Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Lines 1126-1997 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Before sunrise, the knights and the lord go to mass and then ready themselves for the hunt. The hounds are released and with three calls of a bugle, they’re off. The hunt moves through the forest and the hunters drive and herd the female deer away from the bucks. Hundreds of arrows are fired and the deer are shot left and right and pulled down by the dogs.
The courtly games turn out to be bloody and mimic the skills of battle. The hunters visit mass before they hunt, as a daily ritual but they definitely put more energy into the bloody sport of hunting deer. The descriptions of the deer's movements show their natural herding behavior, whereas the pack of hunters moves according to more organized, ritualized battle.
Themes
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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 hears a noise at door. It is the lady of the house. She enters and comes towards him. He feigns sleep, but when she sits down on the bed, he thinks that he should find out her purpose and pretends to wake.
The way the poet juxtaposes the hunting scene and Gawain’s meeting with the lady suggests a connection and makes a hunting ground of the bedroom. This is where Gawain’s honor will be won or lost.
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The lady teases Gawain for sleeping so deeply and when he asks permission to rise and more suitably dress himself, she refuses and again teases him, saying she will tie him up and keep him captive, since the opportunity has arisen that she is alone with the most famous knight of the realm. She offers herself up to him as his servant. Gawain denies being such a worthy knight, but he gives in and the two banter and exchange compliments happily.
Just as the Green Knight tied Gawain up in the contract of the beheading game, the lady of the house uses her language to manipulate and contract Gawain. She also preys on his desire to keep up his knightly reputation. Gawain treads a fine line between pure duty and romance by being respectful but succumbing a little to the lady – as if Gawain needed more pressure, this situation presses on his conscience and shows us how rigid the chivalrous life is—he must remain honorable, but he also must be charming.
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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, but tarries and accuses Gawain of not being the knight she thought he was. She explains that the real Gawain would not have stayed with her so long without asking for a kiss. Gawain gives in and kisses her, and she leaves. He dresses, goes to mass, and then spends the day merrily with the host’s wife and the old lady.
The territory becomes more and more dangerous to Gawain’s moral code as the hunt gets bloodier and the lady gets closer and closer to staining Gawain’s virtues. The lady's comment about the "real Gawain" is particularly important. Gawain has pretended and hidden so many things, including his real fear, that we are not sure who he really is at all. He seems to exist in terms of his reputation.
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The poet shifts the narrative back to the hunt, and describes how the lords butcher the deer they've caught, taking out the guts and removing the meat from the bones. They give 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 of the bargain to return anything won in the court and presents the lord with a kiss. The lord wonders where he won such a thing, but Gawain won't tell, as that was not part of the bargain. The men agree to play the same game the next day.
The extensive, gory description the poet gives of the hunted deer being butchered by the hunters is a bit of a metaphor for the taking apart of Gawain’s character. As in the battlefield-like hunting ground the animals are reduced to their most natural parts, this is sort of what the poem is doing to Gawain, trying to shed the armor and chivalry.
Themes
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Three cries of the cockerel signal the beginning of the next hunting day, and the knights head off as before. This time, they find a giant boar and after much battling, and many injured hounds, the knights fire at it. The beast 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 again, asking him to remember what he learnt about kissing. He says he will only kiss on her command, so she kisses him then of her own accord.
As the poem alternates between hunting scene and bedroom scene, the poet uses a lot of patterns, including the three bugle blows and cockerel cries. But though these constant patterning rituals give order to the hunt and to the game, there are certain things that have entered Gawain’s world that can’t be ordered, like feelings of love or the thought of his own death, which we are constantly reminded of with the hunting imagery.
Themes
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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 such a knight should be teaching her about love. Gawain is courteous and humble, saying he has no special knowledge, but again offers himself as her servant and they kiss for a second time.
We’ve never really seen love talked about in the poem, apart from when Arthur treats Gawain lovingly in the earliest scenes, but that was a love out of gratitude and admiration. Yet Gawain hides behind his chivalric behavior to escape the topic—again suggesting that chivalry offers a kind of armor to escape the messiness (and humanness) of the real world. And the pattern of the game continues.
Themes
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At the hunt, the men have run the beast into a trap. None but the lord himself has the courage to approach. The lord wrestles the boar with his bare hands and kills him with his sword. The boar is carved 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 and Gawain enjoys the company of the lady, neither completely indulging nor reproaching her. The host suggests that they repeat the game 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.
The host shows himself to be a strong hunter and goes beyond the traditional chase-and-shoot boundaries of the hunt by actually facing off with the boar. As the pattern of hunting and kissing goes further and starts to threaten the established boundaries of each game, Gawain’s motivations and the sureness of his virtues and qualities become clouded. Note how Gawain’s stay at the castle seems like a diversion or a delay to him, but many of the trials and rules he is facing echo the form of the Green Knight’s covenant.
Themes
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The next morning after mass, the hunt goes ahead, this time following a fox. The fox is wily and for a long time evades capture, 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 danger presses on Gawain as the lady comes closer than ever and seems to force him to either surrender or reject her.
The finality of the final day of hunting pushes Gawain further from the glittering mirage of his reputation and closer to the real bodily danger of Bertilak’s wife’s seduction. The order of the game and the time pressure of the passing season pushes both the hunting and the sexual stories to their limits
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The lady asks if Gawain has a sweetheart but he denies it. She takes another kiss and finally asks him for a love token. Gawain says he has no possession worthy of her so she gives him a love token instead. At first she offers a ring, but when he refuses, she offers a less expensive keepsake, a green girdle. When she tells Gawain that the magic of the girdle ensures the wearer protection from death, his fear of the Green Knight persuades him to take it. The lady asks him not to tell the lord about token, and he promises not to. The lady kisses Gawain for the third time that day and leaves him.
Gawain has given the lady's kisses to the lord each evening as their game demands, but not revealed the kisses' source. Taking a love token is a different thing, and breaks some of Gawain's rules of chivalry—taking it threatens the lady's honor (it is a tangible thing that could be discovered), and therefore threatens Gawain's own chivalric honor. Yet Gawain accepts it, not out of love, but out of fear—he hopes it will protect him from the Green Knight.
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Gawain dresses, hiding the girdle underneath his clothes. He goes to the chapel to confess his sins and, having been absolved, enjoys the final festivities of the season.
The symbol of protection has gone from being displayed proudly on Gawain’s shield to being hidden from sight – Gawain's fear of death has made him do something he considers shameful. Just as he prayed to be saved when he was in physical peril, now prays for the sake of his heart and mind.
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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 these gifts, but Gawain accepts it and the pair eat and drink merrily once more. The host assigns a servant to help Gawain find the chapel the next day, and with fond farewells and anxious thoughts, Gawain goes to bed.
The whole poem’s structure and Gawain’s trial is based on balance and symmetry. The cycle of the seasons keeps the momentum going and the fair exchange of gifts ensures an honest relationship between Gawain and his host. But now Gawain does not turn over the green girdle to the lord—he keeps it hidden, secretly staining his own chivalric honor because he hopes to escape death.
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