The poet describes the heroic lineage of King Arthur. From the fall of Troy, to the founding of Britain by Brutus, the country has risen from conquest and war, led by bold men. And of all the strange, wondrous events that Britain has seen, the story to follow is one of the most strange. The poet vows to tell it as he has heard it told and as it is known throughout the land.
The opening connects British history and the story in the poem to the great Greek and Roman stories, creating an interesting parallel between the story and Gawain. Just as Gawain must live up to all these ancient heroes, the opening ensures that the story’s reputation precedes it’s telling, which is the very problem that Gawain faces later.
At the beginning of the tale, it is Christmas time, and the court is in revelry. King Arthur is in his hall, surrounded by the many knights of the Round Table, feasting, singing and playing games. This carries on for fifteen days and on New Year’s Day, the court enjoys a ritual of gift giving and game playing. When it is time to eat, the company are seated in order of importance, with King Arthur at the head and Queen Guinevere, dressed in rich costume, and Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, in the midst.
The poet’s descriptions of the feast and the rituals of eating are extensive. The Christmas period is completely devoted to carefree pursuits and though later the poem describes how the virtues of chivalry include things like boldness and courage, we see here that being able to revel with the best of them is also a requirement. This is the first mention of Sir Gawain. Being seated among the most legendary figures of the table suggests that some potential for greatness or foreboding is being suggested by the poet.
In such a state of excitement, Arthur insists he won’t eat until he hears some adventure story, or finds a jousting partner willing to risk his life, or experiences some other wonder. Then the food is served, each course accompanied by ceremonial fanfares and the knights begin to dine. But just at the height of the feast, a huge figure bursts into the hall, giving Arthur exactly what he hoped for.
The knights of the round table seem to have a very happy life. Since King Arthur has to request his knights to risk their lives for entertainment, it implies that there’s no war or threat to warrant actual combat. The pomp of their meal covers this disappointing lack of adventure.
The intruding man is handsome and well-proportioned, despite his massive size, and he is completely green in color. Every piece of his elaborate costume is green, with gold details. He holds two 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 the company.
What’s interesting about the Green Knight is that despite his supernatural complexion, he is not monstrous in appearance like you’d expect of an intruding antagonist. He is, rather, a larger, exaggerated version of the knightly model that King Arthur is said to embody.
The knights 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 the proper courtesy to the knight, as if he were one of the company, and asks him to delay explanations until he has made himself comfortable. But the knight does not want to stay. He explains that he has come to the court having heard of the fame of its knights’ bravery and sportsmanship. He comes in peace but wishes the men to entertain a certain game he has in mind. Arthur assures him that his knights are always up for a battle.
A strange meeting of violence and courtesy occurs here when both polite manners and readiness to battle are demanded by the chivalric code. The knights of the Round Table, whose reputation alone has brought the Green Knight here, are not showing themselves to be worthy of that reputation. Arthur speaks for them when he says they’re battle-hungry, as if he’s pushing a shy child into the limelight.
The Green Knight does not propose battle but instead what he calls a Christmas game. He offers up his axe as a prize to any man who is brave enough to trade blows with him. The conditions will be that he, the Green Knight, will receive the first strike now, and then the challenger knight must agree to submit himself to receive one in exactly a year and a day. After explaining the rules, the knight waits for a contender to come forward.
The suddenly revealed life and death stakes of the Green Knight's "game" exposes the revelries of the court as true, empty games. The Green Knight's game is one requiring true courage—to enter into what seems to be a life and death contest with a supernatural being for no reason other than pride.
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 he jumps into action, calling the Green Knight’s words foolish. He offers to give the blow that has been requested. Arthur immediately sets himself up to strike with the knight’s own axe and the knight stands tall and calm to receive the blow. But just then Gawain interrupts, wishing to save Arthur from the game. He claims that it would be much more fitting for himself, as the least worthy knight in the court, to take on the challenge, because the loss would be least great. The court discusses his proposal and agrees.
Since the Green Knight has sworn peacefulness, there might not be any harm in refusing to play the game, but reputation is everything in Arthur's court, and Arthur cannot allow the pride and reputation of the court to be stained. Though the fact that Arthur has to step forward at all suggests that the other knight's do lack the courage their reputation would suggest—their fear is stronger than their pride. The knight's approval of Gawain's reason for stepping forward indicates they think he is stepping into likely death—a death they themselves don't want to face.
So, Gawain kneels before the 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 the game. Gawain does so, showing that he understands what he is undertaking, and the knight politely thanks him for his daring. Gawain asks to know the knight’s name and dwelling, but the knight delays, promising to give up the information after he has been struck.
The rules are very important to the Green Knight and the numerous recitations of the game’s structure suggest that the Green Knight sees himself and Gawain entering into a kind of contract. Yet the Green Knight is also wily, and does not include revealing his own name or where he lives as part of that contract.
The Green Knight bows and bares his neck for Gawain. Gawain strikes and cuts the knight’s head clear off so that it falls and rolls, bloody, across the hall of the floor. Despite losing his head, the Green Knight does not lose his footing. Instead he picks up the head and gets back on his horse, then aims the head toward them, and tells Gawain to find him a year’s hence in the Green Chapel. And as suddenly as he arrived, the knight is gone.
The Green Knight displays all the courtesy of the model knight but seems superhuman in his lack of fear and seeming immortality. The fact that the Green Knight seems to possess even greater traits of chivalry than any of the other knights—and combines those traits with supernatural powers—suggests that he brings with him revelations or challenges not just to the knights of Arthur's court but to their chivalric code.
King Arthur laughs and says that you can expect this kind of trickery around Christmas time, but admits that he has seen 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 revelry.
Even after the miraculous event just witnessed, Arthur’s lively mind does not dwell long on the serious consequences for Gawain. Instead the court focuses on the symbolic act of placing the axe, revealing a certain pettiness in the chivalric conventions—placing honor and revelry over compassion and concern.