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...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
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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 vowed not to eat until he has heard strange news or a challenge has been issued at his court. His desire is quickly fulfilled, as a huge Green Knight appears in the door, holding a holly branch in one hand and a battle–ax in the other. All stare at the stranger in fear, but he explains that he has come in peace.
He proceeds, however, to taunt the knights, and issues a challenge. Any knight may take the ax, and chop off the head of the Green Knight. After doing so, however, that knight must seek out the Green Knight at the same time next year, at which time the Green Knight will behead his adversary. At first, nobody will accept the challenge. Then, fearing that his entire court will be shamed, Arthur himself takes it up. At this point, Gawain volunteers.
Gawain chops off the head of the Green Knight, who then retrieves his head, carries it to his horse and mounts. The Green Knight holds up his head in his hand in front of Gawain. The severed head reminds Gawain of his promise, then it directs Gawain to seek him in the Green Chapel.
The next year on the first of November Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel. After surviving many perils, he comes to a beautiful castle in the deep wood. He is welcomed by Bertilak (not named until later), Lord of the castle. There are many knights and...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
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...
(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...
(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 knot,” since it may be drawn with a single line. It has five points, a mystic number.
Nobody Gawain meets knows the way to the Green Chapel. The journey proves perilous, and he must battle many adversaries: dragons, wolves, wild men, bulls, bears, boars and ogres. The land is cold and inhospitable.
Finally Gawain passes through a grove of ancient trees, and glimpses a beautiful castle in the distance. It is surrounded by a double moat, above which rise many towers and turrets. As Gawain approaches, a porter comes to greet him.
Gawain sets out on All Souls’ Day, which is a Christian holiday set close to the time of the Celtic celebration of Sauin, when the border between the world of...
(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 Gawain take off his armor. Soon the lord of the castle, Bertilak comes to welcome Gawain, saying he may stay and treat everything in the castle as his own.
Lord Bertilak is an unusually large man with a bright beard the color of a beaver’s pelt. Gracious but fierce, he leads Gawain to a place by the fire, surrounded by splendor and luxury. When the master of the house learns that his guest is Gawain, he laughs with pleasure.
After dining, Gawain meets Lady Bertilak, who is exceedingly beautiful, even lovelier, Gawain thinks,
than Queen Guinevere. Lady Bertilak, however, is accompanied by an old crone, who is as ugly as her partner is beautiful. Gawain politely bows to the older woman, then he lightly embraces...
(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.
Gawain pretends not to understand, managing to reject the advances without offending the hostess. He repudiates the flattery of Lady Bertilak, saying that her husband is better than he. Finally, she says that he could not truly be Gawain, for such a renowned man would not have lingered with a lady without craving a kiss. Gawain replies that, to avoid offending her, he will give her the kiss, in accordance with the rules of courtesy. They exchange a kiss, and Lady Bertilak leaves. Gawain dresses and goes to mass. He spends the afternoon in civilized conversation with Lady Bertilak and the old crone.
Meanwhile, at the hunt, the hinds are piled up. They are systematically butchered, and the parts are ceremoniously divided among the...
(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, troubled by dreams about his appointment with the Green Knight, and bends over to give him a kiss. Gawain gently repulses her advance. She asks if he is so restrained because he has another love. Gawain replies that is not so.
At this, the lady is abashed. Giving up the idea of seducing Gawain, she asks for a token to remember him by. Gawain replies that he has nothing worthy to give, since he has not taken any baggage with him on the journey. The lady replies that she, in that case, will give something to Gawain.
First, she offers him a precious ring. Gawain refuses it, saying that, since he can give nothing in return he can also not accept anything. Lady Bertilak replies that perhaps, the ring is too valuable, so a less...
(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, dares to go no further. He advises Gawain as well to turn back, and says he will keep it a secret if Gawain does, even if he must swear solemnly to the lie. Though irritated, Gawain thanks the guide for his good wishes. He then declines the offer and insists on going on.
The guide gives Gawain a lance and helmet, then directs him to descend alone into a ravine. He hurries away, leaving Gawain to face the Green Knight alone. Gawain follows the path into a grim and desolate place, filled with huge, jagged rocks.
He comes to a large mound beside a stream. Dismounting, he tethers his horse to a tree. Approaching he finds a cavern, which, he thinks, could be a pagan temple.
(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 flinched when his own head was cut off.
Gawain swears that he will not flinch again. He bows a second time and stands still as a tree. The Green Knight raises his ax once more, but he again brings it down without making contact. Gawain continues waiting until the Green Knight begins to taunt him.
When he realizes what happened, Gawain grows angry at the delay. He accuses the Green Knight of being afraid to deliver the blow. He bows his head for a third time. The Green Knight raises the ax and brings it down, wounding Gawain lightly on the neck but doing no serious damage.
When Gawain sees the blood in the snow, he leaps up, filled with new life. He quickly puts on his helmet, draws his sword and declares...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)