Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle-English romance poem. Its author is unknown. The manuscript that contains it also includes three other significant poems: Pearl, Purity, and Patience. Gawain is the last piece in the document, and it wraps up all the themes and ideas together.
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On this page, you’ll find a short summary of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as an analysis, description of the characters and motifs.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Summary
The poem starts with the court of King Arthur celebrating New Year’s Eve in Camelot. The opening stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story alludes to Troy’s Fall and its destruction. It then tells about how Trojan heroes fled to Europe to establish new civilizations in Rome and Europe. The poet says that Britain was founded by these warriors, too, and the greatest of all was Arthur. In the second stanza, the poet tells his intention of telling this Arthurian legend. The Gawain poet uses many hyperbolas and literary exaggerations to catch the reader’s attention.
In stanzas 4,6 and 7, the Gawain poet tells about Arthur’s feast and some gift-giving games the court plays. There is an emphasis on the decoration, food, and lavish dressing of the Queen and King Arthur’s court: fine silks, the best gems, chivalric symbols, precious cloth of Toulous, and tapestry of Tarts. Arthur is described as an attentive host who would refuse to eat before others are served. The readers also learn that Arthur does not like to start his feast before hearing a lovely tale. All of this creates an atmosphere of growing tension.
The celebration gets interrupted by an enormous man who is fully green, entering the hall. Despite his unusual appearance, the stranger looks handsome and well-dressed. The poet describes in detail the clothing and the weapon that the green stranger carries with him. Arthur invites him to join the feast and asks him questions about the reason for his visit.
Nevertheless, the visitor rejects the invitation and explains that he came to play a little game. At first, Arthur thinks that the green man talks about a duel. However, he does not want a traditional fight. He says that he will allow one knight to hit him with the ax, and a year later, the challenger will receive a hit in return. No one wants to participate in this game, and eventually, Arthur is about to agree. To save the King and the court’s honor, Gawain decides to play the game himself instead. Gawain takes the ax and, with one hit, takes off the head of the giant. However, the green knight does not fall. He picks up his head, and before leaving the castle reminds him about the rules.
Next year Gawain spends time before Christmas with Arthur and the knights of the round table. Everyone tries to pretend to be happy. However, it is not easy because they don’t want to say bye to noble Gawain. After the meal, Gawain tells King Arthur and his court that he is leaving to look for the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor and leaves Camelot.
Throughout the journey, he encounters a lot of adventures and misfortunes. The weather is the worst of all, and it makes him pray to Virgin Mary (his patron saint) for shelter. Suddenly, he sees a white castle that looks beautiful and unreal. Its owner invites him in, a large man by the name of Lord Bertilak. He introduces Gawain to his wife, Lady Bertilak, together with an elderly lady that also lives in the castle. It is peculiar that the host is as big as the Green Knight. Gawain cannot make a connection, though.
The atmosphere in the castle is quite friendly. The guest plays games with the host and the two ladies. The game they play after the Christmas mass is focused on giving away valuable clothing pieces one by one to those who win them by entertaining the company.
In this manner, three days pass. However, Gawain has to leave to find the Green Knight. The host begs him to stay, but Gawain refuses. When Gawain explains that he still has to find the Green Chapel, the host says that he knows where it is. Luckily, it is nearby. So, the protagonist can stay with them until New Year’s Eve. Sir Gawain agrees to this plan.
The host also proposes a deal to Gawain. Since he is tired of all the travels, the host will be busy hunting, while Gawain will be spending time with the lord’s wife. In the evening, they will exchange with each other whatever they got as a pray. Sir Gawain accepts this deal as well. On the first day, the lord hunts a dear, and the lady kisses Gawain. At the dinner, the men exchange what they got. The next day, the lord gives away a boar and receives two kisses from Gawain. On the third day, the lord brings home a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She tries to seduce Gawain, but he refuses to sleep with her. She also demands him to give her a love token, yet, he says that he has nothing for her. Instead, the lady offers him a green girdle. She explains that it will protect the wearer from death. Gawain hides it from the lord and does not give it to him during the exchange.
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In the morning, Gawain leaves the castle and the lord’s family and travels to the Green Chapel to fight the Green Knight. He travels together with a servant who tries to convince him not to face the giant. Gawain refuses because he does not want to be a coward. When they reach the chapel, the travelers can hear the honing of an ax. Gawain yells to announce that he arrived as agreed. When the green man exits, Gawain bows to him, and the green man commends him for keeping the word. Soon, The Green Knight raises the ax, but because Gawain flinches, he stops himself. He starts mocking Gawain for his cowardice, and Gawain promises not to do that again, though stating a significant difference between them. If Gawain gets beheaded, he will not survive and pick his head up because he is just a human. Gawain asks to be quick and to get it over with. The Green Knight raises his ax once again but stops at the last second. He praises the young man for not flinching this time. The last time when the Green Man raises his ax, he hits Gawain enough to cut his skin and leaves a scar. Gawain jumps away and is ready to defend himself.
The Green Knight tells Gawain to calm down and explains that the first blows were harmless because of his honesty during the exchange with the lord. The last one is the payment for Gawain’s secret. He says that the green belt or the girdle that he accepted from the host’s wife belonged to the host. Nevertheless, he sees that Gawain is a faithful man. Gawain is ashamed and starts crying in despair. He declared himself a coward for withholding the girdle and the truth. However, the Green Knight says that Gawain is innocent in his eyes.
Gawain asks the Green Man for his name and learns that it is Bertilak, the host. He also finds out the old lady in the castle, Morgan le Faye, arranged the whole thing out of hate for Guinevere. Gawain returns home, and the court happily receives him. He tells the story of his journey and his disgrace as well. He refuses to remove the girdle. So, the court says that they will wear one too as a sign of respect for Gawain’s fate and humility.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Analysis
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the Middle Ages around the 14th century. It is in the Middle English variant of English, which is very close to the modern one. The poet uses a metrical form called the bob and wheel, a very common one for medieval texts. It refers to the pairing of the two types of rhythm and rhyme. First is the wheel, a long verse that occurs at the end of each stanza, and the lyric returns to a peculiar rhythm. The bob is a short line that announces the wheel.
To see how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval romance, one needs to define what medieval romance is. Romance is an intersection of love (of fine love or fin amor in particular) and Great Britain’s myth history. So, King Arthur’s figure plays a prominent role in almost all major medieval romances that are known. Even when King Arthur is not present, he serves as a connecting figure of the whole genre. Another idea that connects all the medieval romance is the importance of the Trojan War. During that era, there was a belief that the British are connected to Brutus, one of the conspirators who overthrew Ceasar. Therefore, Anglo-Norman tradition traces its roots to the “civilization” back to the Great Trojan War. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight starts and ends with an allusion to the Trojan War.
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However, the story of Gawain is an unusual chivalric romance. Mainly, because traditionally the medieval romance legends are the stories of daring deeds. What it means is that the knight would be defeating a large group of men by himself. In Sir Gawain, there are no battles at all. It also has an abundance of religious allegories. Another peculiar detail is that the most popular Arthur’s knight, Lancelot, is not in the story. So, Gawain takes the leading role, being depicted as almost a saint in the story. He is a virgin, courageous man who keeps his promise and refuses to sleep with the host’s wife.
There are several important themes in the poem. One of them is the conflict between man and the natural world. There is an apparent contrast between Arthur’s court’s civilized world and the Green Chapel and Betilak’s court’s wilderness. The civilized world is guided by the principles of chivalry, faithful love, and the knight code of honor. Meanwhile, primitive instincts and desires drive the natural world. In the poem, Gawain faces lousy weather, wild animals, and even becomes the object of Lady Bertilak’s sexual hunting. He can resist all of them. Gawain loses only to a fear of death, so he feels ashamed of himself at the end. Other significant themes are hunting and seduction, temptation and testing, games, seasons, love, and religion.
The poem also criticizes Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain is the youngest one at a table, yet he is the one who accepts the challenge from the Green Knight. Some scholars believe that the Green Knight’s challenge represents King Arthur’s court’s criticism of the code. The Green Man in the poem is an embodiment of strength and manhood, while the knights are portrayed as weak and boyish. Even King Arthur himself is described as childish at the beginning of the poem. A theme of truth, chivalry principles, and beliefs is essential for understanding the poem as well.
The poem has 2,530 lines and is written in alliterative verse with the repetition of “k” and “f” sounds. These alliterations run through the entire poem. The story of Gawain is both powerful and complex. It has a lot of layers, themes, and symbols that can contribute to its understanding.
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