Critical Essays The Structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


In the Cotton Nero manuscript, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is divided into four sections by large decorated capital letters that appear at line 1, line 491 (the start of Gawain's year of waiting), line 1,126 (beginning of the first hunt), and line 1,998 (the dawn of New Year's Day). Many older translations refer to these sections as "Fitts" or "Fytts," using a Middle English term for the divisions of a poem. However, the heading Fitt does not appear in the Cotton Nero manuscript. Although the four-part division is useful, it ignores other markers in the manuscript and other logical breaks in the poem.

A simple outline of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is as follows:

  • Prologue: Troy and Britain (lines 1–36)
  • Camelot: Christmas; Green Knight's challenge (37–490)
  • Camelot: the year passes; Gawain departs (491–669)
  • Gawain's journey in the wilderness (670–762)
  • Hautdesert: Christmas feasting (763–1,125)
  • Hautdesert: Day one of the hunt (1,126–1,411)
  • Hautdesert: Day two of the hunt (1,412–1,685)
  • Hautdesert: Day three of the hunt (1,686–1,997)
  • Hautdesert: New Year's Day dawns, Gawain leaves (1,998–2,159)
  • The Green Chapel: Gawain accepts the blows (2,160–2,478)
  • Camelot: Gawain returns (2,479–2,521)
  • Epilogue: Troy and Britain (2,522–2,530)

Many critics have observed that the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is symmetrical. This symmetry is most obvious in the book-ending of the tale with the legend of Troy, and the fact that the action begins and ends at Camelot. Another obvious symmetry is between the courts of Camelot and Hautdesert; the two courts, their lavish Christmas feasts, and Gawain's place of honor in them are like mirror images. In addition, many parallel characters and themes within the plot invite comparison or contrast: Arthur and the Green Knight, Arthur and Morgan, Bertilak and the Green Knight, the Lady and Morgan, the natural and the artificial, death and renewal, Gawain's arming at his departure from Camelot and his disarming at his arrival in Hautdesert (and his subsequent re-arming as he leaves for the Green Chapel), Gawain's dealing of the blow and his acceptance of it. The three hunts are also regular and balanced, following exactly the same pattern each day.

However, you can also think of the structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as circular. The cycle of the year passes; the action begins in winter, completes the seasons, and returns to winter. Gawain goes out from Camelot on his journey but returns to the place he began. The cycles of history also frame the poem, in the passing of empires from Troy to Rome to Arthurian Britain, and from there to the poet's own England. This pattern of circular motion, of going out and coming back, of failure and recovery, is at the basis of the poem's action.