One of the most misunderstood characters from the Arthurian Legends is the Green Knight, especially in comparison with Sir Gawain. At first glance, the Green Knight seems to be very overpowering in his challenging of the knights of King Arthur’s court. He even indicates that everyone in the court is weak, and he cannot believe that this is the famous Arthur’s house:
The Green Knight knows that he will not die from a strike of an axe, and so he is offering to play this game to mock the knights of the Round Table. But, as it turns out later, the Green Knight is more noble and fair than it seems and is also very kind. He will not kill his challenger but gives him a more fair test, a test of character.
“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said that horseman then. (Norton, 309)
The Green Knight, or Bercilak de Hautdesert as he introduces himself, is not such a bad guy and is actually a very good host. He gladly takes Sir Gawain into his home and offers him everything, a nice bath, food, clothing, and ironically, even his wife. He also offers to the Sir Gawain a very good deal, to share everything they both get in a day:
And, while Sir Gawain just sits at home, sleeps late and enjoys his day with a beautiful lady, Bercilak de Hautdesert goes out to hunt for game. In reality the Green Knight wants to give Sir Gawain an opportunity to show his inner self. The Green Knight tests Sir Gawain by sending his own wife to seduce him, to check first of all, if he’ll bite the bait, and second, if he will be honest about it.
Said the good host, 'agree now to this:
Whatever I win in the woods I will give you at eve,
And all you have earned you must offer to me;
Swear now, sweet friend, to swap as I say,
Whether hands, in the end, be empty or better.' (Norton, 1105-1109)
The Green Knight realizes that it is not completely fair for him to challenge a mortal person, Sir Gawain, and so he wants to give Sir Gawain another chance to stay alive. He tests Sir Gawain by sending his wife to try to seduce him and to check if Sir Gawain will be honest about it. This test is simply the test of honesty, but the real challenge is that Sir Gawain doesn’t know that it’s a test. And Sir Gawain does well twice when tested, but the third time, he fears more for his life than for guarding his honesty and lies to the Green Knight. The Green Knight takes into consideration that Sir Gawain has passed two out of three tests, and when the time comes for the blow of the axe, he pays Gawain back for his honesty by not striking but only nicks his neck for the one time that he has lied.
The Green Knight may be associated with another similar character, known as Sir Gromer Somer. Both have a history of being weird and misunderstood. In “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,” Gromer has a strange request for Arthur, and if it is not fulfilled, he will kill him. But, in reality, Sir Gromer Somer has a right to be enraged with Arthur and maybe even to kill him because Arthur has taken his land away and given it to Gawain. However, Sir Gromer acts calmly and doesn’t rush to kill Arthur. He even offers Arthur a way out and to be spared from his anger by finding an answer to this question: “what do women most desire?” And when Arthur does find the right answer for him, the Sir Gromer Somer keeps his word and doesn’t kill him.
The Green Knight may seem strange and maybe cruel for striking up an unfair challenge, which he knows he cannot lose. But the reason he does it is out of respect for Arthur's sister, who is angry with Guinevere, and who wants this gruesome beheading to scare Guinevere to death. Green Knight is not flawless; he is just like everyone else and does what he thinks should be done. It’s true he likes to play games with people's minds, but the bottom line is he treats people justly and honorably.
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