Arthur and his knights have gathered at his castle for the Christmas holiday season, but Arthur has a custom of refusing to eat until he has heard a marvelous tale or witnessed a wonder. Suddenly, an enormous, completely green man carrying a giant axe rides in on a completely green horse.
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.
Gawain chops off the Green Knight’s head, but he picks it right back up and clatters out of the castle on his horse.
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 spends the next holiday season at a mysterious castle in the middle of an enchanted forest.
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.
Gawain meets the Green Knight.
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.
Gawain withstands two feints (blows that aren’t carried through) and one blow that breaks the skin on his neck.
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.
The Green Knight explains that he is actually Lord Bertilak, and that the feints represent the days on which Gawain honorably followed the rules of their exchange-of-winnings game, whereas the last stroke represents his dishonesty in withholding the magic girdle. Furthermore, Bertilak tells Gawain that the old lady in his castle is Morgan le Fay, a powerful sorceress who enchanted him and sent him to Arthur’s court in order to test the knights and frighten Guinevere.
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.
Gawain returns to Arthur’s court and recounts his adventure, explaining that he will wear the green girdle forever as a symbol of his failure and of how his misdeeds can never be erased. The knights of the round table decide to wear a similar belt in honor of Gawain, and it becomes a symbol of honor.
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.