Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)
Camelot, described as the hallmark of courtesy and chivalry, is ablaze with the New Year’s festivities as the poem begins. The festive atmosphere is abruptly broken by the entrance into King Arthur’s hall of a gigantic green knight, who derides Arthur’s knights as mere boys and challenges anyone to trade blows with him. He will take the first blow, but in a year and a day the assailant must receive a blow in return. The only knight to accept the challenge is Gawain. With one blow, Gawain decapitates the Green Knight, but the headless knight picks up his head, adjures Gawain to find his way to the Green Chapel to receive his blow as agreed upon or be disgraced, and rides out of the hall, holding his head aloft.
After a perilous journey, Gawain happens upon a beautiful castle the following Christmas Eve and is hospitably received by the lord and his lovely lady. On successive days, the host goes hunting, leaving Gawain alone with the lady, who tries to seduce him. Resisting her charms, Gawain does accept from her a girdle, or belt, supposedly having the power to protect the wearer from harm. Later at the Green Chapel, it is revealed that the host is the Green Knight, who at the behest of the enchantress Morgan le Faye had sought to test the pride of Camelot. Gawain is disgraced for having kept the girdle in defiance of a vow to exchange with the host what each would receive on the days of the hunts. His life spared, Gawain keeps the girdle as a reminder of his weakness. Finally, back at Camelot, Gawain publicly confesses his shame, and the members of the Round Table resolve to wear a green belt in honor of their worthy comrade.
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT has been frequently translated into modern English and is readily available in literary anthologies.
Barron, W. R. J. Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1980. Examines Gawain’s sin of deception, and the temptation and beheading games, in the context of medieval society and feudal law. Also examines the parallels between the hunting and temptation scenes.
Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965. Excellent background material and discussion of the sources, literary conventions, style, structure, and meaning of the poem.
Fox, Denton, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A brief but useful collection of critical essays, which also includes brief writings on the poem by such noted critics as C. S. Lewis and A. C. Spearing.
Howard, Donald R., and Christian Zacker, eds. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. Provides a thorough discussion of all major aspects of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Essays are grouped by subject and cover such topics as critical issues, style and technique, and characterization and setting.
Waldron, R. A. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Edward Arnold, 1970. Offers one of the best and most comprehensive overviews available of the poem’s action, themes, and structure. Detailed annotation and an extensive glossary offer insights into the original text that are not found in most critical surveys. An excellent starting point.