While there are more Arthurian legends than you can shake a broadsword at, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a special place in the canon. It’s a quintessential chivalric romance: heroic knight embarks on magical adventure, abiding by deeply ingrained codes of honour and duty, and enacting an idealised courtship with a high-ranking married woman (a ritual known as courtly love). On one level it’s simply a compelling yarn, yet it’s also dense with meaning and can be interpreted in various ways, exerting an influence on the likes of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.
The story opens at a feast at King Arthur’s court. As the festivities unfold, an entirely green man interrupts proceedings to propose a game. This 'Green Knight' challenges any man to strike him with that weapon, on the condition that whoever does so will allow the Green Knight to return the blow one year hence. At first, Arthur looks set to take the challenge on, but then Sir Gawain steps in and does the job, hacking the Green Knight’s head off. This doesn’t particularly faze the Green Knight, who calmly picks up his own severed head and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in one year.
When the time comes, Gawain sets off to meet this apparently fatal appointment. At some point during his odyssey he comes across a castle, where he is welcomed and invited to stay by the lord and his lady. The lord, who goes out hunting daily, makes a curious deal with Gawain: the two men will exchange anything each gains during a given day. On the first day on which the lord goes hunting, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain, who – being a noble and virtuous sort – allows only a kiss. When the lord comes home and presents Gawain with a deer he’s killed, Gawain gives the lord a kiss to fulfil his side of the bargain.
On day two, a similar ritual is played out. On the third day, the lady of the castle gives Gawain a magical sash that she promises will protect him from harm. Gawain knows this is his only chance of surviving his imminent encounter with the Green Knight. He therefore decides not to give the sash to the lord of the castle when he comes back from the hunt, breaking the terms of their agreement.
Gawain then continues on his quest, eventually coming to the Green Chapel. Here, he bares his neck for the Green Knight’s blade, as promised. Twice, the Green Knight brings the axe down, only to stop at the last moment. With the third swing, the Green Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, drawing a little blood. The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, having been physically transformed by the enchantress Morgan le Faye. He explains that the first two aborted blows of the axe reflected the two days Gawain adhered to their agreement in the castle, while the slight injury inflicted on the third swing reflects the fact that Gawain took the sash dishonestly.
Fortunately, the Green Knight doesn’t take this too personally, and compliments Gawain on his inherent honour. They part on good terms, and Gawain returns to a hero’s welcome at Camelot.
The story, written in verse by an unknown poet, has been dated back to the late 14th Century. Sir Gawain himself was already a stalwart in Arthurian lore by that point, having appeared in 12th Century texts by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes, the writers who did the most to popularise the legend of King Arthur. Similarly, the Green Knight’s bizarre beheading challenge was already a 'thing' by the time the poem was written – a very similar beheading game features in the 8th Century Irish yarn, Bricriu's Feast, among other works.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is famed for its depiction of the chivalric code, with Gawain’s courage, honour and chastity tested by the Green Knight, the lady of the castle and by Morgan le Faye, who is orchestrating the whole thing behind the scenes. Gawain’s awkward dilemma in the castle – having to go along with the fair lady’s seductive ministrations while also trying to behave honourably towards her husband – gives us a fascinating insight into the often conflicted world of courtly love.
The nature of the Green Knight himself has intrigued writers throughout the generations. JRR Tolkien, who venerated the poem, was particularly intrigued by the enigma of this formidable figure. To many, he is the embodiment of nature itself, similar to the folkloric figure known as the Green Man, standing in stark contrast to the ordered, highly ritualised world of Camelot. Certainly, the wild and untamed world of nature is a major element in the poem, from the hunting scenes featuring the lord of the castle, to the rustic dwelling of the Green Knight.
In spite of this rather pagan imagery, Gawain’s odyssey can also be regarded as symbolising the journey through life of any good Christian, while the sacrifice of the seemingly immortal Green Knight does echo Christ’s death and rebirth.
However you interpret the poem, it stands as one of the greatest masterpieces of the medieval literature, influencing writers and filmmakers to this day.