Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism) - Essay



(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 nicks him. The Green Knight informs him that the nick was punishment for breaking their Exchange of Winnings promise and reveals that he and the Lord Bertilak are one and the same. Gawain is ashamed and chastises himself, although Bertilak tells him his debt has been paid. He tells him that the test was devised by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, in order to prove that his knights are not so honorable as they appear. Gawain returns to King Arthur's court with the green girdle as a token of his failure. The other knights, however, find the adventure amusing, consider Gawain triumphant, and put on silk girdles of their own, as a symbol of “the renown of the Rounde Table.”

Major Themes

Scholars have traditionally regarded the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as ambiguous. Some view the poem as the tale of a noble knight who resists sexual temptation and so keeps his vow of chastity. Others interpret it as the unveiling of a knight's improper behavior: According to the second group, Gawain renders what he intends as a mortal wound to the Green Knight, not a sparing blow, as the chivalric code dictates. He also rejects the rules of courtly love by refusing Lady Bertilak's advances; he is disloyal to his host and their Exchange of Winnings Agreement in not giving Bertilak the girdle; and he is cowardly when he avoids the first swing of the Green Knight's ax. Critics consider the puzzle of the theme a major asset of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and they continue to debate whether the real test was what happened at Castle Hautdesert rather than the exchange of blows, as well as whether, finally, Gawain passed or failed the tests.

Critical Reception

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century and has received a tremendous amount of critical and scholarly attention since the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1980s Bill Moyers' Public Television series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” also introduced the story to millions of viewers. Campbell interprets the Green Knight's life after beheading as an example of vegetative myth, with life and death in an endless cycle. The Gawain-poet is universally praised by critics for his inventiveness. Larry D. Benson and Wendy Clein discuss how the author habitually played against the expectations of his contemporary audience, familiar with the conventions of oral literature. Sacvan Bercovitch, likewise, explains that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight runs counter to typical medieval romance tradition in so many ways that it is more fitting to consider it an anti-romance. W. A. Davenport examines the stylistic techniques employed by the Gawain-poet, particularly in characterization and the use of role reversals; numerous critics note that in many ways it is the Green Knight who is exemplary, not Gawain. Davenport writes that “Gawain's progress through the courtly maze of experience to a kind of bittersweet maturity seems, eventually, to be a fair enough fictional image of one part of life.” Joseph M. Lenz offers a structural study of the tale and writes, “Very few poems are more structurally sound than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Albert B. Friedman, while not disagreeing with Lenz, finds one flaw: Morgan le Fay betrays her roots in early folk tales and, as Friedman points out, remains a “thread imperfectly woven into the narrative.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides much material for the study of the medieval notion of courtesy and Derek Pearsall and Jonathan Nicholls analyze the Gawain-poet's questioning of its role in the chivalric code. Ad Putter focuses on the temptation scenes, while Anne Rooney focuses on those of hunting; while many critics believe that these scenes work effectively in juxtaposition, Rooney urges caution in making more of the hunting scenes than what they are—engaging descriptions inserted into the narrative to maintain audience interest. The symbolism displayed in the poem is studied by Piotr Sadowski, who discusses the meaning of the greenness of the Green Knight. The pentangle, a symbol on Gawain's shield which the Gawain-poet describes in very detailed fashion, fascinates numerous critics because of its melding of Christian and pagan elements. Arthur Lindley warns against too much searching for symbolism and meaning, however, asserting that ambiguity is integral to the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and that critics who seek to resolve its conflicting themes are misguided.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Brian Stone] 1959

The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet [translated by John Gardner] 1965

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Marie Borroff] 1967

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translated by Burton Raffel] 1970

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Pearl,” and “Sir Orfeo” [translated by J. R. R. Tolkien] 1975

Pearl Poems: “Patience” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” [translated by William Vantuono] 1984

The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet [translated by Casey Finch] 1993

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”: A Verse Translation [translated by Keith Harris] 1999

Albert B. Friedman (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedman, Albert B. “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” 1960. In “Sir Gawain” and “Pearl”: Critical Essays, edited by Robert J. Blanch, pp. 135-58. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Friedman examines Morgan le Fay's role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, presenting a comparative analysis of various critical interpretations of her importance in the story.]

“Le joyau de la littérature anglaise du moyen âge,” as Gaston Paris called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,1 is obviously flawed in one crucial passage. When the giant has...

(The entire section is 8366 words.)

Larry D. Benson (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Benson, Larry D. “Literary Convention and Characterization in Sir Gawain.” In Art and Tradition in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 56-109. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Benson explores the influence of common literary conventions from the romance tradition on setting, action, and characterizations in the Gawain-poet's works.]

The Gawain-poet's debt to romance tradition is most clearly and significantly evident not in his dependence on specific sources such as Caradoc but in his use of the general stock of literary conventions that were the common property of all romancers. We...

(The entire section is 20435 words.)

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Romance and Anti-Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Critical Studies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” edited by Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher, pp. 257-66. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Bercovitch explains that many elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight run counter to traditional romantic conventions.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is without question a “profound celebration of the romance values … [of] Christian chivalry and courtesy,” and in this sense we undoubtedly have an “obligation to...

(The entire section is 3175 words.)

A. C. Spearing (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Spearing, A. C. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Gawain-Poet, pp. 171-91. London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Spearing contends that three plot-elements—the Beheading Game, the Temptation, and the Exchange of Winnings—are fundamental to understanding the meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.]


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Gawain-poet's best known and most admired work, differs from his other three poems in being more essentially a narrative than they are. It is not an exemplum set in a homily, or a vision with explicit and detailed...

(The entire section is 9051 words.)

W. A. Davenport (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Davenport, W. A. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Art of the Gawain-Poet, pp. 152-94. London: The Athlone Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport examines various techniques employed by the Gawain-poet, including symbolism, irony, and role reversals in his characterizations.]


The most puzzling, and hence the most variously interpreted, element in Sir Gawain is the double figure of the Green Knight-cum-Bertilak. He has been seen as Life, Death, God, the Devil, and the force of Nature, as a Wild Man, a primitive hob-goblin, a shape-shifter, as the force of an earthly...

(The entire section is 16994 words.)

Jonathan Nicholls (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Nicholls, Jonathan. “The Testing of Courtesy at Camelot and Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet, pp. 112-38. Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

[In the following essay, Nicholls contrasts the notion of courtesy as practiced by Sir Gawain with the behavior of other courtiers, especially the discourtesy displayed by the Green Knight.]

Despite having a consistent Christian framework, SGGK [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] explores more fully the social meaning of courtesy than its companion poems. There are only three occasions in the poem when...

(The entire section is 14363 words.)

Joseph M. Lenz (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Lenz, Joseph M. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Promised End: Romance Closure in the “Gawain”-poet, Malory, Spenser, and Shakespeare, pp. 31-44. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Lenz examines section by section the circular structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.]

Very few poems are more structurally sound than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet blends a variety of disparate sources—the folklore motifs of the exchange of blows and the exchange of gifts, the courtly love game, the Arthurian setting and characters—into a marvelously wrought tale whose whole, as Marie Borroff tells us, is...

(The entire section is 5528 words.)

Wendy Clein (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Clein, Wendy. ““Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Its Readers. ” In Concepts of Chivalry in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 3-14. Norman, Okl.: Pilgrim Books, 1987.

[In the following essay, Clein contends that the Gawain-poet deliberately made the message of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ambiguous, seeking a wide and changing range of responses in his readers in order to encourage them to think critically about ethics.]

Only when we finish reading a work can we evaluate its meaning as a whole, the way in which its parts fit together. At the conclusion of a tale, the quest to discover what happens next ceases. We...

(The entire section is 3999 words.)

Gerald Morgan (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, Gerald. “The Action of the Hunting and Bedroom Scenes,” “The Definition of Gawain's Sinfulness,” and “The Judgment of Gawain's Conduct.” In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the Idea of Righteousness, pp. 106-69. County Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

[In the following essays, Morgan examines how the Gawain-poet demonstrates nobility through character, rather than by action; contends that Gawain's confession is truly pious; and explores the themes of sin and repentance in the work..]



The moral seriousness of Sir...

(The entire section is 27424 words.)

Sandra Pierson Prior (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Prior, Sandra Pierson. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Pearl Poet Revisited, pp. 92-127. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Prior offers a critical reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a medieval romance and asserts that its author did not believe in offering firm conclusions concerning moral issues, considering them outside the scope of the genre.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the last poem in the manuscript, is by far the best known and the most popular of the poet's works. A romance tale combining various Celtic and folk motifs with traditions about King Arthur and his knights, Sir...

(The entire section is 15200 words.)

Ad Putter (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Putter, Ad. “The Temptation Scenes.” In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and French Arthurian Romance, pp. 100-48. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 1995.

[In the following essay, Putter analyzes how the Gawain-poet's temptation scenes differ from those found in his probable sources.]


The romance of Perlesvaus, or Le Haut Livre du Graal, was written in the first half of the thirteenth century, perhaps in England or at least by a writer with some knowledge of its geography and its recent historical events.1 The work recounts the adventures of Perceval, Lancelot, and Gawain,...

(The entire section is 20113 words.)

Arthur Lindley (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “‘Ther He Watz Dispoyled, with Spechez of Myerthe’: Carnival and the Undoing of Sir Gawain.” In Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Carnivalesque Subversion, pp. 65-83. Newark, New Jersey: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lindley argues that many critics misinterpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by seeking to impose meaning in the place of deliberate ambiguity.]

Few characters project a categorical view of human nature more strongly than the Wife of Bath or subvert it more thoroughly. In her world of discourse everyone is first, last, and always male or female. Those categories are ever and...

(The entire section is 10393 words.)

Piotr Sadowski (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Sadowski, Piotr. “The Greenness of the Green Knight” and “The Head and the Loss Thereof: Gawain's Final Adoubment.” In The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 78-108 and 184-222. Newark, Del..: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essays, Sadowski examines the significance of the color green to medieval readers and discusses the ideas of ritual beheading and psychological death.]


The problem raised in the title of this … [essay] belongs to those obvious and self-imposing critical issues that arise for anyone...

(The entire section is 36507 words.)

Anne Rooney (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Rooney, Anne. “The Hunts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, edited by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, pp. 157-63. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

[In the following essay, Rooney argues that some critics have overanalyzed the hunting scenes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and contends that they are simply examples of worldly pleasure.]

The game causeth ofte a man to eschewe þe vij deedly synnes … for whan a man is ydul and recheless … it is a thyng which draweth men to ymaginacioun of fleishly lust and plaisire, for suche men han no lust, but alway for to abyde in oon...

(The entire section is 3630 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Burrow, J. A. “Conclusion.” In A Reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” pp. 160-86. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Contends that two modes, romantic and realistic, are present in the work.

Davis, Nick. ““Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Unfolded Narrative.” In Stories of Chaos: Reason and Its Displacement in Early Modern English Narrative, pp. 39-73. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999.

Analyzes the Pentangle emblem found on Gawain's shield and explains its significance.

Fox, Denton, editor. Twentieth Century Interpretations of...

(The entire section is 472 words.)