Though Gawain and Guinevere share the high table at the New Year’s celebration in Arthur’s court, he describes himself as the least of Arthur’s knights in terms of both physical prowess and mental ability. His modest claim to inferiority and his high status at court—he is Arthur’s nephew and one of Camelot’s most famous knights—testify to both his humility and his ambition. Gawain seeks to improve his inner self throughout the poem. After Gawain arrives at Bertilak’s castle in Part 2, it is evident that his reputation is quite widespread. To Gawain, his public reputation is as important as his own opinion of himself, and he therefore insists on wearing the green girdle as a sign of shame at the story’s end. He believes that sins should be as visible as virtues.
Even though the Green Knight essentially tricks Gawain by not telling him about his supernatural abilities before asking Gawain to agree to his terms, Gawain refuses to back out of their deal. He stands by his commitments absolutely, even when it means jeopardizing his own life. The poem frequently reiterates Gawain’s deep fears and anxieties, but Gawain’s desire to maintain his personal integrity at all costs enables him to conquer his fears in his quest for the Green Knight.
Gawain is a paragon of virtue in Parts 1 and 2 of the poem. But in Part 3 he conceals from his host the magical green girdle that the host’s wife gives him, revealing that, despite his bravery, Gawain values his own life more than his honesty. Ultimately, however, Gawain confesses his sin to the knight and begs to be pardoned; thereafter, he voluntarily wears the girdle as a symbol of his sin. Because Gawain repents of his sin in such an honorable manner, his one indiscretion in the poem actually ends up being an example of his basic goodness.
Gawain is not a static character. In his encounter with the Green Knight, he recognizes the problematic nature of courtly ideals. When he returns to Arthur’s court at Camelot, the other lords and ladies still look to him like lighthearted children, but Gawain is weighed down by a new somberness. Though he survives his quest, Gawain emerges at the end of the poem as a humbled man who realizes his own faults and has to live with the fact that he will never live up to his own high standards.
The Green Knight is a mysterious, supernatural creature. He rides into Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve almost as if summoned by the king’s request to hear a marvelous story. His supernatural characteristics, such as his ability to survive decapitation and his green complexion, immediately mark him as a foreboding figure. The Green Knight contrasts with Arthur’s court in many ways. The knight symbolizes the wildness, fertility, and death that characterize a primeval world, whereas the court symbolizes an enclave of civilization within the wilderness. But, like the court, the Green Knight strongly advocates the values of the law and justice. And though his long hair suggests an untamed, natural state, his hair is cut into the shape of a courtly garment, suggesting that part of his function is to establish a relationship between wilderness and civilization, past and present.
At Gawain’s scheduled beheading, the Green Knight reveals that he is also the host with whom Gawain stayed after his journeys through the wilderness, and that he is known as Bertilak de Hautdesert. As the host, we know Bertilak to be a courteous, jovial man who enjoys hunting for sport and playing games. A well-respected and middle-aged lord, the host contrasts with the beardless Arthur. In fact, his beard is “beaver-hued,” a feature which associates the host with the Green Knight. Other clues exist in the text to connect the host with the Green Knight. For instance, both the Green Knight and the host value the power of verbal contracts. Each makes a covenant with Gawain, and the two agreements overlap at the end of the poem.