Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight: A Brief Plot Overview
A Brief Plot Summary for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Here is a plot summary for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can use it as a guide for your reading, if you’d like. For the most part, the text is pretty straight forward.
While King Arthur’s court is feasting and partying in celebration of New Years, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, makes a surprise visit. He requests that the group’s leader or any other brave member of the court challenge him in a beheading game. He will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, but on one condition. The challenger must find the Green Knight in exactly one year to receive a blow in return.
Arthur is stunned by the challenge, and hesitates to respond. When the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. But when Arthur grips the Green Knight’s axe, Sir Gawain steps in and volunteers to take the challenge himself. In one great blow, Gawain cuts off the knight’s head. The court stands shocked to discover that the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. He rides away with his head in his hand, repeating the terms of the challenge, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. The court returns to its festivities, but Gawain is nervous. (He did not expect the Green Knight to live, of course!)
The year passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain makes his lengthy preparations to leave Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. He undergoes the almost holy ritual of arming himself, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales. He must travel through the wilderness of northwest Britain where Gawain encounters many beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, on the verge of freezing to death, he prays to find a place to hear Mass. When he looks up he sees a castle situated in an oasis of green in the distance.
The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For holiday fun, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) invites Gawain to partake in a game / challenge to play during the three days Gawain will rest there: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, while Gawain can remain in the castle. When the lord returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.
The first day, the lord hunts deer. Meanwhile Gawain sleeps late in his bedchamber. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife steals into Gawain’s chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she gets one kiss from him. That evening, the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, and Gawain, who is bound to the fidelity of the game, kisses him, since that is what he has won. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. Once again, the lady enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. So, that evening when Gawain receives the boar, he gives the host the two kisses in exchange.
The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and this time the lady kisses Gawain three times. But on this visit, she also asks him for a token of love, like a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her. But then the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is an extraordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims. It possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Wide-eyed with the intriguing possibilities of such a fetish, Gawain accepts the cloth. When it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives him three kisses, but he says nothing about the lady’s green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won. They all go to bed preoccupied with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.
New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain arms himself—including, secretly, the girdle–then sets off with Gringolet in search of the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain wants to turn around and avoid the challenge. Gawain refuses. He is determined to meet his fate head-on—and certain that he is protected, of course. Eventually, he hears the grinding sound of a grindstone, realizing he has reached the Green Chapel. The Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight.
On the first wielding of the axe, however, Gawain flinches. The Green Knight pulls back, and wants more courage from Gawaine. On the second attempt at a blow, the Green Knight pulls back, even though Gawain does not flinch. Enraged, Gawain demands that the Knight go through with it. On the third attempt, the Greene Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, drawing just a little blood. Even though Gawain jumps up in rage, the Green Knight starts to laugh.
The Green Knight reveals himself as Bertilak, the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. He tells Gawain that since he did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak scratched him on his third blow. Nevertheless, the lord says that Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight of Camelot. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt and King Arthur’s half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his errand and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Gawain is ashamed of his behavior in the beheading game, but Bertilak tells him that his only fault is loving life too much.
Gawain is relieved to be alive, but he feels extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth. So Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court. All the knights at Camelot show their support by wearing girdles on their arms.
Entry filed under: British Literature.