Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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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.
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon

The world of Gawain and the Green Knight is full of, even defined by, all sorts of games, rules, and order. The knights of Arthur’s court must sit in a particular order and be served according to their fame. The court is also full of revelry and games, and even when the time for battle arrives on New Year’s Eve, it comes in the form of a game. Further, the knightly chivalric code that creates Gawain as a hero inside the court is tightly, rigidly ordered into five points, making a pentangle. This structure is put to the test in the wilderness, where Gawain faces unordered, deceptive visions, and the chivalry embodied in the symbol of the pentangle is shown to be less stable than it appears to be in Arthur’s court. Yet nature, also, is defined by rhythms and order, in the form of the seasons and of life, death, and regeneration.

Of course, the plot of the story is also driven by the “beheading game” that is created by the Green Knight and in which Gawain is caught up. This game leads to other, and, unbeknownst to Gawain, related games—Gawain’s game with Bertilak to exchange the spoils each wins each day; the game in which Gawain must both charm Bertilak’s wife while evading her attempted seduction of him; and the rituals of the hunt (which are interspersed with Bertilak’s wife’s “hunting” of Gawain). Each day of the hunt, something is killed, and Gawain is kissed – though these events are neatly numbered in a set of three and seem like games themselves, they are a source of trauma in Gawain’s mind and he tries to put the experience in order himself by confessing at mass.

And yet, Gawain breaks the rules of Bertilak’s game by hiding the green girdle, and does not confess it. When at last Gawain faces The Green Knight, then, it seems like by the rules of the game—the original beheading game and the game of exchanging gifts—Gawain must die. And yet The Green Knight spares him, striking with his axe and yet giving Gawain little more than a nick on the neck. In so doing, The Green Knight places mercy above the rules of the “game”—the beheading game, the exchange of spoils, and even the rules of life and death—and in this way suggests that the Christian ideas of mercy and divine love offer a way out of the rules that define life, whether those rules are made by man or nature.

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Games, Rules, and Order 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 Games, Rules, and Order.
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.


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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.

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."

"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.

"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.