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Gawain Essay Questions


February 1, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Topic Suggestions for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

1. Explore the symbolism of the green girdle. What does the girdle represent? What is at stake when Gawain accepts the green girdle from the Baron’s Lady? How might we consider his acceptance of the girdle to be the climax of the narrative? How does the Green Knight, a.k.a., he Baron, respond to Gawain’s use of the green girdle? How does the green girdle come to represent many different Christian values and ideologies? Why does Camelot come to wear green girdles at the end of the poem?

2. In Part 4, the Green Knight and Gawain agree that all their problems can be blamed on women. Do you think we’re meant to take the “woman blaming” ending seriously or to question it, and therefore (perhaps) to question the entire misogynist tradition to which Gawain alludes?

3. Explore how the Genesis story of the Fall plays a vital role in the poem. What aspects of the Genesis story inform the poem? How does the Christian content serve as instruction for the audience? What aspects of fallen human nature does the poem explore?

4. How has Gawain been tested / challenged in his journey / quest in the poem? What is the nature of a test in the context of a Knight and, by extension, the rest of us in the world? How do you think Gawain has fared his challenge? Does he return to Camelot in triumph, humility, or perhaps a bit of both?

5. What forms of love (brotherly love, spiritual love, courtly love, erotic love, and so forth) exist in the text, and in what types of relationships do they appear (friendships, marriages, relationships with God, and so forth)? Does love most commonly manifest itself as suffering or as ennoblement? Why do you think so many scholars analyze this text as part of the courtly love tradition?

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Entry filed under: Assignments, WEEK THREE: SIR GAWAIN.


Part One, Verses 1-10, Lines 1-231
1. Compare and contrast the Christmas celebrations at the court of Arthur with a contemporary Christmas.

2. According to some scholars, the poem may have been inspired by English folk plays for the Christmas season. In that case, the role of the Green Knight might have been analogous to that of Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or, in contemporary times, Santa Claus. Compare the Green Knight to one or more of these figures that personify Christmas.

3. Admirers of President John F. Kennedy sometimes referred to his administration as “Camelot” after the legendary court of King Arthur. His detractors sometimes used the same name, but in an ironic way. What do you think was the reason for this designation? Was it appropriate? Why or why not?

4. Compare the court at Camelot with other mythologized portraits of ancestors, such as, for example, the Homeric heroes or the founding fathers of America.

Part One, Verses 11-21, Lines 232-490
1. Was Arthur right or wrong to accept the challenge of the Green Knight? If he was wrong, what do you think he should have done?

2. Why does the Green Knight wait until his head has already been chopped off to say how he can be found?

3. After the Green Knight has left, Arthur acts calm, but what do you think he is really thinking?

4. Retell the first part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the first person, adopting the point of view of a character such as Gawain, Guinevere or Gawain’s brother, Agravain. Perhaps the various characters may perceive events in very different ways.

Part Two, Verses 22-34, Lines 491-810
1. Why does Gawain choose All Souls’ Day as the time to begin his journey? Look up the history of the holiday, and try to determine why it is significant.

2. Verse 24 tells us that Arthur provided a rich feast for the departure of Gawain, but the poem does not tell us what, if anything, he said to the young knight. What do you think this might have been? What do you think the king is feeling?

3. Gawain is particularly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose image is etched on the inside of his shield. Why does he pray to her rather than to Christ?

4. Research the history and meaning of the pentangle. Why has this been chosen as the symbol of Gawain?

5. Gawain, as the Knight of the Pentangle, has very high standards to uphold. Since all human beings are fallible, perhaps these standards are unrealistic? Perhaps Gawain demands too much of himself? What do you think?

Part Two, Verses 35-45, Lines 811-1125
1. The narrator says that the beard of Bertilak is the hue of a beaver’s pelt. What color, exactly, would that be? How might the color be significant?

2. Compare and contrast Camelot at the start of the poem with Hautdesert Castle. What do you think is the relation between the two?

3. Hautdesert Castle seems strange indeed, yet Gawain, to our knowledge, never enquires about either the castle or Bertilak. Why do you think he neglects to do this?

4. Gawain tells his host that he must find the Green Chapel, yet he never tells why. The host, for his part, never asks. Why do you think this is so?

Part Three, Verses 46-66, Lines 1126-1647
1. Common methods of seduction have hardly changed at all since the Middle Ages. Both men and women are still led into relationships they do not want or believe are wrong through...

(The entire section is 1454 words.)