Archetypes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In this article you will learn about the archetypes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance of unknown authorship, which contains examples of various archetypes commonly seen in literature throughout the ages.

What are the Archetypes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Gawain is an archetypal hero, who volunteers for the game in place of king Arthur aware that it could endanger him.

He is brave, strong, determined and honest, all qualities possessed by heroic characters. He sets out on an archetypal journey to find the Green Knight and complete the bargain which they had come to, knowing that it is his duty and the right thing to do.

The Green Knight acts as a mentor and teacher to Gawain in the story, despite this not necessarily being apparent until the end.

Through his actions he teaches Gawain the importance of chivalry and honesty, both essential qualities in a Knight, as well as qualities such as bravery, loyalty and endurance.

The Green Knight also acts as an archetypal threshold guardian, providing a threshold in the form of his test which Gawain must cross in order to realise something about life as a Knight and about his own inner nature.

The Knight’s wife acts as an archetypal Temptress, using her beauty and allure to test the hero of the story, to tempt him away from the path that he knows he should follow.

The old woman is an archetypal sorceress, or witch, who uses her magic to accomplish her own ends (not always for good) and to test the hero of the story.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Book Summary

  • A figure in green rides into Camelot wearing no armour but carrying an axe.
  • He refuses to fight, insisting he has come for a friendly Christmas game.
  • Someone can strike him once with his axe on condition that he can return the blow in a year and a day.
  • The axe will belong to whoever accepts. Sir Gawain requests the honour.
  • The Green Knight bares his neck and Gawain beheads him, but he survives, picks up his severed head and shows it to Guinevere before riding away.
  • A year on, Gawain sets off to keep the bargain. He finds a castle where he meets the lord, his wife and an old, ugly lady, treated with honour by all.
  • Gawain describes his bargain and the lord suggests Gawain rest at the castle till then. Gawain agrees.
  • The lord goes hunting and promises to give Gawain what he catches if Gawain agrees to give him whatever he gains during the day.
  • The lord’s wife tries to seduce Gawain but he gives her a single kiss so as not to offend her.
  • When the lord returns and gives Gawain a deer, Gawain gives him a kiss without telling him why.
  • The next day the lady again tries seduction and there is another exchange of a boar for two kisses.
  • She tries and fails again, but she asks that Gawain keep her sash, insisting it is charmed and will stop him coming to harm.
  • He agrees, swearing not to show her husband, and they share three kisses. The lord swaps a fox for three kisses but Gawain does not mention the sash.
  • Gawain wears the sash twice around his waist, finds the Green Knight and bares his neck to receive his blow, which causes a small wound, and the game is over.
  • The Knight reveals he is the Lord of the castle, transformed by magic.
  • The game was a trick by the old lady, actually Arthur’s sorceress sister, to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere to death.
  • The wound Gawain suffered was because he attempted to hide the sash.
  • Gawain expresses his shame but the Lord declares him blameless and they part cordially.
  • Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the sash as a reminder of the failure to keep his promise.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Archetype Examples

  • Hero
  • Mentor
  • Teacher
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Temptress
  • Sorceress/Witch
  • Journey
  • Task/Test

Want more literary archetypes?

Go check out our extensive list of archetypes in literature to find out more about the characters seen in literature throughout the ages.

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