Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance. It is one of the better-known Arthurian stories, of an established type known as the "beheading game". Written in bob and wheel stanzas, it emerges from Welsh, Irish and English tradition and highlights the importance of honour and chivalry. It is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his prowess, and it remains popular to this day in modern English renderings from J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage and others, as well as through film and stage adaptations.
It describes how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious "Green Knight" who challenges any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him with his blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle.
The ambiguity of the poem's ending makes it more complex than most. Christian readings of the poem argue for an apocalyptic interpretation, drawing parallels with the story of Adam and Eve. The Green Knight is interpreted by some as a representation of the Green Man of folklore and by others as an allusion to Christ. Some feminist interpretations see women as in control throughout, while others argue that their control is illusory. Cultural critics have argued that the poem expresses tensions between the Welsh and English in the poet's dialect region. Complex in plot and rich in language, it is also sophisticated in its use of medieval symbolism, drawing upon Celtic, Germanic, and other folklore.
The poem survives in a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., which also includes three religious narrative poems: Pearl, Purity and Patience. All are thought to have been written by the same unknown author, dubbed the "Pearl Poet" or "Gawain Poet", since all four are written in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English.