Christmastime in Camelot, around King Arthur’s table –this is where the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins. The Green Knight enters the court to challenge one of the men from King Arthur’s table because they are said to be the bravest of all the knights in the kingdom. The challenge that the Green Knight poses is to strike him with his own axe, and in return receive the same blow exactly one year and one day later. When not one person of the group volunteers to accept the challenge, he proceeds to call them cowards. Insulted, King Arthur volunteers. His nephew, Sir Gawain, realizes that he is of less importance than the king and volunteers to take Arthur’s place. He swings the axe and severs the head of the Green Knight. But to the surprise of everyone in the court, the Green Knight nonchalantly picks up his head. After reminding Sir Gawain of their agreement, he leaves and the court and the knights continue their festivities.
When autumn arrives, Sir Gawain departs on his journey to seek out the Green Knight. Around Christmastime, after spending several months in the woods, he discovers a castle. The lord of the castle welcomes him to stay through the holidays. For sport, the host and Sir Gawain strike a deal: the host and his men will go hunting for three days and each day they will bring back whatever they catch and give it to Sir Gawain in return for what Sir Gawain gains while staying in the castle. On the first day, the host and his men catch a doe and Sir Gawain receives a kiss from the lady of the host when tries to seduce him. On the second day, the host and his men catch a wild boar and Sir Gawain receives two kisses from the lady of the host. On the third day, the host and his men catch a fox and Sir Gawain receives not only three kisses, but also the lady’s green girdle.
He does not mention that he received her girdle to the host –he only kisses him three times for the kisses he received. On New Year’s Day, Sir Gawain leaves the castle with an escort to search for the Green Chapel and face the Green Knight. The escort tells Sir Gawain that if he wants to abandon his quest, he may do so, and not a soul will know about his refusal to meet the Green Knight. However, Sir Gawain’s courage and determination compels him to meet the Green Knight and he turns down the escort. While standing outside of the Green Chapel, he hears the sounds of an axe being sharpened. He realizes that he must face his fate and he walks into the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight. After conversing for a few moments, Sir Gawain steps forward to receive the blow that he and the Green Knight had agreed upon. The Green Knight misses Sir Gawain’s neck twice, but on the third swing he barely nicks Sir Gawain’s neck.
The Green Knight then reveals to Sir Gawain that his name is Bertilak, and he is the lord of the castle in which that Sir Gawain had been staying. An old woman in the castle had helped Bertilak to disguise himself in magic so that he could pull off the appearance of the Green Knight. Each swing represented when Sir Gawain and the host of the castle had exchanged winnings from their deal. Because Sir Gawain was honest the first two times, the Green Knight missed his neck. The third time he swung at Sir Gawain, however, represents the time that Sir Gawain was not completely honest about what he had gained while the host was out. The lesson for Sir Gawain was that it is incredibly important to not only tell the truth, but the whole truth. As a reminder of his sin, he wears the girdle on his arm. Eventually, this becomes something that is done by all of King Arthur’s knights.
Throughout the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we find that several different themes are represented. One theme that appears often throughout the work is the consistent presence of chivalry and its relation to Christianity. Another important theme to take note of is the various uses of symbols and their meanings which at first might not seem of great significance. The theme of chivalry appears several times throughout the work, one of these instances is seen in a reminder to the reader Gawain’s pentangle shield. The shield represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. They live by the ideals of a moral code which is originally exemplified in Christianity. Through this story, we very much see that chivalry can be a virtue as well as a vice. When the Green Knight approaches King Arthur’s table to find someone to challenge him, it is silent for a moment and then he mocks the knights by saying that their chivalry is only for appearance and they do not act upon it.
At this point, the chivalric system is questioned –the story shows how it is easy for one to have the appearance of chivalry, but not necessarily have it be true in oneself. Through Sir Gawain’s character, we see how often true chivalry is tested. First, Sir Gawain volunteers to take King Arthur’s place in the challenge. He realizes the meaning of being selfless and shows an act of friendship. He places King Arthur before himself even when no one else would accept the challenge in his stead. This is the beginning of the true knighthood of Sir Gawain. Another important example is when Sir Gawain is staying in Bertilak’s castle and the lady of the castle tries to seduce him. He shows chastity, but not in an offensive way to the lady. He gently refuses her knowing that although the temptation is strong, the act of being involved with her physically would go against everything that he lives for and believes in.
Here, we see that knights, like Christians, held the belief of abstaining from premarital sex. Also, in this scene with Sir Gawain and the lady of the castle, he shows courtesy. He is accused by the lady of the castle of not being the real Sir Gawain because a real knight would not allow a lady to leave the room without first granting her a kiss. He then shows his courtesy by granting her a kiss before she leaves the room. Sir Gawain’s chivalry is tested a third time when his escort tells him that he may run away from the Green Knight and no one will ever hear about it. Sir Gawain proves his knighthood when he chooses to follow his fate, even though he had the option of taking the easy way out. He knew that taking the easy way would have proved him to be a coward and not an honest man. We see that although Sir Gawain is tempted in several different instances, he nearly always does the right thing –except for when he keeps the lady’s girdle.
He sets an example of a good man, and although he is not perfect, he tries to do what is right. There are several different symbols that appear throughout the story, giving meaning that one would not notice without taking a closer look. One example is the pentangle which represents the five virtues of knights. The pentangle represents a symbol of truths to which a knight is to live by. It is in the shape of a star which contains lines that connect at each point and lock, thus making an “endless knot”. The meaning behind this knot is that each point, which represents one virtue of a knight, connects in such a way that a knight is not meant to have one virtue and not the other. The five virtues are all meant to be displayed in one knight, and if one knight does not represent each of the virtues, then he must not be a true knight according to the definition of the pentangle. Another example of a symbol that is used in the narrative is that of the green girdle.
On the third night of Sir Gawain’s and Bertilak’s competition, the lady of the castle comes into Sir Gawain’s room to seduce him once again. Because he will be leaving the next day, the lady asks Sir Gawain for a love token to which he says he has nothing to give her. They argue and then the lady grants him her green girdle, saying that it contains magical properties such as keeping a man safe from death. Sir Gawain accepts her gift thinking it might be of use to him when he goes to face the Green Knight.
After Sir Gawain breaks his promise to his host and does not tell him of the girdle, he later wears it on his shoulder to serve as a reminder of his sinful human nature and how easy it is to fall into temptation. Sir Gawain is a representation of a good knight. He is not a perfect knight by any means –he makes mistakes and falls into temptation, just like everyone else. This is what makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight realistic; although there is plenty of imagination and creativity in the story, the characters have human flaws. Sir Gawain’s tale is that of a journey that is in no way, shape, or form is an easy one. Although he is tempted and tried, he learns through his mistakes and this is what makes him a great character to learn from.