The Formidable Challenger & the Brave, Humble Knight: Different Uses of the Blazon Convention

Every time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I am completely taken by the long and detailed exposition imagery of the gigantic, beastly Green Knight and the humble underdog, Sir Gawain. It’s interesting to me that the blazon/effictio (“laundry list”) convention is used to both paint a portrait of a seemingly formidable enemy as well as the enemy’s corresponding unlikely noble hero. Both descriptions evoke a sense of respectable strength, but the Green Knight appears otherworldly and fierce upon the relatively “normal” and whitewashed wintry court backdrop. The giant figure is “grattest in grene when grevez ar bare” and is so richly aglow that “forthi for fantoun and fayryye the folk there hit demed” (207, 240). The fact that the court views the giant as some strange once-in-a-lifetime sighting should be reason enough for concern/alienation. We know he is someone worthy of courtly respect, though, because he is “brayden ful ryche” – even his horse seems to command respect (220). Though Gawain’s blazon features none of the mighty physical traits that make the Green Knight so outwardly formidable, he is described as powerful in heart and purpose. His most conventionally admirable trait, then, is his dedication to Jesus and Mary. He is so reverent in battle that he has an “image depaynted” on his shield of Mary herself (649). Therefore, even though the rich descriptions of both men are significant, Gawain’s heroic visage ultimately holds the most conventional value.

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