The Defended Narrative in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’


This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson



A defended narrative uses outer defences rather than a move structure.



Outer defence opens




The plot opens with the beheading game bargain.


Sir Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge to a game in which Gawain deals the Green Knight a blow with an axe and is pledged to receive a return blow from him a year later.


Gawain chops off the Green Knight’s head and the Knight leaves the hall carrying his head and reminding Gawain to keep his appointment at the Green Chapel a year later.















Outer defence for the narrative opened. The outer defence of the beheading bargain makes the adventure with the lady possible. The beheading game safeguards this adventure because it is a bargain which will be honoured.



The adventure with the lady at Sir Bertilak’s castle


Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel to honour his bargain with the Green Knight. He stays at a castle over Christmas and the lord of the castle suggests that he and Gawain play a game. Each evening, host and guest will exchange whatever they have gained during the day.


On the first day, while the lord is hunting deer in the forest, his wife visits Gawain while he lies in bed and makes amorous advances. Gawain resists but accepts a kiss from her, which he exchanges for the flesh of a dismembered deer at the end of the day. The next day, the lord hunts a boar and, at the end of the day, Gawain exchanges two kisses for the boar’s head. On the third day, the lord hunts a fox, which is pursued with cries of ‘thief’, and Gawain exchanges three kisses for the skin of the fox, flayed alive. The lady has also given him a green girdle which he does not declare.


The bargain of the exchanges of winnings is a further, inner, safeguard for the adventure: the lord of the castle receives tokens that the hero has not been a traitor, and his own gifts show the hero what would happen should he be one.


Outer defence closes




On the following day, Gawain goes to the Green Chapel, which turns out to be a green, grassy mound. He hears the sound of an axe being sharpened as he explores this mound. The Green Knight appears, and Gawain flinches a little as the axe descends; the Knight withholds the axe, reproaching him. The next blow is a feint, and when the Knight swings the axe a third time he only wounds Gawain slightly on the neck.


The Green Knight is the friendly lord of the castle, and the slight wound is a punishment for Gawain’s concealment of the green girdle. Gawain confesses to covetousness and treachery before the Green Knight, and the Green Knight tells him that he has confessed his faults fully and done penance at the point of the axe. He is absolved of his offence.  





The beheading game bargain is honoured and the hero is reprieved. He has also done penance at the point of the axe and made his confession to the Green Knight, who has absolved him. Outer defence for the narrative closed.


It’s my argument that the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes a hidden plot in which a forbidden adventure with a lady is safeguarded by the honouring of two bargains. The plot constructs the safeguards out of narrative material which supplies the necessary bargains. The honouring of the first of these bargains – the beheading game – forms the outer defence and the honouring of the second – the exchanges of winnings – forms an inner one. The courtly material in the text belongs to the Gawain-poet’s overlay, where the author adapts the ritual material into that favourite medieval theme, the test.


The adventure with the lady is forbidden in the plot because she belongs to someone else. She also belongs to someone else in the overlay, but in the overlay she has come into Gawain’s bedchamber because she is testing him, while in the plot she is there because the hero has summoned her up. In the overlay, she belongs to a character called Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, while in the plot she belongs to a figure called ‘the Green Knight’, whose origin is a beheading bogey belonging to the primal world of the unconscious. Ritual plots are about raw, primitive feeling, while courtly themes are highly sophisticated and artificial: the contrast could not be greater. In this text, where the courtly joins forces with the primitive, Sir Bertilak plays the part of the Green Knight and the whole scheme is blamed on Morgan le Fay, while the primitive plot gets on with its business underneath and completes its course with the absolution given by the beheading bogey.


So the Gawain-poet’s romance has to rub along with a ‘hidden’ plot which inevitably conflicts with his chivalric themes. The curious partnership, where neither narrative knows about the other, provides a very rich text for audiences and plenty of intriguing problems for critics. A ritual plot is always dominant – an author cannot change its course – and its purpose is serious, probably functional, in the brain. We may be encountering a product of a lifelong storytelling process essential for the mind. It might be seen as a bit of biology, but nonetheless a valuable addition to our literature.


The task of finding out how this plot works has to be accomplished without the help of a move structure. It was my first defended narrative, half-way through my investigation, and the study I made of the text early in my career was a casualty of my not having grasped its structure. When I returned to it fifteen years later, I stood back from the details and suddenly saw the whole thing visually as an adventure surrounded by safeguards. This solution has now helped me to identify other defended narratives, where the defences take less visible forms or are only partial structures. Defences are a difficult but important area, revealing the amazing phenomenon of the ritual plot more clearly. Plots construct their defences out of narrative, and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is a magnificent dual construction, two nightmare bargains selected by unconscious thought to protect the hero. The unconscious knows more about nightmare than consciousness does, and its stories are among the best constructed and most popular in the world.


In coming to my solution I was enormously helped by the quality of the whole text, by the rich detail at both levels of narration. There is much to learn from exploring the conflicts between two levels of narration, and interpretation is little use before we have accomplished this satisfactorily. Where the enigmatic end of the romance is concerned, I had as my basic observation that the Green Knight heard Gawain’s confession and absolved him, in spite of Gawain’s prior confession before the priest at the castle. Meanwhile, the confessions appear paired, cowardice with covetousness and treachery with lack of fidelity. Cowardice and lack of fidelity are knightly offences which must belong to the overlay, while covetousness and treachery are the offences which commonly appear in the ritual plots, and seem inappropriate in the Gawain-poet’s romance. I see a significant duplication here: the matter of the overlay and the matter of the plot appearing side by side. In my work, such features cannot be passed over: there are indications of a serious crime running parallel with a courtly theme of knightly misdemeanours.


Primitive as it is, the ritual plot does have a concern with good and evil, but this concern is part of an unconscious world and not subjected to rational scrutiny. As such it is dealt with by magic. An investment of power in the bargains makes a ‘dangerous’ adventure possible, and an investment of power in the confession and absolution at the Green Chapel removes guilt and fear. The devices tend to be piled on; one alone is seldom enough. There are two bargains, not one, and then the addition of a confession and absolution described in detail. Meanwhile, the overlay’s concern with good and evil is recognisable to the conscious mind and dealt with by the author’s moral themes. 


For a full discussion of this text, see The Magical Quest, pages 189-212. 


This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson


Please do not copy or quote from this text without acknowledging the author.