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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the setting plays an integral role in the

meaning of the poem. The three settings are all inseparable from the events which take

place there and the manner in which Gawain is affected by the inhabitants. Camelot, Lord

Bertilak’s castle and the Green Chapel and their characters are considerably distinct from

each other, each affecting and appealing to Gawain in a particular way. Because of its

many positive qualities and familiarity, ultimately, the most attractive and appealing setting

is Camelot.

Lord Bertilak’s castle has several positive aspects but is not the most appealing

because most of these elements are deceptive and potentially dangerous. Although the

castle appears magically, it seems realistic because it is “most comely that ever a king

possessed,” (42) and, much like other ornately decorated wealthy mansions, “there were

curtains of costly silk” (45). The citizens and knights are “many worthy men” (45) and

Gawain is given the designation that “most welcome he was of all guests in the / world”

(47). The castle appears to be the ideal place to serve as a knight for the lord is at “his life

at the prime,” (45) and the lady “more lovely than Guinevere” (48). The people enjoy gay

dancing and “so a wondrous wake they held,” (50) that the days in the enchanting castle

are pure bliss. Yet, exhibited by the omission of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, there is

much deception to this seemingly perfect castle. The members of the castle do sit and give

respect according to a certain hierarchy; but, at the high seat next to the Lady and Lord,

sits a pudgy, hideous woman who is directing this mysterious setting. Although Morgan le

Fay makes the castle seem welcoming and ideal, Gawain’s stay there will be marred by a

test. Lady Bertilak’s determined pursuit to win his love is not an invitation to courtly love

but rather a trial of his chastity and chivalry. Her boldness in inviting Gawain to seduce her

is an inappropriate gesture which can only lead to danger. The castle, however lavish and

traditional it seems, is a magical entity which is used as an instrument to test the twenty-

five fold perfection of Gawain. Ultimately, Gawain leaves Lord Bertilak’s castle no longer

able to wear the pentangle which epitomizes the perfection and completion of a genuine

knight, but leaves wearing the girdle. This seemingly helpful and life-preserving cloth is

rather a symbol for the portion of the test he fails. Although Lord Bertilak’s castle appears

to be even more welcoming than classical Camelot, it is far too mystical and is hardly the

most appealing.

Regardless of how appealing the Green Chapel may seem, it represents a

threatening and intimidating place for Gawain. The Green Chapel is a setting of nature’s

beauty and richness. The grass and herbs are lush and the protected chapel is surrounded

by life nurturing water. The wild beauty of the forest and randomness of the surrounding

area is unquestionably pure and innocent. The Green Knight is welcoming and greets

Gawain with “may God keep thee!” (88). Although there is no defined hierarchy, the

Green Knight is straightforward about the beheading game and how it should be played. It

is apparent that although there are clear rules at the Green Chapel, the visitor’s perspective

easily affects the way in which the setting is interpreted. Gawain comes to the Green

Chapel to offer his beloved life as part of a game. Consequently, Gawain sees only the

green which shows “devotions in the Devil’s fashions,” (87) and the hot, bubbling water is

flowing by nothing more than a “cleft in an old crag” (86). The Green Chapel is a place of

mysticism but lacks the deception and obvious magic of Bertilak’s castle. For this reason,

regardless of the Green Knight’s friendliness and fairness, he seems threatening and

overbearing. His build and gaiety are not admired as are Lord Bertilak’s. The form in

which the Green Knight appears as Bertilak is festive and harmless, but in this setting, the

same physique makes Gawain feel vulnerable and pessimistic. It is in the Green Chapel

where Gawain must face the consequences of his actions. Although he is admired by the

forgiving and generous Green Knight, Gawain holds steadfast to the fact that he has failed

the test entirely due to his minor imperfection. Even though the Green Chapel is a lush and

wildly beautiful environment, it can easily be portrayed as threatening and hazardous;

which is why the Green Chapel is not the best setting.

Camelot is the most ideal setting because it is has extravagant richness and fame, a

structured hierarchy and, most of all, is the familiar, welcoming environment which

Gawain ultimately chooses. Arthur’s fame is world renown as it is compared with the

Roman Empire or the great city of Troy for of “all that here abode in Britain as kings /

ever was Arthur most honored” (20). Arthur and his Round Table contribute to

“merriment unmatched,” (20) and during the festivities, the citizens of Camelot enjoyed

themselves with “all the meats and all the mirth that men could devise” (20). Camelot

earns the title “under heaven first in fame,” (21) for such a courteous and virtuous king

with such loyal knights is an honor which should be given due respect. The days are filled

with joyful dancing, gift exchanging, and amusing kissing games and the generous king

and queen sit “ever the highest for the worthiest” (21) with good Gawain at the lady’s side.

King Arthur invites all, including the Green Knight, with generosity and respect. Yet,

when the Green Knight insists on playing the Beheading Game, Gawain is quick to prevent

Arthur from risking his life. This shows that regardless of the carefree and festive

environment, Gawain is never forgetful of his first duty. All the activities at Camelot

follow a strictly defined code. Whether the code be one for loyalty to the lord, for chivalry

or for how to treat a guest, it is clear and easy to recognize. Camelot has an abundance of

positive qualities which combine to form the model setting.

As the model setting, Camelot also lacks many of the unattractive qualities of Lord

Bertilak’s castle and the Green Chapel. First, everything that appears to be true and

innocent in Camelot is, in fact, openly real. Camelot cannot be deceptive like Bertilak’s

castle and everything from the hierarchy to the honest welcomes has no alternate meaning

or motive. Unlike the Green Chapel, visitor’s can only view the castle in a beautiful and

positive manner as “all happiness at the highest in halls,” (20) incapable of distortion or

misconception. The rules are clearly defined just like at the other two settings but unlike

the rules of the Exchange of Winnings, there is no hidden intent. The illogical hierarchy of

Bertilak’s castle is not present and one can easily see that the most noble, virtuous, and

beautiful sit the highest where they belong. No one is intimidated by each other and when

the Green Knight enters he is recognized as “the mightiest on the middle-earth” (23) but

not feared. People’s intentions are not misconstrued as is possible in the Green Chapel and

each respectable man gets his due respect. Gawain leaves Camelot not with the shameful

girdle, but rather with the prestigious pentangle which he deserves. Camelot is the most

favorable because it does not exhibit any of the poor qualities which are evident in the

other two settings and, therefore, is the most appealing environment.

Camelot succeeds in being the most attractive and superior setting of all three

which Gawain visits due to main attributes. The unattractive qualities are absent in

Camelot while providing a most comfortable environment. Only an environment filled with

pure utopian qualities such as those of Camelot, can be considered archetypal and ideal.


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