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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In the days of King Arthur, while he and his knights are celebrating the New Year, a green knight brings a challenge to the Round Table. One of the knights must chop off the Green Knight's head with his own ax, only to have the challenge returned the following year to the day. This is a tale of Camelot. Find out what happens in this analysis of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'

Why Is It Important?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight not only presents a fascinating, adventurous tale, it presents a test of Sir Gawain's moral character and of the Knight's Code of Chivalry. In the Song of Roland, composed between 1098 and 1100, this code contains strict guidelines that all true knights must follow. It includes such rules as helping widows and orphans, obeying authority, fearing God, protecting the weak, and respecting women. While readers want to see Sir Gawain follow the code perfectly, we find that he is only human, after all.

Characters

The protagonist of the story is definitely Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, and renowned knight. The antagonist, the Green Knight, otherwise known as Bertilak of Hautdesert, works under the magical guidance of none other than the enchantress, Morgan Le Fay. Finally, Bertilak's own wife, the seducer, plays a small role.

Summary

Imagine sitting around a huge, round, stone table with your closest friends. A fire is blazing, and the holidays are in full swing. Suddenly, an uninvited guest appears; oddly enough, he is green. Clearly, some magic is afoot. Then, after interrupting the celebration, the Green Knight proposes a challenge. Is there anyone brave enough to take the knight's ax and serve him a blow on the neck in return for a blow from the Green Knight's ax in exactly one year?

Understandably, the knights are caught off guard. Even King Arthur is not sure whether or not he should accept, but after the Green Knight mocks him, he agrees. No one can dare call King Arthur a coward. However, Sir Gawain, a heroic knight and Arthur's nephew, rises to the challenge. Grabbing the Green Knight's ax, he boldly severs the knight's head, and, unbelievably, the knight picks up his head off the floor and rides off, after instructing Sir Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in exactly one year. Sir Gawain is sure he has sealed his own doom.

Some months later, Sir Gawain leaves Camelot to find the Green Knight and his own death, no doubt. People mourn as he leaves, for he is known for his deeds of valor and chivalry.

Gawain Strikes a Bargain

Sir Gawain journeys until he reaches a castle owned by Bertilak of Hautdesert and his stunningly gorgeous wife, who is accompanied by an old servant woman. Bertilak proves to be an excellent host, following courtly rules of hospitality. He is a mighty hunter, as well, and makes a bargain with Sir Gawain. Every evening when he returns, he must give Sir Gawain what he has gained that day, and Sir Gawain must do the same. This odd proposal must have puzzled Sir Gawain, yet as a good guest, he agrees.

On the first day, the great hunter, Bertilak, kills a few does and later shares the venison with Sir Gawain. While Bertilak is away, Sir Gawain is tested by the inappropriate advances of Bertilak's wife, who manages to give Sir Gawain one kiss.

Thus, Bertilak, in keeping with his proposal, shares the venison, and Sir Gawain kisses him, or returns the kiss. The bargain is kept.

Sir Gawain's chivalry is sorely tested, as Bertilak's wife tries to seduce him, once again, the next day as Bertilak is hunting wild boar. That evening, a delicious boar meal is exchanged for the two kisses Sir Gawain receives from Bertilak's wife that day.

Finally, the third day of testing arrives. Bertilak hunts fox, while Sir Gawain turns Bertilak's advances away, yet once more. She kisses him three times, and convinces him to accept a green belt, or girdle, promising that it will protect his life, and as Sir Gawain is well aware that he must confront the Green Knight, he hides the belt from Bertilak. That night, Bertilak gives Sir Gawain a fox skin, but Sir Gawain only returns the three kisses, not the belt.

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