The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight starts at a New Years Eve Feast at King Arthur’s court. The lavish feast is interrupted when the Green Knight arrives and issues challenge to King Arthur and any member of his Court to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year to receive a blow in return. When no one, including Arthur takes him up on this so he mocks them. In response to his taunts, King Arthur steps up and starts to take the axe. Sir Gawain jumps in. just before King Arthur can touch the axe; he takes the axe and cuts off the Green Knight’s head. Instead of falling dead to the floor; the Green Knight just picks up his head, reminds them of the terms of the challenge, and tells Gawain to meet him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. Then the Green Knight rides away
Everyone goes back to feasting but Gawain is, quite understandably not comfortable with what happened. Time passes and that fall Gawain goes to look for the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor, riding his favorite horse, Gringolet heads for North Wales, the Green Chapel and his rendezvous with the Green Knight. Along the way, Sir Gawain finds adventures and ends up hungry, cold and desperate. On Christmas Day he plays for a place to hear Mass. Then he looks up to see a distant shimmering castle. When he gets there, the Lord of the castle introduces Gawain to his Lady and an old woman. Gawain makes a new deal with the Lord; each day while Gawain is there the Lord will go hunting while Gawain stays at the castle. At night, they will exchange what they got during the day. On the first day Lady kisses Gawain once while Lord hunts does. He comes back with venison; when he gets home Gawain kisses Him once gets some venison. On the next day, Gawain gets two kisses, and Lord gets a wild boar. When Gawain kisses Lord twice, he gets the boar’s heart. The third day Gawain gets three kisses and the Ladies green girdle as a love token. The Girdle is a long embroidered scarf like garment worn around the waist. This one is magical and is supposed to protect the wearer from death. The Lord gets a fox. When the Lord returns to the Castle Gawain kisses the Lord three times but does not tell him about the girdle. In return, Gawain gets the fox skin. After this exchange, everybody is happy but worried because Gawain has to leave the next day to find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.
The next day Gawain puts on his armor, mounts Gringolet and sets out with a guide to find the Green Knight. Before he leaves, Gawain the guide promises not to tell if Gawain backs out but Gawain says no. Gawain finds the Chapel through tall grass in a crevice in a rock. As he approaches, he hears the Green Knight sharpening his axe. The Green Knight comes out and Gawain presents his bared neck. The Green Knight swings three times but pulls back completely the first two times and just nicks him the third time. Gawain gets mad and yells that he met their contract but the Green Knight just laughs at him. Then it turns out the Green Knight is Lord Bertilak, Lord of the Castle where Sir Gawain stayed. Turns out Lord Bertilak nicked him the third time because Gawain did not tell him about the girdle. Then he tells Sir Gawain that the old woman is Morgan le Fay. She is King Arthur’s half sister and Gawain’s Aunt. Morgan le Faye was behind the whole thing and even changed what Lord Bertilak looked like when he was acting the part of the Green Knight. Even though Lord Bertilak forgave him, Gawain feels guilty because he did not tell about the girdle so he ties it around his arm to remind himself of what he did wrong. When he goes back to King Arthur’s court and all the other knights put girdles on their arms to support Gawain. , , , , .
Well-defined codes of behavior governed Sir Gawain’s world. The pentagram on Sir Gawain’s shield symbolizes the five virtues of knighthood, chastity, courtesy, generosity, piety and friendship. The Green Knight as well as Sir Gawain is tested in these virtues throughout the story. At the very start of the poem, the Green Knight was not very courteous when he mocked King Arthur and his Court for not accepting his challenge, but as a knight, he too was bound to uphold these same virtues, and failed his duty to do so. As Lord Bertilak, he extends the courtesy of inviting Sir Gawain into his castle to join in the Christmas feast. Towards the end Lord Bertilak, in his persona as the Green Knight displays the virtue of generosity by sparing Sir Gawain’s life and just nicking him because he was not totally honest with him about the girdle.
The game the Green Knight plays with King Arthur and his Court probably has origins in the pre-Christian agrarian cycles of planting, harvesting and the fallow winter season. Similar death and beheading themes appear in both ancient myths and legends as well in comparatively modern tales such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, first published by Washington Irving in 1820. .
Honesty, loyalty and chastity are among the virtues expected of a Knight, and especially a member of the Knights of the Round Table. Unfortunately, honor and duty are not always clear black and white issues, there are sometimes gray areas where the conflict. The general story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight displays and tests Sir Gawain in all three of these. He swore vows of chastity to his God that he was bound in reverence to uphold. He has a duty to Lord Bertilak to be honest about what he received during the day while the Lord was out hunting. Never the less, his loyalty was torn between his duty to honesty in regards to Lord Bertilak and his duty not to betray any Lady’s confidence. It was the compromise he made by sharing the kisses but not disclosing the gift of the green girdle that resulted in the bloody nick Lord Bertilak gave him on the third swing. . , , , , .
This story ends with a lesson about friendship and camaraderie when all the other knights tie identical green slashes around their arms. . , , , , . This tradition continues to this day in the form of wearing a pink ribbon to support breast cancer survivors and encourage further research into a cure, and rainbow colored ribbons to support Gay Rights.
Like many tales from that era, it is implicitly didactic, and the entertainment value serves as a teaching tool to give its readers lessons about life and behavior. Story lessons like these have long been popular since the days of Aesop because people remember the amusing story and spread the story as well as the deeper lesson. The lessons here deal with the values of chivalry, their importance, and how hard it is to follow a code of honor; especially, when two of the tenants come into direct conflict.
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