The Suspicion of Courtliness


The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the round table are stories that have been celebrated for hundreds of years. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is no different. What is most striking about this poem is the vivid imagery that comes from the description of the Green Knight. Whenever he is mentioned in the poem, either as himself or as Sir Bertilak, I feel the need to pay closer attention to the text. In the poem our hero Sir Gawain is put through tests by the Green Knight and it is determined that Sir Gawain has proved himself to be courtly enough for the Green Knight to approve King Arthur’s House which is so widely celebrated in the land. It is interesting that the Green Knight is allowed to make this judgement call about the House of King Arthur when his own actions create suspicion about his courtliness and should be examined closer. The discrepancies of the Green Knight’s characterization in the text causes the reader to be suspicious of courtliness in the text, this is shown through the conflicting language about his morality, the nature of his intention during his arrival in King Arthur’s House, and the language he uses when talking about himself and others.

The Green Knight can be regarded as a magical force that comes into the poem to judge the men of King Arthur’s Round Table, but even though the texts claims that he is mortal, the events that occur could lead a reader to think otherwise. In the first stanza that introduces the Green Knight the narrator says, “I should genuinely judge him to be half a giant, /or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals” (FITT i. 140). While maybe the Green Knight is rather abnormally brawn and tall, he is still regarded as mortal and a man. This is contradicted though with the main feature of the Green Knight, “No soul had ever seen/ a knight of such kind/ entirely of emerald green.” (FITT i. 148). The Green Knight, incidentally, is totally and completely green. His skin, his hair and even his horse is green. The green tint of the knight’s skin suggests he is not a mortal being, as it is a feature that no other human possesses. The text emphasizes the hue of the Green Knight and describes greens in great detail, but to close that section the text brings us back to the idea that he is in fact human, “No waking man had witnessed such a warrior/ or weird warhorse- otherworldly, yet flesh/ and bone.” (FITT i. 196). Understandably, it is hard to believe that there is such a knight, which is why it is important for the text reference his ‘otherworldliness’ but it make the last point to say that he is of ‘flesh and bone’ and draws attention to it with a break in the stanza in the middle of the sentence.

If the Green Knight’s hue wasn’t enough to begin suspicions about his mortality, then the ability to have his head chopped off, still live and talk should be.

“Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,

yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink…

…cops hold of his head and hoists it high, …

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;

to the noblest at the table he turned the face

and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead

and spoke this speech…” (FITT i. 429-447)


This is the first part of the game that Sir Gawain has agreed to play with the Green Knight. After this happens the Green Knight gallops away, leaving the crowd shocked and in awe of what just happened. The specification of blood in this incident brings back the emphasis on the Green Knight’s mortality, but it is immediately contradicted because a major body part has been severed from his body and he is able to have his severed head speak to the tables before him and leave in a dramatic fashion. This is the last time we see the Green Knight as himself until the end of the poem and I think that is purposeful. To leave us with a magical and supernatural event leaves the reader in awe too, but also suggests that there is more to the Green Knight and that he is a character to watch. This turns out to be true, as he is then able to shape shift into Sir Bertilak which is essential to the plot of the poem.

Another discrepancy in the Green Knight’s characterization is the nature of the actions he takes when he arrives at King Arthur’s celebration, versus the nature of his language when being there. The Green Knight claims that he comes in peace, but there are many places where it might seem otherwise. When the Green Knight is first mentioned the text states “a fearful form appeared…” (FITT i. 136). If the Green Knight really means to come in peace, then why would the text use its first impression on the reader to show the Green Knight is actually a character to be feared? When the Green Knight speaks to King Arthur about the reason he has come he says, “Be assured by this holly stem here in my hand/ that I mean no menace…” (FITT i. 265). While it is true that this holly could be taken as a sign of truce and peace, just as well “…in the other hand held the mother of all axes, /a cruel piece of kit I kid you not:” (FITT i. 208). The Green Knight has a weapon in his hand, and even though he claims that the holly stem in his other hand cancels out any malicious intent it is very suspicious that he has such a weapon with him. The Green Knight is even described as a fiend, in FITT i, line 214, “The handle which fitted that fiend’s great fist”. The use of fiend suggests there is malicious intent that corresponds with that the axe in his hand. There is other language that follow this as well, the manner he is described to speak to Sir Gawain in FITT i, Line 377, “Then the Green Knight spoke, growled at Gawain:”. This should be noted because the first half of the line already described the action that is occurring. ‘The Greek Knight spoke’, it is that additional verb that brings attention to this strange way of describing the communication between the Green Knight and Sir Gawain.

The Green Knight’s game is also evidence of his deceitful entrance into the House of King Arthur,

“So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:

if a person here present, within these premises,

is big or bold or red-blooded enough

to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,

I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver

and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.” (FITT i. 284-289).


The Green Knight’s game isn’t the real test of King Arthur’s court, even though he states that it is. The real test comes later when he has his wife confront Sir Gawain and test his loyalty and honesty while he is Sir Bertilak. This first part of the game is only to be able to have Sir Gawain held in a bond to come to find him later in the poem so he is able to test him as Sir Bertilak. Just the same he could have given his axe to Sir Gawain for a year’s time, and then asked that he return it and that also would have made it possible for the events with Sir Bertilak to occur. The gruesomeness of the Green Knight’s game also shows that he is a violent and malicious knight which contradicts his peaceful holly entrance.

One of the other discrepancies in the Green Knight’s characterization is the way he speaks to others, and about himself. If the Green Knight is who judges Sir Gawain to be the courtliest knight around then the Green Knight has to be a very courtly knight as well, but that is not what we get from him. When no one steps up to play the deadly game the Green Knight taunts the court,

“’So here is the House of Arthur,’ he scoffed,

‘whose virtues reverberate across vast realms.

Where’s the fortitude and fearlessness you’re so famous for?

…skittled and scuppered by a stranger- what a scandal!

You flap and you flinch and I’ve not raised a finger!’

Then he laughed so loud that their leader saw red. (FITT i. 309-316).

A courtly knight who wants no violence or harm to occur would not show up as a guest in a court on an important holiday celebration and taunt those who call said court home. He is also very boastful of himself, “If I’d ridden to your castle rigged out fir a ruck/ these lightweight men wouldn’t last a minute.” (FITT i. 281). He is claiming to be so powerful that men of one of the highest regarded courts would be mere lightweights and not able to compete with him at all. Being rude and being boastful as a guest in another man’s court is not someone who you would think to be the best judge of character. These characteristics also show later in the poem when Sir Gawain shows up to receive his blow, “Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe, / …or flap when my head went flying to my feet?” (FITT iv. 2274-2276). He again is boastful of himself and his own bravery, which is interesting to note because he is testing to see if Sir Gawain would do exactly what he is doing. The deceit that occurs from the Green Knight concealing his identity and playing the role of Sir Bertilak to test Sir Gawain is also a lie, which would count as a sin just as Sir Gawain lies and conceals the gift he received from the Green Knight’s wife, “Because the belt you are bound with belongs to me;/…for it was all my work! /I sent her to test you…” (FITT iv. 2358-2362). The Green Knight knows that Sir Gawain was deceitful, just as his was by concealing his identity.

In conclusion the Green Knight’s characterization throughout the poem gives reason for the reader to be doubtful and mistrustful of the authenticity of his idea of courtliness. This creates the question of how much we should trust the Green Knight, and how does this impact how we view the ‘ultimate courtly knight’ Sir Gawain. If the reader cannot trust the Green Knight, as proved by the discrepancies of his characterization, then the reader also would have a hard time believing the characterization of Sir Gawain, and ultimately King Arthur’s court because the Green Knight approves of Sir Gawain as a representation of the Knights of the Round Table.


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