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.