The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On Christmas Eve, many knights and fair ladies gather in King Arthur’s banquet hall, there to feast and enjoy the holiday festivities. Suddenly a stranger enters the room. He is a giant, clad all in green armor, and with a green face, hair, and beard. He advances, gives his greetings, and then loudly issues his challenge. Is there a knight in the group who would dare to trade blows with the mighty Green Knight? He who accepts is to strike one blow with a battle-ax immediately. Then on New Year’s morning, a year hence, the Green Knight is to repay the blow, at his own castle in a distant land. Arrogantly, the Green Knight waits for an answer. From King Arthur’s ranks answers the voice of Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge.

King Arthur and the other knights watch approvingly as Sir Gawain advances, ax in hand, to confront the Green Knight. The stranger kneels down, bares his neck, and waits for the blow. Sir Gawain strikes, sure and true, and the head of the Green Knight is severed from his body. While all gape in amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head in his hands, leaps upon his charger, and rides toward the gate. As he rides, the lips of the head shout defiance at Sir Gawain, reminding him of their forthcoming meeting at the Green Chapel on the coming New Year.

The months pass quickly. Noble deeds are legion at the Round Table, and an atmosphere of gaiety pervades King Arthur’s castle. Then, when autumn comes, Sir Gawain departs on his promised quest, and with much concern the other knights see him set forth. Sir Gawain, riding his horse Gringalet, goes northward and at last arrives in Wirral, a wild and uncivilized region. On his way he was often in danger of death, for he faced fire-puffing dragons, fierce animals, and savage wild men in his search for the Knight of the Green Chapel. At last, on Christmas Eve, Sir Gawain sees a great castle in the middle of the wilderness. He enters it and is made welcome.

His host offers Sir Gawain the entire facilities of the castle. In the beautifully furnished chamber that he occupies, Sir Gawain is served the finest dishes and the best wines. The lady of the castle, a lady more beautiful even than Queen Guinevere, sits with him as he eats. The next day is Christmas, and the lord of the castle leads in the feasting. Expressing the wish that Sir Gawain will remain at the castle for a long time, the host assures the knight that the Green Chapel is only a short distance away, so that it will not be necessary for him to leave until New Year’s Day. The lord of the castle also asks Sir Gawain to keep a covenant with him. During his stay Sir Gawain is to receive all the game that his host catches during the day’s hunt. In return, Sir Gawain is to exchange any gifts he receives at the castle while the host is away.

On the first morning that the host hunts, Sir Gawain is awakened by the lady of the castle. She enters his chamber, seats herself on his couch, and speaks words of love to him. Sir Gawain resists temptation and takes nothing from the lady. That evening, when the host presents his bounty from the hunt, Sir Gawain answers truthfully that he received nothing that day. The second morning the same thing happens. Sir Gawain remains chaste in spite of the lady’s conduct. On the third morning, however, the day before Sir Gawain is to depart, she gives him an embroidered silk girdle that she says will keep him safe from any mortal blow. Then she kisses him three times and departs. That evening Sir Gawain kisses his host three times, but he does not mention the silken girdle he received.

On New Year’s morning, Sir Gawain sets forth from the castle and rides to the Green Chapel. He finds it without difficulty; as he approaches he hears the Green Knight sharpening his ax. When Sir Gawain announces that he is ready for the blow and bares his head, the Green Knight raises his ax high in the air in preparation for the stroke of death. Sir Gawain first involuntarily jumps aside as the ax descends. The second time, the Green Knight merely strikes at Sir Gawain, not touching him at all. With the third blow he wounds Sir Gawain in the neck, drawing a great deal of blood. Then Sir Gawain shouts that he fulfilled the covenant. The Green Knight laughs loudly at that and begins to praise Sir Gawain’s courage.

To Sir Gawain’s surprise, the Green Knight reveals himself as the host of the castle and explains the blows. On the first two blows Sir Gawain escaped injury, because for two days he faithfully kept the covenant. The third drew blood, however, because Sir Gawain failed to reveal the gift to Sir Bernlak de Hautdesert. Together with Morgain le Fay, King Arthur’s half sister, the Green Knight planned this whole affair to test the strength and valor of King Arthur’s knights. They devised the disguise of the Green Knight and persuaded Lady de Hautdesert to try tempting Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain withstands the test of temptation well, his only fault is the keeping of the girdle. The host forgives him for his act, however, because it is the love of life that motivated Sir Gawain.

The two knights return to the castle, and a few days later Sir Gawain journeys back to King Arthur’s court. As he rides he gazes with shame at the girdle. It is to remain with Sir Gawain as a reminder of the moment when he yielded and succumbed to the weakness of the flesh. At King Arthur’s castle all the knights and ladies listen to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and then, to show their love for the young knight, they all don silk girdles. This symbol became a traditional part of the costume of the Knights of the Round Table.