Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Part 4 (lines 1998–2531)

Gawain thanks the Green Knight and sends his best wishes to the lady and the old woman, then complains about the deceitfulness of women, who have brought about the downfalls of great men such as Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David. He accepts the girdle, though, and asks that the Green Knight tell him his true name. The knight agrees and reveals himself as Bertilak de Hautdesert, servant of Morgan le Faye, who is the old woman in the castle. Le Faye is also Gawain’s aunt and Arthur’s half sister, as well as Merlin’s mistress; she sometimes helps and sometimes makes trouble for Arthur. Bertilak reveals that Le Faye sent him in disguise as the Green Knight to Camelot in order to scare Queen Guinevere to death. One last time, Bertilak asks Gawain to return with him to the castle and celebrate New Year’s with Morgan le Faye and the others, but Gawain refuses and hurries back toward Camelot.

On his journey back to Arthur’s castle, Gawain’s wound heals, but he continues to wear the green girdle on his right shoulder. When he enters the court, he meets a gleeful reception and tells the story of his encounter with Bertilak. He explains that he intends to wear the green girdle forever as a sign of his failure and sin. Arthur and the court try to comfort Gawain, and they decide that they will all wear belts of green silk as a sign of respect and unity.

The poet concludes by reaffirming the truth of his story, which happened in the days of King Arthur, and which is recorded in “[t]he books of Brutus’ deeds” (2523). In the last wheel of the poem, the poet praises Christ.

And one and all fell prey
To women they had used;
If I be led astray,
Methinks I may be excused.

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Analysis

Echoing the opening of Part 2, Part 4 opens with a description of the passing of time and a general description of the atmosphere, followed by an account of Gawain putting on his armor and leaving the castle. Though briefer and more somber in tone, this second description balances the earlier one and begins to bring the poem toward its close. The harshness of the winter, with its howling wind and numbing cold, fits Gawain’s bleak mood.

The date on which Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel is important. In the medieval liturgical calendar, January first marked the Feast of the Circumcision. (In the Judaic tradition, circumcision took place exactly eight days after a child’s birth, so Christ’s circumcision occurred on January 1, eight days after December 25.) The Green Knight’s beheading occurred a year and a day earlier, on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision, suggesting a parallel between the Green Knight’s head and the foreskin of Christ. That the Green Knight is able to reassemble himself after his decapitation recalls Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection and in the resurrection of all bodies after Judgment Day. On the New Year’s Day a year and a day after the Green Knight’s symbolic circumcision, the Green Knight punishes Gawain not by decapitating him, but by lightly cutting his neck. This cut symbolizes circumcision as well, but it lacks the supernatural elements of the Green Knight’s punishment.

The axe that the Green Knight is sharpening when Gawain finds him is evidence of the knight’s contrast to the courtly tradition from which Gawain comes. At Camelot, the knight’s axe is described at length, and in the forest, we discover that the Green Knight possesses a new Danish axe that replaces the one Gawain and Arthur hung up in the hall at Camelot. The Danish axe connects the Green Knight with England’s Anglo-Saxon roots. Originally associated with the Vikings, the presence of the Danish war axe aligns the Green Knight with a regime that is older than the one Gawain’s lance represents. As such, the Green Knight represents a relationship with a primeval human existence.