story’s protagonist, Arthur’s nephew and one of his most loyal knights.
Although he modestly disclaims it, Gawain has the reputation of
being a great knight and courtly lover. He prides himself on his
observance of the five points of chivalry in every aspect of his
life. Gawain is a pinnacle of humility, piety, integrity, loyalty,
and honesty. His only flaw proves to be that he loves his own life
so much that he will lie in order to protect himself. Gawain leaves
the Green Chapel penitent and changed.
in-depth analysis of Sir Gawain.
A mysterious visitor to Camelot. The Green Knight’s huge stature,
wild appearance, and green complexion set him apart from the beardless
knights and beautiful ladies of Arthur’s Camelot. He is an ambiguous
figure: he says that he comes in friendship, not wanting to fight,
but the friendly game he proposes is quite deadly. He attaches great
importance to verbal contracts, expecting Sir Gawain to go to great
lengths to hold up his end of their bargain. The Green Knight shows
himself to be a supernatural being when he picks up his own severed
head and rides out of Arthur’s court, still speaking. At the same
time, he seems to symbolize the natural world, in that he is killed
and reborn as part of a cycle. At the poem’s end, we discover that
the Green Knight is also Bertilak, Gawain’s host, and one of Morgan
le Faye’s minions.
in-depth analysis of Green Knight.
Bertilak of Hautdesert
- The sturdy, good-natured lord of the castle where
Gawain spends Christmas. We only learn Bertilak’s name at the end
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
. The poem associates
Bertilak with the natural world—his beard resembles a beaver, his
face a fire—but also with the courtly behavior of an aristocratic host.
Boisterous, powerful, brave, and generous, Lord Bertilak provides
an interesting foil to King Arthur. At the end of the poem we learn
that Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same person, magically enchanted
by Morgan le Faye for her own designs.
- Bertilak’s wife attempts to seduce Gawain on a daily
basis during his stay at the castle. Though the poem presents her
to the reader as no more than a beautiful young woman, Bertilak’s
wife is an amazingly clever debater and an astute reader of Gawain’s responses
as she argues her way through three attempted seductions. Flirtatious
and intelligent, Bertilak’s wife ultimately turns out to be another
pawn in Morgan le Faye’s plot.
Morgan le Faye
- The Arthurian tradition typically portrays Morgan
as a powerful sorceress, trained by Merlin, as well as the half
sister of King Arthur. Not until the last one hundred lines do we
discover that the old woman at the castle is Morgan le Faye and
that she has controlled the poem’s entire action from beginning
to end. As she often does in Arthurian literature, Morgan appears
as an enemy of Camelot, one who aims to cause as much trouble for
her half brother and his followers as she can.
The king of Camelot. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Arthur is young and beardless, and his court is in its golden age.
Arthur’s refusal to eat until he hears a fantastic tale shows the
petulance of youth, as does Arthur’s initial stunned response to
the Green Knight’s challenge. However, like a good king, Arthur
soon steps forward to take on the challenge. At the story’s end,
Arthur joins his nephew in wearing a green girdle on his arm, showing
that Gawain’s trial has taught him about his own fallibility.
- Arthur’s wife. The beautiful young Guinevere of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight
seems to have little in common
with the one of later Arthurian legend. She sits next to Gawain
at the New Year’s feast and remains a silent, objectified presence
in the midst of the knights of the Round Table.