This goes well on the first two days, but on the third, the Lady hands him a girdle which will prevent Gawain from being harmed during the return blow. Gawain is tempted into keeping the girdle, when he should have handed it over, and when the Green Knight comes to give the blows, makes two feints with the axe, and then strikes Gawain with the blunt end of the axe. The Green Knight reveals himself as the Lord of the Castle, and explains that the two feints stood for the two days when Gawain kept his promise, and the small cut was for the third day, when Gawain was tempted into keeping the girdle.
The poem itself contains a number of symbolic sequences, the most commonly noted being the number three (three nights at the castle, three kisses, and three swings with the axe). The beheading game itself is part of an older tradition which celebrates the symbolic killing of the Holly King by the Oak King, and the Holly King's return of the favour with the next season. Indeed, although this is an outwardly Christian allegory, there are plenty of references to pagan and nature religions as well.
Many commentators have associated the Green Knight with one element of nature worship, the Green Man. Traditionally, this figure is a 'wild man' deity, closely tied in to nature and the changing seasons. The Green Man represents all that is wild and awesome in nature. The Green Knight clearly symbolises this element when he gatecrashes the King's Christmas party to lay down his challenge:
The butterflies and birds embroidered thereon
In green of the gayest, with many a gold thread
For much did they marvel at what it might mean
That a horseman and a horse should have such a hue
Grow green as the grass, and greener, it seemed
Than green fused on gold more glorious by far.
(Abrams, page 237-239)
However, as well as nature, ancient texts associated green with death and magic, two other unpredictable forces which the medieval audience would be familiar with. The Green Knight's association with Morgan Le Fay emphasises his connection with magic, as does his appearances during the Christmas period:
During the twelve days of Yule the forces of death and chaos
Were unleashed upon the earth.We see himas the force
Of both, life and death which intrudes into the human world.
In this interpretation, the beheading contest is a test of Gawain's courage and mettle, a knightly adventure which ends with Gawain's symbolic death and rebirth - a ritual with meanings in European societies far into the Christian period.
Green is mentioned more than fifty times in the poem, and is the most frequent colour used by the poet. The Green of the Green Knight would bring to mind all of these issues to medieval listeners; and his role as a tester of Gawain in order to initiate him into the mysteries of life and death. Gawain returns to Arthur's court wearing a green sash, emphasising that he has passed the test and become a member of the Green Knight's court.
In this interpretation, the meaning of Gawain's journey through the winter wastelands is clearly associated with the test. If the Green Knight is the lord of Life and Death, then the wasteland is the symbol of Gawain's moving from the reality of