Sir Gawain and the Green Knight incorporates glorious descriptions of an imagined past as a backdrop for the test of Gawain, a nearly impossible challenge to his ability to maintain honor and abide by the chivalric code. Gawain’s desire to uphold that code conflicts with his desire for life, providing the motivation for his quest, along with the temptations that threaten its success. The poem, as events drive toward resolution, combines three elements of a chivalric romance: challenge, temptation, and an exchange of winnings. 

The inciting incident occurs in the midst of winter, when the Green Knight, spring personified, rides into Arthur’s court. Christmas festivities are underway, and the restless king awaits an amazing event to disturb the court’s complacency. The Green Knight offers the challenge Arthur seeks. The court is stunned; there is to be an exchange of death blows, yet the Knight’s verdant trappings, adorned with butterflies and flowers, symbolize regeneration. The court buzzes with energy over this opportunity to prove its valor. Soon, however, it recognizes that the challenge, if Gawain abides by its terms, will cost him his life. He strikes off the knight’s head, yet the knight’s body picks up the head and continues to speak. It calls for Gawain to find the Green Chapel and receive his own death blow in a year. 

As the year passes, the threat to Gawain overshadows the court. The rising action begins as Gawain prepares to honor his word. The poet makes the stakes clear by describing the design of Gawain’s shield, which represents the points of chivalry in which Gawain excels: powers of observation, strength, fidelity, force of will, and knightly virtues (friendship, generosity, courtesy, chastity, and piety).  

Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel, proving his strength as he overcomes human, animal, and supernatural enemies. His force of will keeps him on the hunt in the terrible cold, yet his powers of observation do not reveal the chapel. Fearful that he will fail in piety by not observing Christmas mass, he prays for guidance and suddenly arrives at a fantastic castle. Its lord and lady embrace him and offer him hospitality. 

The nature of the castle and the people in it puzzle Gawain. He cannot rest easy because he still does not know where to meet the Green Knight, yet he does his best to be the model guest. He serves his host, honors the court, and agrees to the exchange of winnings. Then his temptations begin. During each day of temptation, Gawain's host, the lord of the castle, goes out with his men to hunt. And on each of these three days, Gawain finds himself hunted as well–as a lover of the lady of the castle. Three times the lady tempts Gawain to betray his host by accepting her invitation to commit adultery, a sin against the code of hosptality and against God, and three times he courteously and cleverly puts her off. Three times he exchanges his “winnings” of kisses for the host’s hunted game. Three is, in the romance genre, a number of magical significance and of narrative importance. 

With each temptation, the threat to Gawain increases. He must not betray his host, yet he must not insult his hostess, who presses him relentlessly. Her language becomes more explicit, and her presence more alluring, as the three days pass. The number of kisses she takes rises from one to two to three. Correspondingly, the host’s prey changes. First, it is the deer, easy to flush and kill, representing the temptation Gawain easily fends off. Second, it is a dangerous boar, representing the challenge when the lady comes to Gawain’s bed scantily clad. Third, the host hunts the cunning fox, representing the moment that the lady craftily persuades Gawain to violate the code of reciprocal generosity. He keeps his chastity, but he cannot resist the gift of the green girdle, whose intimate association with the lady’s body hints at betrayal. Gawain deceives his host. 

As the story nears its climax, Gawain’s courage is tested when he is offered a way out of the fatal bargain he made to defend the honor of Camelot. He refuses to take the coward’s path, yet because he has bound the girdle around his body, his choice is less than heroic. The story’s climax involves another trio of events. Rather than having to anticipate the death-blow once, Gawain must endure it three times. When he flinches at the first blow, the Knight mocks his courage. On the second, Gawain controls this reflex, earning a grudging word of approval. After the third blow nicks Gawain, he is free to fight. But his opponent refuses, robbing him of the satisfaction of defending himself. 

The falling action is rapid and, while humorous for Bertilak, the lord of the castle who is also revealed to be the Green Knight, mortifying for Gawain. He tries to force Bertilak to take the girdle to honor the exchange of winnings, but his host refuses, forcing Gawain to live with the knowledge that he has violated the bargain. Gawain then uses disrespectful language to shift the blame for his failure to women, violating courtesy. The best Gawain can do to salvage the situation is to refuse further generosity and make his cold way back to Camelot, where he can confess his failure, accept his king’s criticism, and resolve the conflict that set him on his dangerous quest. 

At the tale’s resolution, however, rather than condemning Gawain, his peers commemorate the lapse that he thinks marks him as a failed knight. The resolution he seeks—the chance for penance—is denied him. Yet a kind of resolution occurs because, although perfection as an ideal has escaped Gawain, Arthur’s court continues to honor him as nearly perfect.