Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Poem - Summary

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      Undoubtedly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the finest of the middle English romances and has no superior save in the pages of Chaucer. It occurs in the same manuscript along with Pearl, Purity and Patience, which are supposed to be the work of the same man, of whom nothing is known. The date of the poems too is uncertain and is generally supposed to be the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

      The story, to put it briefly, is this: King Arthur holds Christmas festival that lasts for fifteen days, at Camelot with the ladies and Knights of the Round Table. They celebrate the New Year by a religious service in the chapel and the distribution of gifts. As the Knights and the ladies sit around the table, King Arthur jumps up and says that he will not eat anything until he has seen some marvel. Just then a Green Knight, a giant riding on a giant horse, clothed in green enters the hall. He has come to try the Knights of the Round Table. He challenges any one of the assembled Knights to give him one stroke on the head by the great axe he holds in hand, provided that he comes to him in a twelve months and a day and receives a like stroke from him. As they are all hesitating and King Arthur, for the honor of the Round Table, is about to keep up the challenge and seize the axe, Sir Gawain, the King's nephew takes the axe and severs the head of the unknown Knight from his body. Unmoved the Green Knight picks up the head calling upon Gawain to keep his word, departs at a gallop leaving all dumb-founded. A year passes and Gawain sets out, true to his promise, to find the Green Knight. After a long quest through a rugged and mountainous country, he arrives on the Christmas Eve before the calmest castle he has ever seen. He is received with great honor by the lord of the castle who is an old man. This is no other than the Green Knight but Gawain could not recognize him. For three days he is the guest of the house. The old man goes out - hunting every morning and every morning the lady, who is an exquisite beauty visits Gawain's room, tempting him with the offer of her love. The pure Gawain rejects her advances every morning. On the third morning the lady offers him a golden ring which is rejected and at last, persuades him to accept a girdle of green silk, that shall preserve the wearer from wound and death.

      On the New Year's Day when Gawain comes to his ordeal in a green chapel, the old man, after a first stroke which he evades, lets the axe fall on the neck of Gawain but it only wounds him slightly. The blood flows over the hero's shoulders to the earth. The old man surveys the hero with a pleased look. He explains to Gawain the whole mystery. He refers that Gawain had sinned a little by taking a love token from the lady, Gawain throws the girdle away in bitter lamentation; the old man reminded him that he has atoned for his sin and gives it to him to wear as a sign of his guilt. He reveals that he is the Green Knight and the lady is Morgan la Fay, Arthur's half-sister and the pupil of Merlin. The Knights bid each other farewell. Gawain on his return relates his adventure with shame before the Round Table. In the liveliness and variety of its scenes, mingling of the marvelous and the natural, human and dramatic interest and the delicate psychology of characterization, the poem is unique among romances. It is a medieval romance in which Sir Gawain is held up as the model of virtue and chivalry. The poem contains 2350 lines arranged in stanzas of unequal length each of which consists of a number of long alliterative lines followed by five short lines rhyming alternately (ababa).

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