Part 1, Verses 11–21, Lines 232–490 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215

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...

(The entire section contains 1215 words.)

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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 axe 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 axe 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 that 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 axe and cuts off the head of the Green Knight. People turn aside as it rolls around the floor. The Green Knight, however, goes after his head, retrieves it, and carries it to his horse.

After he has mounted, the Green Knight lifts his head with his arm. The severed head addresses Gawain. It reminds Gawain to fulfill his part of the bargain. Gawain must seek him at the Green Chapel. Many people know him as “the Knight of the Green Chapel,” the head explains, and they will be able to show the way.

As soon as the Green Knight has left, Arthur tells Guinevere not to be dismayed, adding that such events are appropriate to the Christmas season. He calmly directs Gawain to hang up the axe and given orders for the feast to continue.

Analysis

This passage is full of humor, as the challenge of the Green Knight reveals the weaknesses of Arthur’s court. Arthur is eager to see combat. The knights are willing to risk their lives in dangerous jousting tournaments, for no other purpose than entertainment. They are, however, at a loss to respond to the challenge of the Green Knight.

There is no clear reason why anybody should accept the strange proposal of the Green Knight, but, as young men, Arthur and his knights are unable to resist a dare. The taunt about the knights being just boys clearly infuriates Arthur, but that response suggests that it is at least partially true. The knights of the Round Table have the reckless courage of youth, but they lack a mature appreciation of mortality.

The Green Knight is a spirit of vegetation, which dies and is reborn every year. He asks the people at Camelot to accept death not simply as a danger, which adds to the thrill of combat, but as the inevitable end of life. To chop off his neck is to accept the passing of the year, and with it some of the youth and glory of Camelot. To seek out the chapel of the Green Knight, so that the bargain can be fulfilled, is to accept the inevitability of death. The year, as in much medieval lore, is made to stand for the span of a human life.

The challenge, in other words, is to progress from reckless daring, which is based on the illusion that one cannot die, to mature courage. It is a sort of transition that, even today, must be made, for example, by young recruits into the military who have been given glamorized accounts of war. In fact, this is a universal part of human experience, that all people must confront as they grow older. In this respect, heroes like the knights of the Round Table are no different from other people.

Arthur initially accepts the challenge, though he seems to do it solely out of pride. When Gawain volunteers, it is for a reason that may seem less romantic but, at least from a pragmatic point of view, is more substantial. The young knight is trying to save Arthur. Even at the start, he is showing greater maturity than his king.

But, even in this, there is a slight hint of ambivalence. Gawain is sitting next to Guinevere, and perhaps he is acting partially to impress her. Like Lancelot, Gawain has been romantically linked with Guinevere in other writings. By volunteering here, he is stepping into the place of Arthur, which might help explain why the king later does not seem particularly grateful afterward.

The Green Knight is so imposing that Gawain realizes the bargain is dangerous, even though the blow to his adversary would normally be fatal. Though Arthur tells Gawain that if the initial stroke is successful, retaliation will be unlikely, it is hard to know to what extent the king really believes this. At any rate, there is a humorous contrast between the calm man about to be beheaded and the tense executioners.

When Gawain, before striking the blow, asks the Green Knight where he lives, the young knight, once again, shows greater honor and maturity than his king. The question shows, first of all, that Gawain is not by any means confident that the Green Knight will not survive the blow. Furthermore, it shows that he is serious about fulfilling his part of the bargain.

The Green Knight, addressing his final words to Gawain, says he is known to many as the “Knight of the Green Chapel.” This suggests that he is a figure of widespread folkloric traditions. Perhaps King Arthur and his knights do not know of him simply because they are isolated from other people by the splendor of the court.

The phrase “Green Chapel” may refer to a particular location, but the geography of folklore tends to be rather flexible. The vaults of Gothic chapels resembled trees whose tops converge in the forest canopy. The Green Knight could also be saying that he is always present in the woods.

After the Green Knight has left, the initial response of Arthur is to address words of comfort to Guinevere. His treatment of Gawain seems ungrateful and even a bit callous when he directs the axe to be hung up and the feasting to begin. As a king, he cannot be as open about his feelings as other people, and it is hard to know how much he really appreciates what Gawain has done.

When he says that the strange episode is appropriate to the season, the effect is partly humorous. The Christmas season was largely a time of gaiety, and festivities often involved good-natured pranks and jokes. The remark of Arthur could also indicate an inability to appreciate or comprehend danger.

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Part 1, Verses 1–10, Lines 1–231 Summary and Analysis

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Part 2, Verses 22–34, Lines 491–810 Summary and Analysis