line 1775 says that he would be "traytor" to the man that owned that dwelling.)

9.

What does the lady give Gawain during her visit? What does the lady ask for as she leaves? What can Gawain give her? Why doesn't he accept the ring from him? What object does he accept from her? Why does he accept it? What does it look like? (Should line 1832 remind you of anything?)

10.

What does Gawain do differently after the lady leaves? What is ironic about lines 1883-1884? What should Gawain have included in his confession that he probably didn't because it was only planned at that point but hadn't actually occurred?

11.

What happens in the last part of the third day's hunt? What color is "Sir Reynard" the fox, and how is he treated? Does his color remind you of anything?

12.

What happens differently when the lord returns home on the third day? Why? Does Gawain meet the terms of his oath? How well does Gawain sleep that night? Why?

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PART 4 (lines 1998-2530, pp. 199-210)

1.

Gawain puts on the girdle in lines 2030-2036. Does the combination of colors in lines 2035-2036 remind you of anything (even though it may be anachronistic)?

2.

What does the guide say about the Green Knight? What does he tell Gawain to do? What is Gawain's response?

3.

Is the Green Chapel what Gawain expected it to be? What is it?

4.

What tone does the Green Knight maintain throughout Gawain's encounter with him?

5.

What happens the first time the Green Knight raises the ax? What does he tell Gawain in line 2270? Have we heard that before?

6.

What happens the second time the Green Knight raises the ax? What is Gawain's response?

7.

What happens the third time the Green Knight raises the ax? What is Gawain's response?

8.

What surprises do we and Gawain get in the Green Knight's explanation of the three tries (lines 2345-2357)? What additional surprise appears in lines 2358-2361?

9.

How does the Green Knight judge Gawain's performance during his tests? How does Gawain judge his own performance? Whom does Gawain blame (lines 2411-2428)?

10.

Who is the Green Knight? Who is the old woman at the castle? Why is she so much more important to the poem than she appeared to be? What did she want to do to Arthur's knights? What did she want to do to Arthur's queen?

11.

What is Gawain's attitude when he returns to court? What is the court's attitude? What happens to the girdle? What does the court do about it?

12.

Whose response should we see as the more appropriate, Gawain's or that of both the Green Knight and the court?

13.

What is the effect of the last part of the last stanza (lines 2519-2550)? To be accurate to the original, lines 2525-2526 should read "After the siege and the assult was ceased at Troy / iwiss [I know],". Compare line 2525 and line 1. What is the effect of repeating the first line of the poem here?

14.

What additional understanding do we get of the poem by noting that until this century January 1 was primarily celebrated as "The Circumcision of Our Lord"? The circumcision is mentioned in Luke 2:21. Some sense of the significance of the circumcision can be seen in the collect [prayer] for the feast:

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will. Through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

More of the significance of the circumcision as foreshadowing the crucifixion and resurrection can be seen in the hymn provided for Matins of the feast:

O blessed day, when first was poured
The precious blood of Christ our Lord!
O blessed day, when so began
His travail in redeeming man!

Scarce entered on our life of woe,
His infant blood for us doth flow!
Whilst yet he suckles at the breast,
Atoning love he thus confessed!

From heaven come, and willingly,
Man's sacrificial Lamb is he!
The Son of God, quick to fulfil
Each mandate of his Father's will!

Beneath the knife see Mary's Child,
God's Innocent! man's Undefiled!
For sinners he would ransom pay,
For lawless man the Law obey!

Grant circumcision, Lord, within;
Cut from our hearts the love of sin!
That we thy likeness true may bear,
Carve deep thy Name and image there! Amen.

Of course, Gawain is not a Christ-figure, merely a human (even if one of the best). But certainly the "little blood" (line 2314) of Gawain's that is shed on January 1 for his "sins" would remind at least some in the audience listening to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of the feast celebrated on the same day.

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GENERAL QUESTIONS

1.

Beowulf is an epic (see p. 29); Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance (see pp. 8-9). In what ways is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight different from Beowulf? What is the most important thing that appears in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that did not appear in the world of Beowulf?

2.

In what ways are Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf similar? (For some fairly obvious answers, you might consider how the two poems together differ from something like Great Expectations or Moby Dick, although even there you could find some interesting similarities).

3.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like Lanval, is an example of Arthurian literature, although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was apparently written about 200 years later than Lanval was. How are the two poems similar? How are they different?

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