A Challenge of Chivalry—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Classic Books and Ideas, Commentary, Lit Crit

Miranda Alexander

Why is it that humanity is so captivated and fixated with spellbinding tales and mysterious magic?  What is it that draws us in so deep that we find ourselves nearly reluctant to abandon the grand realm of fantasy?  Could it be we have an irrevocable longing to dive into a time and land far from our own?  The Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manages to teleport its readers to the legendary Camelot, where chivalry and magic come alive.

The poetic adventure begins within the hallowed halls of King Arthur’s court, in the midst of a celebration in honor of the New Year.  Gifts and kisses are exchanged among the guests while awaiting the arrival of the meal.  However, once the food is presented, Arthur refuses to dig in until someone has told an extraordinary story.  As the others devour their food, Arthur maintains to wait for this marvelous tale.  Suddenly, a rather imposing figure enters the room on horseback.  The unexpected guest is described as “a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals” (141).  Not only is he large in stature, he is clothed entirely in emerald green armor and sports a holly bob in one hand and a giant axe in the other.

The Green Knight does not bother with introductions, he instead, demands to speak with the prominent person of authority.  After a momentary pause of stunned silence, Arthur speaks up and invites the odd stranger to join in the celebration.  The Green Knight rejects the offer and remains mounted on his steed.  It is at this moment the Green Knight elucidates the reason for his intrusion: he has heard remarkable claims about Arthur’s knights and has come with a desire to be indulged in a game.  The game in question involves an individual striking him with his own axe, with the understanding that the Green Knight will return the blow in precisely a year in and a day.  Just as Arthur is in the process of swinging the grand axe, his nephew, Sir Gawain, boldly requests permission to take on the Green Knight’s challenge.  When the king agrees the Green Knight dismounts from his horse and exposes his neck to Sir Gawain.  In a single stroke, he successfully severs the Green Knight’s head, which eerily speaks to Gawain, reminding him of their future meeting.

Time passes and Gawain leaves Camelot on the Day of All Saints, in search of the Green Knight.  During his laborious journey, he suffers from harsh weather elements and hunger.  Just as he begins to lose hope, he stumbles upon a “most commanding castle a knight ever kept, positioned in a site of sweeping parkland with a palisade of pikes pitched in the earth in the midst of tall trees for two miles or more” (767-769).  Gawain is warmly welcomed by the lord of the castle and introduces him to his wife and the elderly woman beside her.  Bertilak, the lord of the castle, arranges a deal with Gawain: everyday, the lord will venture out to hunt with his men and upon his return in the evening, he will trade his prizes for whatever Gawain can manage to obtain while staying in the castle.  Gawain willingly accepts the arrangement and retires for the night.

This exchange between Bertilak and Gawain carries on over a course of three days.  The morning of the first day, the wife of the lord, creeps into Gawain’s chambers and makes aims to seduce him.  He refuses her advances, but she succeeds in stealing a kiss from him.  That evening, Bertilak gives him his winnings and in return, Gawain kisses him since he received one kiss from his flirtatious wife.  The second day of his stay is fairly similar to that of the previous day.  While the lord was out pursuing a wild boar, Gawain acquires two kisses from the lord’s wife, so when the exchange takes place, he bestows two kisses to Bertilak and receives the boar’s head.  On the third day, the lady kisses Gawain three times and asks for a love token of some sort.  Gawain denies her request and refuses to accept anything from her that is until she mentions her girdle.

This is no ordinary girdle, however.  It is green and made of fine silk, it also possesses the magical ability to shield the individual who wears it from death.  Gawain is very much intrigued by this notion, for if he wears this while facing the Green Knight he could survive a swing from the axe.  With a ray of hope, Gawain agrees to take the girdle but cannot part with it when it comes time for the final exchange.  The lord gives Gawain a fox skin and he gives the three kisses he received but mentions nothing of the green girdle.

The next morning, Gawain throws on his armor along with the magical green girdle and sets off to complete his mission.  He arrives at Green Chapel on New Year’s Day and calls out to his opponent.  The Green Knight steps forward to greet the smug Sir Gawain, who is resolved to face his destiny head-on.  Gawain bares his neck to the Green Knight, who in turn, makes point to feign two blows with the giant axe.  It is only on the third feint that the axes nicks Gawain’s neck, scarcely drawing blood.  Infuriated, Gawain howls that their agreement has been fulfilled, yet, the Green Knight simply laughs.  It is in this moment that the Green Knight sheds light on his true identity: he is Bertilak, the lord of the castle where Gawain rather recently lodged.  The revelations do not end with the unmasking of the Green Knight’s identity.

Bertilak, then explains his reason behind drawing blood on the third blow: Gawain managed to remain honest in his winnings from his stay at the castle, save for the third day.  He did not hand over the magical green girdle to Bertilak during their last exchange, which means that Gawain did not fully hold up his end of the deal.  A knight should be a man of his word, he is to live and die by his promises, and Gawain faltered and thought of his own skin.  Despite his stumble, Bertilak assures Gawain he is a worthy knight.

A major theme one can take away from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the moral significance of chivalry in reality and Arthurian literature.  The code of chivalry is a key element within the romantic and fantastical world of King Arthur.  Chivalry entails five virtues: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety.  Theses virtues reflect the ideals of Christian morality and how a person of faith is to live out their life.  For if a knight does not possess an ounce of generosity, how would he be able or willing to give up his last dying breath for the greater good of the kingdom?  The same token applies to the average individual in reality, if a man or woman refuses to think of others’ needs before their own, earth may very well continue to look the complete opposite of Camelot.