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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Image:Original script.jpg
The original Gawain manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th century Middle English alliterative chivalric romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. In this Arthurian tale, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his beard and skin. The "Green Knight" offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads him in one blow, only to have the Knight stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. The story of Gawain's struggle to meet the appointment and his adventures along the way demonstrate chivalry and loyalty.

The poem survives on a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., on which are also written three religious pieces. These works are thought to have been written by the same unknown author, dubbed the "Pearl Poet" or "Gawain poet". All four narrative poems are written in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English.[1][2] The story thus emerges from the Welsh and English traditions of the dialect area, borrowing from earlier "beheading game" stories and highlighting the importance of honour and chivalry in the face of danger.

In addition to its complex plot and rich language, the poem's chief interest for literary critics is its complex use of medieval symbolism. Everything from the Green Knight, to the beheading game, to the girdle given to Gawain as protection from the axe, is richly symbolic and steeped in the culture and folklore from Celtic, Germanic, and other traditions. The Green Knight, for example, is interpreted by some as a representation of the Green Man of Celtic legend, and by others as an allusion to Christ. The girdle, when interpreted in a Germanic literary context, carries a sexual meaning; and the colour green itself, in a medieval English context, signifies the devil.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest which tests his ability. The ambiguity of the poem's ending, however, makes it more complex than most. Christian interpretations of the poem argue the poem's apocalyptic nature and draw parallels between Gawain and Bertilak's wife and the story of Adam and Eve. Feminist interpretations disagree at the most basic level, some arguing that women are in total control from beginning to end, while others argue that their perceived control is an illusion. Cultural critics have argued that the poem is best read as an expression of tensions between the Welsh and English then-present in the poet's dialect region. The poem remains popular to this day, through translations from renowned authors like J. R. R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage, as well as through recent film and stage adaptations.


Plot synopsis

Image:Gawain and the Green Knight.jpg
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (from original manuscript, artist unknown)

The story begins in Camelot on New Year's Day as King Arthur's court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on the condition that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day[3] later. Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur's knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge. He severs the giant's head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day, and rides away.

Almost a year later, Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel to complete his bargain with the Green Knight. His journey takes him to a beautiful castle, where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife; both are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Gawain tells them of his New Year's appointment at the Green Chapel and says that he must continue his search the next day. Bertilak laughs and explains that the Green Chapel is fewer than two miles away.

Before going hunting the next day, Bertilak proposes a bargain to Gawain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on the condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, the lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits Gawain's bedroom to seduce him. Despite her best efforts, however, he yields nothing but a single kiss. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest responds by returning the lady's kiss to Bertilak, without divulging its source. The next day, the lady comes again, Gawain dodges her advances, and there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, and Gawain accepts from her a green silk girdle, which the lady promises will keep him from all physical harm. They exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses. Gawain keeps the girdle, however.

The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle. He finds the Green Knight at the chapel sharpening an axe, and, as arranged, bends over to receive his blow. The Green Knight swings to behead Gawain, but holds back twice, only striking softly on the third swing, causing a permanent scar on his neck. The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, and explains that the entire game was arranged by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's enemy. Gawain is at first upset, but the two men part on cordial terms and Gawain returns to Camelot, wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak. Arthur decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.

The poet

Main articles: Pearl Poet, and [[{{{2}}}]], and [[{{{3}}}]], and [[{{{4}}}]], and [[{{{5}}}]]

Though the real name of "The Gawain Poet" (or poets) is unknown, some inferences about him can be drawn from an informed reading of his works. The manuscript of Gawain is known in academic circles as Cotton Nero A.x, following a naming system used by one of its owners, Robert Cotton, a collector of Medieval English texts.[2] Before the Gawain manuscript came into Cotton's possession, it was in the library of Henry Savile of Bank in Yorkshire.[4] Little is known about its previous ownership. It has been dated to the late 14th century, so the poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, though it is highly unlikely that they ever met.[5] The three other works found in the same manuscript as Gawain, (commonly known as Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness or Purity) are often considered to be written by the same author. However, the manuscript containing these poems was transcribed by a copyist and not by the original poet.[6] Although nothing explicitly suggests that all four poems are by the same poet, comparative analysis of dialect, verse form, and diction have pointed towards single-authorship.[6] Consensus on the issue, however, remains elusive.

What is known today about the poet himself is largely general, as J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, after reviewing the text's allusions, style, and themes, concluded in 1925: Template:Quote

The most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire.[8] He is known to have lived in the dialect region of the Pearl Poet and is thought to have written the poem, St. Erkenwald, which some scholars argue bears stylistic similarites to Gawain. St. Erkenwald, however, has been dated by some scholars to a time outside the Gawain poet's era. Thus, ascribing authorship to John Massey is still controversial and most critics consider the Gawain poet an unknown.[6]

Verse form

The 2,530 lines and 101 stanzas that make up Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are written in what linguists call the "Alliterative Revival" style typical of the 14th century. Instead of focusing on a metrical syllabic count and rhyme, the alliterative form of this period usually relied on the agreement of a pair of stressed syllables at the beginning of the line and another pair at the end. Each line always includes a pause, called a caesura, at some point after the first two stresses, dividing it into two half-lines.[1] Although he largely follows the form of his day, the Gawain poet was somewhat freer with convention than his predecessors. The poet broke his alliterative lines into variable-length groups and ended these nominal stanzas with a rhyming section of five lines known as the bob and wheel.[1]

Gawain Translation

ful clene
for wonder of his hwe men hade
set in his semblaunt sene
he ferde as freke were fade
and oueral enker grene (SGGK lines 146-150)[9]


full clean.
Great wonder of the knight
Folk had in hall, I ween,
Full fierce he was to sight,
And over all bright green. (SGGK lines 146-150)[9]

Similar stories

Image:Cuchulainn Stephen Reid.jpg
The legendary Irish figure Cuchulainn faced a trial similar to Gawain's (Cúchulainn Stephen Reid, 1912)

The earliest known story to feature a beheading game is the 8th-century Middle Irish tale Bricriu's Feast. This story parallels Gawain in that, like the Green Knight, Cúchulainn's antagonist feints three blows with the axe before letting his target depart without injury. A beheading exchange also appears in the late 12th-century Life of Caradoc, a Middle French narrative embedded in the anonymous First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail. A notable difference in this story is that Caradoc's challenger is his father in disguise, come to test his honour. Lancelot is given a beheading challenge in the early 13th-century Perlesvaus, in which a knight begs him to chop off his head or else put his own in jeopardy. Lancelot reluctantly cuts it off, agreeing to come to the same place in a year to put his head in the same danger. When Lancelot arrives, the people of the town celebrate and announce that they have finally found a true knight. Many others had been tested and failed this test of chivalry.[10]

The stories The Girl with the Mule (alternately titled The Mule Without a Bridle) and Hunbaut feature Gawain in beheading game situations. In Hunbaut Gawain cuts off a man's head and, before he can replace it, removes the magic cloak keeping the man alive, thus killing him.[10] Several stories tell of knights who struggle to stave off the advances of voluptuous women sent by their lords as a test; these stories include Yder, the Lancelot-Grail, Hunbaut, and The Knight of the Sword. The last two involve Gawain specifically. Usually the temptress is the daughter or wife of a lord to whom the knight owes respect, and the knight is tested to see whether or not he will remain chaste in trying circumstances.[10]

After the writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, several similar stories followed. The Greene Knight (15th-17th century) is a rhymed retelling of nearly the same tale.[11] In it, the plot is simplified, motives are more fully explained, and some names are changed. Another story, The Turke and Gowin (15th century) begins with a Turk entering Arthur's court and asking, "Is there any will, as a brother, To give a buffett and take another?"[12] At the end of this poem, the Turk, rather than buffeting Gawain back, asks the knight to cut off his head, which Gawain does. The Turk then praises Gawain and showers him with gifts. The Carle off Carlile (17th century) also resembles Gawain in a scene in which the Carl, a lord, orders Gawain to attack him with his spear.[13] Gawain obliges and strikes, but the Carl rises, laughing and unharmed. Unlike the Gawain poem, no return blow is demanded or given.[10]


Temptation and testing

Image:Leighton-God Speed!.jpg
Knights of Gawain's time were tested in their ability to balance the chivalric code with the female-oriented rules of courtly love. (God Speed! Edmund Blair Leighton 1900)

The heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain's adherence to the code of chivalry.[14] The typical temptation fable of the medieval period presents a series of tribulations assembled as tests or "proofs" of moral virtue. The stories often describe several individuals having failed the proofs when the main character is tested, losing, for example, their heads as punishment.[14] Success in the proofs, on the other hand, will bring immunity or good fortune. Gawain's ability to pass the tests of his host are of utmost importance to his survival, though he does not know it.[15] It is only by fortuity or “instinctive-courtesy” that Sir Gawain is able to pass his test.[15]

In addition to the laws of chivalry, Gawain must respect another set of laws concerning courtly love. The knight’s code of honour requires him to do whatever a damsel asks. Gawain must accept the girdle from the Lady, but he must also keep the promise he has made to his host that he will give whatever he gains that day. Gawain chooses to keep the girdle out of fear of death, thus breaking his promise to the host but honouring the lady. Upon learning that the Green Knight is actually his host, he realises that although he has completed his quest, he has failed to be virtuous. This test demonstrates the conflict between honour and knightly duties. In breaking his promise, Gawain believes he has lost his honour and failed in his duties.[16]

Hunting and seduction

Scholars have frequently noted the parallels between the three hunting scenes and the three seduction scenes in Gawain. They are generally agreed that the fox chase has significant parallels to the third seduction scene, in which Gawain accepts the girdle from Bertilak's wife. Gawain, like the fox, fears for his life and is looking for a way to avoid death from the Green Knight's axe. He also, like his counterpart, resorts to trickery in order to save his skin. The fox uses tactics so unlike the first two animals, and so unexpectedly, that Bertilak has the hardest time hunting it. Similarly, Gawain finds the Lady's advances in the third seduction scene more unpredictable and challenging to resist than her previous attempts. She changes her evasive language, typical of courtly love relationships, to a more assertive style. Her dress, relatively modest in earlier scenes, is suddenly voluptuous and revealing.[17]

The deer- and boar-hunting scenes are less clearly connected, although scholars have attempted to link each animal to Gawain's reactions in the parallel seduction scene. Attempts to connect the deer hunt with the first seduction scene have unearthed a few parallels. Deer hunts of the time, like courtship, had to be done according to established rules. Women often favored suitors who hunted well and skinned their animals, sometimes even watching while a deer was cleaned.[17][18] The sequence describing the deer hunt is relatively unspecific and nonviolent, with an air of relaxation and exhilaration. The first seduction scene follows a similar vein, with no overt physical advances and no apparent danger; the entire exchange is humorously portrayed.[17]

The boar-hunting scene is, in contrast, laden with detail. Boars at the time were much more difficult to hunt than deer; approaching one with only a sword was akin to challenging a knight to single combat. In the hunting sequence, the boar flees but is cornered before a ravine. He turns to face Bertilak with his back to the ravine, prepared to fight. Bertilak dismounts and in the ensuing fight kills the boar. He removes its head and displays it on a pike. In the seduction scene, Bertilak's wife, like the boar, is more forward, insisting that Gawain has a romantic reputation and that he must not disappoint her. Gawain, however, is successful in parrying her attacks, saying that surely she knows more than he about love. Both the boar hunt and the seduction scene can be seen as depictions of a moral victory: both Gawain and Bertilak face struggles alone and emerge triumphant.[17]

Nature and chivalry

Scholars argue that nature represents a chaotic, lawless order which is in direct confrontation with the civilization of Camelot throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The green horse and rider that first invade Arthur’s peaceful halls are iconic representations of nature's disturbance.[19] Nature is presented throughout the poem as rough and indifferent, constantly threatening the order of men and courtly life.[19] Nature invades and disrupts order in the major events of the narrative, both symbolically and through the inner nature of humanity. This element appears first with the disruption caused by the Green Knight,[19] later when Gawain must fight off his natural lust for Bertilak’s wife,[19] and again when Gawain breaks his vow to Bertilak by choosing to keep the green girdle, valuing survival over virtue.[19] Represented by the sin-stained girdle, nature is an underlying force, forever within man and keeping him imperfect (in a chivalric sense).[19] In this view, Gawain is part of a wider conflict between nature and chivalry, an examination of the ability of man's order to overcome the chaos of nature.[20]


The word gomen (game) is found 18 times in Gawain. Its relation to the word gome (man), which appears 21 times, has led some scholars to see men and games as centrally linked.[21] Games at this time were seen as tests of worthiness, as when the Green Knight challenges the court's right to its good name in a "Christmas game".[21] The "game" of exchanging gifts was common in Germanic cultures. If a man received a gift, he was obligated to provide the giver with a better gift or risk losing his honour, almost like an exchange of blows in a fight (or in a "beheading game").[22] The poem revolves around two games: an exchange of beheading and an exchange of winnings. These appear at first to be unconnected. However, a victory in the first game will lead to a victory in the second. Elements of both games appear in other stories; however, the linkage of outcomes is unique to Gawain.[1][7]

Times and seasons

Times, dates, seasons, and cycles within Gawain are often noted by scholars because of their symbolic nature. The story starts on New Year's Day with a beheading and culminates on the next New Year's Day. Gawain leaves Camelot on All Saints Day and arrives at Bertilak's castle on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, the Green Knight tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in "a year and a day"—a period of time seen often in medieval literature.[3] Some scholars interpret the yearly cycles, each beginning and ending in winter, as the poet's attempt to convey the inevitable fall of all things good and noble in the world. Such a theme is strengthened by the image of Troy, a powerful nation once thought to be invincible which fell to the Greeks due to pride and ignorance, according to the Aeneid. The Trojan connection shows itself in the presence of two virtually identical descriptions of Troy's destruction. The poem's first line reads: "Since Troy's assault and siege...", and the final stanzaic line (before the bob and wheel) is "After the siege and assault of Troy."[23]


Significance of the colour green

Image:Michael Pacher 004.jpg
In the 15th-century Saint Augustine and the Devil by Michael Pacher, the Devil is green. Poetic contemporaries such as Chaucer also drew connections between the colour green and the devil, leading scholars to draw similar connections in readings of the Green Knight.[24]

Given the varied and even contradictory interpretations of the colour green, its precise meaning in the poem remains ambiguous. In English folklore and literature, green was traditionally used to symbolise nature and its associated attributes: fertility and rebirth. Stories of the medieval period also used it to allude to love and the base desires of man.[25][26] Because of its connection with faeries and spirits in early English folklore, green also signified witchcraft, devilry and evil. It can also represent decay and toxicity.[27] When combined with gold, as with the Green Knight and the girdle, green was often seen as representing youth's passing.[28] In Celtic mythology, green was associated with misfortune and death, and therefore avoided in clothing. The green girdle, originally worn for protection, became a symbol of shame and cowardice; it is finally adopted as a symbol of honour by the knights of Camelot, signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; this displays both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the colour green.[29]

Green Knight

Main articles: Green Knight, and [[{{{2}}}]], and [[{{{3}}}]], and [[{{{4}}}]], and [[{{{5}}}]]

Scholars have puzzled over his symbology since the discovery of the poem, with theories ranging from his presence as a version of the Green Man, a mythological being connected with nature in medieval art, to a Christian symbol, to the Devil himself. British medieval scholar J. R. R. Tolkien said the character was "as vivid and concrete as any image in literature"[29] and the "most difficult character" to interpret in Sir Gawain. His major role in Arthurian literature is that of a judge and tester of knights, thus he is at once terrifying, friendly, and mysterious.[29] He appears in only two other poems: The Greene Knight and King Arthur and King Cornwall.[30][31] Scholars have attempted to connect him to other mythical characters, such as Jack in the Green of British tradition, or Al-Khidr, a figure from Islamic literature, but no definitive connection has yet been established.[32][33]

Image:JWW TheLadyOfShallot 1888.jpg
Another famous Arthurian woman, The Lady of Shalott, with a medieval girdle around her waist (John William Waterhouse, 1888)


See also: Girdle in literature

Critics often debate whether the girdle that Gawain receives from Bertilak's wife has sexual meaning. Proponents compare the girdle to elements of other stories in the culture, such as the Germanic epic poem Nibelungenlied. In this tale, Brunhilde sees her stolen girdle produced as evidence and becomes convinced that she has had intercourse with the wrong man.[34] Feminist interpretations view the girdle (called a "love lace" at one point in the text) as a symbol of feminine power. They note the definition of "lace" at the time, which along with the "article of clothing", also meant "net", "noose", or "snare".[35] Critics who view the poem through a Christian lens see Gawain's trust in the girdle as a replacement for his trust in God to save him from the axe-wound.[36] The image of the girdle as a "sexual symbol", however, should not be confused with modern notions of a girdle as "underwear". Its sexual meaning was deeper and less overt.[37][34] A girdle in the days of the Pearl Poet was "a belt worn around the waist, used for fastening clothes or for carrying a sword, purse, etc."[38] Template:Clear


Template:See also

Image:Pentagram green.svg
A pentangle or pentagram

The pentangle on Gawain's shield is seen by many critics as having special significance in the poem as a symbol of Gawain's perfection and power over evil. The poem represents the first recorded use of the word pentangle in English. It also represents the only time such a symbol appears on Gawain's shield. What's more, the poet uses a total of 46 lines to describe the meaning of the pentangle. No other symbol in the poem receives as much attention or is described in such detail.[39] The poem describes the pentangle as a symbol of faithfulness and an "endless knot". In line 625, it is described as "a sign by Solomon". Solomon, the third king of Israel, in 10th century B.C. was said to have the mark of the pentagram on his ring, which he received from the archangel Michael. The pentagram seal on this ring was said to give Solomon power over demons.[40]

Along these lines, some academics link the Gawain pentangle to traditions which connect the pentagram to magic. In Germany, the symbol was called a Drudenfuss and was placed on household objects to keep evil out of the house.[41] The symbol was also associated with magical charms which, if recited or written on a weapon, would call forth magical forces. However, concrete evidence tying the magical pentagram to Gawain's pentangle is scarce.[42][41]

Gawain’s pentangle also symbolises the “phenomenon of physically endless objects signifying a temporally endless quality.”[43] Many poets use the symbol of the circle to show infinity or endlessness, but Gawain’s poet insisted on portraying something more complex. In medieval number theory, the number five is considered a “circular number”, since it “reproduces itself in its last digit when raised to its powers.”[44] Furthermore, it replicates itself in a geometrical way, in which every pentangle has a smaller pentagon that allows a pentangle to be embedded in it, and this “process may be repeated forever with decreasing pentangles.”[44] Thus, by reproducing the number five, which in medieval number symbolism signified incorruptibility, Gawain's pentangle represents his eternal incorruptibility.[45]


The poet highlights number symbolism to add symmetry and meaning to the poem. For example, three kisses are exchanged between Gawain and Bertilak's wife; Gawain is tempted by her on three separate days; Bertilak goes hunting three times, and the Green Knight swings at Gawain three times with his axe. The number two also appears repeatedly, as in the two beheading scenes, two confession scenes, and two castles.[46] The five points of the pentangle, the poet adds, represent Gawain's virtues, for he is "faithful five ways and five times each."[47] The poet goes on to list the ways in which Gawain is virtuous: all five of his senses are without fault; his five fingers never fail him, and he always remembers the five wounds of Christ, as well as the five joys of the Virgin Mary. The fifth five is Gawain himself, who embodies the five moral virtues of the code of chivalry: "friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety".[48] All of these virtues reside, as the poet says, in the "Endless Knot" of the pentangle, which forever interlinks and is never broken.[49] The ability of the number five to reproduce itself as it multiples was considered by medievalists a sign of incorruptibility. Thus, the poet makes Gawain the epitome of perfection in knighthood through number symbolism.[50]

Scholars believe that the poet uses this symbol of fives not only to give insight into the virtues of Gawain, but also to set the stage for the remainder of the poem. Through the five points of the pentangle the reader is presented with the five dilemmas of Sir Gawain. The Green Knight's challenge is the first: known for his valour and courtesy, Gawain would damage his reputation by refusing it. In accepting the challenge of the Green Knight, Gawain enters into his second dilemma. He must escape with both his life and honour intact.[51] Gawain enters into a bargain with Bertilak which leads to his third dilemma: "Whatever I win in the woods I will give you at eve, and all you have earned you must offer to me."[52] With a "gift of body",[53] Gawain is tempted by Bertilak's wife. He cannot exchange this gift with Bertilak, nor can he, a knight of renowned courtesy, refuse it. Gawain must refuse the lady’s attempts at seduction, yet he must do so courteously; this dilemma is his fourth. Gawain encounters his fifth dilemma when he accepts the gift of the girdle. He agrees to hide it from Bertilak, yet his bargain with the lord requires him to exchange it.

The number five is also found in the structure of the poem itself. Sir Gawain is 101 stanzas long, traditionally organised into four books of 21, 24, 34, and 22 stanzas. These divisions, however, have since been disputed; scholars have begun to believe that they are the work of the copyist and not of the poet. The original manuscript features a series of capital letters added after the fact by another scribe, and some scholars argue that these additions were an attempt to restore the original divisions. These letters divide the manuscript into nine parts. The first and last parts are 22 stanzas long. The second and second-to-last parts are only one stanza long, and the middle five parts are eleven stanzas long. The number eleven is associated with transgression in other medieval literature (being one more than ten, a number associated with the Ten Commandments). Thus, this set of five elevens (55 stanzas) creates the perfect mix of transgression and incorruption, suggesting that Gawain is faultless in his faults.[50]


At the story's climax, Gawain is wounded superficially in the neck by the Green Knight's axe. During the medieval period, the body and the soul were believed to be so intimately connected that wounds were considered an outward sign of inward sin. The neck, specifically, was believed to correlate with the part of the soul related to will, connecting the reasoning part (the head) and the courageous part (the heart). Gawain's sin resulted from using his will to separate reasoning from courage. By accepting the girdle from the lady, he employs reason to do something less than courageous—evade death in a dishonest way. Gawain's wound is thus an outward sign of an internal wound. The Green Knight's series of tests shows Gawain the weakness that has been in him all along: the desire to pridefully use his will for personal gain, rather than submitting his will in humility to God. The Green Knight, by engaging with the greatest knight of Camelot, also reveals the moral weakness of pride in all of Camelot, and therefore all of humanity. However, the wounds of Christ, believed to offer healing to wounded souls and bodies, are mentioned throughout the poem in the hope that this sin of prideful "stiffneckedness" will be healed among fallen mortals.[54][55]


Gawain as medieval romance


Image:Pettie, The Vigil.jpg
Gawain represented the perfect knight, as a fighter, a lover, and a religious devotee. (The Vigil by John Pettie, 1884)

Many critics argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should be viewed, above all, as a romance. Medieval romances typically recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who abides by chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, embarks upon a quest and defeats monsters, thereby winning favour with a lady. Thus, medieval romances focus not on love and sentiment (as the term "romance" implies today), but on adventure.[56]

Gawain's function, as medieval scholar Alan Markman says, "is the function of the romance hero ... to stand as the champion of the human race, and by submitting to strange and severe tests, to demonstrate human capabilities for good or bad action."[57] Through Gawain's adventure, it becomes clear the he is merely human. The reader becomes attached to this human view in the midst of the poem’s romanticism, relating to Gawain’s humanity while respecting his knightly qualities. Gawain "shows us what moral conduct is. We shall probably not equal his behaviour, but we admire him for pointing out the way."[57]

In viewing the poem as a chivalric romance, many scholars see it as intertwining chivalric and courtly love laws under the English Order of the Garter. The group's motto, 'honi soit qui mal y pense', or "Shame be to the man who has evil in his mind," is written at the end of the poem. Some critics describe Gawain's peers wearing girdles of their own as evidence of the origin of the Order of the Garter. However, in the parallel poem, The Greene Knight, the lace is white, not green, and is considered the origin of the collar worn by the knights of the Bath, not the Order of the Garter.[58] The motto on the poem was probably written by a copyist and not by the original author. Still, the connection made by the copyist to the Order is not extraordinary.[59]

Christian interpretations

Scholars have pointed out parallels between the girdle Bertilak's wife offers Gawain, and the fruit Eve offered to Adam in the Biblical Garden of Eden. (Adam and Eve Lucas Cranach, ca. 1513)

The poem is in may ways deeply Christian, with frequent references to the fall of Adam and Eve and to Jesus Christ. Scholars have debated the depth of the Christian elements within the poem by looking at it in the context of the age in which it was written, coming up with varying views as to what represents a Christian element of the poem and what does not. For example, some critics compare Sir Gawain to the other three poems of the Gawain manuscript. Each has a heavily Christian theme, causing scholars to interpret Gawain similarly. Comparing it to the poem Cleanliness (also known as Purity), for example, they see it as a story of the apocalyptic fall of a civilization, in Gawain's case, Camelot. In this interpretation, Sir Gawain is like Noah, separated from his society and warned by the Green Knight (who is seen as God's representative) of the coming doom of Camelot.[23] Gawain, judged worthy through his test, is spared the doom of the rest of Camelot. King Arthur and his knights, however, misunderstand Gawain's experience and wear garters themselves. In Cleanliness the men who are saved are similarly helpless in warning their society of impending destruction.[23]

One of the key points stressed in this interpretation is that salvation is an individual experience difficult to communicate to outsiders.[23] In his depiction of Camelot, the poet reveals a concern for his society, whose inevitable fall will bring about the ultimate destruction intended by God.[23] Gawain was written around the time of the Black Death and Peasant's Revolt, events which convinced many people that their world was coming to an apocalyptic end and this belief was reflected in literature and culture.[23] However, other critics see weaknesses in this view, since the Green Knight is ultimately under the control of Morgan le Fay, usually viewed as a figure of evil in Camelot tales. This makes the knight's presence as a representative of God problematic.[21]

While the character of the Green Knight is usually not viewed as a representation of Christ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, critics do acknowledge a parallel. Lawrence Besserman, a specialist in medieval literature, explains that "[t]he Green Knight is not a figurative representative of Christ. But the idea of Christ's divine/human nature provides a medieval conceptual framework that supports the poet's serious/comic account of the Green Knight's supernatural/human qualities and actions".[29] This duality exemplifies the influence and importance of Christian teachings and views of Christ in the era of the Gawain Poet.[29]

Furthermore, critics note the Christian reference to Christ's crown of thorns at the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After Gawain returns to Camelot and tells his story regarding the newly acquired green sash, the poem is concluded with a brief prayer and a reference to "the thorn-crowned God".[60] Besserman theorises that "with these final words the poet redirects our attention from the circular girdle-turned-sash (a double image of Gawain's "yntrawpe/renoun") to the circular Crown of Thorns (a double image of Christ's humiliation turned triumph)."[29]

Throughout the poem, Gawain encounters numerous trials testing his devotion and faith in Christianity. When Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel, he finds himself lost, and only after praying to the Virgin Mary does he find his way. As he continues his journey, Gawain once again faces anguish regarding his inevitable encounter with the Green Knight. Instead of praying to Mary, as before, Gawain places his faith in the girdle given to him by Bertilak’s wife.[61] From the Christian perspective, this leads to disastrous and embarrassing consequences for Gawain as he is forced to reevaluate his faith when the Green Knight point out his betrayal.[61]

An analogy is also made between Gawain’s trial and the Biblical test that Adam encounters in the Garden of Eden. Adam succumbs to Eve just as Gawain surrenders to Bertilak’s wife by accepting the girdle.[61] Although Gawain sins by putting his faith in the girdle and not confessing when he is caught, the Green Knight pardons him, thereby allowing him to become a better Christian by learning from his mistakes.[62] Through the various games played and hardships endured, Gawain finds his place within the Christian world.

Feminist interpretations

Image:Lady tempt Gawain.jpg
Lady Bertilak at Gawain's bed (from original manuscript, artist unknown)

Feminist literary critics see the poem as portraying women's ultimate power over men. Morgan le Fay and Bertilak's wife, for example, are the most powerful characters in the poem—Morgan especially, as she begins the game by enchanting the Green Knight. The girdle and Gawain's scar can be seen symbols of feminine power, each of them diminishing Gawain's masculinity. Gawain's misogynist passage,[63] in which he blames all of his troubles on women and outlines the many men who have fallen prey to women's wiles, further supports the feminist view of ultimate female power in the poem.[35]

In contrast, others argue that the poem focuses mostly on the opinions, actions, and abilities of men. For example, on the surface, it appears that Bertilak’s wife is a strong leading character.[64] By adopting the masculine role, she appears to be an empowered individual, particularly in the bedroom scene. This is not entirely the case, however. While the Lady is being forward and outgoing, Gawain’s feelings and emotions are the focus of the story, and Gawain stands to gain or lose the most.[65] The Lady "makes the first move", so to speak, but Gawain ultimately decides what is to become of those actions. He, therefore, is in charge of the situation and even the relationship.[66]

In the bedroom scene, both the more negative and positive actions of the Lady are motivated by her desire.[67] Her feelings cause her to step out of the typical female role and into that of the man, thus becoming more empowered.[68] At the same time, those same actions make the Lady appear adulterous; some scholars compare her with Eve in the Bible.[69] By forcing Gawain to take her girdle, i.e. the apple, the pact made with Bertilak—and therefore the Green Knight—is broken.[70] In this sense, it is clear that at the hands of the Lady, Gawain is a "good man seduced".[70]

Postcolonial interpretations

From 1350 to 1400—the period in which the poem is thought to have been written—England was at war with Wales in an attempt to gain more territory.[71] The Gawain poet uses a North West Midlands dialect common on the Welsh-English border, potentially placing him in the midst of this conflict.[71] Patricia Clare Ingham is credited with first viewing the poem through the lens of postcolonialism,[71] and since then a great deal of dispute has emerged over the extent to which colonial differences play a role in the poem.[71] Most critics agree that gender plays a role, but differ about whether gender supports the colonial ideals or replaces them as English and Welsh cultures interact in the poem.[71]

A large amount of critical debate also surrounds the poem as it relates to the bi-cultural political landscape of the time. Some argue that Bertilak is an example of the hybrid Anglo-Welsh culture found on the Welsh-English border.[71] They therefore view the poem as a reflection of a hybrid culture that plays strong cultures off one another to create a new set of cultural rules and traditions.[71] Other scholars, however, argue that historically much Welsh blood was shed well into the 14th century, creating a situation far removed from the more friendly hybridization suggested by Ingham.[71] To further support this argument, it is suggested that the poem creates an "us versus them" scenario contrasting the knowledgeable civilised English with the uncivilised borderlands that are home to Bertilak and the other monsters that Gawain encounters.[71]

In contrast to this perception of the colonial lands, others argue that the land of Hautdesert, Bertilak’s territory, has been misrepresented or ignored in modern criticism. They suggest that it is a land with its own moral agency, one that plays a central role in the story.[72] Bonnie Lander, for example, argues that the denizens of Hautdesert are "intelligently immoral,"[72] choosing to follow certain codes and rejecting others, a position which creates a "distinction ... of moral insight versus moral faith."[72] Lander thinks that the border dwellers are more sophisticated because they do not unthinkingly embrace the chivalric codes but challenge them in a philosophical, and—in the case of Bertilak's appearance at Arthur’s court—literal sense.[72] Lander’s argument about the superiority of the denizens of Hautdesert hinges on the lack of self-awareness present in Camelot,[72] which leads to an unthinking populace that frowns on individualism. In this view, it is not Bertilak and his people, but Arthur and his court, who are the monsters.[72]

Gawain's journey

St. Winifred's well in Holywell, England, possibly one of Gawain's stopping points on the way to the Green Chapel

Several scholars have attempted to find a real-word correspondence for Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel. The Anglesey islands, for example, are mentioned in the poem. They exist today as a single island off the coast of Wales.[73] In line 700, Gawain is said to pass the "Holy Head", believed by many scholars to be either Holywell or the Cistercian abbey of Poulton in Pulford. Holywell is associated with the beheading of Saint Winifred. As the story goes, Winifred was a virgin who was beheaded by a local leader after she refused his sexual advances. Her uncle, another saint, put her head back in place and healed the wound, leaving only a white scar. The parallels between this story and Gawain's make this area a likely candidate for the journey.[74]

Gawain's trek leads him directly into the centre of the Pearl Poet's dialect region, where the candidates for the locations of the Castle at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel stand. Hautdesert is thought to be in the area of Swythamley in northwest Midland, as it lies in the writer's dialect area and matches the topographical features described in the poem. The area is also known to have housed all of the animals hunted by Bertilak (deer, boar, fox) in the 14th century.[75] The Green Chapel is thought to be in either Lud's Church or Wetton Mill, as these areas closely match the descriptions given by the author.[76]

Modern adaptations

In 1925, J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published a scholarly edition of the Middle English text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;[77] a second edition of this text was prepared by Norman Davis and published in 1967. The book, featuring a text in Middle English with extensive scholarly notes, is frequently confused with the translation into Modern English that Tolkien prepared, along with translations of Pearl and Sir Orfeo, late in his life. Many editions of the latter work, first published in 1975, shortly after his death, list Tolkien on the cover as author rather than translator.[78] It is therefore common to see Sir Gawain erroneously ascribed to Tolkien as the original author.[79] More recently in 2007, Simon Armitage, a native of the Gawain poet's dialect region, has translated a version which has attracted media attention in the US and the United Kingdom.[80]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has also been adapted into an opera called Gawain by Harrison Birtwistle, first performed in 1991.[81] Birtwistle's opera has been praised for maintaining the complexity of the poem while translating it into lyric, musical form.[82] Another operatic adaptation is Lynne Plowman's Gwyneth and the Green Knight, first performed in 2002. This opera uses Sir Gawain as the backdrop but refocuses the story on Gawain's female squire, Gwyneth, who is trying to become a knight.[83] Plowman's version has been praised for its approachability, as its target is the family audience and young children, though it has been slightly criticized for its heavy use of modern language and occasional preachy nature.[84]

The poem has been adapted to film twice: first as Gawain and the Green Knight in 1973[85] and again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, featuring Miles O'Keefe as Gawain and Sean Connery as The Green Knight.[86] The 1973 version has been criticized for deviating from the plot. Gawain, for example, has an adventure which is not a part of the poem between the time he leaves Camelot and the time he arrives at Bertilak's castle. Also, Bertilak and the Green Knight are never connected.[87] There have been at least two television adaptations, Gawain and the Green Knight in 1991[88] and the animated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 2002.[89]



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cs:Sir Gawain a Zelený rytíř de:Sir Gawain and the Green Knight es:Sir Gawain y el Caballero Verde fr:Sire Gauvain et le chevalier vert hu:Sir Gawain és a zöld lovag ko:가웨인 경과 녹기사 lt:Seras Gaveinas ir Žaliasis Riteris nl:Heer Gawein en de Groene Ridder ja:ガウェイン卿と緑の騎士

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