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.”
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.
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.