Antagonists in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Analysis


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the work of the unknown poet written approximately in the late 14th century, contains multiple topics for a discussion. The poem is referred to as an alliterative verse and medieval romance. Special interest of the work is the notion of the magical creature struggling with a human being. The Green Knight, a huge ephemeral creature, suggests a brave man to cut the Green Knight’s head off. However, the Green Knight will cut it off in return to the one who dares to play the beheading game. Sir Gawain, the young chivalrous man, accepts the challenge of the Green Knight, which aims to start a fierce game. Throughout the book, the Green Knight changes his attitude and his guise, and it leads to unpredictable turn of events. It is possible to argue that the challenge accepted by the young Sir Gawain reveals unexpected facets of the poem’s antagonists.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Analysis

Historical background

The Gawain poet is often referred to be the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. According to the history, the open-ended poem appeared in the Late Middle Ages simultaneously with knightly novels and profanes (St John, 2016, p. 254). Overall, medieval history can be divided into three stages: the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. The Early Middle Ages are characterized by literature that was composed in Latin language. Latin was used in territories of the Roman Empire until it was replaced by Anglo-Saxon languages. The High Middle Ages are marked by development of Anglo-Saxon languages and medieval romance. In fact, medieval literature developed in the period from 11th to 15th centuries. English language became widespread during those years. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer’s works written in Middle English became popular.

Generally, medieval literature has its own characteristics and unique traits. For instance, most of the medieval works were impersonal and anonymous. Nowadays some works still remain unrecognized, and the question of authorship is opened. It happened partly because the public was interested not in the poet, but in his literature. People shared books and treated them as common property. Another trait which led to the question of authorship is an oral interpretation. Much of medieval literature was assumed to be listened rather than to be read. It is explained by the absence of printing devices. To add to this, books were expensive and unavailable for a significant part of medieval citizens. That was why people preferred to memorize and recall stories, and then interpret them.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a medieval romance

The concept of medieval romance in the Middle Ages is not a romance in its traditional sense. This is a literary genre which was enormously famous from the 5th to 16th century. It deals with love and heroic adventures of knights in verse or in prose. To give a more detailed insight into medieval romance, it is vital to recall its origins. From the 12th century, the term “roman” was used to refer to a text written not in Latin (it was a language of the academic elite) but in a vernacular language. Medieval romance typically focuses on aristocratic natives which execute heroic quests. Central focus is often drawn to the knight who journeys and seeks adventures. English romances were much less interested in love as an inspiration for knights’ achievement than in military and heroic performances. Instead, medieval romances dealt with Arthurian themes tended to focus, representing Arthur and his knights of the Round Table as great national heroes. The work praises the knights and their deeds, for instance: “How heroes for their true love adventured their lives” (Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, 49). This poem can be considered vivid example of medieval romance, as it contains all the aforementioned features of the genre.

Analysis of the Green Knight’s behavior

The Green Knight, a huge figure, appears in the hall of King Arthur to challenge any knight for a game. The point of the game was to offer somebody to behead the Green Knight, however, this man would be beheaded by the Green Knight in reply in a year. It is known that there was a Christmas eve (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2), and Arthur was feasting and celebrating with his knights in his domain. According to the history, king Arthur, the character of the story and the real king, was praised and adored by his knights and people.

In many Arthurian stories it is clearly seen that the king is honored by his vassals and described in a glorious way. Therefore, the Green Knight which intervenes to Arthur’s hall to hold a cruel game turns to be an antagonist. Opposed to protagonist, this term means “villain” and usually drives the story to protagonist’s win. Concerning the Green Knight, he seems to be hostile when coming to Arthur’s hall: “He greeted never a one, but looked loftily about” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,8). Moreover, “There can be no doubt that he is rude” (Burrow, 2019, p.17). There are clear antagonistic traits in the Green Knight’s behavior, since he “directly challenges the Round Table’s honor” (Stewart, 2019, p. 2).

Lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain

Another ambiguous magical creature is seen throughout the work. This is Lady Bertilak, or just Lady, the wife of the noble lord of castle where Sir Gawain stops during his adventure. Together with her husband they made Sir Gawain’s rest comfortable: “They welcomed him, and he quickly asked to be their servant if it pleased them” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 32). They all had such a trustful relationship and Sir Gawain and Lord Bertilak made an agreement: “Whatsoever I win in the wood, it shall be yours” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 36). However, this agreement starts to seem comical when Lady Bertilak attempts to seduce Sir Gawain.

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An unusual issue about her is that Lady Bertilak does not look like an ordinary medieval woman at all. In medieval times, the position of women was determined by religious texts. Priests told about women’s inferiority. Another important remark is that the majority of women were not given any authority and voice. However, Lady Bertilak is shown as a woman who is a participant in unfair play. According to the story, she is a wife, but it does not prevent her from seducing a young and brave knight. Moreover, she has enough power and can do with Sir Gawain whatever she wants; she comes to kiss Sir Gawain and he cannot refuse her. Despite the fact Sir Gawain represents an image of an ideal knight, who must exercise heroic behavior and indulge women’s desires, Lady Bertilak seems to take advantage of his position. Lady Bertilak turns to be the second antagonist, as she threatens Sir Gawain’s reputation if he does not accept her tenderness. Although her beauty and form turned into deception for Sir Gawain, as well as Lord Bertilak’s guise, she managed to keep him at a short distance.


Looking upon the antagonists’ characters, it is clearly seen how ambiguous and questionable their images might be. The Green Knight evolves from a villain to a hospitable owner, although he rushed into Arthurian hall to play a beheading game. Lady Bertilak uncovers her flattering personality and manifests as a woman who might undermine the confidence. The work of the unknown author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, reveals how complicated and deceptive people’s images might be.


Burrow, J. A. (2019). A reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Taylor & Francis.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (1917). (Neilson, W. A. & Webster, K. G. T., Trans.). Global Grey.

St John, J. (2016). Perspectives in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: А medieval transgressive text? Antae Journal, 3(3), 254-267.

Stewart, R. S. (2019). The original Scarlet Letter: Flyting, green girdles, and medieval order in England. International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, 11(8), 1-6. DOI: 10.7710/2168-0620.1132

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