38 pages 1 hour read


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1397

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Summary and Study Guide


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric romance of unknown authorship. Written sometime in the late-14th century, the work employs a complex metrical scheme that involves several lines of pentameter punctuated by a “bob and wheel”: a two-syllable “bob” followed by a rhyming quatrain of six-syllable lines. The bob and wheel structure is fairly typical of Middle English verse, as is the alliterative verse used throughout the sections written in pentameter. Its subject matter is also characteristic of the era; like many medieval romances, it is set during the legendary reign of King Arthur, although it also draws heavily on Christian belief as well as pre-Christian folklore. All quotations in this study guide come from the W.W. Norton edition of Sir Gawain, translated into modern English by Marie Borroff.   

Plot Summary

At Camelot, King Arthur and his knights are celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with games, feasts, music, and gifts. As they settle down to eat, a knight with green skin and green hair, dressed in green clothing, bursts into the hall and rides to the dais where the king and queen are seated. He issues a challenge: he will allow one of Arthur’s knights to strike him with his own ax, provided the knight agrees to allow him to do the same in a year and a day. Initially, no one is willing to accept these terms, but when Arthur signals that he himself will take up the offer, his nephew Gawain volunteers in his place. Using the Knight’s green ax, Gawain beheads the Green Knight, but the Green Knight doesn’t die; instead, he picks up his head and rides from the hall, reminding Gawain of his promise to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel next New Year’s Day.

Though he expects to die at the Green Knight’s hands, Gawain faithfully sets off in search of him the following autumn. However, Gawain struggles to learn anything of the Knight’s whereabouts, and when he stumbles across a magnificent castle on Christmas Eve, he seizes the opportunity to rest and attend religious services. His host (a lord whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) proves to be gracious and good-natured, and Bertilak invites Gawain to remain until New Year’s; moreover, Bertilak knows the location of the Green Chapel, and he will ensure that Gawain reaches it by the appointed time. Gawain accepts this offer, as well as a second bargain the lord proposes: Bertilak is going hunting the following morning, and he promises to give Gawain whatever he catches if Gawain will in turn hand over whatever he “wins” while remaining at the castle.

To Gawain’s surprise, Lord Bertilak’s wife attempts to seduce him while her husband is away. He resists her, however, and when Bertilak returns that evening, he gives him the kiss he earlier received from Lady Bertilak. The next day follows the same pattern, but on the third day of the hunt, Gawain accepts a green girdle from Lady Bertilak that she claims will protect him from injury. He conceals this girdle from Bertilak when they meet that evening, but he wears it when he sets off for the Green Chapel on New Year’s morning.

Gawain enters the valley where the Green Chapel is located, and he finds that the Chapel is nothing but a tunnel carved into a grassy hill. The Green Knight himself then emerges on the cliffside, joins Gawain on the valley floor, and prepares to strike. When the Knight swings his ax, Gawain flinches from the blade. Swinging a second time, the Knight himself feints at the last moment. The Knight then swings his ax one final time, nicking the skin of Gawain’s neck but leaving him alive.

Angered by the attack on his life, Gawain prepares to fight the Green Knight outright, but the Green Knight stands down, revealing himself to be none other than Lord Bertilak. Lord Bertilak owes his appearance to an enchantment cast on him by Morgan le Fay, who wanted to test the reputation of King Arthur’s court. Lady Bertilak’s three attempts to seduce Gawain were also part of this scheme, and the nick he gave to Gawain was a punishment for failing to abide by the terms of their agreement on the third day of the hunt. Ashamed of his weakness, Gawain announces that he will wear the green girdle for the rest of his life as a symbol of his frailty. He explains as much when he returns to Camelot, and the other lords and ladies of the court decide to adopt the emblem as well.