Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is widely regarded as one of the greatest poems of Middle English.
Written in a north-west Midlands dialect, this 2,530 lined alliterative poem has four ‘fitts’, or narrative divisions. The richly symbolic narrative consists of a journey and a test:
Arthur and his court are seated at their New Year feast awaiting a marvel. A thunder clap announces a huge green man who rides into court, bearing an axe and holly bough. He challenges a Knight to cut off his head on condition that the knight has the opportunity to return the blow.
When Arthur rises, Sir Gawain intervenes to accept the challenge and severs the Green Knight’s head with a single blow. The giant picks up his severed head and says that he expects to return the blow in one year’s time at the Green Chapel.
A year later Gawain sets out from Wales and wanders to the ‘wilderness of Wirrall’. On Christmas Eve he arrives at Sir Bercilak’s castle and is offered hospitality. He meets Bercilak’s beautiful wife, who is accompanied by a hideous old woman.
Sir Bercilak makes an agreement with Gawain that each day he will hunt in the fields, possibly the forests of Delamere, and Gawain in the castle. At the end of each day they will exchange their spoils.
For three consecutive days Bercilak hunts and Gawain, famous for his skill and prowess in love, is pursued by Bercilak’s wife. She gives him one kiss on the first day, two on the second, and on the third day three kisses and a green girdle that protects the wearer from all harm.
Each evening Gawain exchanges the kisses with his host for the animals slain in the hunt. On the third evening he keeps the girdle, in order to protect himself from the Green Knight, and thus breaks their agreement.
Gawain is directed to the Green Chapel where he finds the Green Knight sharpening his Axe. He kneels to receive his blow.
Twice the Knight feigns to hit him and the third time he nicks Gawain’s neck. He then explains that he is the castle knight, transformed by the old castle woman, ‘Morgane the goddess’, and that he nicked his neck for his infidelity in keeping the girdle.
Morgane le Fay’s intention had been to test the strength of Arthur’s knights. Gawain curses his failing, although the Green Knight applauds him. On his return to Arthur’s court, it is declared that green girdles will be worn in honour of his achievement.