Analyse the second beheading scene in the fourth part of the poem. Comment on the words and actions of Gawain and the Green Knight before, during and immediately after it.
Note on transcription: In order to maintain standard keyboard formatting, I have rendered the characters ‘thorn’ as ‘th’, ‘yogh’ as ‘3’ and simplified diacritical marks.
The section of the poem containing the second beheading scene opens with a lengthy description of the weather and natural landscape around:
clowdes ke∫ ten kenly the colde to the erthe
wyth ny3e in nogh of the northe the naked to tene. (121v)
The imagery of cold and winter, developed through repetitions and violent personifications, suggests both the harshness of the external landscape, emphasising the difficult nature of Gawain’s quest, and a reflection of his own bleak and dark mood. It also evokes symbolism of death and, as Anderson (2005, p.188) has argued, situates Gawain’s quest and personal mood within the context of the change of the seasons, showing how life is transient and insignificant in relation to the cycles of nature. A further relevance of the contextual importance of the seasons is to emphasise the date as the Feast of the Circumcision, a resonance further developed through the wounds inflicted in the scene themselves (Newhauser, 1997, p.270). Christianity provides a ritualistic and seasonal framework for the action, if not necessarily, as Pearsall (1997) has argued, a model of forgiveness. This opening is followed by another lengthy section describing Gawain’s elaborate preparations for battle, where he must be dressed accordingly, in “agrett wy∫e” (122r), which Neilsen (1999, p.41) translates as “the proper way”. Such elaborate construction of propriety suggests the importance of maintaining courtly ritual and tradition, as throughout the poem. The ‘proper’ dress is an interesting mix of hard masculine imagery, “∫ythen his oth harnays that holdely wat3 keped” (122r), and soft feminine material such as “the lace the ladie3 gifte” (122r), mixing colours as well as gendered stereotypes, “gordel of the grene ∫ilke” and “red clothe” (122r). Pearsall (1997, p.351) has pointed to the importance of colour symbolism in the poem, particularly in terms of how its meaning changes depending on its context. The green of the girdle, for example, is seen as a mark of honour by the knights but one of shame to Gawain, further revealing chivalric conventions as elements of performance dependent on an interpretative context. After Gawain’s preparations he is “the bolde mon bou” (122r) and the Neilsen translation (p.42) shows how this encapsulates a sense of being both bold and good, ‘goodness’ encoded into the readiness for battle and sacrifice in the name of honour.
The action then moves to Gawain’s journey through the landscape, building tension and fear throughout the section. Gawain further reveals his adherence to chivalric codes of honour in refusing the possibility of escape offered by his guide:
I were akny3t kowarde I my3t mot be excu∫ed
Bot iwylto the chapel for chauce that may falle (123v)
There is fear here of being seen as a ‘coward’ and so a failure within his own terms of chivalry. He must uphold his promise, partly because of these codes and also because of a faith in fate, expressed through obedience to chance and also to the gods:
Is obedient to gods will, faith in it
To godde3 wylle I am ful bayn (123v)
Such faith in external forces at the expense of individual agency or self-preservation reveals the importance of both codes of chivalry and belief in fate in the medieval period. Gawain has shown not only courage but also patience and courtesy, fulfilling conventional behaviours of courtly romance (Brewer, 1997, p.17). While the descriptions of the landscape around conspire to create a haunting and thoroughly fear-evoking context, this adds to the test that Gawain sets himself in adhering to the rules which have been set out. There is a slight irony here in the way that he has not fully adhered to the codes previously, when retaining the girdle during the hunting / seduction scenes. It could be argued that he is more prepared to face God’s will as he believes he will be protected through the lure of the won object. These tensions and contradictions within chivalric codes emerge throughout the poem. The Green Knight’s preparation, in contrast, is described mainly through Gawain’s perceptions of it, through the horrific sounds he hears such as the axe being sharpened, serving to heighten his own awareness of his fate. The Green Knight’s axe is not described in the detail given to Gawain’s dress and armoury but it is significantly a Danish axe, “A dene3 axe new dy3t (124v). Brewer (1997, p.20) describes how the axe functions as “almost as a symbolic cultish object”, and the Nordic reference proposes a connection to Anglo-Saxon histories preceding and pre-dating the histories ascribed to Gawain’s lance in the opening of the poem, suggesting a more primal and rooted connection to older histories on behalf of the Green Knight.
The beheading scene itself is framed as a judgement of Gawain against the codes of chivalry and honour that have been established throughout the poem. He is initially respected for withholding his bargain:
Hat3 tymed thi trauayl as t’ee mo ∫hulde (124v)
Gawain is a ‘true’ man for undertaking the quest, fulfilling his heroic role. This image and judgement, however, is then undercut when he flinches during the Green Knight’s axe blow to his neck:
Art not gawayn q the gome thet is ∫ d ha (124v)
Gawain’s identity is so caught up in the codes of chivalry in which he has been defined that this breach of codes, exposing himself as cowardly, is a challenge and threat to his very identity itself, as he is now ‘not Gawain’. Without the performance of heroism which has been so important to him throughout the rest of the poem, Gawain is reduced to a complete loss of self. He does succeed in not flinching for the final blow but is cut on the neck as punishment for failing to entirely play by the rules in the hunting and seduction game. While the physical damage done to Gawain is minimal, the damage to his honour is immense. He is not only exposed as cowardly through his flinch, but also exposed as lying in the previous game. Through the Green Knight’s explanation, the whole test turns out to be a complex game with Gawain as the unwitting participant. This does not really, however, make the situation much more acceptable to Gawain as the codes of honour that go to make up his identity are fundamentally maintained through the performance of such ‘games’ already. Koeberl (2007, p.294), in his analysis of the poem, points out that the game is not opposed to seriousness but a way of defining a specific type of rule-governed behaviour, and an important part of constructing Gawain’s identity through the codes of chivalry. Gawain is punished for lying so is left with guilt. The Green Knight is represented as having compassion rather than embodying the strict application of absolute justice.
The scene then is crucial for the poem as it engages with a lot of its important themes. Schwartz (1969, p.82) describes the hero as “he who incorporates into the context of his existence the ethos of an age and thereby becomes its symbolic embodiment”. The figure of Gawain can be understood in these terms. He becomes the symbolic embodiment of codes of chivalry and honour, as well as embodying the guilt of failing to adhere fully to them. The varying perspectives in the poem, however, also allow for a critique of such codes. Pearsall (1997, p.351), for example, points to how the poem reveals tensions and fragilities within codes of chivalric idealism. This is made clear, for example, when Gawain returns and is seen as a hero, while he continues to define himself by shame and failure. Codes of chivalry, as Anderson (2005, p.171) has argued, are revealed as an external public performance, part of the ‘games’ that structure society at the time but with little explanatory power for discourses of shame and guilt. This beheading scene partly re-affirms the power of the dominant codes of chivalry, through, for example Gawain’s valorisation as honourable knight. On the other hand, however, it also undermines them, through, for example their misinterpretation by the knights upon his return and the tension between his personal guilt and public heroism. The Green Knight’s revealing of himself as the same person who had been playing the game with Gawain previously serves to make a further direct connection between the domestic world of the court and that of heroic knightly endeavour. As Spearing (1976, p.219) argues, “there lies hidden in courtly society a danger as extreme and unpredictable” as that of the Green Knight. The collapsing of these distinctions in the Green Knight’s explanatory speech in this section allows the poem to function as a critique of the superficiality of and volatile tensions within chivalric codes both of epic romance and of courtly society of the time.
Quotations from the poem are from:
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Ed. Ross G. Arthur. Cambridge: In Parentheses, 1999.
Anderson, J.J. Language and Imagination in the Gawain Poems. Mancheter, Manchester University Press, 2005.
Brewer, Derek, ‘Intorduction’, A Companion to The Gawain Poet. Eds. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1997.
Koeberl, Johann. ‘Thou Art Not Gawayn: Questioning an Identity’, Toward a Dialogic Anglistics. Eds. Werner Delanoy, Joerg Helbig and Allan James, 2007.
Neilsen, W.A. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cambridge: In Parentheses, 1999.
Newhauser, Richard. ‘Sources II: Scriptural and Devotional Sources’, A Companion to The Gawain Poet. Eds. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1997.
Pearsall, Derek. ‘Courtesy and Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Order of Shame and the Invention of Embrassment’, A Companion to The Gawain Poet. Eds. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1997.
Spearing, A.C. The Gawain Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Schwarz, Sheila, ‘The Idea of The Hero’, The English Journal, Vol.68, No.1, Jan, 1969.