Roz’s Cliffsnotes: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Roz S-L

Hello, and welcome back to Roz’s Cliffsnotes! Today, readers, I’m going to take you back in time, to days when knights were brave, ladies fair, and magic ruled the land. That’s right, we’re going all the way back to Sophomore year.

Pictured: Art Ward and me having a scholarly debate, circa 2012.  Good times.
Pictured: Art Ward and me having a scholarly debate, circa 2012.
Good times.

Now, what’s everyone’s favorite part of being a Sophomore? English 10, of course, and the wonderful piece of literature we start out with. Colloquially known at OES as “that book no one can remember”, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in fact a masterpiece of medieval poetry. It’s an Arthurian legend written in traditional alliterative verse, and can be classified as part of the Chivalric Romance genre, meaning that all of its characters operate on principles of chivalry and courtliness. This will be important momentarily, so write it down! Dost thou get it? Hast thou got it? Good! Lessgo.

Book 1:

It’s New Year’s Day at King Arthur’s court and everyone’s having a grand old time except for Arthur himself, who is kind of bored, and therefore insists on having some sort of entertainment before dinner. He’s in luck, because someone suddenly blows down the door. Hey, thanks guy, who are you? It’s the titular Green Knight, holding an axe and a bough of holly and wearing no armor but his own skin, which is an eerie shade of green. He’s here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and he’s all out of bubblegum. Actually no, (but how cool would that be) he is in truth so unimpressed with Arthur’s knights that he suggests an alternate plan for the evening’s entertainment: the entire court is challenged to land one blow to the Green Knight’s neck with the enormous axe he carries. The twist of this otherwise fun little game is that the Green Knight will return the blow a year and a day later.

Naturally, Arthur and his knights smell a rat at this point, as being beheaded is few people’s idea of fun. However, because chivalry is stupid, they cannot refuse the Knight his request. Arthur himself is ready to volunteer when the youngest knight of the court, Sir Gawain, steps up.

So listen. People love Gawain. He’s handsome; he’s skilled; he’s Arthur’s own nephew. But most importantly, he is one courtly dude. Nobody does manners like Gawain. So when he volunteers to do this stupid, stupid thing, he doesn’t say “aight folks since none of you are gonna do it, I will”. No, no. That would be rude. He begs for the honor of springing this obvious and probably lethal trap. And all the ladies go “ohhhh he’s so courtly”.

Thus the enormous Green Knight bows his head and Gawain slices it off with one swing of the axe. Good job Gawain! Looks like this is my shortest summary yet. See ya next week, folks.

Oh. No, there’s more. Shoot.

The Knight’s body casually picks up its own head and tells Gawain to come to “the green chapel” a year and a day from the current date for a reciprocal blow to the neck, then wanders on out of the hall, leaving his axe as a prize. Haha wow never mind I’m glad this isn’t over, that’s metal as heck. Gawain and Arthur hang the axe up in the hall and everyone acts pretty gung-ho about the whole incident despite the fact that they just saw some straight-up magic. Then again, it is Arthur’s court, so this kind of stuff probably happens every other Thursday.


Book 2:

Over the next year Sir Gawain grows increasingly aware that, while The Green Knight magically recovered from having his head cut off, Gawain himself is merely a callow youth (that’s “tiny lil weenie-boy” in layman’s terms), and cannot possibly hope to survive such a blow. Like any tiny lil weenie-boy, he starts to procrastinate, and ends up setting off for the green chapel in the middle of winter. Good choice, Gawain. Lemme know how that goes.

Badly. Badly is how it goes. Travelling in medieval times was hard enough, but travelling in winter was almost impossible. Gawain is soon close to freezing out on the wastes, utterly lost and despairing. Luckily, he comes upon a castle, and is admitted by the lord of the place after a brief exchange which presumably went like this:

Gawain: Good my lord, I pray you show a poor knight mercy in this wintry chill and shelter me as I seek out the green chapel, where I am forsworn to meet my doom but three weeks hence.

Lord: What’d he say?

Gatekeeper: He says he’s a knight.

Lord: Ooo let him in, he might be courtly.

So Gawain has a chat with the owner of a the castle, Lord Bertilak, who is more than happy to provide him with room and board, provided he enters into a fun little game. You’d think by now Gawain would know better than to accept challenges from strangers, but he accepts anyway. I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t be courtly to refuse. Whatever, Gawain. The bargain is this: Bertilak will gift to Gawain whatever he catches in the next few days of hunting, provided that Gawain gifts him whatever he gains by sitting around in the castle. Okay, I’ll eat my words, that’s a pretty good deal.

Gawain spends the night in the relative comfort of the medieval castle, and wakes to find Bertilak already off hunting a pack of does. What a shame that Gawain’s missed that! What can he possibly get done hanging around in this castle all day? Well, luckily, Bertilak’s wife is apparently really into desperate, starving strangers on horses, and so she creeps into Gawain’s room mid-morning to see if she can’t get a lil somethin’ started.

Poor Gawain is in a bit of a pickle here. To completely refuse her advances would Not Be Courtly, as it would be an insult to her, but accepting them completely would also Not Be Courtly, as it would cuckold Bertilak. And what would Sir Gawain even be without his courtliness?? His reputation would hang in ruins!!!!

He eventually rules that the lady can be allowed one kiss for chivalry’s sake. However, to maintain his manners, he keeps his promise to Lord Bertilak; when Bertilak returns and gives him, like, half a herd of deer, Gawain kisses him full in the face. NO ONE FINDS THIS SUSPICIOUS. Where do they think he got that kiss? Who do they think he’s kissing in this bare, chilly castle? Luckily, Bertilak and his bannermen think this is hilarious and everyone goes to bed happy.

The next day the Lord of the castle goes out to hunt some other innocent creature, and the Lady of the castle returns to hunt Gawain. Jeez lady, knock it off! This is getting creepy!

Because this is a medieval story and everyone loved the rule of threes back then, this happens once more, but this time Lady Bertilak asks Gawain to give her a token of his love. Since Gawain has no particular attachment to this woman, he refuses, so she offers him one, which he also refuses, until she mentions that she would gladly give him her girdle, which protects the wearer from death at all times due to how hot you look while wearing it. Who do we know he’s got a death sentence hanging over him?? This kid! So Gawain takes the girdle, kisses Bertilak three times, and heads off on his merry way without mentioning his new-found article of clothing.



Book 3:

Gawain awakens on new year’s day and heads out to face his fate at the Green Chapel, confident that the girdle makes him so outstandingly attractive that nobody would dare kill him, not even a freakishly large green-skinned mutant.

A guide from the castle leads Gawain as far as the edge of the forest, then swears that he would not tell anyone if Gawain walked out on the whole thing. Gawain refuses to break this particular oath, at which point the guide goes “damn, that is mad chivalrous,” and heads back to the castle to spread the word. About how chivalrous that was. Damn. Meanwhile, Gawain heads further and further into the forest, and eventually comes upon the green chapel, which in fact turns out to be more of a shack. There the Green Knight reappears, glorious in his shining armor and green skin. He has not brought his axe, and explains, embarrassed, that he forgot it at home when he set out today, and asks Gawain to postpone the whole execution-thing until tomorrow. Gawain, ever polite, agrees, and returns the next day, when the Knight has forgotten his gloves, and the next, when the Knight forgets his own head. He finally agrees to just let Gawain go sans wound, with much apologizing for the inconvenience and complementing of the girdle, which is honestly very becoming.

Gawain returns, slightly confused, to King Arthur’s court, where he politely admits that the whole situation turned out a little less exciting than he would have hoped, and all the ladies go “ohhhhhh Sir Gawain, you’re soooo chivalrous”. The older knights of the round table are still proud of Gawain, but ultimately take him aside and explain that, for crying out loud, it’s ok to lie occasionally to make yourself sound a little cooler. It’s what all the other knights do. Also, that girdle looks fantastic; where did you get it?

Gawain takes the secret of the girdle to his grave, telling them that he bought it at a strip mall in Norwich.

The End.

So, the moral of our story is that you should always lie a little bit, even when all the ladies are really jazzed about how chivalrous you are. But listen, don’t write your essay about that, it’s far too obvious. Personally, I wrote mine about the dragons of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. None appear at any point in the story, but why is that? Food for thought. This essay was one of my strongest that year, with overwhelmingly positive comments like “do you even know how to read?,” from Rick Rees and “you’re grounded” from my parents, but you ought to blaze your own path when writing your essay. Why not consider the role of the Green Knight himself? Who is he? Is he Morgana le Fey? Is he King Arthur in disguise? Is he several fish in a suit of armor? It’s up to you to decide.

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2 thoughts on “Roz’s Cliffsnotes: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    • Forgive me for my oversight! I hope no one left the gnomes out of their essays. They represent the emasculation that Gawain suffers due to his short stature; the scene in which they all do a little song and dance number is a metaphor for the futility of the arts, and their mass, lemming-like death contains the secret truth of the universe, if you look hard enough.

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