In the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Gawain-poet predicates the numerous dualities—which lead the reader through questions of moral seriousness—that exist in the poem. The opening historical recounting, according to Richard Hamilton Green, reminds the reader that “the greatness of the past is marred by reminders of failure” (179). The paradox of triumph and greatness arising out of failure foreshadows Sir Gawain following the same pattern of fate as his predecessors. While the completion of Gawain’s quest reaffirms the historical paradox of greatness, his journey to renown is fraught with situations and symbols that develop the poem’s main concern of moral seriousness. The Gawain-poet skillfully reveals his theme by leading Gawain on a journey in which nothing is what it seems. Sir Gawain and the reader are confronted with several contrasts of characters’ actions and intentions, symbolic meanings, and Christian and secular virtues. Mainly by showing the difference between actions and attitudes while inside in a social situation and outside in a more wild, untamed environment, these contrasts help to emphasize the importance of unbending faith and loyalty.
Although one might expect a literary work with moral seriousness as its theme to be homiletic, GGK lacks the preachy tone because the Gawain¬-poet chooses to write the poem as a romance inspired by Arthurian legend rather than following the same format of the poems Patience and Cleanness. This, perhaps, is what leads Sandra Pierson Prior to her assertion that for the most part, romance poets care more about telling a good story than “spending time examining the implications of those events,” and consequently, GGK should just be read for the romance that it is (99). However, M. Mills argues even “[. . .] the most purely ‘secular’ romances are in some respects well adapted to support Christian meaning” (86). While GGK is an entertaining romance upon the initial reading, as Prior claims, a retrospective reading reveals Christian meaning and the implications of Gawain’s actions, even if not discussed overtly, are central to the poem. In order to discover the poem’s moral significance, the reader must concentrate more on what is unsaid than what is said by focusing on the meaning of symbols and the significance of setting.
After the history of great men, the poem opens at King Arthur’s court during Christmas time. Having the poem begin and end during the Christmas season, the beginning of the liturgical calendar, has underlying significance (to be discussed in more detail later) because it marks the First Coming of Christ, the model of perfection. Befitting this major event in Christian history, the mood of the court is one of revelry. However, even with the merriment of the feast, King Arthur demands a marvelous event before he will eat:
But that day he was driven by a different resolve;
He had nobly decided never to eat at feasts
Such as these, until...