Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Themes and Colors
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon

The poem begins with a history of famous founders of countries out of Greek and Roman myth, and explicitly connects and compares King Arthur to those heroes. In doing so, the poem establishes the theme of reputation and begins to explore its impact on those who achieve it. For Gawain, when he takes his king’s place and faces The Green Knight, he suddenly transforms himself in the eyes of the court from one of the weakest of the knights to its champion in bravery. He is dressed with an elaborate costume of battle and rituals are arranged for him before his journey begins, but none of these things eliminate his pure human fear about the ordeal he faces on his quest. Fame and reputation almost seem to separate a man from his true self, to transform him in the eyes of others, but that transformation only goes skin deep. And yet, that reputation makes it impossible for Gawain to voice his true fears or anxiety. Gawain becomes a symbol of Camelot’s bravery, and therefore must hide his own real self.

The knights of Arthur’s court are ordered in a hierarchy based on fame and reputation. But this method of ordering men is contrasted by what Gawain finds when he reaches Bertilak's court in the wilderness—there he encounters a similar set of men and women, but they are described and valued for their physical attributes rather than by their reputations, and somehow they seem more earthly, more real. They do not hide behind their reputations. They are their true selves. Ultimately, in his failure to reveal the green girdle to Bertilak and his subsequent showdown with The Green Knight, Gawain recognizes the dangers of acting in such a way as to protect one’s reputation at all costs—it leads to dishonorable action. And by then insisting upon wearing the green girdle upon his armor, Gawain is making clear that he failed in his quest, is embracing the imperfections beneath his reputation, and becomes all the stronger for it.

Legend, Fame, and Reputation ThemeTracker

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Legend, Fame, and Reputation Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Below you will find the important quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight related to the theme of Legend, Fame, and Reputation.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

After Britain was built by this founding father,
a bold race bred there, battle-happy men
causing trouble and torment in turbulent times.

Page Number: 20-23
Explanation and Analysis:

The opening lines of the poem describe the lineage of King Arthur, who was supposedly descended from Brutus the Roman. The connection between Britain and Brutus is intriguing because it suggests a Greco-Roman morality in the court of King Arthur: an environment characterized by violence, bloodshed, and glorious combat. Sure enough, the poet praises the English kings for their propensity for war--they're not mindlessly violent, but rather "battle happy." The poem will study the contrasts and tensions between two competing moralities: that of the Romans (i.e., characterized by violence and battle-happiness) and that of the Christians, characterized by mercy and kindness.

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And I’ll tell it as it's told in the town where it trips from,
the tongue;
and as it has been inked
in stories bold and strong,
through letters, which, once linked,
have lasted loud and long.

Page Number: 31-36
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage describes the nature of the story we're about to here--a story that, the poet insists, has been repeated many times already and repeated throughout the land. The passage is intriguing because it singles out stories and letters in place of songs and words--in other words, it focuses on written language, rather than spoken language (unlike many earlier epic tales, such as Homer's Iliad, which was designed to be performed and spoken, not just written). The poem celebrates itself for having survived for so long, and for having been written down and recorded for future generations to enjoy. The heroes of King Arthur's court, it's suggested, deserve to be remembered forever, in stories and performances. (This passage is also a good example of alliteration--a series of words starting with the same letter or sound--which is the dominant poetic device of the story.)

Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 237-244
Explanation and Analysis:

Understandably, most of the knights and lords in the court of King Arthur are very frightened of the Green Knight--he's so big, supernatural-seeming, and intimidating that he could presumably kill any one of them. The Knight walks through the halls, staring at the guests in King Arthur's court, and nobody greets him; they're just too frightened.

Who's in the wrong here, the Knight or Arthur's guests? While the Green Knight is portrayed as a somewhat frightening figure, we should keep in mind that the poem is set during Christmas time. By refusing to greet the Green Knight politely and offer him food and shelter, the guests at the court are betraying their Christian, chivalric, and courtly duties.

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.

Related Characters: The Green Knight (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 279-289
Explanation and Analysis:

After Arthur greets the Green Knight (showing the hospitality that none of his guests would), the Green Knight explains what he wants. He wants to play a "game" with the bravest members of King Arthur's court: he and his opponent will trade one blow each. Interestingly, the Green Knight reminds everyone that it's Christmas, and therefore a good time for games. He seems oblivious to (or else darkly alluding to) the fact that this particular "game" is lethal, and not exactly a good Christmas activity.

The poem sets up an interesting contrast between Christianity and chivalry, then--between the religion of mercy and the knightly code of violence and warfare. At this point, it seems that the Green Knight himself sees no real contrast between the two systems of behavior--but his challenge immediately sets up a contradiction in "courtly" values.

By Guenivere, Gawain
now to his king inclines
and says, "I stake my claim.
This moment must be mine.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker), Sir Gawain, King Arthur, Queen Guinevere
Page Number: 339-342
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sir Gawain, the young nephew of King Arthur, offers himself as a participant in the game with the Green Knight. King Arthur has just volunteered himself for the challenge, but just as the game is about to begin, Gawain volunteers to replace his king.

Why does Gawain volunteer? One could say that he's trying to save his king from the pain of being hurt or killed by the Green Knight; i.e., he's sure that whoever plays the Green Knight's game will lose, horribly. Therefore, Gawain might be sacrificing himself because he's one of the youngest and least valuable people at the court, and therefore not much of a loss (whereas Arthur's death would throw the whole kingdom into turmoil). Of course, Gawain is also trying to prove his worth in battle--standing up to the Green Knight is an excellent way to gain fame and a reputation for bravery.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 427-436
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain strikes at the Green Knight, decapitating him, and his head flies to the floor. To everyone's surprise, the Green Knight's headless body then simply walks after its own head, picks it up, and rides away. The scene is gruesome, and somewhat comic (like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon)--the casual way that the Knight trudges after its head and rummages around on the floor suggests that he's had to do so many times before.

The fine line between horror and comedy is a fixture of the poem--Gawain faces a series of terrifying, supernatural challenges, of which the Knight's challenge is only the first, and yet each challenge is somewhat mitigated by humor.

Lines 491-1125 Quotes

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
and kind,
so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Related Symbols: The Pentangle
Page Number: 631-639
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator describes the elaborate armor that Sir Gawain wore when he set out to find the Green Knight. Gawain's armor blends chivalric and Christian traditions together into one. Gawain's armor is decorated with pentangles, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ, among other things. In general, Gawain is praised for his virtue and honesty, not his strength--appropriately for his quest, which requires honesty as well as military might. One could argue that the poem wants to depict Gawain as a distinctly Christian kind of hero--a hero who knows how to fight and kill, but also one who knows how to keep his word, obey authorities, and respect the rules.

He rides the path and prays,
dismayed by his misdeeds,
and signs Christ's cross and says,
"be near me in my need."

No sooner had he signed himself three times
than he became aware, in those woods, of high walls
in a moat, on a mound, bordered by the boughs
of thick-trunked timber which trimmed the water.
The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,

Page Number: 759-767
Explanation and Analysis:

It's Sir Gawain's humility and trust in Christianity that leads him to food and shelter. He prays to Mary and makes the sign of the cross three times--immediately afterwards, a mysterious moat and castle appear out of nowhere, suggesting a clear link between the castle and the prayer--and also between Christianity and the supernatural.

The passage underscores one of the key themes of the poem: bravery and valor aren't enough to be a true knight. The true knight--Sir Gawain--will trust in God as well as his own physical strength. At the end of the day, it isn't Gawain's bravery that leads him to the castle; it's his reliance on God. 

Lines 1126-1997 Quotes

for when tales of truthful knights are told
in both title and text the topic they describe
is how lords have laid down their lives for love,
endured for many days love's dreadful ordeal
then vented their feelings with avenging valor
by bringing great bliss to a lady's bedroom –
and you the most notable of all noble knights,
whose fame goes before him ... yes, how can it follow
that twice I have taken this seat at your side
yet you have not spoken the smallest syllable
which belongs to love or anything like it.

Related Characters: Bertilak’s Wife (speaker), Sir Gawain
Page Number: 1514-1524
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage,the mysterious Lady Bertilak talks to Sir Gawain. Not for the first time, the Lady and Gawain are alone--Bertilak is outside, leaving Gawain to his own devices. The Lady seems to be flirting with Sir Gawain pretty heavily: she teases him about being such a famous, renowned knight (not really true, as a matter of fact), and yet knowing nothing of love. It's as if the Lady, having tried straightforward seduction, is now trying to goad Gawain into kissing her by questioning his heroism and his manhood. The middle section of the poem is all about temptation: it would be so easy for Gawain to give into his obvious desire for the Lady, and yet he doesn't, at least not entirely.

Lines 1998-2531 Quotes

"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?

Related Characters: The Green Knight (speaker), Sir Gawain, King Arthur
Page Number: 2270-2275
Explanation and Analysis:

The Green Knight is about to strike Sir Gawain's neck with his axe. But instead of striking, he stops and makes fun of Sir Gawain for flinching. Gawain has pretended to be a good, strong knight--but, according to the Green Knight, he's just a coward, the same as his peers in King Arthur's court. The Green Knight uses the moment to praise himself for his own courage and fortitude in the previous year: he didn't flinch when Sir Gawain struck him, so Gawain shouldn't flinch when the Green Knight strikes him. (Of course, the Green Knight must have known that he'd be fine even with his head on the floor, making his competition with Sir Gawain pretty unfair.) The passage has the effect of humanizing both Gawain and the Knight: they're both flawed--Gawain because he's frightened, and the Green Knight because he loves to gloat.

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.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker)
Page Number: 2414-2419
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain has emerged from his encounter with the Green Knight alive, and with only a slight neck wound. Furthermore, he's learned that his encounter with Bertilak and the lady was a test of his virtue: the lady was tempting him into sexual impropriety in order to test his worth as a knight. Gawain has passed the test--barely. Here, he curses women for tempting men again and again over the centuries; the history of humanity going all the way back to Adam, he claims, is a history of women leading men to ruin.

Gawain's account of history is important because it depicts men as the standard-bearers of virtue and uprightness, while women are sinful and useful only for testing men's virtues. The greatest men in history, one can assume from Gawain's speech, are those who successfully rise above temptation by appealing to their sense of honor and loyalty. Gawain, then, hasn't quite become a great knight, since he was tempted by the lady (who also tempted him to place his own survival over total honesty). Nevertheless, he's in good company: Adam, Samson, and David gave in to temptation, too. (It goes without saying that this entire passage is a classically sexist argument and view of history.)

Since fearless Brutus first set foot
on these shores, once the siege and assault at Troy
had ceased
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.

Page Number: 2524-2530
Explanation and Analysis:

The poem ends with a repetition of the history of England, which stretches all the way back to the time of Brutus and the ancient Romans. Brutus, a great warrior (and not the same one famous for betraying Julius Caesar), was supposedly one of the founders of England, an ancestor of King Arthur. Yet as we've seen, there's more to life than Brutus's fearsomeness, important as it is. A true Christian will be humble and modest, not just brave. In such a way, the English tradition is founded on a combination of Christian and Roman values: a combination of valor and humility that, in theory, makes for very impressive knights like Sir Gawain. Appropriately enough, the final lines of the poem sum up the history of England as a steady progression from Rome to Christianity, or from valor to humility.