Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Chivalry Theme Icon

King Arthur’s court at Camelot is defined by a chivalrous code, in which fighting spirit, bravery and courtesy are vital to a man’s character and standing, and cowardice is looked down upon as a severe defect. The Green Knight's challenge is thus a challenge not just to each individual knight but to the entire Arthurian chivalric code, and that code is shown to be hollow when none of the knights accept the challenge until Gawain, who identifies himself as the weakest of the knights, finally does. The terms of the Green Knight’s game then force Gawain to seek out the Green Knight somewhere in the wilderness of Britain. As such, the quest presents another test of both Gawain and the chivalric code outside the confines of Arthur's court. Over the course of this quest, it becomes clear that the highly-formalized and by-the-book set of rules for living inherent in the chivalric code of Camelot does not stand up in the wildness of the real world.

The chivalric code is full of glitter and symbolic decorations, just as Gawain is dressed for his challenge with diamonds and a shield representing the values he is supposed to embody. But these values are merely painted on, they are all surface, revealing the lack of certainty that the men beneath the armor actually hold in their chivalry—Gawain chooses to hide the green girdle from Bertilak rather than reveal it as promised, all because he fears for his life. Gawain’s trials also reveal how the chivalric codes are themselves contradictory: Gawain is faced with the need to be chivalric need to be honorable toward his host Bertilak while also showing the utmost courtesy and charm to Bertilak's wife, even as she seems intent on trying to seduce Gawain. Here the chivalric codes are set against each other.

Gawain navigates these impossible situations as best he can, but ultimately fails to adhere to the rules of the game he agreed upon with Bertilak (he does not reveal the girdle). Yet Bertilak/the Green Knight ultimately spares Gawain with no more than a nicked neck, while it was in his right to chop off Gawain’s head. Bertilak's honor does not depend on a formalized chivalric code that completely defines him. He and his men still have their rituals, but they put on less of a show. They have more individual strength, are more adaptable, and can therefore be more merciful when they feel the situation warrants it. In short, theirs is a way of being that better operates in the real world. The green girdle Gawain wears becomes a symbol of this different, less formulaic way of being.

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Chivalry Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Below you will find the important quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight related to the theme of Chivalry.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

After Britain was built by this founding father,
a bold race bred there, battle-happy men
causing trouble and torment in turbulent times.

Page Number: 20-23
Explanation and Analysis:

The opening lines of the poem describe the lineage of King Arthur, who was supposedly descended from Brutus the Roman. The connection between Britain and Brutus is intriguing because it suggests a Greco-Roman morality in the court of King Arthur: an environment characterized by violence, bloodshed, and glorious combat. Sure enough, the poet praises the English kings for their propensity for war--they're not mindlessly violent, but rather "battle happy." The poem will study the contrasts and tensions between two competing moralities: that of the Romans (i.e., characterized by violence and battle-happiness) and that of the Christians, characterized by mercy and kindness.


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And I’ll tell it as it's told in the town where it trips from,
the tongue;
and as it has been inked
in stories bold and strong,
through letters, which, once linked,
have lasted loud and long.

Page Number: 31-36
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage describes the nature of the story we're about to here--a story that, the poet insists, has been repeated many times already and repeated throughout the land. The passage is intriguing because it singles out stories and letters in place of songs and words--in other words, it focuses on written language, rather than spoken language (unlike many earlier epic tales, such as Homer's Iliad, which was designed to be performed and spoken, not just written). The poem celebrates itself for having survived for so long, and for having been written down and recorded for future generations to enjoy. The heroes of King Arthur's court, it's suggested, deserve to be remembered forever, in stories and performances. (This passage is also a good example of alliteration--a series of words starting with the same letter or sound--which is the dominant poetic device of the story.)

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).

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.

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.

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 491-1125 Quotes

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 rides the path and prays,
dismayed by his misdeeds,
and signs Christ's cross and says,
"be near me in my need."

No sooner had he signed himself three times
than he became aware, in those woods, of high walls
in a moat, on a mound, bordered by the boughs
of thick-trunked timber which trimmed the water.
The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,

Page Number: 759-767
Explanation and Analysis:

It's Sir Gawain's humility and trust in Christianity that leads him to food and shelter. He prays to Mary and makes the sign of the cross three times--immediately afterwards, a mysterious moat and castle appear out of nowhere, suggesting a clear link between the castle and the prayer--and also between Christianity and the supernatural.

The passage underscores one of the key themes of the poem: bravery and valor aren't enough to be a true knight. The true knight--Sir Gawain--will trust in God as well as his own physical strength. At the end of the day, it isn't Gawain's bravery that leads him to the castle; it's his reliance on God. 

Lines 1126-1997 Quotes

As the cry went up the wild creatures quaked.
The deer in the dale, quivering with dread
hurtled to high ground, but were headed off
by the ring of beaters who bawled and roared.
The stags of the herd with their high-branched heads
and the broad-horned bucks were allowed to pass by,
for the lord of the land had laid down a law
that man should not maim the male in close season

Page Number: 1150-1157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this witty scene, the lords and knights of the kingdom go hunting while Sir Gawain gets to know the lord's wife. Sir Gawain's budding relationship with the wife is contrasted with the lords' hunting exploits, which are cast in subtly sexual terms. Here for example, we're told that during this particular hunting season, only females are "fair game"--the knights, a bunch of men, are hunting for females. As we'll soon see, Sir Gawain's relationship with the lady is also a kind of gendered "hunt," in which Gawain is tempted to "chase" after an elusive, attractive woman.

Then the heads and necks of the hinds were hewn off,
and the choice meat of the flanks chopped away from the chine,
and a fee for the crows was cast into the copse.
Then each side was skewered, stabbed through the ribs
and heaved up high, hung by its hocks,
and every person was paid with appropriate portions.

Page Number: 1353-1358
Explanation and Analysis:

In this gory scene, the lord and knights go about dividing up the animals they've hunted. After a long day, they've succeeded in slaying a vast number of animals, including many hinds. One by one, the hinds are ripped apart, skewered, and distributed among the hunters.

Note the sexualized imagery of penetration in this passage, and also the language that connotes justice and equality. One could that justice and sex are the two themes of the poem: the justice that leads Gawain to return to the Green Knight to receive his axe-blow, and the sexuality that tempts Gawain into sin. The language of the passage is unmistakably violent, further reinforcing a connection between the two themes: Gawain's desire for women has an unmistakably violent character (as is often the case in literary descriptions of male sexuality), and his punishment at the Green Knight's hands is of course going to be intensely violent.

"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

"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.

Since fearless Brutus first set foot
on these shores, once the siege and assault at Troy
had ceased
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.

Page Number: 2524-2530
Explanation and Analysis:

The poem ends with a repetition of the history of England, which stretches all the way back to the time of Brutus and the ancient Romans. Brutus, a great warrior (and not the same one famous for betraying Julius Caesar), was supposedly one of the founders of England, an ancestor of King Arthur. Yet as we've seen, there's more to life than Brutus's fearsomeness, important as it is. A true Christian will be humble and modest, not just brave. In such a way, the English tradition is founded on a combination of Christian and Roman values: a combination of valor and humility that, in theory, makes for very impressive knights like Sir Gawain. Appropriately enough, the final lines of the poem sum up the history of England as a steady progression from Rome to Christianity, or from valor to humility.