Marginalia -- The Journal of the Medieval Reading Group at Cambridge


Re-reading Through Return in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Some Late Medieval Carols

From its opening line, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates an interest in time: its passage, events and record. It begins with a marking of time which is also an ending: ‘Siþen the sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye’ (1) 1 , its past tense representing ‘the slamming shut of a volume of history’2 . The movement of time (and grammar) from present to past is an ‘assaut’ on Troy as much as anything, yet language also marks time and what is lost in its passing. This poem, most often categorised as a courtly romance, at first positions itself as an intact verbal structure against the movement and ‘askez’ of time, yet cannot do so for long:

Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe.


The ambiguity of the phrase reveals the text’s failure, as a historical structure, to recall the past properly: it is unclear whether the ‘tulk’ or his ‘tricherie’ is ‘þe trewest on erthe’. ‘Ennias þe athel and his highe kynde’ (5) are either the victims of a mistrial that sets European history in motion or criminals benefiting from a miscarriage of historiography. The presence of both possibilities throws into doubt historical structure’s integrity and ability to deliver truth: history becomes a cycle of constant re-reading. Although J.A. Burrow calls Sir Gawain ‘a poem for the ear rather than the eye’, in which ‘the experience of literature as a linear art’3 predominates, he ignores this historical section, which begins the linear trajectory only to trouble it. The bob-and-wheel of the first stanza sees this cycle of competing historiographies turn into a cycle of history (and rhyme), as if Britain were a structure constantly at war with its own interpretations of its past, a site:

Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþes hatz wont þerinne


Britain is marked by the rush of time that destroyed Troy: but historical structure cannot manage this destruction, only record it.

Much has been made of structures of time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and in particular its temporal progress, built around the festive cycle of the Christian year, running from New Year to New Year and mirroring Gawain’s own there-and back movement which begins and ends at Arthur’s court. Although the movement between different environments has been read as inherent to the didactic structure of the courtly romance narrative, the connections between the poem’s interest in cycles of return in time and the circularity of its narrative shape – its temporal structure and literary form – have not been adequately drawn, nor has sufficient attention been given to time’s didactic function. If the poem is a courtly romance in its structure of movement, then it is looking for another way of formulating itself in terms of time, having explored the limitations of historical form. By analysing the poem’s shape in time, I argue that it is finally structured like a carol, negotiating between linear and circular conceptions of time as a carol alternates between phases of originality (the stanza) and repetition (the burden). By adapting Lori Ann Garner’s model of the ‘context of interpretation’ of carol burdens, inverting it to argue that the verses’ originality also affects understanding of the burden’s repeated text, I will claim that the carol form encodes a sustaining ideology of re-reading through return, and the possibility of accessing meaning by re-treading old ground. Sir Gawain offers this sustainability to its audience. After demonstrating how repetitive carol form is transformed into a way of managing time by an understanding of the Mass, I shall return to Sir Gawain and show how the synthesis of meaning over time is central to the Green Knight’s New Year’s didactic game.

The carol form is defined by a tension between repetition and originality. The alternation between stanzas and the burden, as Richard Leighton Greene argues, ‘makes and marks the carol’4 . Its distinctive literary shape derives from ‘its function in dance song’, providing a framework for the ‘stanza-pattern’. Garner argues that these burdens ‘index the way in which the songs as a whole are to be received’5 by providing the stanzas with commonplace contexts. Thus the burden becomes a thematic as well as formal structure, controlling how the stanzas signify. This implies that unchanging text equals unchanging meaning. By contrast, I shall argue that preceding stanzas form an interpretative context for the burden that changes each time it is sung so that words give up new meaning, making it a form marked not by stasis but by mutability and multiple signification.

The notion of burden as structural device marking time from beginning to end is problematic because, as a repeated text, its beginning is also at its end. In this sense the carol form is a mode of rediscovery and reassurance, a procession out from and back to a temporal point of origin, mirroring the structure of the ecclesiastical year. The nativity carol ‘Make we myrth’ (no. 8) articulates this. Although its burden is reassuringly festive:

Make we myrth
For Crystes byrth,
And syng we Yole til Candelmas,

each stanza begins by marking off another day – ‘The first day of Yole’, ‘The second day we syng of St[e]vene’ – and progress accelerates until the eighth stanza begins and ends:

On the xl day cam Mary myld
Vnto the temple…
And therwith endyth Crystmes.

This rush through the season, though punctuated by the burden, keeps diminishing the remaining time allowed for ‘myrth’. By the final burden, we have reached ‘Candelmas’ and there is no time left. In its new context the burden becomes a memento mori, yet still returns to its original moment, the beginning of song and season. The poem is therefore also a process in which elegy is mingled with celebration as the constant re-reading it demands involves time itself in its meaning.

This formal recursion appears repeatedly in carols celebrating the ‘fiften dayes’ of feasting with which Sir Gawain begins and ends. In each case literary shape does what the text alone cannot, incorporating cycles of return that change the interpretative context of a repeated sequence. The carol (no. 35B) whose burden asserts the meaningfulness of Christ’s incarnation,

All this tyme this songe is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est’

also redefines what ‘this tyme’ means. Its first stanza begins with the historic present: ‘This nyght ther is a child born…’ ‘This tyme’, meaning ‘at this time of year’, allows the nativity story to be told for three stanzas but does not reveal its continued significance. An altered conception of ‘this tyme’ in the final stanza allows a fuller appreciation:

Now knele we down on owr kne,
And pray we to the Trynyte
Owr helpe, owr socowr for to be;
Verbum caro factum est.

The connection is made between Christ’s birth and its significance ‘now’: ‘all this tyme’ becomes a continuum reaching back to the nativity. This becomes a way of handling suffering in the carol (no. 9) that begins:

Welcum, welcum, welcum,
Christe, redemtor omneum.

The first stanza is celebratory and inclusive, figuring the ‘omn[is]’ of the burden as all the world: Christ has come

to all this wordill a grete soccowre,
Celi terreque Dominum.

The following four stanzas, though, abandon the nativity, narrating martyrdoms instead: Stephen, John, the Holy Innocents and Thomas, the last recording stoically, ‘Sic passus est martyrrium.’ The return, between these, to the festive ‘welcum’ cry becomes increasingly jarring: ‘Christe, redemtor omneum’ must now redeem all these events, so that they can be suffered (‘passus est’) and surpassed, and return the carol to the original scene of devotion, the ‘grete honnowre and reverens’ of the Magi. Although the feasts of St Stephen, St John the Divine, the Holy Innocents and St Thomas fall immediately after Christmas, their ethos seems far removed from the nativity’s festive moment, but the carol’s narrative requires these moments to be experienced too. The burden ensures a constant reconnection to the beginning. Suffering is managed because it too is part of ‘all this wordill’, always returning to Christ as ‘redemtor’ whose Good Friday passion these feasts prefigure, even at Christmas. These points of joy and sorrow exist on the same continuum, their meanings accessible by the same words signifying differently.

The seasonal carol is a microcosm of liturgical time, enacting the same patterns of return and re-signification. This sophisticated appreciation of managed time comes, I suggest, from a close association with the liturgical cycle. As Miri Rubin has shown, the idea of the Mass ‘bound people together despite the differences between them in non-ritual space and time’6 . The liturgy, as a repeated event, represents a way of marking time as a carol’s burden does, not just following a repeated cycle of the year, but also always drawing the celebrant back to Christ’s death, the ritual’s origin. The repetition of ‘Christ’s words which had become the priest’s words’7 makes the Mass a burden for the year, marking and managing time. The continuity of the words and actions from Christ to the Mass, and from each Mass to the next, is maintained though their context may change. This model of time also operates on smaller scales, most obviously the single year as a cycle of Masses, following the recurrent seasonal cycle. Greene has identified seasonal carols’ thematic and textual debt to the liturgy8 , so a formal resemblance is unsurprising. Those carols that take the Eucharist as their subject demonstrate a liturgical understanding of time most clearly.

Greene’s Carol 317 states its interest in the kind of form I am describing at the outset:

Worchyp we, bothe more and lesce,
Crystes body in furme of bred.

Although this burden seems to reflect upon the present eucharistic moment and the doctrine of transubstantiation, the first stanza reverses the simplicity of such a reading by figuring Christ historically ‘in furme of bred’:

It is bred from heuene cam;
Fleych and blod of Mary it nam;

This is not Word-made-flesh but bread-made-flesh, Christ’s birth as transubstantiation. The burden now seems to comment on the stanzas’ imaginative formulation as much as the imaginative piety of the Eucharist. The second stanza continues this formal transgression –

‘He that onworthi this bred ete,
The peyne of helle he xal gete…’

The unidentified speaker may be Christ, the host, or a priest. These questions of the form, place, time and identity of the subject are unanswered: its ritual involvement is what matters. The call to ‘more and lesce’ now sounds less commonplace and more like a deconstruction of status-based forms of the self in favour of a transformed community. The next stanza, beginning ‘He that this bred haght in mynde,/ He xal leuyn’, internalises the ‘bred’ as much as Christ for contemplation; in the next three stanzas the bread replaces Christ in the passion narrative and the imagination of the poem. This interconnection of past event and present ritual is so strong that the Last Supper becomes ‘the Messe’ with Christ, saying ‘Etyght this bred’, as celebrant, an idea revived in the final stanza:

Jhesu, lynd vs this bred to ete,
And alle our synnys for to foryete,
And in heuene a place to gete
Throw the vertu of this bred.

Christ is invited to distribute his own body, abandoning it and taking the priest’s place. The burden, re-read, might suggest that ‘Crystes body’ is only significant ‘in furme of bred’ now because this enables the Mass where Christ (not just his body) is present and officiating. The assertion that we are saved ‘throw the vertu of this bread’ suggests that the ‘bred’ of Mass is as real a part of salvation as the ‘body’ of Christ. Like the Mass, the carol requires its reader to keep returning to and re-reading the central object of attention in the burden, finding it unchanged yet signifying differently. Its full meaning is only accessible through this cycle of return, a Christian colonisation of time which admits change but secures it through the recurring motif of stability: Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice played out every time, connecting present and past whenever Mass is performed.

It is worth elaborating such forms and their use of time at length because, however little it has been noticed, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also partakes of these structures. The Green Knight’s intrusion into the court educates the court in this liturgical conception of time by confronting it with a cycle of return, framed as a chivalric obligation. This presents them with a ritual whose carol-like temporal structure gives them access to a more meaningful appreciation of salvation history than their courtly territorial construction of identity will allow.

Arthur’s courtiers are victims of the failure of historical narrative. The ‘telescoping in time’ which Laila Gross identifies, focusing on ‘the fifteen days of Christmas’9 , is a coping strategy for a narrative that ‘does not present us from a static background’, but proceeds ‘forward from the beginning of historical time’. While Gross sees this as an affirmation of Arthur’s claim to the throne, I read it as symptomatic of the court’s attempts to stop the ‘werre and wrake’ of time. These ‘fiften dayes’ are presented as a golden age, and those sharing it ‘fayre folk in her first age’ (54). This apex of chivalry is opposed to time because its beauty will fade if time’s course continues. Rebecca M. Douglass notes the undifferentiated nature of the feasting at Hautdesert, the ‘deliberate elision’ of martyrdom narratives and the absence of the Feast of the Holy Innocents as symbolic of the ‘failures and flaws of the Christian structure of time’10 – but the different register of Holy Innocents is elided at Camelot too, where ‘þe fest watz ilyche ful fifteen dayes’ (44). This stasis becomes so forceful that the narrative gives way for twenty-two lines (107-129) to a present-tense tableau of the table arrangement:

Thus þer stondes in stale þe stif kyng hisseluen,
Talkkande before þe hy3e table of trifles ful hende…

Attempting to prevent consequences makes everything inconsequential: Arthur is preoccupied with ‘trifles’ and ‘auenturus’ (95). ‘Complacently Christian Camelot’11 is already flawed because it does not understand the ‘Christian structure of time’. It has made itself into a self-supporting structure defined by beauty and not durability. It cannot formulate itself in terms of time’s passage. Its displays of opulence (‘of tars tapites innoghe… enbrawded and beten with the best gemmes’) are a legible statement of the court’s sense of its own perfection. The emblem of this ideal is the pentangle, ‘a sign for trawþ’, ‘an idea of endless self-replication’12 . Though it claims to stand for Gawain’s (and the court’s) integrity, a ‘synthesis’ of chivalric values, it is also a temporal syntax, an inflexible interconnected structure – the same kind of intact structure that time destroys. Its fifty-line exposition leaves no room for re-reading: it becomes a saturated symbol of all that cannot cope with change over time.

The Green Knight’s entry intrudes upon this structure not just because his appearance is so challenging, but because of its illegibility. Lawrence Besserman finds interpretations of the figure as ‘a dying and rising vegetation god, an archetypal Death figure [or] the Devil in disguise… reductive and mutually exclusive’13 . Kirk argues that the Green Knight’s greenness ‘does not tell the reader what he is’, just ‘what he is not: a human being’. The Green Knight unsettles the court’s static, syntactic mode of symbolic thought by being inexplicable: his description, twice as long as that of the pentangle, finds no unified meaning in his appearance. I want to suggest that the Green Knight is an endlessly re-readable form, a site that constantly demands revaluation, the opposite of the court’s stasis. He is intrusive because while the court seeks to stop time the Green Knight is, like a burden, a recurring figure, tied to a specific point of the cycle of the year, whose ‘context of interpretation’ is the beheading game which represents, as an analysis of its beginning and end demonstrates, a perfect carol-like cycle of liturgical time in which nothing is lost, and which like the Mass allows the participant to act out the death and resurrection of Christ within the safety of that cycle.

The Green Knight’s challenge is a matter of honour. He mocks the court’s integrity: ‘Where is now your sourquydrye and your conquests?’ (311). Arthur takes it up first. Gawain’s intervention appears a defence of the court’s value system – ‘me þink hit not semly’ (347) – but it begins Gawain’s transformation into a figure with whom the court will not later identity: a suffering Christ-figure. Arthur’s desire to stop time extends to cheating to end the game, as he advises Gawain:

‘Kepe þe, cosyn,’ quoþ þe kyng, ‘þat þou on kyrf sette,
And if þou redez hym ry3t, redly I trowe
Þat þou schal byden þe bur þat he schal bede after.’


Gawain must take ‘such a dunt as þou hatz dalt’: having taken Arthur’s place he must pay the price for Arthur’s lack of fair play and unwillingness to accept anything not part of the immediately apprehensible structure of the court. The game places Gawain on a historical trajectory so that he can learn the significance of a liturgical sense of time. Liturgical practice in Camelot is occluded: Mass has ‘cheued to an ende’ (63) as the scene opens. The court has no frame of reference for the Green Knight’s challenge, which Arthur reads as no more than a festive game:

Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse –
Laykyng of enterludez, to la3e and to syng –
Among þise kynde caroles of kny3tez and ladyez.


The mention of ‘caroles’ here betrays the text’s knowledge of its own structure: knowledge Arthur lacks. In his misreading ‘caroles’ are light entertainment, an excuse to dance rather than an opportunity for reflection upon the broader significance of the season, just as Mass is a distraction from feasting. Fitt II begins with a shock: the rapid movement of time as ‘A 3ere 3ernes ful 3erne and 3eldes neuer lyke’. This is a conception of time as uncontrolled and dangerous, and largely non-liturgical in its description. Nature moves in a cycle ‘as þe world askez’ (530) but mankind is offered no similar guarantee of return. This itself is a trope of New Year Carols:

Who wot nowe that ys here
Where he schall be anoder yere? 14

Gawain’s trajectory towards New Year is pursued with surprising speed, eliding most of the intervening time – ‘Til Me3elmas mone/ Watz cumen’ (532-3) – and even Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel, passes in a moment of occupatio (‘Hit were to tore for to telle of þe tenþe dole’ (719)), with the only pause the description of the pentangle before he reaches Hautdesert. Even there, Gawain is afforded no rest: the Lady’s pursuit suggests that the court is no safer a place for moral reflection than the outside world which Gawain so gladly escaped. Even this pursuit, a chivalric test as much as fighting ‘wodwos’ (721), is stripped of its importance for Gawain by the pull of the future and the threat of death. Gawain’s perception of the game as linear temporal process, ending with his death, leads to an erasure of his own identity: he is so distracted by time that he does not live up to his courtly reputation and has to admit to the Lady that he is not Gawain, ‘þat alle þe worlde worchipez’ (1227), that ‘I be not now he þat 3e of speken’ (1242). Gawain’s misunderstanding of time emerges, though, as the cause not of a loss but of a re-reading of identity. His chivalric identity, emblematised in the pentangle, fails him. As Gawain awakes on New Year’s Day he considers ‘How þat Destiné schulde þat day dele hym his wyrde’ (1752). From his intercession to be sacrificed in Arthur’s place to this moment of reflection before death, Gawain has been re-read by the game as a type of Christ. Though he cannot see it he is acting out a liturgical ritual. His actions are those of Christ’s going to the cross, but also those of the Green Knight, who the previous year played the part of sacrificial victim but let Gawain play the part of intercessor. Now the Green Knight is placing the full onus of imitating Christ on Gawain. Gawain, though, remains unaware of how his actions signify in a cyclical conception of managed time, and can only see the receipt of the stroke, naturally enough, as impending death.

The burden of the carols and the performance of the Mass always recall and return to their origins by repetition, so that time cycles and returns without loss even though the significance of the repeated burden or ritual may change as the interpretative context changes. The time taken by the game has put Gawain in a different interpretative context from the court. At Camelot it is always Christmas-time in the poem, but Gawain, facing death, is stuck in the position of Christ on Good Friday. Their ignorance of the structural connections between times of celebration and mourning, beginnings and endings, is the root of their stasis and their fear of time’s passage. The structure of time is reflected in the shape of the poem as it returns to the scene of decapitation, bringing the game back to where it began, as the Green Knight does not kill Gawain. This has been read as an act of mercy which disrupts the cycle of chivalric obligation. That cycle, though, has never mattered since Arthur tried to break it before the first stroke had been dealt. Douglass claims that ‘the Green Knight does not return the blow as Gawain gave it’15 . In fact, the blow is returned exactly as it was given, because, like the first blow (and like Christ’s death which it represents) it is survived. To kill Gawain would be to break the cycle of ritual time, to prevent the possibility of return to origin and to end Gawain’s imitation of Christ. Gawain performs an act of self-sacrifice and ‘resurrection’ which will redeem the court by allowing it access to the meaning of Christianised time.

Gawain’s return to the court, then, prompts a re-reading of signs. The pentangle as an ethical symbol is abandoned, and in its place the green lace emerges as an ambiguous, multiply re-readable sign of past events. Gawain considers it ‘þe bende of þis blame I bere’ (2506); Arthur calls it an object of ‘renoun’. Thus it suffers from the same ambiguity as Aeneas’s reputation at the poem’s beginning, but no attempt is made to derive a single ‘trawþ’ from the lace, nor from the Green Knight or his game. Meaning is instead generated through the tension between Gawain’s reading of his experience and the court’s, just as between original and altered readings of a carol’s burden. Though no absolute settlement of the significance of events is reached, it becomes understood that change and difference over time may be non-destructive. Appropriately, then, not only does the historical sense of the narrative re-emerge at the end, it does so by closing the circle of the poem’s form – the last full-length line of the poem is the same as the first – before commending whatever may follow to Christ’s original and continuous care over time:

Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bring vus to His blysse!

In this final bob-and-wheel, past time is reconnected to present, and the Green Knight’s gift to Arthur’s court is allowed to continue functioning as a gift to the reader, who is drawn into the undifferentiated community of believers, ‘vus’, across time.

Alex Steer (MPhil), U. of Cambridge


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Greene, Richard Leighton, ed., 1977. The Early English Carols, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Garner, Lori Ann, 2000. 'Contexts of Interpretation in the Burdens of Middle English Carols.' Neophilologus 84(2): 467-83.

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Rubin, Miri, 1991. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: CUP).



1.Andrew and Waldron (1987): 207. Line numbers from this edition.

2.Bishop (1985): 611.

3.Burrow (1965): 1.

4.Greene, 1977: clx. Greene’s numbering used hereafter.

5. Garner, 2000: 468.

6.Rubin (1991): 2.

7.Ibid: 54. (Hic est corpus meus. Hic est sanguis meus.)

8.See Green, 1977, introductory essay on The Latin Background of the Carol, lxxxi-cxvii

9. Gross (1969): 131.

10. Douglass (1992): 22.

11. Douglass (1992): 21.

12. Arthur (1987): 26; 34.

13. Besserman (1986): 220.

14. No. 121.

15.Douglass (1992): 26.

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