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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary


Here you will find a Sir Gawain and the Green Knight summary (Simon Armitage's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary Overview

On a New Year's Eve gathering at the royal court, an eccentric character known only as the Green Knight disrupts the festivities. He puts forth a unique challenge, that he will allow any brave soul to strike him with his axe, but that person must then locate the knight in a year's time to receive an equal blow. The king, Arthur, is initially taken aback, but steps forward to accept the challenge. However, before Arthur can act, Sir Gawain interjects, requesting to take on the challenge himself. With a single, powerful strike, Gawain beheads the Green Knight. In a shocking turn of events, the decapitated knight retrieves his head and, before departing, reminds Gawain of their agreed-upon meeting in a year and a day's time at the Green Chapel. As autumn rolls around, Gawain sets off from Camelot to fulfill his end of the agreement. He embarks on a treacherous journey towards North Wales, battling hostile creatures, extreme weather conditions, and dwindling supplies. On Christmas Day, hoping for a place to attend Mass, he discovers a castle. The lord of the castle, later revealed as Bertilak, proposes a friendly game to Gawain: Bertilak will hunt each day, and upon his return, he and Gawain will trade their respective winnings. During Bertilak's hunts, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain multiple times, exchanging kisses with him, which Gawain then dutifully offers to Bertilak as his winnings. On the third day, the lady gifts Gawain a magic green sash, said to protect the wearer from death. Intrigued and desperate, Gawain accepts it, but does not disclose this to Bertilak when they trade their winnings. The New Year arrives and Gawain, now equipped with the magical sash, sets off to confront the Green Knight. Upon reaching the agreed location, a Green Knight who is revealed to be Bertilak emerges. He takes three swings at Gawain, only nicking him on the third. It is then revealed that the entire setup was orchestrated by Morgan le Faye, Gawain's aunt, and Arthur's half-sister, to test Gawain's chivalry. Although Gawain is relieved to be alive, he feels guilty about his dishonesty regarding the green sash. He decides to wear the sash as a badge of his failure. Upon his return to Arthur's court, all knights don a green sash as a show of solidarity with Gawain.

part 1

The poem initiates with an account of Britain's mythical origins. After the collapse of Troy, several champions departed to construct cities. Romulus, Ticius, and Brutus established Rome, Tuscany, and Britain respectively. The author presents Britain's legendary King Arthur and promises to narrate an Arthurian adventure. The story unfolds during Christmas at King Arthur's court in Camelot. Arthur and the Round Table Knights take part in the festivities, with Queen Guinevere in charge. Following a fifteen-day feast, New Year's Day arrives. All engage in New Year's games, exchanging presents and affection. Arthur introduces an interesting tradition: he won't dine until he's heard a wondrous tale. During the feast, Arthur, his nephew Gawain, and Guinevere sit at the high table, awaiting a marvel. Suddenly, a gigantic, unknown knight intrudes on horseback. He is adorned entirely in green, with his horse, hair, and beard also green with golden accents. He carries a holly bob and a massive green and gold axe. The knight challenges Arthur without introducing himself, stunning everyone into silence. Arthur invites him to feast and share his story, but the knight declines, stating he's arrived to test the court's reputed knights. He proposes a game in which someone strikes him with his own axe, with the understanding that he will return the blow in a year and a day. The court is stunned by the game's terms. The Green Knight questions the knights' courage, prompting Arthur to defend his court. Just as Arthur prepares to strike the Green Knight, Gawain interjects and asks to take the challenge. He recites the game's conditions, showing comprehension of the pact. The Green Knight dismounts and exposes his neck, and Gawain beheads him with a single swing. The Green Knight, however, grabs his severed head and exits the hall on his horse, leaving Arthur and Gawain to hang the axe and return to their celebration.

part 2

In the second part of the book, the poet recaps the New Year’s feast where King Arthur was gifted with the Green Knight's game, which led to Gawain's marvelous adventure. The narrative follows the changes in the seasons from Christmas through Lent, spring, summer, harvest, and finally winter again. On All Saints Day, Gawain departs from Camelot on his quest to find the Green Chapel. Despite his fears, Gawain gears up in his detailed armor, which includes a shield featuring a golden pentangle and a depiction of the Virgin Mary. This pentangle signifies Gawain's virtues; his senses, fingers, fidelity, force, and knightly virtues. Waving his friends goodbye, Gawain and his horse, Gringolet, set off on their journey. They face numerous foes like wolves, dragons, bulls, bears, boars, and giants, all of which Gawain overcomes. However, he battles the cold and nightmares while sleeping in his armor. On Christmas Eve, Gawain prays to find a place for Christmas Mass. Afterwards, he spots a grand castle amidst the trees. He is allowed entry into the castle, where the inhabitants, who are excited to learn from Gawain's knightly ways, warmly welcome him. Gawain's host, a middle-aged man with a robust figure, exudes gentleness despite his rugged appearance. In the castle, Gawain enjoys a lavish feast and is introduced to his host’s young, beautiful wife and an old, clothed woman. The festivities continue over the next few days. However, Gawain is conscious of his nearing meeting with the Green Knight. He refuses the host's offer to extend his stay, believing he must find the Green Chapel. To his relief, the host reveals that the Green Chapel is nearby and proposes a game, where they exchange their daily winnings for the next three days. Gawain agrees, and they seal this agreement with a kiss before retiring for the night.

part 3

In the early hours, the castle dwellers prepare for a day of hunting. After mass and breakfast, they set off with their dogs as day breaks, pursuing deer through the woods. The hunters use arrows to kill multiple deer, with the dogs tracking down and the hunters finishing off the injured ones with knives. Meanwhile, Gawain remains in bed until sunrise. While dozing, he hears the door creak open and spots the host's wife approaching his bed. He pretends to be asleep as she slips into his bed. She teases him about his deep sleep and pretending to capture him, to which Gawain plays along. She insists she has heard much about Gawain and desires to spend time with him, even offering herself to him. The pair continue their playful banter with the lady confessing she would have chosen Gawain as her husband if she could. Gawain deflects her advances, maintaining his guarded yet courteous demeanor. As she leaves, she accuses him of not being the real Gawain, as he let her leave without a kiss. Gawain gives her a kiss, gets dressed, and joins the women after attending mass. Back in the field, the lord and his hunting party finish their day by processing the deer they've killed. The poet vividly describes the process. The hunters then return home with their spoils. Gawain is given the venison by the host and he gives him the kiss he received from the lady. Both men agree to continue their exchange game the next day. The following two days mirror the first. On day two, the host hunts a boar and Gawain receives two kisses from the lady. That evening, the host trades the boar's head for the two kisses. On the third day, Gawain is woken by the lady after having nightmares of the Green Knight, and he receives three kisses. She then gives him a green girdle with alleged magical properties that keep the wearer safe from harm. Gawain, tempted by the promise of safety, accepts the girdle. In the afternoon, Gawain confesses his sins but doesn't mention the girdle. The host throws Gawain a farewell party, and Gawain retires to his chambers, ready to embark on his journey to the Green Chapel the next day. The poet leaves it uncertain whether Gawain was able to sleep that night.

part 4

One New Year's morning, as the sun begins to peek, Gawain readies himself for his journey. Fully armored, he wraps his lady's green girdle around his waist before he and Gringolet set off. As they leave, Gawain inwardly prays for the castle's safety and happiness for his hosts. Joined by a guide, they traverse through the snowy hills until the guide suggests a life-saving idea. If Gawain retreats instead of confronting the Green Knight, the guide promises to remain silent. Despite the warning, Gawain insists on facing his fate. After the guide leaves, Gawain ventures into the wilderness, finding a peculiar mound that turns out to be the Green Chapel. He's about to approach the chapel, lance at the ready, when an ominous sound sends chills down his spine — the unmistakable sound of a weapon being sharpened. Though terrified, Gawain announces his presence and his intent to fulfill his agreement. The Green Knight emerges, axe in hand, and commends Gawain for being on time. He reminds Gawain of the agreement — a blow for a beheading. The first swing of the Green Knight's axe stops short as Gawain flinches. The Green Knight mocks him, but Gawain reassures him it won't happen again. The second swing also stops short, this time commending Gawain's bravery. The third swing makes a small cut on Gawain's neck, causing him to jump away, sword in hand, ready to fight. But the Green Knight refuses to fight, explaining that the first two swings were feints, reflective of the first two days when Gawain was honest. The third cut was his punishment for not confessing about the green girdle. The Green Knight reveals himself as Bertilak, Gawain's host, and forgives him his transgressions. Bertilak, laughing, invites Gawain back to the castle for New Year's celebrations, offering the green girdle back as a keepsake. Gawain, however, refuses, expressing his discontent about the deceitfulness of women before accepting the girdle and setting off for Camelot. Upon his return, Gawain shares his tale, vowing to wear the girdle forever as a reminder of his sins. To show unity, the court decides to wear green silk belts. The poet ends the tale by celebrating the truth of this story from the days of King Arthur, and praising Christ.

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