Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Dense Forest of Symbols

From the Lecture Series: King Arthur — History and Legend

By Dorsey Armstrong, PhD, Purdue University

An anonymous poem of 2,530 lines, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, survives in a single manuscript containing three other Middle English poems. Written around 1375, discover why Gawain is the finest of the English romances in the Arthurian mode and one of the last.

"Galvagin" depicted in the early 12th-century Italian Modena Archivolt
(Image: Sailko/Public domain)

Gawain survives in a single manuscript that contains three other poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. It is usually assumed, based on linguistics studies, that all four poems are by the same author, usually called the “Pearl Poet.” The poem itself is 2,530 lines long and written in alliterative verse. It is a form that has not been seen often since the eclipse of Old English literature. The vernaculars of 12th-and 13th-century Europe generally preferred elaborate rhyme schemes rather than schemes of alliteration.

This is a transcript from the video series King Arthur: History and Legend. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript
First page of only surviving manuscript containing the poem, circa 14th century. (Image: “Gawayin Poet”, late 14th century/Public domain)

To grasp this, let’s look at an example from the opening section of Gawain. This is a modern English translation, but the alliterations are very clear:

The King lay at Camelot at Christmas time,

With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.

If you say that out loud, you can hear the “k, k, k,” and the “f, f, f,” sounds; these alliterations run throughout the poem. Scholars have long spoken of an alliterative revival in the 14th century, but it is important to bear in mind that at the very same time, there was a tremendous explosion of literature in Chaucer’s London dialects as well.

A Traditional Arthurian Character

It wasn’t until Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his history of the kings of Britain, between about 1139 and 1147, that anyone treated the matter of Britain seriously in a Latin work. Despite being called a history, there was a great deal of legend to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of the world of Arthur in Latin, he gave the materials a kind of authenticity that they had not previously possessed.

Gawain’s popularity was really unprecedented among the Arthurian knights. Gawain—not the now popular Lancelot—is the one who turns up again and again in literature.

What resulted was an outpouring of Gawain stories in French and German romances—in no fewer than a dozen different English versions. Gawain’s popularity was unprecedented among the Arthurian knights. Gawain—not the now popular Lancelot—is the one who turns up again and again in literature. It’s not surprising that this wonderful 14th-century romance would have been focused on Gawain rather than on one of the other characters from the Arthurian cast.

Gawain is one of the traditional Arthurian characters. Even in early Celtic renditions, Gawain appears as Arthur’s great-nephew. He is always the king’s support and great protector. He’s young, brave, loyal, and courteous; Gawain appears to embody these qualities more than any other knight of the Round Table. That having been said, the author of Gawain felt free to tinker with those conventions.

Gawain and the Green Knight is both a straightforward adventure and a mystery tale. It can be read on one level as just a great story, but it is also a dense forest of symbols.

Learn more about the origins of King Arthur

A Violent Christmas Game

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (from original manuscript, artist unknown)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Image: Original Manuscript, author unknown/Public domain)

Arthur and his knights are gathered at Camelot. It is Christmas. The scene is one of great merriment. Arthur, however, insists that he will not eat—and that means that no one else can eat—until someone tells a tale of adventure. Before anyone can tell a tale, an enormous and hideous green knight bursts through the doors of the hall.

Arthur, the perfect host, courteously invites the stranger to join the celebration but the knight declines. He says that he has come because he has heard of the court and wishes to challenge the men to a Christmas game. The game that the Green Knight proposes is this: trading one blow for one blow; one is to be delivered now, and one is to be delivered a year hence. The Green Knight offers his battle-axe to whoever wishes to accept the challenge.

The Green Knight courteously offers his neck. Gawain strikes a mighty blow and severs the Green Knight’s head. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the knight reaches down, picks up his head, puts it on, gets on his horse, and rides away.

Gawain leaps from his seat and insists that he be the one who is allowed to accept the challenge. The Green Knight courteously offers his neck; Gawain strikes a mighty blow and severs the Green Knight’s head. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the knight reaches down, picks up his head, puts it on, gets on his horse, and rides away, reminding Gawain that he must appear a year later at the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day.

The astonishment of the people at court abates and the feast goes on. The story fast-forwards to All Saints’ Day of the next year, November 1, when Gawain must prepare to leave.

Learn more about the key Arthurian texts of Hartmann von Aue

A Curious Kind of Refuge

For several weeks, Gawain traverses a cold and mysterious landscape, then comes upon a grand castle. It is coming to be Christmas time and he is hospitably invited into this great castle where he is encouraged to join the celebration. He is treated to every possible consideration. The lord of the castle proposes that someone devise a Christmas game.

Gawain says he would love to join in the merriment of the games, but that he is honor-bound to go to the Green Chapel by New Year’s. The lord of the castle tells him not to worry, the chapel is very nearby, and then he introduces the game. Each day, the lord will go hunting while Gawain stays in the castle. At the end of each day, they will exchange what each has caught. The lord of the castle goes hunting, of course, and catches various prey. Gawain, meanwhile, is in the castle, where he is subjected to the amorous advances of the lady of the castle. Gawain courteously refuses the lady, but each day, they exchange a kiss. Rather comically, at the end of each day, the lord of the castle comes back and hands over to Gawain his prey from that day’s hunt, and Gawain kisses the lord of the castle.

On the third day, the lady of the castle gives Gawain a green sash that will allegedly protect him from any evil or misfortune. When the lord returns, Gawain decides not to hand over the sash. The next day, Gawain gets directions to the Green Chapel. He takes his leave, and he goes on to acquit himself of his debt.

Gawain and the Green Knight Meet Again

Upon arriving, Gawain is welcomed by the Green Knight, who praises him for coming. Gawain prepares himself to receive his blow. The Green Knight goes to swing his axe and Gawain flinches. Gawain prepares himself again. The Green Knight prepares to swing his axe a second time and again, Gawain flinches. The Green Knight chides him. He says, “Stand up and take this like a man.” Gawain says, “All right. Get on with it.” He then sets himself and the Green Knight prepares to swing for the third time. The Green Knight deliberately gives just a glancing blow. Gawain leaps up and the lord reveals that all of this has been an elaborate game of his own devising. He knows about the kisses and the green sash. Finally, he reveals himself to be Bercilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle.

Gawain confesses his error, confesses his deception, and regrets his lack of courage, but Bercilak tells him that he, Gawain, has not dropped at all in anyone’s esteem.

Learn more about the Round Table

Layers of Complexity

painting of Arthur and his knights at the Round Table
Arthur and his Knights at the Round Table (Image: Evrard d’Espinques/Public domain)

Gawain returns to Camelot. He tells his tale to the assembled knights of the Round Table, and all the knights, at Arthur’s prompting, don green sashes in solidarity with Gawain.

It’s an interesting and powerful story, one that can be read by readers of almost any age. If we try to begin working our way beneath the surface of this story and try to interpret Gawain, we find that we get many layers of complexity.

Common Questions About Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Q: Why is the Knight green in Sir Gawain?

The color green typically symbolizes nature. Just as nature is unpredictable and resists our attempts to control it, the Green Knight in Sir Gawain behaves in unpredictable ways. 

Q: How long is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is 66,000 words and takes approximately 4-and-a-half hours to read.

Q: What did the Green Knight teach Sir Gawain?

The Green Knight teaches Sir Gawain not to abandon his devotion to God and spiritual values for fleeting pleasures.

Q: How did Sir Gawain die?

Sir Gawain was killed while jousting with Sir Lancelot. Gawain and Lancelot were once close friends, but Gawain became angry after Lancelot inadvertently caused the death of Gawain’s brother.

This article was updated on July 14, 2020

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