What happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
King Arthur of Camelot and the members of his court are celebrating the New Year when the Green Knight interrupts the festivities. He challenges any man in attendance to deal him a blow with the Green Knight's own blade. In return, the Green Knight will deliver a similar blow to his opponent exactly one year and one day later.
- Sir Gawain, King Arthur's cousin, beheads the Green Knight easily. His opponent survives, however, and the Green Knight demands that Sir Gawain uphold his half of the oath and return in one year to be beheaded. Gawain leaves court to spend the year traveling.
- One day, he enters the castle of Lord and Lady Bertilak. On three consecutive days, Lady Bertilak comes to Gawain's room and attempts to seduce him. On the third day, she gives him a green girdle she says will protect him from harm. He keeps the girdle, even though his code of chivalry demands that he return it.
- Gawain returns to the Green Chapel, where he finds the Green Knight sharpening his axe. Like the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is unharmed by the blow to his neck. The Green Knight then reveals his true identity of Lord Bertilak. Gawain returns to King Arthur's court, humbled by the knowledge of his deception with the green girdle.
Written by the Pearl-Poet (also known as the Gawain-Poet), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest Arthurian romance in English literature. After a brief introduction connecting the events of the story to the mythical founding of Britain by the Trojan warrior Brutus, the story turns to Christmastime at Camelot where Arthur’s court, a young and rowdy group, are about to celebrate a New Year’s feast. Arthur refuses to eat, however, until someone tells him of some adventure or miracle. As if on cue, an enormous green knight on a green horse rushes into the court and challenges the court to a game: He will endure a blow from a knight if the knight will submit to a blow a year and a day later. Gawain leaps to the challenge and whacks the Green Knight with an axe, chopping off his head. However, the Green Knight does not die. He simply grabs his severed head and tells Gawain that to keep his honor, Gawain must find him in the Green Chapel and submit to the blow in a year and a day. The Green Knight rides out of the room, and the stunned court returns to its festivities.
In the second part of the poem, the poet traces the cycle of the year through the liturgical calendar, moving from the New Year to Michaelmas to All Hallows Day. Just as the year grows older, Arthur’s court grows heavier with trepidation for their beloved Gawain, who must ready himself for his ordeal. In some particularly lovely passages, the poet describes Gawain’s preparations and gear for the journey. His shield in particular is important for the religious significance of the poem; it is adorned with a pentagram as a token of “trouthe” on the outside, and on its inner surface is a picture of the Virgin Mary.
(The entire section is 1,739 words.)