Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Study Guide

Pearl Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Character Analysis


Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain, or Gawain, is known among knights for his courtesy, generosity, and skill. He is King Arthur's nephew and represents the ideals of chivalry—compassion, loyalty, and self-sacrifice—rather than other characteristics of a warrior, such as boasting and physical strength. Gawain's ability to be a virtuous knight is crucial to his self-image. Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he struggles to reconcile his desire for virtue with his human failings.

The Green Knight

The Green Knight, the poem's primary antagonist, is Bertilak de Hautdesert. Morgan le Fay has temporarily enchanted him; in his enchanted state he is able to survive beheading. The knight is one of the tallest and largest men in the world, adorned elegantly with expensive, magnificent decorations. His personality is commanding and domineering. He also has a sense of humor and enjoys games and merriment. When he confronts Gawain at the end of the poem, the Green Knight reveals his true identity as the intelligent and even compassionate lord.

Bertilak de Hautdesert

Bertilak is a "bold hero," strong warrior, and political leader, according to Gawain. In his human form as Bertilak, he is a handsome and slightly intimidating hero, with "a face as fierce as fire." He is a generous host, making friends with Gawain quickly. Like the Green Knight, he tests Gawain through games and challenges. The name Hautdesert means forest or wild area. Bertilak's castle is in a desolate area in the northern part of Britain.

Lady of Hautdesert

The Lady of Hautdesert, Bertilak's wife, is the secondary antagonist of the poem. She uses her debating skills, physical beauty, and position of power in her husband's household to attempt to seduce Gawain. While she is secretly working with Bertilak to test Gawain's virtue, she also has genuine feelings for Gawain that she never reconciles with her husband's schemes.

King Arthur

Arthur is a well-respected king whose court has many "strange and extraordinary" adventures. He enjoys playing games, jousting, and hearing adventurous tales. Despite his reputation, Arthur, as shown in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, can be reckless and ineffective as a leader. He attempts and fails at the Green Knight's challenge, and instead sends Gawain, his nephew, to his possible death. The poem foreshadows the eventual downfall of Arthur's court.

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