An understanding of the various cultural clashes operating in Gawain is useful not only to get a better impression of the poem’s world, but can even work to explain some of the behaviour of the characters. The blending of the supernatural and the real allows the narrative to function at once as a piece of Arthurian romance and as a story with a definite placing in a distinct and wholly realistic setting. This allows for contrasting depictions of a courtly tradition with its Anglo Saxon ancestor, and finally of human behaviour within these systems: specifically, courtesy clashing with humanity.
The arrival of the Green Knight at Camelot marks the first and most distinctive cultural clash in the poem. He is at once of this world and not of it: he is human, like the seated court, but perhaps like no other human even the heroes present have encountered before: ‘i??e most on i??e molde on mesure hyghe’ (137). Enjoying the successes of early campaigns, Arthur’s court is appropriately decked in beautiful tapestries, the food is rich and succulent and the women are handsomely arrayed: When Guenore ful gay grayi??ed in i??e myddes,
Dressed on i??e dere des, dubbed al aboute: Smal sendal bisides, a selure hir ouer Of tryed tolouse, of tars tapites innoghe i??at were enbrawded and beten wyth i??e best gemmes (74 – 9) They therefore understand the social precedents accompanying the Green Knight’s fur trimmed hood, embroidered saddle and gold jewellery. Though he is ‘scholes’ and ‘hade he no helme ne hawbergh naui??er’ (160, 203), the costliness of his apparel, as well as the ceremonial dress of his horse and the confident formality of his speech, place him firmly within the courtly tradition.
At the same time, his most striking feature is wholly alien to them and is left unexplained by the narrator: his greenness. If his clothing alone had assumed this defining characteristic, perhaps the court would not have been so thrown by his unannounced arrival on New Year’s Day. But even ‘i??e here of his hed’ grows this colour (180), which paradoxically acts at once as the emblematic representative of the fertility of nature and a gross and unnatural modification of the human body’s normal functions.
It is therefore understandable that Arthur and his knights hesitate before responding to him, to their own shame at the hands of the visitor. Once Gawain has agreed to the challenge and has provided a foretaste of his own valour in the swift, successful decapitation of the Green Knight, the immediate aftermath demonstrates the extent of the latter’s miraculous qualities: Bot styi??ly he start forth vpon styf schonkes And runyschly he ra t out i??ereas renkkez stoden, La t to his lufly hed and lyft hit vp sone (431 – 3) Arthur’s reaction is to uphold the semblance of normality and above all to ensure that courtly etiquette is maintained.
Thus, though ‘i??e hende kyng at hert hade wonder’ (467), he makes sure that he addresses Guinevere ‘wyth cortays speche’. In the words of Stone (1959), ‘the king’s laughter and explanation are the calculated actions of a good leader restoring normality and morale to the community after a terrifying and dangerous experience. ‘ The courtly code here provides, therefore, an element of security for those present at the Christmastide feast: until upset by the Green Knight it is universally understood, accepted and relied upon.
His extraordinary actions remove this safety net from the guests and place them on the defensive, and they demonstrate further their reliance on this code through their immediate reaction: to press on with it against the inexplicable and unworldly behaviour of the visitor, who has threatened the security of this code. But the Knight’s success lies in his ability to entwine the known with the unknowable. The miracle of the decapitated head addressing the court, his greenness and his almost superhuman physique have all contributed to the guests’ unease, from which the natural instinct was to turn to the trusted courtly code.
But the existence of the Knight’s familiar qualities have undermined this code much more than the aspects of him which seemed most strange to Camelot. In the costliness of his dress and so on, in his self-revelation as a figure with both religious and military associations (‘To i??e Grene Chapel i??ou chose, I charge i??e, to fotte / Such a dunt as i??ou hatz dalt … To be ederly olden on Nw eres morn’), he pandered to their expectations of a courtly visitor. By so magnificently undermining these expectations, he has pointed out their reliance on such customs.
The initial cultural clash, therefore, is of the most profound kind: reality coming up against an incomprehensible semi-reality. This clash between the real and the unreal or imaginary continues through the poem. The setting of the action blends the fantastical with the actual, thereby providing a degree of credibility to the scenes with the Green Knight. Hautdesert appears mystical, but Gawain’s search for it has been rooted in a geographically specific landscape of the North-west and Wales.
As Putter noticed (1996), the early apparition of Bertilak’s castle carries much that the early listeners of the poem would have immediately recognised as staples of the medieval romance tradition (52). The hero’s cry for help (‘Cros Kryst me spede’), his subsequent vision of a castle and its superlative strength and beauty all have their precedents in northern European literatures, but the castle’s placement in a location at once real and imaginary is a skilful technique of the poet’s, as it displaces the reader slightly from how best to understand the text.
If the interpretation of literature partly involves picking up on recognisable features in a text in order to gain an insight into the world its characters inhabit, then the Gawain-poet provides much that we can use as footholds: the hero asking perplexed peasants for a Green Chapel, the dangers he faces in ‘i??e wyldrenesse of Wyrale’ and Holy Head (701), and indeed as Coldstream remarked (1981), the splendid architecture of Hautdesert evinces all the fashions current in thirteenth century England (201).
But at the same time its appearance seems in part providential and indeed it is almost implausibly beautiful, ‘i??e comlokest i??at euer kny t a te’ (767), so we cannot be sure exactly how to see it. Its warmth and generosity, the courtesy of its host and the beauty of his queen, all stand as echoes of the Camelot Gawain has recently left. Indeed, the castle provides an ideal demonstration for what Burrow (1965) termed the ‘poet’s favourite contrast between indoor and outdoor experience’.
The harsh landscape that Gawain endures before arriving at Hautdesert echoes Old English poems like The Wanderer in the cruelty of its weather, and in the way it complements the desolate situation of the hero: Gawain is faced not only with the torment of his imminent decapitation, but by the honour of his position is bound actively to seek out this fate.
When he enters the castle and is provided with a warm bed and a good dinner, we can almost share his enjoyment of the hospitality afforded him by his yet-unnamed guest, so cold and lonely his situation before had appeared. But the crucial opposition between the indoor and outdoor worlds is a question of reliability. The action that takes place inside appears the most insecure: the dinner at Camelot interrupted by the Green Knight, the unsettling strangeness of Hautdesert, the attempts by its hostess to undermine Gawain’s pentangle and compromise his ‘trawi??e’.
Outside, by contrast, the world is familiar and reliable, if not always accommodating: the unrelenting pelt of a West Country winter, the thrill and suspense of hunting. Even the second of the supposed Beheading Scenes, where it is revealed that the crucial test for Gawain has not been his fulfillment of the agreement he made a year earlier, but his moral strength and devotion to the knightly code, can be said to take place indoors, occurring as it does in the Chapel.
During Gawain’s stay at Hautdesert, his ‘cortayse’ is put to the test in a highly charged fashion, and indeed it can be said that a conflict exists between this and the humanity expressed by Morgan Le Fay. If the medieval concept of ‘cortayse’ comprised specific and highly self-conscious behaviour, then it necessitated a change from instinctual human behaviour. Gawain as a human being cannot pretend to be blind to Morgan’s attractiveness.
But his duty as knight requires him not only to reject her propositions but to do so in a manner that ensures her dignity as a lady is upheld. The clash, therefore, is one of natural humanity against the prescriptive commands of a social elite. At the second Beheading Scene, that Gawain flinches from the first blow is an indication, like his accepting of Morgan’s girdle and not declaring this to Bertilak, of his internal opposition to defend himself as a man and to die without fear as a knight.
It calls into question an issue overarching the poem: the tensions between an Anglo Saxon concept of loyalty and comitatus and a French understanding of chivalry and honour. To a certain extent these are interlinked: Gawain must remain faithful to Arthur as his liege, and a sense of honour binds him to his word. But Gawain’s position as ‘solitary hero,’ which has its roots in the oldest European literatures, places him at odds with the later concepts of courtly unity as witnessed in Arthurian literature.
Indeed, we remember that in Malory it was Lancelot’s individuality that separated him from the rest of the Round Table and ultimately helped bring about its collapse. Perhaps the poet is therefore demonstrating the incompatibility of these two systems, forcing the two cultures together in Gawain and using the real-unreal setting of the text to prevent the reader, like Gawain, from understanding until the end of the story what the true test of the hero was.