Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary
The poem begins with a brief mythological account of British history. This method, the poet establishes the setting for the poem’s plot and celebrates King Arthur by including his name among other notable individuals. Following that, the actual story begins, based on a factual account the author overheard “around town.”
The Round Table’s Knights have assembled to celebrate the New Year. They partake in the magnificent feast, engage in games, and have a good time. Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, and Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, are seated near the king. Following dinner, King Arthur offers a game. He refuses to eat unless he is entertained with a great narrative.
As if he has been heard, a knight rushes into their castle, dressed all in green, with a green birch in one hand and a massive axe in the other, demanding to meet the castle’s master. While the remainder of the court is taken aback by the presence of the otherworldly creature, King Arthur maintains his composure. He introduces himself and graciously invites the Green Knight to their feast. The Knight declines, claiming he has here to view the court he has heard about and to participate in the game.
Although the Green Knights declare he comes in peace (“You may be certain by the branch I bear here that I pass in peace and seek no strife”), his presence is menacing and reeks of violence. His overall physique appears to convey raw force, the kind of wilderness seen only among animals. The green color and holy branch in his hand symbolize his connection to nature, while the axe in his hand symbolizes his power.
To bolster this argument, the reader will observe that the author devotes numerous stanzas to a thorough description of the Green Knight (dressed as the lord of the castle) reveling in the chaos created by his hunt and bloodshed in the woods. To support this view, the Green Chapel is described as the most natural setting in the entire poem, undisturbed by human hands.
Although the author never expresses the characters’ sentiments, it is easy to read between the lines and observe that the Green Knight brought both wonder and horror to King Arthur’s Arthur court.
King Arthur appears to be the only one who notices the knight’s threatening tone and promises him a fight if that is the reason for his visit, but the knight does not hesitate to humiliate both the king and his court by claiming that no one is fit to fight with him because they are all “beardless children,” referring to their youth and lack of life experience, which will prove to be true later in the story.
Rather than initiate combat, the Green Knight makes an unusual request: he seeks a knight who will strike him with his own axe. If the knight prevailed, he would be presented with the axe as a trophy. If the Green Knight prevailed, the knight would have to seek vengeance exactly one year and one day later. This suggestion has perplexed the court even more, and everyone seemed to be reconsidering their common sense.
King Arthur applies for this feat, but Sir Gawain intervenes and accepts the Green Knight’s axe voluntarily, arguing that he is the least important member of the court and so the best candidate to die in this duel. Sir Gawain exposes the Green Knight’s neck and decapitates him with a single blow. The head rolls across the floor, and the courtiers push it further with their knees until the Green Knight’s body sits up and walks over to retrieve his head.
With his head in his hands, he opens his eyes and recites the terms of the agreement, then hurries out the door. The court continues its feast, while King Arthur and Sir Gawain put the axe prominently so that everyone might marvel at it. The author concludes the first section with the following lines:
“Now take care, Sir Gawain, that thou blench not
for the pain to prosecute this adventure
that thou has taken on hand,”
as if attempting to reawaken Sir Gawain’s senses and convince him that this was not a joke and hence there is nothing to laugh about.
The second section begins in the days preceding the repayment. After a detailed account of the changing seasons, the author turns his attention to Sir Gawain. The excitement of the decapitation seemed to have worn off, giving way to concern about the impending challenges.
King Arthur hosts a feast on All Saints Day in honor of Sir Gawain, who is set to leave the court the next morning in search of the Green Knight. When the time is right, preparations for the ceremony begin. A Toulouse carpet is placed over the room, and then his finest garments and arms are brought in. All of these are described in great detail, but the most significant item is the shield bearing the pentangle and the face of the Virgin Mary. As the author himself states:
“It is a sign that Solomon set formerly as a token of truth,
by its own right, for it is a figure that holds five points,
and each line overlaps and locks in another;
and throughout it is endless;
and the English call it everywhere,
as I hear, the endless knot.
Therefore it suits this knight and his clear arms,
forever faithful in five things,
and in each of them five ways.”
This is extremely symbolic and warrants more examination. The pentangle embodies every virtue that a knight should possess: generosity, brotherhood, chastity, civility, and charity. Additionally, it symbolizes his five-finger dexterity, the perfection of his five senses, his devotion to Christ’s five wounds, and his reflection on Mary’s five joys in Christ. By fusing Christianity with the great warrior, a sinless knight should result, and these insignia serve as a reminder.
Sir Gawain mounts his horse Gringolet and sets off for Wales and Northwest England, intent to track down the Green Knight. Time passes with no outcome. Weary of the hunt, the weather, and all manner of peril, he prays for a place to stay on Christmas day so he can hear mass. It is not long before his prayers are heard. He notices a castle in the distance and makes his way towards it.
Everyone in the castle is courteous to him, and the lord has chosen the finest clothing and sleeping quarters for him. The description of the lord of the castle is similar to that of the Green Knight—both are elderly but in good health, robust in stature, and strong. Additionally, the lord suggests a game to Sir Gawain, similar to what the Green Knight did at Camelot. While lord’s game does not involve decapitation, it does show the rivalry they share.
Clearly, the author intended to leave a hint. Sir Gawain is something of a celebrity in the castle, admired by all. He is presented to two ladies, one of whom is young and attractive and the other of whom is elderly and unattractive. There is little information about them; all we know is that the young lady is the lord’s wife. Sir Gawain has authorized the game offered by the lord, in which acquired gifts are exchanged everyday.
The third section begins with the first day of the lord’s forest hunt. Numerous stanzas are devoted to graphic descriptions of animal hunting and murder, which the lord appears to revel in more than anybody else. Sir Gawain, on the other hand, is pampered in his luxury bed. The Third section demonstrates the parallel between these two persons.
The narrator alternates between scenes of violence in the woods and the cozy confines of the castle, where Sir Gawain sleeps soundly. This not only emphasizes the contrast between these two qualities, but also establishes a division between nature, wildness, and strength on the one hand, and men, civilization, and meekness on the other.
While the lord is away on the first day of the hunt, his wife slips into Sir Gawain’s bed and attempts to seduce him. Sir Gawain is pleased by her attention but immediately dismisses her. Before leaving his chamber, she manages to offer him one kiss. At the end of the day, the lord presents Sir Gawain with a deer and handles the venison as a prize, while Sir Gawain presents the lord with a kiss as his own gift.
On the second day, the lord returns with a wild boar, and Sir Gawain exchanges two kisses. On the third day, the lord’s wife intensifies the seduction by requesting love trinkets from Sir Gawain. He refuses to provide or accept any love tokens from her until she mentions the green girdle endowed with magical powers that protect the wearer from all forms of death.
Sir Gawain is powerless to refuse this offer, as the first thing that comes to mind is his impending rematch with the Green Knight, which would cement his fate. He takes a girdle, and once the lord returns from the hunt and presents him with a fox hide, Gawain shares three kisses with the lord, omitting the girdle.
These three creatures are not included in the story by chance. Each of them represents a different stage of Sir Gawain’s moral decline. Sir Gawain’s innocence at the start of the “affair” is symbolized by the deer. He is immature, inexperienced, and prone to sin. The wild boar’s tenacity symbolizes Gawain’s struggle to resist the lord’s wife. The fox is a symbol of cunning, and hence indicates deception on the part of both the lady, who is complicit in the entire prank, and Gawain, who chooses not to disclose the green girdle he received alongside three kisses.
The fourth section is critical since it elucidates the reality about each character. It opens with Sir Gawain’s pursuit of the Green Knight from the lord’s castle. One of the servants follows him until he reaches the middle of the woods, where he refuses to venture further out for fear of his life.
He offers Sir Gawain courteous advise and swears to keep it a secret if he chooses to take a different route and return home without searching for the Green Knight. Sir Gawain declines this offer and continues alone till he comes across a tunnel overgrown with shrubs and wonders if this is the Green Chapel. The sound of the grindstone confirms his suspicions, and he soon finds himself confronted by the Green Knight.
The Green Knight feigns two punches and sustains only a minor cut on his neck during the third. These three blows are retribution for the three-day game they played. The first two strokes were for sharing the kisses he received from the lady, and the third was for not being totally truthful and keeping the green girdle a secret. However, the Green Knight recognizes him as the most respected knight of all and pardons him for his error.
Before bidding farewell, Sir Gawain wishes to ascertain Green Knight’s true identity, which he satisfies by disclosing the complete truth. Bernlak de Hautdesert is his name, and he is dispatched by Morgen la Fay, the old lady in the castle who is an expert on magic, to visit King Arthur’s court and induce terror in Guinevere. The elderly lady is actually half-sister of King Arthur, and hence Sir Gawain’s aunt.
The poem concludes where it began—at Camelot. Sir Gawain has returned home safely, wearing the green girdle on his right arm, but with some reservations about his moral character. He tells his narrative to King Arthur and his courtiers, believing the cut on his neck is a permanent reminder of the blame and error he committed.
To demonstrate their respect for Sir Gawain, the Knights of the Round Table chose to wear an oblique green band. At the end of the day, the poem is about chivalry, and the Knights of the Round Table demonstrate how close they are by carrying the green band for the hero’s sake. The green color that formerly symbolized danger in Sir Gawain’s life has not only spared him from death (the green girdle), but has also become a symbol of his valiant endeavor.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary – Part I
The poem begins with a brief examination of Britain’s legendary past. As Romulus and Ticious founded Rome and Tuscany, Brutus built Britain. The author then presents King Arthur, Britain’s greatest leader, portraying him as one of the most gracious rulers of all time and expressing his desire to relate the incredible narrative that occurred during his lifetime.
The story begins with a description of the feast held at King Arthur’s court, where all of the king’s men assembled to celebrate the New Year. Those are the greatest of all lords, the legendary Knights of the Round Table. Gawain, the King’s nephew, and Queen Guinevere are placed in a coveted position adjacent to the King. The festival lasts fifteen days, and the author describes in full their feast, the lavishness of the food and beverages, and the elegance of the surroundings.
The guests at King Arthur’s are in a good mood. They give gifts, kisses, and engage in playful interactions. When New Year’s Eve dinner is served, the king initiates a game. He will not eat unless he is told a magnificent narrative about ancient heroes or someone’s feat. Suddenly, the mirth is cut short by the appearance of an unannounced guest who leaves the guest stunned. His appearance alone is scary, as he appears unearthly with his green clothing, hair, and horse.
Despite this, he is the most attractive and masculine knight anyone has ever seen, standing taller than any other knight in the court, with broad shoulders, long hair, and a beard. He demands to meet “the governor of this company” without greeting anyone and without waiting for permission to speak. While the guests are taken aback by his presence, King Arthur does not hesitate to address them and invite this superhuman to their feast.
The Green Knight declines the invitation, claiming that he has come in peace to observe the great court he has heard about, and demands to be included in the game. King Arthur recognizes the danger and reminds The Green Knight that if that is the cause for his visit, he would undoubtedly have a fight, but the Green Knight responds that no one present is fit to fight with him, referring to them as “beardless children.”
Rather than that, he requests to participate in a game in which the greatest among them would strike him with his own weapon, and if he wins, the knight will allow him to keep the weapon (the axe). On the other hand, if the Green Knight prevailed, the courtier would be required to track him down and deliver a blow to him exactly one year and one day later. This strange suggestion once again silences the entire court, and King Arthur stands forward to protect his dignity and that of his courtiers.
Just as he is about to fight the Green Knight, his nephew Gawain steps in and offers himself as a volunteer, declaring, “I am the frailest man I know, and the feeblest of wit;” The court decides that he is the best candidate, and so Gawain takes the axe and summarizes the terms set down by The Green Knight. He desires to know his identity and where he might be found, but the Green Knight’s responses serve to prolong the mystery rather than to offer any useful information.
He claims that other knights are familiar with him and that he will be easy to locate when the time comes. The Green Knight then reveals his neck, which Gawain decapitates with one swift swipe. The Green Knight’s head falls to the ground, and the guests roll it away from the body with their feet. However, the body remains still as if nothing has occurred and, to everyone’s surprise, charges forward forcefully into the crowd to retrieve the head.
He then grabs it by the hair and turns it toward the crowd, where he begins speaking. The setting is so bizarre that many people believe they’ve lost their minds. The Green Knight warns Gawain to be ready to receive his strike when the time comes if he wishes to avoid being labeled a coward.
He then dashes through the door and disappears, leaving the king and Gawain in fits of laughter. The king acknowledges that he has witnessed a marvel and can now proceed to his meal, while Gawain insists on hanging the Green Knight’s axe prominently on the wall so that everyone might marvel at it.
The first part concludes with the author telling Gawain to exercise caution and “blench not for the agony of pursuing this adventure that thou hast undertaken,” hinting that the slaughter is far from over.