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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Literature
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

author  Anonymous; referred to as the Gawain-poet or the Pearl-poet

type of work  Alliterative poem

genre  Romance, Arthurian legend

language  Middle English (translated into modern English)

time and place written  Ca. 13401400, West Midlands, England

publisher  The original work circulated for an unknown length of time in manuscript format. It now exists as MS Cotton Nero A.x, fols. 91r–124v, held at the British Library. Many different modern English and original-language editions exist.

narrator  Third person omniscient

point of view  The Gawain-poet tells the story mainly from Gawain’s point of view. However, he also occasionally narrates moments that happen outside the scope of Gawain’s direct experience, most notably the host’s daily hunts.

tone  The narrator’s tone toward Gawain’s story hovers between straightforward praise and irony-tinged ambivalence. He occasionally refuses to give a straightforward account of characters’ motives, leaving it ambiguous whether he approves or disapproves of the codes of courtly behavior and ethics that he describes. At times his tone can be nostalgic for the mythical past, but at other times he verges on criticizing a former age that is neither innocent nor pure. He often achieves this level of ambiguity through the use of signs and symbols with undefined meanings.

tense  Past; some commentaries on the action in the present tense

setting (time)  The mythical past of King Arthur’s court (sometime after Rome’s fall, but before recorded history)

settings (place)  Camelot; the wilderness; Bertilak’s castle; the Green Chapel

protagonist  Sir Gawain

major conflict  The major conflict is largely Gawain’s struggle to decide whether his knightly virtues are more important than his life. Before he knows that the Green Knight has supernatural abilities, Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge to an exchange of blows. Once the Green Knight survives the blow, Gawain has a year and a day before he must seek out the Green Knight to receive the return blow, which will almost surely mean his own death. Once he has found the castle of a host who promises to show him the way to the Green Chapel, he struggles to protect and maintain his knightly virtues while remaining courteous to his host’s wife, and he struggles to keep his pacts with the Green Knight and his host, despite his fear of death.

rising action  Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s covenant and chops off the Green Knight’s head, but he survives the blow. Two months before he is due to meet the knight for his own decapitation, Gawain sets out through the wilderness in search of the Green Chapel. He happens upon a castle, where he stays until he must leave for his challenge. At the castle, Gawain’s courtesy, chastity, and honesty are all tempted. Gawain then journeys to confront the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.

climax  Gawain encounters the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. After feinting with his axe twice, the Green Knight strikes Gawain on the third swing, but only nicks his neck.

falling action  The Green Knight explains all the mysteries of the story. He and Gawain’s host at the castle are the same man, named Bertilak. Morgan le Faye, the old woman at the castle, is actually behind all the events of the story. Gawain admits his breach of contract in having kept the green girdle and promises to wear the girdle as a banner of his weakness.

themes  The nature of chivalry; the letter of the law

motifs  The seasons; games

symbols  The pentangle; the green girdle

foreshadowing  The Green Knight’s reiteration of Gawain’s promise as he leaves Camelot foreshadows Gawain’s eventual encounter with the knight. The description of the changing seasons at the beginning of Part 2 foreshadows Gawain’s emotional development in the following parts. The strange, hallucinatory appearance of Bertilak’s castle foreshadows the untrustworthy nature of its inhabitants. The lady’s offer of a green girdle foreshadows Gawain’s ability to cheat death.