Camelot: The Archetypal Environment
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,