Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
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Summary and Analysis
Part One, Verses 1-10, Lines 1-231 Summary and Analysis
King Arthur: the legendary king at Camelot, who is presiding over Christmas festivities
Queen Guinevere: the wife of King Arthur, famed for her beauty
Sir Gawain: the nephew of King Arthur and hero of the story
The Green Knight: the mysterious stranger; a huge man whose clothes and complexion are green; he
arrives in Camelot at the Christmas festivities to deliver the strange challenge which begins the story
Bishop Baldwin: religious figure, who in the beginning of the poem, sits next to King Arthur
The Duke of Clarence: attends the feast in the beginning of the poem
Sir Ywain, Sir Eric, Sir Dodinal le Sauvage, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, Sir Lionel, Sir Lucan the Good and Sir Mador de la Porte: knights of the Round Table
Sir Agravain á la dure main: a knight; Gawain’s brother
Sir Lancelot: a knight; has an affair with Queen Guinevere
The poet leads into his story by telling of the foundation of Britain and the line of King Arthur. The story begins as Arthur and his court are celebrating the Christmas holidays. There are contests and games. People attend Mass and exchange gifts. A feast is being prepared and Queen Guinevere sits in a place of honor on a dais under a costly canopy with silk curtains and imported tapestries. On her left is seated Sir Gawain, and next to him is his brother Sir Agravain. The seat on her right waits for Arthur. The restless young king has vowed not to feast until either he has heard a tale of some wonder or else a challenge has been issued to one of the knights of the Round Table.
Suddenly a stranger, the Green Knight, appears in the doorway. He is at least a head taller than any of Arthur’s knights. He is also very well-proportioned, but his complexion and his clothing are green, with a few touches of gold. Even his hair and beard are green. His horse, similarly splendid, is entirely green as well.
The knights think what a formidable adversary the Green Knight must be, yet he wears no armor. He holds a strand of holly in one hand and an enormous battle-ax in the other. The Green Knight calls for the whomever is presiding over the feast.
According to tradition, the crown of Arthur went all the way back to King Priam of Troy. The third stanza alludes to several stories connected with this origin. The Greeks had burned the city, but Aeneas, son of Priam, escaped, and his descendants had founded many kingdoms including Rome and Tuscany....
(The entire section is 1055 words.)
Part One, Verses 11-21, Lines 232-490 Summary and Analysis
All stare at the Green Knight in amazement. Finally, Arthur courteously introduces himself, and he invites the stranger to stay with them. The Green Knight explains that he does not intend to stay, yet he has come in peace. Arthur tells the Green Knight that, if he has come for combat, the knights of the Round Table will oblige him. The Green Knight taunts the knights of the Round Table, saying that they are just boys and would certainly not have been able to stand up to him in battle if that was his mission.
The Green Knight goes on to offer a challenge. Any knight may take up the ax he has brought and cut off his head. That knight, however, must seek him out at his home at the same time next year, and let the Green Knight behead the challenger.
Nobody rises to accept the challenge, so the Green Knight taunts the men as cowards and begins to laugh. This goads Arthur himself into accepting the challenge. He picks up the ax and is about to behead the Green Knight. Then Gawain calls out and volunteers to take the challenge on himself in Arthur’s place.
The king agrees, and tells Gawain to make the first blow count, so the Green Knight will not be able to retaliate. The Green Knight expresses his satisfaction. Gawain asks the Green Knight where he lives, and the Green Knight says he will tell that after Gawain has fulfilled the first part of their agreement. He bows his neck a bit. Gawain raises the ax and cuts off the head of the Green Knight. People turn aside as it rolls around the floor. The Green Knight, however, goes after his head, retrieves it and carries it to his horse.
After he has mounted, the Green Knight lifts his head with his arm. The severed head addresses Gawain. It reminds Gawain to fulfill his part of the bargain. Gawain must seek him at the Green Chapel. Many people know him as “the Knight of the Green Chapel,” the head explains, and they will be able to show the way.
As soon as the Green Knight has left, Arthur tells Guinevere not to be dismayed, adding that such events are appropriate to the Christmas season. He calmly directs Gawain to hang up the ax and given orders for the feast to continue.
This passage is full of humor, as the challenge of the Green Knight reveals the weaknesses of Arthur’s court. Arthur is eager to see combat. The knights are willing to risk their lives in dangerous jousting tournaments, for no other purpose than entertainment. They are, however, at a loss to respond to the challenge of the Green Knight.
There is no clear reason why anybody should accept the strange proposal of the Green Knight, but, as young men, Arthur and his knights are unable to resist a dare. The taunt about the knights being just boys clearly infuriates Arthur, but that response suggests that it is at least partially true. The knights of the Round Table have the reckless courage of youth, but they lack a mature appreciation of...
(The entire section is 1217 words.)
Part Two, Verses 22-34, Lines 491-810 Summary and Analysis
Gringolet: Gawain’s horse
Peter: the porter who welcomes Gawain to Hautdesert Castle
The year passes quickly. Gawain celebrates at the court of Arthur on November 1, All Saints’ Day. On the following day, All Souls’ Day, he takes leave of his companions and sets out on his horse Gringolet to find the Green Knight.
Gawain wears splendid armor, and his shield is adorned with the symbol of the pentangle painted in red gold on the outside and a picture of the Virgin Mary on the inside. The narrator describes the symbolic meaning of the pentangle, which he said was conceived by Solomon. It is called by the English, he says, “the endless...
(The entire section is 734 words.)
Part Two, Verses 35-45, Lines 811-1125 Summary and Analysis
Lord Bertilak: Lord of Hautdesert Castle who welcomes Gawain, and who will be later revealed as the Green Knight (not actually named until the end of the poem, but we will use this name earlier for convenience)
Lady Bertilak: the wife of Lord Bertilak, notable for her great beauty, who will later attempt to seduce Gawain
Old Crone: a woman who accompanies Lady Bertilak, and is as ugly as her companion is beautiful; occupies the place of honor at the celebrations, and later turns out to be the sorceress Morgan le Fay
The porter who has come to greet Gawain at the castle invokes the name of St. Peter. He then hurries off, and servants come to help...
(The entire section is 956 words.)
Part Three, Verses 46-66, Lines 1126-1647 Summary and Analysis
Bertilak leads his followers on a hunt for venison. The stags are spared in accord with the season, but the hinds are driven into valleys, then shot with arrows. Those few that manage to escape are killed by the hounds.
Meanwhile, Gawain lingers in bed. Lady Bertilak enters his room, bolts the door. At first, he pretends to be asleep. She pulls the curtain from the canopy of his bed and watches him. After lying still for a considerable time, Gawain decides it would be best to speak to Lady Bertilak, opens his eyes and pretends to be amazed. Lady Bertilak speaks to him very seductively, reminding Gawain that Bertilak and the others are away. Then she openly offers her body to Gawain.
(The entire section is 1567 words.)
Part Three, Verses 67-79, Lines 1648-1997 Summary and Analysis
Over dinner, Gawain is engaged in conversation with Lady Bertilak. After festivities, Gawain tells Bertilak that he wishes to depart in the morning, but Bertilak urges him to stay one more night. They should not let the opportunity for enjoyment pass, he urges, for the future is uncertain. Gawain agrees and, once again, lingers in bed the next morning.
The next day, the lord of the castle chases a fox. It tries to elude the hounds by changing direction and taking unexpected paths. At times the fox appears to elude the party, but they take up the trail again.
Meanwhile, the mistress of the house comes, once again, to Gawain’s bed, wearing a splendid robe. She finds him unsettled,...
(The entire section is 1093 words.)
Part Four, Verses 80-87, Lines 1998-2211 Summary and Analysis
Gawain’s Guide: servant who accompanies Gawain from the castle Haupdesert to the Green Knight
Gawain awakes on a bleak, snowy day. After summoning his guide to take him to the Green Chapel, he puts on his armor. Along with his coat, he wraps the green sash about him, then sets out on what he thinks will be his final journey.
As they approach the Green Chapel, the guide tells Gawain that he dares go no further. The Green Knight, he tells Gawain, is known for his fierceness and his cruelty. No man, the guide says, can stand up to the Green Knight in battle, and everyone who goes to the Green Chapel is killed.
The guide himself, he tells Gawain,...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Part Four, Verses 88-101, Lines 2212-2630 Summary and Analysis
At first the mound seems deserted, and Gawain wonders if he has been led to the desolate place by the Devil himself. Then Gawain hears a whirring noise, an ax being sharpened. He calls out, and the Green Knight answers that he will come immediately to claim what he has been pledged.
The Green Knight emerges from a cavern in the mound, carrying a huge ax. Gawain tells the Green Knight to take only a single stroke, then bows his head. The Green Knight raises his ax. As the ax descends on his neck, Gawain flinches and looks up. The Green Knight suddenly checks the stroke, and says that his adversary is too cowardly to truly be Gawain. The man with the ax reminds Gawain that he, the Green Knight never...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)