Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Analysis

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.
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon

When the strangely green being enters the hall, his hue is so extreme and is so thoroughly described with so many decorations and layers that he seems to be of different breed than the men at court, made of nature like a tree or the seasons themselves. Yet his being is also beyond nature. It is supernatural – he can pick up his severed head after it’s been chopped off and still speak through that disembodied head to deliver instructions for the next part of the game. The supernatural properties of green things continue throughout Gawain’s trial, like the green girdle. But the supernatural world does not supersede the natural world. In fact, it seems to be allied with the natural world, to make that natural world more powerful.

Morgan La Faye and the Green Knight’s magic is tied to the seasons and a cycle of natural regeneration that allows the Green Knight to heal after his beheading, for example. And when Morgan Le Faye appears it is to highlight nature rather than wizardry – Gawain meets her alongside Bertilak’s young and beautiful wife and the contrast in the pair shows him very obviously the path of life from youth to decline. Gawain’s quest is similarly ordered by the seasons, which freeze and warm him, tempering the pace of his journey. They also mark an internal journey for Gawain, from innocence in the safe rituals of a knight at court to the pursuit of real heroism outside the court limits.

The poem sets this combined natural/supernatural power, which orders and defines men’s lives through a cycle of growth, death, and rebirth, against the more artificial world of Camelot. In doing so, it suggests that the Arthurian chivalric code exists in a kind of vacuum, separated from the real nature of things. The green girdle that originally seemed to offer a defense against the magic of the Green Knight, changes in significance by the end of the poem, when Gawain realizes that it as a symbol of his own failings, of the inherent failings of human nature that no chivalric code can overcome. In embracing the green girdle, Gawain embraces that natural world, the natural facts of human nature, and in doing so tempers and makes less rigid the strict artificial structures of Arthurian chivalry.

The Natural and the Supernatural ThemeTracker

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The Natural and the Supernatural 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 The Natural and the Supernatural.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
it seemed.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 140-146
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the mysterious Green Knight. The Knight, one would think, would be an intimidating, scary figure--big, loud, ugly, etc. But although the Green Knight is massive, he's not an ogre (another typical figure in English fantasy stories). Instead, the Knight is well-dressed, handsome-looking, and well-proportioned. in other words, he's basically a normal knight, who just so happens to be a giant, and green.

The Knight is both familiar and unfamiliar--his body is normal, but large and green. The ambiguous nature of the Knight's appearance reflects his ambiguous moral status in the poem; we're not sure if we can trust him or not, and he is a representative of both the supernatural (in his size and strange color) and the natural (in his handsomeness and tree-like color).

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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.

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

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.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 495-501
Explanation and Analysis:

In this lyrical passage, the narrator describes how, in the aftermath of the Green Knight's confrontation with Sir Gawain, the knights of King Arthur's court began to eat and feast. Then, afterwards, the new year came, and eventually it grew steadily shorter and shorter. Years are strange things--their beginnings are rarely like their endings, and yet they repeat, over and over. Such is the cycle of time, the narrator notes wisely: the years repeat again and again, eternally. On a plot level, the dwindling year also suggests that Gawain is running out of time to fulfill his oath and find the Green Knight--it seems that his certain death is rapidly drawing near.

Passages like this one convey a sense of nature's beauty and harmony. At many times, the Green Knight is associated with the power and wonder of nature, and--much like the passage of the years described here--he's both supernatural and natural, frightening and alluring.

He trails through bleak terrain.
His mood and manner change
at every twist or turn
towards that chosen church.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 709-712
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain now journeys through the wilderness to find the Green Knight. His quest is interesting because he could easily give up at any time--no material reward awaits him when he finds the Green Knight; only the promise of death. Gawain's journey to track down the Knight is truly motivated by honor and honor alone. Gawain is a man of his word, more respectful of virtue than his own life.

The narrator conveys the extent of Gawain's ordeal in psychological terms. It's not just that Gawain endures a lot of danger along the way to the Knight; it's that there's no rational reason for him to endure such danger. Gawain's changing moods foreshadow the temptations he'll endure later on in the poem.

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

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

Page Number: 1150-1157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this witty scene, the lords and knights of the kingdom go hunting while Sir Gawain gets to know the lord's wife. Sir Gawain's budding relationship with the wife is contrasted with the lords' hunting exploits, which are cast in subtly sexual terms. Here for example, we're told that during this particular hunting season, only females are "fair game"--the knights, a bunch of men, are hunting for females. As we'll soon see, Sir Gawain's relationship with the lady is also a kind of gendered "hunt," in which Gawain is tempted to "chase" after an elusive, attractive woman.

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.

Page Number: 1353-1358
Explanation and Analysis:

In this gory scene, the lord and knights go about dividing up the animals they've hunted. After a long day, they've succeeded in slaying a vast number of animals, including many hinds. One by one, the hinds are ripped apart, skewered, and distributed among the hunters.

Note the sexualized imagery of penetration in this passage, and also the language that connotes justice and equality. One could that justice and sex are the two themes of the poem: the justice that leads Gawain to return to the Green Knight to receive his axe-blow, and the sexuality that tempts Gawain into sin. The language of the passage is unmistakably violent, further reinforcing a connection between the two themes: Gawain's desire for women has an unmistakably violent character (as is often the case in literary descriptions of male sexuality), and his punishment at the Green Knight's hands is of course going to be intensely violent.

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

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.

Page Number: 1998-2003
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, there's an interesting similarity between Sir Gawain's fear and anxiety and the natural world. On the night before Gawain's encounter with the Green Knight, it's dark and wild outside, supposedly exposing mankind's secret, hidden nature. Gawain has been putting on a brave face throughout the poem, but here, it's as if the prospect of dying at the Green Knight's hands is too much for Gawain to handle.

The poem praises the beauty of nature, but also shows the natural world to be frightening and chaotic. By the same token, man's nature is both beautiful and deeply flawed--we see so via Sir Gawain's character. Gawain tries to be a good man, but he's tempted again and again, suggesting his secret sinful (or merely instinctual) nature. The descriptions of nature here reinforce the connection between Gawain's flawed spirit and the world itself.

Where he wonders and watches – it looks a wild place:
no sign of a settlement anywhere to be seen
but heady heights to both halves of the valley
and set with saber-toothed stones of such sharpness
no cloud in the sky could escape unscathed.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 2163-2167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sir Gawain comes to the place where he thinks he's going to die: the Green Knight's "chapel." The description of the chapel is a good example of the Green Knight's dualistic nature, his blend of natural and supernatural, Christianity and violence. It's a wild, chaotic place, surrounded on all sides by sharp stones, suggesting that Gawain is imprisoned in the Green Knight's lair, helpless. At the same time, it's also presumably a place where God is worshipped.

The passage builds suspense by reinforcing the point that Gawain can't run away from the Green Knight any longer. He came to the Green Knight's chapel because of his strong sense of honesty and integrity--but now that he's here, it doesn't matter whether he tries to run or not; he's stuck.

"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.)