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feminism, romantic literature, poetry, characterization


In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the protagonist survives the return blow for which he had contracted with the Green Knight but finds to his dismay that he has unwittingly failed a more significant test. As the awareness comes to Gawain that the Green Knight and his Yuletide host share one identity, that it was upon Bercilak's instructions that his wife attempted to seduce him, and that Morgan la Fée had, in effect, master-minded the whole plan, Gawain reacts with bursts of anger which, wen analyzed, speak not only to the Pearl-Poet's skill at characterization but also to the manner in which the poet feels revelation is given to man. The see-saw dialogue in which the Green Knight and Gawain engage, much like the original agreement for the exchange of blows and the subsequent commerce of hunting covenants, places emphasis on sequentiality, on one thing or event being countered by another, as well as on the more overt theme of testing, and what has been often overlooked is the fact that Gawain himself consistently reacts sequentially, throughout the tale and particularly in the final confrontation with the Green Knight, that is, according to the amount of knowledge he possesses, which is, of course, precious little at the outset of the challenge and not all that much more by the time he submits to the return blow. Bercilak, of course, responds to Gawain's statements and actions, but his reactions are tempered by his greater knowledge and, as such, do not exhibit the rashness of Gawain's responses. The result is that one sees Bercilak making the initial offers, with Gawain either eagerly, thoughtlessly seconding them because he does not know that they entail, or, having fulfilled his obligations as far as he can see them, reacting irately to his sudden awareness of failings which he did not anticipate. And yet the Gawain at the end of the poem is a visibly chastened man, stripped oof his anger and fully aware not only of his own inadequacies but also of the nature of his test, despite the fact that his own court cannot comprehend the significance of the visible sign of his spiritual journey. It is precisely that process from ignorance to knowledge, from wrath to sorrow, and from Gawain's awareness of the part to his cognizance of the whole, that takes place in the Green Chapel, but it is by no means an immediate process, as Gawain's successive reactions demonstrate.