Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.
Plot Type : Voyage and Return
Anticipation and ‘Fall’ into the Other World
Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, then watches with horror as he picks his head up and orders Gawain to meet him in a year and a day for the return stroke. Roughly one year later, Gawain voyages through a threatening wilderness full of magical creatures.
Gawain may not be young or naïve, but seeing a man pick up his own severed head and speak to him with it is certainly a shattering new experience. This event precipitates Gawain’s voyage away from the safe and familiar world of Arthur’s court into a scary wilderness teeming with ogres, giants, and other magical creatures he must battle and far away from the warmth and protection of the hearth fire. Gawain is certainly far from his comfort zone here.
Initial Fascination or ‘Dream’ Stage
Gawain arrives at the palace of Sir Bertilak and enjoys his warm hospitality during the Christmas season.
When Gawain reaches a much hoped-for sign of civilization in the middle of the enchanted wilderness, it shimmers in the distance like a mirage. But the palace of Sir Bertilak turns out to be just the place for Gawain to spend the holidays. He’s delighted by the friendliness of the people, the luxury of the accommodations, the endlessness of the food and merriment, and the beauty of lady of the castle. Is this place for real or, like the mirage it first appears to be, is it too good be true?
As Sir Bertilak hunts all day long, Gawain deals with the seduction attempts of the lady of the castle.
Lady Bertilak’s seduction attempts put Gawain in a real bind, forcing him to navigate between his codes of courtoisie and knightly honor. The lady’s attempts become more aggressive on each successive day, so that it becomes more and more difficult for us to see how Gawain will manage to walk this tightrope.
Gawain accepts the green girdle as a lover’s gift from Lady Bertilak and fails to return it to Lord Bertilak as promised. Then, he wears it as he receives two feints and one stroke from the Green Knight’s axe.
Gawain slips up in holding on to that darn girdle: his knightly code of honor dictates that he must disclose it to Bertilak, but his survival instinct wins out. As he rides to meet the Green Knight, then, it’s not only his life that hangs in the balance but also his identity as the most honorable of knights. In fact, we worry that Gawain may already be a lost cause.
Thrilling Escape and Return
The Green Knight does not cut off Sir Gawain’s head, only wounds him. Gawain returns to Arthur’s court chastened and humbled.
As the Green Knight explains, he gives Gawain two feints because of the two days on which he returned his winnings to him like an honorable man. That last stroke, which just breaks the skin, is for Gawain’s failure to return the green girdle. Yet unlike Gawain, the Green Knight doesn’t seem to think that’s such a huge failure after all (whew!). Gawain returns to court having learned an important lesson: that he’s not perfect – in fact, he’s human.