Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represent enormous contributions to the literature of the Middle Ages. While at first glance dissimilar, these poems share strong structural and thematic similarities. The anonymous poet’s concept of religion illuminates each text. The Gawain poet’s Christianity emphasizes the harmony and unity of an eternity wrought by the Creator. We discover truths through the eyes of the protagonist Sir Gawain and the dreamer of Pearl. In each story, the hero is challenged morally and spiritually by a figure that is more than human and closer to the mysteries of knowledge and of the supernatural. In Pearl, this figure is the Pearl maiden, once a two-year old on earth, but now a queen in heaven. In Gawain, the Green Knight fulfills this role, but as a creature wholly of the earth. The goals and desires of Gawain and the dreamer are tightly bound to these figures, although for different reasons. The confrontations that ensue reveal the true natures of the protagonists and reveal the chasms of distance that separate them from the mystery of eternity. The Pearl maiden and the Green Knight reveal themselves through dramatic interactions and the environments they inhabit. They reveal their agendas and disorienting concepts of barter and exchange during intense interludes in the story (the parable of the vineyard and the “hunting game”), and finally, reveal surprises to both the dreamer and Sir Gawain.
Pearl primarily concerns itself with Christian doctrine, yet the story compels with strong emotions. The sad story of the death of a very young child and the dreamer’s inability to come to terms with his grief and longing strike a chord in all readers who have survived a death of someone close to them. The dreamer’s encounter with the Pearl maiden, while taking place in a heavenly realm, is also a ghostly encounter. She is first identified with a large mound in the herb garden of the dreamer. It is unknown to us, but perhaps the child’s body has been laid to rest in this place. In spite of the wonders of the heavenly garden, the Pearl maiden, in her pale formality, also reminds us of the mysterious and the frightening specter of death.
The Pearl maiden and the Green Knight appear in fantastic forms and the experience of meeting them is uncommon and unearthly. The form of the Green Knight constitutes a guise and is the product of Arthurian era magic. The Pearl maiden’s appearance, however, exists on a higher spiritual plane in the Heavenly City, and therefore may be more “real” than her former existence as a two-year old child. We experience the maiden through the dreamer’s eyes. Although he has longed for this meeting, her new form surprises him and arouses some negative emotions. The dreamer admits these feelings in line 176: “Such a burre myght make myn herte blunt.” (8). In Borroff’s translation of Pearl the dreamer reports that, “Such a sight…might shock or stun!” (130). The Middle English word “burre” means a “blow,” according to Gordon’s glossary. The translation subdues this a little, while the original word “burre” connotes an emotional impact so intense that it is comparable to a physical wound. Although initially glad to see her, his emotions fluctuate as “More than me lyste my drede aros;/ I stod fule stylle and sorste not calle.”(8). In Borroff’s translation, it reads: “More dread diminished my delight/ I stood stock still and dared not call.” (130). She appears not as he remembers her; her ornate dress of priceless pearls accentuates the dignity and womanliness of her heavenly form. Her foreignness must awake new grieving in the dreamer for the two-year old he knew is now irrevocably lost, and his memory of her must take into account this new interaction. This is an emotional blow to him, as he could not let go of her memory on earth, obsessed in his grief and longing for that which he had lost.
Borroff’s introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight defines Sir Gawain as the best work of its author, and a work of genius, though linked to traditional forms of the late Middle Ages. A common theme arises from the cultural background of a changing feudalistic order, leading to the poet’s examination of the concept of chivalry and courtliness. Borroff briefly recounts plot points, from the “Beheading Game” to the temptations of Sir Gawain, and finally, his final confrontation with the elusive Green Knight. (4). She describes the style and structure of the poem, noting particularly its traditional alliterative emphasis. Borroff comments on the character of Sir Gawain himself, and his fame outside this particular text.
Sir Gawain has no previous knowledge of the Green Knight who clamors into the Arthurian Court during a seasonal feast, but the conflicts that ensue engage Gawain’s entire being and challenge him spiritually, as the Pearl maiden challenges the dreamer. The Green Knight’s appearance produces much shock around the court. His unnatural green tinged skin and his extreme height are unlike any physical properties known to occur naturally in human beings. Marie Borroff notices some aspects of his strangeness in her introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight : “The Green Knight is, in every conceivable respect, strange: unlike any other knight in clothing, gear, in abundance of beard and hair, and, needless to say, in color.” (9). He is boisterous and abrasive compared to the formal serenity of the Pearl maiden, yet the Green Knight displays intelligence and grace. Borroff recognizes the differences in personality between the Green Knight and the knights of Arthur’s court: “Strangest of all, the overpowering vividness of his presence, as communicated to us by the poet, gives him a kind of brute reality that seems to be lacking in the idealized knights he has come to challenge.” (9). The Knight’s initial encounter with the court reverses the conflict of expected familiarity versus formality that so distresses the dreamer of Pearl. The dreamer expects his longed for child to respond with affection and is alarmed to find formality; the court is dismayed to find the Green Knight, a stranger, has foreknowledge of them and ignores the rules of courtly formality. To add insult to their shock, the uninvited guest begins to taunt the revelers of Camelot when they initially fail to confront him in lines 309-10: ” ‘What, is this Arthures hous,’ quoth the hathel thenne,/ ‘That al the rous rennes of thugh ryalmes so mony?'” (180). Borroff’s translation reads: “What is, is this Arthur’s house,” said the horseman then,/”Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide? Where is now you arrogance, and your awesome deeds…?” (Borroff 22). This taunting angers King Arthur and adds further insult to the injury of the Green Knight’s interruption of the holiday festivities. However different the Pearl maiden and the Green Knight may be on the surface, they both immediately present themselves as a shock and a challenge both to the protagonists and the reader.
The Pearl maiden and the Green Knight represent supernatural forces that must ultimately be accepted as part of the mystery of the universe. The environments that each appears in assume a grand scale, looming much larger than other landscapes of the poems. “Wyth crystal klyffes so cler of kynde” (4, line 74) or, in the translation, “The crystal cliffs as clear as day” (Borroff 127) in Pearl echo the snowy cliffs and “steep banks” of the forest surrounding the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The strange colors of the Heavenly Garden contribute to the difference and mystery of the environment in which the Pearl maiden appears. In the second stanza of section two, the colors of the heavenly garden are described: “Holtewodes bryght about hem bydes/ Of bolles as blwe as ble of Ynde.” (75-6). Gordon translates “holtewodes” simply as woods, while Borrof calls them “groves of trees” (127). These trees would look quite unnaturally beautiful to human eyes with their blue tree trunks and silver leaves. (77).
The surroundings help to dwarf and humble the dreamer and Sir Gawain. Even in his human form, the Green Knight lives on a grand scale. The castle that welcomes Sir Gawain on Christmas Eve is large, perhaps grander than the castle at Camelot, and its lord is none other than the Green Knight, though his appearance is vastly less fantastic as Bercilak. From the beginning, this castle seems strange and mysterious. Why has Gawain never heard of it before, since it is so large and fabulously grand? In her introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff notices the “magic” of this castle: “The castle in which Sir Gawain is entertained is vividly real…Yet it is also the mysterious castle that has appeared out of nowhere, shining and shimmering like a mirage, in direct response to Gawain’s prayer…on Christmas Eve.” (4-5). A savvy reader may notice this castle’s similarity to the Green Knight, even before the identity of its lord is revealed. Like the Green Knight, the castle “appears out of nowhere” during the holiday season in answer to an intense desire (King Arthur silently longed for adventure shortly before the Green Knight made his appearance.) The castle also shares the dichotomy of the Green Knight’s being. He is at once real and super-real, of nature and of magic, wondrous and somehow treacherous. Indeed, to Borroff, “it is a way-station on the road to certain death.” Its transitional nature in the story and to Gawain relates to the magical transformation of its owner. It is a twilight place, between reality and magic.
The Pearl maiden does not own the Heavenly Garden she appears in, as the Green Knight seems to be master of his environments. However, she reflects the heavenly environment as a queen of Heaven. The Heavenly Garden is more important thematically to the deeply religious poet, and the Pearl maiden is subordinate in it. She speaks as an emissary, constantly affirming the leadership of Christ in her world. In Borroff’s translation of Pearl, the Pearl maiden explains the essence of “courtesy” in the heavenly realm: ” Al arn we membres of Jesu Kryst;/ As heved and arme and legg and naule/ Temen to hys body ful truwe and tryste…” (18, lines 458-60).The Middle English word “temen” is defined as “joined to” in Gordon’s glossary. The Middle English emphasizes the connection with Christ perhaps more than Borroff’s translation, which reads: “We are members of Christ in joy profound,/ As head, arms, legs, and navel and all,/ Are parts of one person…” (138). Her existence is defined by Christ and she is wholly a member of His body, yet her surroundings help to define her as much as they do the Green Knight. She exists in this realm and is part of the Heavenly Garden; she is a heavenly being. In Gawain, the Green Knight’s individuality reveals the contrast between these poems. The difference may simply lie in the poet’s understanding of the earthly plane contrasted with the heavenly plane. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight concerns itself with life on earth, where perfection of unity and harmony does not exist. On earth, we are disconnected from perfect discourse with the Creator. Also, while the church represents a conglomerate of believers, while on earth each person must work out their own salvation for him or herself. In heaven, we join with the timeless circle of harmony with Him. While initial readings might find the individualism of Gawain in conflict with the collectivism of Pearl, their differences stem from the poet’s deep awareness of life on earth and life in heaven.
A structural affinity these two poems share involves a break in the action, or a “homilitic interlude”: the vineyard parable in Pearl and the hunting episodes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both stories occur in the middle section of each poem, and essentially deal with barter and commerce. Lord Bertilak, or the Green Knight, is the hunter of the tale in Gawain, and the Pearl maiden tells the dreamer the parable to explain heavenly grace to the dreamer. The vineyard parable, taken from Matthew 20, illustrates the heavenly concepts of courtesy and rank to the dreamer. Each laborer in the vineyard tale is paid the same wage, no matter how late in the day he began working. When the workers that were hired early in the day become upset at this arrangement, the lord of the vineyard reminds them of the original covenant: “‘Frende, no waning I wyl the yete;/ Take that is thyn owne, and go.'” (22, lines 558-9). In Borroff’s translation, these lines read: ” ‘Friend, I will not change the game;/ Take your wage and away with you!’ “(141). The emphasis on exchange and the game are echoed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the hunting game of Sir Bercilak, where a lord also makes a deal that is hard to understand logically. The dreamer, too, has immense difficulty with this parable. “The equal wage is unreasonable, he says, and what is more, it contradicts a statement in the Bible that he can quote, that God ‘renders unto every man according to his work'” (Borroff, 112). The Pearl maiden had intended to use this parable to aid the dreamer’s understanding of how she attained the rank of queen in heaven, but the story only increases his confusion and emotional upset. The intense conversation between the dreamer and the Pearl maiden echoes the games of the Green Knight and Sir Gawain. Like Sir Gawain, who is missing vital information about the Green Knight, the dreamer can never win the argument because he does not possess the revelations that the Pearl maiden has acquired. Like the Green Knight, the Pearl maiden turns expectations and knowledge of what is supposed to happen (in the protagonist’s mind) right on its head.
The hunting episodes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are interspersed with scenes of Gawain being tempted by the lady of the manor. Like the laborers who begin work in the evening, Gawain receives, according to Bercilak’s strange terms of barter, the day’s winnings from the hunt in exchange for doing little “work.” In fact, Gawain spends most of the day in bed, as his host urges him to do. When the lord returns from his hunt, he presents Gawain with the days winnings, while Sir Gawain must offer his own “winnings,” in the form of a kiss, won from the aggressive lady of the manor. Like the lord of the vineyard, Lord Bercilak is apparently short-changed by the terms of his own bargain. (The lord of the vineyard received little work from the laborers hired in the evening for his penny). Gawain, like the workers, cannot give the lord an equivocal amount in return. Also like the lord of the vineyard, Lord Bercilak is quick to speak in terms of the covenant and of exchange. When presenting Gawain the venison from the first day’s hunt, the lord is quick to remind Gawain: ” ‘And I gif yow, Gawayn,’ quoth the gome thenne,/ ‘For by acorde of covenant ye crave hit as your awen.'” (226, lines 1383-4). In Borroff’s translation the lines read: ” ‘And I give it to you, Gawain,’ said the goodly host,/ ‘For according to our covenant, you claim it as your own.'” (47). The fact that Lord Bercilak can set such arbitrary terms emphasizes his wealth (it does not harm him to give up the spoils of the hunt) and also a kind of power. Here is a lord that can afford to be bizarrely generous on his own terms. Later, in the form of the Green Knight, this generosity will be echoed as Bercilak spares Gawain’s life at the conclusion of the beheading game that book-ends the poem.
The Pearl maiden and the Green Knight both have surprises to offer at the end of the poems. While the revelations of the Pearl maiden cast her in a more sympathetic light to the dreamer, the Green Knight’s surprises are much more complicated and affect Sir Gawain in complex ways. Marie Borroff notices the affinity of the two revelations in her introduction to Pearl:
Here, late in the unfoldment of the narrative as also in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we learn what has set the entire sequence of events in motion…. The pearl-maiden tells him that no mortal may enter the celestial city, but that “through great favor” she has obtained permission from the Lamb for him to see it from the outside. She has, that is, interceded for him that he may be brought out of his spiritual impasse, mediating between him and God…. (114)
The dreamer has, up to this point, been accusing the Pearl maiden of being unfeeling to him. Early in his meeting with her, he says: “Ye take theron ful lyttel tente,/ Thagh I hente ofte harmes hate” (15, lines 387-8). Borroff’s translation reads: “And little you care though I am bound/ To suffer harm and hardship great.” (136). “Harmes hate” in the Middle English does seem stronger and more indicative of distress than “harm and hardship.” Gordon’s glossary defines hate as it is commonly used today, and also, as “hot, grievous.” The Pearl maiden does not strive to defend herself with him; she uses doctrine and calm reason, and sometimes seems harsh in her correction of the dreamer. Yet how wrong the dreamer has been all along when he accuses the Pearl maiden of caring little! She has literally moved heaven and earth for his spiritual welfare and gone to great lengths to give him a glimpse not only of his lost Pearl, but of the Heavenly City, a privilege that few on earth are granted. The revelation of the Pearl maiden’s intercession for the dreamer changes the whole perspective.
The revelations that come at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contain more extreme elements of shock and surprise. The origins of the Green Knight have been as mysterious to the reader as they are to Sir Gawain. Also, there seems to be no alternative but death for Sir Gawain as he faces a fierce and formidable opponent with an ax and a mission to decapitate him. The first surprise is the sparing of Gawain’s life, although it is done in the typical style of the elusive Green Knight. The next surprise to Gawain is tied in with the Green Knight’s behavior: the Green Knight is Bercilak. The knight does, however, impart a small wound on Sir Gawain’s neck for the matter of Gawain’s surreptitiously accepting a “magical” belt from his wife. The agreement of the hunting game involved a trade of winning for winning, yet Gawain held back in giving Bercilak the belt while he returned the two kisses. The Green Knight informs Gawain: “At the third thou fayled thore, / And therfor- that tappe ta the!” (269, lines 2356-7). Borroff’s translation reads: “You failed at the third throw/ So take my tap, sir knight!” (70). Gawain learns further of the Green Knight’s connection to his estranged aunt, Morgan Le Fay, whose power forged the weird, green form in which he appears. While the Green Knight’s origins are explained, he remains a mysterious figure. While Morgan is known for her evil against Arthur in lore, the Green Knight has, in a strange manner, been fair to Gawain, or at least, has lived up to the arbitrary games and bargains of his own devising. He has spared Gawain’s life, as well as having lavishly entertained him during the frosty holiday season. The strange mixture of benevolence and manipulation in the Green Knight’s nature leaves Gawain ashamed, infuriated, and perhaps humbled.
Through the Pearl maiden, the Gawain poet reminds us that we do not understand the mysteries of heaven. Through the Green Knight, he emphasizes the impenetrability of earthly mysteries and of nature. However misguided the dreamer and Sir Gawain sometimes show themselves to be, they stumble upon knowledge and are challenged by these unearthly figures. The richness and beauty of the Heavenly Garden and the dazzle of Bercilak’s castle dwarf human imagination and reveal the smallness of any one individual in the universe. The strange and dramatic forms in which the Pearl maiden and the Green Knight appear remind us that we can learn much from confronting our fears. However, the dreamer learns the price of experience through the sharp sting of emotional pain. Gawain catches a painful glimpse of himself that is more grievous to him than his neck wound. While the Gawain poet reminds of us to be seekers of wisdom, the Pearl maiden and the Green Knight show us the dangers of mystery.
Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Pearl: Verse Translations. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Glossary. Pearl. Ed E.V. Gordon. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1953.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience. Ed. J. J. Anderson. London and Rutland, Vt: J. M. Dent, 1996.