Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study: Summary and Analysis
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is both a romantic story and a poem from the late 14th century. It’s romantic because it has adventures, love, and a knight’s quest. As a poem, it’s special for its style, rhythm, and the way it uses symbols. This story is an important part of old English literature and is still read and studied today for its artistic quality and for what it tells us about the past.
The writer of this story is unknown, so people often refer to him or her as the “Pearl Poet” or the “Gawain Poet.” This is because the author might have written other works, too. In those times, authors rarely signed their stories, and many tales were passed down by speaking them, not writing.
Key Characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Sir Gawain: He is the main character and a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. Gawain is known for his chivalry, bravery, and courtesy. He accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and embarks on a journey that tests his honor and moral values.
- The Green Knight: A mysterious and supernatural figure who challenges the knights at Arthur’s court. He is imposing and has a green complexion. Later in the story, it’s revealed that he is also Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle where Gawain stays.
- King Arthur: The legendary ruler of Camelot and the founder of the Knights of the Round Table. Although he plays a minor role in this story, his court is the setting for the beginning of the tale.
- Queen Guinevere: The queen consort of King Arthur. Like Arthur, she is more of a background figure in this story but is an important character in Arthurian legends.
- Lady Bertilak: The wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert (the Green Knight). She is beautiful and plays a significant role in testing Gawain’s chivalry and virtue during his stay at the castle.
- Morgan le Fay: She is revealed towards the end of the poem as the instigator of the entire plot. Morgan le Fay, often depicted as a powerful sorceress in Arthurian legends, orchestrates the events to test the virtue of Arthur’s knights and to frighten Guinevere.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is divided into four parts, also known as “fits.” A “fit” is an archaic term for a division or section in a poem or song. In this poem, each fit marks a distinct phase in the story’s narrative:
- The first fit introduces the Green Knight’s challenge.
- The second fit describes Gawain’s journey
- The third fit focuses on Gawain’s stay at the castle, where he is tested by the lady.
- The fourth and final fit covers Gawain’s journey to meet the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Plot Summary
First Fit: The story opens at King Arthur’s court during the Christmas season. Amidst the feasting and celebrations, a mysterious and enormous Green Knight arrives on horseback. He issues a strange challenge: he will allow any knight to strike him with his axe, but in return, that knight must receive a blow from him in a year and a day. Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s bravest knights, steps forward and accepts the challenge. Gawain strikes the Green Knight with the axe, beheading him. However, to everyone’s shock, the Green Knight picks up his head, reminds Gawain of his promise to receive a return blow in a year, and leaves.
Second Fit: As the next winter approaches, Sir Gawain sets out to find the Green Knight and fulfill his promise. His journey is long and filled with trials, including battles with beasts, harsh weather, and loneliness. Finally, Gawain arrives at a grand castle. The lord of the castle welcomes him warmly and invites him to stay. The lord’s lady is also very kind and beautiful. Gawain tells them about his quest to find the Green Knight.
Third Fit: During his stay at the castle, the lord proposes a game: he will go hunting every day, and whatever he catches, he will give to Gawain. In return, Gawain must give the lord whatever he gains during the day. While the lord is hunting, the lady of the castle tries to seduce Gawain. Gawain courteously refuses her advances but accepts her kisses, which he gives to the lord as part of their agreement. On the third day, the lady gives Gawain a green sash, claiming it will make him invincible. Gawain accepts it but does not disclose this gift to the lord, breaking their agreement.
Fourth Fit: Gawain leaves the castle to find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. The Green Knight appears and prepares to strike Gawain. He swings his axe three times; the first two times he stops just before hitting Gawain, but the third time he lightly cuts Gawain’s neck. The Green Knight then reveals himself as the lord of the castle and explains that the first two feigned strikes were for the days Gawain was honest, and the third, minor cut was because Gawain kept the green sash a secret. Gawain, feeling guilty for his deceit, confesses and learns a lesson about honesty and the complexity of human nature. He returns to King Arthur’s court wearing the green sash as a symbol of his lesson learned. The court celebrates Gawain’s return, and they all don green sashes in solidarity with him.
Symbols and Themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” there are several important symbols and themes:
- The Color Green: The Green Knight and his green horse are unusual and magical. The color green represents nature, mystery, and perhaps even something supernatural. It’s different from the normal world of King Arthur’s court.
- The Green Girdle (Sash): Lady Bertilak gives Gawain a green sash that she says will protect him. This sash becomes a symbol of Gawain’s survival instinct and his human weakness. It shows that he is not perfect.
- The Pentangle on Gawain’s Shield: This five-pointed star symbolizes Gawain’s virtues. Each point represents a set of five: five senses, five fingers, five wounds of Christ, five joys of Mary, and Gawain’s five knightly virtues. It shows Gawain’s commitment to these ideals.
- The Nature of Chivalry and Honor: The story questions what it means to be a true and honorable knight. Gawain tries to be brave, loyal, and honest, but he also struggles with fear and the desire to survive.
- Testing and Trials: Gawain faces many tests, from the Green Knight’s challenge to the temptations at the castle. These tests show both his strengths and weaknesses.
- The Complexity of Human Nature: Gawain is a good knight, but he is not perfect. The story looks at how complex people are. Even a hero can make mistakes and have fears.
- The Importance of Truth and Honesty: Gawain learns that being honest is very important. He feels guilty when he hides the truth about the green sash. This shows how important it is to be truthful.
- Courage and Moral Strength: Gawain shows courage, not just in fighting, but in facing his mistakes and admitting them. This kind of moral strength is a big part of being a knight.
Study Guide Questions for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Character Analysis: How is Sir Gawain portrayed as a knight? Discuss how his actions and decisions throughout the poem reflect the ideals of chivalry and honor.
- Themes and Motifs: What are the main themes presented in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”? How do motifs like the color green, the pentangle, and the season of winter contribute to these themes?
- Symbolism: Analyze the significance of the Green Knight’s axe. What does it symbolize in the context of the story?
- Narrative Structure: The poem is divided into four fits. How does this structure affect the storytelling? Does each fit serve a distinct purpose in the narrative?
- Moral and Ethical Questions: Discuss the moral dilemmas faced by Sir Gawain in the poem. How does he handle these challenges, and what do they reveal about his character?
- The Role of Women: Examine the roles of Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay in the story. How do they influence the plot and Gawain’s journey? What might their characters suggest about medieval attitudes towards women?
- Setting and Atmosphere: Describe the significance of the settings in the poem, such as King Arthur’s court and the Green Chapel. How do these settings contribute to the overall atmosphere of the story?
- Literary Devices: Identify and analyze the use of literary devices such as alliteration, symbolism, and irony. How do these elements enhance the poem?
- Comparative Analysis: Compare and contrast Sir Gawain’s character with other knights of Arthurian legend. How does Gawain’s portrayal in this poem differ from his portrayal in other stories?
- Historical Context: How does “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” reflect the social and cultural values of the time in which it was written? Consider aspects like the feudal system, religious beliefs, and the code of chivalry.
- Personal Reflection: Do you think Gawain was successful in upholding the chivalric code? Why or why not? How would you have acted differently in Gawain’s situation?
- Modern Relevance: In what ways is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” still relevant today? Can its themes and lessons be applied to modern-day contexts?