Games in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Many games are involved in the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight, Bercilak de Hautdesert, plays a "Christmas game" with Arthur's court at Camelot (line 283); Gawain's host's wife plays games with Gawain throughout the third section of the poem; Gawain's sees his arrangement of mutual trade with his host as a game (line 1380); and all of the events of the story are revealed as a game of Arthur's sister, Morgan Le Fay (lines 2456-2466). Throughout the telling of the story, the author plays a mental game with the reader or listener, as well.
The "Christmas game" that the Green Knight comes to play with Arthur's court at the instigation of Morgan Le Fay provides the structure with which the plot of the entire story is held together. At first, the court believes that the knight has come for "contest bare" (line 277); when he reveals his intent to exchange one blow for another, it seems that it would be an easy contest for an opponent to win, since no one expects the knight to survive having his head removed with his own axe. However, the knight picks up his severed head and leaves, revealing the seriousness of Gawain's promise to accept a return blow, Arthur downplays the importance of this promise, saying, "Now, sir, hang up your axe," and returning to the feast. (line 477) Arthur also downplays the importance of the contest before Gawain deals his blow to the knight, prophesying Gawain's eventual success:
Keep, cousin, said the king, what you cut with this day
And if you rule it aright, then readily, I know,
You shall stand the stroke it will strike after. (lines 371-374)
Although neither the reader nor Gawain is aware of this during the plot of the poem, this same game continues when Gawain arrives at the castle in the north Christmas Eve. Bercilak, Gawain's host, hides from Gawain the fact that he is the Green Knight from Arthur's castle, and Gawain sees this arrangement -- the of mutual exchange of things won over the course of the day -- as a game, although the host also describes this arrangement as a "covenant." (line 1384) The host's wife also plays games with Gawain throughout the course of this three-day game that Gawain plays with his host.
The nature of the hunt that the host undertakes each day of the three parallels his wife's attempts to seduce Gawain, as well, although on both of the first two days there is an inversion. (Hunting is also a recreational activity comparable to a game.) On the first day, the host hunts and slays a doe, an act which, to medieval readers, would have been symbolic of a man's sexual conquest of a woman. The inversion here comes from the fact that Bercilak's wife fails to seduce Gawain -- Bercilak kills his doe, but his wife is unsuccessful in her attempted seduction -- and from the fact that the woman is here portrayed as the hunter. On the second day, Bercilak hunts a boar -- symbol...