King Arthur is at Camelot during the Christmas season with his knights of the Round Table and his other lords and ladies. They feast merrily, sing carols, and dance. For New Year's Day, they exchange gifts and sit down for a wonderful feast. Arthur customarily does not eat at such a feast until he has heard a tale of adventure or a knight's challenge to battle. Gawain sits next to Guenevere, with other great knights around them at the high table. The first course of the feast is served with a fanfare of trumpets and drums, and everyone fills themselves with delicacies.
No sooner has the first course been served than a rider bursts into the hall. He is entirely green, as is his horse. The rider has thick green hair and a long beard. He wears no armor, and he carries only a sprig of holly and a great green ax. He rides straight up to the dais and demands to know who is the leader of the group. The guests are amazed at this sight, and none of the knights answers him; the poet excuses them by saying they were silent out of courtesy rather than fear.
In a medieval court, the Christmas season was a time of celebration, extending from Christmas Day through the New Year and ending with the Feast of Epiphany, January 6 — hence the "Twelve Days of Christmas" from the familiar Christmas carol. (Why the poet specifies fifteen days, to January 8, is unclear; it may be a mistake or an indication of the lavishness of the feasting.) In keeping with tradition, Arthur and his court are observing the holiday season by eating, drinking, and generally having fun. On New Year's Day, a particularly lavish feast is being spread, after the court has properly attended Mass. New Year's Day, rather than Christmas, was the day for gift-giving, and court also engages in some party games involving forfeits of kisses from the loser to the winner. The appearance of various holidays and seasons throughout the poem is an important theme; they help to mark the passage of time, but they also provide symbolic meaning. Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ, who redeemed humanity from sin, and the New Year is a time of rebirth and new beginnings.
The description of Arthur himself has provoked disagreement. The poet chooses the word "childgered" to describe the king, a word that may simply mean "boyish" but may also carry the more negative connotations of "childish." In any case, the emphasis is on the king's youthful vitality; he is restless, energetic, eager for adventure. However, there remains the hint that perhaps the king is bit too impetuous. Arthur's refusal to eat until he has seen a marvel is a convention of Arthurian legend, repeated in many romances.
Modern readers expecting the Round Table may be confused by the seating arrangements at Arthur's feast. The Round Table does not actually appear in poem. Instead, the court is seated in the usual medieval style, with the highest-ranking nobles at a long table raised on a dais at one end of the hall, and the others at long tables down the sides of the hall. The diners are seated in pairs, because two people normally shared a trencher at the table. Gawain has the place of honor beside the queen herself, who sits under a rich, jeweled canopy hung with silks and tapestries. The seat to the other side of the king and queen is held by a cleric, Bishop Baldwin; this forms an interesting contrast to the seating arrangements at Castle Hautdesert later in the story. The lavishness of the feast, the cacophony of music and noise, and the magnificence of the setting occupy the poet's description. The attention to detail and the extreme vividness of the scene are characteristic of the poet's style. Some critics have argued that the feasts in the poem are overly lavish and that the poet is indirectly condemning their extreme luxury. However, the level of rich and sparkling detail carried throughout the poem weighs against this argument.
The exact nature of the Green Knight, who makes his first appearance in these lines, has long been a topic of debate. Clearly, he is not from the everyday human world. He is unusually tall and strong, almost enough to be a giant, and beyond this, he is completely green, as is his remarkable horse. Symbolic associations for the color green are many and sometimes contradictory. The first and most obvious association is with vegetation and its cycles of growth, decay, and rebirth, giving the Green Knight a hint of fertility god. His subsequent association with the Green Chapel, which turns out to be a sort of cave, reinforces his identification with nature and the earth. In this sense, he recalls the medieval figure of the Green Man, an embodiment of spring and the fertility of nature, usually depicted as covered entirely with leaves. Green is also the color of everlasting life; the Green Knight's sprig of Christmas holly, which remains evergreen even in the dead of winter, shares this symbolism. In medieval literature, green was the color of hunters, the dead, and the faery realm, and it was often the color worn by the devil. (Several critics have argued that the Green Knight is in fact the devil, come to tempt the virtuous Gawain.) Even if the Green Knight is associated with nature, he also has supernatural qualities that will soon become apparent. The shocked guests assume that the knight is a product of "phantom and faery." However, the poet's relentlessly and minutely detailed picture of the knight makes him seem solid, immediate, and very real.
Furthermore, the poet's description of the knight focuses not only on the natural green of his body, but on the artificial decoration of his costume. For example, the poet notes the green enamel of the saddle and the sparkling green jewels of the knight's costume. Gold is the other color emphasized in the description. Even the green mane of the knight's horse is tied with golden bells, and his clothes are embroidered with green and gold — embroidery which is, in another neat twist, an artificial depiction of natural motifs (birds and butterflies). Gold has obvious associations with wealth and worldly power, but it is also the color of the divine, symbolizing perfection and purity. The poet describes the horse's hair laced with gold threads and tied in a decorative knot; knots and laces will also appear as symbols in the context of Gawain's pentangle shield and the green belt that finally tempts Gawain.
The knight's thick hair, and particularly his long beard, is meant to indicate his strength and maturity, in contrast to Arthur's youthfulness; he later insults Arthur's knights by calling them "beardless children." Interestingly, the knight and his horse are described as having similar hair, a point that helps strengthen the knight's ties to the animal world. His hairiness also recalls a figure of medieval popular legend, the Wild Man, a sort of medieval Bigfoot who carried a club or ax, lived in the forests, and was generally a nuisance to civilized people.
The fact that the Green Knight claims not to recognize the leader of the group is also something of an insult; according to convention, a leader as great as Arthur should have been instantly recognizable. When Arthur's supposedly brave knights are too amazed even to answer, the poet humorously comments that they must have been too polite to speak up, but only God knows the truth of the matter. The poet's sense of humor is another of the poem's distinguishing characteristics. Throughout, the tone is light, elegant, and always good-humored.
Toulouse, Turkestan The French city Toulouse was famous for the production of luxury fabrics. Tharsia, or Turkestan, in central Asia, was famous for its rugs and tapestries.
Agravain of the Hard Hand (à la dure main) Gawain's younger brother, also a knight. Gawain and Agravain are the sons of Arthur's sister (usually identified as Anna) and, thus, Arthur's nephews.
Bishop Baldwin Baldwin is Arthur's bishop in The Carl of Carlisle. A "Bedwini" is named as Arthur's bishop in two legends from the Welsh Mabinogion.
Yvain, Urien Urien, King of Rheged, was the father of Yvain or Ywain, a famous knight. Yvain is the main character in Chrètien de Troyes's tale Yvain (The Knight of the Lion).
ermine fur from a type of weasel with a white coat and black-tipped tail. Ermine was traditionally reserved only for the highest of the nobility.
crupper a strap running from the back of the saddle and under the horse's tailthat keeps the saddle from slipping forward.
cap-à-dos probably a short cape covering the neck, shoulders, and chest. The only occurrence of the word is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
hauberk a long tunic of chain mail.