Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Christmas Poem
By Jean Louise Carriere
Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.1:1 (1970)
Introduction: The Middle English alliterative romance Sir Gawain and Green Knight has often been called a Christmas poem, “filled with revelry and holiday celebrations in each of its four fits.” But the exploration of the seasonal aspect of Sir Gawain has stopped at the surface of the poem; it is regarded as a Christmas tale of the supernatural “on the level of ready and obvious meaning” or only “superficially.” Certainly, the Christmas motif is readily observable in the poem’s externals, particulary in its setting and in the person of the Green Knight.
The bulk of the poem (37-197, 750-2479) takes place during the Christmas season. “þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse” begins the action of the poem; the Green Knight’s challenge takes place on New Year’s day. A year later, Gawain arrives at Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve; he remains there to be tested by Lady Bertilak for three days, and answers the Green Knight’s challenge on New Years’s day.
Thus the main elements of the plot occur on the Vigil of Christmas and within its twelve days. Moreover, “in each of the sections, the main action is surrounded and enveloped by a picture of Christmas revelry and courtly life which serves to make the poem an almost continuous Christmas celebration.”