A year passes apace, and proves ever new:
First things and final conform but seldom.
Part 2 begins with a brief summary of the New Year’s feast in Part 1. The poet calls the Green Knight’s game with Gawain King Arthur’s New Year’s gift, since it provided him with the marvelous story he had waited to hear. The poet describes in elaborate language the change of seasons, from Christmas to the cold season of Lent with its ritual fasting, to a green young spring and summer, then into harvest time, and finally back to winter. In late autumn, on the Day of All Saints, the knights of Camelot prepare to send a mournful Gawain off on his quest for the Green Chapel.
Worried but resigned, Gawain calls for his armor, which the poet describes in great detail. He devotes space to each and every piece, down to the shimmering skirts on Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. The description lingers on Gawain’s shield, which depicts on its outside a gold five-pointed star, or pentangle, on a red background. On the inside of the shield is the face of Mary, Christ’s mother. Each of the five points of the pentangle, which is described as an “endless knot” (630), represents a set of Gawain’s virtues: his five senses; his five fingers; his fidelity, founded on the five wounds of Christ; his force, founded on the five joys of Mary; and the five knightly virtues.
After dressing, Gawain says goodbye to his friends and leaves the court. Sparks fly from Gringolet’s hooves as they ride off. He heads out into the wilderness, traveling through North Wales and the west coast of England in his search for the mysterious Green Chapel. He encounters various foes—wolves and dragons, bulls and bears, boars and giants—but always prevails over his enemies. He sleeps in his armor and has frequent nightmares. As the winter grows colder, he nearly freezes to death.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, the desperate Gawain prays to the Virgin Mary that he might find a place to attend Christmas Mass. He repents his sins, crosses himself three times, and, when he looks up, he sees a beautiful castle. Surrounded by a green park and a moat, the castle shimmers in the distance through the trees, and Gawain, full of thanks to God for saving him, approaches the drawbridge. The castle is so white and its crowns and turrets so tall and intricately carved that the whole building looks as if it were cut out of paper. Gawain salutes, and a guardian allows him to enter.
The porter welcomes Gawain warmly, inviting him in to meet the courtiers and the lord of the castle. The host’s lords and ladies repeatedly express their joy that Gawain (a minor celebrity because he is Arthur’s nephew and a knight of the Round Table) can show them the latest in knightly behavior and help them to become more courtly themselves. Like Arthur’s followers, the courtiers seem inexperienced and carefree. But Gawain’s host presents a much more imposing figure than Arthur. The lord appears to be middle-aged, with a thick, gray-black beard and solid, sturdy legs. Though the host’s fiery face and stocky figure make him appear fierce, his speech reveals him to be gracious and gentle.
The lord takes Gawain to a rich chamber, where he feeds Gawain sumptuous food and wine, and introduces Gawain to two women. The host’s wife is young, beautiful, and elegantly dressed, her firm neck and bosom exposed. The other, an old woman, is wrinkled, stocky, hairy, black-browed, and covered entirely in clothing. Only her nose, eyes, and blistered lips are exposed by the fabric. After the introductions, the lords and ladies play games and celebrate late into the night, when Gawain retires for bed.
Christmas morning and the two days following it pass in a similar manner, but Gawain begins to feel the weight of his quest pressing on him. With only three days remaining before his engagement with the Green Knight, Gawain refuses his host’s offer of a longer stay, explaining that he must search for the Green Chapel or else be judged a failure. The host responds gleefully, telling Gawain he can send him to the Green Chapel easily—it is only two miles away. Gladdened, Gawain thanks the host and accepts the invitation to stay the three days until New Year’s. The host proposes a game of sorts: during the day, he wants Gawain to stay at court and linger in bed and around the castle, spending time with the two ladies. Meanwhile, the host will go out hunting with his men. At the end of each of the three days, the two men will exchange whatever they have won. Happy to play along, Gawain accepts. The men kiss each other, repeating their vows, and then go off to bed.
The good knight on Gringolet thought it great luck
If he could but contrive to come there within
To keep the Christmas feast in that castle fair and bright.
The opening lines of Part 2, which detail the changing seasons of the year, seem a digression from the tale, but they actually correlate very closely with Gawain’s changing state of mind. Just as the external world shifts over the course of a year, so too does Gawain’s inner climate. He transforms from a joyous youth to a mournful figure as the world passes from winter to summer and back again. The seasonal imagery sets a tone of mutability and instability for the rest of the story, which is important because Gawain is soon called upon to demonstrate steadfastness in a world that is designed to change and be changed by the cycles of life and death.
When Gawain’s prayer brings into being a castle that didn’t exist moments before, it seems as if Gawain’s senses falter, as he sees what looks very much like a mirage glimmering in the distance. The five senses are one of the five virtues represented by the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, and during his stay at the host’s castle, each of the qualities represented by five points of the pentangle will fail Gawain. Once inside its walls, Gawain’s physical abilities (his five senses and his five fingers) fail him again, beginning when the “wine goes to his head” at line 900 and continuing as he proceeds to spend all of his time lounging around the castle. Further, although Gawain frequently calls on Jesus and Mary for aid in the wilderness, once inside the court, his piety fades to the background, and his devotion to the five wounds of Christ and five joys of Mary cease to function as defenses. With his physical and spiritual defenses faltering, Gawain’s five knightly virtues—friendship, generosity, courtesy, chastity, and piety—undergo examination by his host in Parts 3 and 4.
Though the mysterious court seems beautiful and safe, the poet’s descriptions of the castle and its inhabitants give us many clues that it holds deep dangers for Gawain. Along with Gawain, we learn not to trust physical appearances, because Gawain’s perceptions prove unreliable and the things he perceives unstable. The miragelike way in which the host’s castle appears to Gawain foreshadows that things are not as they seem—if one mirage can deceive Gawain’s senses, others can as well. Also, the host’s physique and his initiation of a covenant, disguised as a harmless game, recall the character of the Green Knight from Part 1. Though the host’s proposed game seems innocent enough, he makes Gawain repeat the terms of the agreement, just as the Green Knight did at Camelot.
The poet describes the two women as “unlike to look upon . . . / For if the one was fresh, the other was faded” (950–951). The poet’s language suggests that although the two women may be “unlike to look upon,” they are not completely unlike in other ways. By describing the younger woman as “fresh” and the older woman as “faded,” the poet suggests that the two women form two ends of the same spectrum. The old woman functions as a memento mori (a Latin phrase meaning “remember death”), who reminds the reader of the unavoidable destruction of the physical world. Furthermore, in medieval iconography, an old woman next to a young woman often allegorically represents vanity. The significance of such a representation was that love of worldly beauty means neglect of the spiritual life, and since worldly beauty must always fail and die, its pursuit will always prove vain.