I was asked to do a report on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a British Literature class I am taking, since I was the only student to be reading it in full. I was very happy because I love this story and want to enlighten others to its greatness.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English storytelling poem written in the late 14th century amid the peasants’ revolt and the Black Death plague. The poem is written in alliterative stanzas followed by a short rhyming stanza called a bob and wheel. It was written by a contemporary of Chaucer and, while no one knows who the Gawain author was, it is clear that they were pretty clever in their storytelling. They created a character, the Green Knight, from their own region which we know was the north of England by the dialect that the poem was written in, and sent him south to seek Camelot and Arthur’s Round Table. Then they brought an Arthurian character, Sir Gawain, to their own area seeking a local landmark: the Green Chapel.
Arthur and his court, including his nephew Gawain, were making merry around Christmas time. Suddenly everyone was quiet. A large knight rode into the hall on his horse. The author waits until the last moment to say that this knight and his horse were entirely bright green. This Green Knight greeted Arthur and said that he had heard of how brave and good at battle Arthur and his men were and that he had come to offer a challenge to them that has come to be called the beheading game. The Green Knight wanted a man in the hall to take his ax and chop off the Green Knight’s head; if the Green Knight lived, the man who had beheaded him would journey to a certain Green Chapel in a year’s time and receive the same blow from the Green Knight.
After some silence, Arthur got up and said he would do it. Gawain can’t let his uncle, the king, get his head chopped off, so he got up and, taking the ax from the Green Knight says that he will do it. The Green Knight knelt on the floor and bared his neck and Gawain cut his head off. The Green Knight got up, put his head back on his neck and, reminding Gawain of his promise to come to the Green Chapel in a year, he rides off.
True to his word, the next year Gawain sets out a few weeks early to find the Green Knight’s chapel. Winters in England are very wet and miserable and here is Gawain, a young knight, probably not more than 20 years old, all alone journeying through the countryside. After days on the road, Gawain comes to a castle and begs admittance. The lord of the castle welcomes him and treats him like a royal guest.
After staying for a couple of days, Gawain says he really must be going to find the Green Chapel. He doesn’t want to ruin his honor by breaking the Code of Chivalry and breaking his word. The lord says that it will be fine; he will make sure that Gawain reaches the Chapel on time. Then he makes an agreement with Gawain. Gawain will stay in bed as long as he likes for the next three days while the lord goes hunting. Everything that the lord kills in the hunt, he will give to Gawain as long as Gawain gives whatever he receives in the castle to the lord. This has come to be called the exchange of winnings. Gawain agrees.
Each morning for the next three days, Gawain stays in bed late. And each morning also, the lord’s wife comes into Gawain’s room and flirts with him, tempting him. One of the rules in the Code of Chivalry is to never refuse a lady, but Gawain must keep his honor and respect the lady’s fidelity to her husband while not refusing her. Luckily, Gawain comes up with ways to resist her temptation while still keeping the Code of Chivalry. On the last day of the exchange of winnings, the lady comes into his room tempting him even more and gives him a green belt that she says will keep him safe from harm. Gawain knows that he shouldn’t break his agreement with the lord, but he is about to get beheaded, so he does not pass along the belt.
The lord sends a guide with Gawain to lead him to the Green Chapel and once they arrive, the guide tries to persuade Gawain to turn around and leave so that he doesn’t get killed. Gawain is determined to follow through with his promise to the Green Knight, so he refuses the guide and is left alone with the special belt hidden around his waist. Gawain hears humming and whirring noises from the top of the hill (the Green Knight sharpening his ax) and yells that if the Green Knight doesn’t show himself, Gawain will leave. The Green Knight says to wait and he’ll come down.
The Green Knight comes with his massive battle ax and Gawain kneels down with his neck exposed. The Green Knight swings his ax, but stops short because Gawain hunched his shoulders. He reproaches Gawain for being a coward and Gawain says he won’t do it again. The Green Knight swings a second time, but stops short again just to make sure that Gawain wouldn’t hunch his shoulders. By now, Gawain is mad because the Green Knight won’t get on with it. The Green Knight swings and makes a small gash on Gawain’s neck. Gawain jumps up and the Green Knight says that Gawain is like a pearl compared to the white peas that are other fair knights. The Green Knight reveals that he was the lord who made the agreement to exchange winnings with Gawain and that he sent his wife to tempt Gawain and that the special belt that his wife gave to Gawain was, in fact, his own. The lord/Green Knight then reveals that he was sent to Arthur’s court in the form of a green knight by Morgan Le Fey, (who was once romantically attached to Merlin) to test the Round Table and see if it was really as wonderful as it was said to be, by testing Gawain.
There are three themes in the story: the beheading game, the exchange of winnings, the temptation of the lord’s wife and temptation to not follow through with the Green Knight. All three test Gawain’s self-restraint, his character and his willingness to discipline himself to keeping the Code of Chivalry.
I can picture Gawain in knight school, with his teacher listing the rules of chivalry for the young knights to memorize. Gawain, looking out at the green grass, begins to daydream about his adventures as a knight: a beautiful lady, an enormous bright green knight, beheading and his own grand outcome.