The poem survives in a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., that also includes three religious pieces, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. These works are thought to have been written by the same unknown author, dubbed the "Pearl Poet" or "Gawain poet." All four narrative poems are written in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English. The story thus emerges from the Welsh and English traditions of the dialect area, borrowing from earlier "beheading game" stories and highlighting the importance of honour and chivalry in the face of danger.
In addition to its complex plot and rich language, the poem's chief interest for literary critics is its sophisticated use of medieval symbolism. Everything from the Green Knight, to the beheading game, to the girdle given to Gawain as protection from the axe, is richly symbolic and steeped in Celtic, Germanic, and other folklore and cultural traditions. The Green Knight, for example, is interpreted by some as a representation of the Green Man of Celtic legend and by others as an allusion to Christ.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his ability. The ambiguity of the poem's ending, however, makes it more complex than most. Christian readings of the poem argue for an apocalyptic interpretation, drawing parallels between Gawain and Lady Bertilak and the story of Adam and Eve. Feminist interpretations disagree at the most basic level, some arguing that women are in total control from beginning to end, while others argue that their control is only an illusion. Cultural critics have argued that the poem is best read as an expression of tensions between the Welsh and English present at the time in the poet's dialect region. The poem remains popular to this day, through translations from renowned authors like J. R. R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage, as well as through recent film and stage adaptations.
The story begins in Camelot on New Year's Day as King Arthur's court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and 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. Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur's knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge. He severs the giant's head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year's Day the next year) and rides away.
As the date approaches Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight. His long journey leads him to a beautiful castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife; both are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Gawain tells them of his New Year's appointment at the Green Chapel and says that he must continue his search as he only has a few days remaining. Bertilak laughs and explains that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and proposes that Gawain stay at the castle.
Before going hunting the next day, Bertilak proposes a bargain to Gawain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, the lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits Gawain's bedroom to seduce him. Despite her best efforts, however, he yields nothing but a single kiss. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest responds by returning the lady's kiss to Bertilak, without divulging its source. The next day, the lady comes again, Gawain dodges her advances, and there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, and Gawain accepts from her a green silk girdle, which the lady promises will keep him from all physical harm. They exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses. Gawain keeps the girdle, however.
The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle. He finds the Green Knight at the chapel sharpening an axe, and, as arranged, bends over to receive his blow. 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 Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, and explains that the entire game was arranged by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's enemy. Gawain is at first ashamed and upset, but the two men part on cordial terms and Gawain returns to Camelot, wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak. Arthur decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.
What is known today about the poet is largely general, as J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, after reviewing the text's allusions, style, and themes, concluded in 1925:
The most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire. He is known to have lived in the dialect region of the Pearl Poet and is thought to have written the poem, St. Erkenwald, which some scholars argue bears stylistic similarities to Gawain. St. Erkenwald, however, has been dated by some scholars to a time outside the Gawain poet's era. Thus, ascribing authorship to John Massey is still controversial and most critics consider the Gawain poet an unknown.
for wonder of his hwe men hade
set in his semblaunt sene
he ferde as freke were fade
and oueral enker grene (SGGK lines 146-150)
Great wonder of the knight
Folk had in hall, I ween,
Full fierce he was to sight,
And over all bright green. (SGGK lines 146-150)
The earliest known story to feature a beheading game is the 8th century Middle Irish tale Bricriu's Feast. This story parallels Gawain in that, like the Green Knight, Cúchulainn's antagonist feints three blows with the axe before letting his target depart without injury. A beheading exchange also appears in the late 12th century Life of Caradoc, a Middle French narrative embedded in the anonymous First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail. A notable difference in this story is that Caradoc's challenger is his father in disguise, come to test his honour. Lancelot is given a beheading challenge in the early 13th century Perlesvaus, in which a knight begs him to chop off his head or else put his own in jeopardy. Lancelot reluctantly cuts it off, agreeing to come to the same place in a year to put his head in the same danger. When Lancelot arrives, the people of the town celebrate and announce that they have finally found a true knight. Many others had been tested and failed this test of chivalry.
The stories The Girl with the Mule (alternately titled The Mule Without a Bridle) and Hunbaut feature Gawain in beheading game situations. In Hunbaut Gawain cuts off a man's head and, before he can replace it, removes the magic cloak keeping the man alive, thus killing him. Several stories tell of knights who struggle to stave off the advances of voluptuous women sent by their lords as a test; these stories include Yder, the Lancelot-Grail, Hunbaut, and The Knight of the Sword. The last two involve Gawain specifically. Usually the temptress is the daughter or wife of a lord to whom the knight owes respect, and the knight is tested to see whether or not he will remain chaste in trying circumstances.
In the first branch of the medieval Welsh collection of tales known as the Mabinogion, Pwyll exchanges places for a year with Arawn the lord of Annwn (the Otherworld). Despite having his appearance changed to resemble Arawn exactly, Pwyll does not have sexual relations with Arawn's wife during this time, thus establishing a lasting friendship between the two men. The story may, then, provide a background for the seduction test when Gawain attempts to resist to the wife of the Green Knight; thus, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may be seen as a tale which combines elements of the Celtic beheading game with a Celtic version of a seduction test, as Arawn is pleased to find that Pwyll has not slept with Arawn's wife. Some scholars disagree with this interpretation, however, as Arawn seems to have accepted the notion that Pwyll may reciprocate with his wife, making it less of a "seduction test" per se as seduction tests typically involve a Lord and Lady conspiring to seduce a knight, seemingly against the wishes of the Lord. Additionally, in both stories a year passes before the completion of the conclusion of the challenge or exchange is complete.
After the writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, several similar stories followed. The Greene Knight (15th-17th century) is a rhymed retelling of nearly the same tale. In it, the plot is simplified, motives are more fully explained, and some names are changed. Another story, The Turke and Gowin (15th century) begins with a Turk entering Arthur's court and asking, "Is there any will, as a brother, To give a buffett and take another?" At the end of this poem, the Turk, rather than buffeting Gawain back, asks the knight to cut off his head, which Gawain does. The Turk then praises Gawain and showers him with gifts. The Carle off Carlile (17th century) also resembles Gawain in a scene in which the Carl, a lord, orders Gawain to cut off his head in exchange for allowing his own to be cut off. Gawain obliges and strikes, but the Carl rises, laughing and unharmed. Unlike the Gawain poem, no return blow is demanded or given.
The heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain's adherence to the code of chivalry. The typical temptation fable of medieval literature presents a series of tribulations assembled as tests or "proofs" of moral virtue. The stories often describe several individuals' failures after which the main character is tested. Success in the proofs will often bring immunity or good fortune. Gawain's ability to pass the tests of his host are of utmost importance to his survival, though he does not know it. It is only by fortuity or “instinctive-courtesy” that Sir Gawain is able to pass his test.
In addition to the laws of chivalry, Gawain must respect another set of laws concerning courtly love. The knight’s code of honour requires him to do whatever a damsel asks. Gawain must accept the girdle from the Lady, but he must also keep the promise he has made to his host that he will give whatever he gains that day. Gawain chooses to keep the girdle out of fear of death, thus breaking his promise to the host but honouring the lady. Upon learning that the Green Knight is actually his host, he realises that although he has completed his quest, he has failed to be virtuous. This test demonstrates the conflict between honour and knightly duties. In breaking his promise, Gawain believes he has lost his honour and failed in his duties.
The deer- and boar-hunting scenes are less clearly connected, although scholars have attempted to link each animal to Gawain's reactions in the parallel seduction scene. Attempts to connect the deer hunt with the first seduction scene have unearthed a few parallels. Deer hunts of the time, like courtship, had to be done according to established rules. Women often favoured suitors who hunted well and skinned their animals, sometimes even watching while a deer was cleaned. The sequence describing the deer hunt is relatively unspecific and nonviolent, with an air of relaxation and exhilaration. The first seduction scene follows in a similar vein, with no overt physical advances and no apparent danger; the entire exchange is humorously portrayed.
The boar-hunting scene is, in contrast, laden with detail. Boars at the time were much more difficult to hunt than deer; approaching one with only a sword was akin to challenging a knight to single combat. In the hunting sequence, the boar flees but is cornered before a ravine. He turns to face Bertilak with his back to the ravine, prepared to fight. Bertilak dismounts and in the ensuing fight kills the boar. He removes its head and displays it on a pike. In the seduction scene, Bertilak's wife, like the boar, is more forward, insisting that Gawain has a romantic reputation and that he must not disappoint her. Gawain, however, is successful in parrying her attacks, saying that surely she knows more than he about love. Both the boar hunt and the seduction scene can be seen as depictions of a moral victory: both Gawain and Bertilak face struggles alone and emerge triumphant.
Given the varied and even contradictory interpretations of the colour green, its precise meaning in the poem remains ambiguous. In English folklore and literature, green was traditionally used to symbolise nature and its associated attributes: fertility and rebirth. Stories of the medieval period also used it to allude to love and the base desires of man. Because of its connection with faeries and spirits in early English folklore, green also signified witchcraft, devilry and evil. It can also represent decay and toxicity. When combined with gold, as with the Green Knight and the girdle, green was often seen as representing youth's passing. In Celtic mythology, green was associated with misfortune and death, and therefore avoided in clothing. The green girdle, originally worn for protection, became a symbol of shame and cowardice; it is finally adopted as a symbol of honour by the knights of Camelot, signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; this displays both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the colour green.
The pentangle on Gawain's shield is seen by many critics as signifying Gawain's perfection and power over evil. The poem contains the only representation of such a symbol on Gawain's shield in the Gawain literature. What is more, the poet uses a total of 46 lines to describe the meaning of the pentangle. No other symbol in the poem receives as much attention or is described in such detail. The poem describes the pentangle as a symbol of faithfulness and an "endless knot". In line 625, it is described as "a sign by Solomon". Solomon, the third king of Israel, in 10th century B.C. was said to have the mark of the pentagram on his ring, which he received from the archangel Michael. The pentagram seal on this ring was said to give Solomon power over demons.
Along these lines, some academics link the Gawain pentangle to magical traditions. In Germany, the symbol was called a Drudenfuß and was placed on household objects to keep out evil. The symbol was also associated with magical charms which, if recited or written on a weapon, would call forth magical forces. However, concrete evidence tying the magical pentagram to Gawain's pentangle is scarce.
Gawain’s pentangle also symbolises the “phenomenon of physically endless objects signifying a temporally endless quality.” Many poets use the symbol of the circle to show infinity or endlessness, but Gawain’s poet insisted on using something more complex. In medieval number theory, the number five is considered a “circular number”, since it “reproduces itself in its last digit when raised to its powers”. Furthermore, it replicates itself geometrically; that is, every pentangle has a smaller pentagon that allows a pentangle to be embedded in it and this “process may be repeated forever with decreasing pentangles”. Thus, by reproducing the number five, which in medieval number symbolism signified incorruptibility, Gawain's pentangle represents his eternal incorruptibility.
The number five is also found in the structure of the poem itself. Sir Gawain is 101 stanzas long, traditionally organised into four books of 21, 24, 34, and 22 stanzas. These divisions, however, have since been disputed; scholars have begun to believe that they are the work of the copyist and not of the poet. The original manuscript features a series of capital letters added after the fact by another scribe, and some scholars argue that these additions were an attempt to restore the original divisions. These letters divide the manuscript into nine parts. The first and last parts are 22 stanzas long. The second and second-to-last parts are only one stanza long, and the middle five parts are eleven stanzas long. The number eleven is associated with transgression in other medieval literature (being one more than ten, a number associated with the Ten Commandments). Thus, this set of five elevens (55 stanzas) creates the perfect mix of transgression and incorruption, suggesting that Gawain is faultless in his faults.
Many critics argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should be viewed, above all, as a romance. Medieval romances typically recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who abides by chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, embarks upon a quest and defeats monsters, thereby winning the favour of a lady. Thus, medieval romances focus not on love and sentiment (as the term "romance" implies today), but on adventure.
Gawain's function, as medieval scholar Alan Markman says, "is the function of the romance hero … to stand as the champion of the human race, and by submitting to strange and severe tests, to demonstrate human capabilities for good or bad action." Through Gawain's adventure, it becomes clear that he is merely human. The reader becomes attached to this human view in the midst of the poem’s romanticism, relating to Gawain’s humanity while respecting his knightly qualities. Gawain "shows us what moral conduct is. We shall probably not equal his behaviour, but we admire him for pointing out the way."
In viewing the poem as a chivalric romance, many scholars see it as intertwining chivalric and courtly love laws under the English Order of the Garter. The group's motto, 'honi soit qui mal y pense', or "Shamed be he who finds evil here," is written at the end of the poem. Some critics describe Gawain's peers wearing girdles of their own as evidence of the origin of the Order of the Garter. However, in the parallel poem, The Greene Knight, the lace is white, not green, and is considered the origin of the collar worn by the knights of the Bath, not the Order of the Garter. The motto on the poem was probably written by a copyist and not by the original author. Still, the connection made by the copyist to the Order is not extraordinary.
The poem is in many ways deeply Christian, with frequent references to the fall of Adam and Eve and to Jesus Christ. Scholars have debated the depth of the Christian elements within the poem by looking at it in the context of the age in which it was written, coming up with varying views as to what represents a Christian element of the poem and what does not. For example, some critics compare Sir Gawain to the other three poems of the Gawain manuscript. Each has a heavily Christian theme, causing scholars to interpret Gawain similarly. Comparing it to the poem Cleanliness (also known as Purity), for example, they see it as a story of the apocalyptic fall of a civilisation, in Gawain's case, Camelot. In this interpretation, Sir Gawain is like Noah, separated from his society and warned by the Green Knight (who is seen as God's representative) of the coming doom of Camelot. Gawain, judged worthy through his test, is spared the doom of the rest of Camelot. King Arthur and his knights, however, misunderstand Gawain's experience and wear garters themselves. In Cleanliness the men who are saved are similarly helpless in warning their society of impending destruction.
One of the key points stressed in this interpretation is that salvation is an individual experience difficult to communicate to outsiders. In his depiction of Camelot, the poet reveals a concern for his society, whose inevitable fall will bring about the ultimate destruction intended by God. Gawain was written around the time of the Black Death and Peasants' Revolt, events which convinced many people that their world was coming to an apocalyptic end and this belief was reflected in literature and culture. However, other critics see weaknesses in this view, since the Green Knight is ultimately under the control of Morgan le Fay, usually viewed as a figure of evil in Camelot tales. This makes the knight's presence as a representative of God problematic.
While the character of the Green Knight is usually not viewed as a representation of Christ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, critics do acknowledge a parallel. Lawrence Besserman, a specialist in medieval literature, explains that "the Green Knight is not a figurative representative of Christ. But the idea of Christ's divine/human nature provides a medieval conceptual framework that supports the poet's serious/comic account of the Green Knight's supernatural/human qualities and actions". This duality exemplifies the influence and importance of Christian teachings and views of Christ in the era of the Gawain Poet.
Furthermore, critics note the Christian reference to Christ's crown of thorns at the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After Gawain returns to Camelot and tells his story regarding the newly acquired green sash, the poem concludes with a brief prayer and a reference to "the thorn-crowned God". Besserman theorises that "with these final words the poet redirects our attention from the circular girdle-turned-sash (a double image of Gawain's "yntrawpe/renoun") to the circular Crown of Thorns (a double image of Christ's humiliation turned triumph)."
Throughout the poem, Gawain encounters numerous trials testing his devotion and faith in Christianity. When Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel, he finds himself lost, and only after praying to the Virgin Mary does he find his way. As he continues his journey, Gawain once again faces anguish regarding his inevitable encounter with the Green Knight. Instead of praying to Mary, as before, Gawain places his faith in the girdle given to him by Bertilak’s wife. From the Christian perspective, this leads to disastrous and embarrassing consequences for Gawain as he is forced to reevaluate his faith when the Green Knight points out his betrayal.
An analogy is also made between Gawain’s trial and the Biblical test that Adam encounters in the Garden of Eden. Adam succumbs to Eve just as Gawain surrenders to Bertilak’s wife by accepting the girdle. Although Gawain sins by putting his faith in the girdle and not confessing when he is caught, the Green Knight pardons him, thereby allowing him to become a better Christian by learning from his mistakes. Through the various games played and hardships endured, Gawain finds his place within the Christian world.
Feminist literary critics see the poem as portraying women's ultimate power over men. Morgan le Fay and Bertilak's wife, for example, are the most powerful characters in the poem—Morgan especially, as she begins the game by enchanting the Green Knight. The girdle and Gawain's scar can be seen as symbols of feminine power, each of them diminishing Gawain's masculinity. Gawain's misogynist passage, in which he blames all of his troubles on women and lists the many men who have fallen prey to women's wiles, further supports the feminist view of ultimate female power in the poem.
In contrast, others argue that the poem focuses mostly on the opinions, actions, and abilities of men. For example, on the surface, it appears that Bertilak’s wife is a strong leading character. By adopting the masculine role, she appears to be an empowered individual, particularly in the bedroom scene. This is not entirely the case, however. While the Lady is being forward and outgoing, Gawain’s feelings and emotions are the focus of the story, and Gawain stands to gain or lose the most. The Lady "makes the first move", so to speak, but Gawain ultimately decides what is to become of those actions. He, therefore, is in charge of the situation and even the relationship.
In the bedroom scene, both the negative and positive actions of the Lady are motivated by her desire. Her feelings cause her to step out of the typical female role and into that of the male, thus becoming more empowered. At the same time, those same actions make the Lady appear adulterous; some scholars compare her with Eve in the Bible. By forcing Gawain to take her girdle, i.e. the apple, the pact made with Bertilak—and therefore the Green Knight—is broken. In this sense, it is clear that at the hands of the Lady, Gawain is a "good man seduced".
A large amount of critical debate also surrounds the poem as it relates to the bi-cultural political landscape of the time. Some argue that Bertilak is an example of the hybrid Anglo-Welsh culture found on the Welsh-English border. They therefore view the poem as a reflection of a hybrid culture that plays strong cultures off one another to create a new set of cultural rules and traditions. Other scholars, however, argue that historically much Welsh blood was shed well into the 14th century, creating a situation far removed from the more friendly hybridisation suggested by Ingham. To further support this argument, it is suggested that the poem creates an "us versus them" scenario contrasting the knowledgeable civilised English with the uncivilised borderlands that are home to Bertilak and the other monsters that Gawain encounters.
In contrast to this perception of the colonial lands, others argue that the land of Hautdesert, Bertilak’s territory, has been misrepresented or ignored in modern criticism. They suggest that it is a land with its own moral agency, one that plays a central role in the story. Bonnie Lander, for example, argues that the denizens of Hautdesert are "intelligently immoral," choosing to follow certain codes and rejecting others, a position which creates a "distinction … of moral insight versus moral faith." Lander thinks that the border dwellers are more sophisticated because they do not unthinkingly embrace the chivalric codes but challenge them in a philosophical, and—in the case of Bertilak's appearance at Arthur’s court—literal sense. Lander’s argument about the superiority of the denizens of Hautdesert hinges on the lack of self-awareness present in Camelot, which leads to an unthinking populace that frowns on individualism. In this view, it is not Bertilak and his people, but Arthur and his court, who are the monsters.
The poem may have been a response to accusations that Richard II had a male lover—an attempt to reestablish the idea that heterosexuality was the Christian norm. Around the time the poem was written, the Catholic Church was beginning to express concerns about kissing between males. Many religious figures were trying to make the distinction between strong trust and friendship between males and homosexuality. Still, the Pearl Poet seems to have been simultaneously entranced and repulsed by homosexual desire. In his other poem, Cleanness, he points out several grievous sins, but spends lengthy passages describing them in minute detail. His obsession seems to carry into Gawain in his descriptions of the Green Knight.
Beyond this, Gawain can be read as a woman-like figure. He is the passive one in the advances of Lady Bertilak, as well as in his encounters with Lord Bertilak, where he acts the part of a woman in kissing the man. However, while the poem does have homosexual elements, these elements are brought up by the poet in order to establish heterosexuality as the normal lifestyle of Gawain's world. The poem does this by making the kisses between Lady Bertilak and Gawain sexual in nature, but rendering the kisses between Gawain and Lord Bertilak "unintelligible" to the medieval reader. In other words, the poet portrays kisses between a man and a woman as having the possibility of leading to sex, while in a heterosexual world, kisses between a man and a man are portrayed as having no such possibility.
In 1925, J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published a scholarly edition of the Middle English text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; a second edition of this text was prepared by Norman Davis and published in 1967. The book, featuring a text in Middle English with extensive scholarly notes, is frequently confused with the translation into Modern English that Tolkien prepared, along with translations of Pearl and Sir Orfeo, late in his life. Many editions of the latter work, first published in 1975, shortly after his death, list Tolkien on the cover as author rather than translator. It is therefore common to see Sir Gawain erroneously ascribed to Tolkien as the original author. More recently in 2007, Simon Armitage, like Tolkien a native of the Gawain poet's dialect region, has translated a version which has attracted media attention in the US and the United Kingdom.