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. Felix Brutus, a great grandson of Aeneas, had founded Britain and started the dynasty of Arthur. The kingdom, the poet says, had seen many wonders, but the greatest of all may be the tale he is about to recount.
Though the opening may initially seem like the proud invocation of illustrious ancestors, it is actually more complex. By tracing the rise of Britain and the court of Arthur to the burning of Troy, the author is reminding us that earthly splendor does not last forever. Furthermore, he also reminds us that the rulers of mighty nations are fallible human beings, who may be destroyed by greed or pride. Aeneas, for example, was, according to some traditions, guilty of treacherously conspiring with his companion Antenor against the city of Troy.
Nations usually mythologize their origins, yet the myths of national origins often contain some crime by the founders which must be expiated. The ancient Greeks, for example, traced their origin to the Homeric heroes, yet they often felt these founders of the Greek nation showed both cruelty and dishonesty in their capture of Troy. The Hebrews traced their origin to the kingdom of David and Solomon, yet both these rulers sometimes behaved in ways that were less than worthy. In a similar way, the British, like the Romans, traced their origins to Aeneas, who was sometimes condemned for treason.
In America, we often take a similarly ambivalent view of our founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed noble principles but kept slaves. King Arthur and his court were viewed as ancestral figures...
(The entire section is 1,055 words.)