Poem written in Middle English by an anonymous poet in the 14th century. It is about 2500 lines long (90 pages) and is part of the “alliterative revival” — similar to the style of Old English poetry like Beowulf, but in a regional dialect of Middle English. Unlike Chaucer who is from London, this poem is written in the Midlands dialect (near Sheffield). It helps to listen to a read-aloud version as the poem is meant to be heard, not read.
The story begins at a New Year’s feast, when an unknown knight shows up uninvited, all dressed in green. He challenges Gawain to a beheading game, where Gawain gets to chop off the Green Knight’s head, except if he fails, he must return in a year to get his own head chopped off. Gawain succeeds at beheading the Green Knight, but the knight picks up his own head and leaves.
The next year, Gawain returns to look for the Green Knight and be beheaded, and he is invited by a lord into his castle. While the lord goes out hunting, Gawain stays in bed to rest. But on multiple mornings, the lady of the castle comes into his room to try to seduce Gawain into doing sinful things, yet he successfully resists the temptation. Only on the third night, he secretly accepts the lady’s offer of a girdle, promised to have the power to save his life on the day of the beheading.
This romantic poem shows us the expectations of a virtuous and chivalrous knight in the medieval period. Gawain is supposed to be an exemplar of perfect moral virtue out of all of the knights of the Round Table, never breaking a promise even to be beheaded, and never succumbing to the temptation of sleeping with another man’s wife when she tries to seduce him. Still, the poem shows the limits of this virtue, since he fails to be perfectly moral on the final night by accepting the girdle to save his life. Unbeknownst to him, all of these events are tests of his moral character, and it turns out that the lord and the Green Knight are the same person, and he ordered his lady to test Gawain’s morality.