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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the character in Arthurian legend.
A painting from the original Gawain manuscript. The Green Knight is seated on the horse, holding up his severed head in his right hand.

The Green Knight is a character in the 14th-century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the related work The Greene Knight. His true name is revealed to be Bercilak de Hautdesert[1] in Sir Gawain, while The Greene Knight names him "Bredbeddle".[2] The Green Knight later appears as one of Arthur's greatest champions in the fragmentary ballad "King Arthur and King Cornwall", again under the name "Bredbeddle".[3] In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bercilak is transformed into the Green Knight by Morgan le Fay, a traditional adversary of King Arthur, in order to test his court. In The Greene Knight he is transformed by a different woman for the same purpose. In both stories he sends his wife to seduce Gawain as a further test. "King Arthur and King Cornwall" portrays him as an exorcist and one of the most powerful knights in Arthur's court.

In Sir Gawain, the Green Knight is so called because his skin is in fact green. The meaning of his greenness has puzzled scholars since the discovery of the poem, ranging from views that he is some version of the Green Man, a vegetation being in medieval art, to a recollection of a figure from Celtic mythology, to a Christian symbol, to the Devil himself. The medieval scholar C. S. Lewis said the character was "as vivid and concrete as any image in literature."[4] J. R. R. Tolkien called him the "most difficult character" to interpret in the introduction to his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His major role in Arthurian literature includes being a judge and tester of knights, and as such the other characters see him as friendly but terrifying and somewhat mysterious.[4]


Historical context

The earliest appearance of the Green Knight is in the late 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives in only one manuscript along with other poems by the same author, the so-called Pearl Poet.[5] This poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, writer of The Canterbury Tales, although the two wrote in different parts of England. The later poem, The Greene Knight, is a late medieval rhyming romance that likely predates its only surviving copy: the 17th century Percy Folio.[6] The other work featuring the Green Knight, the later ballad "King Arthur and King Cornwall", also survives only in the Percy Folio manuscript. Its date of composition is conjectural; it may be a version of an earlier story, though it is also possibly a product of the 17th century.[7]

Role in Arthurian literature

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight plays the role of challenger to King Arthur's court. He appears before the court during a Christmas feast, and is described as being completely green: skin, hair, dress, and all. He holds a bough of holly in one hand, and an enormously menacing battle axe in the other. He is dressed in garments, signifying his peaceful approach as he does not intend for violence, however, the knight issues a challenge: he will allow one man to strike him one time with his axe, under the condition that he be allowed to return the blow the following year by New Years. At first, Arthur takes up the challenge, but Gawain pulls him aside and pleads for him to give him the opportunity. Arthur gives him a chance and Gawain accepts the challenge. In one swoop, to the exposed neck of the Green Knight, he decapitates the giant, only to have the strange Knight calmly stand, retrieve his head, and tell Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel at the stipulated time.[8]

No, I seek no battle, I assure you truly:
Those about me in this hall are but beardless children.
If I were locked in my armor on a great horse,
No one here could match me with their feeble powers.
Therefore I ask of the court a Christmas game…

— The Green Knight addresses Arthur's Court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight[9]

The next time the Knight appears, he is in the form of Bercilak de Hautedesert, lord of a large castle, who freely invites Gawain to lodge there as he prepares to complete his journey to the Green Chapel. Gawain, unaware of his lord's true identity, is submitted to a series of tests of his loyalty and chastity (Bercilak even sends his wife to seduce Gawain). Bercilak arranges a wager with the unknowing Gawain to hand everything that he receives that day over to the other man; they toast a drink to the agreement. But, as the time approaches for Gawain to meet with the Green Knight, he asks to depart and is asked by Bercilak not to leave just yet. Fearing that he will not make it, he asks if his host knows where the Green Chapel is located. The King knows of its location and tells him that it is a mere two miles away; Gawain agrees to remain for a few more days, enduring the tests until his departure. Gawain departs to the Green Chapel, which is really a mound of grass.[10] When Gawain arrives, the Knight is sharpening his axe. Gawain bends to receive his blow, only to have the Green Knight feint two blows, then barely nick him on the third. He then reveals that he is Bercilak, that he sent his wife purposely to test Gawain, and that Morgan le Fay had given him the ability to be the Green Knight in order to test Arthur's court. He and Gawain part on good terms.

The Greene Knight tells basically the same story as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a few differences. Notably, the knight is only said to be wearing green, not to actually be green himself. The poem also explains more of the motives behind the Knight's game: the knight has been asked by his wife's mother (not Morgan in this version) to play a joke on Gawain. He agrees because he knows his wife is secretly in love with Gawain, and hopes that he can make a fool of them both by involving them in his game. Gawain falters in his knighthood in accepting a girdle from her, and the Green Knight's purpose is fulfilled in a small sense. In the end, however, he acknowledges Gawain's overall ability and asks to accompany him back to Arthur's court.

In King Arthur and King Cornwall, The Green Knight appears as Bredbeddle, and is depicted as one of Arthur's knights. He offers to help Arthur fight a mysterious sprite (under the control of the magician, King Cornwall) which has entered his chamber. When physical attacks fail, Bredbeddle uses a sacred text to subdue it. The Green Knight eventually gains so much control over the sprite through this text that he convinces it to take a sword and strike off its master's head.


The name "Bertilak" may derive from bachlach, a Celtic word meaning "churl" (i.e. rogueish, unmannerly). Alternatively it may derive from "bresalak", meaning "contentious". The Old French word bertolais translates as "Bertilak" in the Arthurian tale Merlin from the Lancelot-Grail Cycle of Arthurian legend. Notably, the 'Bert-' prefix means 'bright', and the '-lak' can mean either 'lake' or "play, sport, fun, etc". "Hautdesert" probably comes from a mix of both Old French and Celtic words meaning "High Wasteland" or "High Hermitage". It may also have a connection with desirete meaning "disinherited" (i.e. from the glory of the Round Table).[4]

Similar or derivative characters

Green Knights in other stories

Characters similar to the Green Knight appear in several other works. In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, for example, Gawain's brother Gareth defeats four brothers in different coloured armour, including a "Grene Knyght", Sir Partolope.[11] The three who survive the encounter eventually join the Round Table and appear several further times in the text. The stories of Saladin feature a certain "Green Knight"; he is a Sicilian warrior in a shield vert and a helmet adorned with stag horns. Saladin has respect for this honourable fighter and tries to make him part of his personal guard.[12]

The figure of Al-Khidr (Arabic: الخضر‎) in the Qur'an is called the "Green Man". He tests Moses three times by doing seemingly evil acts, which are eventually revealed to be noble deeds to prevent greater evils or reveal great goods. Both the Arthurian Green Knight and Al-Khidr serve as teachers to holy and upright men (Gawain, Moses), who thrice put their faith and obedience to the test. It has been suggested that the character of the Green Knight may be a literary descendant of Al-Khidr, brought to Europe with the Crusaders and blended with Celtic and Arthurian imagery.[13]

Characters fulfilling similar roles

The beheading game appears in a number of tales, the earliest being the Middle Irish tale Bricriu's Feast. The challenger in this story is named "Fear", a bachlach (churl), and is eventually revealed to be the hero Cú Roí in disguise. He challenges three warriors to his game, only to have them run from the return blow, until the hero Cú Chulainn takes the challenge. With Cú Chulainn under his axe, this antagonist also feints three blows before letting the hero go. In the Life of Caradoc, a Middle French narrative embedded in the anonymous First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail, another similar challenge is issued. In this story, a notable difference is that Caradoc's challenger is his father in disguise, come to test his honour. The French romances The Girl with the Mule or The Mule Without a Bridle and Hunbaut feature Gawain in beheading game situations, Hunbaut having an interesting twist: Gawain cuts off the man's head, and then pulls off his magic cloak before he can replace it, causing his death.[14] A similar story, this time attributed to Lancelot, appears in the 13th century French work Perlesvaus.

The 14th-century The Turke and Gowin begins with a Turk entering Arthur's court and asking, "Is there any will, as a brother, To give a buffett and take another?"[15] Gawain accepts the challenge, and is then forced to follow the Turk until he decides to return the blow. Through the many adventures they have together, the Turk, out of respect, rather than returning the blow asks the knight to cut off his (the Turk's) head, which Gawain does. The Turk, surviving, then praises Gawain and showers him with gifts. The Carle off Carlile contains a scene in which the Carl, a lord, orders Gawain to strike him with his spear, and bends over to receive the blow.[16] Gawain obliges, the Carl rises, laughing and unharmed, and, unlike in Gawain, no return blow is demanded or given.[14] Among all these stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the only one with a completely green character, and the only one tying Morgan le Fay to his transformation.[14][15]

Several stories also feature knights struggling to stave off the advances of voluptuous women, including Yder, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Hunbaut, and The Knight of the Sword. The Green Knight parallel in these stories is a King testing a knight as to whether or not he will remain chaste in extreme circumstances. The woman he sends is sometimes his wife (as in Yder), if he knows that she is unfaithful and will tempt other men; in The Knight of the Sword the king sends his beautiful daughter. All of the characters playing the Green Knight role in these stories are portrayed as powerful and frightening, as they usually kill unfaithful knights who fail their tests.[14]

Significance of the colour green

Painting of a green devil from about the same period as the Gawain poem. Poetic contemporaries such as Chaucer also drew connections between the colour green and the devil, leading scholars to draw similar connections in readings of the Green Knight.[17]

In English folklore and literature, green has traditionally been used to symbolize nature and its embodied attributes, namely those of fertility and rebirth. Oftentimes it is used to embody the supernatural or spiritual other world. Historically speaking, the devil was sometimes toned green which may or may not play into the concept of the Green Man/ Wild Man dichotomy of the Green Knight.[18] Stories of the medieval period also portray the colour as representing love and the amorous in life,[19] and the base, natural desires of man.[20] Green is also known to have signified witchcraft, devilry and evil for its association with the fairys and spirits of early English folklore and for its association with decay and toxicity.[21] The colour, when combined with gold, is sometimes seen as representing the fading of youth.[22] In the Celtic tradition, green was avoided in clothing for its superstitious association with misfortune and death. Green can be seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; displaying both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the colour.[4][17] Given these varied and even contradictory interpretations of the colour green, its precise meaning in the poem remains ambiguous.


Of the many similar characters similar to him, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain is the first to be green.[23] Because of his strange colour, some scholars believe him to be a manifestation of the Green Man figure common in medieval art,[4] or as a representation of both the vitality and fearful unpredictability of nature. The fact that he carries a green holly branch, as well as the comparison of his beard to a bush, has guided many scholars in this direction. The gold entwined in the cloth wrapped around his axe, combined with the green, gives him both a wild and an aristocratic air.[20] Others see him as being an incarnation of the Devil himself.[4] In one interpretation, it is thought that the Green Knight, as the "Lord of Hades", has come to challenge the noble knights of King Arthur's court. Sir Gawain, the bravest of the knights, therefore proves himself the equal to Hercules in challenging the Knight, tying the story to ancient Greek mythology.[21] Another possible interpretation of the Green Knight views him as combining elements from the Greek Hades and the Christian Messiah, at once representing both good and evil and life and death as self-proliferating cycles. This interpretation embraces the positive and negative attributes of the colour green and ties in with the enigmatic motif of the poem.[4] The description of the Green Knight upon his entrance to Arthur's Court as "from neck to loin… strong and thickly made" is viewed by other scholars as homoerotic.[24]

C.S. Lewis declared the Green Knight "as vivid and concrete as any image in literature" and further described him as:

a living coincidentia oppositorum; half giant, yet wholly a "lovely" knight"; as full of demoniac energy as old Karamazov, yet in his own house, as jolly as a Dickensian Christmas host; now exhibiting a ferocity so gleeful that it is almost genial, and now a geniality so outrageous that it borders on the ferocious; half boy or buffoon in his shouts and laughter and jumpings; yet at the end judging Gawain with the tranquil superiority of an angelic being [25]

The Green Knight could also be interpreted as a blend of two traditional figures in romance and medieval narratives, namely, "the literary green man" and the "literary wild man."[26] "The literary green man" signifies "youth, natural vitality, and love," whereas the "literary wild man" represents the "hostility to knighthood," "the demonic" and "death." The Knight's green skin connects the green of the costume to the green of the hair and beard, thus connecting the green man's pleasant manners and significance into the wild man's grotesque qualities.[26]

Jack in the green

The Green Knight is also compared to the English holiday figure Jack in the green. Jack is part of a May Day holiday tradition all over England, but his connection to the Knight is found mainly in the Derbyshire traditions of Castleton Garlanding. In this tradition, Jack in the green marches into the town on a horse, dressed in green and wearing a garland of leaves and flowers that covers his entire upper body. On the top of the garland is a quayne, or a group of bright flowers. At the end of a ceremony, the quayne is taken off the garland and placed at the top of the church tower. Due to the nature imagery associated with the Green Knight, scholars have seen the ceremony as possibly deriving from his famous beheading in the Gawain poem. In this case, the quayne removal is symbolic of the loss of the knight's head.[27]

Green Chapel

In the Gawain poem, when the Knight is beheaded, he tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel, saying that all nearby know where it is. Indeed, the guide which is to bring Gawain there from Bertilak's castle grows very fearful as they near it and begs Gawain to turn back. The final meeting at the Green Chapel has led many scholars to draw religious connections, with the Knight fulfilling a priestly role with Gawain as a penitent. The Green Knight ultimately, in this interpretation, judges Gawain to be a worthy knight, and lets him live, playing a priest, God, and judge all at once.

The Chapel, however, is as difficult to interpret as the Knight himself. Despite its being a chapel, it is seen in Gawain's eyes as an evil place: foreboding, "the most accursed church", "the place for the Devil to recite matins". However, when the mysterious Knight allows Gawain to live, Gawain immediately assumes the role of penitent to a priest or judge, as would be normal in an actual church. The Green Chapel may also be related to tales of fairy hills or knolls of earlier Celtic literature. Some scholars have wondered whether "Hautdesert" refers to the Green Chapel, as it means "High Hermitage"; but such a connection is doubted among most scholars.[4] As to the location of the Chapel, in the Greene Knight poem, Sir Bredbeddle's living place is described as "the castle of hutton", leading some scholars to suggest a connection with Hutton Manor House in Somerset.[28] Strangely, Gawain's journey leads him directly into the centre of the Pearl Poet's dialect region, where the candidates for the locations of the Castle at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel stand. Hautdesert is thought to be in the area of Swythamley in northwest Midland, as it is in the writer's dialect area, and matches the land features described in the poem. The area is also known to have housed all of the animals hunted by Bertilak (deer, boar, fox) in the 14th century.[29] The Green Chapel is thought to be in either Lud's Church or Wetton Mill, as these areas closely match the descriptions given by the author.[30]

See also


  1. ^ An alternate spelling in some translations is "Bertilak" or "Bernlak"
  2. ^ Hahn, Thomas. "The Greene Knight". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, p. 314. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000) ISBN 1-879288-59-1.
  3. ^ Hahn, Thomas. "King Arthur and King Cornwall". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, p. 427. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000) ISBN 1-879288-59-1.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Besserman, Lawrence. "The Idea of the Green Knight." ELH, Vol. 53, No. 2. (Summer, 1986), pp. 219-239. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. ^ Scattergood, Vincent J. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". In Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 419–421. New York: Garland. (1991). ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  6. ^ Hahn, Thomas. "The Green Knight". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, pp. 309–312. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000). ISBN 1-879288-59-1.
  7. ^ Hahn, Thomas. "King Arthur and King Cornwall". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, pp. 419–421. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000). ISBN 1-879288-59-1.
  8. ^ Wilhelm, James J. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Wilhelm, James J. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994. 399 - 465.
  9. ^ "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period. Vol. 1. ed. Joseph Black, et al. Toronto: Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-609-X Intro pg. 235
  10. ^ Wilhelm, James J. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Wilhelm, James J. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994. 399 - 465.
  11. ^ Malory, Thomas; Vinaver, Eugène. Malory: Complete Works. p. 185. Oxford University Press. (1971). ISBN 9-780192-812179.
  12. ^ Richard, Jean. "An Account of the Battle of Hattin Referring to the Frankish Mercenaries in Oriental Moslem States" Speculum 27.2 (1952) pp. 168-177.
  13. ^ Lasater, Alice E. Spain to England: A Comparative Study of Arabic, European, and English Literature of the Middle Ages. University Press of Mississippi. (1974). ISBN 0-878-05056-6.
  14. ^ a b c d Brewer, Elisabeth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: sources and analogues. 2nd Ed. Boydell Press. (November 1992) ISBN 0859913597
  15. ^ a b Hahn, Thomas. "The Turke and Sir Gawain". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000) ISBN 1-879288-59-1. Online: The Turke and Sir Gawain.
  16. ^ Hahn, Thomas. "The Carle of Carlisle". In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. (2000). ISBN 1-879288-59-1. Online: The Carle of Carlisle.
  17. ^ a b Robertson, D. W. Jr. "Why the Devil Wears Green." Modern Language Notes (November 1954) 69.7 pgs. 470-472
  18. ^ Krappe, A.H. “Who Was the Green Knight?” Speculum 13.2 (1938): 206-215.
  19. ^ Chamberlin, Vernon A. "Symbolic Green: A Time-Honored Characterizing Device in Spanish Literature." Hispania Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1968), pp. 29-37
  20. ^ a b Goldhurst, William. "The Green and the Gold: The Major Theme of Gawain and the Green Knight." College English, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Nov., 1958), pp. 61-65
  21. ^ a b Williams, Margaret. The Pearl Poet, His Complete Works. Random House, 1967.
  22. ^ Lewis, John S. "Gawain and the Green Knight." College English. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Oct., 1959), pp. 50-51
  23. ^ Krappe, A. H. "Who Was the Green Knight?" Speculum. (April 1938) 13.2 pgs. 206-215
  24. ^ Zeikowitz, Richard E. "Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes" College English Special Issue: Lesbian and Gay Studies/Queer Pedagogies. 65.1 (2002) 67-80.
  25. ^ "The Anthropological Approach," in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), 219-30; reprinted in Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher (Notre Dame, Ind. and London: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 63.
  26. ^ a b Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1965), 56-95
  27. ^ Rix, Michael M. "A Re-Examination of the Castleton Garlanding." Folklore (June 1953) 64.2 pgs. 342-344
  28. ^ Wilson, Edward. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Stanley Family of Stanley, Storeton, and Hooton." The Review of English Studies. (August 1979) 30.119 pgs. 308-316
  29. ^ Twomey, Michael. "Hautdesert". Travels With Sir Gawain. Ithaca Univ. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 
  30. ^ Twomey, Michael. "The Green Chapel". Travels With Sir Gawain. Ithaca Univ. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 

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