Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary

The stories begins amid the festivities of New Year’s Eve at the court of King Arthur. A great feast is being prepared, but King Arthur has...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary and Analysis

Part One, Verses 1-10, Lines 1-231 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

Summary
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.

Analysis
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

Summary
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,...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)

Part Two, Verses 22-34, Lines 491-810 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Gringolet: Gawain’s horse

Peter: the porter who welcomes Gawain to Hautdesert Castle

Summary
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

New Characters:
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

New Character:
Gawain’s Guide: servant who accompanies Gawain from the castle Haupdesert to the Green Knight

Summary
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

Summary
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.)