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The Green Knight in this poem serves as both a monster antagonist and as mentor to Sir Gawain, belonging to a pre-Christian world which seems antagonistic to, but is in the end harmonious with, the Christian one.During the post-war era literary scholars interpreted the Green Knight as being a literary representation of Lady Raglan's Green Man as described in her article "The Green Man in Church Architecture", published in the "Folklore" journal of March 1939.It is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring.Some Usually referred to in works on architecture as foliate heads or foliate masks, carvings of the Green Man may take many forms, naturalistic or decorative.Tom Bombadil and the Ents in The Lord of the Rings could be considered possible examples.

Green men, and variants on the theme, frequently occur in modern fantasy literature and science fiction.

A Green Man is a sculpture or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves.

Branches or vines may sprout from the mouth, nostrils, or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit.

Figures such as the Hebrew prophet Elijah and Khidr, Muslim prophet of eternal life, Cernunnos, Sylvanus, Derg Corra, Green George, Jack in the green, John Barleycorn, Robin Goodfellow, Puck, and the Green Knight all share aspects of the Green Man's nature; Etymological research by the University of Wales into the meaning of the names of Celtic gods and goddesses shows that one Celtic deity, Viridios, has a name meaning "Green Man" in both the Celtic languages and Latin.

In Wicca, the Green Man has often been used as a representation of the Horned God, a syncretic deity that appropriates aspects of, among others, the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan. Sometimes the figures of Robin Hood and Peter Pan are associated with a Green Man, as is that of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.