Essays

Sir Gawain and Green Knight: Plot Elements

The most striking feature of the organisation of plot elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the fact that the meaning of the poem is enacted by the shape of the narrative itself. The three major elements of the plot of this narrative: the Beheading Game, the Temptation, and the Exchange of Winnings are linked in a way which helps convey the meaning of the poem.

The reader quickly realises the interdependence of the Temptation plot and the Exchange of Winnings plot. The bedroom scenes correlate with the hunting scenes – therefore each one must be understood in reference to the other. On each of the three days the behaviour of Sir Gawain corresponds to that of the animal, which had been killed on that day. On the first day he is cautious – like a deer; on the second he is more like a boar; and on the third he is cunning – like a fox. These are not the only similarities between the two plot elements . Hunting is generally used in literature as a metaphor for the pursuit of love – that is for courting. This metaphor had most probably already been known in the Middle Ages and was used by the Gawain Poet.

The most important device used to make readers aware of the interdependence of these two plot elements is the technique of narration. Great care is taken to make sure the reader understands that the bedroom scenes and the hunt scenes happen at the same time. The narration jumps from the castle to the forest Pursuing the wild swine till the sunlight slanted./All day with this deed they drive forth the time/While our lone knight so lovesome lies in his bed.(l 1467-1469). Each bedroom scene is inserted into a hunting scene – which emphasises their simultaneity.

The Beheading Game is also linked to the other two plot elements – but in a way which only becomes visible to the reader after having read the entire text of the poem. At first, the castle episode seems to be an interlude between the two parts of the Beheading Game. The reader awaits the climax – that is the second part of the Beheading Game. Finally it turns out that the real test has already taken place and the Game itself proves to be an anticlimax. The entire Temptation scene is a part of the Beheading Game – in fact, it is inserted into it. The correlation of these two plot episodes is reflected in the blows which Sir Gawain receives from the Green Knight. The first two do not hurt him – as they reflect the first two days; but the third one, reflecting the last day, gives him a small cut on the neck.

The plot elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are dependent on each other. The meaning of the poem would remain uncovered if they were treated as separate. What is more, their structure also helps in understanding the interdependency of virtues – as reflected in the pentangle. If one fails at one of them, one fails at all.

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