By an Unknown Author of the Fourteenth Century
A Study Guide
Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval romance, a long poem resembling
an epic in its focus on heroic deeds. Unlike an epic, however, a medieval
romance is light in tone, and its content is at times fantastic and magical.
In a medieval romance chivalrous knights pay homage to lovely ladies. The
knights are often pure in heart and soul, although sorely tempted by the
wiles of beautiful women. There may be merriment and singing. The manuscript
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appeared circa 1375, although
it may have been written some years earlier. Because the original language
of the poem is difficult for the modern reader, it appears today in translations.
This study guide is based on Jesse L. Weston's public-domain prose translation
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 1898.
.......The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has never been identified. He or she wrote with considerable skill and sophistication, using specific details and vivid imagery to develop the story. Three other works—The Pearl, Purity, and Patience—are also attributed to this author.
.......The action takes place in Medieval England and Wales in the age of the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The story begins at Arthur's castle at Camelot when his nephew—the doughty Sir Gawain—takes part in a test of valor proposed by a visitor, a giant of green complexion and attire. The scene shifts to the countryside, then to another castle, then to the countryside, then to the valley of the giant—the centerpiece of which is a mysterious Green Chapel—and finally back to Camelot. The location of Camelot, if it existed, is uncertain. Some legends place it in Monmouthshire, Wales. Others place it in England in Corneal, Soberest, or Hampshire.
Sir Gawain: Brave,
chivalrous young knight of Camelot who is the nephew of King Arthur and
Morgan le Fay. He takes up the challenge proposed by the fearsome Green
.......On New Year’s Day, all attend Mass in the chapel, then exchange gifts and sit down to a feast of meats, dainties, beer, and wine. After servants set before them the first course, a gigantic man with a green complexion, green beard, and green clothes rides into the hall on a green horse. In one hand of his hands is a holly bough; in the other is a huge axe of green steel and gold with an edge razor thin. He asks, “Where is the ruler of this folk?"
.......While everyone marvels at the strange knight, Arthur identifies himself as lord of the castle and welcomes his visitor. After praising the warriors of Camelot, the Green Knight announces that he comes in peace, as suggested by his holly bough, but wishes the king to grant a request. If it is combat he seeks, Arthur says, he shall not lack for a foe.
.......“Nay, I ask no fight," the Green Knight says. “Were I clad in armour on my steed there is no man here might match me."
.......Instead, he proposes a “jest" in which he will exchange blows of his axe with a knight. The Green Knight will receive the first blow as he sits, unarmed. The wielder of the axe will then bare himself to an axe blow a year and a day hence. The Camelot knights sit in amazement while the gigantic man surveys them with eyes burning red beneath green eyebrows. After none of the knights speaks up, Arthur accepts the challenge and takes up the axe. Then Sir Gawain says, “I beseech ye, my lord, let this venture be mine." Arthur gives him the axe and a blessing. The Green Knight tells Gawain that he may keep the axe after dealing his blow. In one year, Gawain must seek out the Green Knight wherever he is and bare himself to the giant’s blow.
.......When Gawain strikes, the axe severs the head, which rolls forth while blood spurts from the neck. But the Green Knight retrieves his head and holds it high. It speaks, telling Gawain that in his search for the Green Knight a year hence he has only to mention to anyone that he seeks the knight of the Green Chapel and “thou shalt not fail to find me." The Green Knight then gallops out of the hall. Turning to Guinevere, Arthur tells her not to be dismayed, for “such craft is well suited to Christmas-tide when we seek jesting, laughter and song, and fair carols of knights and ladies." To Gawain, he says, “Now, fair nephew, hang up thine axe, since it has hewn enough." And all is mirth and minstrelsy again as the feast continues.
.......The months pass swiftly and the Michaelmas moon, heralding the feast of the Archangel Michael on September 29, breaks over Camelot. Gawain lingers a month more at court, mulling the peril awaiting him. At a feast on All Hallows Day (All Saints' Day), November 1, Gawain tells Arthur he will leave on the morrow. All the knights gather around him—Ywain, Erec, Sir Dodinel le Sauvage, the Duke of Clarence, Lancelot, Lionel, Lucan the Good, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, Sir Mador de la Porte—to give him counsel and support. The next day, the bearers of his armor set it out on a carpet and dress him in a silk doublet, steel shoes, greaves with shining kneecaps, gloves, mail, surcoat, and all the rest.
.......Waiting to receive him is his horse, Gringalet, outfitted with a gleaming saddle. Gawain sets his helmet—topped with a circlet of diamonds—upon his head and takes up his shield, red with a pentangle of gold. Then he spurs his horse and rides off, striking sparks from the stones. Sad is all of Camelot for the noble knight, who will surely meet his death.
.......Gawain spends his nights alone with his steed, with only God to counsel him. As the days pass, he nears northern Wales, crosses fords, and comes to a wilderness. Along the way, he asks everyone he encounters about the Green Knight, but no one knows of him. Proceeding, he climbs cliffs and crosses streams, fighting many a foe—wolves, dragons, bulls, bears, wild men. When the cold sets in, he sleeps on bare rocks, glazed with sleet.
.......On Christmas Eve, he prays to the Lord and his mother, Mary, to lead him to a shelter where he may attend Mass and the morning matins. After raising his hand and making the sign of the cross, he spies a great castle surrounded by a moat, huge trees, and a palisade. Thanking Christ for his good fortune, he rides to the entrance of the thick-walled fortress and calls out. When a porter looks over the wall, Gawain begs lodging. After the porter receives permission from his lord, he lowers the drawbridge and a company within kneels in respect to receive him. Then the gates open and he rides in. Groomsmen take his horse, and knights and squires receive his helmet, sword, and shield and lead him into the hall to a blazing fire. The lord welcomes him, saying, “All that is here is your own to have at your disposal."
.......Gawain thanks and embraces the knight, an older man of great stature who appears strong of limb and stride. The host takes Gawain to a chamber with silk curtains around the bed and sumptuous carpets on the floor. Gawain receives fine robes to wear and sits in an embroidered chair near the fireplace. Servants set up a table and bring him fish, meats, and other food. When he announces his identity, all in the castle rejoice at having the honor of hosting a famous knight.
.......In the evening, Gawain attends evensong in the chapel with the lord while his lady sits in an enclosure. Afterward, the lady, one of the fairest women Gawain had ever seen, greets him with her elderly companion at her side. The latter is wrinkled and yellow and wears a white wimple (a type of veil) over her chin. Her plainness contrasts sharply with the extraordinary beauty of the lord’s wife.
.......The lord and lady go with Gawain to the fireside in his chamber. There they enjoy wine, spices, jests, and merriment.
.......On Christmas Day, Gawain has the honor of sitting next to the lady during a sumptuous feast. Trumpets and drums sound, and merry pipes blow. Feasting continues on December 26 and 27. On the latter day, St. John’s Day, Gawain bids the lord farewell. When the lord asks him why he must leave so soon, Gawain informs him that he must find a place called the Green Chapel by New Year’s Day. The lord then tells Gawain he need not hurry off, for the chapel is not two miles away. Gawain agrees to stay. The lord will be hunting on the morrow, but he tells Gawain to remain behind and rest to restore himself from his hard journey. The lord’s lady will keep him company. The lord then proposes an exchange: He will give Gawain the prize of his hunt if Gawain gives him a gift he receives during the day. Gawain agrees to the proposal.
.......Early the next morning, the lord rides to the hunt with a company of men to the sounds of bugles and barking dogs. By and by, the hunters track down hinds and does, and the arrows whistle and find their marks. Meanwhile, the lady enters Gawain’s chamber and bids him remain in bed while she chats “with my knight whom I have captured." They talk past mid-morning until the lady makes to leave and says, “So true a knight as Gawain . . . would never have tarried so long with a lady but he would of his courtesy have craved a kiss at parting." Gawain says, “I will do even as it may please ye," and she lowers her lips to his, then quietly leaves. Gawain rises, goes to Mass, dines on hearty fare, and enjoys himself the rest of the day.
.......When the lord returns, he gives his bounty of game to the Camelot knight as his part of the bargain they struck. Gawain greets him with a kiss, saying, “ Take ye here my spoils, no more have I won; ye should have it freely, though it were greater than this." The lord asks Gawain where he won the kiss and whether he won it through his own facility. But Gawain says, “Ask me no more: ye have taken what was yours by right, be content with that." Then they laugh, talk, drink, and agree that on the following day they will again exchange boons with which fortune favors them.
.......At dawn, the lord rides out with his men. This time, they track a boar that menaces the dogs. So thick is his hide that the arrows cannot penetrate it. When it turns on the hunters, all draw back except the lord, who chases after it blowing his bugle.
.......At the castle, the fair lady again comes to Gawain, sits by his side, and asks why he does not greet her with a kiss in exchange for the one she gave him the day before. Gawain refuses to be so bold with the lady of the lord, but he says, “I am at your commandment to kiss when ye like, to take or to leave as ye list." The lady favors him with a polite kiss. Afterward, they talk awhile. She says knights like Gawain are known to perform wondrous deeds of valor for their ladies and bring them joy by showing love. Yet Gawain has not spoken of love, she says. He ought to teach her about it—“show some little craft of true love." But Gawain says she knows far more about love than he will know in a lifetime. All he can do, he says, is be her servant. After they talk and jest awhile, pleasantly passing the time, she kisses him again before leaving.
.......Afterward, Gawain attends Mass and eats dinner with young women of the court while the lord and his men continue to chase the boar, which has killed some of their best dogs. Tired of running, the beast turns on them, foaming at the mouth. The lord’s men, many of them wounded by the tusks, keep back. But the lord himself dismounts and draws his sword. The boar charges his foe, and they tumble and roll into a stream. There, the lord drives his blade into the heart of the beast, and the dogs drag it to shore. The men cut off its head, fasten its feet to a pole, and make their way home.
.......At the castle, the lord summons the household and tells them the tale of his hunt, then presents his trophy to Gawain. In return, Gawain kisses him twice and says they are even. Afterward, they all sit down to music and a fine feast, with the lovely lady sitting near Gawain and stealing looks at him. Gawain and the lord agree again to exchange gifts the following day.
.......In the morning, the lord and his men ride again to the hunt, this time finding a wily fox to follow. Meanwhile, the lady, dressed in a luxurious mantle and bedecked with diamonds, calls upon Gawain. They exchange pleasant conversation, but the knight is wary lest he say or do anything untoward, for he respects his host, the lord. When she tries and fails to make him kiss her, she kisses him, then asks him for a token—perhaps a glove—before she leaves. Gawain says she deserves the most precious gift in the world, “but it is not to your honour to have at this time a glove for reward as gift from Gawain. . . ." In response, she presents him a gift, a gem-studded gold ring, but he refuses it. “I have [no gift] to give, and none will I take," he says.
.......When she offers him her green sash as a less ostentatious gift, Gawain refuses it also. However, he changes his mind when she tells him of its astounding power: The knight who “bears it knotted about him" cannot be defeated by any man or any magic. Obviously, such a charm would serve him well at the Green Chapel. When he accepts it, she makes him promise to keep the gift a secret from her husband and all others. After the lady leaves, Gawain ties the sash about him beneath his robes, then goes to the chapel and confesses his sins to God through a priest in the sacrament of Penance. Afterward, Gawain keeps company with the young ladies, caroling and making merry.
.......The lord brings home his hunting trophy, a fox skin. Gawain greets him with more kisses as his part of the bargain, and the lord gives him the fox skin. While they celebrate New Year’s Eve, the lord says he has assigned a guide to accompany Gawain on his journey to the Green Chapel in the morning.
.......Gawain awakes before dawn. A chamberlain makes ready his horse, Gringalet, and brings Gawain his garments and armor. After the knight petitions Christ to bring good fortune to his hosts, the drawbridge creaks down, the gates rise, and Gawain rides off with his guide into the January cold. They travel up hills, across moors, and through mists and forests until they reach a high place overlooking the valley of the Green Chapel. The guide urges Gawain to go no farther, saying,
The place whither ye go is accounted full perilous, for he who liveth in that waste is the worst on earth, for he is strong and fierce, and loveth to deal mighty blows; taller is he than any man on earth, and greater of frame than any four in Arthur's court, or in any other. And this is his custom at the Green Chapel; there may no man pass by that place, however proud his arms, but he does him to death by force of his hand, for he is a discourteous knight, and shews no mercy.Gawain replies,
I will to the chapel let chance what may, and talk with that man, even as I may list, whether for weal or for woe as fate may have it. Fierce though he may be in fight, yet God knoweth well how to save His servants.The guide then tells Gawain he will come upon the Green Chapel by riding to the bottom of the valley and turning left. Saying he will not continue on with Gawain for “all the gold on earth," the guide turns around and rides off.
.......In the valley, Gawain sees only a large mound rising next to a brook. After riding up and tying his rein to a tree branch, he inspects the mound and concludes it is an oratory overgrown with grass, a place where the devil himself may conduct his rites. “'Tis the foul fiend himself who hath set me this tryst, to destroy me here!" he thinks.
.......Then he hears the tremendous whirring of a grindstone spinning against metal. It comes from a crag beyond the brook. Soon the Green Knight emerges from a cave with a huge axe and poles across the brook with the handle of his weapon. When Gawain approaches him, the giant reminds him of their covenant. Gawain says, “Make thou ready for the blow and I shall stand still and say never a word to thee."
.......Gawain bares his neck. When the axe falls, Gawain shifts to one side and the blow misses. The giant berates him for cowardice, and Gawain vows to remain still for a second blow. The Green Knight then brings the axe down but stops it short of its mark, saying Gawain must pull aside his hood. Gawain complies. When the knight wields the axe a third time, it breaks the skin and draws blood—but that is all. Gawain rises, dons his helmet, takes up his shield, and draws his sword, saying he has withstood the blow and thereby fulfilled his pledge. If the Green Knight strikes again, Gawain says, he will wield his sword.
.......Leaning on his axe, the big man reveals that he knows all about Gawain's “magical" sash and his conversations with the lady, who is the Green Knight’s wife. The first two blows of his axe were tit for tat for the first two kisses the lady gave Gawain. The third blow—which only broke skin—was for the other attentions of the lady. He had sent his wife to test Gawain, the Green Knight says, and, “in sooth I think thou art the most faultless knight that ever trode earth." Gawain berates himself for wearing the sash, which he now sees as a sign of cowardice, and for keeping it a secret. Then he removes it and gives it to his foe, saying, “Now am I faulty and false and have been afeared: from treachery and untruth come sorrow and care. I avow to thee, Sir Knight, that I have ill done; do then thy will. I shall be more wary hereafter."
.......The Green Knight laughs, saying Gawain has confessed his sins and did in fact bare himself to the axe. Therefore, he is free of wrongdoing. He returns the sash as a token of Gawain’s adventure and bids the young knight return with him to his castle to pass the rest of the holiday. Gawain bemoans that he was made to look a fool by women’s wiles, but comforts himself that he is in the company of Solomon, Samson, and David—all of whom succumbed to women’s charms. He accepts the sash not as a trophy but as a sign of his weakness.
.......The Green Knight then identifies himself as Bernlak de Hautdesert and says Morgan le Fay, mistress of Merlin (the legendary magician), has lived for a time in his house “and there is none so haughty but she can bring him low." It was she who taught Bernlak to assume his fearsome guise. And it was she who sent him to Camelot to work a feat of magic that would “betray your wits" and frighten Guinevere. Morgan, he says, is Gawain’s aunt as the half-sister of Arthur. He then invites Gawain back to his castle, where he is truly loved by all. But, after wishing Bernlak well, Gawain rides off instead and undertakes many an adventure in which he is victorious. After a time, his neck heals, and at long last he rides into Camelot. All within hail him, and he recounts his story, leaving out no detail. He shows them the scar on his neck, as well as the sash he accepted in secret and wore as a talisman to protect him.
......"This [the sash] is the bond of the blame that I bear in my neck," he says. "This is the harm and the loss I have suffered, the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught, the token of my covenant in which I was taken. And I must needs wear it so long as I live, for none may hide his harm, but undone it may not be, for if it hath clung to thee once, it may never be severed."
.......But the king and the court laugh at the tale while comforting Gawain. The knights and ladies then decide to wear a green baldric (belt or sash that winds across the chest from a shoulder to the opposite hip, then up the back to the shoulder) in support of Gawain.
story begins and ends at Camelot. Between the Camelot episodes are an episode
in the wilderness, an episode at Bernlak's Castle, another episode in the
wilderness, and an episode at the Green Chapel in which the Green Knight
(Bernlak) wields the axe against Gawain. Thus, the plot structure is balanced,
with two Camelot episodes, two wilderness episodes, and two episodes in
Bernlak's domain (at his castle and at the Green Chapel).
.......Our poem, or, to speak more correctly, metrical romance, contains over 2500 lines, and is composed in staves [stanzas] of varying length, ending in five short rhyming lines, technically known as a bob and a wheel,—the lines forming the body of the stave being not rhyming, but alliterative. The dialect in which it is written has been decided to be West Midland, probably Lancaster, and is by no means easy to understand. Indeed, it is the real difficulty and obscurity of the language, which, in spite of careful and scholarly editing, will always place the poem in its original form outside the range of any but professed students of medieval literature, which has encouraged me to make an attempt to render it more accessible to the general public, by giving it a form that shall be easily intelligible, and at the same time preserve as closely as possible the style of the author.
faces both external and internal conflicts. The main external conflict
is his contest with the Green Knight. Secondary external conflicts include
his struggle to find the Green Chapel during harsh weather and his encounters
with wild animals. His internal conflicts include his struggle to restrain
his physical attraction to the lady, his trepidation at having to submit
his neck to the axe of the Green Knight, and the shame he feels after resorting
to a talisman (the sash) to protect himself.
.......The climax occurs when Gawain discovers that the Green Knight reveals that his grazing axe blow was a feint intended to expose Gawain as a less-than-godlike warrior who resorted to a charm (the sash) to protect himself.
Flawed Humanity—or, Nobody's Perfect
.......Gawain tries to be the perfect knight. And he is indeed brave, chivalrous, respectful, self-confident, and deeply religious. But during his sojourn at Bernlak's castle, he accepts on several occasions—though he does not invite—the kisses of Bernlak's wife, a woman of surpassing beauty. In addition, he accepts from her a sash that he believes will make him invulnerable to the axe blow of the Green Knight. He keeps secret all that passes between him and the lady. These episodes reveal Gawain as a flawed human, a young man who is less than he thinks he is. Here is why:
.......Through their wiles, Morgan le Fay and the lady teach Gawain a lesson that enlightens him about himself. It was Morgan, not Bernlak, who contrived the scheme to deceive the court at Camelot. “She sent me in this guise to yon fair hall to test the truth of the renown that is spread abroad of the valor of the Round Table," Bernlak tells Gawain." She taught me this marvel to betray your wits, to vex Guinevere and fright her to death by the man who space with his head in his hand at the high table." Bernlak wife playas a key role in the scheme.
Friendship and Camaraderie
entire court of Camelot supports Gawain as he leaves Camelot to find the
Green Knight. When he returns from his adventure downcast and embarrassed,
the knights and ladies comfort him and decide to wear a green sash in solidarity
.......On Gawain's shield is a golden pentangle against a field of red. A pentagle is a star with five points. Because the lines forming the pentangle on Gawain's shield are continuous and never broken, the star is a symbol of integrity; it signifies that all the knightly virtues and moral values of the knight who bears the shield are intact in the knight's character. Whether these virtues and values will remain intact after Gawain leaves Camelot to find the Green Knight becomes a key question in the story. The narrator of the story explains and describes the pentangle, including the symbolism of each point of the star, in this way:
And why that noble prince bare the pentangle I am minded to tell you, though my tale tarry thereby. It is a sign that Solomon set ere-while [some time ago], as betokening truth; for it is a figure with five points and each line overlaps the other, and nowhere hath it beginning or end, so that in English it is called "the endless knot." And therefore was it well suiting to this knight and to his arms, since Gawain was faithful in five and five-fold, for pure was he as gold, void of all villainy and endowed with all virtues. Therefore he bare the pentangle on shield and surcoat as truest of heroes and gentlest of knights. For first he was faultless in his five senses; and his five fingers never failed him; and all his trust upon earth was in the five wounds that Christ bare on the cross, as the Creed tells. And wherever this knight found himself in stress of battle he deemed well that he drew his strength from the five joys which the Queen of Heaven had of her Child. And for this cause did he bear an image of Our Lady on the one half of his shield, that whenever he looked upon it he might not lack for aid. And the fifth five that the hero used were frankness and fellowship above all, purity and courtesy that never failed him, and compassion that surpasses all; and in these five virtues was that hero wrapped and clothed. And all these, five-fold, were linked one in the other, so that they had no end, and were fixed on five points that never failed, neither at any side were they joined or sundered, nor could ye find beginning or end. And therefore on his shield was the knot shapen, red-gold upon red, which is the pure pentangle.Vocabulary Words From the Story
Ave: Ave Maria, or
Hail Mary, a prayer said by Roman Catholics.
age of kings and castles, or the Feudal Age, was born in Europe in the
dawning shadows of the Dark Ages. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the
late Fifth Century AD, its former territories in central Europe had to
fend for themselves. In time, without the might of the imperial Roman sword
to protect them, these territories fell prey to Viking invaders from the
north and Muslim invaders from the south.
.......The king of a domain granted an expanse of land (fief) to selected men of high standing in return for a pledge of allegiance and military service. These men, who came to be known as great lords (or grands seigneurs) then awarded portions of their land to lesser lords, or vassals, for a similar pledge of loyalty, or fealty, as well as dues and an agreement to fight the lord's enemies. In return, the great lord met the everyday needs of the vassals. Knights, highly trained mounted warriors, were the backbone of the great lord's army. Failure by a great lord or a vassal to live up to a commitment, or warranty, was a felony, a crime punishable by loss of the offender's title, land, and other assets. In severe cases, the offender sometimes lost his life or a limb.
a King or Great Lord Gave ---> Land
estate on which a lord lived was called a manor. Peasants, or serfs,
were attached to the land as property. They paid rents and taxes, farmed
the land and performed many other servile duties. Sometimes freemen also
worked the land. The lord exercised full political and social control over
castle was a walled fortress of a king or lord. The word castle
is derived from the Latin castellum, meaning a fortified place.
Generally, a castle was situated on an eminence (a piece of high
ground) that had formed naturally or was constructed by laborers. High
ground constructed by laborers was called a motte (French for mound);
the motte may have been 100 to 200 feet wide and 40 to 80 feet high. The
area inside the castle wall was called the bailey. Some castles
had several walls, with smaller circles within a larger circle or smaller
squares within a larger square.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. In planning their trick,
did Morgan le Fay and the Green Knight foresee that Gawain would accept
the challenge? (In other tales about the Knights of the Roundtable, Gawain
frequently appears as headstrong and reckless in his willingness to accept
challenges and prove his mettle.)
Complete Free Texts
L. Weston Translation