Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most well-known romances in medieval English literature and one of the famous Arthurian legends.
It tells of the adventures of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious man whose clothes, skin and hair are completely green. The ‘Green Knight’ offers to allow anyone to strike him with an axe, if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads the knight in one blow, only to then see him stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. On the first page of the manuscript you can see the Green Knight holding his recently decapitated head.
In the year following this first encounter Sir Gawain faces many heroic battles and adventures, before setting off to meet the strange knight at the Green Chapel. A few days before the scheduled meeting he comes across Lord Bertilak’s castle, which Bertilak tells him is just a few miles away from the meeting point. Gawain therefore agrees to spend a few days at the castle with Lord Bertilak and his wife.
The next day Bertilak proposes a bargain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches during his hunting trip on the condition that Gawain gives him whatever he gains during the day. For the following three days Lord Bertilak’s wife tries to seduce Sir Gawain, who each day yields nothing more than a few kisses. Each day, when Bertilak returns to the castle he gives Gawain the animals he has killed and Gawain returns the kisses to Bertilak. On the third day, however, the Lady also gives Gawain a shawl that she says will protect him from all physical harm. Rather than return this to Bertilak, Gawain, thinking of his future encounter with the Green Knight, keeps this shawl.
The story ends at the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight is revealed to be Sir Bertilak. He explains that the adventure was a game planned by King Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay. By surrendering himself Sir Gawain adhered to the knight's’code of honour and chivalry; however, by keeping the shawl Sir Gawain failed his quest.
The poem survives in a manuscript that also includes three religious pieces, Pearl, Patience and Purity, all thought to have been written by the same author. It came to the British Library through the Cotton collection, one of the foundation collections of the British Museum. All manuscripts and publications later became part of the British Museum Library, before becoming the British Library in 1973.