Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Nature of Chivalry

The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The code of chivalry, in particular, shapes the values and actions of Sir Gawain and other characters in the poem. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.

The ideals of Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Gawain’s symbolic shield. The pentangle represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem examines more than Gawain’s personal virtue; it asks whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. What is really being tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be the chivalric system itself, symbolized by Camelot.

Arthur’s court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur is introduced to us as the “most courteous of all,” indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances hold too much power over the company. The members of the court never reveal their true feelings, instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.

On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot into the wilderness. In the forest, Gawain must abandon the codes of chivalry and admit that his animal nature requires him to seek physical comfort in order to survive. Once he prays for help, he is rewarded by the appearance of a castle. The inhabitants of Bertilak’s castle teach Gawain about a kind of chivalry that is more firmly based in truth and reality than that of Arthur’s court. These people are connected to nature, as their hunting and even the way the servants greet Gawain by kneeling on the “naked earth” symbolize (818). As opposed to the courtiers at Camelot, who celebrate in Part 1 with no understanding of how removed they are from the natural world, Bertilak’s courtiers joke self-consciously about how excessively lavish their feast is (889890).

The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawain’s adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host’s wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight’s challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain’s time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knight’s axe, and his acceptance of the lady’s offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.

The Letter of the Law

Though the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a “game,” he uses the language of the law to bind Gawain into an agreement with him. He repeatedly uses the word “covenant,” meaning a set of laws, a word that evokes the two covenants represented by the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament details the covenant made between God and the people of Israel through Abraham, but the New Testament replaces the old covenant with a new covenant between Christ and his followers. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul writes that Christ has “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The “letter” to which Paul refers here is the legal system of the Old Testament. From this statement comes the Christian belief that the literal enforcement of the law is less important than serving its spirit, a spirit tempered by mercy.

Throughout most of the poem, the covenant between Gawain and the Green Knight evokes the literal kind of legal enforcement that medieval Europeans might have associated with the Old Testament. The Green Knight at first seems concerned solely with the letter of the law. Even though he has tricked Gawain into their covenant, he expects Gawain to follow through on the agreement. And Gawain, though he knows that following the letter of the law means death, is determined to see his agreement through to the end because he sees this as his knightly duty.

At the poem’s end, the covenant takes on a new meaning and resembles the less literal, more merciful New Testament covenant between Christ and his Church. In a decidedly Christian gesture, the Green Knight, who is actually Gawain’s host, Bertilak, absolves Gawain because Gawain has confessed his faults. To remind Gawain of his weakness, the Green Knight gives him a penance, in the form of the wound on his neck and the girdle. The Green Knight punishes Gawain for breaking his covenant to share all his winnings with his host, but he does not follow to the letter his covenant to decapitate Gawain. Instead of chopping Gawain’s head off, Bertilak calls it his right to spare Gawain and only nicks his neck.

Ultimately, Gawain clings to the letter of the law. He cannot accept his sin and absolve himself of it the way Bertilak has, and he continues to do penance by wearing the girdle for the rest of his life. The Green Knight transforms his literal covenant by offering Gawain justice tempered with mercy, but the letter of the law still threatens in the story’s background, and in Gawain’s own psyche.

Read more about the theme of the law in the context of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.


The shadow of death lurks underneath the feasting, games, and merriment of the poem from the very first stanza’s invocation of the fall of Troy. Through Sir Gawain’s fated quest, the poem explores his encounter with mortality, the inevitability of death, and the terror it instills. Although Gawain initially approaches the Green Knight’s test as if he is fully prepared to die in his lord’s place, as proper chivalric virtue would have him do, he cannot quite as easily distract himself from death when it looms so near. As the narrator states in the vivid description of the year passing at the beginning of Fitt 2, “[A] year runs full swiftly, and yields never the same; | the beginning full seldom matches the end.” That is, the closer Sir Gawain gets to his quest to find the Green Knight, which he believes to be ill-fated, the more difficult it becomes to face. Indeed, it is the fear of dying, not lust, that ultimately pulls Sir Gawain, the perfect knight, toward dishonesty.

As all of Camelot and Gawain himself view him as the perfect Christian knight, Gawain prides himself on courage, purity, and virtue. Part of the Christian dimension of his virtue is faith in God’s will and protection, and valuing the spiritual over the physical. During his long journey to find the Green Knight, Gawain attempts to live up to this image of himself. He forgoes all the comforts of civilization, sleeping outside in the freezing winter. Despite the dangers of freezing to death, he prays not for physical comfort but for a proper place to hold Christmas mass. Nevertheless, for all his denial of his body, of his mortality, he cannot escape the reality that he is mortal and that he would like to live. As he laments to the Green Knight, he has discovered “how tender [the body] is to catch stains of filth,” that is, how the body’s frailty makes it prone to sin. Thus, the flaw that Gawain is so ashamed of appears to be his very mortality, that he cannot perfectly deny his body for greater spiritual causes.