Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The anonymous fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a member of Arthur’s Round Table who is faced with certain death at the hands of an incredibly large and diabolical Green Knight. As the knights are celebrating the Feast of Christmas one New Year’s Day, the Green Knight enters the castle with a challenge: he will allow one of the knights to strike him with a battle axe, but the knight must allow himself to be struck with it by the Green Knight in return. After some hesitation, Gawain rises to the challenge. He takes up the axe and, with one strong swing, decapitates the Green Knight. The Green Knight, however, promptly picks up his head, mounts his horse, and rides way. Gawain, to keep his end of the bargain, must come to the Green Knight’s chapel on New Year’s Day the following year to receive his blow.

A year later, on his way to the Green Knight’s chapel, Gawain is taken in by “another” knight who lives in the woods near the chapel. The knight agrees to host him for the week from Christmas to New Year’s and, on New Year’s Day, to lead him to the Green Knight’s chapel. At the castle, however, Gawain undergoes a series of temptations from his host’s wife and plays a game of exchanging gifts with his host, all of which eventually leads Gawain to sin in an attempt to save his own life from the Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines a great many elements that make for an outstanding story: there is an element of mystery and fear, an element of action and courage, an element of sex and love. Perhaps most importantly the story is a human one. It is not, as some may be tempted to believe, merely a story of chivalry. If virtue and sin are things that really do exist and so really apply in all ages and places, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a story that is, at heart, about virtue and about sin, has a perennial quality about it. As a story of man (not justa) facing inevitable and ineluctable death, it is a story for and even about each of us. In his attempt to escape from death, Gawain falls into sin, demonstrating the truth of St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:12. The lesson being taught is not merely for the chivalrous knight of the fourteenth century; it is also for the man who desires to live a virtuous Christian life in the 21st century.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a great story with an inexhaustible wealth of timeless wisdom to be derived from it.

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