The poem begins on New Year’s Eve in Camelot during a huge dinner celebration. The author elaborately details the “feasting and fellowship and carefreemirth” and sets the scene with “fair folk” and “gentleknights”. (p. 2) Amid the merriment and festivities of these noble persons,a huge man on horseback dressed entirely in green, gallops into the hall. Arrogantly he issues a challenge to everyone at the feast for someone to comeforward and strike him with his axe.
To this man, the green knight promises toaward his adversary with his beautiful axe on the condition that in a year fromthen the challenger should also receive the same single blow of the axe inreturn. Such a challenge baffles the court and no one responds until, finally,King Arthur stands up and accepts the green knight’s offer, though claiming itridiculous. With grandeur and the courteous air of a hero, Sir Gawain stands upand graciously asks to be granted the challenge on behalf of the king. Such acourageous and noble act defines the character of Sir Gawain.
With an adeptswing of the sword he swiftly beheads the illustrious green knight. Yet, insteadof killing him, the green knight picks up his head, tells him to seek out thegreen chapel and warns him not to shirk from what he has promised, “SirGawain, forget not to go as agreed,/ And cease not to seek till me, sir, youfind. ” (p. 10) After almost a year has passed, Gawain has not forgottenthe green knight or his promise.
Therefore, he resigns himself to his duty andprepares to leave Camelot in search of the green knight. He arms himself with afive-pointed star on the outside and the image of the Virgin Mary on the insideto protect him, a symbol of his purity and goodness. Before he leaves, Arthurtells him “In destinies sad or merry,/ True men can but try. ” (p. 12)Such a statement aims to further highlight the nobility and integrity of SirGawain.
Upon his departure, he travels for many arduous days until finallyreaching a paradisiacal castle in which he is taken in as a guest. His host,”A man of massive mold, and of middle age” (who shares a remarkableresemblance in build to the green knight) is welcoming and very hospitable toGawain. During his stay at this castle, Gawain is repeatedly besieged withtemptations. The wife of his host constantly tries to cajole Gawain into havingan affair with her.
To the credit of his impeccable character, however, hedeclines. Though she cannot tempt him with herself, she is able to break hismoral purity by convincing him to accept a gift that could protect his lifeagainst formidable the green knight. Furthermore, what makes the acceptance ofthis gift a true shortcoming is the fact that Gawain was not honest with hishost and tell him that he received such a gift, although earlier they had agreedto such terms. After this, Sir Gawain departs, no longer infallible, to seek outthe green knight.
He finally comes upon the green chapel and the knight appears. The green knight commends Sir Gawain for being noble and keeping his word andwith this Gawain prepares for blow of the axe. The green knight returns the blowby merely cutting the skin and drawing a little blood. This astounds Sir Gawainand he jumps up and is ready to fight.
The green knight laughs at Gawain andtells him to relax that he did not intend to cut off his head. The small cutrepresented Gawain’s small sin of accepting the “magical” sash fromthe green knight’s wife (who reveals that he had been his host at the castleafter all). Besides that small shortcoming, the green knight proclaims thatGawain is truly a