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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Themes



Through Gawain's dilemma, the poem introduces concepts of honesty, faithfulness, and loyalty. A knight—the kind of knight Gawain aspires to be—won't lie, deceive, or abuse someone else's trust; these are actions associated with evil. Yet, Gawain's desire to be virtuous and courteous puts him in a situation in which he has to break one covenant in order to keep another. He believes that by lying he forsakes his nature, which is generosity and loyalty. He must also be less than honest when he cannot rebuke the Lady of Hautdesert for fear of accusing her of promiscuity.

In Gawain's medieval court, where group identity and loyalty to leadership mattered a great deal, Gawain is held accountable to both the Green Knight and Bertilak. Gawain's true test is one of honesty. He deceives the Green Knight to try to save his own life, but the tactic backfires. Gawain didn't tell an outright lie, but he failed to tell the whole truth—a sin of omission. Through Gawain's failure in honesty, he learns to accept his human flaws.


Religious and cultural traditions drive the plot of the poem. These ceremonial events keep the action moving forward and act as symbols for Gawain's inner struggles.

Food and drink recur throughout the poem as court members feast and celebrate, first at Camelot and then at Bertilak's castle. Food represents community, unity, and pride. Alcohol represents celebration and joy. The atmosphere is festive, which means more time for games and entertainment.

Arthur's court is a close-knit group, and they are all accountable to one another. The Green Knight first challenges Arthur and Gawain at a feast where the entire court is assembled. Pressured both by the Green Knight's taunting and by the presence of other knights and ladies, Gawain accepts the challenge—and follows through with it the next year.

The Green Knight disguises his challenges as games, but the stakes could not be higher. Honor and reputation—and even life for Gawain—are on the line. The knightly tradition compels Gawain to try to win against the Green Knight, even when he's advised otherwise. The courtly love tradition also compels Gawain to try to win the Lady of Hautdesert's game.

The narrator's frequent mention of the Christian calendar is also an occurrence of tradition. Christmas and New Year's Day, along with other religious days (such as St. John's Day and Allhallows Day) were spiritual markers for celebration, reflection, and repentance. These traditions remind Gawain of his desire to live up to his religious ideals.


Gawain faces many trials, but the challenge to his physical strength ends up being the least important.

His courage is tested by his lonely ride to the Green Knight's chapel. His honesty is challenged by his feelings for the Lady of Hautdesert and his desire to be courteous to her while remaining chaste. His chivalry and ability to fight fairly are tested in the green chapel when the Green Knight keeps him waiting for a blow that never comes.

Gawain faces the trials of the romantic hero. He's fighting for the best interests of the Lady of Hautdesert and for his own virtuous reputation. These trials subvert traditional romantic hero tropes by making the lady another tester and bringer of trials, rather than a prize to be won, and Gawain's ultimate loyalty not to her but to his own values.


Arthurian heroes were connected to the Christian faith. In Fytte the Second, as Gawain prepares for his journey, he demonstrates his devotion to traditional Christian symbols such as the wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Religious imagery dominates the poem's setting within the castles; residents go to chapel and Mass regularly. The outdoor settings are written with rougher, wilder imagery, signaling the danger the poet sees in paganism. Gawain even calls the Green Knight's chapel a place where the devil might pray.

His faith in God's protection drives Gawain to risk his life and meet any challenges that face him. His faith also adds to the conflict between Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight tricks Gawain through sorcery and pagan rituals. Morgan le Fay engineered the Green Knight's enchantment to intimidate Arthur's Christian court—the court Gawain represents.

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