Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at first glance seems to be a conventional chivalric romance, featuring many of the standard trappings of Arthurian legend: A brave knight of the Round Table is challenged to a seemingly impossible task by a magical creature; on the way to meeting the challenge the knight fights fierce beasts and is charmed by a lovely lady; and he displays almost superhuman courage, skill, and chivalric courtesy to overcome his foe. The poem, however, is concerned with much more than these conventional features of courage and courtesy. In a conventional medieval romance, chivalric courtesy revolves around love, and adulterous love in particular. The “courteous” knight (in the medieval sense, a knight who is “courtly,” and who understands and lives by the social rules of the court) is expected to be skilled in love and in romantic rhetoric and devoted to fulfilling the wishes of beautiful ladies. In temptation scenes with the wife of Bernlak, Gawain is forced to choose between this worldly, secular courtesy, which would require giving in to the lady’s wishes, and a courtesy of a different sort: spiritual courtesy, which requires fidelity to a host as well as to chastity. To refuse the lady without giving offense requires all of Gawain’s skill in courteous, roundabout rhetoric.
The wordplay between the seductive lady and the determined but courtly Gawain forms a game of sorts that the poet poses in direct contrast to the exchange-of-winnings game Bernlak proposes as well as to Bernlak’s own hunting exploits (for wild “game”). The exchange of ax blows between Gawain and the Green Knight is a game, too, and Gawain mistakenly believes that it is the game on which his life depends. Ultimately, readers realize that the Green Knight/Bernlak enjoys a game of his own at Gawain’s expense. Much of the poem’s irony rests on the fact that Gawain and readers do not realize on which game Gawain’s life depends until the end of the poem. The ironic interplay of these several kinds of games is central to the poem’s meaning. By making a series of games into a matter of life and death, the poet offers a subtle criticism of the chivalric ideal of behavior, which places a higher value on honorably obeying the rules of a frivolous game than on saving one’s life.
Gawain’s failure to give up the girdle forms the central moral question of the poem. It seems clear that, according to chivalric principles, he should surrender the girdle. To do so is part of the game, and Gawain prides himself on his chivalrous qualities, which include keeping his promises. Readers can sympathize, however; after all, the Green Knight, who rides off holding his severed head under his arm, is using some kind of magic; why should Gawain not use what magic he might? The chivalric requirement that he give up the girdle seems ridiculous in the face of death. The reader is not surprised when Gawain conceals the magic girdle in order to save his life. Although Gawain later reproaches himself for covetousness in keeping the girdle, his only fault really is wanting to save his own life. This flaw, however, makes Gawain seem more real and thus makes it easier to admire his virtues of courage and knightly courtesy.
Much is made of the Green Knight as a symbol of wild nature, contrasted with the civilization of the court and the knightly ideals it admires and represents. This, however, is an incomplete view of the Green Knight. The elaborate description of the Green Knight at Arthur’s court details how his green is lavishly embellished by gold embroidery and decoration. The gold can be seen as representing civilization imposed on nature and wildness. With the green-and-gold motif, the Green Knight represents a balance between nature and civilization; he is, after all, the same person as Bernlak, who is a perfect, courteous host. The Green Knight is the real, in contrast to Gawain, who represents the ideal. It does, after all, seem rather unnatural that Gawain should be willing to give up his life just to maintain a facade of civilization (that is, if he were to give up the girdle because it is the polite thing to do).
The theme of the poem is the attempt to achieve perfection (spiritual and secular) in the real world. Gawain’s ideals for himself are shown to be unrealistic in the face of death. Although Gawain comes about as close to ideal behavior as a real person can expect to, his ideal of perfection is impossible to attain. In the end, he wears the green girdle back to the court of the Round Table as an emblem of his failure and shame. When Arthur’s court laughs and congratulates him, paying little attention to his own notions of failure (just as the Green Knight did when he revealed himself as Bernlak), the reader is invited to join in the court’s judgment. Gawain is not a two-dimensional embodiment of conventional knightly ideals but rather is a realistically drawn character facing a dilemma and demonstrating the compromises involved in putting an ideal standard of conduct into practice in the real world.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first transcribed in the second half of the fourteenth century, the same era in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) and other works in English. Unlike Chaucer, of whose life many details are known, very little is known about the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Only one original manuscript of the poem is known to exist, which is also the sole manuscript of three other poems. Although in terms of subject matter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has little in common with the other poems of the manuscript, which are religious works, it is generally accepted that all four poems are by the same author. The dialect used in the poem suggests that the author was from the Midlands of England. Although the poet seems to have lived and written far from London and the court, his poem is as sophisticated and urbane as any of Chaucer’s works. The author’s emphasis on development of character, vivid descriptions, and use of naturalistic dialogue (a quality that, owing to the fact that his dialect has become obsolete, is not immediately recognizable) also mark a common ground with Chaucer. The complexity of the poem’s themes, along with the poet’s masterful use of irony and skillful artistry in weaving together the temptation game and the exchange-of-blows game, make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the most important literary works of medieval England.