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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain as he agrees to a challenge from the Green Knight and returns from it humbled. 

  • The Green Knight challenges any man to deal him a blow. The Knight will return the blow the following year. Gawain agrees.
  • Later, Gawain departs to meet the Knight. He agrees to give Lord Bertilak anything he receives while staying at his castle but keeps a girdle Lady Bertilak gives him that will supposedly protect him. 
  • Gawain finds the Knight, who merely nicks his neck and reveals himself to be Lord Bertilak. He nicked Gawain’s neck because Gawain did not give him the girdle.

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Last Updated June 26, 2023.

Introduction

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance written by an anonymous author, often referred to as the "Pearl Poet" or the "Gawain Poet," based on the stylistic similarities to other works such as "Pearl," "Patience," and "Cleanness." The only manuscript we have of the poem dates from approximately 1400 AD, and it is part of the British Library's Cotton Nero A.x.

The author's identity remains unknown, though he was likely a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, the most famous English author of the Middle Ages. While "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was written in the North West Midlands of England, the dialect can be difficult to understand, even for modern readers familiar with Middle English.

The story is set against the backdrop of Arthurian legend, amidst the knights of the Round Table, a popular theme in medieval European literature. Arthurian tales were not just about historical events but about the codes of chivalry, the nature of honor, and the conflict between love and duty.

What Happens

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins during a Christmas feast at King Arthur's court. Arthur refuses to eat until someone tells him of some adventure or miracle. As if on cue, a mysterious figure, the Green Knight, disrupts the festivities by challenging any knight to strike him with his axe, provided he receives a return blow in a year and a day.

Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, and a popular figure in the court, accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight, who, undeterred, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of their bargain before departing.

Gawain sets out a year later to fulfill his part of the agreement. On his journey, he is tested - not only in his courage but in his adherence to the chivalric codes of honesty, fidelity, and faith.

Eventually, he arrives at a castle where he is welcomed by the lord, Bertilak,  his beautiful wife, and an old crone. Unbeknownst to Gawain, the lord is the Green Knight in disguise. During his stay, Gawain is enticed by Bertilak's wife, but he manages to remain mostly chaste, sharing only kisses with her.

The Lord says he knows where the Green Chapel is and invites Gawain to stay with him for a few days. 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.

Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings each day. Unbeknownst to Bertilak, his wife has given Gawain a magical girdle that she claims will protect him from harm. However, Gawain, fearing for his life, hides this gift from Bertilak.

When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, he finds the Green Knight sharpening his axe. He puts his head on the block to take the blow he has promised, but flinches. The Green Knight starts the second blow but does not complete it. At last, on the third attempt, he just nicks Gawain’s neck.

He then reveals that he is actually Lord Bertilak and that he came to Camelot at the direction of the old crone, Morgan le Fay. He gave Gawain the nick on his neck because Gawain did not give him the girdle he had received from Lady Bertilak.

He reproaches Gawain for his lack of total honesty but ultimately commends him for his valor and integrity. He says that Gawain must wear the girdle on his sleeve as a reminder of his dishonesty. Gawain returns to Arthur's court, ashamed but wiser, and is celebrated as a hero. They make fun of the badge on his sleeve but choose to wear green girdles themselves as a sign of solidarity. For Gawain the adventure has been a humbling but enlightening experience. He is not the perfect knight he thought he was, but he is contrite and redeemed in the end.

Why It Matters

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is an iconic example of Arthurian chivalric literature, considered one of the masterpieces of the Middle Ages due to its complex exploration of morality, chivalry, and the human condition. The poem represents an essential bridge between the Old English heroic literature, such as "Beowulf," and the more courtly, chivalric literature of the Late Middle Ages.

The rich tapestry of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" examines themes such as the nature of chivalry, the reality of human fallibility, and the moral struggles inherent in the human condition. The poem's complexity allows for multifaceted interpretations. For instance, it might be viewed as a critique of chivalric ideals, revealing how unrealistic they are to uphold fully or as an exploration of religious and moral integrity.

Moreover, Gawain's journey illuminates medieval attitudes toward virtue, honor, and courtly behavior, which helps scholars understand the mindset of the medieval world. The poem's usage of symbolism, particularly the pentangle representing Gawain's virtues and the Green Knight's nature, is a sophisticated narrative technique that has been a subject of numerous literary studies.

Today, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" continues to be studied and interpreted in various contexts - literary, historical, and moral - allowing us to glean insights into medieval culture and its lasting influence on Western literature.

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