Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a reappraisal
Clark, Elizabeth
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111 leaves : ; 29 cm


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Gawain and the Green Knight ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 100-111).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Department of English.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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LD1190.L54 1990m .C52 ( lcc )

Full Text
Elizabeth Clark
B.A., Brigham Young University, 1983
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of English

This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by
Elizabeth Clark
has been approved for the
Department of

Clark, Elizabeth (M.A., English)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Reappraisal
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Colleen E. Donnelly
In 1839 Sir Frederic Madden rescued Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight from the oblivion into which it had fallen since the
beginning of the seventeenth century. In the intervening century
and a half, critics have acknowledged the poem as one of the
masterpieces of English literature, but have they really come to
grips with Gawain? Neither Morton Bloomfield nor Donald Howard,
after reviewing the current state of Gawain studies in 1961 and
1968 respectively, believed that they had. A survey of the last
two decades' work in the areas considered by Bloomfield (literary
history, religion and myth, comic and game elements, genre,
structure, diction) reveals that critics have still not done so.
In fact, the recognition by contemporary critics of the high degree
of ambiguity in Gawain, at levels ranging from the individual word
through characterization and symbolism to the poem's very
structure, must make us question whether we can come to grips with
Gawain if, by "coming to grips" with the poem, we mean unraveling
the complexities and solving the puzzles in and about the poem to
reveal the meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend
its publication.

To Christine Rose
--scholar, teacher, and friend.

I. INTRODUCTION................................................ 1
II. A SURVEY OF RECENT CRITICISM............................... 10
Literary History........................................ 10
Religion and Myth....................................... 31
Comic and Game Elements............................. 39
Genre............................................... 42
Structure............................................... 45
Diction................................................ 57
IV. CONCLUSION................................................ 99
REFERENCES CITED............................................... 100
TOLKIEN-GORDON-DAVIS EDITION........................... 112
MANUSCRIPT............................................. 113

In 1839 Sir Frederic Madden rescued Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight from the oblivion into which it had fallen after being
catalogued among Henry Savile's collection around the beginning of
the seventeenth century. In the intervening years, numerous
critics have expressed their high opinion of the poem, both
explicitly through their praise of it and implicitly through their
attention to it. For example, in the introduction to their now
definitive edition of Gawain originally published in 1925, J. R. R.
Tolkien and E. V. Gordon state that the poem "stands first among
medieval English romances, and high among romances at large, in the
strength of its plot" (xiv). And forty years later, Marie Borroff
acknowledges in the introduction to her verse translation of Gawain
that the poem, "in its original Middle English form, is recognized
as a literary work of the highest quality" (vii). These tes-
timonies are representative of the consensus among critics today.
No one can seriously question that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
merits its status as one of the masterpieces of English literature;
however, one can question whether, after 150 years of study,
criticism has really come to grips with the poem.
In his seminal article "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
An Appraisal" (published in 1961), a longer version of the state-

of-Gawain-studies address he delivered in December 1959, Morton
Bloomfield states that "criticism has not yet really come to grips
with the romance" which "has always been considered a relatively
uncomplicated, beautifully organized, and masterfully presented
obvious poem." His purpose in writing is to point out some of the
poem's complexities, "not all previously unrecognized, to relate
them to current and past scholarship and criticism on the poem, and
to suggest some possible solutions." Bloomfield chooses to focus
on literary historical problems in the study of Gawain, as well as
religion and myth, comic and game elements, genre, structure, and
diction in the poem, and he selects for discussion from among the
approximately two hundred and fifty works which he estimates a
"fairly complete Gawain bibliography" would comprise at the time.
This bibliography would include Frederic Madden's original edition
of the poem, the facsimile of the Cotton Nero manuscript, and J.
R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon's edition of Gawain, as well as
critical works like William Goldhurst's "The Green and the Gold:
The Major Theme of Gawain and the Green Knight," Charles Moorman's
"Myth and Mediaeval Literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,"
Jessie Weston's The Legend of Sir Gawain: Studies upon its
Original Scope and Significance, and Roger Sherman Loomis's volumes
on Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance and Arthurian Tradition and
Chretien de Troyes. Bloomfield anticipated that his appraisal
would give, at the worst, some idea as to the state in 1961 of
Gawain studies, and, "at the best, some suggestions for fruitful
future work" (7). He did not underestimate the effect of his work;

for more than a quarter of a century scholars and critics have been
following his suggestions for further studies of the meaning of
chivalry to fourteenth-century English aristocracy (10)1, "reli-
gious aspects and significances in the poem" (15)2, the possibility
of a comic or humorous intention on the part of the poet (15-16)3,
the manuscript divisions of the poem (17)4, and the diction of the
poem, particularly "the poet's curious use of tenses" (17-18)5.
Donald Howard acknowledges in his essay on Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight, written in 1968 and published in 1971 in Severs'
volume of Recent Middle English Scholarship and Criticism: Survey
and Desiderata, the impact of Bloomfield's essay which "must have
reflected as well as stimulated a wide-spread feeling" (29).
Howard echoes Bloomfield in questioning "Have we yet come to grips
with the poem?" (30). His answer is negative. He describes
response to the stimulation Bloomfield's essay provided by
postulating a student of Gawain who falls asleep in 1961 and
awakens in late 1968, at the time Howard is writing, to the deluge
of editions and translations of the poem as well as works of
criticism, "a steady stream of books and a flash flood of
articles," which appeared in the intervening years (29-30). Howard
notes the revision of the Tolkien and Gordon edition of Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight by Norman Davis^ and the appearance of an
Everyman edition, as well as four additional translations by John
Gardner, James L. Rosenberg, Marie Borroff, and Margaret Williams.
He refers in passing to the computerized concordance to the Cotton
Nero poems and St. Erkenwald which had been completed by Barnet

Kottler and Alan Markman. He also counts three critical books,
presumably Larry Benson's Art and Tradition in 'Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight1, Marie Borroff's 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight1:
A Stylistic and Metrical Study, and John Burrow's A Reading of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight' which are now considered classics
among Gawain studies; one monograph, Hans Schnyder's Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight': An Essay in Interpretation; three
anthologies of criticism, his and Christian Zacher's Critical
Studies of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Denton Fox's
Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight': A Collection of Critical Essays, and Robert Blanch's 'Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight' and 'Pearl': Critical Essays; and
about fifty articles including, among many others, Cecily Clark's
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Characterisation by Syntax," A.
Kent Hieatt's "Sir Gawain: Pentangle, Luf-Lace, Numerical
Structure," and Howard's own "Structure and Symmetry in Sir
In addition, Howard inventories areas in which Bloomfield's
hopes for further study have been fulfilled: examinations of the
poem's structure (31); fourteenth-century attitudes toward style,
rhetoric, and poetic theory (31-34); the poem's Christian and moral
elements (34-36); and its comic aspects (36-38). Comparing the
existing studies of the poem to a checklist of varieties of criti-
cism, he notes the lack, which still exists, of Freudian and
Marxist readings of the text (41)--to which today, no doubt, he
would add the need for a feminist interpretation. Howard also

mentions the need for various audio-visual aids for studying the
poem, including a new photographic facsimile of the Cotton Nero
manuscript and an audio recording of Gawain (40). He also remarks
in his essay that a "comparative critical study of the merits of
. . recent translations . would make a fine essay" (47). His
suggestion is still valid. However, today such a comparison would
have to include even more recent translations by W. R. J. Barron?,
J. R. R. Tolkien, Y. R. Ponsor, Keith Harrison, James L. Wilhelm,
and William Vantuono^. A comparative critical study of the merits
of the various editions of the poem, including recent ones by
Charles Moorman, Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, J. A. Burrow,
Thomas J. Garbaty, Theodore Silverstein, as well as those by Barron
and Vantuono, would make an equally fine and valuable study.
Unfortunately, neither essay has been written.
Nevertheless, Miriam Youngerman Miller has at least
partially filled this gap in "Part One: Materials" of Approaches
to Teaching 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight1, (1986, co-edited
with Jane Chance). Miller reviews the editions of Gawain by
Tolkien and Gordon (as revised by Davis), Israel Gollancz and Mabel
Day, R. A. Waldron, Burrow, Barron, Silverstein, A. C. Cawley and
J. J. Anderson, Andrew and Waldron, Moorman, and Vantuono, as well
as the manuscript facsimile (3-6). She also compares various verse
and prose translations of the poemBorroff's, Brian Stone's,
Rosenberg's, Burton Raffel's, Tolkien's, Williams', Gardner's,
Vantuono's, as well as a few that are commonly anthologized
examining specifically how the translators treated lines 134-37 (7-

16). Miller offered no judgments as to which edition or transla-
tion is most accurate or valuable, only suggestions as to the
educational context in which each is most useful.
The existence of such a plethora of editions and transla-
tions of the poem and the apparent nonexistence of anyone willing
to critically compare and evaluate them would seem to indicate a
general dissatisfaction with the current level of understanding of
the poem; it certainly displays a lack of consensus in interpreta-
tion. Despite this profusion of editions of Gawain, however, a
need still exists for one more edition or, more accurately,
transcription of the poem, one which retains the punctuation (or,
rather, the lack thereof), the spelling, and the lineation of the
original manuscript--preferably accompanied by a literal prose
translation on facing pages to make the poem more accessible to
In addition to these editions and translations of Gawain,
and other poems of the Cotton Nero manuscript, several valuable
aids to studying and teaching the poem have been published in the
last two decades. Elisabeth Brewer's selection and translation of
medieval tales, From Cuchulainn to Gawain: Sources and Analogues
of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight1 (1973), includes possible
sources of the beheading game (passages from "The Feast of
Bricriu," "The Story of Carados," "The Story of Lancelot in the
Waste Land," and "The Story of Hunbaut," as well as the tale of
"The Girl with the Mule, or The Mule without a Bridle") and the
temptation theme (passages from "The Story, of Yder" and "The Story

of Hunbaut," as well as the tale of "The Knight of the Sword" and
"The Story of How Lancelot was Tempted by a Beautiful Girl Sent by
Morgan le Fay"), in addition to later versions of the poem
(portions of "The Story of Carados--the Prose Version," as well as
the tales of "The Green Knight" and "Sir Gawain and the Carl of
Carlisle"). As she points out in her introduction to the collec-
tion, familiarity with these tales increases the reader's awareness
"of the poet's skill in handling traditional episodes [and] how
much he added in the way of narrative and descriptive material"
(3). Two annotated bibliographies have been published in the last
ten years: Malcolm Andrew's The 'Gawain'-Poet: An Annotated
Bibliography, 1839-1977 and Robert Blanch's 'Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight': A Reference Guide. Recently Michael Foley, using a
similar approach and method, updated Andrew's work through 1985 in
an article published in The Chaucer Review: "The Gawain-Poet: An
Annotated Bibliography, 1978-1985." Also, of particular interest
to teachers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the college or
university level will be the above-mentioned Approaches to Teaching
'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' edited by Miller and Chance. In
this volume Miller discusses the most commonly used editions,
translations, background studies, critical and reference works, and
teaching aids, and Chance introduces essays by various authors on
presenting the background of the poem as well as teaching it at
different levels of the university curriculum, including ones by
Robert Blanch on "Religion and Law in Sir Gawain and the Green

Knight" (93-101), Richard Hamilton Green on "Medieval Poetics"
(102-8), and Marie Borroff on "Reading the Poem Aloud" (191-98).
For the years between the publication of Bloomfield's essay
and the composition of Howard's (1962 through 1968) the MLA
International Bibliography lists 72 entries under Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight (an average of ten a year). For the years since
Howard wrote his essay (1969 through 1988) 336 entries are listed
for Gawain in the MLA Bibliography (an average of seventeen a
year)--a veritable tidal wave compared to the "steady stream of
books and . flash flood of articles" (29) which Howard
described. However, the deluge of Gawain studies appears to be
subsiding, after reaching its peak in 1986. Only twelve items each
are listed in the MLA Bibliography for 1988 and 1987 compared with
39 for 1986, 22 for 1985, nineteen for 1984, and seventeen each for
1983 and 1982.
Do critics believe they have finally come to grips with the
poem? Have they really done so? Is there no more to be learned
about Gawain's literary history, about its religious and mythical
aspects, its comic and game elements, its genre, structure, or
diction? Are there no other areas with the potential for fruitful
study which remain unharvested? A survey of criticism written
during the last twenty years may help to answer these questions.

Isee Clein.
^See Barron, Haines, Reichardt, and Morgan.
3See Stevens and Blanch ("The Games Poets Play").
^See Howard ("Structure and Symmetry"), Blenkner, and
^See Zimmerman.
^Howard criticized this edition as "a compromise between a
scholar's and a student's edition which does not succeed in being
either and thus leaves a need for both" (38).
^Barron's edition includes on facing pages the text of the
poem and a prose translation which Blanch considers "probably the
best translation of Gawain since Marie Borroff's" (Reference Guide 4).
3Vantuono's edition includes a prose translation on pages
facing the text.

This survey is not a comprehensive review of post-Howard
criticism, but rather, as the term implies, a representative
sampling of the "tidal wave" of Gawain studies of the seventies and
eighties from which deficiencies and trends in the last two
decades' work may be traced. It will examine the same areas of
criticism which Bloomfield considered: literary history, religion
and myth, comic and game elements, genre, structure, and diction*.
Literary History
Bloomfield specifies some literary historical questions as
the more puzzling of those that remain unanswered in the study of
Gawain: "Who was the author of the poem? Is he also the author of
the other English poems in the Cotton Nero MS? When was the poem
written? What is the relation of the poem to the times and to the
geography of England? What were the poet's sources?" In the past,
as he notes, a few suggestions had been offered for the identity of
the Gawain-poet: John Donne, John Prat, John Erghome, and Hugh
Mascy (9). More recent scholars, though, seem disinclined to
support these candidates or propose new ones for the Gawain- or
Pearl-poet. Some vehemently dismiss the discussion as "historical,
speculative, and largely useless [since] it would not help much our

understanding of an anonymous medieval poem if it suddenly acquired
a named author of whom little was known" (Cooper and Pearsall 365).
Others, like Nolan, Farley-Hills, Peterson, and Kooper have
advanced a possible solution to this puzzle, one which Turville-
Petre and Wilson have attempted to refute.
Initially inspired by Hoccleve's reference to "my maister
Massy" in a poem written during the second decade of the fifteenth
century^ (Nolan and Farley-Hills 301) and Ormerod Greenwood's essay
attributing the authorship of Pearl to one Hugh Massey on the basis
of possible puns on this name in the poem^ (295), Barbara Nolan and
David Farley-Hills present the results of their literary and
historical search for the Pearl-poet in "The Authorship of Pearl:
Two Notes" (1971). Working from what they perceive as clear
evidence that "the poet of Pearl and Sir Gawain was a man who
enjoyed playing with words and manipulating numbers into complex
designs" (296), Nolan demonstrates in the first of the two notes
"the presence of an anagram and a signature woven into the system
of link-words in Pearl" (297) which reveal the poet's name to be
John Massey (Massi, Massy). In addition to finding the initials
"I/J" and "M" in several pairs of the link-words, by rearranging
the initial letters of link-words in lines designated by the key
numbers 1, 12, 120, 1,020, 1,212; 60, 600, 660; 108, 1,080; 144,
1,044, she demonstrates that the poem is an acrostic puzzle which
encodes the message "Paye Massy":
1 paye
12 spot S
60 spot S
108 adubbement A

120 adubbement A
144 more M
180 more M
600 more M
660 innogh I
1020 John I
1044 mone M
1080 mone M
1200 paye
1212 paye (299)
so observes that " line 912, which spells numerically T
1M,1 is a prayer that a favour be granted" and asks if "the
numerical signature 'I' 1M1 combined with the prayer conceal a plea
for favour by the poet addressing a patron?" (298). In the second
note, Farley-Hills suggests that Hoccleve's poem indicates the
existence of a skilled rhetorician named Massey in the Duke of
Bedford's household during the second decade of the fifteenth
century and that "it would clearly be worth looking for his name in
the Duke's papers" (301). He infers from Hoccleve's attitude that
Massey "must have produced works of outstanding merit to justify
[his] reputation as a rhetorician" and considers it "odd that none
of them survives--unless of course he is the Gawain poet" (302).
Clifford Peterson in a note on "Pearl and St. Erkenwald:
Some Evidence for Authorship" (1974) applies Nolan's method, using
as many of the same line numbers as occur in the 352 lines of St.
Erkenwald (12, 60, 108, 120, 144, and 180), to the alliterating
words in this poem^:
12 Saynt . . Sandwiche . sende S
60 mony . . mesters-mon . maners M
108 Esex . . Erkenwolde . abbey E,
120 biseche . . Soverayn . swete S
144 dene . . dere . devysit D
180 Ihesus . . iuggit . ioy I

Peterson rearranges these letters to spell "I. d. Masse" (52),
having already noted that the Masseys living in Cheshire and
Lancashire at the time often used the style "de Massey" (50). He
estimates the chances of finding "this combination of letters by
the random selection of lines [to be] exceedingly poor, something
less than one chance in more than one hundred thousand." Peterson
also points out that line 129 (M1 and 'I,1 the poet's initials in
reverse order, being the twelfth and ninth letters of the Middle
English alphabet) ends with the word "masse," a possible pun on the
poet's name similar to the ones Greenwood discovered in Pearl (52).
The evidence he presents, in his words, confirms "the validity of
the Pearl anagram and at the same time makes most plausible, indeed
nearly inescapable, the conclusion that the two poems came from one
poet" (53).
Furthermore, in a later article the same year, "The Pearl -
Poet and John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire," Peterson presented
evidence to support his deduction that a certain "John Massey of
Cotton came from the right part of England, was associated with the
right family, and was alive at the right time to be the man who
concealed his name in Pearl and St. Erkenwald" (266). The John
Massey whom Peterson discovered in fourteenth-century records meets
all three criteria necessary for him to be identified as Hoccleve's
"maister Massy": (1) having lived "during the years 1411-14, the
probable period of Hoccleve's reference to him as someone who, he
hopes, will correct his (Hoccleve's) uncunning metre and feeble
poetic colourings"; (2) having also lived and been "in his maturity

during the fourth quarter of the fourteenth century, the period to
which the composition of the Pearl and St. Erkenwald is usually
assigned"; (3) being "associated in some way with John of
Lancaster" (the Duke of Bedford) (258). As Peterson admits,
though, he has no "direct evidence that John Massey of Cotton did
in fact write poetry (the same, of course, is true of Geoffrey
Chaucer, the civil servant)" (266).
A year later Thorlac Turville-Petre and Edward Wilson, in
an article entitled "Hoccleve, 'Maistir Massy1 and the Pearl Poet:
Two Notes," attempted to discredit the work of Nolan, Farley-Hills,
and Peterson. In his note, Turville-Petre claims that Farley-Hills
had misinterpreted lines 25-26 of Hoccleve's poem, "For rethorik
hath hid fro me the keye / Of his tresor" where, according to
Turville-Petre, "his" refers to "rethorik" and not to "Massy" as
Farley-Hills maintained. Turville-Petre tries "to show that the
suggestions as to the identity of Maistir Massy1 are not correct,
and that he can hardly have been the author of Pearl and Erkenwald"
(129). Rather, Turville-Petre asserts, Hoccleve's "'Maistir Massy'
is not some undiscovered poet, but instead a source of relief from
financial embarrassment; he is William Massy, who is described
. . as Receiver-general and General Attorney to John of
Lancaster," the Duke of Bedford (130).
Wilson, on the other hand, after examining Nolan and
Peterson's method "according the rules and criteria of cryptology"
established by the Friedmans in 1957, decided that "doubts must
arise as to [their] conclusion" (133). His most telling argument

emerges from a comparison of the letters occuring in the key lines
that Nolan chose from Pearl and Peterson from St. Erkenwald:
Line No. 12 60 108 120 144 180
Pearl S S A S M M
Erkenwald S M E,A S D I
He considers this "failure to provide the same plain text message
in both poems [to be] sufficient in itself to discredit the idea of
a numerical cipher" (139-40). Wilson faults Nolan's selection of
line numbers on the basis not of "the objective observation of any
fixed pattern . but on a subjective feeling that some numbers
are 'poetic' and others are not" (135); he admits, however, that if
"the link-words had been chosen according to an arithmetical or
geometrical progression there would have been the beginnings of a
case" (137).
Such a progression, however, does exist in Pearl, unrecog-
nized by both Nolan and Wilson. It is based on two numerals em-
phasized in the poem's form: six, the number of stanzas in the
anomalous fifteenth section, and twelve, the number of lines in
each stanza. There are fourteen possible combinations^ of these
two numerals: 6, 12, 60, 66, 120, 126, 600, 606, 612, 660, 666,
1200, 1206, 1212. the lines in Pearl which contain link-words
occur at the beginning and end of each twelve-line stanza. The
number of the last line of each stanza is thus a multiple of
twelve, as are 12, 60, 120, 600, 612, 660, 1200, and 1212 from the
above list. The number of the first line of each stanza is one
more than the number of the last line of the previous stanza (which
is an even number, since it is a multiple of twelve); since one

more than an even number is always odd, the first line of each
stanza is an odd number: 1, 13, 25, 37, 49, and so on. The
remaining numbers in the list (6, 66, 126, 606, 666, and 1206) are
neither multiples of twelve, nor are they odd (that is, they are
neither at the beginning or the end of a stanza); therefore they do
not contain link-words. The initial letters of the link-words in
the lines 12, 60, 120, 600, 612, 1200, and 1212 are an anagram for
"I. Massi" and retain the prayer for payment which Nolan observed:
12 spot S
60 spot S
120 adubbemente A
600 more M
612 inoghe I
660 inoghe I
1200 paye
1212 paye
In addition, in this progression there is no surplus of duplicate
letters which Wilson considered to be "as pattern-destroying and as
useless as a surplus of letters which cannot contribute to the
solution" (134).
Farley-Hills answered Turville-Petre's objections in "John
Massy as the Author of Pearl11 (1975), attributing "two palpable
absurdities" to his opponent's objections: (1) "That a man who is
a clerk (or whatever) [that is, William Massy] cannot also be a
poet" and (2) "If two people have similar poetic talents (Massy and
Picard) neither can be very talented nor very poetic." (Turville-
Petre had noted the similarity between the poem addressing "Maister
Massy" and another by Hoccleve addressed in similar terms to a
"Maister Picard," presumably John Picard who supposedly had
financial duties in the household of Edward, Duke of York (132-

33).) Farley-Hills also points out that, in lines 16-17 of
Hoccleve's poem ("For rethorik hath hid fro me the keye / Of his
tresor") while 11'his tresor1 could refer to Rhetoric rather than
Massy," in every example he has found "in Middle English where the
gender can be identified, 'Rhetoric' is feminine," making "my seid
Maistir" (that is, Massy) in line 13 not "rethorik" the antecedent
of "his" and supporting the interpretation that Hoccleve was
acknowledging Massy's superior rhetorical (that is, poetic) skill,
"his tresor," which Hoccleve cannot achieve (451).
Peterson, too, in "Hoccleve, the Old Hall Manuscript,
Cotton Nero A.x., and the Pearl-Poet" (1977), published a rebuttal
to Jurville-Petre's and Wilson's objections in which he provides
some new information that he considers might "shed some light on
Hoccleve and his milieu and on a medieval English musician of some
talent, as well as on the identity of the Pearl-poet" (49). In
this article Peterson finally extends his own, Farley-Hills's, and
Nolan's theory of the Pearl-poet's identity to Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight. In the cropped left margin of the Cotton Nero
manuscript between lines 1544 and 1545 of Gawain the letters "oton"
are visible. Since "Coton" was the medieval spelling of the town
in Cheshire where Peterson's John Massey lived, Peterson considers
it possible that someone reading line 1544 of Gawain, "as I am,
o^er euer schal, in erde (ser I leue," recognized it "as an ironic,
humorous self-reference by the poet and, opposite Gawain's mention
of the place where he lives, wrote the name of the place where the
poet lived" (54). In response to Turville-Petre's and Wilson's

dismissal of the theory that John Massey wrote Pearl, St.
Erkenwald, and Gawain, Peterson asserts that the evidence amassed
by himself, Nolan, and "ensures that the possibility
that a Massey, and John Massey of Cotton, wrote St. Erkenwald, and
possibly the poems in Cotton Nero A.x. as well, is still an issue,
however vexed" (55).
Erik Kooper's more recent discovery, as related in "The
Case of the Encoded Author: John Massey in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight" (1982), reinforces Peterson's suggestion that John
Massey wrote Gawain. Kooper considers one of the most remarkable
features of the cryptgraphic debate to be "that it could have taken
place without even so much as a reference to Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight: if a name should be hidden in Pearl then at least
the possibility of its presence in Gawain should be investigated"
(158-59). In his essay, Kooper presents the results of such an
investigation. He identifies, as have other critics, five and 101
as the key numbers with which he can unlock Gawain. Using the
lineation of the poem as it appears in the manuscript, Kooper
begins with line 101 (106 in modern editions), which, sig-
nificantly, is the last line of the fifth stanza: "Much mirthe he
mas withalle." This is the only occurrence of the word "mas" in
the five poems usually attributed to the same poet. Combining it
with the Roman numeral form for the line number yields the name
"MAS-CI" (162). Kooper finds a closer look at this stanza
rewarding. The number of the first line of the stanza is 81 (in
the manuscript), the square of nine which represents the letter

"I." The total number of lines in the stanza is 21, the sum of
nine and twelve which are the numerical representations of the
letters "I/J" and "M," John Massey's initials. The first and ninth
lines of the stanza alliterate in vowels, setting off a section of
nine lines, while the tenth and twenty-first lines alliterate in
"m," thus setting off a section of twelve lines. Finally, lines 90
through 93, the first four lines of the "m" section, alliterate in
"m," "a," "s," and "i" respectively, spelling out the poet's name
(163). Kooper presents additional evidence from Gawain to support
the theory identifying John Massey as the Pearl-poet, including the
observation that line 981 (reflecting the significance of nine, the
number of the letter "i," and its square, 81) alliterates in "i/j"
and contains the name "John" (164).
The next step, obviously, is to search for similar devices
in Cleanness and Patience. Such studies, rather than being "his-
torical, speculative, and largely useless," as Cooper and Pearsall
claim (365), could provide answers to the questions of when Gawain
was written and whether the same man wrote all the Cotton Nero
Beyond ingenious efforts to identify the author of Gawain,
critics have continued their attempts to locate "possible
historical prototypes, especially for the Green Knight" (Bloomfield
9)--which might also aid in dating the poem. In answering the
question "Was the Green Knight Really Merlin?" (1975), Charles Long
identifies Morgan's henchman with the legendary Arthur's quasi -
historical advisor. Long notes that since both the Green Knight

and Merlin dwelt "in caves, have had 'love dealings' with Morgan la
Faye, and both are known shape-shifters, wily, and not entirely
benevolent beings, the greenness and apparent age differential
alone have probably prevented a previous assocation of the two."
Of course, the color and age differences would not present
difficulties for the magician who could transform the young Uther
Pendragon into the older Gorlois to effect the rendezvous with
Igraine from which Arthur issues. As Long establishes, in at least
one version of the story of Merlin Morgan is identified as the
seductress who steals his magical power and entombs him (1).
Since Morgan had previously employed other devices against Arthur,
including his own sword, what would be more natural for her than
employing Arthur's own trusted supernatural force against
Arthur. This stratagem, once devised in the scheming mind of
Morgan, would provide the raison d'etre for Morgan's seduction
. and capture of Merlin. This particular kind of misuse of
Arthur's own magic would have its own special appeal to the
plotting mind of Morgan la Faye. (6)
On the other hand, William McColly in his 1988 essay titled
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight As a Romance a Clef" supports with
evidence from both primary and secondary records, as well as from
the poem itself, his identification of actual historical prototypes
for the major characters in Gawain. McColly associates Arthur with
Richard II, Gawain with Robert de Mere who was "the earl of Oxford
and hereditary great chamberlain" as well as being "Richard's
closest friend and his obvious favorite" (79), and the Green Knight
with Sir Hugh Calveley who was a prominent knight of the period
(81). The poem, therefore, "was fundamentally a commemoration of
Calveley and Robert de Mere in relation to crucial events of 1387-

88" (90), that is, the king's conflict with the lords appellant and
the Parliament (80) during which de Vere travelled through Cheshire
gathering military support for the king. McColly compares de
Vere's odyssey to Gawain's, each being the result of "a gesture of
loyalty towards his [respective] king" (88).
Such searches for the identity of the author of Gawain and
prototypes of its characters, while extremely interesting, do
little to help modern readers understand the poem, at least
according to many contemporary critics who consider them irrelevant
at best. However, the value of identifying the Gawain-poet and
prototypes of the characters should be obvious in the further
insight establishing when and where Gawain was written, as well as
for whom and by what type of man, would provide. And, as
Bloomfield remarked, "of course speculation does no harm." In any
case, as he concluded, these problems must remain unresolved until
new evidence is found (9). Further evidence will probably also be
necessary to answer the common-authorship question.
Unlike the question of the Gawain-poet's identity, because
of the "added dimension to critical understanding" (Cooper and
Pearsall 365) that an affirmative answer would allow, the question
of common authorship of the Cotton Nero poems (Pearl, Cleanness,
Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)--and perhaps St.
Erkenwald?--has continued to attract attention, particularly with
the increasing application to the humanities of statistical and
computer-assisted analysis, a development which has been paralleled
by a proportional proliferation of tables, figures, and equations

in literary essays. In recent years Vantuono, Kjellmer, Tajima,
McColly and Weier, and Copper and Pearsall have all attempted to
answer this question.
William Vantuono bases his 1971 presentation of "Patience,
Cleanness, Pearl, and Gawain: The Case for Common Authorship" on
an analysis of similarities in theme, imagery, diction, analogous
phrasing, paraphrases for God, methods of introduction, stated
difficulty in describing something, and echoes of the opening lines
in the closing ones (37). Though Vantuono extensively charts the
appearance of parallel phrases within and among the four poems (61-
63), his conclusion that Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, and Gawain
were written by a common author is founded primarily on their unity
of theme in stressing the Virtues of patience, humility, and purity
as well as the opposing vices of impatience, pride, and impurity.
It is here, Vantuono determines, that "the mind of one man is seen
at work" (69). Vantuono's case, though, would be better supported
with statistical summaries of his findings instead of or in
addition to his extensivejlistings of apparently random passages
from the poems. For example, he could have strengthened his claim
for thematic unity among the poems by producing results of a study
of the frequency of certain words relating to this common theme.
In 1975 Goran Kjellmer's answer to this same question, Did
the 'Pearl Poet1 Write 1 Pearl1?, was a decided "no." On the basis
of a statistical study of its deviation from the other Cotton Nero
poems and St. Erkenwald in lexical frequency, clause length,
sentence length, clause linkage types, subordinator types, passive

forms, and alliteration, Kjellmer concludes "that everything goes
to indicate that 'the Pearl poet' did not write Pearl11 (98)--that
is, Pearl is not by an author of any of the other four poems.
Kjellmer, however, fails to account for Pearl's differences from
the other poems in point of view and form. For example, his table
showing the rank order of the ten most frequent words demonstrates
Pearl1s deviation from the other poems in this attribute (41):
HE 2 2 1 1 8
HIS, etc. 1 1 2 2 6
I 7 6 3 3 1
HIT, etc. 4 4 5 8 7
WATZ, etc 3 3 6 6.5 2
HYM, etc. 6 7 4 4 9.5
IS 8 8 8 10 4
THAY, etc 5 10 7 6.5 9.5
THOU, etc 9 5 10 9 5
ME 10 9 9 5 3
But, since Pearl is a first- person narrative with extensive
dialogue between the dreamer and the Pearl-maiden , it should not be
surprising that the first-person pronouns ("I" and "me") rank first
and third in frequency, while in the other poems, all third-person
narratives with minimal dialogue, third-person pronouns ("he" and
various forms of "his") are the most frequently occurring words.
In addition, since alliteration is used to link the significant,
stressed words in a line, it would seem reasonable to expect that
the frequency of different repeated sounds would vary with the
subject of the poem, particularly in Pearl where the poet repeated
important words or phrases in the first and last lines of each
stanza within a section. The results of Kjellmer's study of
alliteration in the first 300 lines of each poem (not counting the

bobs in Gawain) support this hypothesis. For instance, the
alliteration of words beginning with "sp" as in "spot" (section I),
"d" as in "dubbed" and its various forms (section II), "p" as in
"perle" (section IV), and "j" as in "juelere" or "juel" (section V)
is significantly more frequent in Pearl than in the other poems
D 16 15 11 10 19 71
J 2 6 3 9 12 32
P 14 15 8 14 25 76
Sp - 3 2 2 7 14
None - - 7 - 30 37
The greater number of unalliterated lines in Pearl should also be
expected since its stanzas are based primarily on end-rhymed lines,
as are the four-line wheels of the Gawain-stanza. Also, a first-
person account would naturally employ fewer passive constructions
than one written in third person. Nor should it be surprising that
clause and sentence length would vary between a poem written in
stanzas of intricately rhymed short lines and poems composed
primarily of long unrhymed alliterative lines. Kjellmer's
conclusion is simply not supported by his data.
Matsuji Tajima based his 1978 presentation of "Additional
Syntactical Evidence Against the Common Authorship of MS. Cotton
Nero A. x." solely on a comparison of the use of the neuter
personal pronoun "hit"/"hyt" in the four poems of the Cotton Nero
manuscript. Tajima cites uses of the pronoun in Pearl, Cleanness,
and Patience which did not occur in Gawain, for example, hrt used
as a subject with the verb "to be" in the plural and as the

genitive singular neuter "its." He also cites uses in Gawain which
did not occur in the other poems, such as hit used as the "prepara-
tory there," hit is equals "there is" and his used as the genitive
singular neuter, the older form. Tajima tabulates his findings as
follows (197):
Usage Pearl + Cleanness + Patience = Total8 Gawain
11212) (1812) (531) "(3555) (2428)9
PLURAL hit "they"
hit be (pi.) 1 6 2 9 0
hit be (sing.) 0 1 0 1 0
preparatory hit 0 2 0 2 0
hit "them" 0 2 0 2 0
(=those who) 0 1 1 2 0
hit . bat (=what) 0 0 0 0 1
PREPARATORY "THERE" hit "there" 0 0 0 0 2
hit "its" 3 7 2 12 0
hit "their" 0 l!0 0 1 0
Cf. his "its" 0 0 0 0 2
Not in Gawain 4 20 5 29
He believes that these differences could not have been "caused by
accident or by a single poet's stylistic variety" (198). Tajima,
however, fails to consider the statistical significance, or rather
the insignificance, of his numbers. Nine or twelve occurrences of
a specific usage (hit be or hit "its") in 3555 lines, the total in
the three other poems, (which translates into one occurrence every
400 or one every 300 lines, respectively) is hardly conclusive.
Finally, there are five types of usage which occur in Cleanness and
not in Pearl, as compared with three types occurring in Gawain and
not in Pearl and only two in Pearl and not in Gawain, indicating a

closer correlation between Pearl and Gawain than between either and
Cleanness. Thus, as Kjellmer's, Tajima's statistics do not support
his conclusion that "these minute yet marked differences in the use
of the neuter personal pronoun hvt between Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight and its companion poems . present additional syntactical
evidence against the theory of the common authorship" (198).
Five years later (in 1983), William McColly and Dennis
Weier reported the results of their statistical and quantitative
analysis of the poems of the Cotton Nero manuscript and St.
Erkenwald in their article, "Literary Attribution and Likelihood-
Ratio Tests: The Case of the Middle English Pearl-Poems.11 McColly
and Weier selected as variables the word frequencies for function
words as well as common adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns which, it
had long been assumed, an author uses unconsciously (65-66). They
applied to the Middle English poems a likelihood-ratio comparison
which had previously proved useful in assigning certain Federalist
papers of disputed authorship to either Hamilton or Madison on the
basis of similarities to essays of undisputed authorship (68).
That the test "decidedly fails to confirm the assumption of the
common authorship of these poems" is important, they assert,
"because it suggests that the existence of a so-called Pearl- or
Gawain-poet, about whom so much speculation has been published, is
impossible to demonstrate through a statistical analysis of
internal evidence" (69). On the basis of their results they are
willing to speculate that the five poems were written by three
different authors: one who wrote Pearl; one who wrote Patience,

Cleanness, and St. Erkenwald; and one who wrote Gawain. But, as
they acknowledge, the poems with the closest scores are the closest
in form (70).
Nevertheless, four years later R. A. Cooper and D. A.
Pearsall concluded otherwise in their "The Gawain Poems:
Statistical Approach to the Question of Common Authorship." Making
the same underlying assumptions as McColly and Weier--that an
author employs certain stylistic elements reflexively rather than
consciously and that these characteristics are open to statistical
analysis (372)--Cooper and Pearsall selected the following features
for examination: (1) distribution of alliterated syllables across
lines conforming to the regular aa/ax pattern, (2) part of speech
of the word determining the alliterative phoneme (the first
alliterating word of the second half-line), and (3) frequency of
function-words distinguished according to position in the line
(initial or internal) (374). However, rather than comparing .the
poems to each other as McColly and Weier did, they tested the
unrhymed long alliterative lines of Cleanness, Patience, and Gawain
(omitting Pearl with its distinctive metrical pattern and Gawain's
bob-and-wheel sections) against similar passages from a group of
"control" poems: Morte Arthure, The Parliament of the Three Ages,
and The Siege of Jerusalem. They chose these poems for the control
group "because they are of approximately the same date (1380-1400),
are in the same metrical form, belong to the same 'school' of
writing, and provide adequate bulk of text for analysis" (373).
Cooper and Pearsall conclude from their study the following:

first, that none of the authors of the control poems wrote any of
the Gawain poems; second, that the differences between the Gawain
poems as a group and the control group constitute "a strong
presumption of common authorship" of the Gawain poems; third, that
the similarities among the Gawain poems are not readily explainable
"except in terms of common authorship" (384).
However, these studies by McColly and Weier, Cooper and
Pearsall are based on what are, at best, questionable assumptions:
"that an author uses . common words reflexively, as a matter of
habit, and that they are thus one of the hallmarks of style"
(McColly and Weier 66) and that these "unconscious features of
expression that charaterize the style of the individual writer
. . are susceptible of quantitative analysis" (Cooper and
Pearsall 372). The validity of these assumptions was not ques-
tioned in the original studies of the prose Federalist papers by
Mosteller and Wallace (McColly and Weier 65-69), but perhaps they
should be when computerized statistical studies are made of poetry
where each word may be consciously selected to meet requirements of
alliteration, rhyme, and meter.
But the case for a common author of the Cotton Nero poems
has not been proven and may never be, even though the arguments in
favor of the theory are more convincing than those against.
Probably the most telling argument for common authorship, though,
is the sheer improbability of two poets, one capable of writing
Gawain and the other, Pearl (not to mention Cleanness and Patience)
living at the same time, in the same area, and writing in the same

dialect using similar themes and devices in their verse with such a
high degree of sophistication in a primarily illiterate society.
Similarily, efforts to establish Gawain's chronological and
geographical milieu are still "rather limited and limiting."
However, according to Bloomfield, studies of what chivalry meant
"to the aristocracy of fourteenth-century England" and for what
audience this poem was written had not been made with it in mind.
Such studies, which Bloomfield considers important in relating the
poem to its cultural and literary milieu (10), have been initiated
by Clein and Clark.
In 1987, when her study of Concepts of Chivalry in 'Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight1 was published, Wendy Clein,
acknowledging Bloomfield's suggestion, observed that to date "no
study has addressed the complex phenomenon of knighthood found in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (12). Believing that a study of
chivalry in the fourteenth century would reconcile conflicting
interpretations of Gawain, Clein originally hypothesized that
"contradictory evaluations of the poem resulted from modern
readers' incomplete understanding of medieval attitudes toward
chivalry." However, faced with chivalric texts in which knights
were commended by heralds as paragons of virtue and condemned by
moralists as exemplars of vice, she is forced to conclude that
contradictory readings of the poem result not from critics'
misinterpretations of Gawain but rather from the "final
indeterminacy," the "open-endedness" (133) of a poem which "inves-
tigates the paradoxes of fourteenth century chivalry" (ix). Clein

examines in Gawain the tensions among the conflicting views of
chivalry: the romance view which explores "the exploits of in-
dividual heroes" (20), demonstrates "chivalric virtues: prowess,
piety, loyalty, mercy, and courtesy" (19), and emphasizes the
knight's devotion to his lady; the heraldic view which focuses on
deeds of arms (28-29) and the knight's loyalty to his feudal lord;
and the moralist views which range from condemnation to attempts at
reformation of chivalry (31) and stress faith in God. Thus, the
chivalric values idealized in romantic literature and heraldic
texts, such as courtly love and personal honor, translate into
mortal sins, lechery and pride, when seen from the religious
perspective (43). "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight imaginatively
re-creates for its readers [medieval and modern] the conflicts
experienced by fourteenth-century knights in their practice of
chivalry" (53).
Clein's view of medieval culture, which posits "an audience
able to countenance multiple interpretative possibilities" such as
those in allegory which "demands that interpreters be fully
conscious of multiple layers of meaning" (135), echoes Cecily
Clark's inference of a sophisticated and experienced audience of
Gawain from her study of the poem's diction in "Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight: Its Artistry and Its Audience" (1971). In Clark's
The Gawain-poet's diction, with its subtle echo-patterns
and its cunning use of different registers, poetic, technical,
and colloquial, tells us a good deal about his audience: they
were expected to be not only experienced in the alliterative
convention but unfailingly alert. This is poetry for a small,
attentive company, not for a drinking, chattering crowd in

marketplace or hall. They had to catch every nuance of dic-
tion. .. . (15)
Only such an audience could appreciate the poet's complex style as
illustrated in the "specialized diction and syntax" of the poem
In this essay Clark answers another of Bloomfield's ques-
tions, "What audience was Sir Gawain written for?": One that was
alert, intelligent, sensitive (15), and, undoubtedly, aristocratic.
But still others appear to remain unanswered, at least with respect
to Gawain: "What is the meaning of the 'alliterative revival' in
fourteenth-century England? What is the significance of the later
flowering of Arthurian romance in England? To what extent is Sir
Gawain a poem written in high style?" (10). Regarding high style,
Bloomfield noted that fourteenth-century poetics and rhetoric
stimulate difficult questions. What, for instance, was the
attitude of the fourteenth-century writer toward his material?
To what extent was he dominated by rhetorical theory,
espeically the theory of styles? That he took them seriously
there can be no doubt, but what exactly did high style in
English mean at that time? Was high style even possible in the
mother language? Could comedy and high style be wedded in any
way? What is the significance of the narrator in medieval
literature? To what extent were ironies possible? (11)
Eight years later Howard wrote that to his knowledge no one had yet
"taken this suggestion literally and studied the poem in detail
against contemporary theories of style" (31). His observation
still appears to be valid.
Religion and Myth
Like the common-authorship question, the religious elements
of the poem have received increasing attention over the last thirty

years, as Bloomfield predicted when he asserted that Gawain "is
fairly and squarely Christian" (14). Writing a few years later,
Howard, however, observed that religious readings like those called
for by Bloomfield
have produced in Middle English studies a backlash atmosphere
where any mention of Christian ideas in a medieval poem must be
tiptoed into with disclaimers. If someone were to say now [in
1968], as Bloomfield said in 1961, that the poem is 'fairly and
squarely Christian,1 his audience would be looking askance and
coughing. (35)
Nevertheless, a number of more recent critics--Barron, Haines,
Reichardt, and Morgan among them--continue, as Bloomfield antici-
pated, to "find further and deeper religious aspects and signif-
icances in the poem" (15), focusing primarily on the nature of
Gawain's fault and the validity of his two confessions.
W. R. J. Barron bases his thematic study of the poem,
'Trawthe' and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered (1980), on a
view of the hunting in the third fitt "as having an interpretative
bearing, complex and shifting, upon the indoor games of wooing and
wagering, and as compelling judgement and offering guidance on the
nature of Gawain's fault." The effect of this correlation was "to
give structural and thematic meaning to elements in the poem
[previously] considered purely incidental, to show that the twin
plots, Beheading and Temptation, are even more essentially inter-
related than had been supposed, and to add an element of precision
to the moral import of the whole" (vii). Barron concludes that
Gawain ends "not with resolution but implication, not with a pat
solution confirming chivalric values, in the manner of conventional
romance, but in an enigma challenging reconsideration of their

validity in relation to human instinct on one hand and God's will
for his creation on the other" (142).
Victor Haines presents extensive evidence in The Fortunate
Fall of Sir Gawain: The Typology of 'Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight' (1982) to support his assertion that the doctrine of the
"felix culpa"the fortunate fall (Adam's fall which resulted in
Christ's redemption)is essential to an understanding of Gawain
(1) . Haines maintains that the Gawain-poet "used the techniques of
mediaeval iconography in his literary images to signify the felix
culpa and the typological instance of it to be found in his 'laye'"
(2) He interprets the poem in terms of the "four levels of
exegesis in typology [which] are nothing more than directions in
which to look for significant comparisons involving our own life":
1) the literal level, the story of Gawain; 2) the allegorical
level, the fall of Adam and the atonement by the Second Adam (that
is, Christ); 3) the moral or tropological level, the comparison of
Gawain, as well as each hearer or reader of the poem, with the
First and Second Adam; and 4) the anagogical level, the comparison
of the events in the story "and events in our own life with the
eternal condition of history as it will appear in the afterlife."
Through this interpretation of the poem, Haines seems to imply that
the poet's purpose in writing Gawain was to aid the hearer or
reader in conforming "his own sinful life, through the sacrifice of
Christ, into a new communion with God and an increasing power to
resist sin" (195-6).

In another traditional Christian approach to the poem, Paul
Reichardt, in his discussion of "Gawain and the Image of the Wound"
(1984) , treats "a piece of evidence whose bearing on the question
[of Gawain's fault] has gone unnoticed": the small wound which
Gawain receives at the hands of the Green Knight. According to
Reichardt, Gawain's "nirt" recalls an earlier reference in the poem
to Christ's wound which would suggest to a medieval audience three
associated devotional themes: 1) that life is transitory; 2) that
Christ will judge mankind; 3) that through his wounds, often
described as "wells" or "fountains," both sinner and saint will
receive comfort and mercy. In the context of the poem, these
themes serve as reminders that Gawain "is still mortal and thus
vulnerable to the blow of the mysterious Green Knight's ax," that
he "will be judged for his conduct," and that "Gawain's devotion to
these Wounds gives him access to a clement Savior who shows pity to
the sinful, the fearful, and the dying" (154). Reichardt also
notes the significance of the location of Gawain's wound, on the
neck, "the traditional anatomical locus of the problem of stiff-
necked pride. Having lost his head figuratively [that is, having
lost his reason] at Bertilak's castle when he accepted the girdle,
Gawain very nearly loses his head literally at the Green Chapel"
Still in this orthodox vein, Gerald Morgan addresses "The
Validity of Gawain's Confession in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
(1985) . Morgan maintains in his study that the Gawain-poet
requires his audience "to follow a lucid but subtle moral argument

[which] is still inadequately understood.11 Morgan's stated purpose
in writing is "to clarify the moral relationship between Gawain's
acceptance of the girdle offered to him by Bertilak's wife and his
subsequent confession of his sins to a priest . ., and thus to
demonstrate the coherence as well as the lucidity of the moral
argument of the poem" (1). This argument proceeds as follows: 1)
on the third day of the exchange game, on which Gawain accepts the
girdle, when he goes to confession he is ignorant "of the
particular knowledge that it is unlawful for him to retain
possession of the girdle" (12); 2) Gawain's confession to the
priest is sincere (13); 3) in his meeting with the Green Knight who
acts as confessor, Gawain fulfills the three conditions of
penitence: "contrition, confession, and satisfaction" (16).
Morgan concludes that, since Gawain was absolved by the Green
Knight, Arthur's court "is right to see in the conduct of Gawain an
unsurpassable display of human virtue, and right also to honour it
by accepting the girdle as a badge of honour". (18). Morgan,
though, does not account for Gawain's continued feeling of shame on
his return to Camelot which is difficult to reconcile with this
orthodox reading of the poem.
Unlike the religious aspects of Gawain, mythical elements
and themes have attracted little recent attention. The existence
of a substantial number of significant mythic studies made during
the first six decades of this century, like those by Jessie Weston,
E. K. Chambers, and Roger Loomis which Bloomfield discussed in his
article (12-14), is probably responsible for the paucity of newer

inquiries in this area as well as for the wealth of possibly
reactionary Christian interpretations of the poem. In fact, some
contemporary critics, Kiteley and Leighton for example, have used
certain elements traditionally considered as mythical or magical to
support their Christian readings of Gawain.
In "'The Endless Knot': Magical Aspects of the Pehtangle
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1971) John F. Kiteley, noting
that most "Gawain scholarship . concerns itself with the
Pentangle inter alia," proceeds "to consider, for a change, the
'other' side of the Pentanglethe magical defense against evil
spiritsand to inquire whether this aspect, too, might not be
relevant to the meaning of the poem, especially for its medieval
audience" (43). As Kiteley points out, the poet's medieval
audience most likely immediately associated the pentangle with its
superstitious and magical aspects rather than the religious ones he
imposed (44). Thus, Gawain, bearing this device on his shield,
leaves Camelot "armed with [its] dual moral-magical defense" (47),
nor is he reluctant to use magic, in the form of the girdle instead
of the pentangle, to protect his life, even though in doing so he
violates one of the five-fold virtues represented by the Christian
"side" of the pentangle, his faith in Christ and, by extension,
Mary. And, of course, as Gawain and the audience learn, he would
not even have been wounded had he adhered to the virtues
represented by his heraldic device (48-49). From this Kiteley
concludes that, since the poem would leave those members of the
audience who were aware of the pentangle's magical aspect "with the

feeling that, after all, only a total reliance on Christian virtue
would be of help as they faced the many unknown factors of the
medieval world," this side of the device "serves to underline the
basic moral themes" of the poem (49-50).
Similarly, in 1974 J. M. Leighton in a study of "Christian
and Pagan Symbolism and Ritual in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
introduces an alternative interpretation of the primary source of
mythical and pagan readings of the poem: the Green Knight's color,
which has lead many critics to see him as a fertility figure (52-
53). Arguing from the point that green is the color "of the
vestments used at,Epiphany, which begins at the end of Arthur's
festivities [and] signifies . 'faith, gladness, immortality,
the resurrection of the just; (in dress) the gladness of the
faithful . .,Leighton determines that if the Green Knight "is
a testing agent, he is a Christian testing agent" (56). Just as
the Christian religion adapted pagan festivals and rituals to its
own use, Leighton holds, the Gawain-poet modified the source
stories to promote Christian doctrine (58). Thus, according to
Leighton, the color of the Green Knight, and of the girdle which
Gawain accepts first from Lady Bertilak and later from the Green
Knight, "suggests what joys await the true Christian if he is
faithful to his values--God's bounty, mirth, gladness, and
resurrection"; having received absolution and forgiveness from the
Green Knight for his sin Gawain has become worthy once more to
partake of these joys (59).

However, despite the numerous religious and mythical
studies of Gawain already in existence, much can still be done.
Critics seem to have exhausted references and relationships in the
poem to medieval religious rites and traditions, particularly with
respect to Gawain's sin and confession, but they have ignored the
potential of scriptural allusions and associations in Gawain.
Possible sources for the other poems of the Cotton Nero manuscript
have been found in the Vulgate. If one man wrote all four poems,
comparing Gawain to relevant biblical passages should prove
fruitful, perhaps beginning with a comparison of Gawain's arming
scenes with the description in Ephesians of putting on the armor of
God or of Gawain's three temptations with those of Christ.
And, as Howard commented in his article, there are still
few anthropological studies of the poem (41-42). Robert Kindrick
partially fulfilled this requirement with his study of "Gawain's
Ethics: Shame and Guilt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
(1981). Kindrick reads the poem as a demonstration of the tension
in medieval society between "two types of value structures": the
"shame-honor" system of ethics in which individual action is
determined by social status and the "guilt-innocence" system in
which the. individual is motivated by "an internalized sense of
ethics" (7-8). In the poem Gawain is caught "in the conflict
between social pressure and individual integrity [which] was almost
formalized in the chivalric code. . The conflicting demands of
courtly love and religious commitment created an ethical dilemma
which generated considerable literary comment" (31). But, while

this essay is a beginning, much work remains to be done. For
instance, scholars seem to have overlooked possible relations
between Gawain and primitive magic and religion as recounted in
studies like James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. Furthermore,
the relationship of the legends of Troy and Camelot as established
by the poet in the opening and closing lines of the poem has not
been adequately explained.
Comic and Game Elements
Bloomfield identified a third possible interpretation, in
addition to the mythic and religious readings, which had been
neglected by most critics: that Gawain was written with a "comic
or humorous intention." Noting the respective relevant readings by
Elizabeth Wright and by Joseph Eagen of the poem as dramatic
entertainment and satire, he expressed his own belief that the
Gawain-poet "is playing a game with us just as Morgan is playing a
game with Arthur's court. He is keeping us in a state of suspense,
holding back information, and fooling us" (15-16).
Howard considered the comic aspects to be "the central
issues" Of the poem and asked, "If the poem makes us laugh, what
does this laughter mean and how much does it discredit the grimly
serious moral and theological content which some find there?" He
also reviewed three existing essays on humor and game elements in
Gawain: R. H. Bowers' "Gawain and the Green Knight as Entertain-
ment," Robert G. Cook's "The Play-Element in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight," and Theodore Silverstein's "Sir Gawain, Dear Brutus,

and Britain's Fortunate Founding: A Study in Comedy and Conven-
tion" (36-38). This comic or playful aspect of the poem, while
still "much ignored," has been recently addressed by Stevens and
Martin Stevens, in his 1972 essay titled "Laughter and Game
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," reconsiders "the elements of
play, game, mirth, and holiday which prevail in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight [beginning] with an examination of the vocabulary
referring to these elements in the poem" and then proceeds "to
describe the types of play and the juxtaposition of games as a
formal narrative framework within which to reevaluate the world of
literary romance in this late medieval poem" (67). Stevens notes
the customary structural division of the narrative between the two
major games Gawain plays with the Green Knight/Bertilak, the
beheading contest and the exchange of gifts, and points out that
the exchange game itself consists of two analogous games:
Bertilak's hunt in the forest and his wife's hunt in the bedchamber
which "serve to contrast the life styles dictated on the one hand
by custom and on the other by conscience" (72-73). According to .
Stevens, the hunt in the forest, which emphasizes "protocol,
decorum, achievement, and vitality" (73), is true to life and to
the accepted rules of the hunt; "it ends in success for its
participants" (74). On the other hand, the lady's stalking of
Gawain in his bedchamber, which emphasizes "restraint and privacy"
(75), reverses the roles of the hunter, traditionally the man, and
the prey as laid down in the rules of courtly love; in contrast to

the other games in the poem, this one ends in failure (74).
Stevens concludes that
when the Gawain-poet inverts the courtly love cliche, he
parodies and destroys a literary game that had lost its vigor
and significance, as all cliches must by their very nature. It
is a stroke of genius, that he pairs the unproductive and
perverse temptation game with another, the hunt, which pulsates
with the ferocious intensity of real play. The contrast tells
us where the poet's sentiment lay. (75)
The only way Gawain could have won this game, or the exchange of
gifts and the beheading contest, would have been by not playing
(75), but he was prevented from making that choice by the code of
chivalry, particularly its requirements of courage and courtesy,
which he embodied.
In "Games Poets Play: The Ambiguous Use of Color Symbolism
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" Robert J. Blanch notes that,
for some critics, "the principal gomen in Gawain is the poem
itself" (67). Blanch asserts that the "sportive author plays a
color game with the audience, for the dazzling variety of color
symbols, suggestive of literary convention, ironic reversal of
tradition, and poetic ambiguity, blinds the judgement of readers
and thus effectively conceals the full scope of the narrative"
(68). In this essay he examines how Gawain, through the course of
the poem, assumes the four colors representative of both the
Yuletide season and the Green Knight--green, gold, red, and white--
and "how the poet employs color symbolism, with its playful
suggestion of role-switching, in order to tease and delude the
reader" (75). He concludes that while
color symbolism as an element of game in the poem has been
largely overlooked by modern scholars, probably because of

their overriding concern with theme and meaning, such an
element deserves important consideration. With each dab of
color from his literary palette, the Gawain-poet highlights the
poem's mysterious beautyan inner luster which elusively
defies definition.
To Blanch, as to Stevens, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is truly
a Crystemas gomen!" (85) in which the poet utilizes mythic and
religious associations of the dominant colors to play a game with
his audience.
The juxtaposition of these readings by Blanch and Stevens
of the poem as comic or playful with the serious religious
interpretations of Haines, Reichardt, and Morgan reinforces Clein's
recognition of "final indeterminacy that [is] fundamental to the
experience of reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (133).
Further exploration in this area might demonstrate that Gawain is
not as "fairly and squarely Christian" as Bloomfield supposed (14),
or, at least, not in the way he supposed.
This comic aspect of Gawain did not, in Bloomfield's eyes,
exclude it from classification as a romance since "not all romances
are straightforward tales of adventure, or rich pageantries of
chivalry, or even religious quests, but some indeed are at one and
the same time witty, ironical, and religious. Such a one is, I
believe, Sir Gawain" (16). He suggested further "that romance is
not a simple genre but a highly complex one and that there are many
varieties of romance." Despite Bloomfield's extension of this
classification beyond narratives "which concentrate on testing a

hero" to include sub-types of "comic as well as serious, religious
as well as amorous, psychological as well as objective, episodic as
well as tightly organized" romances (17), both Finlayson and Reed
place Gawain outside the category of the conventional romance.
John Finlayson, in "The Expectations of Romance in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight" (1979), notes that Gawain exhibits
most of the characteristics of the "more or less agreed paradigm"
of the romance in which a knight goes forth to seek adventure or
fulfill an accepted mission, usually encountering other adventures
along the way (1). However, according to Finlayson, the Gawain-
poet "exploits in a very self-conscious way his audience's literary
awareness that the romance is 'not a simple genre,"' as Bloomfield
recognized, but consists of various sub-types which usually
emphasize adventure or adventure and love. The poet arouses the
audience's expectations of the romance by manipulating the plot and
"the rituals of romance" and then intentionally disappoints those
expectations (3-4). For example, the audience would expect Gawain
to survive his encounter with the Green Knight by some means, but,
rather than Gawain's life being saved through the power of a
magical token--the girdleas the audience would anticipate,
ironically "it is suggested that, had it not been for the girdle,
he might have escaped scot-free" (20). The poet's "self-conscious
manipulation of romance conventions . pushes romance to or
beyond its limits, since the power of romance depends upon the
conventions not being doubted." Thus, in Gawain not only are the
knight's chivalric virtues being tried, but the fictional

conventions in which they are enshrined are tested as well. And,
as Gawain is found wanting, so is the genre (23-24), according to
In 1988, though, in an article titled '"Bo|3e Blysse and
Blunder': Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Debate
Tradition," Thomas L. Reed, Jr. questioned Bloomfield's assertion
that the "apparent obviousness of [Gawains] genre and its
combination of apparently straight-forward narrative and notable
passages of description do not lead one to suspect that complicated
problems of intention or meaning are lurking beneath its vivid and
attractive poetry" (Bloomfield 7). Reed cites illustrations from
the poem such as the pairing of conflicting symbols--the golden
shield and the green girdle (Reed 142), the paralleling of the
indoor and outdoor hunting scenes (143), and the opposing beheading
and exchange games (144) to support his contention that the poem is
"a work which is influenced by academic and, more especially, by
literary disputationa romance which so extensively incorporates
aspects of another literary genre [debate poetry] that it becomes a
kind of hybrid" (141). He demonstrates how Gawain is indebted to
certain branches of the literary debate tradition, represented by
Gawain and the Green Knight: Youth and Age, Summer and Winter,
Life and Death, Sinner and Mercy (148-49). Because "the poet
generally refuses to resolve either semantic dilemmas or the
various implicit and explicit debates which fill out the body of
the poem" (150), Reed argues that the poem's "generic affiliations

allow for a reading which lets ambiguity and ambivalence stand as
desirable literary goals" (141).
Both Finlayson and Reed argue that in Gawain the poet
consciously manipulates his audience by arousing certain
expectations connected with a specific genre, either the romance or
the debate, and then failing to fulfill them. In this way, the
poem, like most great poetry, is about poetry. But these two
critics have merely scratched the surface of genre criticism of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, raising questions of the validity and
utility of rigid generic classification, particularly of "great"
literature. After all, isn't his (or her) ability to transcend
such conventions a hallmark of a great artist?
Unlike some of his other suggestions for areas of further
study which have received insufficient attention, such as comic and
game elements in the poem or its genre, Bloomfield's call for a
close investigation of Gawain's structure has received numerous
responses. Paul Reichardt, for example, in "A Note on Structural
Symmetry in Gawain and the Green Knight (1971) discusses the
existence of symmetry and balance on "at least three structural
levels" of Gawain: 1) the narrative level at which characters and
events are paired "to evoke impressions of correspondence and
contrast"; 2) the symbolic level at which Gawain's shield and the
Green Knight's girdle are similarly paired; 3) "the level of
narrative causality" at which the Virgin Mary and Morgan le Fay--

"who, although mentioned only rarely in the text of the poem, seem
to exercize extensive control over the elements of the plot"--are
paired as the supernatural patronesses of the poem's central male
characters representing the contrasted values of the two female
figures (280). According to Reichardt, this supernatural conflict
provides the plot with a "larger and more solemn dimension . .
which is obscured when the poem's structural symmetry is restricted
to the balance and contrast of individual narrative incidents"
(281). Other critics, though, directly address Bloomfield's main
concern about the structure of the poem: the neglect of the manu-
script divisions in Gawain which he considered "characteristic of
the refusal of much scholarship and criticism to come to grips with
our poem" (17).
Bloomfield thought that there was "a good case for dividing
the work into nine divisions" corresponding to the nine large
initial capitals in the manuscript (17). Howard, on the other
hand, considered that he himself had laid this idea to rest in his
article on "Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain" (31). This
"notion" of the significance of the formal divisions in the poem,
however, has subsequently been resurrected by several critics,
including Dendinger and Blenkner.
Lloyd Dendinger, in a 1970 essay titled "The Dynamic
Structural Balance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," compares
the traditional four-fitt division of the poem with a
"hypothetical" three-part structure suggested by D. J. B. Randall's
diagram of the poem's structure where the second part begins with

the first evening's festivities at Hautdesert when Bertilak
suggests the exchange game and the third with Gawain's departure to
find the Green Chapel. Thus, parts one and three form a chiasmic
frame consisting of the destruction of Troy, the settling of
Britain by Brutus, the court celebrations at Camelot and
Hautdesert, the beheading scenes, and Gawain's rides to seek the
chapel built around the three days of huntingindoor as well as
outdoorat Bertilak's castle (367-68). Dendinger notes that the
nine large capitals in the manuscript give some support to this
hypothetical structure with the oversized capitals at lines 763
(where Gawain first sees the castle) and 1893 (where Gawain leaves
the castle) setting off part two, Gawain's sojourn at Hautdesert
(373). Dendinger considers this pattern "to give more emphasis to
the Temptation plot and ... to suggest a perhaps somewhat
mechanical insertion of the Temptation plot into the body of the
Challenge plot." On the other hand, the division into four fitts
underscores the successful fusing of the two plots into "'an
effective and original whole'" for which the poem has been
acclaimed (371). While confessing that a decision for either
argument would have to be made arbitrarily (377), Dendinger does
maintain that "the distinguishing structural characteristic of Sir
Gawain is its sense of unity and balance without mechanical arti-
ficiality" such as the three-part pattern emphasizes. In his
words, "in the poem itself the lines of the frame disappear and the
artificial balance becomes a dynamic or dramatic one" (374).

Decisively supporting the traditional four-fitt division of
the poem, Louis Blenkner, in his essay on "Sin, Psychology, and the
Structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1977), relates
Gawain's structure to the qualities necessary to overcome the three
punishments inflicted on mankind by Adam's sin (357)fortitude,
prudence, and humilityand the five virtues specific to Gawain
fraunchyse and fela-^schyp, martial virtues governing relations with
men; clannes and cortaysye, courtly virtues governing relations, or
lack of them, with women; and pite, a religious virtue governing
relations with God (piety) and neighbor (pity) (384). Blenkner
maintains that the manuscript divisions reveal a structure con-
sisting of a prologue which establishes the "secular milieu" and
Gawain's test and a three-part adventure which narrates the
knight's journey through the wilderness to Hautdesert and the Green
Chapel. Gawain's two covenants or tests, the beheading game with
the Green Knight and the exchange game with Bertilak, are
"interleaved" in an identical, straightforward pattern: "the
covenant is made; the test is carried forward in the three
divisions of the following fitt; it is then interrupted by a unit
of the other test; and, finally, it is concluded in a division of
Fitt IV" (356). Blenkner's outline of the poem relates the testing
of Gawain's virtues to the nine divisions of the manuscript:
Fitt I. Prologue in Camelot (Beheading Covenant sworn with
Fitt II. Fortitude constrains couardise before mortality in
A. Preparation for journey recounted in corporeal
seasons, spiritual society, divine mass
B. Fraunchyse confirmed in Wilderness

C. Felagschyp confirmed in Hautdesert (Exchange
Covenant sworn with trawbe)
Fitt III. Prudence resists concupiscence or couetyse in Human
A. Clannes defended on day of does
B. Cortaysye (as well as clannes) defended on days of
boar and fox
C. Vntrawbe revealed in false exchange
Fitt IV. Humility vanquishes ignorance and vntrawbe through
A. Pite confirmed in guide's temptation
Trawbe as chivalric leute confirmed at Green Chapel
B. Pite confirmed in penance
Trawbe as divine wisdom or humility bestowed by
Green Knight. (385-86)
According to Blenkner, the Green Knight "restores not only his own
head, but the fallen Gawain as well" (387). However, viewing the
Green Knight as the fallen Gawain's redeemer, which Blenkner does,
would necessitate regarding Morgan's henchman as a Christ-figure,
an unlikely association for this obviously mythical and magical
character. Blenkner also errs in discounting the significance of
numerical criticism and its application to literature of various
periods and genres, particularly the "attempts to discover numero-
logical clues to the structure of this romance [Gawain]" (354) by
critics like Hieatt, Kasmann, and Metcalf.
A. Kent Hieatt's essay on "Sir Gawain: Pentangle, Luf-
lace, Numerical Structure" was published in 1970 in Alastair
Fowler's collection Silent Poetry: Essays in Numerological
Analysis. Hieatt introduces his discussion of the numerical
structure of Gawain by comparing it to that of Pearl. Both poems,
as has often been observed, have 101 stanzas. Since Pearl's
stanzas consist of twelve lines each, the concluding line of the
poem, which echoes the first line, is number 1212. The number

twelve repeated in the final line, in Hieatt's words, "is
undoubtedly the most important one in the narrative of the poem:
the Heavenly Jerusalem is built upon manifold units of 12s (length,
breadth, foundations, trees, etc.) and the procession of virgins
and innocents numbers 144,000." In Gawain, though the stanzas are
of varying length, the echo of the opening line occurs in line
2525at least in the modern editions. The appearance and
repetition of 25 in this line reiterates the significance assigned
to this number by the poet in relating Gawain's five-by-five
virtues to the pentangle which he bears (122). Hieatt concludes
the identity in the number of stanzas, and the significant
numbers 1212 and 2525 in the totals of lines through the
echoing lines in Pearl and Sir Gawain, establish a very strong
likelihood that their author intended the observed numerical
patterns to have significance. (123)
In addition, based on the positions of the decorated initials in
the manuscript, Hieatt proposes the following pattern of stanzas
within the four fitts of the poem but was "unable to offer a fully
satisfactory explanation" for it (124): first fitt, 21; second,
6 + 6 + 6 + 6; third, 11 + 11 + 11 + 1; fourth, 21+1 (133). He
does, however, suggest that since each of the numbers (6, 11, 21,
101) is a multiple of five plus one (6 = 5 + 1; 11 = (2 x 5) + 1;
21 = (4 x 5) + 1; 101 = (20 x 5) + 1) they signify the imperfection
(in exceeding the perfection of the number five and the related
pentangle) connected with the girdle, the luf-lace, Gawain accepts
from the lady (131).

Following Hieatt's lead, Hans Kasmann proceeds to consider
"the possibility of the poet's having used a technique of numerical
composition elsewhere in [Gawain]" (131) in his essay on "Numerical
Structure in Fitt III of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1974).
After objecting to Hieatt's analysis of the third fitt, Kasmann
presents his own perception of structural pattern in this fitt
based on his assumption that "the poet made use of numerological
patterns, though mainly as a method of composition and, as it
seems, without any symbolic significance" (133). Working with
individual lines instead of complete stanzas as Hieatt had, Kasmann
divides the fitt into twelve passages, three days of four
alternating scenes of Bertilak's hunt in the forest and his wife's
in the castle, framed by seven-line (11. 1126-32, 1991-7) bridge

first day hunt 11. 1133-78 46
castle 1179-1318 140
hunt 1319-64 46 279 lines
castle 1365-1411 47
second day hunt 1412-68 57
castle 1469-1560 92
hunt 1561-1618 58 276
castle 1619-87 69
third day hunt 1688-1730 43
castle 1731-1893 163
hunt . 1894-1923 30 303
castle 1924-90 67
Kasmann determines that, since the same number of lines are used in
narrating both the first day's hunting scenes with only one more
for the account of the evening's exchange, the "poet must have been
counting his lines" to arrive at the exact ratio of two to one for
the total lines from the first two scenes (46 + 140 = 186) to the
total lines from the second two scenes (46 + 47 = 93;

93 x 2 = 186). On the second day the number of lines describing
the two hunting scenes and the evening's exchange
(57 + 58 + 69 = 184) is exactly twice the number of lines used in
that day's temptation scene (92 x 2 = 184). He is unable, though,
to discover "a similar overall principle of numerical composition
[underlying] the description of the third day" (137). Kasmann
concludes that his analysis of the first two days shows
with considerable certainty that the author of [Gawain] has
availed himself of the techniques of numerical composition
though not, as Hieatt suggested, through the use of symbolic
numbers that stand in relation to the content of the poem. The
poet's purpose was primarily aesthetic. He aimed at giving the
narrative of Fitt iii a compositional symmetry based on simple
numerical proportions. It remains to be seen whether similar
techniques were made use of in other parts of the poem.
Nevertheless, as Kasmann himself admits, his "argument would of
course be much more conclusive if it could offer a satisfactory
analysis for the third day" (138).
Kasmann's argument would also.have been much more
conclusive had he related the numerical structure to the content of
the poem as Allan Metcalf does in his essay on "Gawain's Number,"
published in Caroline Eckhardt's 1980 collection of Essays in the
Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature. In this essay Metcalf
recounts his observations that "the form of the story, the poetic
framework, is fundamentally a matter of [the symbolic fives] and
25s" (143). He notes, as did Hieatt, that at stanza 101 the
average stanza length is an exact multiple of the symbolic 25 with
a remainder of 5, but, because the stanza length varies "so greatly
and irregularly" through the poem (from 12 lines plus the bob and
wheel to 37 plus the bob and wheel), this appropriate resolution

"conies as something of a surprise." He observes a portent of this
earlier in the poem, "at a place of great structural importance":
at the end of the second fitt, just as Gawain is about to begin his
test, stanza 45 is ended on line 1125 (45 x 25), making the average
stanza length 25 lines. Arguing that the five-line bob and wheel
is Gawain's "signature" (145), Metcalf proposes that the last five
extra lines of the poem
might be seen as Gawain's final signature, an assertion that he
has passed his test. But the last bob and wheel may also be an
assertion that Gawain has stepped a little beyond the bounds of
perfection. One metrical unit of [five] lines beyond the exact
average of 25 lines per stanza may indicate here, as one-too-
many does elsewhere in number symbolism, a transgression.
Finally, Metcalf remarks that by the end of the second fitt as
Gawain is about to face his temptation, he "is undergoing a change
in his name." Until Christmas Eve when Gawain enters Bertilak's
castle, his name invariably has only five letters, though the
spelling varies: Gauan (three times), Gawan (seventeen times),
Gawen (twice), and WaWan (twice). His name occurs in five-letter
variations two dozen times before the first six-letter spelling,
Gawayn. The five-letter occurrences gradually decrease in
frequency and the six-letter ones increase over the next 650 lines.
From there on his name is always spelled with six or occasionally
seven letters (with only one exception very near the end of the
poem). The six-letter Gawayn is the most frequent spelling,
occurring more than 40 times after it first appears. Metcalf
concludes: "One might argue that adding a y = i_ = 1 to the perfect
5 of the hero's name parallels the course of temptation that

gradually leads him to his downfall, as 1 added to perfection can
symbolize transgression (150-1). He fails, though, to consider the
possibility that these spelling variations were due to the scribe's
idiosyncracies rather than the poet's intention.
Like Hieatt and Kasmann, Metcalf based his numerical
analysis of Gawain on the lineation in modern editions of the poem
where the bob has been accorded a separate line between the last
long alliterative line and the rhyming wheel. As W. Bryant
Bachman, Jr. points out in his 1980 note on "Lineation of the Bobs
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," there is no manuscript
authority for this editorial lineation^. in the Cotton Nero
manuscript the bob always occurs to the right of an existing line,
usually one of the last two long alliterative lines or one of the
first two lines of the wheel (86). Thus Gawain's arming scene in
the second fitt, lines 566 to 670 in the modern editions making 104
lines, is actually 100 lines long in the manuscript; this may be a
coincidence, "but if so it is fortuitous since the poet is clearly
trying in this passage to establish Gawain's perfection as a
Christian knight" (87).^ In addition, line 1920 of the current
editions, a wheel line, appears in the manuscript to the right of
line 1919. So, subtracting the 101 bobs and this wheel line from
the total given in most editions, "there is manuscript authority
for only 2428 lines in this poem [2530 102 = 2428], and that
would make the echoing line fall at 2424," twice the number of
lines in Pearl (88), rather than at 2525.

As a result, the echoing line in Gawain does not fall, as
Hieatt observes, at the line which would reinforce Gawain's
relationship with the numbers five and 25. The neat numerical
proportions Kasmann sees in the third fitt are likewise unsupported
in the lineation of the original manuscript:
Modern Editions Manuscript
first day hunt 46 43
castle 140 134
hunt 46 279 lines 45 265 lines
castle 47 43
second day hunt 57 54
castle 92 87
hunt 58 276 54 260
castle 69 65
third day hunt 43 41
castle 163 155
hunt 30 303 27 287
castle 67 64
For example, the number of lines in the first two scenes of the
first day (43 + 134 = 177) is not twice the number of those in the
second two scenes (2 x (45 + 43) = 176). Also, unfortunately for
Metcalf, in the original manuscript the second fitt ends at line
1080 (23 x 33 x 5), not 1125 the multiple of 25 (3^ x 53).
Though still following the lineation of the modern
editions, Michael Robertson is able to avoid his predecessors'
pitfalls by basing his numerical study of Gawain on the poem's
stanzaic groupings rather than its lineation. In his 1982 article
on "Stanzaic Symmetry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,"
Robertson begins with the traditional divisions of Gawain in which
forty-four of the stanzas are separated into groups of eleven
(785). From these he logically reconstructs "a system of division
into groups of eleven stanzas for the poem as a whole":

1-11 12-22 23 24-34 35-45 46-56 57-67 68-78 79 80-90 91-101
22 1 11 11 11 11 11 1 22
Number of Stanzas Per Section (780)
Robertson maintains that the scribe had inadvertently altered a
system of manuscript division which he did not understand and
contended that this argument was "stronger, and more consistent,
than the argument that three of the divisions are intentional and
have the author's authority, while five of them are, by contrast,
not 'systematically planned1" (785), in Tolkien and Gordon's words
which expressed the traditional view of the five smaller capitals
in the manuscript (779). According to Robertson, these elevens in
the structure of the poem, like the total of 101 stanzas, are
significant because in medieval number philosophy the number eleven
symbolized transgression or sin by going beyond the perfection of
the number ten, as 101 "transgresses beyond measure' in exceeding
the perfection of 100" (784); these numbers relate directly to
Gawain who "transgresses through his courtesy, fails precisely from
perfection" (785).
While these critics have provided a great deal of insight
into Gawain's structure, as well as its substance, much work in
this area remains to be done and, unfortunately, redone based on
the lineation of the manuscript rather than modern editions--some
of which will be attempted in Chapter II, particularly in relation

to the poem's ambiguity which critics like Clein and Reed are just
beginning to recognize.
At the same time he criticized the critics for ignoring the
manuscript divisions, Bloomfield noted the lack of close
examinations of the diction of the poem (17), thereby moving his
essay full circle to the philological studies with which he began.
Clark, Wade, and Zimmermann have helped to fill this void.
In her article "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Its
Artistry and Its Audience" (1971), Cecily Clark examines how the
GaWain-poet achieved the lauded realism of the poem through his use
of simple, colloquial diction as well as the technical vocubulary
of chivalry. She also investigates the poet's "cunning
exploitation of the 'formulaic' technique of his medium ... to
point by means of verbal echoes the connections between the various
episodes of his story" (13). These techniques, she maintains,
helped invest Gawain with the realism and emotional immediacy for
which it has been praised (10).
In "An Analysis of the Similes and Their Function in the
Characterization of the Green Knight" (1986), Sidney Wade studies
the occurrence of similes in Gawain, "a relatively untried
rhetorical device [since] the simile was not traditionally used in
Old or Middle English literature," he explains. Of the twenty-two
uses of the device in the poem, sixteen are employed in describing
the Green Knight, or Bertilak, and his world. Eight of the similes

compare the Green Knight and/or his domain to natural phenomena,
the other eight, to civilization (376), thereby, as Wade observes,
emphasizing the essentially paradoxical nature of the Green
Knight's character (375). They also serve to highlight "the
antithetical nature of several of the thematic contrasts evident in
the work, in their own comparatively small way, and assist in the
stylistic unification of the poem as a whole" (381).
In 1973 Rudiger Zimmermann finally made the study, which
Bloomfield had specifically suggested, of "the poet's curious use
of tenses" (18), a peculiarity apparent to any careful reader of
Gawain in the original language. Zimmermann examines instances of
"the poet's shifting from preterite to perfect or to narrative
present, from the active to the passive voice, and from the indica-
tive to the subjective mood" in "Verbal Syntax and Style in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight." His intention is to demonstrate that
these shifts are "of outstanding structural importance." He
determines that the poet used the preterite tense primarily in
narration and direct discourse, the perfect primarily in direct
discourse (533), and the narrative present primarily in narration
to contrast between persons (537), to contrast between main action
and Setting, to resume narration after direct discourse, and to
introduce new dramatic elements or change scene (538). He also
observes that, while infrequently used, the passive voice was
employed in mass scenes, "above all in the recording of the hunts
and in the description of courtly events." Finally, he remarks
that the poet used the subjunctive mood almost exclusively in

direct discourse (540). From these observations Zimmermann
concludes, as had Clark and Wade, that the Gawain-poet was "a
highly conscious artist, who . not only succeeded in giving
his poem an elaborate structure, but also in utilizing an inventory
of linguistic means to create an admirable balance of form and
content" (543).14
However, while Bloomfield himself ignored the range of
possibilities for productive linguistic and poetic studies of
Gawain at levels between the individual word and the poem's overall
structure, fortunately, other critics have not. Toshio Nakao
helped to meet this need with his essays on alliterative patterns,
metrics, and syntax in the poem. And, following in the footsteps
of such scholars as Marie Borroff and Larry D. Benson whose treat-
ments of style ('Sir Gawain and the Green Knight': A Stylistic and
Metrical Study and Art and Tradition in 'Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight' respectively) which Howard reviewed in his survey of Gawain
criticism (31-34), critics like Stillings have studied metrical
issues in Gawain, with some interesting results.
Justine Stillings, in "A Generative Metrical Analysis of
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1976), investigates how modern
metrical theories might be applied to Gawain and determines that
such theories do not elucidate the poem's metrical system (219-20).
Stillings concludes that 1) Gawain "is written in syllabotonic
meter" with the short rhymed lines "written in iambic feet and the
long alliterative lines in anapestic feet"; 2) the Gawain-poet had,
as part of his poetic style, a set of five metrical base rules

which permitted him to generate deviations from the basic
syllabotonic meters which he employed"; 3) the wheel lines "contain
not only a fixed basic number of syllables per foot, but a fixed
number of feet per line in the trimeter pattern"; and 4) the
alliterative lines "contain a fixed basic number of syllables per
foot, but a free number of feet per line, ranging from two to five
or six." She summarizes her findings as follows:
Syllabies/Foot Feet/Line
Old English free within limits; no free within limits;
meter fixed-syllable foot depending only on
number of strong
stress per line
Gawain long fixed at three but
lines allowing extensive
deviation; the basic
foot is wwS
free within limits of
the number of strong
stresses, but with a
tendency toward four
fixed at two and
allowing little
deviation; the basic
foot is wS
fixed at five
Thus, Gawain "is obviously a transitional poem" between Old English
meter and modern iambic pentameter (241-42), but, of course, the poet
could not have known that.
However, while critics have examined the overall structure and
the metrical lines of the poem in some detail, a close examination of
the stanza, like that recommended by Dendinger, has not been made:
"The study of the stanza in detail, particularly of the use of rhyme
and of the tendency to write in patterns which resemble quatrain,
should be an interesting and valuable study" (377). Also, results of
a search for rhetorical devices in the poem, whether positive or
negative, would be of interest. Perhaps, as Philippa Moody asserts

In her discussion of "The Problems of Medieval Criticism" (I960), the
focus on philological and historical studies, such as those stressed
by Bloomfield^ and obviously preferred by many later critics, has
"prevented a true recognition of the value of [medieval] poetry as
poetry" (Moody 94). This appears to be the case with Gawain.
In summary, much profitable work remains to be done--a
necessity belied by the current lull in criticism of the poem. In
particular, critics still need to examine the Gawain-poet's applica-
tion of fourteenth-century rhetorical principles, his incorporation
of primitive myth and religion, and his use of number symbolism in
the poem--as it appears in the original manuscript, not in modern
editions. However, the majority of Bloomfield's hopes for further
study of Gawain have been at least partially fulfilled and have added
greatly to our understanding of the poem, but his list of "complexi-
ties and puzzles" contained in the poem may not be complete. As
critics in the last three decades have come to realize, Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight is not the "relatively uncomplicated . and
masterfully presented obvious poem" which it was once considered to
be (7; emphasis added).

*Due to space and time constraints, studies of Gawain
specifically will be considered rather than examinations of broader
concerns, such as philology or "the meaning of the 'alliterative
revival' in fourteenth-century England" and "the significance of the
later flowering of Arthurian romance in England," which Bloomfield
recommended (10), and all of which bear consideration in relation to
^1 dreede at my maister Massy,
(Dat is of fructuous intelligence,
When he beholdith how unconnyngly
My book is metrid, how raw my sentence
How feeble eek been my colours, his prudence
Shal sore encombrid been of my folie;
But yit truste I, |Dat his benevolence
Compleyne wole.myn insipience
Secreetly, and what is mis, rectifie.
Thow book, by licence of my lordes grace,
To thee speke I, and this I to thee seye:
I charge thee, to shewe thow thy face
Beforn my seid Mai stir, and to him preye
On my behalye, t>at he peise and weye
What myn entente is, pat I speke in thee,
For rethorik hath hid fro me the keye
Of his tresor, nat deyneth hir nobleye
Dele with noon so ignorant as me!
(Nolan and Farley-Hills 301)
^According to Greenwood the link-word "mascellez/maskelles"
in section thirteen of Pearl "is a pun on the surname of both poet
and dead child." He translated line 757, "To bye hym a perle watz
mascellez," as "to buy him a Margery that was a Mascy." He also
pointed out that the same pun is used in the coat of arms of the
Mascies of Sale. Nolan and Farley-Hills added in support of
Greenwood's theory that according to the O.E.D. the word "masciless,
maskellez" is unique to Pearl, suggesting a special use (295).
4This same method when applied to Gawain (either as it is
lineated in the manuscript or as it appears in modern editions) seems
to be unproductive.
$As twelve, six, eighteen, and 144 can be seen in the numbers
Nolan selected (12, 120, 1,020, 1,212; 60, 600, 660; etc.), these are
numbers in which the six and twelve actually appear, as opposed to

sums or products of the two.
fyiuch of the Merlin legend to which Long refers was collected
in the Vulgate Cycle, ca. 1215-35 (Lacy 610-13).
7In his article, Howard maintains that in 1965 Larry Benson
discredited this theory that Erkenwald was written by the (assumed)
common author of the other four poems (30). Other critics apparently
do not consider this matter settled.
This column totaling the occurrences in the first three
poems was not in Tajima's original table.
9Taj ima did not include the number of lines in each poem, for
reasons which should become apparent.
In the manuscript Gawain has 2428 lines; only in modern
editions does it appear with 2530. In the manuscript the.bobs are
placed to the right of one of the last long alliterative lines of the
stanza or one of the first lines of the wheel; in addition the second
and third wheel lines of stanza 76 occur on one line.
10Taj ima indicated that this occurrence is questionable.
UTajima did not total the occurrences for each poem.
l^See Chapter II, page 80.
l^The number ten, as well as any of its powers (100, 1000,
and so on), was considered to represent totality and perfection
because of its scriptural connections with the Ten Commandments, the
ten virgins, the ten pieces of silver (Hopper 69-70, Peck 62).
^Contrary to Bloomfield's suggestion of a "comic or humorous
intention" in Gawain (15-16), Zimmermann asserts that his evidence
appears "to be sufficient to show that the comic interpretation
proposed by some scholars cannot be backed with regard to Gawain from
the stylistic point of view" (543).
l^Both Bloomfield and Moody distinguish between scholarship
(philological, historical, and source studies) and criticism.
Bloomfield apparently privileges the former:
In recent years, we find, as is general at present, a heavy
shift of interest towards criticism of the poem and towards a
stress on its meaning and structure.
We are all so busy appreciating poems today that we tend to
neglect philology, upon the basis of which everything which may
be drawn from literary documents rests. Philology must remain
the basis of all sound literary work or we shall end in a morass
of subjectivism. It was just this subjectivism and impressionism
which led in the late nineteenth century to the application of
positivism to literary study. To avoid the swing of the pendulum
between a soulless objectivity and a pure subjectivity, we must

at present stress the value of philological study, especially of
the older literature. (7)
Moody, on the other hand, felt that "once the texts were more
or less established, the critic [should] simply emancipate himself
from the scholar at least sufficiently to get on with his proper
concern with the texts as works of art" (97):
The discussion of sources and the concentration on glossary
meaning are two instances of the deflection of attention that
usually characterizes the scholar's approach. In effect, they
are the extremities of his perennial anxiety to place a work in
its historical and sociological context and not to treat it as
literature. For the scholar, the "historical estimate" (in
Arnold's sense) is the fact, and if he wishes to establish value
he will take that estimate as his yardstick. An emphasis of this
kind may not preclude critical appreciation and judgment, but it
is hardly enough in itself; a great poem cannot be accurately
estimated in terms of its historical relations because an
essential part of its greatness is its ability to transcend that
context. (96)
Unfortunately, with Gawain, as noted earlier, the existence
of so many editions of the poem indicates that few scholars or
critics consider the text of the poem to be absolutely established.
How long can or should critics wait to generate "a criticism adequate
to the literature" (Moody 94)?

One trend in recent Gawain criticism became apparent from
this survey: a tendency among contemporary critics of Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight to employ terms such as "ambivalence," "open-
endedness," "indeterminacy," "paradox," "enigma," "dilemma,"
"debate," "irony," or "ambiguity" in describing or discussing the
poem, particularly its conclusion--or lack thereof. For example,
Wendy Clein is forced to conclude that contradictory readings of
the poem result not from critics' misinterpretations of Gawain but
rather from the "final indeterminacy," the "open-endedness" (133;
emphasis added) of a poem which "investigates the paradoxes of
fourteenth century chivalry" (ix; emphasis added). W. R. J. Barron
also determines that Gawain ends "not with resolution but implica-
tion, not with a pat solution confirming chivalric values . but
in an enigma challenging reconsideration of their validity" (142;
empahsis added). And Thomas L. Reed, Jr., argues that the poem's
"generic affiliations allow for a reading which lets ambiguity and
ambivalence stand as desirable literary goals" (141; emphasis
added). In addition, the very existence of so many contradictory
readings of the poem, all defensible, supports the observation by
these and other critics of the poem's essential ambiguity.

In Seven Types of Ambiguity William Empson defines
ambiguity as "any verbal nuance . which gives room for
alternative reactions to the same piece of language" (1). Reed
finds room for such alternative reactions in classifying the poem
as both romance and debate. Various other critics, including some
who refuse to recognize the poem's "final indeterminacy"--to adopt
Clein's apt phrase, have discovered examples of ambiguity at
various levels within the poem: in the diction and syntax, charac-
terization, and symbolism, particularly the number symbolism which
is incorporated into the form and the content of Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight.
A number of these critics note examples of Empson's first
type of ambiguity, what he terms the "fundamental situation,
whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, [where] a word
or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once"
(2) which "machinations are among the very roots of poetry" (3).
For example, Gawain's discovery of "A caste! be comlokest bat euer
kny3t a3te, / Pyched on a prayere [a meadow], a park al aboute"!
(11. 767-68; emphasis added) is a direct result of his "prayere" to
Mary for some shelter where he might hear mass on Christmas Day
(11. 753-62) (Vantuono, 'Pearl' Poems 2:283). And critics
generally agree on the existence, if not the degree, of sexual
suggestion in the words "tale" and "cors" in the lady's generous
offer to Gawain in lines 1235 through 1237: "I schal ware my whyle
wel, quyl hit lastez, / with tale. / 3e ar welcum to my cors";
however, William Vantuono and Norman Davis's belief "that 'body'

would not be the primary meaning here because 'so crude an offer is
ill suited to this early stage of the lady's courtship of Gawain"1
seems more likely than Israel Gollanz's inference that the lady's
bluntness stems from "her inexperience in such a role" (2:305-6).
(Could "cors" be a scribal error for "cor," "heart"?) A further
instance of such word-play may be found in line 1550 where "wo3e"
may appropriately be rendered as either "woo"/"make love" or
"wrong"/ "sin" since Gawain's "wooing" would result in "sin"
("woe"): "For to haf wonnen hym to W03e, what-so scho b3t ellez"
(2:318). In addition, the words "for luf" in line 1733 might mean
"on (his) account," or they might refer to the lady's feelings of
love for Gawain: "Bot be lady for luf let not to slepe" (2:325).
By ignoring the emendation by Davis and others of "non" to
"mon" (Vantuono, 'Pearl' Poems 2:368) to eliminate the double
negative in line 2511, Victor Haines sees the poet poking fun at
Gawain in the knight's final speech "by making him speak with
dramatic irony in an unwitting pun on 'vnhap'--'unfasten' or
'mishap'" (97), another example of grammatical ambiguity:
"bis is be token of vntrawbe bat I am tan inne,
And I mot nede3 hit were wyle I may last;
For non may hyden his harme, bot vnhap ne may hit,
For ber hit one3 is tachched twynne wil hit neuer."
(11. 2509-12)2
Haines translates the moral which Gawain is trying to communicate
to the court as "'Once you sin you're stuck with the harm and
injury of that sin forever, so sooner or later people will find out
about it, as I know. You can't hide it, so you might as well admit
it. Therefore, I must wear this emblem of the guilty scar I bear

in my neck"1 (96). According to Haines, Gawain, using the double
negative (a common construction in Middle English) for emphasis,
obviously intends to say "'For no one may hide his offence, but he
cannot unfasten it1" since he picks up on the meaning of "vnhap" as
"unfasten" with "twynne" in the following line. However, in the
Christian context in which Haines firmly places the poem he alter-
nately interprets "vnhap" as a noun meaning "mishap" or "misfor-
tune" and "hit" as the verb "befall"; thus Gawain is also saying
"'No one can hide his harm unless misfortune may befall1"--that is,
he is fortunate that the Green Knight exposed his fault and
provided him with the opportunity to confess his sin and do penance
for it (97).
Haines also discusses at great length the several
grammatical ambiguities in the opening lines of Gawain:
Siben (ae sege and be assaut watz sesed at Troye
be bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez
l^e tulk |jat be trammes of. tresoun ber wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie be trewest on erthe
Hit watz Ennias be athel and his highe kynde
bat siben depreced prouinces and patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al be wele in be west iles. (11. 1-7)3
First, who is "be tulk bet be trammes of tresoun ber wro3t"? As
Haines demonstrates, members of a medieval audience would have
thought of both Aeneas and Antenor, both of whom "were well enough
known in mediaeval tradition as traitors" (39-40). Only two lines
later does the narrator^ finally explain that "Hit watz Ennias be
athel," ironically linking the known traitor with the noble men who
founded Western Europe.

Second, what is the antecedent of the phrase "^e trewest on
erthe"? It could modify either "tulk" or "tricherie." In
addition, as Haines points out, the phrase has two possible
meanings: "a) the truest in fact, the veriest and best example, or
b) the truest, as most full of truth and goodness." Thus, there
are four possible readings for lines 3 and 4 (41). In sense
a) either the "tulk" or his "tricherie" is the best example of its
kind on earth, or in sense b) either the traitor or his treason is
the "most full of truth and goodness" because after the fall of
Troy Aeneas "and his highe kynde" went forth to settle "in t>e west
iles," a happy circumstance for the inhabitants of Britain (42).
Haines considers the oxymoronic sense of the "truest traitor" in
this ambiguous passage to reflect the inherent tension within the
idea of "felix culpa" or fortunate fall which he views as the
primary theme of the poem (43). He feels that this introductory
allusion to the good resulting from Aeneas' "tricherie" anticipated
the ethical situation developed in the body of the poem (40-1).
Third, how was the "tulk," whether Aeneas or Antenor,
"tried for his tricherie"? Haines sees here an oxymoron similar to
that in the second half of the line, "tried" meaning
"distinguished, famous" versus "tried" meaning "tried judicially,"
which also reinforces his reading of the poem (43), serving, in his
words, to bring "the mind into sympathy with the concept of the
felix culpa (45). This wordplay in the opening lines sensitizes
the audience to further instances of ambiguity in Gawain,

particularly the poet's equivocal treatment of his most con-
troversial character: the Green Knight.
The ambiguous nature of the mysterious challenger, which
has led to such wide disagreement among critics in interpreting
this character (Benson 62) and, consequently, the poem as a whole,
is apparent from his first appearance in Arthur's hall. The
narrator initially describes the uninvited guest as "an aghlich
mayster" (1. 136), "Half etayn in erde" (1. 140), but, on
determining that despite his size the knight is a man, he calls him
"fe myriest in his muckel joat my3t ride" (1. 142); this is
something of a left-handed compliment, though, since the narrator
has probably never seen another knight of his size.
In the following stanza, the narrator goes on to outline
the Green Knight's elegant apparel, which "uerayly watz clene
verdure" (1. 161), his tunic, mantle, and bright spurs rivaling the
raiment of any member of Arthur's court:
A strayte cote ful stre3t, fat stek on his sides,
A mere mantile abof, mensked withinne
With pelure pured apert, fe pane ful clene
With blyfe blaunner ful bry3t, and his hod bofe,
fat watz la3t fro his lokkez and layde on his schulderes;
Heme wel-haled hose of fat same,
fat spenet on his sparlyr, and clene spures vnder
Of bry3t golde, vpon silk bordes barred ful ryche. . .
(11. 152-59)
However, ironically, beneath all this finery, the knight rides
"scholes" (1. 160) in the middle of winter. Finally, the narrator
is forced to admit that describing the silken needlework with all
its details, its embroidered birds and butterflies, is beyond his
powers: "fat were to tor for to telle of tryfles fe halue / fat

were enbrauded abof, wyth bryddes and fly3es, / With gay gaudi of
grene, f)e golde ay inmyddes" (11. 165-67).
His description in the next stanza, though, is of a wild
man, with bushy beard and long hair, rather than a courtier:
Fayre fannand fax vmbefoldes his schulderes;
A much berd as a busk ouer his brest henges,
bat wyth his hi31 ich here £>at of his hed reches
Watz euesed al vmbetorne abof his elbowes,
fiat half his armes ^er-vnder were halched in |je wyse
Of a kyngez capados bat closes his swyre. . (11. 181-86)
The contrast between the two passages is emphasized by their
inconsistency. In the first of these two stanzas the knight's
mantle "watz la3t fro his lokkez and layde on his schulderes" (1.
156), while in the second "Fayre fannand fax vmbefoldes his schul-
deres" (1. 181).
On the whole, as Larry Benson observes,
Each of these . sections presents a sharp and clear visual
image, as one would expect in the work of a poet so justly
celebrated for his power of visual representation. What is
surprising in the work of such a poet is that the protrait as a
whole is significantly blurred, and it is impossible to
visualize a coherent figure of the challenger. (61)
By various methods, the Gawain-poet was able to maintain throughout
the remainder of the poem the ambiguous if not schizophrenic
character of the Green Knight/Bertilak which he created in these
For example, the narrator observes that the Green Knight
wears no helmet, hauberk, or breastplate and carries no spear or
shield. Rather, in one hand he holds a green holly bough, a token
of life and peace, and in the other his ax, an implement of death
and war (Wade 375):

Whefjer hade he no helme ne hawbergh nauber,
Ne no pysan ne no plate t>at pented to armes,
Ne no schafte ne no schelde to schwue ne to smyte,
Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe,
[)at is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare,
And an ax in his ober, a hoge and vnmete,
A spetos sparse to expoun in spelle, quoso my3t. (11. 203-9)
In addition, "al bigrauen with grene in gracios werkes[,] / A lace
lapped about . ., / Wyth tryed tasselez berto tacched innoghe /
On botounz of be bry3t grene brayden ful ryche" (11. 216-20) the ax
itself is as much a work of art as it is a deadly weapon (Benson
62), "As wel schapen to schere as scharp rasores" (1. 213).
Even the significance of the knight's color, "enker-grene"
(1. 150), is ambiguous since to a medieval audience green
represented both life and death as well as being the color of
fairies, fiends (Benson 91), and the Epiphany (Leighton 56)--al1
these associations applicable to the Green Knight. However, green
is not the only color the challenger wears. He has spurs of bright
gold (1. 159), his silk needlework has been embroidered in green
and gold (1. 167), his horse's mane is braided with gold strands
(1. 190), its tail and forelock are decorated with many gold bells
(1. 195), and the blade of his ax is made of green steel and gold
(1. 211). Thus, while his green color might obviously relate him
to nature, the gold ornamentation connects him to the artificiality
of civilization and the court (Goldhurst 62)--and to his alter ego,
Gawain's cheerful host at Hautdesert.
The Gawain-poet maintains this dichotomy by dividing the
similes he uses to describe the Green Knight/Bertilak and his world
between comparisons to natural and to artificial phenomena. For

instance, in depicting the Green Knightjs entrance into Arthur's
court the poet employs four similes, three to nature (bush, light-
ning, grass), one to artifice (green enamel on gold): the knight
has a "much berd as a busk" (1. 182), tlie knight himself "loked as
layt" (1. 199), and he and his horse are "grene as [je gres and
grener ... I f)en grene aumayl on golde glowande bry3ter" (11.
235-36). Similarly, in the second fitt, the narrator describes the
castle at Hautdesert in terms of the artificial, as appearing to be
cut out of paper, "pared out of papure purely hit semed" (1. 802),
but refers to its master in terms of the; natural, as having "Felle
face as be fyre" (1. 847) (Wade 376-78).
Finally, the essential ambiguity of this character is
manifest in his name: "Bertilak de Hautdesert." The given name is
apparently derived from an Old French verb "bercer" or "berser"
which means "to hunt," encompassing the concept of "to shoot
arrows" as well as "to strike," and a commonly used noun of the
Middle English Period "lake" or "lak," meaning in one sense
"sport," "game," "contest," or "fun" and in another "a small stream
of running water." Each of the two components of his surname had
much the same meaning in Middle English as in Old French: "haut"
as an adjective connoting "high," "lofty," or "great"; "desert" as
a noun meaning "merit," "worth," or "wilderness" (Carson 86, 88).
Most striking to the modern reader would be the paradoxical linking
of "lake" and "desert" in one name, but the medieval reader or
auditor would no doubt recognize all these associations.

Hence the Green Knight represents good and evil, life and
death, war and peace, nature and civilization, magic and Chris-
tianity, water and desert. This carefully crafted ambiguity is
apparently resolved when he "leans on his axe and chuckles good-
naturedly at the hero" and Gawain learns "that the man he thought
was a fiend is actually his friend" (Benson 92). The executioner
becomes the kindly confessor. But only after Gawain confesses and
accepts the girdle to wear as a sign of his transgression (1. 2433)
does the challenger disclose his name and the fact of his dual
identity to Gawain and the audience. And beneath Bertilak's
seemingly harmless objective, through Gawain "to assay t>e
surquidre, 31'f hit soth were / [jat rennes of |ae grete renoun of ^e
Rounde Table" (11. 2457-58), lies Morgan's real intention, as
revealed by her henchman, "to haf greued Gaynour and gart hir to
dy3e / With glopnyng of faat ilke gome fjat gostlych speked / With
his hede in his honde bifore |je hy3e table" (11. 2460-62). The
true depth of the character's ambiguity is only uncovered after the
audience's induced ambivalence toward him has died, thus
resurrecting those feelings and contributing to, or perhaps
precipitating, the indeterminacy of the "conclusion"--just as the
poem's central symbols, the pentangle and the girdle, do.
The protagonist of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not
the Gawain that members of the poet's audience would have
recognized from other romances, with his reputation
not for courtesy, chastity, and loyalty, but for courtesy,
lechery, and treachery, and they were probably puzzled to find
the narrator ignoring these vices and presenting a hero closer
to Galahad than to the Gawain of most romances. (Benson 95)

In the same way the assigned associations of the pentangle^, which
represents Gawain's virtues, within the poem are incompatible with
its conventional connections, because, as far as can be determined,
"Solomon's knot [the pentangle] is invariably . associated with
magic" (Kean 26). A somewhat less ambiguous five-pointed
(including the juncture of the cross-pieces) symbol for Gawain's
five-by-five virtues would, of course, be the cross which has
Christian as well as magical signification. The pentangle on
Gawain's shield is "much more in keeping with the magic of the
Green Knight than with the Christian and chivalrous connotations
assigned to it" (Hopper 124). Thus, the poet takes the pentangle,
a traditionally magical symbol and converts it into a Christian and
chivalric heraldic emblem.
He follows the same procedure with the Green Knight's
girdle which essentially replaces Gawain's shield, emblazoned with
the pentangle, as the emblem of his faith and his honor. Gawain
accepts the girdle from the lady because of its magical power to
preserve his life during his impending encounter at the Green
Chapel. After confessing his guilt in not giving Bertilak the
girdle as part of the third day's exchange, Gawain accepts it from
the Green Knight to wear as a sign of his sin (1. 2433). However,
on his return to Camelot, the king and the court agree that "Vche
burne of f>e bro[>erhede, a bauderyk schulde haue, / A bende abelef
hym aboute of a bry3t grene, / And [>at, for sake of [>at segge, in
swete to were" (11. 2516-18). However, does this conversion of the
two symbols indicate a purification of the magical tokens or a

corruption of those who wear them? An answer to this question
would in turn answer the question of the meaning of the poem.
The poet's use of color symbolism, as critics have
observed, is also ambiguous. As noted above, the significance of
the Green Knight's colors, green and gold, and of Gawain's, and
ultimately the whole court's, adoption of them is indeterminable.
In addition, when Gawain met his host for the exchange of the third
day's winnings,
He were a bleaunt of blwe |jat bradde to |3e er|3e,
His surkot semed hym wel (sat softe watz forred,
And his hode of (Dat ilke henged on his schulder,
Blande al of blaunner were bojDe al aboute. (11. 1928-31)
Gawain meets his host wearing blue and white, traditional colors of
the Virgin Mary, signifying faith and truth. The significance of
this particular color scheme at this point in the poem embodies the
essential ambiguity of the poem: Does Gawain, and Arthur's court
which he represents, pass or fail the test? The colors he wears
for this meeting could symbolize his passing the test of his
chastity or, ironically, his failing the test of his "trawjDe"
(Blanch, "Games" 81). The ambiguity which critics have observed in
the poet's use of color symbolism is equally evident, though
generally overlooked, in his manipulation of number symbolism, the
subject of much recent study.
Numerical studies of the poem's structure and story are an
offshoot of a more general recent interest in applying numerolog-
ical analysis to such diverse periods and genres as eighteenth-
century novels (Brooks) and Renaissance poetry (Fowler, Spenser;
Hieatt, Short Time's) and to such dissimilar poets as Dryden

(Fowler and Brooks) and the Gawain-poet (Hieatt, "Sir Gawain";
Kasmann; Metcalf; Bachman, "Lineation"; Robertson). Alastair
Fowler, a noted numerological analyst, summarized the significance
of this branch of literary criticism in Triumphal Forms:
Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry:
Numerological structure is of interest to the literary critic
not only from a historical but also from a theoretical point of
view. When he interprets numerically composed works
numerological analysis is obviously a necessary stage in the
critical process, if he is to appreciate the form with its
structural and moral emphases. Moreover, a numerological
approach will often assist the interpretation of self-referring
passages. Theoretically, the interest of numerical composition
lies in its strategic position on the borderline between form
and content. On one side, it is unquestionably formal-
continuous, in fact, with large-scale prosody. ... On the
other, it interpenetrates just as inextricably with
content. . . For numerology, however intrinsic and organic,
always springs from an author's deliberate decision. (22)
As critics like A. Kent Hieatt, Hans Kasmann, Allan Metcalf,
W. Bryant Bachman, Jr., and Michael Robertson^ have demonstrated,
the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight made such a
deliberate decision to incorporate numerology intrinsically and
organically into both the content and form of this poem. The
interest of contemporary critics in this type of analysis and their
application of it, particularly to medieval literature, is
Writers in the Middle Ages, poetic and philosophical, could
trace the authority for their use of number symbolism back to
Augustine (Hopper 98) who, along with others of the church fathers
such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Jerome
(Reiss 162), incorporates the previously pagan Platonic and Pytha-
gorean number theory into Christian theology (Peck 18, 28). In his

treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine insists that "ignorance
of numbers . causes many things expressed figuratively and
mystically in the Scriptures to be misunderstood" (51). He then
proceeds to explain
the significance of the fact that Moses, Elias, and the Lord
Himself all fasted for forty days. The knot, as it were, of
this figurative action cannot be untied without a knowledge and
consideration of this number. For it contains four tens, to
indicate the knowledge of all things involved in times. The
day and the year both run their courses in a quaternion: the
day in hours of morning, noon, evening, and night; the year in
the months of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. But while we
live in these times we should abstain and fast from temporal
delight because of the eternity in which we wish to live, for
in the very courses of time the doctrine in accordance with
which we condemn temporal things and desire the eternal is
suggested. Again, the number ten signifies a knowledge of the
Creator and the creature; for the trinity is the Creator and
the septenary indicates the creature by reason of his life and
body. For with reference to life there are three, whence we
should love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and
with all our minds; and with reference to the body there are
very obviously four elements of which it is made. Thus when
the number ten is suggested to us with reference to time, or,
that is, when it is multiplied by four, we are admonished to
live chastely and continently without temporal delight, or,
that is, to fast for forty days. (51-52)
Augustine also incorporates such signification into his own
writings. For example, The City of God is divided into twenty-two
books (the number of books in the Old Testament and the number of
letters in the Hebrew alphabet), of which ten (two groups of five)
are "devoted to refutation," suggesting possibly the Ten
Commandments or the Law of Moses, and twelve (three groups of four)
to "positive argument and exposition," appertaining perhaps to the
twelve Apostles or the Gospel of Christ (Hopper 87). Medieval
Christian writers derived the fundamental definitions of most
number symbols from Augustine's scriptural exegesis (89) based

primarily on the numbers' biblical and other generally accepted
associations. By the fourteenth century, number symbolism had so
pervaded all branches of medieval thoughtincluding theology,
science, magic (105), and artthat modern critics should have been
surprised had a consummate craftsman like the Gawain-poet not in-
tegrated numerology into the structure and substance of his
Christian poetry.
Among the poems attributed to the Gawain-poet, the most
obvious instances of such symbolic usage can be found in Pearl?
which is composed in 101 twelve-line stanzas. The number 101, like
one more than any power of the perfect number ten as in the Ten
Commandments or one hundred sheep, represents transgression,
literally "going or stepping beyond," as the dreamer does in
attempting "to start in f)e strem . / To swymme t>e remnaunt"
which separates him from Pearl and the New Jerusalem (11. 1159-
60)8. 7he number twelve with its religious connectionsas in
twelve mansions, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, and "the
spreading of the Trinity ([three]) to the [four] corners of earth"-
-represents the fullness and totality (Peck, "Number" 62) which the
Pearl-maiden has achieved in the City of God with its "bantele3
twelue on basyng boun [and] foundemente3 twelue of rich tenoun"
(11. 992-3).
As many critics have observed, Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight likewise consists of 101 stanzas again representing
transgression, "going beyond"in this case by Gawain.9 The poet
uses the related number eleven (one more than ten) as well as five

and four, which are associated directly with the poem's two title
characters, to enrich his narration of Gawain's adventure in a
manner which his medieval audience would have recognized and
appreciated. However, in Gawain the connotations of these
numbers, particularly the five which is connected with Gawain, are
not as clear as those in Pearl.
Eleven, like 101, is related to Gawain's trespass against
Bertilak and generally represents sin and transgression because it
is in excess of the unity of ten and deficient of the totality of
twelve (Peck, "Number" 62), as the sons of Jacob are reduced to
eleven from twelve when Joseph is sold into Egypt and as the
apostles become the eleven rather than the twelve when Judas hangs
himself after betraying the Savior--both circumstances resulting
from sin.
In modern editions of the poem it is at line 1111 (in
stanza 45) that Gawain concludes his agreement to Bertilak's
proposed daily exchange of winnings, the bargain that Gawain will
transgress in breaking: '"ESi God,' quob Gawayn be gode, 'I grant
bertylle, / And |jat yow lyst for to layke, lef hit me bynkes'"
(11. 1110-11). Unfortunately, as Bachman established^, since
there is no manuscript authority for the lineation in this or any
contemporary edition, the occurrence may not be significant.
However, two of the exchanges between Gawain and Bertilak take
place in stanzas numbered with multiples of eleven, number 55 (11.
1372-1401) and number 77 (11. 1922-1951) in which Gawain withholds
the girdle from Bertilak. The number seven here may also be

significant because there are seven deadly sins, most of which
Gawain commits at one time or another: pride, envy, anger, sloth,
covetousness, gluttony, and lust.
While there are no stanzas composed of eleven long lines
plus the bob and wheel, there are twelve which are composed of 22
(2 x 11) long lines. These include several stanzas in which the
action leads toward or the characters refer to Gawain's
transgression11: stanzas 18 and 19 (11. 390-443) in which Gawain
agrees to the Green Knight's terms for the challenge and takes his
stroke, stanza 60 (11. 1508-34) in which Bertilak's wife asks
Gawain for instruction in the art of love, stanza 80 (11. 1998-
2024) in which Gawain departs for the Green Chapel, stanza 89 (11.
2212-38) in which the Green Knight appears to keep their tryst,
stanza 94 (11. 2331-57) in which the Green Knight reveals his
identity and lets Gawain know that he is aware of the hero's
failure in their bargain, and stanza 98 (11. 2429-55) in which
Gawain accepts the girdle to keep "in syngne of [his] surfet"
(1. 2433).
But the number eleven is woven even more deeply into the
fabric of the poem; indeed, it is the warp through which the rest
of the threads are laced. A number of critics have noticed that
"[each] of the three days on which Gawain is subjected to the
temptations of the Lady of the Castle is depicted in eleven
stanzas" (Kasmann 132). But, as Michael Robertson asked in his
essay on "Stanzaic Symmetry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,"
Is it not odd that the poet who achieved the degree of
structural balance evident in the twenty sections and 101

stanzas of Pearl should have produced the same number of
stanzas in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but divided them
into sections of 21, 24, 34, and 22 stanzas? (779)
As noted in Chapter I, Robertson divided the poem into groups of
eleven stanzas and then considered what was to be made of the 55
(11 x 5, representing transgression and Gawain with his pentangle,
or "endless knot," respectively) stanzas at the center of the poem.
It appeared to him that "troth" and transgression are tied together
in an "endless knot." The question then arises, "Does Gawain .fail
through cowardice when he accepts the girdle from the lady in order
to save his own life, or is he true to courtesy in not refusing the
gift?" Robertson concludes that the divisions he presents
suggest that the two views of Gawain, and of the meaning of the
poem as a whole, are inextricably linked. The total number of
stanzas, 101, "transgress beyond measure" in exceeding the
perfection of 100; but the number of the last long line, 2525,
represents the incorruptible five. Gawain transgresses through
his courtesy, fails precisely from perfection; the poem itself,
we may suggest, points to the [endless knot] of real moral
problems and dilemmas, more truly than either of the
alternative interpretations of its hero's actions can. In the
midst of its ethical "either/or," the poem silently whispers:
"Both?" (784-5)
Thus Robertson reveals the ambiguity in the poem's number
symbolism, a characteristic also of the number five which plays
such a prominent role in Gawain.
Five and its square 25 are explicitly associated with
Gawain in his initial arming scene. Traditionally five is the
number of carnal love and symbolizes "worldliness" and "animality"
because of Euclid's five forms, the five zones of the world, the
five species of living creatures, and the five senses; it is also
the sign of spiritual blindness, perhaps because of the Pentateuch

in the Old Testament. On the other hand, in the New Testament,
there are the five wounds of Christ and the five sorrows and five
joys of Mary. In either case, five represents the very "quin-
tessence" of whatever quality it is connected with (Peck, "Number"
60-1). It is also "a number of incorruptibility, since 'it repro-
duces itself in the last digit when raised to its powers'"
(Robertson 784). This essential ambiguity of the number five can
be seen in Christ's parable of the ten virgins, five of whom, being
wise, are allowed to go in to the marriage and five of whom, being
foolish, are not allowed to enter.
The narrator explains in stanzas 27 and 28 why the
pentangle, with its five points,
acordez to |)is kny3t and to his cler armez,
For ay faythful in fyue and sere fyue sy|jez
Gawan watz for gode knawen, and as golde pured,
Voyded of vche vylany, wyth vertuez ennourned
in mote;
For^y (De pentangel nwe
He ber in schelde and cote,
As tulk of tale most trwe
And gentylest kny3t of lote. (11. 631-39)
Gawain, the perfect embodiment of the social, moral, and spiritual
values of Arthur's court (Morgan, "Significance" 782), is thus
identified with the device he bears on his shield (770), the symbol
of perfection with its qualities of unbrokenness and circularity
which are "stressed by its English name, 'the endless knot"1
(Margeson 17). But, as Vincent Foster Hopper pointed out in his study of Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and
Influence on Thought and Expression,
[its] appearance keeping with the on the shield of Gawain is . much more in magic of the Green Knight than with the

Christian and chivalrous connotations assigned to it. It
appears as though the Gawain poet; had deliberately amassed as
many Christian possible, to account for the
legendary ensign of the Christianj hero. Had the author been
primarily interested in these moral and spiritual pentads,
there is no conceivable reason for his not choosing that other
and more fitting 5-pointed emblem1, the cross, rather than such
a notorious magical symbol . (124!)
However, Gawain's shield with the magical symbol on one side and
Mary's image on the
pagan magic and Chr
pentangle's history
625 (5 x 5 x 5 x 5)
Hit is a syngne
In bytoknyng of
other aptly symbolizes the conflict between
stian faith in the poem.
y, the narrator's explanation of the
and significance begins in stanza 27 on line
of modern editions:
bat Salamon set sumquyle
traw^e, bi tytle bat hit habbez,
For hit is a figure bat haldez fyue poyntez,
And vche lyne vmbelappez and loukez in ober,
And ayquere hitjis endelez; and Englych hit callen
Oueral, as I here, be endeles knot. (11. 625-30)
If the poet intended the bobs to be counted as separate lines, a
contention unsupported by the existing manuscript, the four fives
in 625 may have been intended to "represent Solomon's early glory
as an imperfect figure inside the four corners of the world with
its four earthly elJments. The pentangle perfection of mankind has
been reduced to four in the seed of Adam, who have all failed to
keep the law until Jesus of Nazareth." The last five "of
penitential humility
may be found in the
. . required for Redemption" (Haines 156)
final five lines of the poem in the narrator's
closing prayer for redemption through the crucifixion of Christ:
"Now bat bere be croun of borne, / He bryng vus to his blysse!
Amen" (11. 2529-30).

However, in the manuscript the 625th line (line 652 in
contemporary editions) begins the explanation of the fifth five of
Gawain's virtues:
. .fraunchyse and fela3schyp forbe al fyng,
His clannes and his cortaysye croked were neuer,
And pite, f)at passez all poyntez, fjyse pure fyue
Were harder happed on ^at hapel |jen on any ojDer. (11 652-55)
The four fives in the line number could be foreshadowing Gawain's
ultimate failure to maintain his five-by-five virtues.
Yet, after bringing this connection between Gawain and the
number five "so pointedly ... to the attention of the audience"
(Metcalf 142), the poet omits any further overt number symbolism in
his narrative of Gawain's adventure. Rather he weaves the
numerology into the fabric of the poem, but he fails to neatly tie
off these threads at the tapestry's edge.
Caroline Eckhardt has proposed that the rhymed bob and
wheel at the end of each stanza, which appears as five lines in
modern versions of the poem,
might well be considered Gawain's "signature" [which in] the
earliest stanzas . serves as an unexplained hint of the
identity of the at-first unspecified protagonist. After the
introduction of Gawain and the explanation of his associations
with 5 and 25, it becomes a reminder of his important but
threatened position. (Metcalf 145)
The poet sometimes uses the wheel to convey important or new
information to the reader, but more often he overlaps the closing
lines of one stanza with the opening lines of the next and oc-
casionally even repeats a word or phrase to link the two stanzas
more closely (Davenport 138).

These bob-and-wheel units, possibly reminiscent of Gawain,
separate the longer, unrhymed, alliterative lines into stanzas of
varying length which "suggest the nature of the forces that are
testing Gawain: a shape-shifting green man, a deceitful lady, and
behind them a mysterious old woman, Morgan La Faye, to whom at the
end the green man attributes the instigation of the entire test"
(Metcalf 148). This arrangement
combines a sense of pattern with an impression of freedom and
flexibility, since it is able to expand or contract according
to the needs of the moment. The alternation of long and short
lines creates a rhythmic balance between expansive expression
and condensed; the long lines tend towards amassing of detail,
complex sentence-structure and elaborate expression, while the
short lines tend towards simple sentences, antithesis, summary
and sententiousness. (Davenport 137-8)
Yet the varying number of lines in the stanzas serves another
function as well: to numerologically reinforce or clarify the
action in that stanza.
The list of Gawain's five-times-five virtues in stanza 28
(11. 640-669) is reinforced by its composition of 25 (5 x 5) long
lines, plus the bob and wheel. Four other stanzas in the poem have
25 long lines: 24, 48, 55, and 77. In stanza 24 (11. 536-65), on
All Hallows, Gawain finally decides it is time to leave court in
search of the Green Knight; the 25 here underlines Gawain's honor
in going to fulfill his compact (the twelve in the number of the'
stanza (24 = 2 x 12) reinforcing this interpretation). In stanza
48 (11. 1178-1207) Bertilak's wife first enters Gawain's chamber
while he initially feigns sleep and ultimately determines to treat
her more courteously by inquiring what she wants; he still retains
his virtues (the twelve in the number of the stanza (48 = 4 x 12)

again emphasizing this with the four, one less than five, perhaps
hinting at his succumbing to the temptation, ordered by the Green
Knight/Bertilak, whom the lady represents). In stanza 55 (11.
1372-1401) Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings at the end
of the first day of hunting; Gawain has not yet compromised
himself, retaining his five-times-five virtues (the five in the
stanza number (55 = 5 x 11) stressing this and the eleven
indicating his future betrayal of his host). Finally, in stanza 77
(11. 1922-51) at the end of the third day of hunting Gawain
withholds the girdle from Bertilak, giving him only the three
kisses; Gawain transgresses in this stanza, and the 25 lines serve
as a reminder of his past virtue (the eleven and the seven in the
number of the stanza (77 = 7 x 11) highlighting his transgression,
with the seven, which bears a religious significance, perhaps also
hinting at the grace he might attain).
There are fifteen other stanzas in which the number of
lines is a multiple of five, seven stanzas of fifteen lines plus
the bob and wheel and eight of twenty plus the rhyming lines,
thereby suggesting Gawain and reinforcing or commenting on his part
in the action. These include stanza 15 (11. 323-42) in which
Gawain speaks his first words in requesting that he be allowed to
meet the Green Knight's challenge (fifteen lines plus the bob and
wheel), stanza 63 (11. 1581-1600) in which the boar is killed
(fifteen plus), stanza 65 (11. 1623-47) in which Gawain and
Bertilak exchange their winnings on the second day of hunting
(twenty plus, possibly accenting the exchange between the two since

twenty is the product of Gawain's number, five, and the Green
Knight's, four), stanza 72 (11. 1792-1820) in which Bertilak's wife
asks for a gift from Gawain and offers him one (twenty plus, again
perhaps indicating the Green Knight's influence and possibly
Gawain's impending deficiency in virtue), stanza 91 (11. 2259-83)
in which Gawain shrinks before the Green Knight's first blow
(twenty plus, definitely hinting at the failure of Gawain's
courage), and stanza 92 (11. 2284-2308) in which he steadfastly
awaits the second blow (twenty plus).
Significant events in the poem relating to Gawain also
occur in stanzas which are numbered with a multiple of five or 25.
Gawain's imminent participation in an adventure is predicted by the
reporting of Arthur's custom at holiday feasts in the fifth stanza:
... he wolde neuer ete
Vpon such a dere day er hym deuised were
Of sum auenturus fryng an vncou^e tale,
Of sum mayn meruayle, t^at he my3t trawe,
Of alderes, of armes, of o|3er auenturus,
0f)er sum segg hym biso3t of sum siker kny3t
To joyne wyth hym in iustyng, in joparde to lay,
Lede, lif for lyf, leue vchon o^er,
As fortune wolde fulsun horn, (3e fayrer to haue. (11. 91-99)
Stanza 25 (11. 566-89) describes Gawain's arming for his departure
to seek the Green Knight. In stanza 50 (11. 1241-62) Gawain
displays one of his foremost virtues, humility, in protesting that
he is a "wy3e vnworjDy" (1. 1244) to which the lady objects,
reminding him of his contradictory reputation, "In god fayth, Sir
Gawayn . / |je prys and |3e prowes ^at plesez al o[)er, / If I hit
lakked o|Der set at ly3t, hit were littel daynte'" (11. 1248-50).
After hiding the girdle his host's wife has given him, Gawain

confesses himself--apparently ineffectually--"As domezday schulde
haf ben di3t on |>e morn" (1. 1884) (as it is for him) and then
makes merry "to (je derk ny3t" (1. 1887) in stanza 75 (11. 1870-92).
In stanza 100 (11. 2479-2504) Gawain returns to court
. . and ferlyly he telles,
Biknowez alle f)e costes of care jaat he hade,
|De chaunce of (3e chapel, f)e chere of (De kny3t,
te luf of jDe ladi, |je lace at ^e last. (11. 2494-97)
These stanzas, in fact, trace Gawain's adventure in brief.
There is another pattern of five in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight. Through the course of the poem Gawain makes five
promises: one to the Green Knight at court, three to Bertilak at
his castle, and one to Bertilak's wife; he manages to keep four of
them. In addition, the hero meets five different characters who
tempt and/or test him: the Green Knight, Bertilak, Bertilak's
wife, his guide, and Morgan la Faye (Davenport 178).
Just as the number five is associated with Gawain, so four
is always connected with the Green Knight, though the connection is
not made as explicitly as that between Gawain and the number five.
The the number four, along with its square sixteen, is related to
the body, carnality, and the earth by the body's four limbs, the
four elements, the four humors, the four conditions ("hot, cold,
moist, dry"), the four winds, and the four directions.
Because of the world's 4ness, then, there are 4 evangelists
with 4 signs spreading the Good News (4 gospels) to all ends (4
quarters) of the earth; 4 virtues (Justice, Prudence,
Fortitude, Chastity); the quadrivium; 4 branches of knowledge
to assist the soul (theoretical, practical, mechanical, and

In addition the number 40 (10 x 4) "represents a period of exile or
trial" (Peck, "Number" 60).
Mention of the number four is first made in reference to
Bertilak's (the Green Knight's) men butchering the deer they have
Syben bay slyt be slot, sesed be erber,
Schaued wyth a scharp knyf, and be schyre knitten;
Syben rytte bay be foure lymmes, and rent of be hyde. . .
(11. 1330-32; emphasis added)
It is common knowledge that a deer has four legs; so common, in
fact, that the narrator need not have mentioned the number at all,
particularly as the word "foure" is not essential to the
alliteration in the line. On the second day of hunting the
narrator notes that Bertilak has forty hounds (1. 1425). Later, on
their way to the Green Chapel, Gawain's guide warns him that the
Green Knight is "more . ben any mon vpon myddelerde, / And his
body bigger ben be best fowre / bat ar in Arburez hous, Hestor,
ober ober" (11. 2100-2). Finally, the Green Knight arrives for his
rendezvous with Gawain carrying "A denez ax nwe dy3t, be dynt with
to 3elde, / With a borelych bytte bende by be halme, / Fyled in a
fylor, fowre fote large" (11. 2223-25). The conventional associa-
tions of four with nature and the earth are particularly fitting in
connection with the Green Knight, and "it seems appropriate that
the number of divisions in the narrative is the same as the number
associated with.the character who directs the course of events"
(Metcalf 151-2). It also seems appropriate that the number of
subdivisions of the narrative (five) is the same as the number

associated with the character who is being directed through the
events of the poem (Gawain).
But the Green Knight's influence, as manifested by the
fours in the structure of the poem, extends throughout the entire
work. For example, line 444 in modern editions of the poem (the
first line of stanza 20) begins the description of the Green Knight
speaking to Gawain from his disembodied head and reminding him to
keep their appointment:
For |3e hede in his honde he haldez vp euen,
Toward be derrest on be dece he dressez be face,
And hit lyfte vp be y3e-lyddez and loked ful brode,
And meled bus much with his muthe, as 3e may now here. . .
(11. 444-46)
Line 1600 (at the end of stanza 63) announces the death of the
boar, Bertilak's quarry on the second day's hunt and possibly an
analog for Gawain. The boar's head is carried before Gawain in
line 1616 (stanza 64 which is 4 x 4 x 4) just as the Green Knight
carried his own head at Arthur's court. In stanza 71, line 1776
(111 x 16) Gawain swears that he will not be a traitor to his host,
but he does sin against his host as the number of the line
Of course, none of these coincidences occur in the original
manuscript. However, in the manuscript, perhaps even more sig-
nificantly, line 1776 (111 x 16, with the 111, 100 +10+1,
emphasizing Gawain's ensuing transgression) begins the lady's
description of the girdle's magical powers:
"Bot who-so knew be costes bat knit ar berinne,
He wolde hit prayse at more prys, parauenture;
For quat gome so is gorde with bis grene lace,
While he hit hade hemely halched aboute,

ber is not hafjel vnder heuen tohewe hym bat my3t,
For he my3t not be slayn for sly3t vpon erbe." (11. 1849-54)
And this, of course, is the temptation to which Gawain finally
Similarly, the power of the Green Knight's influence is em-
phasized in specific stanzas which are numbered with multiples of
four. It is in stanza 16 (4x4) (11. 343-65) that Gawain accepts
the Green Knight's challenge. Gawain accepts Bertilak's hospital-
ity in stanza 44 (11 x 4) (11. 1079-1104), an act which ultimately
leads to his downfall as the eleven in the stanza number foretells.
In stanza 48 (3 x 4 x 4) (11. 1178-1207) Bertilak's wife begins her
temptation of Gawain, under her husband's direction. Gawain leaves
Bertilak's castle for the Green Chapel to keep his rendezvous with
the Green Knight in stanza 80 (4 x 4 x 5, showing, perhaps, the
Green Knight's influence over Gawain, five) (11. 1998-2024), the
first stanza of Fitt IV. Four stanzas later, in number 84 (3 x 7 x
4) (11. 2091-2117), Gawain's guide warns the hero about the Green
Knight whom he is going to meet. And finally in stanza 96 (2 x 3 x
4x4) (11. 2389-2406) the Green Knight returns the girdle to
Gawain as a reminder of their contest and the hero's sin.
In addition, there are four stanzas in the poem which
contain sixteen lines, plus the bob and wheel, also signifying the
Green Knight's control over Gawain and the action of the poem.
Stanza 7 describes the entrance of the Green Knight into Arthur's
For vnefje watz |je noyce not a whyle sesed,
And be fyrst cou.rce in be court kyndely serued,
ber hales in at be halle dor an aghlich mayster,

On (se most on (3e molde on mesure hyghe. ... (11 134-37)
Stanza 27 (11. 619-39) introduces the pentangle and the discussion
of Gawain's virtues which he will need to face the Green Knight.
Stanza 29 (11. 670-90) relates Gawain's departure to seek the Green
Chapel where he will meet the Green Knight. (These two stanzas
frame the 25-plus-line stanza 28 (11. 640-69) which lists Gawain's
five-times-five virtues, perhaps foreshadowing the Green Knight's
testing of Gawain's virtues.) And stanza 45 (11. 1105-25)
recounts Gawain's ill-fated bargain with Bertilak to exchange their
winnings at the end of each day of hunting.
As noted above, Eckhardt has proposed that the five-line
bob and wheel (as it appears in contemporary editions of Gawain) is
the protagonist's "signature" (Metcalf 145). Since in the
manuscript only the four-line wheel appears at the end of each
stanza^, it could equally well be considered as the "signature" of
the Green Knight, an interpretation which is supported by the
poem's division into four fitts with five subdivisions. The four-
line wheel, the four fitts, and the repetition of 24
(1 x 2 x 3 x 4, the product of the first four cardinal numbers) at
the echo of the first line (1. 2424) all indicate the influence of
the Green Knight rather than the virtue of Sir Gawain. The
prevalence of the number four, one short of the number of Gawain's
assigned perfections, also serves as a constant reminder of his
falling short in the testing of his virtues.
Both Gawain and the court fail Morgan's test. Camelot's
representative succumbs to temptation; he loves his life more than

his virtue and honor, and he places his faith in the magical token
rather than in Mary who is portrayed on his shield.13 The members
of the court fail to realize the significance of Gawain's testing.
If the best knight among them can yield to temptation, how can the
others resist? Like Troy, Camelot will fall precisely because,
like Paris, the king and the best knight in the world cannot resist
the temptation to their chastity (the temptation Gawain barely
withstands): Mordred issues from Arthur's incest with his sister,
and the final rupture of the fellowship of the Round Table results
from Lancelot's longstanding love affair with Guenevere. (In fact,
if Morgan's original plan for the beheading of the Green Knight to
frighten Guenevere to death had succeeded, then perhaps Camelot
would not have fallen.)
The very possibility of such an alternative to the more
conventional reading, that Gawain passes Morgan's test, supported
by the poem's number symbolism demonstrates the extent to which
ambiguity pervades the poem, a degree which would be difficult to
achieve accidentally. And, if, as Thomas Reed proposed, ambiguity
was the Gawain-poet's goal (141), the problematic lineation of the
bob and wheel in the manuscript could well be intended to generate
alternative numerological interpretations--such as whether the bob
and wheel is the "signature" of Gawain or of the Green Knight and
which of the two is being referred to in the number of the echoing
line in the last stanza.
This additional evidence of ambiguity in the poem further
supports Reed's generic affiliation of Sir Gawain and the Green

Knight with the debate poetry of the period. Gawain is not the
didactically Christian poem that some critics would like it to be,
as Patience and Cleanness and Pearl are; rather, it is a debate,
not necessarily verbal, between magic and Christianity, between the
Anglo-Saxon and Norman French cultures which coexisted in
fourteenth-century England as represented respectively by the Green
Knight and Gawain, Morgan le Fay and the Virgin Mary, the Green
Knight's girdle and Gawain's shield, green and red, nature and
civilization, virtue and honor, the worldliness of four and the
holiness of five, or the alternative worldly and spiritual
associations of the number five. And, like the superior examples
of this genre, such as The Owl and the Nightingale, Gawain has no
clear victor. In fact, it has no clear ending; with the echo of
the first line in the last stanza, the poem circles back to its
beginning. Rather, a compromise is reached when Gawain and the
members of Arthur's court accept the green girdle, ,a pagan and
magical token, as a symbol of Christian and chivalric virtue. It
is thus appropriate that the action of the poem begins at
Christmas, a holiday which combines both Christian and pagan
elements, and that it is written in Middle English, which blends
Old English and Old French, in stanzas which unite two poetic
traditions: the alliterative lines of the Germanic and the rhyming
stanzas of the Romance languages. Was the poet making a statement
about the necessity, or perhaps the inevitability, of joining the
Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures as their languages and poetic forms
had been joined in the poem?