Passus 1, Stanza 3, Lines 37 through 59:
King Arthur “lay at Camelot at Christmastide” (37). The word “lay” means the king lies in a recumbent posture at Camelot during Christmastime (37). Camelot is the capital of Arthur’s kingdom, located in southwest England or southern Wales. King Arthur is joined by gay knights and guests around the Round Table. According to legend, Merlin made the Round Table after a dispute broke out among knights about precedence. The Round Table seated one hundred knights. However, the table described in the poem is not round. The knights and guest were there for “feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth” (40). The term “carefree mirth” means free from care or anxiety. The knights and guests were there to express pleasurable feelings, gratification, happiness and joy (40).
“True men contented in tournaments” (41). “True men” are steadfast in adherence to a commander or friend, to a principle or cause, to their promises and faith (41). A true man is firm in his allegiance, realiable and trustworthy. The men joined in “jousting these gentle knights” (42). The sport of “jousting” is a combative exercise between knights and men-at-arm on horseback (42). On horseback, they encounter each other with lances (42). The goal is to use the lance to knock the other man off his horse. A jousting “tournament” is a series of encounters (41). A “tournament” is a spectacular display of sport for participants, and a form of entertainment for guests (41). The reference to “gentle knights” means knights well-born and belonging to a family of position (42). A “gentle knight” was originally used synonymously with noblility (42). A knight has the rank and status of a ‘gentleman.’ A distinguishing mark of a knight is the right to bear a coat-of-arms. The jousting tournaments consists of “true men” against “gentle knights” (41-42). After the tournament, they “came to the court for carol-dancing” (43). “Carol-dancing” is a ring-dance with accompaniment of song (43). The circle dance is composed of men and women joined in hand moving in dance step to the rhythm of the music. (43).
The “feast was in force full fifteen days” (44). The fifteen day feast includes “the meat and the mirth” (45). Mirth” means pleasurable feelings, gratification and happiness and joy (45). The feast includes “gaiety and glee” (46). “Gaiety and glee” is the condition of being gay, cheerfulness with gratification, and entertainment through playfulness of jousting (46). The feast also includes “dancing” (47). In the 14th Century, guests and knights would perform a carol-dance. Carol-dancing is a ring of men and women holding hands, moving in dance step to the rhythm of music.
During the days of feasting, “these lords and these ladies” hearts were high (49). In “peerless pleasures,” in unequal pleasures, they “passed … their days” (50). The guests were the “most-noble knights known under Christ” (51). The ladies were the “loveliest ladies that lived on earth” (52). The king was the “comeliest” (53). The term “comeliest” is applied to those of noble station, and refers to their pleasing or agreeable morality, to notions of propriety and æsthetic taste (53). “Comeliest” includes a becoming, decent and decorous disposition (53).
The guests were the “Happiest of mortal kind” (56). To be “mortal” is to be a person destined to die (56). The “King noblest famed of will” (57). King Arthur, the noblest of kings, is famous for his “will” because he fulfills all of his desires (57). The reader “would … go far to find (58)/ “So hardy a host on hill” (59). The poet addresses the reader to say, ‘you will not find such a strong and enduring host on any hill.’ In the 14th century, nobility resides upon hills for protection. If the enemy advances towards a hill, outlookers in towers forewarn those in the castle to prepare for battle.
Modern English Translation:
This king lay at Camelot at Christmastide;
Many good knights and gay his guests were there,
Arrayed of the Round Table rightful brothers,
With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.
There true men contended in tournaments many,
Joined there in jousting these gentle knights,
Then came to the court for carol-dancing,
For the feast was in force full fifteen days,
With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise,
Such gaiety and glee, glorious to hear,
Brave din by day, dancing by night.
High were their hearts in halls and chambers,
These lords and these ladies, for life was sweet.
In peerless pleasures passed they their days,
The most noble knights known under Christ,
And the lovelies ladies that lived on earth ever,
And he the comeliest king, that that court holds,
For all this fair folk in their first age
Happiest of moral kind,
King noblest famed of will;
You would now go far to find
So hardy a host on hill.
Middle English Manuscript:
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best,
Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
With rych reuel ory3t and rechles merþes.
Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
Justed ful jolilé þise gentyle kni3tes,
Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.
For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,
With alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse;
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn vpon day, daunsyng on ny3tes,
Al watz hap vpon he3e in hallez and chambrez
With lordez and ladies, as leuest him þo3t.
With all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen,
Þe most kyd kny3tez vnder Krystes seluen,
And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age,
Þe hapnest vnder heuen,
Kyng hy3est mon of wylle;
Hit were now gret nye to neuen
So hardy a here on hille.
Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain reproduced in facsimile from MS. Cotton Nero A. x with Introduction by Sir I. Gollancz, E.E.T.S. 162, 1923.
Syr Gawayne, ed. Sir F. Madden, Bannatyne Club, 1839.
Sir Gawayne and The Green Knight, ed. R. Morris, E.E.T.S. 4, 1864, revd. Sir I. Gollancz 1897 and 1912.
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, Oxford, 1925.
The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. Malcom Andrew, and Ronald Waldron. Exeter: U of Exeter, 1987.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Middle Ages. 8th ed. Vol. A. Eds. Alfred David, and James Simpson. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 160-213.