The world of Gawain and the Green Knight is full of, even defined by, all sorts of games, rules, and order. The knights of Arthur’s court must sit in a particular order and be served according to their fame. The court is also full of revelry and games, and even when the time for battle arrives on New Year’s Eve, it comes in the form of a game. Further, the knightly chivalric code that creates Gawain as a hero inside the court is tightly, rigidly ordered into five points, making a pentangle. This structure is put to the test in the wilderness, where Gawain faces unordered, deceptive visions, and the chivalry embodied in the symbol of the pentangle is shown to be less stable than it appears to be in Arthur’s court. Yet nature, also, is defined by rhythms and order, in the form of the seasons and of life, death, and regeneration.
Of course, the plot of the story is also driven by the “beheading game” that is created by the Green Knight and in which Gawain is caught up. This game leads to other, and, unbeknownst to Gawain, related games—Gawain’s game with Bertilak to exchange the spoils each wins each day; the game in which Gawain must both charm Bertilak’s wife while evading her attempted seduction of him; and the rituals of the hunt (which are interspersed with Bertilak’s wife’s “hunting” of Gawain). Each day of the hunt, something is killed, and Gawain is kissed – though these events are neatly numbered in a set of three and seem like games themselves, they are a source of trauma in Gawain’s mind and he tries to put the experience in order himself by confessing at mass.
And yet, Gawain breaks the rules of Bertilak’s game by hiding the green girdle, and does not confess it. When at last Gawain faces The Green Knight, then, it seems like by the rules of the game—the original beheading game and the game of exchanging gifts—Gawain must die. And yet The Green Knight spares him, striking with his axe and yet giving Gawain little more than a nick on the neck. In so doing, The Green Knight places mercy above the rules of the “game”—the beheading game, the exchange of spoils, and even the rules of life and death—and in this way suggests that the Christian ideas of mercy and divine love offer a way out of the rules that define life, whether those rules are made by man or nature.
Games, Rules, and Order ThemeTracker
Games, Rules, and Order Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
I'm spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I'd ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn't last a minute.
But it's Yuletine – a time of youthfulness, yes?
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.
And Gawain had been glad to begin the game
but don't be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped
for men might be merry when addled with mead
but each year, short lived, is unlike the last
and rarely resolves in the style it arrived.
So the festival finishes and a new year follows
in eternal sequence, season by season.
So it suits this soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –
devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal
so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.
As the cry went up the wild creatures quaked.
The deer in the dale, quivering with dread
hurtled to high ground, but were headed off
by the ring of beaters who bawled and roared.
The stags of the herd with their high-branched heads
and the broad-horned bucks were allowed to pass by,
for the lord of the land had laid down a law
that man should not maim the male in close season
Then the heads and necks of the hinds were hewn off,
and the choice meat of the flanks chopped away from the chine,
and a fee for the crows was cast into the copse.
Then each side was skewered, stabbed through the ribs
and heaved up high, hung by its hocks,
and every person was paid with appropriate portions.
"And I will give it all to you, Gawain," said the master,
"for according to our contract it is yours to claim."
"Just so," said Gawain, "and I'll say the same,
for whatever I've won within these walls
such gains will be graciously given to you."
So he held out his arms and hugged the lord
and kissed him in the kindliest way he could.
"As an honest soul I swear on my heart,
you shall find the Green Chapel to finalize your affairs
long before dawn on New Year's Day.
So lie in your room and laze at your leisure
while i ride my estate, and, as our terms dictate
we'll trade our trophies when the hunt returns
I have tested you twice and found you truthful.
But think tomorrow third time throw best.
Now night passes and the New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards,
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
"Call yourself good Sir Gawain?" he goaded,
"who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur's castle?
But no wonder if a fool should fall for a female
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
it's the way of the world. Adam fell for a woman
and Solomon for several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.
"Regard," said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
"through this I suffered a scar to my skin –
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.
Since fearless Brutus first set foot
on these shores, once the siege and assault at Troy
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.