Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight (also known as Bertilak de Hautdesert and the Host)

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.

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