Character Breakdown: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The many characters that make up the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight all play important roles in understanding the meaning of the tale as well as its context during the time it was written.-
Sir Gawain
As the protaganist of the story, Sir Gawain undergoes the most change. For most of the story, Gawain is made out to be a paragon of virtue. He is humble in his description of himself as the weakest of Arthur's knights, both mentally and physically. Yet, his position at the high table with Guinevere and his willingness to take on the Green Knight for Arthur testifies to his determination to be great. The fact that he is well known by those at Bercilak’s castle is evidence of his good and honest reputation. Even when his obviously tricked by the Green Knight into agreeing to his terms, Gawain refuses to go against his word and goes to meet him after the allotted time. This shows his steadfastness to his commitments, even when faced with death. His fears and anxieties over the possibility of death are surpassed by his need to maintain his personal integrity. Yet, however virtuous Gawain may seem, he shows in the end that he is human and makes mistakes like everyone else. By concealing the gift of the green girdle from his host, Gawain knowingly reneges on his promise with the lord of the castle. Finally, Gawain’s supposedly unfailing bravery crumbles, and he comes to value his life more than any promise. He later confesses his sin to the Green Knight (also the host) and asks for forgiveness. He even wears the green girdle as a reminder of his sins. But, Gawain has forever changed for his action. He is now aware of his fallibility, realizes he will near live up to his high standards, and returns to the court a humiliated man.

The Green Knight
The Green Knight is the source of all the drama in the story. It is his unexpected and rude presence in King Arthur's Court that sets off the other events in the tale. By his description, it is obvious that he is a supernatural creature. His green hair and skin and massive size give him a monstrous look. He is also full of conceit and trickery. He doesn't apologize for disrupting Arthur's court and boldly challenges the knights to his test. He knows that he is immortal and will not suffer injury from the blow of the ax. Yet, he doesn't inform the other knights, including Gawain, of that fact when issuing the challenge. His trickery goes on when he presents himself to Gawain as Lord Bercilak at the castle. Yet, though his trickery seems wrong and deserving of hatred, his plans are the reason that Gawain finally gets to see his true self. He is, in a way, a metaphor for reality. He represents the wild, primitive wilderness. Arthur and his court represent civilization. Gawain is able to hide from himself under blanket of structure that civilization offers. However, when forced out into the real world on his own, he no longer can hide under his security blanket and must face the facts of his humanity.

King Arthur
Arthur, as the king and leader of the Knights of the Round Table, is supposed to be the ideal knight of the court. In some stories, he is portrayed as being a great and wise leader of his men, powerful but in battle and strategy. But other stories, such as this, show Arthur to be easily led by his men and even childlike in his actions. At the feast that begins the story, Arthur acts very boisterous and rowdy. He refused to eat until the others were served. He ordered that the knights tell him stories of their adventure, chivalry, or fantasy. His need for stories is almost reminiscent of a child asking for a bedtime story before he sleeps. Also, when faced with the task of cutting of the Green Knight's head, he boasts of the ease of the task but eagerly hands over the challenge to Gawain when asked. King Arthur's presence at the beginning and end of the story serve as a great object of comparison for the reader. Next to King Arthur's childishness, Gawain's maturity is evident.

Lady Bercilak
As the wife of the lord of the castle, also the Green Knight, Lady Bercilak serves as Gawain's temptation in this story. Everyone has been faced with temptation in his or her lives, and most yield to it. She works her wiles of seduction on Gawain to see which buttons will push him to go against his word. Her visits to his room and her kisses fluster Gawain. In fact, her beauty alone is a test on his strength of character. But, he is strong and battles against his feelings in order to do what is right. It isn't until he his faced with the one thing that can save his life, the green girdle that he yields to her. Even though fights his attraction to her, she is still the cause of his downfall in that it was she that brought Gawain the green girdle.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Created By Judith Mathieu,

Last Modified: May 15, 2004