Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem that incorporates many different themes, all with varying contributions to the story’s plot and characters throughout. Sometimes the themes even appear to blur their individual distinctions and become intertwined. I see the theme of games as being one of the main themes, though I understand the theme of chivalry goes hand-in-hand with it because the Green Knight uses game playing to put Sir Gawain’s inner worth and honor as a knight up to the test. Although chivalry was in fact a very important code to live by during this time period, I predominantly see the poem revolving around two games. The word “gomen” (game) is actually found 18 times throughout this piece, and what is more interesting, the word “gome” (man) can be found an additional 21 times. This suggests to the reader that the ideas of games and men were linked at this time as well, with games being viewed as tests of worthiness. The first game in the poem revolves around an exchange of beheading, and the second game is about an exchange of winnings. These two games are eventually found to be connected, and ultimately, a victory in the first game will lead to a victory in the second game.
The first game happens during a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court when a strange green character, the Green Knight, comes to pay the court an unexpected visit. The Green Knight proposes to Arthur an exchange of one blow for another, but Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend, instead takes his uncle’s place in the contest by agreeing to the terms. Even though it would seem as if these agreements would be easy for Gawain, since no one expects the Green Knight to survive having his head cut off with an axe, the Green Knight manages to pick up his severed head before reminding Gawain of his promise to accept a returning blow. The second game presents itself as Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Knight roughly a year later, like their terms required. On Christmas Day, Gawain prays to find somewhere he could go to hear Mass, and when he looks up he sees a castle shimmering in the distance. For fun, the lord of the castle, Bercilak de Hautdesert (who later is revealed to be the Green Knight), strikes up a game with Gawain. The lord and his men will go out hunting every day and Sir Gawain will stay at home in the castle and do whatever he pleases. At the end of each day, the two will exchange whatever they have acquired.
Over the course of three days, the lord and his men hunt a herd of does, a wild boar, and a fox and bring them home to Gawain. Gawain stays at home in bed for these three days and is approached by the lord’s wife, who tries to seduce him and steal kisses from him. Each night, Gawain then passes off the kisses from the wife to the lord, in accordance with the game. However, on the third day, the lord’s wife gives Gawain a green girdle that possesses the magical ability to protect whoever wears it from death. Instead of giving up the girdle to the lord at the end of the day, along with the kisses, Gawain keeps the girdle for himself for when he meets the Green Knight again. Gawain is eventually led from the lord’s castle to the Green Chapel where he finds the Green Knight sharpening his weapon. The Green Knight ends up sparing Gawain with two swings of his axe, but with the third swing he manages to nick him. It is then revealed that the Green Knight is actually the lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert, from the castle. He tells Gawain that he knew of the green girdle the whole time but excuses him of his transgression. It is also revealed that the lord/Green Knight is a servant of Morgan le Faye, the half-sister to Arthur and aunt of Gawain. She was the one who had sent him in disguise as the Green Knight to Camelot to scare Queen Guinevere to death. Arguably, one could say that in addition to the two games described earlier, we now can see a couple other instances of games being played in this poem. It could be said that, for example, the lord’s wife played games with Gawain throughout the third section of the poem, and also, all of the events of the story are revealed as being part of Morgan le Faye’s game. Furthermore, throughout the story’s course, the author even plays somewhat of a mental game with the reader as well. All of which cumulates to my understanding of the poem’s main theme to be about games.