Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the greenness of the Green Knight, along with the wildness of his dwelling place, probably represents his connection to the natural world. The wilderness through which Gawain rides as he departs from Arthur’s court, and later to the Green Chapel, present a stark contrast between the civilized world of Arthur and Bertilak’s courts. Whereas this civilized world is one ruled by codes of chivalry and love, the natural world is a more chaotic place where the animal instinct for survival dominates.

    Nevertheless, as the hunting scenes in the poem demonstrate, men attempt to dominate and impose rituals and rules over even this world. Characters battle with the natural world constantly. The poem pits Gawain against the natural passing of the seasons, cold, wintry weather, and his natural urges for sex and survival.

    Yet in the end, the characters in the poem who appear to be most in conflict with the natural world because of their strict adherence to civilization’s codes of conduct prove to have more than a little of the animal in their natures. This is true of both Sir Gawain and Sir Bertilak. Sir Bertilak, for example, is also the Green Knight. Sir Gawain, on the other hand, allows his animal instinct for survival to win out over his code of knightly honor. Both of these characters show that the sharp divide between man and the natural world may be more illusion than reality.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which characters in the poem are most closely connected to the natural world? How?
    2. Which characters in the poem are most closely connected to civilization (in contrast to the natural world)? How?
    3. How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portray the wilderness outside of the dwellings of Arthur and Bertilak? What does this portrayal reveal about the meaning and importance of Arthur’s court and Bertilak’s castle?
    4. What do the hunting scenes reveal about man’s relationship to the natural world in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
    5. How does the Green Knight’s test force Gawain to acknowledge his connection to the animal world? In what other ways does the poem connect Gawain to the animal world?

    Chew on This

    The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emphasize men’s attempts to dominate and impose order upon the natural world.

    The character of the Green Knight represents the intertwining of the animal and the human in mankind’s nature.

  • Principles

    Sir Gawain adheres to a strict code of knightly behavior whereby he always keeps his promises, honors and obeys his liege lord, and engages in feats of arms to demonstrate his bravery and skill. Yet he also has a reputation for what medieval romances call courtoisie - courtliness, or courtesy. This code of conduct requires him to have perfect manners, give delight to all with his conversation and, in particular, treat ladies with almost worshipful respect.

    These two codes - that of knightly conduct and of courtoisie - come into conflict when Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Gawain. Gawain must find a way to avoid becoming romantically involved with her without seeming rude, or risk behaving dishonorably toward Bertilak, her husband, to whom he owes knightly respect. Complicating matters still further, a third code to which Gawain adheres - that of Christian virtue - values repentance and humility, teaches that a man may be absolved and forgiven for his misdeeds, and, most importantly, that men are all inherently sinful. Part of Gawain’s challenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to reconcile these three codes of conduct within himself.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What are the principles of good knightly behavior, and how does Gawain attempt to follow them?
    2. What are the rules of courtoisie, or courtesy, and how does Gawain embody them?
    3. What does the pentangle on Gawain’s shield represent?
    4. When do we see Gawain practicing the five virtues discussed in the pentangle section?
    5. How does Lady Bertilak’s attempt to seduce Gawain throw his codes of courtoisie and knightly behavior into conflict? How does Gawain reconcile them?
    6. How does the Christian belief in sin, forgiveness, and absolution conflict with Gawain’s despair at his failure? What might Gawain have to learn from the Christian system that he can apply to his other codes of conduct?

    Chew on This

    Gawain’s decision to withhold the green girdle from Bertilak represents the power of the animal instinct for survival over all of the civilizing codes that attempt to control it.

  • Rules and Order

    The plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight revolves around two games Gawain agrees to play, both with very similar rules. The first game involves an exchange of blows from an axe, while the second dictates an exchange of winnings between Gawain and Lord Bertilak. In both games, Gawain has a strong motivation not to follow the rules - his survival instinct. Yet Gawain’s code of conduct is also dictated by rules - a code of honor that requires him to keep his promises no matter what. In the end, Gawain’s survival instinct proves too strong to resist. Yet as Gawain learns, he can break all the rules and still remain himself - a man defined by his attempt to adhere to knightly, courtly, and Christian codes of conduct.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What are the rules of the beheading game the Green Knight proposes? Why do you think the Green Knight is so careful to make sure Gawain understands the rules of the game?
    2. What are the rules of the exchange-of-winnings game between Gawain and Lord Bertilak?
    3. The Green Knight tells Gawain that "true man must pay back truly" (2353). How does this rule explain the games he plays?
    4. Besides the rules of games, what other rules does Gawain try to follow?

    Chew on This

    The exchange-of-winnings game between Lord Bertilak and Gawain equates the hunt for animals with the winning of women’s sexual favors.

    Gawain’s success at following the rules of the games he agrees to play depends upon his adherence to the rules of knightly conduct.

  • Appearances

    As we might expect in a poem that features the color of one of its characters as part of its title, appearance really does matter in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Knight’s greenness, for example, might represent his connection to nature, while the richness of he and his horse’s apparel testifies to his wealth and prosperity. Similarly, the décor and luxuries at the courts of Arthur and Bertilak are important status indicators for these two men, as are the beauty of their women. In much of medieval literature, moreover, a person’s appearance indicates something about his character. When Gawain sees the healthy and strong Sir Bertilak, for example, he knows him to be a good leader of men, just as we recognize Lady Bertilak’s bared neck and shoulders to be indicators of her sexual availability.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What does the Green Knight look like? What can we learn about his character from his appearance?
    2. How does Gawain dress and arm himself when he leaves Arthur’s court? What can we learn about his character from his apparel and the objects he carries with him?
    3. What does the castle of Sir Bertilak look like on the outside? On the inside? What conclusions can we draw about his kingdom based on the appearance of his property?
    4. What does Lady Bertilak look like? What does she wear? How does her appearance contrast with that of her elderly companion?

    Chew on This

    The Green Knight’s appearance indicates his connection with the natural world.

    The appearances of Gawain’s apparel and the objects he carries give us important information about his character.

  • Respect and Reputation

    The Green Knight comes to Arthur’s court, he claims, because he’s heard of the reputation for bravery of its men, the Knights of the Round Table. He uses the threat of damage to this reputation to force the court to join in his beheading game. Similarly, Lady Bertilak convinces Gawain to kiss her by touting his reputation for courtesy, yet takes the tactic one step further by implying that Gawain is not Gawain if he refuses. This strategy relies upon a definition of identity as composed of your reputation - of what "everyone says" about you. Yet this definition of identity can be dangerous, since it gives other people a great deal of power over who you are. This precarious situation is demonstrated by Gawain’s attempt to avoid Lady Bertilak’s seduction without appearing discourteous. On the other hand, the narrative strategy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight relies upon collective opinion to back up its claims. For example, comments about Arthur’s nobility or Gawain’s virtue are backed up by "what everyone says."

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. How does the narrator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight use the power of collective opinion, or reputation, to create an authoritative voice?
    2. What is Gawain’s reputation, according to the narrator? What reputation does he have in Bertilak’s court?
    3. How do the Green Knight and Lady Bertilak use people’s reputations to force them to do their will?
    4. Gawain’s identity sometimes seems to be based on what others think about him. Does this make him vulnerable? If so, how does Gawain attempt to avoid this vulnerability, or does he?

    Chew on This

    The narrator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses reputation as a tool to make his assertions seem authoritative.

    Sir Gawain uses humility as a means of countering an identity constituted by his reputation.

  • Tradition and Customs

    The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one in which every aspect of life is bound up with rules and customs. The rituals of celebration and hunting are no exception. The narrator’s focus on the way Arthur’s court does what is "proper" at Christmas time reveals a values system in which what is customary is right. We see this in the exchanging of gifts, saying "Nowel!," and in the way the characters sit in a strict hierarchical order at the feast. We also see attention paid to custom in the hunting scenes. The butcher must cut the animal up in a specific order and reserve various parts of the animal for the hunts’ participants. In the case of the boar, the butcher must cut the animal so as to construct a perfect trophy for display. To deviate from these customs would be to reveal oneself as ill-educated in hunting, which was considered an art at this time period.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Based on the Christmas celebrations at Arthur and Bertilak’s court, what are these peoples’ Christmas traditions?
    2. Who takes responsibility for the continuation of traditions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? How?
    3. What is the order of the butchering of the deer? How is it different from the butchering of the boar? What can we learn about the different purpose each animal serves by paying attention to the way in which it is butchered?

    Chew on This

    Responsibility for the continuation of traditions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most often falls to the lord of the castle.

    The narrator’s attention to what is "proper" betrays his deep conservatism - his belief that what is customary is what is right.

  • Time

    The structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is completely governed by time. The story begins on New Year’s Eve, during the Christmas feast at King Arthur’s Court. Gawain must meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel in a year and a day. The Christmas at Sir Bertilak’s feast lasts three days, followed by three days in which Gawain sleeps late while Bertilak goes on hunts, the timing of which is bookended by sunrise and sunset. The poem’s obsession with time yields a beautiful description of the passing of the seasons. The point of this seems to be that there’s a set time for everything, and that time brings change in its wake. More than that, time forces destiny for human beings, with its passing drawing Gawain ever closer to the day on which he must meet his fate at the hands of the Green Knight.

    Questions About Time

    1. How is time important to the structure and plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
    2. What are the various calendars, both natural and man-made, that structure Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
    3. What different events characterize the four seasons as they are described by the poem?
    4. What emotions does the passing of time evoke in characters in the poem, but particularly Gawain?

    Chew on This

    The poem’s section on the seasons links Gawain to the animals and plants it describes in the way the passing of time dictates the behavior of all of them.

    Sir Gawain’s focus of time is intimately linked to its respect for customs and traditions in its attention to the "proper" time for things like feasting, celebrating, eating, and sleeping.

  • Awe and Amazement

    The opening passages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight frame the tale as a "marvellous event," a "prodigious happening among tales about Arthur" (28, 29). As we read the poem, we begin to understand more fully what comprises the wondrous or marvelous in its world. As Arthur’s court contends with the wonder of the entirely green man who picks up his own severed head and speaks with it, they are rendered entirely passive and speechless. They are unable to proceed when faced with such an unfamiliar situation. When the Green Knight leaves the court, Arthur is relieved, but also aware that he has gotten what he desired - to witness a wonder.

    Arthur's reaction captures the feelings of joy and turmoil that wonder brings in its wake. Characters are simultaneously elated and shocked by what’s new and unfamiliar. This feeling of wonder might also describe our encounter with the poem. We share in characters’ awe at the marvelous happenings while simultaneously experiencing their discomfort and sorrow.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. How do the characters in Arthur’s Court react to the Green Knight? What does their reaction tell us about the poem’s definition of wonder and the effect it has upon the witness?
    2. How are joy and turmoil intertwined with wonder in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
    3. How is the whole story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight "a marvellous event" (28)?
    4. How does our experience of reading the poem compare with the characters’ experience of wonder in encountering the Green Knight?

    Chew on This

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows how joy and turmoil are both equal parts of wonder.

    Wonder robs characters of their ability to speak and act in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because it confronts them with a situation with which they are entirely unfamiliar

  • The Supernatural

    When the Green Knight appears in King Arthur’s court, the people there think he may be some sort of magical creature. How else to explain the fact that he’s entirely green? When he picks up his own severed head and speaks with it, well, then they (and we) are convinced of it. It turns out that we’re not far off: a sorceress named Morgan le Fay has enchanted the otherwise normal Sir Bertilak into the Green Knight in order to frighten Arthur’s queen and test his knights. It turns out magic is never far off in the Arthurian legend - Arthur’s own birth was the result of a shape-shifting deception of his father by his mother. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though, magic is a specifically female enterprise, with Morgan le Fay wielding and abusing power. But even treacherous sorceresses and magical, shape-shifting creatures are no excuse for a knight to behave badly; instead, the supernatural world becomes yet one more proving ground for his bravery and honor.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    How do the members of Arthur’s court account for the presence of the Green Knight? Are they right?
    Who is responsible for all of the supernatural happenings in the poem, and with what motive?
    What are some of the supernatural creatures Gawain encounters on his way to Bertilak’s castle? What do these encounters tell us about his character?

    Chew on This

    Magical shape-shifting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a metaphor for the multi-dimensional nature of a person’s character.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays Morgan le Fay as evil.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s portrayal of Morgan le Fay is ambivalent.