It’s not easy being green; if you happen to be a knight, being green may cost your head. Being a green knight carries a big responsibility. Some may even say that in your ever-green garments you’re a representation of no less than Christ himself. As a type of Christ, the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight attempts to teach King Arthur and his Round Table a lesson in grace, but is misunderstood and thought of as an evil green giant (and anything but jolly).
As an acclaimed achievement of ancient alliterative adventure, this romance reeks of both mores and morality, all in the guise of a game.
At Christmastime in Camelot, the gallant King Arthur and his followers celebrate the season, placing a premium on appearances. Knights must appear more noble, maidens must appear more fair, and Arthur himself seeks to appear so interested in sport and adventure that he refuses to eat dinner unless told some marvelous tale. But this showboating is not left long without an answer when a mysterious Knight offers the entertainment Arthur seeks. The knight is looking for someone to answer his challenge. Whoever agrees to play this game will be given a beautiful battle-axe. He is to strike a blow with the axe on the Green Knight’s bare neck, but he will do so under a covenant where the Green Knight is to return the blow in one year and one day.
The call is answered by Sir Gawain, and when he journeys to meet the Green Knight in response to their covenant a year later, he is met with another series of games by a seemingly uninvolved Bertilak de Hautdesert. Sir Gawain plays these games with strict attention to the law, but just as man cannot fully follow the law of God, Sir Gawain’s human nature causes him to fall short in adherence to his covenants with Bertilak.
At his dreaded rendezvous with the Green Knight, he receives an unexpected gift of grace and is not dealt the death he bargained for. The Green Knight merely nicks Gawain in the neck with his axe, revealing his identity as Bertilak and offering Sir Gawain a grace aside from works. Gawain, however, cannot fully accept the Green Knight’s grace, and chooses to legalistically wear a green girdle the rest of his days as a reminder of his failure to fulfill the law of the covenant. As a matter of fact, the entire appearance-oriented Round Table decides to wear green girdles to share in Sir Gawain’s shame; the idea of grace seems to allude them.
Spring is a time of green and of new life, and green in the winter offers a paradox. The knight’s green habiliments might represent the eternal life of Christ, much as the Christmas tree was later used. so the Green Knight may be viewed as a type of Christ, offering eternal life in the midst of the barrenness of winter. The games and covenants are reminiscent of the Bible’s Old Testament covenants with God, but grace comes along to abolish that law and the death man deserves in breaking it.
But the same way man has difficulty understanding God’s gift of grace and thereby returns to the law, Sir Gawain and the knights of the Round Table return to the security found in their law of appearances and covenants.