Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

General Information

(N)IMEV: 3144
Form: Alliterative lines with rhyming bob and wheel
Date of Composition: Late fourteenth century
Place of Composition: Northwest Midlands
Keywords: Animal, Bedchamber, Disguise, Ekphrasis, Forest, Friendship, Heraldry, Hunting, Marriage, Monster, Penance, Pilgrimage, Quest, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Sacrament, Secular Spaces, Sexual Encounters, Supernatural, Tokens of Recognition, Treachery

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

During a New Year’s feast at Camelot, a strange knight enters Arthur’s hall. Completely green, and carrying a holly branch and an axe, he issues a festive challenge: a knight must strike him with the axe and then, in a year and a day, accept the return blow. The knights are dumbfounded and Arthur himself seizes the axe until Gawain steps forward. He decapitates the knight, who promptly picks up his head and rides out of the hall, instructing Gawain to seek him at the Green Chapel.

The seasons pass. After All Saints’ Day, Gawain sets out, the pentangle on his shield symbolising courtesy, purity and truth. As winter sets in, he searches for the chapel throughout the desolate landscape until, on Christmas Eve, he reaches a splendid castle. Gawain is warmly welcomed by its lord and dines before attending mass, where he meets his host’s beautiful wife. After three days’ feasting, Gawain learns that the Green Chapel is close and agrees to stay until New Year. To pass the time, his host suggests a game: Gawain will rest while he goes hunting, and in the evening they will exchange what they have won.

The next day the lord hunts deer and Gawain dozes until his host’s wife climbs onto his bed. He courteously fends off her suggestive comments, but accepts a single kiss. Having butchered their kill, the huntsmen present it to Gawain. The knight kisses his host in return and they spend the evening feasting. The following day, the lord pursues a boar as his wife joins Gawain. He politely rebuffs her more explicit advances, but she kisses him twice: that evening, he exchanges two kisses for the butchered beast. On the third day, as her husband hunts a fox, the lady tests Gawain to the utmost, kissing him three times. He politely refuses her ring, but when she offers him her girdle - which she claims has protective powers - he thinks of the Green Knight and accepts. He spends the day confessing in the chapel and that evening exchanges three kisses for a fox-fur, concealing the girdle.

On the appointed day Gawain ties the girdle around his waist and makes his way to the chapel, refusing his guide’s pleas to abandon his quest. Approaching the sinister barrow alone, he hears the Green Knight sharpening his axe. Gawain kneels and the Knight swings the blade, halting when Gawain flinches. His second blow is also a feint, but the third grazes Gawain’s neck, drawing blood. As Gawain draws his sword, the Knight cheerfully identifies himself as Gawain’s host and explains that the first two strokes represent his honesty about the kisses, the third reflects his minor fault in concealing the girdle. Despite the Knight’s reassurance, Gawain is distraught about failing to sustain his knightly code. Cursing his frailty and women, he declines to return to the castle, but vows to wear the girdle as a sign of his weakness. Before he departs, the Green Knight gives his name, Sir Bercilak of Hautdesert, and explains that the episode was engineered by Morgan le Fey. Gawain returns to Camelot, where, despite his protestations, his success is celebrated and his fellow knights adopt the girdle as a symbol of honour.

From: J.J. Anderson, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience. London: J.M. Dent, 1996.
Manuscript: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x


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London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (folio: 91r-124v)Late fourteenth century, North-West Midlands. Unique copy. 2530 lines.

Modern Editions

Ann S. Haskell, ed., A Middle English Anthology (Garden City: Anchor, 1969)Pp. 1-139. Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Boris Ford, ed., The Age of Chaucer, The Pelican Guide to English Literature I (Baltimore: Penguin, 1955)Pp. 349-428. Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Charles W. Dunn and Edward T. Byrnes, eds., Middle English Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973)Pp. 376-459. Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Frederic Madden, ed., Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance-Poems by Scottish and English Authors Relating to That Celebrated Knight of the Round Table (London: Bannatyne Club, 1839)Pp. 3-92. Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
J.A. Burrow, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Harmondsworth, 1972)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
J.J. Anderson, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: J.M. Dent, 1996)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, eds., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Oxford, 1927; rev. 1967)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Kenneth Sisam, ed., Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921; rpt. with corrections, 1975)Pp. 46-56. Selections only. Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, eds., The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1987)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
R. Morris, ed., Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, EETS o.s. 4 (London, rev. Sir Israel Gollancz 1897 and 1912)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
R.A. Waldron, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London, 1970)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.
Theodore Silverstein, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Chicago and London, 1984)Edited from Cotton Nero A.x.