Sir Gawain and The Green Knight Summary


Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and The Green Knight Summary

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Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a chivalric romance written by an anonymous author sometime in the fourteenth century. It is one of the most famous stories of King Arthur and his knights with themes of honesty, bravery, and honor.

On New Year’s Day, King Arthur and his court are celebrating the holiday and waiting for the feasts to start. The King wishes to hear or see an exciting adventure. Just at that moment, a mysterious rider, entirely green on a green horse, arrives at the castle offering to play an interesting Christmas game. If anyone will behead him, that person will receive the rider’s splendid ax, but must receive a return blow in a year and a day’s time.

At first, no one seems willing for the bargain, but Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and youngest knight, begs for the honor, and when the knight bows his head, Gawain beheads him in one clean blow.

To the court’s surprise, the knight doesn’t fall, but picks up his head and rides away, reminding Gawain of his bargain. Arthur and Gawain admire the ax, and as they hang it up for a trophy, they encourage a distraught Guinevere to treat the whole matter with a light heart.

When the time comes to keep his side of the bargain, Gawain rides off to find the Green Chapel and make good on his deal. The manuscript implies that the trip is full of brave adventures for Gawain, but now he must pass the bravest test of all. However, before he can find the Green Chapel, he comes upon a splendid castle.

It belongs to Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife who are so pleased to have such a renowned knight as their guest. They tell him that the Green Chapel is not far, and that he should spend his remaining time as their honored guest. He happily agrees, and they begin to make plans. He notices an old woman treated with great respect, but he is not introduced.

The next day, Bertilak proposes that he will give Gawain whatever he catches on a hunt, if Gawain will return to him whatever he might gain during his stay that day. Gawain agrees. While Bertilak is gone, his wife comes to Gawain and attempts to seduce him. Gawain is able to respectfully reject her advances however, and will only agree to a single kiss to preserve their honor. When Bertilak returns, they exchange a deer from the hunt and a single kiss though Gawain doesn’t reveal where he received the kiss.

The next day, the wager is repeated, with Gawain only agreeing to receive two kisses, and the exchange is a boar and the two kisses. The next, again, Gawain will not acquiesce to the lady’s seduction, but this time he agrees to three kisses and her magical girdle. She claims that the girdle will prevent him from receiving any harm, and knowing the nature of the bargain he must keep, he accepts it. When Bertilak returns, they exchange a fox and only three kisses. Gawain doesn’t mention the girdle.

The day comes for Gawain to meet the Green Knight, and he rides to the Green Chapel with the girdle wrapped around his waist. He finds the Green Knight sharpening his ax, and he presents his neck. When the knight swings, the full force of the blow is prevented by the girdle, but Gawain flinches. When the knight belittles him for it, Gawain angrily presents his neck again, and this time he does not flinch. The Green Knight tells him that he is only testing his nerve.

Gawain commands him to give him the full force of his strength, and the Knight swings again. The full force of the blow is deflected once more, and at this, the Green Knight dissolves and reveals himself to be Lord Bertilak hidden by magic. He explains that the game was intended to test the resolve of the knights and frighten Lady Guinevere to death. The old woman at the castle is actually Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister and a powerful sorceress, and the creator of the trickery.

Gawain expresses sorrow that he behaved deceitfully, but Bertilak laughs it off and forgives him saying that he is the most honorable man of all. The two part on friendly terms, and when Gawain returns finally to the Knights of the Round Table, they absolve him of any wrongdoing and decide that from now on they will all wear green sashes as a reminder of the importance of honesty.

The major theme of this tale is that of principle. There are three different codes of conduct present, and Gawain must find a way to reconcile all of them in his actions. In the first code, that of knightly conduct, he must obey his liege and engage in feats of bravery without dishonoring either Arthur, to whom he has pledged his loyalty, or the lord of the castle who is giving him a place to stay. The second is that of courtliness, a code that requires him to entertain and delight all in the court, especially a beautiful woman. The final code is that of Christian values of honesty and redemption. All men are born sinful, and it is through total honesty that one is absolved of these sins.

The other theme is one of appearances. No one in this story is who he or she seems. The Green Knight is actually Bertilak. The old woman is a powerful sorceress. Gawain is protected secretly from the blows of the ax. It is only through these secrets that the true nature of chivalry is revealed, and everyone in the story comes to a happy ending.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a classic example of the codes of chivalry present at the time of its creation, and through it we see the idealized world of codes of behavior of the courts and knights.