Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5320
All four poems attributed to the Pearl-Poet reflect a great concern with establishing the distinctions between the temporal and sublunary viewpoint of human beings and the eternal and unvarying positions of God. This outlook is not uncommon in the art and thought of the later Middle Ages. It is the foundation of scholastic thought. Like scholasticism, furthermore, the arts were not content to establish only the distinctions between human and divine; they sought also to merge and synthesize the sacred and the secular. As long as the hierarchy of values was kept clear, allegiance to the divine and the human need not be in contradiction; it was possible to serve, for example, both the Virgin Mary and the courtly lady. However, if human sinfulness and obstinacy reversed the hierarchy, placing the earthly garden of delights above the promise of paradise regained, then the synthesis of earthly and divine was shattered and humans were left to inherit the results of their folly.
The Pearl-Poet was thus an artist of his time not only in distinguishing between the earthly and the heavenly but also in showing how the two spheres could merge and interrelate. His greatness, however, lies in his sympathetic investigation of humanity’s situation in the face of the divine. Humans as creatures are subordinate to their creator, and there is no room for doubt that human rebelliousness is disastrous, because the Lord can become “wonder wroth.” However, as Andrew and Waldron conclude, the poet shares “a spirit of sympathetic identification with human frailty besides a zealous dedication to ideal virtue.”
The distinctions between, yet juxtaposition of, human desires and divine standards are explored by the Pearl-Poet by concentrating on three ideals. These encompass a variety of social and Christian values, best summed up by the concepts of cleanness (understood as the divine requirement of purity in both body and soul), of truthfulness to duty and to God (and thus including loyalty, obedience, and faithfulness), and of courtesy (a chivalric ideal given religious significance by the poet).
In three of the four poems, the poet creates a major character with whom readers sympathize yet who must come to learn of the differing values of humankind and the divine. In these poems, the major characters undergo a three-part mysterious journey: in Patience, a voyage in the belly of a whale; in Pearl, a visionary pilgrimage glimpsing the New Jerusalem; and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fantastic quest to meet an enchanted opponent. The characters face a divine or supernatural demand or challenge and are left quite befuddled, surprised, or overwhelmed by what they experience. More important, in each poem, the character is moved from a narrowly human and basically self-centered outlook to an awareness of humanity’s essentially subordinate and often ignorant position in relation to the divine. Surprisingly, none of the characters has changed drastically by the end of the poems, although readers are left to assume that the new perspectives they have gained will lead to such change.
The fourth poem, Cleanness, also shares this three-part movement, but it presents not a journey of a single character to a mysterious or foreign land, but the history of humankind as outlined in the Old Testament and interpreted within the context of the New Testament. By concentrating on three key moments when the divine intervened in human history, the poem highlights the results of humanity’s unwillingness to conform to the divine.
The four poems of the Pearl-Poet are of great artistic merit. In verse of great beauty, they include passages of vigorous narrative, realistic description, and dramatic intensity. They describe extremely violent situations as well as peaceful gardens, sailors as well as an enchanted green knight, the suffering of the dying as well as the joy of the saved. Drawing from a wide range of sources yet including much that is original, the poems are carefully crafted and structured. They are compelling not only for their presentation of deeply moral and human concerns, but also for their imaginative power.
The Pearl-Poet’s shortest and most simply structured poem, Patience, is a verse homily teaching the need for humans to submit their will to God and to act faithfully and humbly. Like traditional medieval sermons, it establishes this theme in an introductory prologue and illustrates it in an exemplum, a narrative example intended to support the preacher’s main argument. In the case of Patience, the narrative centers on the prophet Jonah. It is a dramatic expansion of the biblical account found in the Book of Jonah.
The poet’s choice of Jonah may seem odd, since the usual Old Testament figure representing patience is Job. The poet may have felt that the best way to explore the virtue of patience (which might be viewed as rather passive and uninteresting) was through negative examples (as, again, in Cleanness). Certainly Jonah’s sulking pride and abortive attempt to flee from the command of God serve as examples of what patience is not. It may also be that Jonah was selected because, although his human rationalizing and severely limited understanding of God’s nature place him in conflict with the divine, he does ultimately accept the will of God. Finally, Jonah’s figurative significance in medieval exegesis as an Old Testament type of Christ may be significant. As evident in numerous commentaries and sermons, and in popular literature, Jonah’s three-day entombment within the belly of the whale typifies the death of Christ and his resurrection on the third day.
The association of Old Testament story with New Testament event is not unusual in medieval poetry. Medieval theology understood the Old Testament as prefiguring the New, and often interpreted the stories of the Jewish people as signifying Christian belief. The story of Jonah is thus told by the poet to exemplify the beatitudes preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. These are recited in the prologue of Patience, and it is the last beatitude, interpreted as Christ’s promise of heaven for those who endure patiently, that provides the poet’s theme. The beatitudes certainly are classic examples of Christ’s teaching that false earthly goals and aspirations are not to be confused with the true ideals of Heaven. Whereas humans seek riches, boldness, pleasure, and power, Christ praises poverty, meekness, purity, and patience. Patience tells how Jonah must come to recognize the distinction between human and divine to act truthfully and to obtain the mercy of God.
Although the four divisions of Patience in the manuscript accord with the four chapters of the biblical account, the poem’s narrative actually moves in three parts: First, Jonah desperately attempts to avoid the command of God, rejects his role as prophet, and sets sail to escape the power of God; second, after being swallowed by the whale, he accepts his duty and faithfully obeys God and prophesies the destruction of Nineveh; third, while sulking because Nineveh is not destroyed, he learns of God’s grace, love, and mercy.
Jonah is at first the epitome of humanity’s foolish opposition to God. The poet sympathetically imagines Jonah’s motives for rejecting the prophetic mission and presents his fear as understandable; nevertheless, Jonah’s flight from God, his attempt to hide, is obviously ridiculous. The God who created the world, the poet ironically comments, has no power over the sea. The power of the creator over his creation, however, becomes clear to all. Even the pagan sailors who at first pray to Diana and Neptune learn to worship the Hebrew God. At the height of the storm, Jonah, wakened from his unnatural sleep, recognizes the Creator’s power and identifies himself to the sailors as a follower of the world’s Creator. From this point, Jonah submits himself to the will of God and, in the belly of the whale, learns to act faithfully as a prophet.
He also prays for mercy, but it is not until the third part of the story, after Jonah has prophesied the destruction of Nineveh and its citizens actually repent, that the prophet of God learns the true nature of God’s grace. Although now aware of the awesome power of God over his creation, Jonah remains earthbound in his attitudes. When Nineveh is saved, he feels humiliated. Again, rather than accepting God’s will (the ultimate meaning of patience for the Pearl-Poet), Jonah reacts angrily, sulks childishly, and wishes he were dead. His wish does not come true, however, and through the remainder of the narrative Jonah learns that God not only controls but also loves his creatures.
Interestingly, in condemning what he does not understand, Jonah sets forth one of the major themes developed in the works of the Pearl-Poet: the bounty of God’s grace. This grace is described in chivalric terms, as God’s courtesy, and is linked to God’s patience. Jonah prays for mercy in the belly of the whale, but now desires—because of his pride in preaching the very prophecy that he sought to avoid—that God turn against the repentant Nineveh and destroy the city. While the Lord patiently seeks to change him, Jonah’s final attitude is not made clear, since the poet suddenly concludes with his epilogue urging patient acceptance of one’s position and mission in life. The last lines of the narrative are the words of God, whose patience is displayed not only toward Nineveh but also toward Jonah. Thus, although the career of Jonah may be a negative example of patience, the courtesy of God reflected in his patience and grace becomes the positive representation of ideal patience.
The poet’s much longer verse homily Cleanness (sometimes called Purity) also mixes negative and positive examples, although there is no doubt that the negative receives the bulk of his attention and that God’s righteous wrath, rather than his patience, becomes most evident. Again, one of Christ’s beatitudes provides the theme: “Blessed is he whose heart is clean for he shall look on the Lord.” The promise to the blessed clean, however, is not developed as much as the threat of damnation for the unclean. In his prologue, for example, the poet concentrates on yet another New Testament passage, Christ’s parable of the wedding feast. This rather harsh analogy comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king who has a guest thrown out of a wedding feast because he is improperly dressed receives a lengthy exposition, concluding with a list of the forms of uncleanness by which humans hurl themselves into the devil’s throat.
In his conclusion, the poet notes that he has given three examples of how uncleanness drives the Lord to wrath. These three Old Testament examples are arranged in chronological order, thus establishing the poem’s three-part movement through the history of salvation: from the destruction of the world by the Flood, through the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire, and finally to the overpowering of “the bold Belshazzar.” The three are linked by shorter Old Testament stories as well. The Flood is introduced by the fall of Lucifer and the angels, leading to the fall of Adam; the destruction of the two cities is preceded by the stories of Abraham and Lot and their two wives; and Belshazzar’s feast is interwoven with the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar and his eventual conversion.
Like the story of Jonah, the Old Testament stories retold in Cleanness have typological significance in medieval theology. Each of the three major examples of God’s wrath prefigures the Last Judgment. Combined with accounts of the fall of Lucifer and the origin of sin, this typological significance gives the poem a universal sweep from creation to doomsday, symbolically encompassing the entire Christian understanding of history. The emphasis, however, is on judgment, which is clearly the moral of the introductory parable of the wedding feast: “Many are called but few are chosen.”
Judgment is particularly severe against the unclean, for the Lord of heaven “hates hell no more than them that are filthy.” The concept of cleanness includes innocence, ceremonial propriety, decency and naturalness, physical cleanliness, and moral righteousness. Their opposites are encompassed by the concept of filth, which includes all manner of vices, sacrilege, sodomy, lust, and the arrogance of spirit that elevates humanity’s earthly desires above God’s requirement of truthfulness. God floods the world because sinfulness is out of control. Not only did humanity sin against nature, but devils copulated with human beings, engendering a breed of violent giants as well. Similarly, the Sodomites practiced unnatural vices, filling a land that was once like paradise thick with filth so that it sunk into the earth under the weight of its own sins. The Lord is equally angered by blasphemy and sacrilege, as Belshazzar learns when he defiles the vessels of the temple in “unclean vanity.”
Lack of truthfulness, although not arousing the violent wrath of God to the same extent as lack of cleanness, is represented in the minor exempla of the poem. The stories of Lucifer and Adam exemplify the results of disobedience. Sarah’s mocking the word of God when told she would bear a child reflects human lack of faith, for she prefers worldly reason to divine wisdom. Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for two faults, the results of her “mistruth.” She disobeyed a direct command not to look at the doomed Sodom, and she set salted food before the two angels, thus angering the Lord for her ritual uncleanness. King Zedekiah and the Jewish nation were similarly found untruthful; they proved disloyal to their duties as God’s chosen people and blasphemously worshiped idols.
The minor examples suggest that the lack of truthfulness is the cause of the uncleanness that ultimately leads to humankind’s doom. They also expand the concept of filth beyond sexual misconduct to include the improper relationship between the natural and the supernatural, leading to unnatural perversion and sacrilege. Thus, the sexual intercourse of fallen angels and sinful human beings is punished by the Flood because it represents unnaturalness on a cosmic scale. The Sodomite attempt to attack sexually the two angels visiting Lot is the most villainous example of their sacrilege. Although Lot’s attempt to shift their lust from the angels to his two virgin daughters seems horrible, it is an attempt to keep the city’s perversion on a human scale. Belshazzar’s profanation of the sacred vessels consecrated to God is the final example of humanity’s blasphemous desire to overturn the proper relationship between the human and the divine.
This long series of Old Testament stories linking untruthfulness to uncleanness is, luckily, broken by a few representatives of truth and cleanness: Noah, Abraham, Lot in his hospitality, the prophet Daniel, and Nebuchadnezzar after his conversion. This right relationship between humanity and God evident in truth and cleanness is, furthermore, described by the poet in terms of courtesy. After the Flood, for example, God promises never to send another universal deluge and establishes humans once again as they were before the Fall—as ruler over Earth. This new covenant between God and Noah is described by the poet as spoken in courteous words. As in Patience, the Pearl-Poet understands God’s mercy and grace as reflecting divine courtesy. Early in the Introduction to Cleanness, for example, he couples the need for purity with courtesy. Similarly, when explaining how the divine became human, the poet notes that Christ came in both cleanness and courtesy, accepting and healing all who “called on that courtesy and claimed his grace.” Here, then, is the key to the right relationship between the human and the divine.
Less overtly didactic than Cleanness and Patience, Pearl sets forth its main ideas by creating two characters: a dreamer who mourns the loss of a pearl and a beautiful young girl who speaks in a dream from the vantage of heaven. The dreamer, who narrates the poem in the first person, is earthbound in his outlook, mourning and complaining, like Jonah in Patience, against his fate. He rather foolishly debates theological issues with the visionary maiden, who speaks with divine wisdom. This relationship between a naïve narrator and an authority figure representing truthfulness is typical of the poem’s genre: the dream vision. Such is evident in the early but highly influential De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) by the philosopher Boethius, as well as in the masterpiece of the genre, William Langland’s The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362, A Text; c. 1377, B Text; c. 1393, C Text; also known as Piers Plowman). The human dreamer, schooled by the agent of the divine, is also a feature of the New Testament Book of Revelation, the poem’s most important source. However, the rather passive role of John during his apocalyptic visions is avoided by the poet. Pearl, as Spearing and others have noted, presents its teachings by means of “a dramatic encounter.”
Unfortunately, attention has been diverted from analysis of this dramatic encounter by the scholarly arguments attempting to identify the meaning of the lost pearl. According to some scholars, the lost pearl represents the poet’s daughter (and the poem thus is an elegy in her memory), who died at a “young and tender age” before she was two. Postulating such an occurrence may help explain the dreamer’s mourning at the beginning of the poem, but the problem with reading the poem as an elegy is that it identifies the foolish narrator with the poet and equates the dream’s fiction with historical and biographical events about which nothing is known. Certainly it is not the case, as A. C. Cawley writes in the introduction to his edition of the poem, that “there would be no poem” if the poet’s daughter had not died—or that the poet in Pearl “was recording an actual vision he had experienced.”
On the other hand, rejecting the naïve biographical reading of the poem as an elegy for the poet’s daughter need not imply that those who argue that the poem is an allegory are closer to the truth. This reading interprets the pearl as representing some Christian concept or ideal that has been lost or misunderstood. Identifications, all with limitations, include the purified soul, virginity and innocence, the grace of God, and even the Eucharist. However, Pearl is not a consistent allegory in the tradition of Everyman or John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). Its characters and objects are not static but dynamic, symbols that shift as the dreamer gains fuller self-knowledge and greater awareness of the divine.
The growth in the dreamer’s knowledge takes place as the poem moves through three settings. The narrator at first describes a beautiful garden, luxurious in its growth. This ideal earthly garden is nevertheless time-bound. In August at the height of the season, it blooms with flowers and natural beauty, but the garden is subject to change and all will decay. It is here that the narrator has lost his pearl, here that he comes to mourn, mortally wounded by his loss, and here that he falls asleep, his spirit setting forth on a marvelous adventure while his body remains in the garden. At this point, the pearl is to be understood as a lost jewel, “pleasant for a prince,” perfect, round, radiant, smooth, and without spot. The narrator’s grief over the loss of this precious but earthly object, however, is to be judged as excessive. The narrator seems vaguely aware of his problem, since he refers to his “wretched will,” but he must learn to put his treasure in heavenly, not earthly, things.
The second setting is introduced immediately. Now the dreamer finds himself in another garden, even more radiant and dazzling than the first. The dreamer is in a garden that is beyond change, a beautiful setting that makes him forget all grief. This is the Earthly Paradise lost by Adam for his sin and reached by Dante near the conclusion of his ascension through Purgatory in La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802), a possible source for Pearl. Here, the dreamer comes to a river which he cannot cross and on the far bank sees a beautiful, gleaming maiden dressed in white. She is associated with the pearl by her appearance and purity and by the fact that she is adorned with pearls. Whether or not this association implies an elegiac reading of the poem, it is clear that the maiden (and thus the pearl) represents the beauty, perfection, and eternity of the soul beyond the ravages of place and time. The maiden identifies herself as the bride of Christ, a traditional symbol for the righteous soul, derived from Revelation 19:7-9. Her status as bride and her position in Heaven will become the main focus of her debate with the dreamer.
The poem’s third setting, the New Jerusalem, is described by the pearl maiden and only glimpsed by the dreamer. This setting is clearly beyond the reach of the dreamer as long as he lives, at least in this world. When he foolishly attempts to cross the river separating the earthly paradise where he stands from the New Jerusalem whence the pearl maiden speaks, he is startled from his dream and awakes to find himself in the very garden where he fell asleep. However, this third setting, along with the maiden’s discussion of Christ’s parable of the pearl of great price, provides yet another significance of the pearl—Heaven itself. The maiden’s advice to the dreamer is to forsake the mad world and purchase Heaven, the spotless and matchless pearl. He is, she scolds, too concerned with his earthly jewel.
The close associations of the pearl with smoothness and with roundness, whiteness, and brightness are extended in the poem so that the pearl comes to symbolize perfection and purity. The traditional symbolic significance of the circle and sphere as representing the soul and eternity is also developed in the poem, both in its imagery and in its symmetrical structure, with each stanza linked by concatenation from beginning to end. This linking device has been compared to a chain and to a rosary. The poem’s final line, furthermore, echoes its first, the 101 stanzas implying not only the completion of a full circle but also the beginning of another. The whole suggests eternity. The centrality of the number twelve, traditionally the apocalyptic number, is also appropriate; it appears repeatedly in the Book of Revelation. Thus, the image of the pearl, the vision of Heaven, and the poem itself merge into one. As Thorlac Turville-Petre concludes, “Heaven, the pearl and the poem are all constructed with the same flawless circularity, an idea which reflects the words at the beginning and the end of the Apocalypse: ’I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord.’”
Thematically the poem is also concerned with Heaven and its perfect nature, order, and ideals. Much of Pearl develops a debate between the pearl maiden and the obtuse earthbound dreamer. As in Cleanness, a parable of Christ is at the center of the poem’s teaching. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is particularly suitable, because it represents sharply the distinction between humanity’s sense of worth and reward based on reason and a general sense of fairness and God’s loving gifts of mercy and grace tendered equally to all. Christ tells how the owner of the vineyard pays those workers who labored for only an hour the same amount as those who labored all day. This apparent unfairness elicits protests and grumbling from the latter, and the dreamer foolishly allies himself with them by similarly complaining to the pearl maiden. The earthly expectation is simply not met in Heaven. The parable makes the point cogently: The last will be first and the first last.
From the divine perspective, no human is worthy of Heaven. Salvation is a gift of God. This gift is an example, the pearl maiden argues, of God’s courtesy. Thus, although the ideals of cleanness and truthfulness remain important in Pearl, the poet here concentrates on the ideal of courtesy as his basis for exploring the nature of Heaven. God is portrayed as a noble and courteous chieftain, and the Virgin Mary is known not only as the Queen of Heaven—her traditional title—but also Queen of Courtesy. All the righteous become, in fact, kings and queens, members of the chivalric court of equals because they are members of Christ’s body through courtesy. The poem thus expands the traditionally social virtues of the chivalric ideal into a religious concept with a wide range of applications. In addition to the usual sense of the term to signify good breeding, proper speech, kind manners, and unhesitating generosity, in Pearl, courtesy connotes as well the freely given grace of God and the loving relationship between humanity and the divine lost on Earth through sin but available in Heaven.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
As a romance in the chivalric tradition dealing with knights of renown and beautiful courtly ladies, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight quite naturally also examines the ideal of courtesy. It is not discussed as a characteristic of Heaven, for the romance limits its focus to earthly heroes and events, although they may be superhuman and altogether marvelous. Courtesy is examined as a characteristic of the Arthurian court and especially of Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, a favorite of the charming ladies of the court, and the epitome of chivalry. His character does, however, merge secular ideals with religious devotion. This merger is evident in his elaborate shield, described and explained at length by the poet. Decorated with a pentangle, the “endless knot” suggesting eternal ideals, the shield reflects not only Gawain’s bravery, generosity, truthfulness, cleanness, and courtesy, but also his devotion to the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin. However, through the mysterious challenge of the Green Knight, Gawain and the chivalric ideas he represents are both tested severely. When the requirements of courtesy come into conflict with truthfulness and cleanness, even the perfect knight may fail.
Although the poem is generally divided into four parts, the testing of the knight takes place as the hero moves through three locales. At first, Gawain is portrayed at the Arthurian court, feasting over Christmas and celebrating the New Year with King Arthur, the knights of the Round Table, and Queen Guinevere. Here he is tested in his duty as a knight when the reputation of Camelot is threatened. Acting courteously and bravely, he accepts the challenge of the Green Knight, whom he beheads—only to be told by the enchanted figure that Gawain’s turn for the return blow will come in a year and a day. As J. A. Burrow notes, this test of courage in combat is the easiest for Gawain to pass, for it involves an obvious knightly virtue—truthfulness to his word—in conflict with the desire for life, and brave knights often face such challenges successfully.
The hero’s second locale is the court of Bertilak at Hautdesert, where a year later Gawain rests on his journey to meet the unknown Green Knight. Here, Gawain is welcomed in a chivalric court and undergoes a much more subtle test. At this court, the ideals of truthfulness and cleanness come into conflict with the demands of courtesy. Burrow sees Gawain here as “subjected to one of the most complex and elaborately contrived test situations in all medieval literature.” After agreeing with Bertilak to exchange each evening whatever he gains during the day, Gawain is tempted by Bertilak’s beautiful wife. She approaches him in bed for three mornings, calling on his reputation as a courtly lover. Gawain must overcome this threat to cleanness and loyalty to his host while remaining courteous to the lady. This he accomplishes through his great talent for gentle speech. Each morning, the lady settles for a kiss from Gawain, which he passes on to his host each evening. The host, who has spent his days hunting, similarly gives Gawain his winnings. On the third morning, however, apparently successful in turning back the lady’s sexual advances, Gawain accepts a green girdle from her. That evening, he does not give it to Bertilak, ostensibly because he would be discourteous in revealing the lady’s gift, but also because the green girdle’s magical powers will protect him when he faces the Green Knight the following day. Thus, in one decision, Gawain fails the test of truthfulness by breaking his word to Bertilak, and the test of bravery by carrying an enchanted girdle to the Green Chapel.
Finally, Gawain journeys to the poem’s third locale, the Green Chapel. Here he meets the Green Knight, who three times swings his axe over the bowed head of Gawain. The third time, he nicks the skin, symbolizing Gawain’s failure at Hautdesert in his third temptation. The Green Knight now reveals himself as Bertilak and explains that he has known all along of his wife’s morning rendezvous with Gawain. The whole adventure, Gawain discovers, has been instigated by the enchantress, Morgan le Fey, as a means of testing Arthur’s court. Although Bertilak praises Gawain’s performance under this test, the hero himself is humiliated and angry. He has failed the test of bravery and truthfulness and now, in an antifeminist harangue, he also reveals his lack of courtesy.
Like Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, after 101 stanzas, ends where it begins. Recalling the introduction, the poem returns to Camelot. Gawain, however, has been changed by his experience, and although the knights and ladies of the Round Table—along with many modern readers—believe he has acted as honorably as can be expected of any mortal, Gawain takes his failure very seriously.
The poet has shown that earthly virtues alone, even those of the greatest knight, fail. Human values and societies are by definition sinful and subject to the ravages of time and weaknesses of the flesh. Thus, the poet introduces the Arthurian court with references to the fall of Troy, war, and betrayal. Furthermore, the ideal societies of Camelot and Hautdesert represent vulnerable and artificial islands of civilization surrounded by wild nature and affected by the changing seasons. By the end of the poem, the dominant symbol of Gawain’s character has been changed. Instead of the pentangle, he is now associated with the green girdle, which he wears as a penitential reminder of his failure.
Gawain’s marvelous adventure is narrated in the third person, but the point of view is generally limited to Gawain’s perceptions of events. The result is a masterful story with suspense and awe in which the reader, surprised like the hero by the unfolding plot, sympathizes with the hero’s bewilderment. As Larry Benson and other scholars have shown, the plot artistically combines several traditional romance and folklore motifs into a seamless whole. Like Pearl, it is symmetrically structured: It counterpositions the two courts, two feasts, two journeys of the knight, and his two symbols, and it balances the three temptations of Gawain with Bertilak’s three hunting expeditions and the three blows of the axe at the Green Chapel. Also like Pearl, it includes descriptions of great natural beauty, and like Patience, it creates a character overwhelmed by the supernatural. Like Cleanness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight relates a narrative of strange visitors and violent deeds in vigorous and forceful verse filled with realistic details. It shares with the other poems of the Cotton Nero manuscript many stylistic and thematic features, and remains the greatest work of the Pearl-Poet.
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