Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Seasons

At the beginning of Parts 2 and 4, the poet describes the changing of the seasons. The seasonal imagery in Part 2 precedes Gawain’s departure from Camelot, and in Part 4 his departure from the host’s castle. In both cases, the changing seasons correspond to Gawain’s changing psychological state, from cheerfulness (pleasant weather) to bleakness (the winter). But the five changing seasons also correspond to the five ages of man (birth/infancy, youth, adulthood, middle age, and old age/death), as well as to the cycles of fertility and decay that govern all creatures in the natural world. The emphasis on the cyclical nature of the seasons contrasts with and provides a different understanding of the passage of time from the more linear narrative of history that frames the poem.

Read more about the changing of seasons in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.


When the poem opens, Arthur’s court is engaged in feast-time customs, and Arthur almost seems to elicit the Green Knight’s entrance by requesting that someone tell him a tale. When the Green Knight first enters, the courtiers think that his appearance signals a game of some sort. The Green Knight’s challenge, the host’s later challenge, and the wordplay that takes place between Gawain and the lady are all presented as games. The relationship between games and tests is explored because games are forms of social behavior, while tests provide a measure of an individual’s inner worth.


Like many Arthurian legends, Sir Gawain occupies a magical landscape. The repeated instances of magic highlight the poem’s tension between paganism and Christianity. The Green Knight’s strange appearance leads King Arthur’s knights to wonder if he is of the fae or elven. The Green Knight’s miraculous imperviousness to beheading heightens the sense of wonder and supernatural in the poem. On his ride to seek the Green Knight, Sir Gawain does battle with magical creatures, including giants. Interestingly, although Sir Gawain encounters beasts in his journey and the magic of the Green Knight, not until he reaches the green chapel does he evoke the devil, using specifically Christian terminology for the supernatural. The Green Knight even speaks of absolving Sir Gawain of his sin and taking his confession, almost like a Catholic priest.  However, the Green Knight, who earlier celebrates Christmas with Sir Gawain, nevertheless describes Morgan Le Fay as a goddess, which may seem strange for a character in a Christian work who is otherwise portrayed with dignity and virtue. The strange hybrid nature of magic in the poem highlights the contrast between Sir Gawain, the perfect Christian Knight, and the Green Knight, an emissary of a pre-Christian world.