An alliterative poem from the north‐west midlands, dating from the second half of the 14th cent., the only manuscript of which is the famous Cotton Nero A. X which is also the sole manuscript of Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness. The poem is in 2,530 lines in long‐lined alliterative stanzas of varying length, each ending with a ‘bob and wheel’. Most modern critics regard the four poems in the manuscript as the work of a single poet.
The story of the poem is as follows (under the headings of its four ‘fitts’, narrative divisions). Fitt 1: Arthur and his court are seated at a New Year's feast in Camelot waiting for a marvel when a huge green man enters, bearing an axe and a holly bough. He challenges a knight to cut his head off on condition that the knight agrees to have his head cut off a year hence. Gawain accepts the challenge and cuts the green knight's head off; the knight picks it up and rides away. Fitt 2: A year later Gawain sets off to keep his side of the bargain. He comes upon a beautiful castle where he is graciously received. The lord of the castle makes an agreement with Gawain that each day he himself will hunt in the fields and Gawain in the castle; at the end of the day they will exchange spoils. Fitt 3: For three consecutive days, the lord hunts and Gawain is amorously approached by the beautiful lady of the castle, who gives him one kiss on the first day, two on the second, and on the third day three kisses and a girdle which has magic properties that will save his life. Each evening Gawain exchanges the kisses with his host for the animals slain in the hunt; but on the third evening he keeps the girdle (thus breaking his bargain), to protect him in the imminent meeting with the green knight. Fitt 4: Gawain is directed to the green knight's chapel where he kneels to receive his blow. Twice the knight feints at him, and the third time he makes a slight cut in Gawain's neck. Then he explains that he is the knight of the castle in a different form, and that the cut in the neck was sustained because of Gawain's infidelity in keeping the girdle. Gawain bitterly curses his failing and the snares of women; but the green knight applauds him and, on Gawain's return to Arthur's court, they declare that they will all wear a green girdle in honour of his achievement. The poem may be connected with the founding of the Order of the Garter. This is agreed to be one of the greatest poems in Middle English.