The 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.
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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.
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.
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.