Summary and Analysis
Lines 763–1,125 (Stanzas 33–45)
After making the sign of the cross three times, Gawain sees a great castle nearby, where he is welcomed as a guest by the lord of the house. After the Christmas Eve feast, the court goes to the evening Mass, and Gawain encounters the beautiful lady of the castle, who walks hand in hand with an ugly old hag. At the Christmas Day feast, Gawain sits next to the beautiful lady. The feasting continues for three days. The host asks Gawain what has brought him so far, and Gawain replies that he must find the Green Chapel by New Year's Day. The host says that the Green Chapel is close by, and insists that Gawain stay with him until New Year's. Gawain thanks him and promises to do whatever his host requests. Hearing this, the host proposes a bargain: Gawain will rest at the castle and be entertained by the host's wife while the host will go out hunting; at the end of each day, they will exchange whatever they have gained. Gawain happily agrees.
The sudden and mysterious appearance of this grand castle in the middle of a desolate wilderness marks it as something out of the other world. Yet it also appears in response to a prayer, and it is difficult to think that Gawain's patron, the Blessed Virgin, would lead him astray on Christmas Eve.
One of the poet's metaphors may confuse modern readers: He says the castle looks cut out of paper. This is probably a reference to the elaborate decorations, including paper cutouts, used to adorn the showpiece dishes or "subtleties" presented at medieval feasts; such ornamental dishes were sometimes designed to look like castles or landscapes. Scholars have made many attempts to identify the castle as a real place, but it seems just as likely that the castle is the product of the poet's imagination, despite the typically realistic architectural details lavished on its description.
Seeing that his prayers are answered, Gawain thanks Christ and St. Julian, the protector of travelers. Saints make numerous appearances in the poem, and they are never chosen without purpose. Even St. Julian's legend intersects with the action of the poem: Christ appeared to him in the form of a stag while Julian was out hunting. When Gawain approaches the castle, the gatekeeper swears by Peter. St. Peter was always depicted holding two keys, and popular belief makes him, even today, the proverbial gatekeeper of heaven.
But the white castle, although beautiful and peopled with noble inhabitants, is not heaven, nor is it even particularly otherworldly after Gawain enters it. He is received as an honored guest and shown every kindness by the lord of the castle. Gawain has, of course, found his opponent, the Green Knight. Although he is not aware of this fact, clues are left for the audience. One is the host's appearance: Although he is not green, he is notably strong and tall, and he has a bushy beard, like the Green Knight, although the host's is "beaver," or reddish-brown, in color. Another clue is what one critic calls the behooding game, in which the host removes his hood and offers it as a prize to whoever can amuse the court most (lines 983–988).
It is not clear whether either the courtiers or the lord of castle recognize Gawain immediately; the reaction at lines 908–911 suggests they do not. Although the court eventually learns Gawain's name, Gawain does not learn the name of his host or even the name of the castle — at least not yet.
Comparisons with Arthur's court abound. Just as Gawain was armed at Arthur's court, here he is disarmed, literally, as the servants remove his armor and dress him more comfortably, but also figuratively; Gawain's guard is down, just at the point when he is about to be tested most severely. The Christmas feast parallels the feast at Camelot, although the courtiers correctly point out that the Christmas Eve feast, though lavish, is penance for better things to come, because Christmas Eve is technically still part of Advent, a penitential season when meat is forbidden. The remark is also ironic: Gawain's stay at the castle will be a kind of penance, a spiritual trial that will eventually yield spiritual rewards. At the high table, it is not the host who has the highest place, corresponding to Arthur, but the strange old hag, and the host sits next to her. Gawain sits next to the host's lovely wife, the place he had near Guenevere, although in Gawain's judgment the lady is even more beautiful than Guenevere. This makes her beautiful indeed, because Guenevere is always celebrated as the paragon of beauty in Arthurian romance.
The host's young wife and the old hag form one of many paired opposites in the poem. They represent traditional medieval notions of youth and age, and the description of them is conventional. Christian moralists invoked the ugliness of old age as a warning against vanity and a reminder that the pleasures of youth would soon be swallowed up by human mortality. The old hag's identity is not revealed at this point in the story, but like much else in the poem, she is not quite what she appears to be.
Gawain's relationship with the host's wife is ambiguous. He is immediately attracted to her, yet his behavior toward her is absolutely circumspect. Meanwhile, both the court and its lady have expectations about Gawain that may not be met. Gawain is famed for his courtesy, and everyone looks forward to hearing from him some "luf-talking" or love-talk, the language of courtesy and courtly love. The courtly love tradition was closely aligned with the romance tradition, but the ideals of courtly love were contrary to Christian moral codes. Courtly love dictated that a noble or knight devotedly serve his beloved, a noble lady. Sometimes this love was destined to be unrequited, with the man worshipping his lady from afar, perhaps even without her knowledge. However, much courtly love poetry was frankly erotic, and the marriage of one or both lovers was not considered a barrier to consummating the relationship. As a perfect knight in the service of the Virgin Mary, Gawain is caught in the tension between courtly love's code of behavior, the expectations of duty and courtesy, and the strict moral demands of Christianity. Gawain first meets the host's wife in church, at the Christmas Eve Mass, but the description of the lady and her maids is decidedly sensuous, not spiritual.
The feasting continues through Christmas Day, Dec. 26 (St. Stephen's Day), and Dec. 27 (St. John's Day, named by the poet at line 1,023). Between this, and the three days of the hunt in the lines that follow, one day is apparently unaccounted for, probably Dec. 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the slaughter of children by King Herod, as described in Matthew 2:1–18. The reason for this omission is unclear; perhaps a line is missing from the manuscript. Some critics have suggested that Gawain actually sleeps through Dec. 28, the festivities having continued into the early morning. If so, that is not particularly knightly behavior.
The exchange-of-winnings bargain between Gawain and his host is yet another type of game, and appropriately for the season, it also involves an exchange of gifts. Like the kissing-game at Camelot, this game will also involve kisses as winnings.
palisade a barrier formed of large sharpened stakes set into the ground, sometimes used as a defense around castles.
evensong also called vespers, one of the seven canonical hours. Vespers takes place at sunset.