Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fairy-tale-like story, full of magical creatures and supernatural happenings. Accordingly, the tone of the story is somewhat fairy-tale-like, or fantastical, as well. This kind of tone involves a lot of hyperbole: exaggerated descriptions of people or things as the biggest, best, or fairest of them all. King Arthur’s knights are the "most famous warriors in Christendom," his ladies "the loveliest who ever drew breath," he "the finest king who rules the court" (51-53). The Green Knight is "the largest" of all men "and the most attractive of his size who could sit on a horse" (141-142).
For the most part, the narrator seems caught up in all the awe and amazement at this exceptional world and the marvelous events that occur in it. He is full of praise for Gawain’s exceptional skill and virtue, the beauty of Lord Bertilak’s palace and lady, and of Lord Bertilak himself. More importantly, he remains silent at crucial narrative turning points – for example, when Gawain hides the green girdle from Lord Bertilak. This silence means that the narrator avoids ever having to criticize his hero.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval romance. This genre of literature features adventuring knights, noble ladies, and often, elements of the supernatural. More importantly, the hero usually undergoes a process of self-discovery in the course of his adventure, which enables him to reincorporate into society (represented by the court) as a better version of himself.
A romance hero usually adheres to a strict code of knightly conduct, which requires his absolute loyalty to his liege lord, extreme generosity, refusal to break his oaths, and the defense of the helpless. Another important element of medieval romance is its exploration of the rules of courtoisie, or courtly behavior. Sir Gawain, for example, is known for his excellence in courtoisie: he delights everyone with his conversational skills, and, most importantly, behaves with impeccable courtesy toward ladies.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the story of how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s court, is tested by a mysterious knight. Gawain’s nemesis is gigantic, and his skin, clothing, and horse are completely green. So the title is largely descriptive.
Sir Gawain was one of the most popular and well-known knights of the Arthurian legends. He appears in more stories than any other knight of the round table –more than even Galahad, Lancelot, or Tristan. Gawain is the son of King Lot of Orkney and King Arthur’s sister Morgause, making Gawain Arthur’s nephew. This definitely gives Gawain an "in" with the king.
In earlier Arthurian tales, Gawain comes off as a paragon of knightly virtue and prowess. He’s the guy who cleans up the messes of boorish knights like Sir Kay and picks up the slack when other knights fail. In the later Arthurian tradition, Gawain’s character does become more ambiguous, even flawed. However, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he’s definitely still the great Sir Gawain. In this story, Gawain enjoys a reputation not only for his knightly virtue, but also as a master of well-mannered romance, or courtly love.
The other title character in the tale, the Green Knight, may be a compilation of a few different characters from earlier folktales who similarly initiate a "beheading game." In the earliest one, the Old Irish Bricriu’s Feast, the character convinces three knights to submit to an exchange of blows only to have them all balk at the critical moment; that is, until the famous Old Irish hero Cú Chulainn submits and is rewarded for his bravery.
Other tales that feature the character include the Middle French Life of Caradoc and later French romances The Girl with the Mule and Hunbaut. In all of these tales, the character’s basic role is the same: he challenges a knight (or knights) to an exchange of blows, volunteering to go first. When he somehow mysteriously survives his head being chopped off, the knights either turn chicken and reveal their lack of knightly honor or, like Cú Chulainn and Gawain, prove their honor and bravery by submitting to the axe. What’s unique to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though, is that this knight is completely green, a detail that may represent his connection to nature or the supernatural.
In our humble opinion, the ending of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most heart-wrenching and poignant endings of any medieval romance. You see, Gawain returns to King Arthur’s court all ashamed and sad that he’s failed a test of honor by withholding the green girdle from Sir Bertilak out of a desire to preserve his own life. He feels like he’s failed in his duty as a knight and let everyone down. Perhaps, more importantly, he’s learned that he’s not perfect and never will be. He explains to the whole court that he plans to wear the girdle forever as a reminder of his failing, because "a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it, / for where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted" (2511-2512). But instead of being properly sobered, the whole court laughs at Gawain’s words and agrees that everyone in court will wear a similar girdle for Gawain’s sake.
Can you imagine what Gawain must feel like now, forced to see his "failing" paraded before him every day on the bodies of all of Arthur’s knights? On the other hand, it’s probably not the intention of the court to humiliate Gawain. Their laughter might indicate that they think Gawain is being too hard on himself and furthermore, as the narrator tells us, they and the generations that come after them regard the green girdle as a symbol of honor.
So what’s up with this ending? Why do Sir Gawain and King Arthur’s court have such completely opposite interpretations of the meaning of the green girdle? Well, on the one hand, Sir Gawain’s opinion, that he possesses the green girdle because of his very human failings, is technically correct. But on the other hand, isn’t it a good thing to be able to recognize your mistakes? To acknowledge that you’re not perfect, that, in fact, you’re even sinful? In a Christian worldview, this kind of humility is definitely a good thing. That might be why the people in the story come to regard the green girdle as an honorable thing to wear.
Of course, on the other other hand, some scholarly types think that King Arthur’s court is just misguided and misses the point of Gawain’s story entirely. They choose to regard his encounter with the Green Knight as a grand adventure in which he demonstrates his bravery rather than what it actually is – the moment in which Sir Gawain fails most completely. In this last interpretation, everybody’s decision to wear the green girdle represents the way human beings are just not very good at figuring out the meaning of a story. On that note, go ahead and prove that last interpretation wrong and tell us: what do you think is going on with this ending?
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and in medieval romance more generally, a knight’s travel beyond his home court represents his venturing into an in-between state, outside of civilization’s comforting structure. This gives him a chance to explore his identity as a knight. Sir Gawain definitely undergoes this exploration. We see this when he negotiates the conflict between his knightly duties and the code of courtoisie during the seduction scenes. It’s also shown when he wars with his survival instinct in order to keep his promise to the Green Knight.
What’s interesting about the setting of the seduction scenes, however, is that they occur within the oh-so-civilized castle of Sir Bertilak. Of course, as we later learn, Sir Bertilak’s castle is actually controlled by the sorceress Morgan le Fay, whose magic powers align the castle setting with the enchanted wilderness full of magical beasts through which Gawain travels, a marginal space in comparison to Arthur’s court. Sir Bertilak’s castle is also a place where women’s powers are given free rein. Morgan’s is the invisible hand that controls the palace. Also, Lady Bertilak rules the bedroom as she presses Gawain under her thumb (even, at one point, "trapping" him beneath the bedclothes). Bertilak’s palace, then, might represent a sort of parallel universe to Arthur’s, one in which women hold power.
The final section of Sir Gawain takes place largely in the wilderness ruled over by the Green Knight. So wild is this place, that even the "chapel" is just a mound of dirt with patches of grass on it. Medieval readers might even have recognized this as a fairy mound, or portal to the supernatural world. This setting emphasizes the Green Knight’s connection to the "wild side" of life. There, Gawain undergoes his ultimate test and must come to terms with failure. His exploration of his identity complete, he can return to King Arthur’s court to be reincorporated into the society that the setting represents.
OK, we’ll be straight with you: in its original Middle English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
is pretty darn near impossible to read, even for people who have a pretty easy time with, say, Chaucer. Why? Well, at the time the poem was written, English was not the same everywhere it was spoken. Without the dialect mixing brought on by TV, radio, telephones, the internet, or even the printing press, little geographical "pockets" could have their own distinct versions of English. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in northwestern England, close to Wales, in a dialect called North West Midlands.
With the advent of the printing press, Chaucer’s London English became the standard form of English that was passed down and is the form closest to what we speak today. By contrast, the North West Midlands, unlucky enough to be far from a center of printing, did not get passed down, so that today, nobody except specialists who study it their whole lives can really understand it that easily.
All is not lost, though: many eminent medievalists, including J.R.R. Tolkien, have rendered Sir Gawain into modern English translations, many of them quite beautiful. But since there’s no substitute for the original, we recommend a facing-page translation with the Middle English side-by-side with the modern. That way, you can understand the poem and learn cool North West Midlands words like burne (for man) and blonk (for horse).
Scholars talk about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of the "alliterative revival," a literary movement in England in the late 14th century when many poets began writing in a distinctive alliterative style. In this style, a single line of poetry is held together by two words at the beginning of the line that alliterate (share the same first sound), rather than with elements like meter or rhyme. Here's an example:
And all his vesture verayly watz clene verdure,
(And truly all his clothing was brilliant green,)
Bothe the barres of his belt and other blythe stones.
(Both the bars on his belt and other gay gems.)
These lines are each made up of two parts. In the first part, two of the words alliterate, or share the same first sound. Here, they are vesture / verayly (sharing the "v" sound) and barres / belt (sharing a "b" sound). The second part of each line contains one syllable that alliterates with the first two: verdure (to go with vesture and verayly) and blithe (to go with barres and belt). The two parts of the line are separated by a slight pause, called a caesura. Below we've marked the caesura with "//":
And all his vesture verayly // was clene verdure,
Bothe the barres of his belt // and other blythe stones.
All of the alliterative revival poets used this style in their poetry, but the author of Sir Gawain also incorporates a bob-and-wheel at the end of his stanzas. The "bob" is a short connecting line, sometimes only two syllables in length, that connects a four-line ABAB rhyming section in iambic trimeter to the rest of the stanza. Here’s an example:
The fole that he ferkkes on fyn of that ilke,
(The horse that he rides entirely of that color,)
A grene hors gret and thikke,
(A green horse huge and strong,)
A stede ful stif to strayne,
(A proud steed to restrain,)
In brawden brydel quik;
(Spirited under bridle,)
To the gome he watz ful gayn.
(But obedient to the man.)
Here, the "bob" is sertayn. It connects the "wheel" – whose rhyme scheme with thikke (A) / strayne (B) / quik (A) / gayn (B) is ABAB – to the rest of the stanza. The meter of the wheel, three instances of stressed /unstressed syllable pairs, is iambic trimeter (which makes the sound da DUM da DUM da DUM).
The narrator of Sir Gawain is very clear about what the pentangle (five-pointed star) on Gawain’s shield represents:
It is a symbol that Solomon designed long ago
As an emblem of fidelity, and justly so;
Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous,
These five ways in which Gawain is virtuous are in the dexterity of his five fingers, the perfection of his five senses, his devotion to the five wounds of Christ, his reflection on the five joys of Mary in Christ and, finally, five virtues: generosity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy, and charity. Wow, that’s a lot of virtue.
The pentangle is an appropriate representation of these five areas of virtue because each of the five sides of the pentangle transitions seamlessly into the next. This aspect of its geometry might represent the way in which the virtues are interrelated, each area feeding into and supporting the other.
The mysterious, gigantic man who interrupts the feast at Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve is green from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. We can use other things we know about the Green Knight to figure out what the symbolism of the color might be. For example, instead of carrying traditional knightly weapons, he carries a holly branch in one hand and a large axe in the other. Both of these objects connect him to nature, particularly the woods. The Green Knight’s test of Gawain makes him very aware of his strong survival instinct, something he shares with animals. And the place where Gawain must meet the Green Knight – the Green Chapel – is one of the most wild, natural places in the poem. Based on these clues, we’re pretty sure that the color green represents nature. People, places, and things in the poem that are green somehow have a significant connection to nature.
The green girdle, or belt, that Lady Bertilak gives to Gawain as a "lover’s token" is another symbol whose meaning is made very clear to the reader. When Lady Bertilak presses Gawain to accept it, she presents it as something to remember her by, but happens to mention that it will make the wearer invincible. For Gawain, then, the green girdle represents his survival. Since Gawain fails to exchange the girdle with Bertilak as the terms of the men’s agreement dictate, it also symbolizes to the reader Gawain’s desperate desire to survive at the expense of his code of honor. Only after Gawain "fails" the Green Knight’s test does this meaning become clear to him.
Gawain promises himself that he will wear the girdle forever as a symbol of his failure, but also as a reminder of how "a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it" (2511). After all the men in Arthur’s court decide to wear a similar belt, however, the girdle takes on a new meaning – it becomes a symbol of honor. More than any in the poem, then, this girdle is a multi-dimensional object whose meaning depends upon the interpreter and the moment of interpretation.
For the most part, the narrator of Sir Gawain recounts his tale in a third-person voice limited to Gawain’s point of view. This voice is necessary in order for the tale’s surprise ending – that Sir Bertilak and the Green Knight are really one and the same person – to really be a surprise.
There are a few exceptions to this narrative voice, however. One occurs at the start of the tale, where the narrator begins by setting the tale after "the siege and the assault were ended at Troy," when King Arthur rules the land (1). Although the narrative voice is still third person, it’s not from Gawain’s point of view; we haven’t met him yet. Also, when Sir Bertilak goes hunting, the narration follows all the action like he’s hovering in the sky among the displaced animals and their pursuers, watching them fall into the hunters’ nets.
In the first section of the tale, the narrator begins a technique he continues throughout the poem, of referring to his story as one he’s heard told before, or read in a book: "If you will listen to this story just a little while / I will tell it once, as I heard it told" (30-31). At these moments, the narrative voice shifts to first person as we’re caught up in the fiction of being in the same room with our storyteller, listening as he recounts a legendary, well-known story. These kinds of moments are peppered throughout the narrative; for example, when the narrator tells us to "be quiet a short while, / and I’ll tell how things turn out" (1996-1997). The effect of these insertions of the narrator’s own point of view is that we never forget that we’re hearing this story through the filter of our narrator.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
This initial situation sets us up perfectly for the wondrous event that’s to follow, for we know that Arthur won’t eat until he’s witnessed something marvelous, and in these tales, the king always gets to eat eventually. When the green man on the green horse rides in, we’re pretty sure that he’s the marvelous event Arthur’s been waiting for.
Since the rules of the Green Knight’s game, to which Gawain has agreed, dictate that he must submit to a blow from his axe in a year and a day, the Knight’s failure to die as expected really presents a conflict for Gawain. The conflict is between his code of honor as a knight, which requires him to always keep his word, and his natural survival instinct.
Gawain goes in search of the Green Knight at the appointed time, and it looks like all that’s left for him to do is die. Our story becomes more complicated, however, when Gawain comes upon a mysterious castle in the middle of the enchanted forest where he’s invited to spend the holiday season. The lord of the castle proposes an exchange of winnings on the days when he goes hunting and Gawain lounges at home in bed. This is all very amusing, but what does it have to do with the Gawain’s promise to the Green Knight? We’re guessing we’re about to find out.
Here it is, the moment we’ve been waiting for: at last, Gawain fulfills his promise to the Green Knight. It looks like his code of honor is going to win out over his survival instinct. Bye-bye, Gawain.
The Green Knight really prolongs the suspense here, since he keeps putting off the critical moment when Gawain will get his head chopped off. Gawain actually gets somewhat annoyed with the Green Knight for this after the two feints, recognizing that he’s teasing him and basically telling him to just get it over with, already.
Wow, this is a lot of information to get all at once. Not only are Lord Bertilak and the Green Knight one and the same, but he and his wife were in cahoots to test Gawain’s honor still further. Oh, and the old lady? Turns out she’s the one behind this whole adventure. Anyway, Green Knight (and the connection between the complication and the conflict) explained.
In medieval romances, the conclusion almost always occurs when the knight-adventurer returns to the place where he began, usually the court of his king. This return represents the re-incorporation of the knight back into society, along with everything he’s learned about himself on his adventure.
When the mysterious Green Knight challenges a knight of King Arthur’s court to strike him with one blow from his axe then receive one blow in exchange in a year and a day, Sir Gawain accepts the challenge. When the Knight survives the blow, Gawain prepares himself to meet the Knight again, riding away from the court on All Saint’s day.
At a castle in an enchanted forest, Gawain receives the hospitality of a lord and lady and agrees to a daily exchange of winnings with the lord. As the lord hunts a deer, boar, and fox during three consecutive days, Gawain remains in bed dallying with the lady and receiving kisses from her. He returns all the kisses to the lord as per the terms of their agreement, but fails to return a gift he receives from the lady as a "lover’s token" – a green girdle she claims will make the wearer invincible. On New Year’s Day, Gawain meets the Green Knight at the green chapel and accepts two feints (blows that the Knight stops before they meet the flesh) and one blow that just breaks his skin.
The Knight explains that he is actually the lord of the castle sent by the sorceress Morgan le Fay to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere. The two feints represent the two days in which Gawain exchanged his winnings like an honest man, while the one real blow represents Gawain’s failure to return the green girdle. Gawain returns to Arthur’s court humiliated, and tells everyone what happened and that he plans to wear the green girdle as a symbol of his failing. All the knights of the court decide to wear it too, for Gawain’s sake, and it comes to be known as a symbol of honor.