Written some two centuries after Marie’s Lais, the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stands out by continuing to be concerned with translating the gap between oral and literate cultures and between paganism and Christianity that was also evident in the earlier Beowulf. The temporal and cultural gap provided by the Arthurian legends and the codes of courtly love associated with them continued to constitute the fault line of meaning in the text of romance. For many scholars, the poem is characterized by its very isolation in place and time, written in a now obscure regional dialect of northwest England in a unique stanzaic form and an archaic nonrhyming alliterative meter based on oral performance, and surpassingly strange. Still, as Ad Putter notes in An Introduction to the "Gawain"-Poet (1996), it could as easily have been composed in London for a Cheshire patron at the sophisticated court of Richard II. In either case, the poem makes a powerful case for a quintessentially English language and culture, a case wholly different than the poet’s contemporary, Chaucer, and his translation of continental material to a cosmopolitan London English in his writings.
Gawain survives with three other poems in a single manuscript that found its way to a private library in Yorkshire sometime in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. It nearly burned in a ﬁre in 1731 and now resides in the British Library.
The encounters between Gawain and the lady of the knight who shelters him on his quest are punctuated by courtly vocabulary. Trysting with Gawain in his bed, the lady taunts his refusal of her favors: "So good as Gawayn gaynly is holden, / And cortaysye is closed so clene in himselven, / Couth not lightly have lenged so long with a lady / Bot he had craved a cosse by his cortaysye" (lines 1298–1301). When Gawain and the lord exchange their winnings, Gawain kisses him, saying, "’Tas yow there my chevisaunce, I cheved no more" (line 1391); alliterating the multisyllabic courtly term for winnings or merchandise, "chevisaunce," with the monosyllabic verb from which it derives, "cheved," meaning "acquire or bring about." At the lady’s second visit, she tempts the knight with recourse to the discourse of courtly love, wondering rhetorically how someone "So cortays, so knightyly, as ye are knowen oute" could be ignorant of the signs of love, the true essence of knighthood. And at the third tryst, when the lady persuades him to accept her green silk belt, that it might preserve him from harm, "He wolde it prayse at more pris, paraventure" (line 1851), the poet uses a triple alliteration of Romance words: two forms of "prize," the courtly term for the value of one’s love, and "peradventure," reminding the audience of the test Gawain has just failed.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is intricately and elegantly structured around a series of mirrorings and balancings. Structural and formal symmetry are characteristic both of the ring composition of oral epic and of medieval romance, where they also reﬂect a belief in the beauty of God’s design of nature. The two poles of the poem are Arthur’s court and the Grene Chapel.