Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Chapter Summaries
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Themes
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Characters
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Analysis
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Critical Essays
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Questions & Answers
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Introduction
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Biography of Pearl-Poet
Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance, written in the late fourteenth century. Its precise authorship is unknown, and the work is often credited to either the Gawain-Poet or the Pearl-Poet—a moniker derived from the belief that Gawain was penned by the same writer as another famous Middle English poem titled Pearl. Gawain is commonly regarded as one of the most important and influential works of Arthurian lore in existence, and it has offered both historians and literary scholars insight into the values of late-fourteenth-century English society.
Gawain is set over the course of one year. It begins during a New Year's celebration in King Arthur’s court, during which a mysterious Green Knight arrives and challenges any man to strike a blow against him. However, the Green Knight will be allowed to return the blow one year later. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the knight, who does not die. One year later, Gawain travels to his prearranged meeting with the knight. On the way, he stays three nights with Lord Bertilak, who makes Gawain a deal: Lord Bertilak will give Gawain anything he obtains while hunting, if Gawain gives the lord anything he obtains while staying at the castle. Gawain maintains this agreement for two days, even resisting an attempted seduction from Lady Bertilak. However, fearing for his own death, he keeps a girdle gifted to him by Lady Bertilak that will allegedly protect him.
Gawain’s subsequent encounter with the Green Knight forms the thematic heart of the work: the knight strikes Gawain three times, missing him twice and nicking his neck on the third strike. The Green Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak, who posed his agreement to Gawain as a test of honor and chivalry. Gawain did well to resist temptation for two days, symbolized by the two misses, but his keeping of the girdle was in defiance of the agreement, so the Green Knight drew blood on the third strike. Gawain ultimately leaves the encounter alive but deeply humbled by his experiences, having realized that he is not so honorable or unafraid of death as he once assumed. He returns to King Arthur’s court determined to become a better man and a more honorable knight.
A Brief Biography of Pearl-Poet
The Pearl-Poet, also known as the “Gawain-Poet” was a fourteenth-century poet best known for composing several of the most important works of Middle English literature, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pearl-Poet’s identity remains unknown, though scholars have inferred certain aspects of his life from his writings. It is likely that he was an educated man from an upper-class background, as suggested by his mastery of poetic forms, his knowledge of Latin and French, and his familiarity with courtly life. He probably came from the Midlands of England, and he drew his inspiration primarily from the Bible and the Arthurian myths. Indeed, his poetry tends to employ mythical narratives and biblical themes, as well as vivid descriptions of the natural world. The Pearl-Poet’s work uses intricate structures and complex verse forms that favor end rhyme and alliteration.