Frank Lavallo hosts two readers and the three of them summarize the world’s greatest works of classic literature, giving their reactions along the way. If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!
Year of Publication: written in the late 15th century, first published in 1839 by Sir Frederic Madden
Plot: Originally written in Middle English, Sir Gawain & The Green Knight is a work of medieval chivalric romance set in the Arthurian legend. It describes the quest of young Sir Gawain, nephew to King Arthur, who accepts a challenge from an mysterious knight dressed all in green. Written in verses of epic poetry, Gawain's journey to meet the Green Knight and confront his own mortality play out in this fantastical piece of literature.
Special thanks to our readers, Elizabeth Flood & Katie Smith, our
Producer and Sound Designer Noah Foutz, our Engineer Gray Sienna
Longfellow, and our executive producers Michael Dealoia and David Allen
Here's to hoping you find yourself in a novel conversation!
Frank: Hello, and welcome to Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. I'm your host, Frank Lavallo, and for each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book, and together, we summarize the story for you.
We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way.
So, if you love hearing a good story, you're in the right place. This episode's conversation is about the story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I'm joined by our Novel Conversation's readers, Katie Smith and Elizabeth Flood.
Katie, Elizabeth, welcome. Thanks for having this conversation with me.
Katie: Thank you, Frank.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
Frank: Glad to have you both here. Before we get started, I want to give you a quick intro to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Written by an unknown author as a long, alliterative poem in the mid to late 1300s, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the many stories that have become part of the Arthurian Legend.
The story begins at Christmas time, celebrated on the Christian calendar from Christmas Eve until the epiphany. After 11 days of tournaments and entertainments, King Arthur is celebrating the New Year with his knight and ladies, but he declares he will not begin dinner until he hears of an unusual adventure or some momentous marvel.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that unusual adventure. Katie, we quickly get into that momentous marvel that Arthur's waiting for.
Katie: Yes. Just as the nobles begin eating, and as Arthur is waiting for this story, in comes a giant green knight.
Frank: Literally green. Not dressed in green, he is green.
Katie: He is green, and he's dressed in green.
Elizabeth: And he's riding a green horse. Yeah, he's dressed completely in green with beautiful embroidery, and he's got some gold accents. The horse has gems in its tail, very beautiful description of his whole outfit and the horse.
Frank: But Katie, he's not wearing armor.
Katie: He has no armor on. He has no helmet. He doesn't have his sword with him, but he is carrying an axe.
Frank: A monstrously, huge axe, I think the quote is. And that's not all, what's he got in his other hand?
Frank: Holly. Why Holly, do you think?
Katie: It's a Christmas symbol?
Frank: It is. It's a Christmas. Good luck symbol, I think.
Elizabeth: And a symbol of hope.
Frank: Of hope and perhaps peace. So, in one hand, he's got a war making machine in an axe, and in his other hand, he's got a symbol of Christian peace, the Holly. And he asks for Arthur. He wants to talk to the king.
Elizabeth: Yes. And Arthur immediately welcomes him in and asks him if he is peaceful and tells him he's welcome.
Frank: But the knight's not really here for the hospitality of Arthur's court, is he?
Katie: No. He has a challenge.
Frank: A challenge? He's here to fight. I thought we said he wasn't here to fight.
Katie: No, he's not there to fight. He says he's there for a Christmas game.
Elizabeth: Well, not really a game. He offers to take a blow to deliver a blow.
Frank: I think I used to play that in the fifth-grade schoolyard.
Elizabeth: Oh, with axes.
Frank: Well, no. Well, what is the exact challenge then? What is this game?
Elizabeth: He offers to take a blow now and then in one year, he gets to deliver a blow with his axe.
Katie: And Arthur immediately accepts the challenge.
Frank: Well, as you might expect.
Katie: But another one of the knights speaks up.
Frank: Let me guess, the Sir Gawain of our title?
Katie: That's right. And he tells Arthur, “I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom I know. And my life, if lost would be least missed truly. Only through your being my uncle am I to be valued. No bounty, but your blood in my body do I owe?”
Frank: Elizabeth, who is Gawain? Maybe he's the youngest and the weakest, but who is he?
Elizabeth: So, Sir Gawain is Arthur's nephew. He is the son of Arthur's half-sister, Anna, and the brother of Agravain.
Frank: Elizabeth, before the game begins, the Green Knight wants to confirm the rules just one more time.
Elizabeth: Yes, Gawain repeats that he will take a blow in 12 months, that any weapon that the Green Knight wants to use is fine.
Katie: And the Green Knight confirms “You must find me alone.”
Frank: Right. The Green Knight says “You can take your blow now and then in 12 months you come to my castle and I get to take a blow.”
Elizabeth: Well, it's kind of funny because the Green Knight comes to them, but then he expects them to just come to him without telling them where he lives.
Katie: Yeah. He says, “Well, you take your hit first and then I'll tell you where to find me.”
Frank: Right, Gawain wants to know his name and where to find them, but as Katie said, the Green Knight tells them, “Well, first take your shot. If I survive it, then I'll tell you how to find me.” Alright, so don't keep me in suspense. Someone, tell me what happens.
Elizabeth: Well, Sir Gawain comes up, he strikes him with the axe, cuts his head off. Everybody cheers and-
Frank: And that's the end of the Green Knight.
Katie: Not quite.
Frank: Oh, end of story. See you guys all next week.
Katie: The Green Knight picks up his head, gets on his horse and rides out of the room.
Frank: And actually, doesn't the head do a little bit more speaking?
Katie: Oh yeah, on the way out, he tells him how to find him.
Frank: Well, Arthur certainly got his story, didn't he?
Katie: He sure did.
Elizabeth: And then Arthur turns to his queen and says, “Don't worry about that. That was just a Christmas play. Nothing to worry about, no biggie.”
Frank: And with the Green Knight leaving with head in hand, our first chapter of four ends. Gawain beheads, but doesn't kill the Green Knight and now, King Arthur gets to have his dinner.
Ladies, with that start, let's take a break here, and when we come back, we'll talk about Gawain’s journey to find the Green Knight. You're listening to Novel Conversations. We'll be right back.
Welcome back. Alright, so when we left, Sir Gawain prepared to leave Camelot in search of the Green Knight. And when I say prepared, he actually was in no hurry.
Katie: He waited until All Saints Day, which is November 1st.
Frank: 10 months, unlike the Green Knight, Gawain is armored. He's armored beautifully.
Elizabeth: They say a great pile of gilded war gear glittered.
Katie: It describes how some parts are smooth and shined, and then other parts are chain mail and linked together, and what parts of him are all covered up.
Frank: And it's all in gold.
Katie: All in gold, red gold. And with his cape on top.
Frank: And Katie, if his armor is beautiful, his shield is incredible.
Katie: It is.
Frank: Tell me.
Katie: The final piece, his shield has the pentangle on the front of it in pure gold, which is the sign of King Arthur's knights, right?
Frank: I believe so.
Elizabeth: The pentangle was something that apparently, King Solomon had come up with. They describe it as a figure which has five points, and each line overlaps and is locked with another. And it is endless everywhere. And the English call it in all the land, I hear, “the endless knot.”
Frank: Alright, so Gawain is armored and he has his shield and he goes.
Katie: He does. He gets on his horse, and he rides.
Frank: Where does he go?
Katie: Now, the gallant Sir Gawain in God's name goes riding through the realm of Britain, no rapture in his mind. Often on the long nights, he lay alone in the companionless and did not find in front of him food of his choice. He had no comrade, but the cursor in the country woods and hills, no traveler to talk to on the track, but God.
Frank: But Elizabeth, though he rode by himself, he was not really always alone. Lions and tigers and bears, shall I say oh my?
Katie: Oh my.
Elizabeth: Oh, yes. He had quite a few adventures on the way because he had to search far and wide to find this castle. He had not been told where it was. So, he was fighting for his life the whole time with ogres, some seders, some dragons, boars, forest trolls, even. So, all kinds of different creatures.
Frank: Right, not just animals. He had a battle of men, as you said, ogres. He even battled the weather.
Katie: Indeed. As the book says, “Yet the warring little worried him, worse was the winter and the cold, clear water cascaded from the clouds and froze before it could fall to the fellow earth.”
Frank: But Elizabeth, after a prayer to Mary, maybe miraculously a castle appears, and we soon meet the Lord of that castle.
Elizabeth: Yes, Gawain finds this beautiful, white, brilliant castle that looks like it's made out of paper almost. He is immediately welcomed in very warmly and meets the Lord of the castle.
Frank: And then after Gawain is fed and feasted, he meets the ladies of the castle. One very beautiful and one, shall we say, not so much. Tell me about the beautiful lady.
Elizabeth: Gawain thinks that this beautiful lady is even lovelier than Guinevere, who is Arthur's wife. It goes on to describe her, it calls her the softest woman on earth.
Frank: Most beautiful of body and bright of complexion.
Katie: And then he sees a not very beautiful woman sitting in her pew.
Elizabeth: And they go into detail about how ugly this older woman is.
Katie: As it says, “Another lady led her by her left hand, a matron, much older past middle age, who is highly honored by an escort of squires. Rough wrinkles rudded her cheeks, her body was stumpy and squat.”
Elizabeth: Extremely ugly, according to this author.
Katie: Old and withered.
Frank: As the Lord of the castle ask, Gawain spends Christmas and even the next few days at the castle, until the Lord finally asks Gawain, “Why are you here? What's going on?”
Katie: Gawain is ready to go. He's saying, “Do you know where this Green Chapel is?” The Lord laughs and says, “Stay here for a little while longer, and then New Year's day you can ride over. No rush. Spend some more time with us.”
Frank: And then as the second chapter ends, the Lord of the castle, he proposes a game.
Katie: But not a beheading game.
Elizabeth: No, a hunt, actually three days of hunting.
Katie: So, the game is, there will be three days of hunting. Whatever the Lord captures, he'll give to Gawain, and whatever Gawain wins while he's in the house, he'll give to the Lord. So, they've got a bargain going on.
Frank: And then the third chapter starts with the Lord on the hunt for a hind, a female deer. And Gawain is?
Elizabeth: In bed.
Frank: Alone, I hope.
Elizabeth: Well, he is alone, but not for long.
Frank: I think he might need to explain that.
Katie: Well, he's lying in bed, waking up slowly when all of a sudden, he hears the doorknob turned and a little click, and he sees the beautiful lady sneak in. So, he pretends to be asleep.
Frank: He pretends to be asleep. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Well, who is this beautiful lady?
Elizabeth: She is the Lord of the castle's wife.
Katie: But he is torn between chivalric courtesy and protecting his chastity and his honor. So, he must be careful, but rebuff her offers.
Frank: Right. It would be unchivalric of him to deny her too roughly. He’s got to let her down lightly, I guess. And he needs to protect his chastity and his honor.
Elizabeth: Lots of verbal jousting, nothing improper. In my version, it says “they juggled words,” which I like that description.
Frank: That's a great line. I like that.
Elizabeth: Yeah. All that happens is that the lady asks for a kiss, which she gives her, and then she leaves.
Frank: And when the Lord returns?
Katie: A feast of venison as gifted from the Lord.
Elizabeth: And Gawain gives the Lord a kiss too.
Frank: And a kiss for the Lord from Gawain.
Frank: And then the next day, there's another hunt. What's the quarry today?
Katie: The wild boar.
Frank: That doesn't sound as easy as deer.
Katie: No, it didn't seem as easy as deer, too.
Elizabeth: Certainly not boring.
Katie: There's three pages of the description of getting the boar and how vicious it was, and the vicious dogs as well. And I think they even say once they have it, it still attacks the dog once they have it tied up.
Frank: And Elizabeth, meanwhile, back at the castle.
Elizabeth: The lady comes back to his bed the next morning and they spoke more again. It says “The beautiful lady bent and fairly kissed his face. Much speech, the two then spent on love, its grief and grace.”
Frank: And then that night, again, a feast and again, a kiss for the Lord from Gawain. And they agree to another hunt in the morning.
Katie: And on the third day?
Frank: They hunt.
Katie: A fox.
Elizabeth: And the lady comes back once more and tries to tempt Gawain again.
Frank: But her hunt ends differently from the previous two days.
Katie: Yes, she really pushes. And then she asks Sir Gawain for a gift and offers him a ring.
Frank: A ring, which Gawain refuses mostly because he doesn't have anything of similar value to offer to her.
Elizabeth: Yes. And she finally offers him a green silk girdle, a gift she says. She proffered him a rich ring, rotten red gold with a sparkling stone set conspicuously in it, which beamed as brilliant as the bright sun. Gawain declined this and says, “I have nothing to give you back.” So, she finally offers him a gift, which is a girdle, a green silk girdle.
Frank: Do you want to say girdle or sash because girdle today means a whole lot different than it meant then.
Elizabeth: Probably a wide belt that covers more of your stomach, not just like a thin belt.
Frank: But why does he accept that? He doesn't accept it necessarily for the gift?
Elizabeth: Well, it offers some protection possibly from a strike from the Green Knight.
Frank: Right, she claims it'll save his life if he's wearing it when the Green Knight takes his blow. She says it's a talisman against his death.
Katie: And he takes it kind of in a moment of weakness for fear of his future.
Frank: Well, how's he going to explain this to the Lord?
Elizabeth: Oh, he doesn't.
Frank: He doesn't?
Elizabeth: Probably just gives him another kiss.
Frank: Alright, well, with that, let's take a break here, and when we come back, we'll follow Gawain on his journey to the Green Chapel to face his great challenge. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm Frank Lavallo, we'll be right back.
We're back. I'm Frank Lavallo, and you're listening to Novel Conversations. And today, we're having a conversation about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Alright ladies, when we left Gawain, he had taken leave of the Lord and the ladies and was on his way to the Green Chapel, and he seems to have picked up a guide, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Yes. A porter waiting outside the gates who goes along with Sir Gawain.
Frank: And Katie, what advice does the guide give to Gawain?
Katie: He tells him not to go. He tells him to keep riding on, “In the name of God, go home.”
Frank: Elizabeth. Does he take that advice?
Elizabeth: No, because as he had earlier said, he would rather die than fail this mission.
Frank: Somebody tell me about the Green Knight's castle. For such a magnificent night, it must be some marvelous castle.
Katie: It's nothing magnificent, it's just a mound. “This mound, said the noble knight, as such, might Satan be seen saying matins at midnight.”
Frank: He doesn't see anyone at this green chapel, but he certainly hears a monstrous noise.
Elizabeth: Yes, it says “What? It clouded amid the cliffs fit to cleave them apart, as if a great size were being ground on a grindstone there.”
Frank: It's the Green Knight sharpening his axe, isn't it?
Frank: And the knight does appear, and he's armed with that axe.
Katie: Whirling round a wedge of rock with frightful weapon, a Danish axe duly honed for dealing the blow with the broad biting edge bow bent along the handle, ground on a grindstone, a great four-foot blade, no less by the Lovelace gleaming so brightly.
Frank: And they quickly get to the point of their meeting, don't they? Gawain bears his neck and the knight prepares to launch his blow.
Elizabeth: But Gawain finches and the knight stops.
Katie: And he chides Gawain. He says, “You're not Gawain, said the gallant, whose greatness is such that by hill or hollow, no army ever frightened him. For now, you flinch for fear before you feel harm. I never did know that knight to be a coward.”
Frank: And this angers Gawain, and he says, “Take another shot. I'm going to stand here firm, I promise I will not flinch.”
Elizabeth: The knight says, “Have at you then,” and heaving up his axe, behaving as angrily as if he were mad, he menaced him mightily, but made no contact, smartly withholding his hand without hurting him.
Frank: And this really angers Gawain.
Katie: Then said Gawain, storming with sudden rage, “Thrash on, you thrustful fellow and threatened too much. It seems your spirit is struck with self-dread for sooth.” The other said, “You speak so fiercely. I will no longer lengthen matters by delaying your business. I vow.”
Elizabeth: Well, he just barely nicks Gawain’s neck, but makes enough of a cut that Gawain sees his blood stain the ground.
Katie: The green giant has taken his shot and he's only nicked Sir Gawain, and so, Gawain responds, “Cease your blow, sir, strike me no more. I have sustained a stroke here, unresistingly. And if you offer any more, I shall earnestly reply, resisting rest assured with the most rancorous, despite.” He's ready to fight.
Frank: Gawain is done. He took the knight's best shot and now, he's ready to fight. It's man against man now, there's no more deal, there's no more game. But the story's not quite over as they say on the Fix My House shows, now's the time for the big reveal.
Elizabeth: The Green Knight as actually the Lord from the castle.
Katie: Bum, bum, bum.
Frank: Oh, I think you better explain that.
Elizabeth: So, he explains that Morgan le Fay bewitched him and turned him into this green knight that could survive a beheading.
Frank: Who's Morgan le Fay? We haven't mentioned her.
Katie: Morgan le Fay is a witch.
Frank: She is a witch. She's Arthur's half-sister by another father.
Katie: Whose goal here is to hurt Guinevere.
Frank: Right. Morgan le Fay as Arthur's half-sister blames Arthur's father for the death of her mother and father. So, she's seeking to hurt Guinevere by having Arthur killed. She had hoped that Arthur would take this challenge and come after the Green Knight. Turns out, Gawain did.
But that's what was going on here. She enchanted this Lord and made him turn him into this green knight and I was going to say force, but essentially put him on the course to challenge Arthur, who is then taken up by Sir Gawain. And that's essentially, what's going on here.
So, this was really a plot by Morgan le Fay to hurt Guinevere. But the knight also explains about the three strokes; the two stop strokes, and then the nick.
Elizabeth: Yes, these were for the challenge of the three days of hunts. Gawain was honest twice, but deceitful once when it came to the green girdle. And for that, he was cut.
Frank: And Gawain, how's he feeling?
Elizabeth: Angry and embarrassed.
Katie: The Green Knight gives Gawain the sash to keep, to serve as a reminder for his own failure, for his chivalric failure.
Frank: And Elizabeth, when Gawain returns to Arthur's court, they see the sash as a reminder of something else, not his failure.
Elizabeth: They see it as a reminder of his heroics, his glory.
Katie: Even though Gawain sees it as a badge of his own failure, the court turns it into this badge of honor and other knights begin to wear a belt for similar reasons to remember that, and to stay chivalrist.
Elizabeth: Actually, every single one of them wears it.
Frank: Right. It becomes a badge for all the knights of the soon to be round table. And so, ends the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
So, let's take a final break now and then head into our last segment where I'd like to ask the two of you to share a moment or a character or a quote that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet.
Right now, you're listening to Novel Conversations. We'll be right back.
Welcome back. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm Frank Lavallo, and today I'm having a conversation about the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Alright, Katie, Elizabeth, before our break, we ended our story and now, I'd like to ask the two of you to perhaps share a moment or a character or a quote that we haven't gotten to.
Katie, do you have something for us?
Katie: One thing I love in the book is how deep it goes into descriptions of things like the hunting and the clothing. There's so much about Turkish silks and the Ermine furs and things like that.
Frank: Beautiful descriptions.
Katie: Oh yeah. But a literary device that I just find so fascinating. When it was describing all the people that he met on his journey toward the Green Chapel, it's just one little line: “So many Marvels did the man meet in the mountains. It would be too tedious to tell a 10th of them.” But stil,l then it lists and lists and lists all these people that he saw.
Frank: Right, I remember that. I remember that. That is good. That is good. Elizabeth, you have something?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I like that. It does mention how ridiculous this whole challenge is.
Frank: Well, which challenge? The beheading game or the hunting kissing game?
Elizabeth: The beheading game.
Elizabeth: That Arthur just accepts this, and all of the Lords and ladies are really grieving that Gawain has to go on this journey.
And it says “He seemed a brilliant leader and could have been, and had better been than this. His head lopped off by an elf and only for pride. What King has ever allowed such games, playing such stupid sport at Christmas?”
Frank: Now, who's saying that?
Elizabeth: This is the Lords and Ladies.
Frank: Oh, okay.
Elizabeth: Saying this, that right before Gawain leaves, they're all mourning this and saying, Arthur shouldn't have agreed to this in the first place.
Katie: For a silly game.
Elizabeth: Because it was all for pride.
Frank: Right, it certainly was for pride. Guys, instead of having something to read or to tell you about, I've got a couple questions for you. Let me ask you first question.
The guide that led Gawain to the Green Chapel, was that the Lord of the castle?
Elizabeth: Oh, I don't know.
Katie: Was it?
Frank: I don't know. I'm just wondering. I'm just wondering. He knew exactly where to take him. He's enchanted, remember he's been enchanted by Morgan le Fay, so he could be anything or look like anything. And we never-
Katie: Oh, yeah.
Frank: As they say on TV, we never saw the guide and the king at the same time at the same place.
Katie: That would make sense.
Frank: So, I'm just wondering-
Elizabeth: Did the guide have glasses to disguise him?
Frank: And takes off his glasses and he's Superman.
Katie: Pop quiz from a reading test in college; what color was the Green Knight?
Elizabeth: What was he not green?
Katie: He is green.
Katie: But when it's on a reading quiz in college-
Frank: It makes you wonder, right?
Katie: If you didn't really read it, you're like, “Uh-oh.”
Elizabeth: Oh, I see.
Frank: How closely did we read that? No, he is green. His [inaudible 00:22:50] are green, his horse is green. Everything about him is green. He is green.
Katie: Even the Holly.
Frank: Even the Holly was green, with probably some red berries to show it off.
Elizabeth: But he had some gold accents.
Frank: He did have some gold accents. His horse, I think, had a little bit on him, although the horse as well was unarmored.
Elizabeth: Also, I think it’s interesting that he just rides into the castle on the horse. Like he just-
Katie: I think that might not have been that rare in medieval times.
Elizabeth: Apparently not. Yeah, just come into the dining room on your horse.
Frank: I don’t know if I mentioned this to you guys, but there’s a really cheesy film version of this with Sean Connery as the Green Knight.
Elizabeth: Oh my gosh.
Frank: And when I say cheesy, I mean it’s cheesy. It’s from I think the ‘70s, I want to say. I mean, I remember seeing it pretty early on and it's pretty cheesy. Sean Conner, James Bond with the green beard and holding his head.
Elizabeth: Oh my gosh.
Frank: It's out there. Yeah. It's not bad.
Elizabeth: I can picture that.
Frank: Not a bad version. Alright, let me ask you another question. Did you guys ever figure out who the Lord was? Did you figure out that the Lord and the Green Knight were the same person?
Elizabeth: I don't think so, but I should have because I did read this in high school. I just forgotten most of it.
Frank: As we all have the things we read in high school.
Elizabeth: I appreciated it more now because it's just so beautifully written.
Frank: It really is.
Elizabeth: The descriptions are incredible, and I possibly didn't really care about that as a teenager.
Frank: Right. Now, I'm sure none of us really, really did. We just wanted to get it done so we could get the quiz done, we could move on to whatever they were going to torture us with next.
Well, I think this is where we should end our conversation today about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Katie, Elizabeth, I do want to thank both of you for coming in and having this conversation with me today. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Katie: I did. Thanks for having us, Frank.
Elizabeth: Thanks so much, Frank.
Frank: I'm Frank Lavallo, you've been listening to Novel Conversations.
Thanks for listening to Novel Conversations. If you're enjoying the show, please give us a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find us on Instagram or Twitter @novelconversations. Follow us to stay up to date on upcoming episodes and anything else we've got in the works.
I want to give special thanks to our readers today, Elizabeth Flood and Katie Smith. Our sound designer and producer is Noah Fouts and Gray Sienna Longfellow is our audio engineer. Our executive producers are Michael DeAloia and David Allen Moss.
I'm Frank Lavallo and thank you for listening. I hope you soon find yourself in a novel conversation, all your own.