Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
- the finest Arthurian romance in English, by an unknown author presenting it as on oral poem
- shows high sophistication and knowledge of the international Middle Ages culture as well as of the ancient native traditions
- draws on an older tradition of the Arthurian legend: makes Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, the preeminent knight of the Round Table, while Lancelot remains just one of the other knights
- the later thirteenth century French Arthurian legend presents Sir Lancelot as the best knight and makes Lancelot's adultery with Queen Guinevere the central event (e.g. in Sir Thomas Malory)
- the main plot focuses on the Beheading Game, in which a supernatural challenger offers to let his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow (the theme derives from a Middle Irish tale)
- the first and the last stanzas refer to the Brutus Books, the foundation stories tracing the origins of Rome and Britain back to the destruction of Troy
- belongs to the Alliterative Revival of the late fourteenth century (other poems of the tradition include e.g. Piers Plowman and The Alliterative Morte Darthur)
- written in stanzas containing a group of alliterative lines, each stanza closes with five short lines rhyming ABABA: the first line, the "bob", consists of two or three syllables, the following four lines, the "wheel", consist of three stresses each
Describes the splendidness of Arthur's court in Camelot, the capital of his kingdom. Follows with the description of the merry and plentiful Christmas and New Year's festivities. The New Year's feast is interrupted by a sudden appearance of the Green Knight, a green man dressed all in green and riding a green horse. The Green Knight addresses Arthur and challenges the guests to a beheading game. As nobody else volunteers, Arthur himself is ready to take part in the game. Then Gawain, his nephew, rises and asks to stand against the Green Knight instead of Arthur.
Gawain takes the axe the Green Knight offers him and cuts off his head. The head is separated from the body but the Green Knight picks it up and puts it back on his throat. Gawain is obliged to seek out the Green Knight of the Green Chapel the next New Year's Day when it will be the Green Knight's turn to cut off Gawain's head.
Twelve months pass away and Gawain prepares himself for death. He wears his emblem, which is a pentangle, a five-pointed star, standing for truth and for faith pledged by one's word. Gawain's quest to find the Green Knight is difficult, he must overcome many dangers and fight many enemies on his way.
It is the Christmas Eve and Gawain prays for a place to hear the holy mass. He is friendly received in a castle where he spends the Christmas time. His host promises him to guide him to the Green Chapel in the arranged time. His host promises Gawain to present him what he gains in the hunting game the next day in exchange for what Gawain wins in the castle while his host is hunting.
Gawain is visited by a fair lady, his host's wife, who steals into his chamber. In the evening, when his host presents Gawain with the deer, fulfilling his pledge, Gawain presents his host with a kiss in exchange, fulfilling his part of the pledge, too. The following day Gawain is revisited by the lady who tries to seduce him while her husband is hunting again. The same situation is repeated: Gawain's host presents him with a boar this time, while Gawain presents his host with a kiss.
The third day again Gawain is visited by the lady who presses him to commitment. She offers him a gift of her green belt, Gewain is lead to believe that such a precious gift from such a lady could save his life, accepts the belt and promises to conceal it from her husband. On returning from the hunt, his host presents him with the fox Reynard, while Gawain presents him with a kiss.
Gawain's host accompanies him within reach of the Green Chapel but is unwilling to go further, claiming to fear the Green Knight. Gawain promises to keep this act of cowardice secret.
The Green Chapel looks like a cave covered by grass. The Green Knight is ready to behead Gewain but interrupts the first stroke of his axe in the act. Neither does he finish the second stroke. The third stroke only hurts Gawain's neck. The Green Knight then identifies himself as his host of the castle and states that the third stroke and the wound is for Gawain's failing the third test and accepting his wife's belt without repaying him as he promised. The Green Knight is now repaid and he invites Gawain to join his court for festivity again. Gawain refuses and decides to wear the green belt as a token of his shame for false faith.
Gewain truly relates his story to Arthur's court and the fellow knights decide to wear green belts themselves as a mark of sympathy. Since then the green belt has become a mark of honour.
Full TitleSir Gawain and the Green Knight.
ComposedBetween c. 1375 - 1400.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 158-210.