Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative Chivalric Romance. Set within the King Arthur mythos, this tale revolves around the eponymous Gawain accepting, and completing, a challenge presented by the Green Knight, who mysteriously appeared in Arthur's court during Camelot's New Year's Day feast.
such wonder for to see,
for man and horse and all
were green as green could be.
In the tale, the knight challenges Arthur's court to a game: any of the knights there at the Round Table could strike the Green Knight one blow with an axe. In return, the knight would have to allow the Green Knight a similar blow in one year's time. Arthur's knights are hesitant to agree to such an obvious trap. In response, The Green Knight casts aspersions on their manhood and chivalry, at which point Arthur himself steps up to take the challenge. Gawain, realizing that he's much more expendable than the King himself, does the noble thing and jumps up to take Arthur's place.
Gawain's axe blow strikes the Green Knight's head clean from his shoulders. Surprisingly, the Knight's body remains standing. It retrieves the head, which informs Gawain that he has an appointment at the Green Chapel in one year's time, and exits.
Fast forward to late next year, and Gawain is off on a long and arduous search for the Green Knight's castle. After a long time wandering, and with New Year's fast approaching, Gawain comes to the castle of Lord Bertilak, who cheerfully informs Gawain that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away. Relieved, Gawain accepts Bertilak's offer of hospitality.
Bertilak plans to go on several hunting trips during the week to come, but Gawain is still exhausted from his journey, so they strike a bargain: Bertilak will hand over whatever he catches during the day to Gawain, and Gawain will share "whatever fortune he achieves" in return.
The next day, Bertilak goes hunting. Gawain, sleeping late, finds the beautiful Lady Bertilak climbing into bed with him. Gawain thinks she is beautiful but only talks with her, nothing more. In the end, Lady Bertilak demands a kiss from him. Gawain heartily agrees, and the two kiss.
At the end of the day, Bertilak offers the deer he killed to Gawain, who repays his host with a kiss. Bertilak asks where he won it, but Gawain declines to say.
The next day Lady Bertilak again comes to Gawain, and more directly attempts to seduce him. She plays on his attraction to her, his reputation as a bit of a ladies' man, and his chivalric obligations to his hostess. He resists on all fronts except for two kisses which he and the lady exchange.
The first evening's events are repeated, with Bertilak giving Gawain a boar and Gawain returning two kisses, much to the amusement of Lord Bertilak, who exclaims that Gawain is making an excellent profit off their arrangement.
The third day, New Year's Eve, is like the first two. The Lady has become direct about her intent towards Gawain, who refuses to sleep with her despite his desire for her. The Lady offers to give him a gold ring; Gawain refuses, saying that he has nothing to give in return. Then she offers him her girdle of green silk, which bears a strong enchantment: none who wear it can be killed. This appeals not only to Gawain's romantic feelings toward the Lady, but also to his sense of self-preservation; he accepts that gift.
That evening, Gawain exchanges three kisses for the fox that Bertilak has caught but keeps the girdle a secret, hoping that it will save his life, since he will meet the Green Knight the next day.
On New Year's, Gawain rides to the Green Chapel, refusing to back out of his duty even if it kills him. The Green Knight is happy to see Gawain, and they get down to the axe-hewing.
The Green Knight strikes at Gawain's neck, but pulls the axe away at the last moment when Gawain flinches. He mocks Gawain for his fear. Gawain angrily declares that he will not move an inch. The Green Knight lifts the axe a second time, but he deliberately misses again, much to the frustration of Gawain, who would rather have all of this beheading business over with.
The third strike misses Gawain again, except for a slight scratch on the side of Gawain's neck. The Green Knight then reveals that he is Lord Bertilak, and that the first two misses were in honor of the first two nights of their arrangement, which Gawain met honorably and in full. The third stroke, scratch and all, was for the third day—and the belt which Gawain is wearing, which he tried to keep secret from Bertilak.
The entire arrangement, Lady Bertilak's attempted seduction and all, was part of Morgan le Fay's Evil Plan to embarrass Arthur's court. But instead Gawain had proven himself almost entirely perfect, much to the enchantress's dismay. Gawain keeps the green girdle as a reminder of his cowardice in trying to escape his duty through magic. Bertilak is well pleased with Gawain's performance—his only fault was the desire not to die.
The test of character by "beheading dare" is found earlier in the Irish legendary romance Bricriu's Feast. Gawain and the Green Knight was recounted by Thomas Malory in Le Morte Darthur and has been translated by, among others, J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tropes used in this work:
- An Axe to Grind: Seems to be preferred by the Green Knight.
- Can't Argue with Elves: The Green Knight/Lord Bertilak is an almost perfect representation of the chivalric code, including his fearlessness in battle. Of course, it's easy to be fearless when he can just pick up his severed head and reattach it later. Nevertheless, he never hesitates to mock King Arthur and his knights for their "cowardice" in fearing death. No one ever calls him out on it.
- Celibate Hero: Lady Bertilak tries to seduce Sir Gawain and he kindly rejects her attempts. He tries to uphold codes of chivalry and hospitality.
- Courtly Love: Lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain develop this kind of relationship. Lady Bertilak keeps trying to take it further, but Sir Gawain demurs... up to a point.
- Covers Always Lie: The paperback cover for Tolkien's edition of the story features the eponymous Green Knight as a giant grass monster, a far cry from the description of the Knight in the book, who has merely green skin and green armor and clothes, instead of being covered head to toe in long green fur.
- The Fair Folk: The Green Knight is all but stated to be this. His castle being green even in winter and the ways in which he (and his wife) tests Sir Gawain are also very typical fair folk behavior.
- Genre Blindness: Despite it being the middle of winter, wandering through a desolate forest, Gawain when greeted by a beautiful castle in unseasonable green bloom immediately thanks Jesus.
- Honor Before Reason: The only thing binding Gawain to the agreement is his sense of honor. This is to be expected in a shame culture, where reputation is everything. He turns out to be reasonable enough to want to keep a silk belt that will stop him from being expectedly killed, at least, although he is shamed for it.
- Impossible Task: The task may not be impossible physically, but it is emotionally: every human fears death, even if just a little bit.
- Knight Errant: From the feast of All Hallows to Christmas, Gawain rides around Britain in search of the Green Knight, and during that time has many battles with monsters and wild animals which are alluded to but not told. Trope Namer: The oldest recorded use of the phrase (as "knygt erraunt") occurs here.
- Losing Your Head: The severing of his own head doesn't trouble the Green Knight all that much.
- Magic Knight: The Green Knight is one. How else would he still be up with his head cut down?
- Never Live It Down: In-Universe. Gawain's fate if he doesn't answer the Green Knight's challenge on the appointed date.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: King Arthur at the start and Gawain near the end.
- Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: How the Green Knight prompts King Arthur to accept his challenge, which is what prompts Sir Gawain to accept on his behalf.
- Rule of Three: Three visits from Lady Bertilak, three kisses, three animals that are hunted (the deer, the boar and the fox), three swings of the axe.
- Secret Test of Character: The feast tests the knighthood and the three days at Bertilak's castle test Gawain. Indeed the entire story is this trope in regard to Gawain's chastity and honor.
- Shout-Out: Reynard the Fox is referenced in the tale.
- Spoof Aesop: What have we learned, Gawain? "Never trust women?" Wrong, try again!
- 24-Hour Armor: Gawain sleeps in it while searching for the Green Chapel.
- The Vamp: Lady Bertilak keeps trying to tempt Gawain and is the one who gives him the girdle that makes him ultimately fail his test (though only by a bit). Gawain claims he has learned never to trust women, that they only lead you to sin, etc. etc. The Green Knight tells him this is ridiculous and that he has to take responsibility for his own failure.
- Xanatos Gambit: The Green Knight's challenge in Camelot: if they refuse he can call them cowards and if they accept he can humilate (and possibly kill) one of them. The Secret Test of Character interpretation also works here: no matter their response, they will have shown him the nature of their honor.
- A Year and a Day: The amount of time between the two beheadings.