Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
English poem, c. 14th century.
The following entry presents criticism from 1960 to 1997 on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 2.
Critically acclaimed as a masterpiece and considered the best of the English medieval romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an anonymous Arthurian romance, most likely from the fourteenth century, written in alliterative verse, comprising 2530 lines in 101 stanzas. The story incorporates elements drawn from several centuries of folklore and legend, Christian and Celtic symbolism, and portions from French and Latin versions of the tale. The narrative describes the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur's youngest knight, as his courage and vows of chastity and honor are tested by circumstances arranged by a giant of a knight, clad in green armor, with a green face and green hair. Because the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Middle English and in a particularly difficult northwest Midlands dialect, it is most familiar to modern readers in translation; nevertheless, the original language of the poem is highly praised for its beauty and richness. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exists in only one manuscript, following three other poems by the same author: Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness (also called Purity). No portion of these poems is known to appear in any other manuscript. The small quarto volume that contains these four works has been housed in the British Museum since 1753; it contains no titles or headings, although large blue and red letters set off the main divisions. The volume also contains several full-page illustrations. Scholars have had no success in identifying the Gawain-poet (also known as the Pearl-poet), although several suggestions and theories have been offered. For the genius he displays in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight through innovations in language, style, characterization, and plot, the Gawain-poet is considered by critics on the level of Chaucer, his contemporary.
Plot and Major Characters
Christmas Eve festivities at the court of King Arthur are disrupted when a green knight abruptly enters the room and issues a challenge: Is there a knight present who dares to trade blows of an ax with him? The Green Knight will take the first blow and the challenger will receive the second a year later at the Green Knight's distant chapel. Sir Gawain accepts and advances to the kneeling intruder, whose neck is exposed. With one strike Gawain severs the Green Knight's head from his body. The body, however, rises up immediately, picks up its head, jumps on its horse, and rides away. Months pass and on All Hallow's Day, Gawain rides off in search of the Green Chapel. After weeks of winter travel and dangerous adventures, Gawain reaches Castle Hautdesert. The lord of the castle, Bertilak, informs Gawain that the Green Chapel is very close and asks that he stay in the castle as his guest for three days. The two men agree to an Exchange of Winnings: Bertilak will give Gawain all the game he catches on his hunts, and Gawain will give his host all gifts he receives during his stay. The beautiful Lady Bertilak enters Gawain's bedchamber immediately after her husband commences his first day's hunt. She attempts to seduce Gawain, but he courteously refuses. The second morning is much like the first. The third morning Gawain accepts a gift from Lady Bertilak: an embroidered green girdle (or belt), which has the special power of making its bearer invulnerable to any mortal blow. When Bertilak returns that night and gives Gawain the results of the day's hunt, Gawain says nothing of the girdle. The following morning Gawain departs with a guide and finds the Green Chapel almost immediately. Gawain offers his neck. The Green Knight starts to swing his ax but Gawain flinches, earning taunts for his cowardice. The second swing is deliberately checked by the Green Knight—it was intended to test Gawain's steadfastness. The third blow only...
(The entire section is 197,145 words.)