Sir Gawain and the Green Knight establishes the setting firmly in Arthurian Britain by means of a lengthy description of the legendary history of Britain. Britain is a land of great wonders and strife, but King Arthur has established a court of utmost nobility and chivalry, peopled with the bravest knights and fairest ladies. This story begins at a lavish New Year's celebration in Camelot, King Arthur's court.
A rich description of the celebration follows, where the poet carefully conveys luxurious details of decoration and attire. There is the incomparably beautiful Queen Guinevere, Arthur himself, and seated in honor around them, various noble knights and relatives of Arthur, including Sir Gawain . We learn that Arthur does not like to begin his feasts until he has heard a great tale or witnessed a great marvel. Indeed, in the midst of the feasting, a wondrous stranger bursts into the hall. The giant-like stranger is most remarkable because he is entirely green, but he nevertheless carries an air of handsome civility, wearing sumptuous green and gold clothes and armor. His horse is equally decked in ornate green, and the knight himself holds a branch of holly in one hand and a formidable battle-axe in the other. He demands, somewhat arrogantly, to speak to the ruler of the company, while the court stares on in stunned silence. When Arthur finally speaks, the stranger explains that he has come to this famously valiant court to play a Christmas game. Whoever agrees to play this game will be allowed to strike the Green Knight on the spot, in the middle of the court; in exchange, the Green Knight will strike a return blow upon the volunteer a year and a day hence. None of the court volunteers as the game seems to imply certain death for whomever plays; the stranger ridicules them all for Camelot's supposed bravery.
Eventually Arthur agrees to play the game, but as he is about to wield the great battle-axe, Gawain speaks. In polite and self-effacing language, Gawain begs to take up the boon instead, so the life of the king can be spared in place of a knight as weak and lowly as he. The court agrees to let Gawain play, and after restating the terms of the agreement to each other, the stranger gives the battle-axe to Gawain, who cleaves off the stranger's head in one blow. But miraculously enough, the stranger does not die, and the body of the Green Knight picks up the severed head, which even speaks to Gawain. The stranger charges Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel next New Year's morning, so that he may receive his exchange blow.
After the stranger leaves, the New Year's feast continues unaffected, but the poet ends the fitt by foreshadowing the dangerous adventures Gawain must face.
The second part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens with a lush, detailed description of Nature and the passing of the year. After the Christmas feast and the Green Knight's challenge, the winter passes into a springtime and summer. But eventually harvest season approaches, the leaves fall, and as winter begins, Gawain remembers his agreement with the Green Knight. So, at a Michaelmas feast, he sadly bids farewell to Arthur's court. All the lords and ladies are silently sorrowful that a knight as worthy as Gawain must go to his doom by receiving the exchange blow from the Green Knight.
The poet then gives a meticulous description of Gawain as he dons his ornate armor the next morning. Both he and his horse Gringolet are richly attired, but Gawain's most important piece of armor of all is his shield, which bears the emblem of the Pentangle, the five-pointed star. The Pentangle, the emblem of truth, is particularly suitable for Gawain because the five points of the star represent the five different ways in which Gawain, like purified gold, embodies faultless virtue. He is perfect in the five senses; his five fingers are unfailing; his faith is fixed firmly on the five wounds which Christ received on the cross; he draws his strength from the five joys Mary had through Jesus; and he embodies, better than any other living man, the five virtues: Franchise, Fellowship, Cleanness, Courtesy, and above all, Charity. On the inside of his shield is an image of the Virgin Mary, often the source of Gawain's courage.
Once armed with his shield, Gawain rides away from Camelot, the court mourning that such a young, faultless knight should sacrifice his life as a result of a silly Christmas game. Gawain rides for months, alone, with no friends but his horse and no one to talk to but God. On the way, he battles beasts and giants and struggles through a harsh, cold country which would have killed a weaker or more faithless man. On Christmas Eve, after toiling through a daunting wood, Gawain beseeches the Lord and Mary to guide him to some haven where he may attend mass and properly pray on Christmas morning. Almost immediately, Gawain stumbles upon a moated fortress, a beautiful castle with strong defences and intricate architectural flourishes. Awed and grateful, Gawain asks the porter of the castle for entrance and is greeted by a great, joyful, and eager company. He is welcomed by the lord of the castle, a massive, civilized, capable-looking man who sees to it that Gawain receives the best of care. After a great feast, his company learns that he is none other than Sir Gawain of Arthur's court, and they are delighted to have such an honored personage in their presence, the embodiment of good breeding and chivalry himself.
After dinner, the company attends the Christmastide mass, where Gawain meets the lady of the castle. She is incomparably beautiful, and she is accompanied by an ancient noble lady, whose utter ugliness enhances her own beauty. Gawain is pleased to meet her, and their companionship deepens over the next few days of feasting. After the third day, Gawain thanks the lord and declares himself his servant, but regrets that he must leave the next morning to continue his quest. The lord, however, reveals that the Green Chapel is but two miles away, so Gawain must stay for the remaining three days and relax in bed. Jubilant, Gawain again declares himself the servant of the lord, ready to do his bidding. The lord decides that the next day, Gawain will stay in bed until attending high mass and dinner with the lady of the castle; in the meantime, the lord himself will rise at dawn to go hunting. He suggests one more thing: whatever he wins in the forest tomorrow will be given to Gawain, and in exchange, whatever Gawain wins in the castle during the day he must give to the lord. Gawain agrees to this bargain, and the lord calls for more wine and revelry to celebrate their game.
Part Three covers the three days before Gawain must leave the lord's castle to meet the Green Knight on New Year's Day. On the first day, as planned, the lord arises early to go hunting. The poet describes in detail the hunting party as it moves through the winter forest, hounds and blaring horns in hot pursuit of deer. Then, almost drastically, the scene switches to the interior of the castle, to Gawain's bedroom where the slumbering knight is approached by the lovely lady of the castle.
A careful dialogue follows between Gawain and the lady, where he delicately and diplomatically evades and parries her sexual advances. As she is about to leave him, she asks for a kiss, and Gawain, as befits the chivalrous knight, grants her that. The rest of the day Gawain spends at mass and then in the company of the two ladies of the castle.
In the meantime, the lord's hunting party has slaughtered a great number of deer by sunset, and they then begin the meticulous process of cutting and dividing the bodies of the game. Once this is done, they return home and Gawain commends the lord for his fine hunting. As promised, the lord gives the game to Gawain and Gawain, in exchange, gives the lord a sweet kiss he received that day, but refuses to reveal who it was won from, claiming that it was not part of the agreement. The two men revel for the rest of the evening and agree to continue their contract, by exchanging their winnings of the next day.
The second day begins with the hunting party on the trail of an huge and vicious boar. Meanwhile, Gawain welcomes the lady as she enters his bedchamber, as dogged as ever in her pursuit of him. More flirtatious conversation ensues: she reprimands him for forgetting to kiss her and alludes to his reputation in Courtly Love and asks to be taught. In the end, Gawain evades the lady's amorous intentions, with only two kisses being exchanged. Outside, the hunt of the boar continues viciously, and the lord wins the battle by thrusting his sword into the boar's heart. Another complicated process divides the body of the boar, and the triumphant hunting party returns to the castle. Again, Gawain and the lord are joyously reunited; just as the lord gives the boar to Gawain, the younger knight bestows two kisses on him. The lady continues to dote adoringly on Gawain, and the lord convinces Gawain to stay a third day, with the same contract of exchanging winnings.
The final day of the game dawns with a description of its brilliant, wintry beauty, and the hunting dogs fall on the trail of a cunning fox. Inside the castle, the lady enters Gawain's bedchamber while wearing a lovely and very revealing gown. She wakes him from his sorrowful slumber, as he dreads the impending day of doom at the Green Chapel. Gawain again escapes her advances but the lady offers a token of remembrance: a valuable ring of gold, which he kindly refuses. The lady then offers him a green silk tunic which can protect the wearer from death. Aware of his impending meeting with the Green Knight, Gawain accepts the girdle, which the lady begs him to keep secret. After receiving a third kiss from her that morning, Gawain dresses, confesses his sins to a priest in preparation for his challenge the next day, and then spends the rest of the day in utter merriment. Meanwhile, after much dogged pursuit, the lord triumphantly captures the sly fox, and gives it to Gawain that night in the castle, in exchange for three kisses. Gawain does not reveal anything about the green girdle, and the lord assigns a servant to guide Gawain to the Green Chapel the next morning. Heavy-hearted, Gawain bids farewell to the people of the castle, all of whom are sad to see him go. That night, Gawain has trouble sleeping for fear of the next day's events.
The final, dreaded day opens ominously with a fierce winter storm that keeps Gawain up at night. Before dawn on New Year's Day, the knight is awake and getting dressed, garbing himself in rich, bejeweled clothes -- most importantly the green girdle which the lady had given him. With the servant accompanying him, Gawain leaves the castle and travels through a somber, snow-covered landscape. The servant begs Gawain to reconsider his mission and run from the Green Knight, who is a horrible, cruel monster: huge, merciless, someone who kills for pure joy. But Gawain refuses to run, as that would prove himself a cowardly knight. Resigned, the servant leaves Gawain, and the knight continues alone to the Green Chapel. Gawain marvels at the deserted ugliness of the place, fearing that he might encounter the Devil himself in such a place.
Suddenly, Gawain hears the sound of a blade being sharpened on a grindstone, and meets the terrifying Green Knight, who bears a monstrous axe. He welcomes Gawain, praising him for maintaining his part of the agreement and the horrified Gawain exposes his neck to receive the exchange blow. But at the last moment, he flinches from the axe, and the Green Knight stops to yell at the cowardly Gawain. The second attempt stops short as well, enraging Gawain. On the third stroke, the Green Knight splits the skin on Gawain's neck but that is all the injury done. The Green Knight explains to the wondrous Gawain what has just happened: the Green Knight is the lord of the castle, and the two feinted ax strokes represent the first two days of the game, when Gawain faithfully gave everything he won that day to the King. But that third day, Gawain did conceal the green sash from the King and as a result is punished by the slight scrape on his neck. The lord reveals that he arranged his wife's advances upon Gawain, but having seen the result, he is convinced that Gawain is the finest man alive, his only failure stemming understandably from his love of life. But Gawain is harsher on himself, cursing his cowardice and covetousness and rejecting the green sash which made him guilty.
The Green Knight urges Gawain to keep the sash as a token of their struggle and invites him back to the castle to celebrate the New Year. Gawain declines and considers the dangerous wiles of women . He agrees to keep the girdle to remind himself of the "fault and frailty of the foolish flesh." The Green Knight reveals himself to be Bertilak de Hautdesert, servant to the sorceress Morgan le Fay. It was Morgan who engineered the entire game, sending Bertilak down to Camelot so that Guinevere would be shocked to death by the staged beheading. In fact, Morgan was the ancient noble lady at Hautdesert castle and is the scheming half-sister to Arthur, the king's traditional nemesis. A disillusioned Gawain returns to Camelot, where is greeted with much cheering and joy from Arthur, Guinevere, and the others. He recounts his entire adventure, but is ashamed when he tells of his ultimate failing as a result of the green girdle. Nevertheless, Arthur and the courtiers, unaware of Gawain's shame, adopt the green girdle as a heraldic token in honor of Gawain. From there, the poet concludes in much the same way he opened the poem, praising Arthur, moving back through Brutus to the siege of Troy. The final two lines implore Jesus Christ for bliss.