Introduction Romance genre. Typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his ability. Popular in the aristocratic circles of Medieval Europe. Fantastic stories about the adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who often goes on a quest. Hero goes on a quest, fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favor with a lady Focuses not upon love and sentiment, but upon adventure. Part 1 Poem opens with a mythological account of Britain’s founding. After the fall of Troy, we are told, various heroes left to build cities. Romulus founded Rome Ticius founded Tuscany Brutus founded Britain. By framing the central plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with an account of Britain’s founding by the Trojan Brutus, the poet establishes Camelot’s political legitimacy. Part 1 The author introduces Britain’s greatest leader, the legendary King Arthur. Poet tells us he will tell a story about a great adventure. Story begins in Camelot, King Arthur's court, on New Year's Day There is feasting, New Year’s games, and exchanging gifts. Lengthy description in lavish, intricate details of the feast, including the guests, their clothing, and the hall itself. Part 1 A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall. The gigantic knight has a beautiful face and figure. Every piece of his elaborate costume is green, with flourishes of gold embossing. His huge horse is green, and his green hair and beard are woven together with gold thread. The knight demands to see the person in charge. Arthur invites the knight to join the feast Part 1 The knight refuses the invitation. He says that he has come to inspect Arthur’s court because he has heard so much about its superior knights. Green Knight calls Arthur and his knights “beardless children”. The giant knight proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on condition that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day later. Part 1 Arthur steps forward to defend his court. Just as he begins to swing the giant axe at the Green Knight, Gawain, the youngest of Arthur's knights and nephew to the king, requests that he be allowed to take the challenge himself. Why? Gawain cuts the Green Knight’s head. The head rolls around the room, passing by the feet of many of the guests. Part 1 The Green Knight does not fall from his horse. He reaches down, picks up the head, and holds it before him, pointing it toward the high table. The head speaks, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year's Day the next year). The Green Night leaves the hall. They return to their feast and the continuing festivities. Part 2 The opening lines of Part 2 detail the changing seasons of the year. As the date approaches Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight. Why? The poet describes in great detail Gawawin’s armor. He devotes space to each and every piece, down to the skirts on Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. On the inside of the shield is the face of Mary, Christ’s mother. Part 2 On the outside Gawain’s shield is a gold five-pointed star, or pentangle, on a red background. Each of the five points of the pentangle, which is described as an “endless knot”, represents the five knightly virtues: generosity courtesy chastity chivalry piety Part 2 Gawain heads out into the wilderness in his search for the mysterious Green Chapel. He encounters various foes—wolves and dragons, bulls and bears, boars and giants—but always prevails over his enemies. As the winter grows colder, he nearly freezes to death. On Christmas Eve Gawain prays to the Virgin Mary that he might find a place to attend Christmas Mass. He repents his sins, crosses himself three times, and, when he looks up, he sees a beautiful castle. Part 2 Gawain approaches the castle and is invited in to meet the and the lord of the castle. The host’s lords and ladies express their joy that Gawain can show them the latest in knightly behavior and help them to become more courtly themselves. The host introduces Gawain to two women. The host’s wife is young, beautiful, and elegantly dressed, her firm neck and bosom exposed. The other, an old woman, is wrinkled, stocky, hairy, and covered entirely in clothing. Only her nose, eyes, and blistered lips are exposed by the fabric. After the introductions, the lords and ladies play games and celebrate late into the night. Gawain retires for bed. Following two days pass in a similar manner. Three days remain before Gawain is to meet with the Green Knight. Part 2 The host tells Gawain he can send him to the Green Chapel easily—it is only two miles away. Gawain accepts the invitation to stay the three days until New Year’s. The host proposes a game: during the day, he wants Gawain to stay at court spending time with the two ladies. The host will go out hunting. At the end of each day the two men will exchange whatever they have won. Gawain accepts. Part 2 The host’s physique and his suggestion to play a harmless game recall the character of the Green Knight from Part 1. Though the host’s proposed game seems innocent enough, he makes Gawain repeat the terms of the agreement, just as the Green Knight did at Camelot. Part 3 Early in the morning the next day, the host and his guests get out of bed and prepare to ride forth from the castle on their hunt. Back at the castle, Gawain is in bed until daybreak. While still half asleep, he sees the host’s wife creeping toward his bed. The lady climbs inside the bed curtains and sits beside Gawain. Confused but curious, Gawain stretches and pretends to wake up. Upon seeing the lady in his bed, he feigns surprise and makes the sign of the cross. Part 2 The host’s wife smiles and jokes that she has captured him, and she threatens to tie him to the bed, laughing at her own game. Gawain laughs and “surrenders” to her, then asks her leave to get up and put on his clothes. She refuses, saying that instead she will hold him captive. She tells Gawain that she has heard many stories about him and wants to spend time alone with him. She offers to be his servant and tells him to use her body any way he sees fit. Part 3 The lady continues to lavish Gawain with admiration, and Gawain continues to guard himself while still being gracious. The lady accuses Gawain of not being courteous. The real Gawain would never let a lady leave his chamber without taking a kiss. Gawain allows one kiss, and then the lady leaves. Part 3 The hunters return home with their meat. The host greets Gawain and gives him the meat he won during the hunt that day. Gawain thanks him and in return gives him the kiss he won from the lady. The host jokingly asks where Gawain won such a prize. Gawain points out that they agreed to exchange winnings, not to tell where or how they were acquired. Part 3 The next two days follow a similar pattern. The lady continues to challenge Gawain’s reputation, pressuring him into allowing her two kisses. The lady continues to convince him that acceptance of her love would be chivalrous. That night, the host brings home the boar’s head on a stick and exchanges it with Gawain for the two kisses. Part 3 On the third day the host hunts a fox. Gawain receives three kisses from the lady during the course of their conversation. The lady asks Gawain for a love token. Gawain refuses to fulfill her request, claiming he has nothing to give. The lady offers him a ring, which he also refuses. Part 3 She then offers him her green girdle, which she claims has magical properties: it possesses the ability to keep the man who wears it safe from death. Tempted by the possibility of protecting his life, Gawain accepts the girdle. Gawain is eager to be able to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight and still survive. That afternoon, Gawain goes to confession. This indicates that he knows he has broken his vow. Part 3 At the end of the day, he gives the three kisses to his host but fails to mention the lady’s gift. The three bedroom scenes also take the form of games. The lady plays a new kind of game with Gawain by testing two knightly virtues that she places at odds with one another: his courtesy and chastity. When Gawain refuses to give in to the lady sexually, she accuses him of being discourteous. Gawain’s chivalry requires him to obey her. Part 3 As soon as he responds in a more courteous manner, the lady again pushes him toward being unchaste. Part of Gawain’s spiritual education as a knight should involve courtly love. For Gawain to refuse her advances, he must break his knightly responsibility to be courteous; for him to accept, he must break his chastity. Courtesy versus chastity. Honesty versus safety. Part 3 By not giving his host the green girdle Gawain breaks his vow with the host. What Gawain would have to give the host if he had in fact slept with the lady? If the lady and Gawain had slept together, Gawain and the host would have to sleep together as well. After the exchange of the gifts with the host, the host and his courtiers hold a farewell party for Gawain. Part 4 The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle accompanied by a guide. The guide proposes that if Gawain leaves now without facing the knight, the guide promises not to tell anyone. No one survives an encounter with the Green Knight. Gawain refuses to be a coward. The guide wishes Gawain well and leaves. Part 4 Gawain heads onward into the strange forest. When he finds and approaches the Green Chapel the Green Knight welcomes Gawain and compliments him on his punctuality. The Green Knight tells him he will repay him for his own beheading a year ago. Gawain tries to act unafraid as he bares his neck for the deadly blow. Part 4 The first swing, Gawain flinches and the Green Knight belittles him for it. The Green Knight swings to behead Gawain, but holds back twice, only striking softly on the third swing, causing a small scar on his neck. The nick from the third blow was punishment for Gawain’s behavior on the third day, when he failed to tell the truth about the green girdle. Part 4 The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak. He explains that the entire adventure was a mere game arranged through the magical manipulations of Morgan le Fay, who is the old woman in the castle, Arthur's mischievous sister and Gawain’s aunt. She sometimes helps and sometimes makes trouble for Arthur. Part 4 Bertilak reveals that Le Faye sent him in disguise as the Green Knight to Camelot in order to scare Queen Guinevere to death. The Green Knight congratulates Gawain on his bravery, calling him the worthiest of Arthur’s knights. Part 4 Gawain returns to Camelot, wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak and to fully follow the rules of the game. The Knights of the Round Table, it is decreed, should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.