Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The protagonist of the poem. He is King Arthur’s nephew and establishes himself as the very model of chivalry when he sacrifices himself to spare his uncle in the Green Knight’s beheading game. He is reputed to be one of the most virtuous knights of the realm and personifies the five Christ-like virtues of the symbolic pentangle painted on his shield. Throughout the course of the poem, Gawain journeys through the land, overcoming physical and spiritual trials. He shows himself to be fallible as he experiences anxiety and doubt, traits that a good knight isn’t really supposed to have. When he gives in to temptation and deceives his host Bertilak in order to protect his own life, he is exposed as not quite always perfect but still worthy of being spared from death, and returns to Camelot a more humble but wiser hero.

Sir Gawain Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight quotes below are all either spoken by Sir Gawain or refer to Sir Gawain. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Chivalry Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight published in 2008.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

By Guenivere, Gawain
now to his king inclines
and says, "I stake my claim.
This moment must be mine.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker), Sir Gawain, King Arthur, Queen Guinevere
Page Number: 339-342
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sir Gawain, the young nephew of King Arthur, offers himself as a participant in the game with the Green Knight. King Arthur has just volunteered himself for the challenge, but just as the game is about to begin, Gawain volunteers to replace his king.

Why does Gawain volunteer? One could say that he's trying to save his king from the pain of being hurt or killed by the Green Knight; i.e., he's sure that whoever plays the Green Knight's game will lose, horribly. Therefore, Gawain might be sacrificing himself because he's one of the youngest and least valuable people at the court, and therefore not much of a loss (whereas Arthur's death would throw the whole kingdom into turmoil). Of course, Gawain is also trying to prove his worth in battle--standing up to the Green Knight is an excellent way to gain fame and a reputation for bravery.

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Lines 491-1125 Quotes

And Gawain had been glad to begin the game
but don't be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped
for men might be merry when addled with mead
but each year, short lived, is unlike the last
and rarely resolves in the style it arrived.
So the festival finishes and a new year follows
in eternal sequence, season by season.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 495-501
Explanation and Analysis:

In this lyrical passage, the narrator describes how, in the aftermath of the Green Knight's confrontation with Sir Gawain, the knights of King Arthur's court began to eat and feast. Then, afterwards, the new year came, and eventually it grew steadily shorter and shorter. Years are strange things--their beginnings are rarely like their endings, and yet they repeat, over and over. Such is the cycle of time, the narrator notes wisely: the years repeat again and again, eternally. On a plot level, the dwindling year also suggests that Gawain is running out of time to fulfill his oath and find the Green Knight--it seems that his certain death is rapidly drawing near.

Passages like this one convey a sense of nature's beauty and harmony. At many times, the Green Knight is associated with the power and wonder of nature, and--much like the passage of the years described here--he's both supernatural and natural, frightening and alluring.

So it suits this soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –
devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal
and kind,
so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Related Symbols: The Pentangle
Page Number: 631-639
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator describes the elaborate armor that Sir Gawain wore when he set out to find the Green Knight. Gawain's armor blends chivalric and Christian traditions together into one. Gawain's armor is decorated with pentangles, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ, among other things. In general, Gawain is praised for his virtue and honesty, not his strength--appropriately for his quest, which requires honesty as well as military might. One could argue that the poem wants to depict Gawain as a distinctly Christian kind of hero--a hero who knows how to fight and kill, but also one who knows how to keep his word, obey authorities, and respect the rules.

He trails through bleak terrain.
His mood and manner change
at every twist or turn
towards that chosen church.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 709-712
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain now journeys through the wilderness to find the Green Knight. His quest is interesting because he could easily give up at any time--no material reward awaits him when he finds the Green Knight; only the promise of death. Gawain's journey to track down the Knight is truly motivated by honor and honor alone. Gawain is a man of his word, more respectful of virtue than his own life.

The narrator conveys the extent of Gawain's ordeal in psychological terms. It's not just that Gawain endures a lot of danger along the way to the Knight; it's that there's no rational reason for him to endure such danger. Gawain's changing moods foreshadow the temptations he'll endure later on in the poem.

Lines 1126-1997 Quotes

"And I will give it all to you, Gawain," said the master,
"for according to our contract it is yours to claim."
"Just so," said Gawain, "and I'll say the same,
for whatever I've won within these walls
such gains will be graciously given to you."
So he held out his arms and hugged the lord
and kissed him in the kindliest way he could.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker), Bertilak of Hautdesert (speaker)
Page Number: 1383-1389
Explanation and Analysis:

In this amusing passage, Sir Gawain and Bertliak honor their arrangement and exchange their gifts. Bertilak gives Gawain everything he's won during the day (the prize meat from the deer he's killed), and Gawain returns to Bertilak everything that he has "won" during his day inside: Gawain then kisses Bertilak (since, of course, he's kissed the lady). Bertilak doesn't catch on, making the passage especially hilarious for it's readers. The passage further underscores the relationship between hunting and sexuality: it's as if Bertilak's felled animals are equivalent to Gawain's beautiful lady, suggesting that--in the poem's point of view--women are a form of "property."

for when tales of truthful knights are told
in both title and text the topic they describe
is how lords have laid down their lives for love,
endured for many days love's dreadful ordeal
then vented their feelings with avenging valor
by bringing great bliss to a lady's bedroom –
and you the most notable of all noble knights,
whose fame goes before him ... yes, how can it follow
that twice I have taken this seat at your side
yet you have not spoken the smallest syllable
which belongs to love or anything like it.

Related Characters: Bertilak’s Wife (speaker), Sir Gawain
Page Number: 1514-1524
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage,the mysterious Lady Bertilak talks to Sir Gawain. Not for the first time, the Lady and Gawain are alone--Bertilak is outside, leaving Gawain to his own devices. The Lady seems to be flirting with Sir Gawain pretty heavily: she teases him about being such a famous, renowned knight (not really true, as a matter of fact), and yet knowing nothing of love. It's as if the Lady, having tried straightforward seduction, is now trying to goad Gawain into kissing her by questioning his heroism and his manhood. The middle section of the poem is all about temptation: it would be so easy for Gawain to give into his obvious desire for the Lady, and yet he doesn't, at least not entirely.

"As an honest soul I swear on my heart,
you shall find the Green Chapel to finalize your affairs
long before dawn on New Year's Day.
So lie in your room and laze at your leisure
while i ride my estate, and, as our terms dictate
we'll trade our trophies when the hunt returns
I have tested you twice and found you truthful.
But think tomorrow third time throw best.

Related Characters: Bertilak of Hautdesert (speaker), Sir Gawain
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 1673-1680
Explanation and Analysis:

Bertilak is still seemingly oblivious to Gawain's relationship with his wife--as far as he's concerned, Gawain is a great guy, and totally trustworthy. Bertilak knows that Gawain is going to face off against the Green Knight very soon, but he suggests that they play one more round of their game: Gawain and Bertilak will trade their earnings at the end of the day.

It's worth noticing that Gawain's friendship with Bertilak has a familiar three-part structure, as in so many fairy tales. Moreover, Bertilak's fondness for games and play is highly reminiscent of the Green Knight's, foreshadowing the connection between the two characters. (Also note that the place where Gawain is to meet the Green Knight is a chapel, not a castle or battlefield--another link between the seemingly contradictory ideals of Christianity and chivalry.)

Lines 1998-2531 Quotes

Where he wonders and watches – it looks a wild place:
no sign of a settlement anywhere to be seen
but heady heights to both halves of the valley
and set with saber-toothed stones of such sharpness
no cloud in the sky could escape unscathed.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain
Page Number: 2163-2167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sir Gawain comes to the place where he thinks he's going to die: the Green Knight's "chapel." The description of the chapel is a good example of the Green Knight's dualistic nature, his blend of natural and supernatural, Christianity and violence. It's a wild, chaotic place, surrounded on all sides by sharp stones, suggesting that Gawain is imprisoned in the Green Knight's lair, helpless. At the same time, it's also presumably a place where God is worshipped.

The passage builds suspense by reinforcing the point that Gawain can't run away from the Green Knight any longer. He came to the Green Knight's chapel because of his strong sense of honesty and integrity--but now that he's here, it doesn't matter whether he tries to run or not; he's stuck.

"Call yourself good Sir Gawain?" he goaded,
"who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur's castle?

Related Characters: The Green Knight (speaker), Sir Gawain, King Arthur
Page Number: 2270-2275
Explanation and Analysis:

The Green Knight is about to strike Sir Gawain's neck with his axe. But instead of striking, he stops and makes fun of Sir Gawain for flinching. Gawain has pretended to be a good, strong knight--but, according to the Green Knight, he's just a coward, the same as his peers in King Arthur's court. The Green Knight uses the moment to praise himself for his own courage and fortitude in the previous year: he didn't flinch when Sir Gawain struck him, so Gawain shouldn't flinch when the Green Knight strikes him. (Of course, the Green Knight must have known that he'd be fine even with his head on the floor, making his competition with Sir Gawain pretty unfair.) The passage has the effect of humanizing both Gawain and the Knight: they're both flawed--Gawain because he's frightened, and the Green Knight because he loves to gloat.

But no wonder if a fool should fall for a female
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
it's the way of the world. Adam fell for a woman
and Solomon for several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker)
Page Number: 2414-2419
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain has emerged from his encounter with the Green Knight alive, and with only a slight neck wound. Furthermore, he's learned that his encounter with Bertilak and the lady was a test of his virtue: the lady was tempting him into sexual impropriety in order to test his worth as a knight. Gawain has passed the test--barely. Here, he curses women for tempting men again and again over the centuries; the history of humanity going all the way back to Adam, he claims, is a history of women leading men to ruin.

Gawain's account of history is important because it depicts men as the standard-bearers of virtue and uprightness, while women are sinful and useful only for testing men's virtues. The greatest men in history, one can assume from Gawain's speech, are those who successfully rise above temptation by appealing to their sense of honor and loyalty. Gawain, then, hasn't quite become a great knight, since he was tempted by the lady (who also tempted him to place his own survival over total honesty). Nevertheless, he's in good company: Adam, Samson, and David gave in to temptation, too. (It goes without saying that this entire passage is a classically sexist argument and view of history.)

"Regard," said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
"through this I suffered a scar to my skin –
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 2505-2510
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gawain decides to wear the green garter forever as a sign of his weakness and humility. The garter becomes an explicit symbol in the poem: once supposed to render Gawain invincible, the knight now acknowledges it as a symbol of his weakness. Interestingly, the garter has become a distinctly Christian kind of symbol, designed to remind humanity of its limitations, rather than its greatness.

Sir Gawain isn't a great knight by the standards of chivalry--he gave in to temptation by kissing the Lady and hiding the girdle from Sir Bertilak. And yet by the end of the poem we get the sense that he's become a wiser, more confident man. He realizes that chivalry isn't all it's cracked up to be: humility, intelligence, and instinct are equally important. There's more to being a knight than volunteering to die: self-control and self-awareness (i.e., awareness of one's limitations) are required, too.

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Sir Gawain Character Timeline in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The timeline below shows where the character Sir Gawain appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-490
Chivalry Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...with King Arthur at the head and Queen Guinevere, dressed in rich costume, and Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, in the midst. (full context)
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Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
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...axe and the knight stands tall and calm to receive the blow. But just then Gawain interrupts, wishing to save Arthur from the game. He claims that it would be much... (full context)
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Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
So, Gawain kneels before the King, who gives a loving blessing and hands him the axe. Gawain... (full context)
Lines 491-1125
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Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
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...and the harvest comes. And by these natural turns of the seasons, Michelmas arrives and Gawain anxiously awaits the time when he must set out on his challenge. (full context)
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On Allhallows day near the end of autumn, the King throws a feast for Gawain, who is now a hero. The knights and ladies of the court mourn for his... (full context)
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In the morning, Gawain is prepared for his quest, dressed in magnificent pieces of armor. The poet describes in... (full context)
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Covered in his symbol-decorated armor, Gawain races out of the court on his horse Gringolet. As he disappears, the knights mourn... (full context)
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Having endured until Christmas Eve, Gawain, near despair, finally turns to Mary. He rides through a strange forest and, among the... (full context)
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The people of the castle extend the drawbridge to Gawain, and kneel before him, somehow knowing his heroic status. They lead him inside, to a... (full context)
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The lord instructs his court to make Gawain welcome, and they shower him with rich bedding and robes. When dressed, he is beheld... (full context)
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His host leads Gawain into a private chamber. The host's wife, the lady of the house, desires to look... (full context)
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...the ones at King Arthur’s court, with music and meals served in order of importance. Gawain particularly enjoys the company of the lady of the house. This holiday spirit carries on... (full context)
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So, for the three days remaining until the New Year, Gawain agrees to stay, and to the lord's suggestion that he sleep late the next day... (full context)
Lines 1126-1997
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As the day passes bloodily at the hunt, Gawain keeps his promise at the court. He dozes in bed in the morning, until he... (full context)
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The lady teases Gawain for sleeping so deeply and when he asks permission to rise and more suitably dress... (full context)
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The lady says that if she could choose a husband again, she would choose Gawain. Gawain thanks her humbly, and offers himself as her knight. Eventually she goes to leave,... (full context)
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...the remains to the hounds and bring the prize meat back to the hall to Gawain. In front of the whole court, the host presents his winnings. Gawain keeps his side... (full context)
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...is hit but does not go down, so the lord boldly rides after it. Meanwhile, Gawain begins his day in bed as before and the lady visits him. She teases him... (full context)
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They talk at length about love. The lady wonders how such a knight as Gawain never talks about love, it being the most important sport of all. She claims that... (full context)
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...up and the hunters travel back to the hall and again show the spoils to Gawain, who exchanges them for the two kisses he won from the lady. The company feasts... (full context)
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...but is eventually pulled down by the lord and his hounds. Meanwhile, the lady wakes Gawain from nightmares about the Green Knight. She kisses him and they talk happily, but the... (full context)
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The lady asks if Gawain has a sweetheart but he denies it. She takes another kiss and finally asks him... (full context)
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Having killed and skinned the fox, the host returns and this time Gawain offers first his three kisses. The host says the fox is measly compensation compared to... (full context)
Lines 1998-2531
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As Gawain lies in bed on New Year’s morning, the wind wails outside and snow threatens. He... (full context)
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...to the Green Chapel but stops before reaching it, saying that he will not accompany Gawain to the doomed destination. He warns Gawain of the giant he will find at the... (full context)
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Now alone, Gawain steels his courage and continues on into the wilderness. He can see no chapel, only... (full context)
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As Gawain waits, he hears the sharpening of a blade, which he knows is the sound of... (full context)
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The Green Knight makes ready to strike, raising the axe high, but as it descends, Gawain flinches slightly and the knight withdraws his weapon. He accuses Gawain of not living up... (full context)
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The Green Knight raises the axe again but this time halts its descent to praise Gawain for his lack of flinching. Gawain fiercely urges him to stop delaying and strike. (full context)
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...by this ferocity and takes aim again, this time bringing the axe right down on Gawain’s neck. But the strike only nicks Gawain on the neck, and does not behead him.... (full context)
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The Green Knight leans on his axe, states his admiration for Gawain's courage, and refuses the offer to fight. He explains how he has spared Gawain, saving... (full context)
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The Green Knight again praises Gawain, calling him the best and bravest of Arthur's knights. Gawain, ashamed at his failure to... (full context)
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Gawain refuses the invitation but sends his wishes to both the old and the young ladies.... (full context)
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Gawain asks to know the real name of the Green Knight. The knight tells him it... (full context)
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Gawain rides back across the wilderness and woods to Camelot, overcoming many adventures on the way.... (full context)