Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The Green Knight Character Analysis

A massive, masculine, otherworldly figure that appears at Arthur’s hall and challenges any of the Knights of the Round Table to a strange "beheading game." He has supernatural qualities, most visibly his pure green complexion. His head is chopped off by Gawain but this doesn’t stop him. He just picks it up from the floor and speaks from his now disembodied head. He aligns the rules of his game and his own regeneration with the natural seasons, and so becomes symbolic of both the supernatural and the natural world. A year later, Gawain finds the knight as promised and the Green Knight admits that he is also lord Bertilak, and has been testing Gawain’s virtues. He reveals that he acquired his supernatural powers from a sorceress named Morgan Le Faye. Ultimately, the Green Knight's actions, both his challenge to Arthur's court and to Gawain in particular, and his ultimate choice to wound but not kill Gawain, serves as a critical corrective to the formulaic code of Christian chivalry that Camelot lives under.

The Green Knight Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight quotes below are all either spoken by The Green Knight or refer to The Green Knight. 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

I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
it seemed.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 140-146
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the mysterious Green Knight. The Knight, one would think, would be an intimidating, scary figure--big, loud, ugly, etc. But although the Green Knight is massive, he's not an ogre (another typical figure in English fantasy stories). Instead, the Knight is well-dressed, handsome-looking, and well-proportioned. in other words, he's basically a normal knight, who just so happens to be a giant, and green.

The Knight is both familiar and unfamiliar--his body is normal, but large and green. The ambiguous nature of the Knight's appearance reflects his ambiguous moral status in the poem; we're not sure if we can trust him or not, and he is a representative of both the supernatural (in his size and strange color) and the natural (in his handsomeness and tree-like color).

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Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 237-244
Explanation and Analysis:

Understandably, most of the knights and lords in the court of King Arthur are very frightened of the Green Knight--he's so big, supernatural-seeming, and intimidating that he could presumably kill any one of them. The Knight walks through the halls, staring at the guests in King Arthur's court, and nobody greets him; they're just too frightened.

Who's in the wrong here, the Knight or Arthur's guests? While the Green Knight is portrayed as a somewhat frightening figure, we should keep in mind that the poem is set during Christmas time. By refusing to greet the Green Knight politely and offer him food and shelter, the guests at the court are betraying their Christian, chivalric, and courtly duties.

I'm spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I'd ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn't last a minute.
But it's Yuletine – a time of youthfulness, yes?
So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

Related Characters: The Green Knight (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 279-289
Explanation and Analysis:

After Arthur greets the Green Knight (showing the hospitality that none of his guests would), the Green Knight explains what he wants. He wants to play a "game" with the bravest members of King Arthur's court: he and his opponent will trade one blow each. Interestingly, the Green Knight reminds everyone that it's Christmas, and therefore a good time for games. He seems oblivious to (or else darkly alluding to) the fact that this particular "game" is lethal, and not exactly a good Christmas activity.

The poem sets up an interesting contrast between Christianity and chivalry, then--between the religion of mercy and the knightly code of violence and warfare. At this point, it seems that the Green Knight himself sees no real contrast between the two systems of behavior--but his challenge immediately sets up a contradiction in "courtly" values.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 427-436
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain strikes at the Green Knight, decapitating him, and his head flies to the floor. To everyone's surprise, the Green Knight's headless body then simply walks after its own head, picks it up, and rides away. The scene is gruesome, and somewhat comic (like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon)--the casual way that the Knight trudges after its head and rummages around on the floor suggests that he's had to do so many times before.

The fine line between horror and comedy is a fixture of the poem--Gawain faces a series of terrifying, supernatural challenges, of which the Knight's challenge is only the first, and yet each challenge is somewhat mitigated by humor.

Lines 1998-2531 Quotes

"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.

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The Green Knight Character Timeline in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The timeline below shows where the character The Green Knight 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
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
...props, a holly branch and an axe, and he is riding a huge green horse. The Green Knight looks with powerful glances around the hall, and asks to speak to the leader of... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...and attendees of the feast are astonished into silence by the sight, thinking that the Green Knight must be some kind of phantom or magical thing. But Arthur introduces himself, and shows... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
The Green Knight does not propose battle but instead what he calls a Christmas game. He offers up... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
The knights are stunned and don’t answer, and the Green Knight laughs at them, insulting their supposed fame and fierceness. King Arthur’s pride is wounded and... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...King, who gives a loving blessing and hands him the axe. Gawain boldly approaches the Green Knight , but the knight asks him first to introduce himself and recite the rules of... (full context)
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
The Green Knight bows and bares his neck for Gawain. Gawain strikes and cuts the knight’s head clear... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...the marvel that he asked for, and so he begins to eat. They hang the Green Knight 's now-famous axe above the dais, in pride of place, and the court resumes its... (full context)
Lines 491-1125
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...assuring him that he is ready for the dangers of his journey to find the Green Knight . But despite his outward courage, Gawain feels doubt and worry. (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...on, into the wilderness, described as Godless country, unable to find any sign of the Green Knight . He battles with beasts and serpents and in the height of winter nearly freezes... (full context)
Lines 1126-1997
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...on New Year’s eve, and though Gawain is weary of his coming trial with the Green Knight , he is persuaded to play one more round. (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...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 danger presses on Gawain as... (full context)
Lines 1998-2531
Chivalry Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...to be a coward and must go on. The servant reminds him that facing the Green Knight is certain death, and hurries away. (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...is home to the devil. He begins to believe the place is fitting for the Green Knight ’s dwelling. Gawain readies himself with his sword and climbs to the top of the... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...blade, which he knows is the sound of his own doom. The next moment, the Green Knight appears, wielding a huge new Danish axe. Gawain greets the knight with a bow and... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
The Green Knight makes ready to strike, raising the axe high, but as it descends, Gawain flinches slightly... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
The Green Knight raises the axe again but this time halts its descent to praise Gawain for his... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
The Green Knight is impressed by this ferocity and takes aim again, this time bringing the axe right... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
The Green Knight leans on his axe, states his admiration for Gawain's courage, and refuses the offer to... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
The Green Knight again praises Gawain, calling him the best and bravest of Arthur's knights. Gawain, ashamed at... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Gawain asks to know the real name of the Green Knight . The knight tells him it is Bertilak of Hautdesert. He explains that he has... (full context)