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The Miller's Prologue and Tale

The Miller's Tale belongs to a genre known as the "fabliau": a short story in verse that
deals satirically, often grossly and fantastically as well as hilariously, with intrigues
and deceptions about sex or money (and often both these elements in the same story).
These are the tales Chaucer is anticipating in The General Prologue when he warns
his presumably genteel audience that they must expect some rude speaking (see lines
72744). An even more pointed apology follows at the end of The Miller's Prologue.
Fabliau tales exist everywhere in oral literature; as a literary form they flourished in
France, especially in the thirteenth century. By having Robin the Miller tell a fabliau
to "quit" (to requite or pay back) the Knight's aristocratic romance, Chaucer sets up
a dialectic between classes, genres, and styles that he exploits throughout The Canterbury
Tales.

BEOWULF
Beowulf, the oldest of the great long poems written in English, may have been composed
more than twelve hundred years ago, in the first half of the eighth century,
although some scholars would place it as late as the tenth century. As is the case with
most Old English poems, the title has been assigned by modern editors, for the manuscripts
do not normally give any indication of title or authorship. Linguistic evidence
shows that the poem was originally composed in the dialect of what was then Mercia,
30 / BEOWULF
the Midlands of England today. But in the unique late-tenth-century manuscript
preserving the poem, it has been converted into the West-Saxon dialect of the southwest
in which most of Old English literature survives. In 1731, before any modern
transcript of the text had been made, the manuscript was seriously damaged in a fire
that destroyed the building in London that housed the extraordinary collection of
medieval English manuscripts made by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 1631). As a
result of the fire and subsequent deterioration, a number of lines and words have
been lost from the poem.
It is possible that Beowulf may be the lone survivor of a genre of Old English long
epics, but it must have been a remarkable and difficult work even in its own day. The
poet was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic
oral poetry, a world that was already remote for his contemporaries and that is stranger
to the modern reader, in many respects, than the epic world of Homer and Virgil.
With the help of Beowulf itself, a few shorter heroic poems in Old English, and later
poetry and prose in Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and Middle High German, we can only
conjecture what Germanic oral epic must have been like when performed by the
Germanic scop, or bard. The Beowulf poet himself imagines such oral performances
by having King Hrothgar's court poet recite a heroic lay at a feast celebrating Beowulf's
defeat of Grendel. Many of the words and formulaic expressions in Beowulf
can be found in other Old English poems, but there are also an extraordinary number
of what linguists call hapax legomenathat is, words recorded only once in a language.
The poet may have found them elsewhere, but the high incidence of such
words suggests that he was an original wordsmith in his own right.
Although the poem itself is English in language and origin, it deals not with native
Englishmen but with their Germanic forebears, especially with two south Scandinavian
tribes, the Danes and the Geats, who lived on the Danish island of Zealand and

in southern Sweden. Thus the historical period the poem concernsinsofar as it may
be said to refer to history at allis some centuries before it was writtenthat is, a
time after the initial invasion of England by Germanic tribes in the middle of the fifth
century but before the Anglo-Saxon migration was completed. The one datable fact
of history mentioned in the poem is a raid on the Franks in which Hygelac, the king
of the Geats and Beowulf's lord, was killed, and this raid occurred in the year 520.
Yet the poet's elliptical references to quasihistorical and legendary material show that
his audience was still familiar with many old stories, the outlines of which we can
only infer, sometimes with the help of later analogous tales in other Germanic languages.
This knowledge was probably kept alive by other heroic poetry, of which little
has been preserved in English, although much may once have existed.
It is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was a
Christian and that his poem reflects well-established Christian tradition. The conversion
of the Germanic settlers in England had been largely completed during the
seventh century. The Danish king Hrothgar's poet sings a song about the Creation
(lines 8798) reminiscent of Caadmon's Hymn. The monster Grendel is said to be a
descendant of Cain. There are allusions to God's judgment and to fate (wyrd) but
none to pagan deities. References to the New Testament are notably absent, but
Hrothgar and Beowulf often speak of God as though their religion is monotheistic.
With sadness the poet relates that, made desperate by Grendel's attacks, the Danes
pray for help at heathen shrinesapparently backsliding as the children of Israel had
sometimes lapsed into idolatry.
Although Hrothgar and Beowulf are portrayed as morally upright and enlightened
pagans, they fully espouse and frequently affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry.
In the poetry depicting this warrior society, the most important of human relationships
was that which existed between the warriorthe thaneand his lord, a relationship
based less on subordination of one man's will to another's than on mutual
trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much
his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him
BEOWULF / 31
and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes
and to reward them richly for their valor; a good king, one like Hrothgar or Beowulf,
is referred to by such poetic epithets as "ring-giver" and as the "helmet" and "shield"
of his people.
The relationship between kinsmen was also of deep significance to this society. If
one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the
slayer or to exact the payment of wergild (man-price) in compensation. Each rank of
society was evaluated at a definite price, which had to be paid to the dead man's kin
by the killer if he wished to avoid their vengeanceeven if the killing had been an
accident. In the absence of any legal code other than custom or any body of law
enforcement, it was the duty of the family (often with the lord's support) to execute
justice. The payment itself had less significance as wealth than as proof that the
kinsmen had done what was right. The failure to take revenge or to exact compensation
was considered shameful. Hrothgar's anguish over the murders committed by
Grendel is not only for the loss of his men but also for the shame of his inability
either to kill Grendel or to exact a "death-price" from the killer. "It is always better /
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" (lines 138485), Beowulf says to
Hrothgar, who has been thrown back into despair by the revenge-slaying of his old

friend Aeschere by Grendel's mother.


Yet the young Beowulfs attempt to comfort the bereaved old king by invoking the
code of vengeance may be one of several instances of the poet's ironic treatment of
the tragic futility of the never-ending blood feuds. The most graphic example in the
poem of that irony is the Finnsburg episode, the lay sung by Hrothgar's hall-poet.
The Danish princess Hildeburh, married to the Frisian king Finnprobably to put
an end to a feud between those peoplesloses both her brother and her son when a
bloody fight breaks out in the hall between a visiting party of Danes and her husband's
men. The bodies are cremated together on a huge funeral pyre: "The glutton element
flamed and consumed / the dead of both sides. Their great days were gone" (lines
1124-25).
Such feuds, the staple subject of Germanic epic and saga, have only a peripheral
place in the poem. Instead, the poem turns on Beowulf's three great fights against
preternatural evil, which inhabits the dangerous and demonic space surrounding
human society. He undertakes the fight against Grendel to save the Danes from the
monster and to exact vengeance for the men Grendel has slain. Another motive is to
demonstrate his strength and courage and thereby to enhance his personal glory.
Hrothgar's magnificent gifts become the material emblems of that glory. Revenge and
glory also motivate Beowulf's slaying of Grendel's mother. He undertakes his last
battle against the dragon, however, only because there is no other way to save his
own people.
A somber and dignified elegiac mood pervades Beowulf. The poem opens and closes
with the description of a funeral and is filled with laments for the dead. Our first view
of Beowulf is of an ambitious young hero. At the end, he has become an old king,
facing the dragon and death. His people mourn him and praise him, as does the poet,
for his nobility, generosity, courage, and, what is less common in Germanic heroes,
kindness to his people. The poet's elegiac tone may be informed by something more
than the duty to "praise a prince whom he holds dear / and cherish his memory when
that moment comes / when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home" (lines 3175
77). The entire poem could be viewed as the poet's lament for heroes like Beowulf
who went into the darkness without the light of the poet's own Christian faith.
The present verse translation is by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who received
the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT


ca. 1375-1400
Between the Ancrene Riwle and the later fourteenth century, writers deployed
English for many genres especially for saints' lives and romances. The finest Arthurian
romance in English survives in only one manuscript, which also contains three
religious poemsPearl, Patience, and Puritygenerally believed to be by the same
poet. Nothing is known about the author except what can be inferred from the
works. The dialect of the poems locates them in a remote corner of the northwest
midlands between Cheshire and Staffordshire, and details of Sir Gawain's journey
north show that the author was familiar with the geography of that region. But if
author and audience were provincials, Sir Gawain and the other poems in the manuscript
reveal them to have been highly sophisticated and well acquainted both

with the international culture of the high Middle Ages and with ancient insular
traditions.
Sir Gawain belongs to the so-called Alliterative Revival. After the Norman Conquest,
alliterative verse doubtless continued to be recited by oral poets. At the beginning,
the Gawain poet pretends that this romance is an oral poem and asks the
audience to "listen" to a story, which he has "heard." Alliterative verse also continued
to appear in Early Middle English texts. Layamon's Brut (see pp. 12527) is the
outstanding example. During the late fourteenth century there was a renewed flowering
of alliterative poetry, especially in the north and west of Britain, which includes
Piers Plowman and a splendid poem known as The Alliterative Morte Darthur.
The Gawain poet's audience evidently valued the kind of alliterative verse that
Chaucer's Parson caricatures as "Rum-Ram-Ruf by lettre" (see p. 314, line 43). They
would also have understood archaic poetic diction surviving from Old English poetry
such as athel (noble) and words of Scandinavian origin such as skete (quickly) and
shifted, (alternated). They were well acquainted with French Arthurian romances and
the latest fashions in clothing, armor, and castle building. In making Sir Gawain,
Arthur's sister's son, the preeminent knight of the Round Table, the poet was faithful
to an older tradition. The thirteenth-century French romances, which in the next
century became the main sources of Sir Thomas Malory, had made Sir Lancelot the
best of Arthur's knights and Lancelot's adultery with Queen Guinevere the central
event on which the fate of Arthur's kingdom turns. In Sir Gawain Lancelot is only
one name in a list of Arthur's knights. Arthur is still a youth, and the court is in its
springtime. Sir Gawain epitomizes this first blooming of Arthurian chivalry, and the
reputation of the court rests upon his shoulders.
Ostensibly, Gawain's head is what is at stake. The main plot belongs to a type
folklorists classify as the "Beheading Game," in which a supernatural challenger offers
to let his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow. The earliest written occurrence
of this motif is in the Middle Irish tale of Bricriu's Feast. The Gawain poet could have
encountered it in several French romances as well as in oral tradition. But the outcome
of the game here does not turn only on the champion's courage as it does in
160
S I R GAWAIN AND THE G R E E N KNIGHT / 161
Bricriu's Feast. The Gawain poet has devised another series of tests for the hero that
link the beheading with his truth, the emblem of which is the pentanglea fivepointed
stardisplayed on Gawain's coat of arms and shield. The word truth in Middle
English, as in Chaucer's ballade of that name (see p. 317), and in Passus I of Piers
Plowman (see p. 336), means not only what it still means nowa fact, belief, or idea
held to be "true"but what is conveyed by the old-fashioned variant from the same
root: troththat is, faith pledged by one's word and owed to a lord, a spouse, or
anyone who puts someone else under an obligation. In this respect, Sir Gawain is
being measured against a moral and Christian ideal of chivalry. Whether or not he
succeeds in that contest is a question carefully left unresolvedperhaps as a challenge
for the reader.
The poet has framed Gawain's adventure with references in the first and last stanzas
to what are called the "Brutus books," the foundation stories that trace the origins of
Rome and Britain back to the destruction of Troy. See, for example, the selection from
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (pp. 11820). A cyclical sense
of history as well as of the cycles of the seasons of the year, the generations of humankind,

and of individual lives runs through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The poem is written in stanzas that contain a group of alliterative lines (the number
of lines in a stanza varies). The line is longer and does not contain a fixed number or
pattern of stresses like the classical alliterative measure of Old English poetry. Each
stanza closes with five short lines rhyming ah ah a. The first of these rhyming lines
contains just one stress and is called the "bob"; the four three-stress lines that follow
are called the "wheel." For details on alliterative verse, see "Old and Middle English
Prosody" (pp. 1921). The opening stanza is printed below in Middle English with
an interlinear translation. The stressed alliterating sounds have been italicized.

DR. FAUSTUS
Themes
Sin, Redemption, and Damnation
Insofar as Doctor Faustus is a Christian play, it deals with the themes at the heart of Christianitys
understanding of the world. First, there is the idea of sin, which Christianity defines as acts contrary
to the will of God. In making a pact with Lucifer, Faustus commits what is in a sense the ultimate sin:
not only does he disobey God, but he consciously and even eagerly renounces obedience to him,
choosing instead to swear allegiance to the devil. In a Christian framework, however, even the worst
deed can be forgiven through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, Gods son, who, according to
Christian belief, died on the cross for humankinds sins. Thus, however terrible Faustuss pact with
Lucifer may be, the possibility of redemption is always open to him. All that he needs to do,
theoretically, is ask God for forgiveness. The play offers countless moments in which Faustus
considers doing just that, urged on by the good angel on his shoulder or by the old man in
scene 1 2 both of whom can be seen either as emissaries of God, personifications of Faustuss
conscience, or both.
Each time, Faustus decides to remain loyal to hell rather than seek heaven. In the Christian
framework, this turning away from God condemns him to spend an eternity in hell. Only at the end of
his life does Faustus desire to repent, and, in the final scene, he cries out to Christ to redeem him.
But it is too late for him to repent. In creating this moment in which Faustus is still alive but incapable
of being redeemed, Marlowe steps outside the Christian worldview in order to maximize the dramatic
power of the final scene. Having inhabited a Christian world for the entire play, Faustus spends his
final moments in a slightly different universe, where redemption is no longer possible and where
certain sins cannot be forgiven.

The Conflict Between Medieval and Renaissance Values


Scholar R.M. Dawkins famously remarked that Doctor Faustus tells the story of a Renaissance man
who had to pay the medieval price for being one. While slightly simplistic, this quotation does get at
the heart of one of the plays central themes: the clash between the medieval world and the world of
the emerging Renaissance. The medieval world placed God at the center of existence and shunted
aside man and the natural world. The Renaissance was a movement that began in Italy in the
fifteenth century and soon spread throughout Europe, carrying with it a new emphasis on the
individual, on classical learning, and on scientific inquiry into the nature of the world. In the medieval
academy, theology was the queen of the sciences. In the Renaissance, though, secular matters took
center stage.
Faustus, despite being a magician rather than a scientist (a blurred distinction in the sixteenth
century), explicitly rejects the medieval model. In his opening speech in scene 1 , he goes through
every field of scholarship, beginning with logic and proceeding through medicine, law, and theology,
quoting an ancient authority for each: Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor
Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion. In the medieval model, tradition and authority, not
individual inquiry, were key. But in this soliloquy, Faustus considers and rejects this medieval way of
thinking. He resolves, in full Renaissance spirit, to accept no limits, traditions, or authorities in his
quest for knowledge, wealth, and power.
The plays attitude toward the clash between medieval and Renaissance values is ambiguous.
Marlowe seems hostile toward the ambitions of Faustus, and, as Dawkins notes, he keeps his tragic
hero squarely in the medieval world, where eternal damnation is the price of human pride. Yet
Marlowe himself was no pious traditionalist, and it is tempting to see in Faustusas many readers
havea hero of the new modern world, a world free of God, religion, and the limits that these
imposed on humanity. Faustus may pay a medieval price, this reading suggests, but his successors
will go further than he and suffer less, as we have in modern times. On the other hand, the
disappointment and mediocrity that follow Faustuss pact with the devil, as he descends from grand
ambitions to petty conjuring tricks, might suggest a contrasting interpretation. Marlowe may be
suggesting that the new, modern spirit, though ambitious and glittering, will lead only to a Faustian
dead end.

Power as a Corrupting Influence


Early in the play, before he agrees to the pact with Lucifer, Faustus is full of ideas for how to use the
power that he seeks. He imagines piling up great wealth, but he also aspires to plumb the mysteries

of the universe and to remake the map of Europe. Though they may not be entirely admirable, these
plans are ambitious and inspire awe, if not sympathy. They lend a grandeur to Faustuss schemes
and make his quest for personal power seem almost heroic, a sense that is reinforced by the
eloquence of his early soliloquies.
Once Faustus actually gains the practically limitless power that he so desires, however, his horizons
seem to narrow. Everything is possible to him, but his ambition is somehow sapped. Instead of the
grand designs that he contemplates early on, he contents himself with performing conjuring tricks for
kings and noblemen and takes a strange delight in using his magic to play practical jokes on simple
folks. It is not that power has corrupted Faustus by making him evil: indeed, Faustuss behavior after
he sells his soul hardly rises to the level of true wickedness. Rather, gaining absolute power corrupts
Faustus by making him mediocre and by transforming his boundless ambition into a meaningless
delight in petty celebrity.
In the Christian framework of the play, one can argue that true greatness can be achieved only with
Gods blessing. By cutting himself off from the creator of the universe, Faustus is condemned to
mediocrity. He has gained the whole world, but he does not know what to do with it.

The Divided Nature of Man


Faustus is constantly undecided about whether he should repent and return to God or continue to
follow his pact with Lucifer. His internal struggle goes on throughout the play, as part of him of wants
to do good and serve God, but part of him (the dominant part, it seems) lusts after the power that
Mephastophilis promises. The good angel and the evil angel, both of whom appear at Faustuss
shoulder in order to urge him in different directions, symbolize this struggle. While these angels may
be intended as an actual pair of supernatural beings, they clearly represent Faustuss divided will,
which compels Faustus to commit to Mephastophilis but also to question this commitment
continually.

Motifs
Magic and the Supernatural
The supernatural pervades Doctor Faustus, appearing everywhere in the story. Angels and devils flit
about, magic spells are cast, dragons pull chariots (albeit offstage), and even fools like the two
ostlers, Robin and Rafe, can learn enough magic to summon demons. Still, it is worth noting that
nothing terribly significant is accomplished through magic. Faustus plays tricks on people, conjures
up grapes, and explores the cosmos on a dragon, but he does not fundamentally reshape the world.

The magic power that Mephastophilis grants him is more like a toy than an awesome, earth-shaking
ability. Furthermore, the real drama of the play, despite all the supernatural frills and pyrotechnics,
takes place within Faustuss vacillating mind and soul, as he first sells his soul to Lucifer and then
considers repenting. In this sense, the magic is almost incidental to the real story of Faustuss
struggle with himself, which Marlowe intended not as a fantastical battle but rather as a realistic
portrait of a human being with a will divided between good and evil.

Practical Jokes
Once he gains his awesome powers, Faustus does not use them to do great deeds. Instead, he
delights in playing tricks on people: he makes horns sprout from the knights head and sells the
horse-courser an enchanted horse. Such magical practical jokes seem to be Faustuss chief
amusement, and Marlowe uses them to illustrate Faustuss decline from a great, prideful scholar into
a bored, mediocre magician with no higher ambition than to have a laugh at the expense of a
collection of simpletons.

Symbols
Blood
Blood plays multiple symbolic roles in the play. When Faustus signs away his soul, he signs in blood,
symbolizing the permanent and supernatural nature of this pact. His blood congeals on the page,
however, symbolizing, perhaps, his own bodys revolt against what he intends to do. Meanwhile,
Christs blood, which Faustus says he sees running across the sky during his terrible last night,
symbolizes the sacrifice that Jesus, according to Christian belief, made on the cross; this sacrifice
opened the way for humankind to repent its sins and be saved. Faustus, of course, in his proud folly,
fails to take this path to salvation.

Faustuss Rejection of the Ancient Authorities


In scene 1 , Faustus goes through a list of the major fields of human knowledgelogic, medicine,
law, and theologyand cites for each an ancient authority (Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and Jeromes
Bible, respectively). He then rejects all of these figures in favor of magic. This rejection symbolizes
Faustuss break with the medieval world, which prized authority above all else, in favor of a more
modern spirit of free inquiry, in which experimentation and innovation trump the assertions of Greek
philosophers and the Bible.

The Good Angel and the Evil Angel


The angels appear at Faustuss shoulder early on in the playthe good angel urging him to repent
and serve God, the evil angel urging him to follow his lust for power and serve Lucifer. The two
symbolize his divided will, part of which wants to do good and part of which is sunk in sin.

FAUSTUS represents the spirit of the Renaissance, with its rejection of the medieval, Godcentered universe, and its embrace of human possibility. Faustus, at least early on in his
acquisition of magic, is the personification of possibility.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT

Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Nature of Chivalry


The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The
code of chivalry, in particular, shapes the values and actions of Sir Gawain and other characters in
the poem. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of
chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.
The ideals of Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Gawains symbolic
shield. The pentangle represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy,
and piety. Gawains adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem
examines more than Gawains personal virtue; it asks whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen
world. What is really being tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be the chivalric system
itself, symbolized by Camelot.
Arthurs court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently
criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur is introduced to us

as the most courteous of all, indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their
mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the
court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances
hold too much power over the company. The members of the court never reveal their true feelings,
instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.
On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot into the wilderness. In the forest,
Gawain must abandon the codes of chivalry and admit that his animal nature requires him to seek
physical comfort in order to survive. Once he prays for help, he is rewarded by the appearance of a
castle. The inhabitants of Bertilaks castle teach Gawain about a kind of chivalry that is more firmly
based in truth and reality than that of Arthurs court. These people are connected to nature, as their
hunting and even the way the servants greet Gawain by kneeling on the naked earth symbolize
(8 1 8 ). As opposed to the courtiers at Camelot, who celebrate in Part 1 with no understanding of how
removed they are from the natural world, Bertilaks courtiers joke self-consciously about how
excessively lavish their feast is (8 8 9 8 9 0 ).
The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawains
adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his hosts wife. The lesson Gawain learns
as a result of the Green Knights challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is
concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to
strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness.
Gawains time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knights axe, and his acceptance of the
ladys offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the
land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.

The Letter of the Law


Though the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a game, he uses the language of the law to
bind Gawain into an agreement with him. He repeatedly uses the word covenant, meaning a set of
laws, a word that evokes the two covenants represented by the Old and the New Testaments. The
Old Testament details the covenant made between God and the people of Israel through Abraham,
but the New Testament replaces the old covenant with a new covenant between Christ and his
followers. In 2 Corinthians 3 :6 , Paul writes that Christ has a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. The letter to which Paul refers here is the legal system of
the Old Testament. From this statement comes the Christian belief that the literal enforcement of the
law is less important than serving its spirit, a spirit tempered by mercy.

Throughout most of the poem, the covenant between Gawain and the Green Knight evokes the literal
kind of legal enforcement that medieval Europeans might have associated with the Old Testament.
The Green Knight at first seems concerned solely with the letter of the law. Even though he has
tricked Gawain into their covenant, he expects Gawain to follow through on the agreement. And
Gawain, though he knows that following the letter of the law means death, is determined to see his
agreement through to the end because he sees this as his knightly duty.
At the poems end, the covenant takes on a new meaning and resembles the less literal, more
merciful New Testament covenant between Christ and his Church. In a decidedly Christian gesture,
the Green Knight, who is actually Gawains host, Bertilak, absolves Gawain because Gawain has
confessed his faults. To remind Gawain of his weakness, the Green Knight gives him a penance, in
the form of the wound on his neck and the girdle. The Green Knight punishes Gawain for breaking
his covenant to share all his winnings with his host, but he does not follow to the letter his covenant
to decapitate Gawain. Instead of chopping Gawains head off, Bertilak calls it his right to spare
Gawain and only nicks his neck.
Ultimately, Gawain clings to the letter of the law. He cannot accept his sin and absolve himself of it
the way Bertilak has, and he continues to do penance by wearing the girdle for the rest of his life.
The Green Knight transforms his literal covenant by offering Gawain justice tempered with mercy, but
the letter of the law still threatens in the storys background, and in Gawains own psyche.

Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the
texts major themes.

The Seasons
At the beginning of Parts 2 and 4 , the poet describes the changing of the seasons. The seasonal
imagery in Part 2 precedes Gawains departure from Camelot, and in Part 4 his departure from the
hosts castle. In both cases, the changing seasons correspond to Gawains changing psychological
state, from cheerfulness (pleasant weather) to bleakness (the winter). But the five changing seasons
also correspond to the five ages of man (birth/infancy, youth, adulthood, middle age, and old
age/death), as well as to the cycles of fertility and decay that govern all creatures in the natural world.
The emphasis on the cyclical nature of the seasons contrasts with and provides a different
understanding of the passage of time from the more linear narrative of history that frames the poem.

Games
When the poem opens, Arthurs court is engaged in feast-time customs, and Arthur almost seems to
elicit the Green Knights entrance by requesting that someone tell him a tale. When the Green Knight
first enters, the courtiers think that his appearance signals a game of some sort. The Green Knights
challenge, the hosts later challenge, and the wordplay that takes place between Gawain and the
lady are all presented as games. The relationship between games and tests is explored because
games are forms of social behavior, while tests provide a measure of an individuals inner worth.

Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Pentangle
According to the Gawain-poet, King Solomon originally designed the five-pointed star as his own
magic seal. A symbol of truth, the star has five points that link and lock with each other, forming what
is called the endless knot. Each line of the pentangle passes over one line and under one line, and
joins the other two lines at its ends. The pentangle symbolizes the virtues to which Gawain aspires:
to be faultless in his five senses; never to fail in his five fingers; to be faithful to the five wounds that
Christ received on the cross; to be strengthened by the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in Jesus
(the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption); and to possess brotherly
love, courtesy, piety, and chastity. The side of the shield facing Gawain contains an image of the
Virgin Mary to make sure that Gawain never loses heart.

The Green Girdle


The meaning of the hosts wifes girdle changes over the course of the narrative. It is made out of
green silk and embroidered with gold thread, colors that link it to the Green Knight. She claims it
possesses the power to keep its wearer from harm, but we find out in Part 4 that the girdle has no
magical properties. After the Green Knight reveals his identity as the host, Gawain curses the girdle
as representing cowardice and an excessive love of mortal life. He wears it from then on as a badge
of his sinfulness. To show their support, Arthur and his followers wear green silk baldrics that look
just like Gawains girdle.