Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
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.
Christianity Theme Icon

Christianity, and Christian ideas, appear everywhere in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Arthurian chivalry is founded in Christian ideals, as is symbolized by the pentangle painted onto Gawain’s shield, with the face of Mary in its center. The timeline of events are dotted at significant moments by Christian holidays (Christmas, Michelmas). Gawain, on the verge of despair during his quest, prays to Mary and suddenly comes upon Bertilak’s castle, and he attends confession daily in the midst of Bertilak’s wife’s attempted seduction.

In addition, the climax of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Gawain presents himself to face the Green Knight’s axe-trike, takes place not at a castle or battle-field but at a chapel. And it is at this chapel that the theme of Christianity itself comes to a sort of climax. While Gawain has attended confession each day as he fended off the advances of Bertilak’s wife, he did not confess everything—he kept secret the green girdle that he hoped would protect his life. The revelation after the Green Knight spares Gawain’s life that Bertilak is the Green Knight and knew about the girdle all along leads Gawain to truly embrace his flaws and humility for the first time and in so doing to find atonement and a more stable base for Christian behavior than the rule-based chivalry of Arthur’s court. Finally, the showdown at the chapel highlights the tension between the biblical Pharisees and Jesus, mirrored in the contrast between Camelot and Bertilak’s court, between man-made law and Christian divine love and mercy, with Bertilak’s mercy toward Gawain ultimately revealing the poem’s contention on the primacy of mercy rather than law as the foundation of true Christian behavior.

Christianity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Christianity appears in each section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Section length:
Get the entire Gawain & the Green Knight LitChart as a printable PDF.
Sir gawain and the green knight.pdf.medium

Christianity 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 Christianity.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

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.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

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

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.

Lines 1126-1997 Quotes

"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

Now night passes and the New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards,
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.

Page Number: 1998-2003
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, there's an interesting similarity between Sir Gawain's fear and anxiety and the natural world. On the night before Gawain's encounter with the Green Knight, it's dark and wild outside, supposedly exposing mankind's secret, hidden nature. Gawain has been putting on a brave face throughout the poem, but here, it's as if the prospect of dying at the Green Knight's hands is too much for Gawain to handle.

The poem praises the beauty of nature, but also shows the natural world to be frightening and chaotic. By the same token, man's nature is both beautiful and deeply flawed--we see so via Sir Gawain's character. Gawain tries to be a good man, but he's tempted again and again, suggesting his secret sinful (or merely instinctual) nature. The descriptions of nature here reinforce the connection between Gawain's flawed spirit and the world itself.

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.)

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.