Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Plot Summary
It is Christmas time in Camelot, and King Arthur and his court are in the midst of a fifteen-day celebration. Arthur is a young king, and refuses to sit down and eat until something amazing has happened. All of a sudden, the door to the hall bursts open and an enormous Green Knight rides in on his horse. He does not mean harm, for he is not wearing armor, but he is carrying a huge steel battle-axe in his hand. The Green Knight dismounts and challenges the court to a "Christmas sport." He declares that one knight in Arthur's court must agree to accept one blow of his axe, after having the chance to give one to the Green Knight. None of Arthur's knights volunteer, and the Green Knight taunts the court until Arthur himself volunteers. As Arthur readies himself to cut through the Green Knight's neck, Sir Gawain, another of Arthur's knights, volunteers in his stead. Gawain takes up the axe, and at his bidding chops off the Green Knight's head. The headless knight then stands up, retrieves his head, and mounts his horse. Turning the severed head toward the court, the headless man declares that Gawain must agree to accept the axe-blow from him in exactly one year, but also that Gawain must seek the Green Knight at his home at the green chapel, although he will not tell Gawain where it is located.
A year passes quickly, and soon Gawain remembers his pledge to the Green Knight. He readies his horse and his armor and rides off to find the green chapel. After much fruitless searching and bitter-cold nights alone, Gawain finally reaches a castle, where he is taken in warmly by the resident lord. He is introduced to the lord's wife and another old woman of the lord's house. Gawain spends several days making merry in the lord's house, and finally asks the lord if he knows the whereabouts of the green chapel, where the Green Knight resides. The lord says he knows it well and it is not far; Gawain should stay for longer and rest. In addition, he proposes a game between Gawain and himself: Gawain is to stay in the castle and rest, while the lord goes out hunting with his hounds and men. At the end of the day, each man is to make a gift of what they won that day to the other, whatever it happens to be. Gawain agrees, and the two men go to bed.
On the first day, the lord rises before dawn with his men and his hounds and goes deer hunting. All day they shoot down deer with their arrows, and by sunset they have an enormous pile of venison. Gawain, for his part, is visited by the lord's wife, with whom he had been exchanging courteous words for the previous few days. She keeps him in bed by not leaving his room so that he can dress--they talk all morning, exchanging courtly language back and forth. At the end of the morning she kisses him and then leaves. Gawain dresses, then spends the day with her and the old lady. At the end of the day, the lord gives Gawain the gift of venison, and Gawain gives the lord his kiss, although he neglects to tell the lord that it is from the lord's wife.
On the second day, the lord and his men chase a huge wild boar all day long. Finally, after it evades them all day and kills several men and dogs, the lord has a showdown with the beast in a river. He kills it by plunging his sword into its heart through its throat; the boar's head is put on a stake and paraded home as a gift for Gawain. Gawain is visited by the lord's wife again; they exchange courtly words again all morning, Gawain parries her ever more forward advances. She ends up kissing Gawain twice before leaving him. At the end of the day, the boar's head is given to Gawain, and Gawain gives the lord two kisses. That night, Gawain tries to convince the lord that he has to leave in the morning to seek the green chapel, but the lord insists that he stay.
The third morning, the lord goes out on the trail of a fox with his men and his hounds. Again, they chase it all day, and it outwits them, until finally the lord takes a swing at it with his sword and holds it up long enough for a hound to grab it. The fox pelt is taken back to Gawain as a prize. Gawain is again visited by the lord's wife, who acts incredulous at the fact that Gawain has not yet submitted to her advances. But Gawain refuses her still, and although angry, she asks Gawain for a gift so she can remember him. Gawain refuses, saying he has nothing worthy of her beauty. Then she begs him to take a present from her. She offers him a gold ring, but he refuses it, saying it is too rich. Then she offers him a green belt, which Gawain refuses until the lady assures him that it is magical, and will make Gawain invincible, unable to die. Gawain accepts the belt, thinking of his destined meeting with the Green Knight. The lady kisses Gawain three times before leaving him. That night, when the lord returns, he gives Gawain the fox pelt, and Gawain gives the lord three kisses. The lord declares Gawain to have received the best gifts, for kisses always beat fox pelts.
The next day, Gawain dresses early and makes sure to put on the supposedly magic green belt. He sets out from the castle with a guide, who shows him the way to a valley where the green chapel is. The guide warns Gawain not to go, but he goes anyway, steadfast. In the valley, Gawain finds a grass-covered mound with holes in it, which he presumes to be the green chapel. Suddenly the Green Knight appears, and calls on Gawain to keep his end of their agreement without flinching. Gawain agrees, but is scared. As the Green Knight raises his axe, Gawain flinches, and the Green Knight mocks him. Again the Green Knight raises his axe, but just to see if Gawain will flinch. He does not, so he raises the axe again and nicks Gawain's neck. Seeing that he is not dead, Gawain leaps away, shouting that the Green Knight has had his one blow, and the agreement is sealed. The Green Knight smiles, and explains that he had done what he did on purpose - he is in fact the same lord, Bercilak de Hautdesert, that he had taken Gawain in on his journey. It was his wife who he had kissed. He, in fact, had put her up to it, to test Gawain's knightly resolve. In addition, the green belt that Gawain wore belonged to the Green Knight - it was not really magic at all, but it was a sign of Gawain's moral weakness that he had accepted and believed in it. The Green Knight says he was sent to Camelot by Morgana le Fay, Arthur's half-sister and a witch, who wanted to test the pride and fame of Gawain and his fellow knights.
Gawain returns home, ashamed that he had given in to such sin. Back at Arthur's court, he tells his story and all of the Knights of the Round Table commiserate with him, and offer to wear green belts themselves, as constant reminders that the possibility of sinning is always close at hand.