The story begins with the magician Merlin, who takes us back to the enchanted circle of the Knights of the Round Table.
Among these heroes, Sir Gawain excels. Young, brave, handsome and gallant, he aspires to become the perfect knight — without flaw, without a single stain on his honor. But he is yet to be tested in the challenges of the real world outside the court.
It is New Year's Eve. The knights of the fellowship are celebrating the end of the year but the merriment is rudely interrupted by a blast of wintry air that blows open the doors of the great hall.
In stalks a monstrous green Knight, his face covered by a green helmet. His mailed fist brandishes a huge axe. He proposes what he calls a “game”.
He offers to let any one of the knights strike him one blow on any part of his body that knight chooses - on condition that he allows the Green Knight to strike him one blow in exactly the same place a year from now.
No one moves. The Green Knight mocks the Fellowship for their cowardice. Then Sir Gawain steps forward. He has a plan to outwit the giant stranger.
He chooses to strike - not the toe offered by the Green Knight - but his neck. The Green Knight's head falls to the floor. And then, to his horror, Sir Gawain sees the headless torso bend down, pick up the head, and put it back on its shoulders.
The Green Knight leaves, admonishing Sir Gawain to be true to his word and meet him at the Green Chapel a year from now. As a parting shot, he says, “You should have settled for my toe.”
The next year passes as quickly as seconds on a clock.
Once more, it is winter. Sir Gawain rides out to find the Knight of the Green Chapel. Soon he is lost. Now his search takes a sinister turn. He encounters a series of mysterious challenges, each of which he loses until, stripped of his horse, his armor, and his sword, everything that made him a knight has been taken from him.
Then, on Christmas Eve, to his relief, Sir Gawain arrives at a magnificent castle.
The Lord and Lady of the castle welcome Sir Gawain, tend to his wounds, and tell him that the Green Chapel he has been instructed to find is very close.
Sir Gawain agrees to stay with them until New Year's Eve. Then, over dinner, the Lord of the castle suggests a humorous bargain.
The next morning, he will go out hunting, while Sir Gawain stays home and rests. At nightfall each will give to the other what he has won in the course of the day. Sir Gawain agrees.
Three times the Lord goes out hunting, three times his wife comes to Sir Gawain in her lord’s absence, and offers herself to him, and three times, true to his code of honor, Sir Gawain gallantly declines her offer and takes only a kiss, which, as he promised, he gives to the Lord on his return from the hunt.
But on the third day, in addition to three kisses, the Lady offers him something else - a green scarf which, she says, has the magical power to protect its wearer from any weapon.
At the end of this, the third, day Sir Gawain gives back the three kisses he received while the Lord of the Castle was out hunting, but he keeps the scarf, unable to give up the hope of surviving the Green Knight’s axe.
But now he has broken his word, betrayed his host. That night, he cannot sleep.
Morning comes. Full of dread, Sir Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel. Thoughts of his failure, and the mortal danger he is in, crowd into his mind.
At the Green Chapel the Green Knight brings his axe down, once, twice, only to halt his blow each time at the last minute. The third time he completes the stroke, but only scratches Sir Gawain.
Sir Gawain leaps up, ready to fight. But now the Green Knight rips off his helmet and reveals himself as the Lord of the Castle with whom Sir Gawain spent the last three days.
Merlin and the Lady of the castle appear and with the Green Knight they explain the meaning of the kisses, the three strokes of the axe, and reveal to Sir Gawain that the scratch he received was to repay him for keeping the green scarf and not giving it up as he was bound to do.
Shaken to his depths, Sir Gawain believes he has failed in his task.
But Merlin and his accomplices remind Sir Gawain that he endured much, braved death, and did not betray his original promise, offering himself to the Green Knight's axe.
And so, Sir Gawain must learn to forgive his own failings, and to forgive others too when they fail, as they surely will. Having learnt that lesson he will become a man at last, and a better knight.
“Brought to life by four actor-singers, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is a lively introduction to both the Arthurian court and to opera.” The New York Times