Written by the Pearl-Poet (also known as the Gawain-Poet), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest Arthurian romance in English literature. After a brief introduction connecting the events of the story to the mythical founding of Britain by the Trojan warrior Brutus, the story turns to Christmastime at Camelot where Arthur’s court, a young and rowdy group, are about to celebrate a New Year’s feast. Arthur refuses to eat, however, until someone tells him of some adventure or miracle. As if on cue, an enormous green knight on a green horse rushes into the court and challenges the court to a game: He will endure a blow from a knight if the knight will submit to a blow a year and a day later. Gawain leaps to the challenge and whacks the Green Knight with an axe, chopping off his head. However, the Green Knight does not die. He simply grabs his severed head and tells Gawain that to keep his honor, Gawain must find him in the Green Chapel and submit to the blow in a year and a day. The Green Knight rides out of the room, and the stunned court returns to its festivities.
In the second part of the poem, the poet traces the cycle of the year through the liturgical calendar, moving from the New Year to Michaelmas to All Hallows Day. Just as the year grows older, Arthur’s court grows heavier with trepidation for their beloved Gawain, who must ready himself for his ordeal. In some particularly lovely passages, the poet describes Gawain’s preparations and gear for the journey. His shield in particular is important for the religious significance of the poem; it is adorned with a pentagram as a token of “trouthe” on the outside, and on its inner surface is a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Gawain leaves the court as Christmas approaches, facing the wilds of northern England alone in his search for the Green Chapel. When he is nearly defeated by the weather, he prays to the Virgin for help. Suddenly, the Castle Haut Desert appears, and Gawain finds himself welcomed by Lord and Lady Bertilak and an old crone. The lord assures Gawain that he knows where the Green Chapel is and that it is not very far away. He invites Gawain to stay with them for several days and enjoy their company. He invites Gawain to play a game: He says that he will give Gawain anything that he gains on each of three days he is away hunting if Gawain will give him anything he gains while staying at the castle.
On each day, Lady Bertilak comes to Gawain’s bed and tempts him. Gawain is in a difficult position: The code of courtesy demands that he engage in lovemaking, while the code of chivalry demands that he honor his host. He compromises by taking a kiss, which he dutifully later gives to Lord Bertilak when he returns. On the third day, however, Lady Bertilak offers him a green girdle that she says will protect him from all harm. Fearing death at the hands of the Green Knight, Gawain takes the girdle but does not reveal this to Lord Bertilak.
When Gawain finally arrives at the Green Chapel, he finds the Green Knight sharpening his axe. He puts his head on the block to take the blow, but flinches, and the Green Knight chides him. The Green Knight begins a second blow but does not complete it. On the third attempt, he just nicks Gawain’s neck. He then reveals that he is Lord Bertilak, that he came to Arthur’s court at the direction of the old crone, Morgan le Fay, and that he gave Gawain the nick because Gawain did not give him the girdle he had received from Lady Bertilak. Gawain is mortified. He begs for pardon, which Lord Bertilak grants, then says he will wear the girdle on his sleeve as a sign of his shame. He returns to Camelot, humbled, and the court welcomes him home. They make light of his badge, choosing to wear green girdles themselves as a sign of solidarity. For Gawain, however, the adventure has been a learning experience: Far from the perfect knight he thought himself to be, he remains a humbled, contrite, yet redeemed man at the end of the story.