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Literature / Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Silence fell in hall
such wonder for to see,
for man and horse and all
were green as green could be.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative Chivalric Romance. A part of the Arthurian Legends, this tale revolves around the eponymous Sir 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.

The test of character by "beheading dare" is found earlier in the Irish legendary romance Bricriu's Feast. The poem has been translated by, among others, J. R. R. Tolkien. It was not adapted by Sir Thomas Malory into his Le Morte d'Arthur for unknown reasons, though some of the prior sources he did use are dated to the same period, as well as later and older, sometimes much older material.

A film adaptation based on the tale called The Green Knight starring Dev Patel as Gawain was released on July 30, 2021. In 1984 The Cannon Group produced a version called Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Miles O'Keeffe as Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight.

Tropes used in this work:

  • 24-Hour Armor: Gawain sleeps in it while searching for the Green Chapel. Though it kind of makes sense as he is searching during winter and the text mentions he needs to sleep in it to keep warm.
  • Affably Evil: The Green Knight is for the most part incredibly well-mannered and courteous; his only less than polite moments are his mocking of Arthur at the beginning of the story (which he only did to goad him into accepting his challenge) and poking fun at Gawain for flinching at the end.
  • 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: A 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Gawain's fate if he doesn't answer the Green Knight's challenge on the appointed date.
  • 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.
  • Schmuck Bait: Every single knight immediately realizes the Green Knight's challenge is a trap. He manages to bait them until Gawain takes it anyway. Later, Gawain's given a supposedly magical girdle that will protect him from harm, and even though this raises many suspicious questions, he can't quite bring himself to give it up in the spirit of the game he's playing, because even the brave and courageous Sir Gawain is vulnerable to the lure of self-preservation.
  • 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!
  • Survival Through Self-Sacrifice: A strange Green Man shows up at the court of King Arthur and challenges the knights to cut off his head, and in a year's time, they must allow him to do the same. Eventually Gawain takes up the challenge, cuts off the Green Knight's head... and the Green Knight's body calmly picks it back up, reattaches it, and reminds Gawain of his promise. A year later Gawain finds the Green Knight, and flinches at first from the blow, but then makes himself stay still without moving as the Green Knight goes to cut his head off with an ax... and the Green Knight only gives him a slight nick on the neck for flinching at first. Because Gawain kept his word and showed his courage, the Green Knight spares him.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Lord Bertilak and the Green Knight turn out to be the same person.
  • 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).
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Gawain And The Green Knight