Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one the great Arthurian romances, an epic poem in which the noble Sir Gawain plays the ‘beheading game’ with a mystery knight – setting him on course for a grand quest in which his virtues are sorely tested.
We don’t know precisely who first told the story. What we do know, says Ad Putter, professor of medieval English literature at the University of Bristol, is that it is “an English story from about 1380, written by a poet from Cheshire”.
“As he waits for an adventure to arrive, a green knight comes riding in,” says Putter, who was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast. “This is not just a green knight because he’s got green armour on; this man’s green all over. And he is of a huge size.
“The Green Knight offers a challenge to King Arthur’s court of a very unusual kind. He says that anyone of them could chop his head off, on condition that in a year’s time that person comes to his place and then I’ll chop his head off.”
In the tale, it is Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, who takes on the challenge. He swings his blade and cleaves the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders – only to witness his verdant foe stride forward to pick up his own severed head, and for said head to talk, reiterating the terms of their agreement.
Almost a year later, Gawain departs Camelot to seek out the knight in his ‘green chapel’ – even though he has no idea where it is.
The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins in Camelot, the legendary court and castle of King Arthur, and a peerless seat of chivalry. If it did exist, where might it have been built?
Gawain’s trials and tribulations
A directionless Gawain ends up seeking refuge from the chill of winter in an unnamed castle, where his host offers him another contest: the host goes hunting three times, on each occasion promising to give Gawain whatever he wins in the woods; Gawain in turn must spend three days in the company of the host’s wife, and likewise must give the host whatever he gains.
For Gawain, what follows are three days of trials and temptation, as he resists the wife’s increasingly explicit advances while adhering to the tenets of both chivalry and courtly love.
On the first two days, Gawain earns a kiss, which he gamely confers on the lord each night. The third day, his prize is more substantive: the wife’s green girdle, which she presciently mentions will protect the wearer from being struck. Gawain, under the impression he is otherwise facing certain death, keeps this token for himself, imparting on the host three kisses in its stead.
When Gawain arrives at the green chapel, the Green Knight is revealed to be none other than the lord of the castle. The knight, who later names himself Sir Bertilak, swings his axe three times. Two are disguised as feints, acknowledging the days where Gawain upheld his side of the pact. With the third, the Green Knight nicks Gawain’s neck on account of his keeping of the girdle, leaving a scar that will forever remind him of when his virtue had faltered.
Why is the tale significant?
“One of the fascinating things about the beheading challenge is that it’s very different from challenges of other sorts,” says Putter.
“It’s not a challenge of brute strength, but of submitting to something passively – you have to sit there and be brave and wait for someone else to have to have a go at your head.
“It’s a contest of a very different sort from the usual chivalric, martial challenges.”
Though Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beloved tale now, this wasn’t always the case.
“It’s a hugely popular story with modern audiences, but it wasn’t popular at the time,” says Putter. “I’m very pleased to see that we will soon have a new film called The Green Knight on this subject. I hope it follows the story very faithfully, but I doubt it. The story will always be better than any modern film based on it.”
The fabled lord of Camelot may be a figure of folklore, but there are elements of truth to his legend. Archaeologist and historian Miles Russell says that King Arthur is a composite of five Dark Age characters…
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: five quick questions answered
Who is Sir Gawain and is he related to King Arthur?
A Knight of the Round Table famed for his virtue and, according to Arthurian legend, King Arthur’s nephew.
Who is the Green Knight?
The green giant isn’t a monster at all, but a man. He is Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of a castle in which Gawain seeks refuge before reaching the green chapel.
Why is the Green Knight green?
Magic. Sir Bertilak was transformed into the Green Knight by the sorceress Morgan le Fay in order to scare Guinevere to death.
Who is the old woman in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
The crone who accompanies the host’s wife in the tale is the sorceress Morgan le Fay. She often serves as an antagonist to Arthur and his court in Arthurian legend, and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is said to have learned magic from Merlin.
What role does King Arthur play in the tale?
Very little: he only appears at the start of the poem, taking up the Green Knight’s challenge before Gawain steps up to claim the honour for himself, and at the end, when Gawain returns.
Professor Ad Putter was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast about Arthurian legends, alongside Professor Ronald Hutton, as part of our ‘Everything You Wanted To Know’ podcast series. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts
The Green Knight is an upcoming film based on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Its release date is yet to be confirmed owing to the coronavirus pandemic
Kev Lochun is production editor of BBC History Revealed