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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, why does Bertilak call the Lady of Hautdesert Gawain's "great enemy" in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 17?

In Fytte the Fourth, Gawain can see the entire picture of the Green Knight's challenge. Bertilak, as the Green Knight, confesses in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16 that he was behind the Lady of Hautdesert's strategic temptations ("As for the wooing of my wife,/I managed it myself./I sent her to try thee") and he is the true owner of the girdle. He further admits that Morgan le Fay orchestrated the entire challenge. Even though the Lady of Hautdesert doesn't have as much agency as her husband and Morgan le Fay, she is Gawain's biggest foe. She is the one he directly faces in competition, and the one who is finally able to tempt him into acting against his code.

How is Guinevere a significant character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Guinevere represents the vulnerability of Arthur's court, because Morgan le Fay sent the Green Knight to terrify Guinevere. Morgan le Fay's grudge against Guinevere is a theme in Arthurian legend. After the Green Knight rides off in Fytte the First, Stanza 22, Arthur reassures Guinevere that the Green Knight's appearance is nothing but "tricks at Christmas," ignoring the serious nature of the task Gawain will have to complete. By dismissing the Green Knight, Arthur and Guinevere both show the weakness and lack of courage in Arthur's court. Guinevere is also held up as a standard of female beauty. The narrator says in Fytte the First, Stanza 4, "no man could say that he ever beheld/a comelier lady than she." That is, until Gawain meets the Lady of Hautdesert, whom he finds even more beautiful than Guinevere. Both women also have power, wealth, and social status. The Lady of Hautdesert's superior beauty indicates that she will be more powerful than Guinevere in the narrative and will act with more agency.

How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight juxtapose and contrast the colors gold and red with the color green?

The color green represents not only the Green Knight but untamed, uncivilized nature, like the moss and herbs in the green chapel in Stanza 8 of Fytte the Fourth, and the "rough ragged moss" on Gawain's harsh journey through the countryside in Fytte the Second, Stanza 7. The Green Knight is described as "green grown as the grass" when the court first sees him in Fytte the First, Stanza 7. Green is also the color of renewal—plants grow green when the weather is warm. The Green Knight represents renewal, instead, in the winter season. He carries a holly twig, which is both green and red and which, like the Green Knight, thrives in the winter. Gawain's color is red. His pentangle, the reader learns in Fytte the Second, Stanza 7, is painted onto his shield "with red gold upon red gules." The Lady of Hautdesert's first gift to him is a red gold ring (in Fytte the Third, Stanza 28), which he refuses, maintaining his purity (although he takes the green lace). Red is associated with blood and redemption. The blood from Gawain's neck is red in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 14, and he turns red in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16 when he flushes from shame after his deception is found out.

How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight juxtapose and contrast the interior settings of the two courts and castles with the exterior setting of nature?

The courts are places of largesse and warmth, with so much food and drink (as in Fytte the First, Stanza 3) the narrator can't describe it all. The courts also provide an illusion of tranquility and courage in Arthur's court and of honesty and forthrightness in Bertilak's castle. Gawain thinks he can relax in the beautiful setting of Bertilak's lush courts, when in reality, he's fighting off temptation. The safety of the courts and castles masks the real danger of failure for Gawain. The exterior setting of nature is harsh, wintry, and unforgiving. Bertilak's castle is warmed by the hearth, in contrast to the cold winter environment outside. The danger of the wilderness is apparent in the people Gawain encounters in Fytte the Second, Stanza 9: "There dwelt but few that loved either God or man with good heart." In Arthur's court, by contrast, "the happiest troop under heaven" lives. Setting shows character. Nature is also associated with adventure, travel, and triumph. When Bertilak goes on the hunt, he faces off against nature and is frequently in physical danger—such as when he follows the boar into the water. The Green Knight's home is in a setting so natural that it's almost invisible, and it's where the climax of the adventure takes place, with Gawain facing his adversary. Both indoors and outdoors are battlegrounds of different kinds.

What do the various characters think about Sir Gawain's success against the Green Knight?

The Green Knight does not think Gawain succeeded in his quest. He knows Gawain thought the quest was to find the green chapel and prepare for battle—but Bertilak made finding the chapel easy, and the Green Knight made the battle nearly harmless except for a cut on Gawain's neck. The real challenge was to be pure, and Gawain failed. Nevertheless, the Green Knight thinks Gawain succeeded overall at chivalry and courtesy—just not to the point of perfection. Arthur's court thinks Gawain succeeded because he's come back alive. Though Gawain confesses his fault to them, they show their support and solidarity by choosing to wear green laces themselves. Gawain does not think he succeeded in his quest. Once he learns the true nature of the challenge, he calls himself "faulty and false" in Stanza 16 of Fytte the Fourth, and believes in Stanza 17 that he's betrayed his knightly nature by pursuing the duel.

Which objects define Gawain at the beginning and end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The pentangle defines Gawain at the beginning of the poem. In Fytte the Second, Stanza 6 as Gawain puts on his armor, the pentangle demonstrates the virtues he wants to live by. He's not associated with struggle and failure, but with purity and chivalric conduct. When Gawain wears the pentangle, others look up to him. The pentangle is also a shape that can be drawn in a single line, an "endless knot" that represents eternity and spirituality. The green lace defines Gawain at the end of the poem. As a girdle and a feminine garment, it represents Gawain's human susceptibility to lust. He wears it not out of pride but out of humility, to "moderate my heart." And its green color, the color of nature and renewal, represents humanity.

What do the arguments Gawain uses in Fytte the First of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to accept the challenge reveal about his character and self-image?

Gawain wants to uphold the reputation of Arthur's court. In Fytte the First, Stanza 16, he tells Arthur how much he admires the knights of Camelot: "None under heaven are higher in spirit,/nor more mighty on the field." The knights are examples to him in character and physical combat, yet he's the only one who volunteers for the challenge. He feels responsible for upholding Camelot's honor. Gawain also argues he's the worst of the knights, and from a practical standpoint, the least loss to the court if he dies. He may be showing false humility in a speech designed to make others think he's more virtuous than he really is, but he shows how much he values being seen as courteous and humble. Gawain believes the challenge is "so foolish" that Arthur shouldn't bother with it. This shows how much Gawain underestimates the Green Knight and the magic forces behind the Green Knight's creation. Although he may be courageous, he has too much faith in Camelot and his own ability to protect himself.

Why does The Pearl Poet reference the assault at Troy at the beginning and the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The ancient kingdom of Troy fell because of the infidelity of Paris, a Trojan prince. He fell in love with and kidnapped Helen of Sparta. The rescue of Helen led to the Trojan War. Helen's famous beauty was said to have moved Paris to kidnap her and soldiers to fight to get her back. Gawain, like Paris, was tempted by the seductive power of female beauty. When The Pearl Poet references the war at Troy, he's warning Gawain not to make the same mistake Paris did and fall to temptation. He's also warning about the future downfall of Arthur's court, which will also involve infidelity and deceit as Arthur's knight Lancelot and Guinevere have an affair. Finally and most importantly, to a learned Middle English audience The Poet references Troy because the Trojan War led indirectly to the establishment of the Roman Empire and, thus, to England. Because Rome is where many great heroes of antiquity got their start, claiming an association with it is a way to establish legitimacy and authority for his tale.

How does Gawain's response to his own flaws change after his duel with the Green Knight?

Before the duel, Gawain is convinced of his own purity. He's civil to the Lady of Hautdesert and repeatedly denies her offer of a gift. In Fytte the Third, Stanza 30, he goes to the priest for confession, and the priest leaves him "as clean as if doomsday had been due on the morrow." He's concerned most for his own safety. After the duel, when he realizes his mistake in accepting the green lace, Gawain learns he can never be perfectly pure. His decision to wear the girdle is a sign he's becoming more accepting of his own flawed nature as a human being. Gawain grows more accepting of his own flaws and humbler. He blames women, but he can also see he's been too concerned with his own honor and should take his human failings in stride. He's not immortal like the Green Knight.

In what ways does the Lady of Hautdesert act independently or dependently throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The Green Knight's words in Fytte the Fourth, Stanza 16, imply that the Lady of Hautdesert talked to Gawain with her husband's knowledge and consent—so, she does not act completely independently. Bertilak knew she'd offer the girdle; he knew Gawain would be trapped between the conventions of courtly love and the need to uphold his values by not committing adultery. The text, however, openly shows that the Lady of Hautdesert has feelings for Gawain. Her pursuit of him is legitimized by her husband's orders, but it also shows some independence.

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