Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance, written in the late fourteenth century. Its precise authorship is unknown, and the work is often credited to either the Gawain-Poet or the Pearl-Poet—a moniker derived from the belief that Gawain was penned by the same writer as another famous Middle English poem titled Pearl. Gawain is commonly regarded as one of the most important and influential works of Arthurian lore in existence, and it has offered both historians and literary scholars insight into the values of late-fourteenth-century English society. 

Gawain is set over the course of one year. It begins during a New Year's celebration in King Arthur’s court, during which a mysterious Green Knight arrives and challenges any man to strike a blow against him. However, the Green Knight will be allowed to return the blow one year later. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the knight, who does not die. One year later, Gawain travels to his prearranged meeting with the knight. On the way, he stays three nights with Lord Bertilak, who makes Gawain a deal: Lord Bertilak will give Gawain anything he obtains while hunting, if Gawain gives the lord anything he obtains while staying at the castle. Gawain maintains this agreement for two days, even resisting an attempted seduction from Lady Bertilak. However, fearing for his own death, he keeps a girdle gifted to him by Lady Bertilak that will allegedly protect him. 

Gawain’s subsequent encounter with the Green Knight forms the thematic heart of the work: the knight strikes Gawain three times, missing him twice and nicking his neck on the third strike. The Green Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak, who posed his agreement to Gawain as a test of honor and chivalry. Gawain did well to resist temptation for two days, symbolized by the two misses, but his keeping of the girdle was in defiance of the agreement, so the Green Knight drew blood on the third strike. Gawain ultimately leaves the encounter alive but deeply humbled by his experiences, having realized that he is not so honorable or unafraid of death as he once assumed. He returns to King Arthur’s court determined to become a better man and a more honorable knight.

A Brief Biography of Pearl-Poet

The Pearl-Poet, also known as the “Gawain-Poet” was a fourteenth-century poet best known for composing several of the most important works of Middle English literature, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pearl-Poet’s identity remains unknown, though scholars have inferred certain aspects of his life from his writings. It is likely that he was an educated man from an upper-class background, as suggested by his mastery of poetic forms, his knowledge of Latin and French, and his familiarity with courtly life. He probably came from the Midlands of England, and he drew his inspiration primarily from the Bible and the Arthurian myths. Indeed, his poetry tends to employ mythical narratives and biblical themes, as well as vivid descriptions of the natural world. The Pearl-Poet’s work uses intricate structures and complex verse forms that favor end rhyme and alliteration.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

During his stay in Lord Bertilak's castle, Sir Gawain agrees that, at the end of each day, he and his host will give each other whatever gifts they have received that day. On the third day, Lady...

Latest answer posted June 14, 2021, 11:19 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain finds the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, sharpening his ax. It is their appointed day, and Gawain must submit to a blow from the Green Knight. Even though he is wearing the green girdle...

Latest answer posted June 14, 2021, 12:02 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When the Green Knight issues his challenge, everybody in King Arthur's court at Camelot hangs back. The Green Knight begins to mock the court, causing Arthur himself to step forward, ax in hand. At...

Latest answer posted June 14, 2021, 11:50 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

King Arthur and his knights are the most courageous, most virtuous knights in the whole land. Their courage is not to be disputed, of course. No knights have conquered more enemies or completed...

Latest answer posted June 14, 2021, 1:54 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the color green takes on several symbolic meanings. Firstly, green is associated with the natural world. The Green Knight lives in a castle in the forest, far...

Latest answer posted June 14, 2021, 11:33 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

As a guest in his home, Sir Gawain agrees to give Lord Bertilak every gift he receives while staying at the lord's castle. He does this up to a point, yet he withholds the girdle he received from...

Latest answer posted June 13, 2021, 12:08 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain proves himself to be an imperfect knight, though he is not a total failure and is overall good. To give credit where it is due, Gawain is an exceptional knight in some ways. When the...

Latest answer posted June 13, 2021, 12:08 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When Sir Gawain goes in search of the Green Chapel to receive the blow to his neck that he is sure will kill him, he meets Lord Bertilak. Lord Bertilak tells him he knows where the Green Chapel is,...

Latest answer posted June 13, 2021, 11:51 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The terms of the agreement that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have struck dictate that they each get one blow with the ax. Sir Gawain used his single blow to behead the Green Knight, but when the...

Latest answer posted June 13, 2021, 12:35 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Although Sir Gawain has willingly accepted the Green Knight's challenge, and as a true and valiant knight will bear his fate with courage and not shy away from it, he still does not want to die....

Latest answer posted June 12, 2021, 12:04 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight tests Gawain in many ways. The first, and most obvious, is the simple challenge he presents of the blow-for-blow exchange with Gawain. When Gawain beheads the Green Knight, he must...

Latest answer posted June 12, 2021, 11:54 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When Sir Gawain encounters the Green Knight, the Green Knight reveals himself to be Gawain's host from the mysterious castle nearby, where he has stayed the past three days. The Green Knight was...

Latest answer posted June 11, 2021, 12:19 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight symbolizes several things within the poem. Firstly, the Green Knight represents the natural world. The color green evokes nature. The Green Knight also lives away from the...

Latest answer posted June 13, 2021, 12:22 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Let's examine the outcome of the challenge between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In one sense, the Green Knight absolutely is the winner. Not only does he withstand the blow from Gawain,...

Latest answer posted June 12, 2021, 12:19 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When the lord's wife, Lady Bertilak, comes to visit Sir Gawain in his bedchamber, she is on a mission to seduce him, but Gawain is not as easily swayed as she expected. He will not sleep with her,...

Latest answer posted June 12, 2021, 11:43 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight is a very ambiguous character. When he shows up at Arthur's hall, he is a forbidding figure. His size, strength, and obvious wealth are a challenge to Arthur's prestige. His...

Latest answer posted June 12, 2021, 11:58 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When the Green Knight rides boldly into King Arthur's court, he is dressed with a stunning, almost Liberace-like gaudiness. His ax, for instance, has "lace lapped around it" and is tied up with...

Latest answer posted June 11, 2021, 11:54 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The first agreement occurs between the Green Knight and Sir Gawain with neither character disguised. At the start of the poem, the Green Knight bursts into Camelot's court during Christmastime. He...

Latest answer posted June 11, 2021, 11:44 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

During the opening scene in Camelot, the Green Knight challenges the knights present to strike at his neck with an ax. Other than King Arthur himself, only Sir Gawain accepts the challenge, taking...

Latest answer posted June 11, 2021, 11:33 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

These knightly virtues are explained in lines 619–665 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain bears the sign of the pentangle on his shield, each point of which represents a different set of...

Latest answer posted June 11, 2021, 2:46 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer
Next

Summary