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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Analysis

  • The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unknown, but the poem is believed to have been written by the same poet who wrote Pearl, Patience, and Purity, which exhibit similar language and themes.
  • The changing of seasons and the progression of a year serve as the backdrop of the poem. Gawain receives his challenge at the beginning of the year and is ordered to meet the Green Knight to receive his blow when that year is up. 
  • Sir Gawain is faced with the powers of the divine, social, and natural spheres. He faces the dangers of the Green Knight’s impending blow but also the forces of nature on his journey.

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During the Yule celebration, many knights and fair ladies gather in King Arthur’s banquet hall, there to feast and enjoy the holiday festivities. Suddenly a stranger enters the room. He is a giant, clad all in green armor, and with a green face, hair, and beard. He advances, gives his greetings, and then loudly issues his challenge. Is there a knight in the group who would dare to trade blows with the mighty Green Knight? He who accepts is to strike one blow with a battle-axe immediately. Then on New Year’s morning, a year hence, the Green Knight is to repay the blow, at his own castle in a distant land. Arrogantly, the Green Knight waits for an answer. From King Arthur’s ranks answers the voice of Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge.

King Arthur and the other knights watch approvingly as Sir Gawain advances, axe in hand, to confront the Green Knight. The stranger kneels down, bares his neck, and waits for the blow. Sir Gawain strikes, sure and true, and the head of the Green Knight is severed from his body. While all gape in amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head in his hands, leaps upon his charger, and rides toward the gate. As he rides, the lips of the head shout defiance at Sir Gawain, reminding him of their forthcoming meeting at the Green Chapel in the coming new year.

The months pass quickly. Noble deeds are legion at the Round Table, and an atmosphere of gaiety pervades King Arthur’s castle. Then, when autumn comes, Sir Gawain departs on his promised quest, and with much concern the other knights see him set forth. Sir Gawain—riding his horse, Gringolet—goes northward and at last arrives in Wirral, a wild and uncivilized region. On his way he was often in danger of death, for he faced fire-puffing dragons, fierce animals, and savage wild men in his search for the Knight of the Green Chapel. At last, on Christmas Eve, Sir Gawain sees a great castle in the middle of the wilderness. He enters it and is made welcome.

His host, Lord Bertilak of Hautdesert Castle, offers Sir Gawain the entire facilities of the castle. In the beautifully furnished chamber that he occupies, Sir Gawain is served the finest dishes and the best wines. Lady Bertilak, a lady more beautiful even than Queen Guinevere, sits with him as he eats. The next day is Christmas, and Lord Bertilak leads in the feasting. Expressing the wish that Sir Gawain will remain at the castle for a long time, Bertilak assures the knight that the Green Chapel is only a short distance away, so it will not be necessary for him to leave until New Year’s Day. Bertilak also asks Sir Gawain to keep a covenant with him. During his stay, Sir Gawain is to receive all the game that Bertilak catches during the day’s hunt. In return, Sir Gawain is to exchange any gifts he receives at the castle while Bertilak is away.

On the first morning that Lord Bertilak hunts, Sir Gawain is awakened by Lady Bertilak. She enters his chamber, seats herself on his couch, and speaks words of love to him. Sir Gawain resists temptation and takes nothing from the lady. That evening, when Lord Bertilak presents his bounty from the hunt, Sir Gawain answers truthfully that he received nothing that day. The second morning the same thing happens. Sir Gawain remains chaste in spite of Lady Bertilak’s conduct. On the third morning, however, the day before Sir Gawain is to depart, she gives him an embroidered silk girdle, or sash, that she says will keep him safe from any mortal blow. Then she kisses him three times and departs. That evening Sir Gawain kisses Lord Bertilak three times, but he does not mention the silken girdle he received.

On New Year’s morning, Sir Gawain sets forth from the castle and rides to the Green Chapel. He finds it without difficulty; as he approaches he hears the Green Knight sharpening his axe. When Sir Gawain announces that he is ready for the blow and bares his head, the Green Knight raises his axe high in the air in preparation for the stroke of death. Sir Gawain first involuntarily jumps aside as the axe descends. The second time, the Green Knight merely strikes at Sir Gawain, not touching him at all. With the third blow he wounds Sir Gawain in the neck, drawing a great deal of blood. Then Sir Gawain shouts that he fulfilled the covenant. The Green Knight laughs loudly at that and begins to praise Sir Gawain’s courage.

To Sir Gawain’s surprise, the Green Knight reveals himself as Lord Bertilak and explains the blows. On the first two blows Sir Gawain escaped injury because for two days he faithfully kept the covenant. The third drew blood, however, because Sir Gawain failed to reveal the gift to Lord Bertilak. Together with Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s half-sister, the Green Knight planned this whole affair to test the strength and valor of King Arthur’s knights. They devised the disguise of the Green Knight and persuaded Lady Bertilak to try tempting Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain withstands the test of temptation well; his only fault is the keeping of the girdle. The host forgives him for his act, however, because it is the love of life that motivated Sir Gawain.

The two men return to the castle, and Sir Gawain journeys back to King Arthur’s court. As he rides he gazes with shame at the girdle. It is to remain with Sir Gawain as a reminder of the moment when he yielded and succumbed to the weakness of the flesh. At King Arthur’s castle all the knights and ladies listen to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and then, to show their love for the young knight, they all don silk girdles. This symbol becomes a traditional part of the costume of the Knights of the Round Table.

Places Discussed

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Camelot is the site of King Arthur’s court. As the poem begins, attractive young lords and ladies celebrate the Christmas season at Camelot. Dressed in their best, the courtiers frolic in a charming atmosphere. Laughter and mirth prevail while a lovely Guinevere and a boyish Arthur sit on an attractive raised platform. The poem hints that the court, despite its superficial attractiveness, may be naïve and untried.

The Wirral

The Wirral is a forest in Cheshire, England, that Gawain enters from northern Wales during his quest through the wilderness. The weather is cold, and the woods are dark and full of wild men, giants, and monsters. The Wirral may symbolize the forces of nature as opposed to the civilized atmosphere of Camelot and Bertilak’s castle. The geographical closeness of castles and the forests surrounding them suggests that civilization is fragile and that the primitive forces of the forests are always ready to destroy what human beings have built.

Castle Hautdesert

Castle Hautdesert is the home of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, the good-humored nobleman who is Gawain’s host and who is disguised as the Green Knight by the arts of Morgan le Fay. Like Arthur’s court, Bertilak’s castle is a pleasant place. From a distance, its white silhouette looks as if it were cut from paper. The castle and its moat are set on a hill, near the Green Chapel. Gawain’s private bedroom and luxurious bed emphasize that the castle is one of the finest of its era. However, the poet contrasts this luxury with Bertilak’s hunt in the forest. By graphically describing the death and disemboweling of the deer, the boar, and the fox, the poet creates a realistic picture of the brutality of a medieval hunt.

The Green Chapel

The Green Chapel is the mound-like chapel of the Green Knight, which Gawain approaches on New Year’s Day. The frightening-looking chapel stands in a wasteland; it is hollowed out, like a cave, and symbolic. It seems to connect with the tree worship of the pre-Christian Celts. On one hand, the castle seems like a tomb; on the other hand, because it is a chapel it reminds medieval readers that Christ left his cave-tomb and entered into everlasting life. Like many of the places described in the poem, the Green Chapel is rich with ambiguity.

Historical Background

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The study of modern literature consists largely in the collection and interpretation of information about the authors. It is almost impossible, for example, to appreciate Byron without thinking of the author and his mystique. We do not, however, even know who the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (known as “the Gawain poet”) was.

We may view this as a restriction, but, in fact, it does not have to hinder our appreciation very much. We also know nothing substantial of Homer or Dante, yet that does not prevent us from numbering them among the finest poets in history. Looked at from one perspective, our comparative ignorance of them and the Gawain poet could even be an advantage. It means there is more room for the imagination.

We should certainly take advantage of the knowledge that is available. Many people find they can enjoy Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with little or no knowledge of the author’s times. A more sophisticated appreciation, however, will require some understanding of the historical context. Above all, this will help us to respond to the poem not merely as a delightful fantasy but as part of a great tradition.

Only a single copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been preserved from the Middle Ages. The manuscript also contains three other poems, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. They are written in the dialect of the northwest Midlands, the area of England known today as Lancaster and Yorkshire. Similarities of language, imagery, and theme, together with a high level of artistry, have convinced most scholars that they are the work of a single author. Pearl is a lament for the death of the author’s daughter, while Patience retells the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Purity is a religious meditation in which the author retells many stories from the Old Testament. All are considered to be among the foremost works of medieval literature. A fifth poem, St. Erkenwald, is sometimes attributed to the same writer. He was obviously educated in both religious lore and courtly ways, but virtually all our knowledge of him comes from his works.

The Middle Ages has been alternately praised as a period of romance or simple faith and vilified as a time of superstition and ignorance. Perhaps more than any other period of history, it arouses strong emotions. This is because it is a period of strong contrasts: splendid pageantry and squalor, gaiety and despair, compassion and cruelty, asceticism and extravagant sensuality. All of the popular images contain elements of truth, but none of them is complete.

The ethic of the nobility in the Middle Ages is known as chivalry. This is a set of customs that attempted to reconcile the virtues of a warrior society with Christianity. The ethos of the pagan warriors had emphasized physical courage and loyalty to one’s tribe and lord. It placed great stress on fierceness in battle and usually regarded restraining influences, including pity, with disdain. Christianity, on the other hand, upheld an ideal universal love.

Chivalry retained the martial virtues of the pagan warriors but in the service of other ideals. It continued to place great value upon loyalty and courage, but it scorned blood-lust, egotism, and unrestrained sexuality. The knight, the Christian warrior, was expected to be gentle and refined in his domestic life.

Central to the culture of chivalry was the cult of “courtly love.” Prior to the Middle Ages, there were only a few literary accounts of idealized lovers in Western culture. Love between the sexes had been regarded as a highly questionable passion, far less worthy of a hero than love of his companions or his country. This changed abruptly around the start of the eleventh century, as the Provencal poets of Southern France began to celebrate erotic love. This new preoccupation quickly spread to Germany and then to the rest of Europe. It became not only the major theme of lyric poetry but also a foundation of the chivalric epics.

Notions of love varied widely, just as they do today. Often a knight would elect to fight in jousting tournaments or on the battlefield in the name of a lady whose favor he wished to win. He was not supposed to expect either physical intimacy or expensive gifts in return, but he might be given a token of the lady such as a sash or a detachable sleeve from her dress. He would then take this with him into battle, sometimes using it as a banner to decorate his lance.

Often a knight might choose to serve the wife of another man. Since marriages among the aristocracy were largely political, love was usually outside of marriage. As long as the love remained only spiritual, the husband was not very likely to object. In practice, however, this sort of service could easily slide into adultery. In Mallory’s Mort D’Arthur, the downfall of the celebrated Round Table comes when Lancelot, once the greatest of the knights, has a love affair with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur.

The chivalric ideal of love depended on a very delicate emotional balance. Courtly love may have been an important civilizing force, but it could easily become an occasion for violence as well. It was surrounded by all sorts of elaborate conventions designed to keep erotic passions under reasonable control.

When the Gawain poet wrote at the end of the fourteenth century, the age of chivalry was nearly at an end. An especially virulent outbreak of bubonic plague in 1347–50 had destroyed about a third of the population of Europe and shaken confidence in traditional ways. New weapons, including longbows, cannons, and muskets, were rendering traditional warfare, together with most of the knightly traditions, obsolete.

As it receded into the past, the age of chivalry began to seem more attractive. The mythical court of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, especially, became surrounded with growing nostalgia. The chivalric knight evolved into the English gentleman.

Even today, there is a good deal in contemporary culture which goes back to chivalry. The cowboy is a modern version of the knight wandering in search of adventure. Soap operas, with their preoccupation with power and adultery, owe quite a bit to chivalric romances.

Almost all literature centers, in one way or another, around human beings, but it does this in many ways. Literature of the Middle Ages frequently emphasized the relationship between humanity and God. With the Renaissance, emphasis shifted more to relationships among different human beings in society. Then, with the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century and the environmental movement of the twentieth century, the emphasis again shifts, this time to the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

The change of emphasis that began in the Renaissance was the result of gradual secularization that accompanied the development of science and industry. The reasons for the subsequent emphasis on nature is related to the same process. As human beings transformed more and more of the earth by cutting down woods, draining swamps, and building settlements, they began to feel increasingly nostalgic for the primeval landscapes that were being destroyed.

These are only rough generalizations, and the richest and most interesting works from all eras frequently explore all three relationships, as the hero confronts divine powers, society, and nature. This is certainly the case with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It contains many vivid descriptions of landscapes scattered throughout the poem. These set the mood of the story, but they are also included for their beauty.

Almost all of them emphasize the seasons. The cycle of the year, celebrated in the liturgical calendar, provides a sort of frame for the poem. Human life is compared to the year, which as life stirs beneath the snow, then progresses through stages of maturity to a final end.

The powers of nature are sometimes personified in the persons of the Green Knight, who doubles as Sir Bertilak, and Morgan le Fay, who doubles as Lady Bertilak. The Green Knight is a sort of personification of the woods. He is at first completely green, including his skin, like vegetation. Later, as Lord Bertilak, he changes color, not unlike leaves in fall. He also possesses the mysterious regenerative powers of nature. Like a tree that has lost a limb or even its crown, he simply lives on untroubled.

As for Morgan le Fay, the Green Knight actually calls her a “goddess.” To include such a figure is a sort of pagan revival. It anticipates the Renaissance, which was already old in Italy but was just starting to reach England when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written. Gawain certainly speaks for some of his contemporaries when he comes across the Green Knight in a desolate place by a fairy mound and wonders if he is a devil.

Nevertheless, both the Green Knight and Morgan le Fay seem to be at least as devout in their Christianity as Arthur and his court. At their home in Hautdesert Castle, they celebrate Mass. Furthermore, though opinions about them will certainly differ, the two certainly have a sense of fairness, and they are at least reasonably benevolent.

If the Green Knight and Morgan le Fay are ambivalent, that reflects the contradictory attitude of people toward the natural world. The landscapes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may be very beautiful, but most of them are also harsh. Gawain, in his search for the Green Chapel, must not only suffer attacks by wild beasts but also cold and sleet.

The confrontation of humanity with nature found, for medieval aristocrats, its most vivid and exhilarating expression in the hunt. This was not only a means of training for war but also an important social occasion, where people of the castle were bonded in an exciting common endeavor. Ladies would take part as well as men. Each participant had a clearly defined role and a corresponding share of the game. Then the events of the hunt would provide material for tales told around the fire during long winter evenings. Only animals like boars and deer, known for their speed or fierceness, were considered worthy to be hunted by a lord.

This could be an exciting confrontation, even if it was an unequal one. The forests, however, were actually no more wild than our own. The Gawain poet, anticipating Romantics like Tennyson, loves to evoke the terror of primeval landscapes. One of the best examples is this passage:

By a mountain next morning he Gawain makes his way
Into a forest fastness, fearsome and wild;
Oaks old and huge by the hundred together.
The hazel and the hawthorn were all intertwined
With rough raveled moss, that raggedy hung,
With many birds unblithe upon bare twigs
That peeked most piteously for pain of the cold.
(Borroff trans., part 2, lines 740–747).

Impressive as this description sounds, it is doubtful whether there were any forests this primeval in Britain when the Gawain poet was writing. If there were, they could certainly not have sheltered any big castles, since people needed vast quantities of wood for everything from building to heating in winter. As, in recent years, the study of nature writing has become more popular, scholars have subjected it to greater scrutiny. They have realized that the idea of primal nature unaffected by human activity has usually been a daydream, even if it was a poetic one. Such natural settings had generally ceased to exist even in prehistoric times.

The aristocratic hunting preserves of medieval Europe sometimes must have looked very wild, but this was a carefully cultivated illusion. They were tended by foresters, who wanted them to look dark and dangerous so that hunters might experience their confrontation with nature more vividly. In a way, they were not totally unlike the theme parks of today.

Already, when the Romans conquered Britain around the end of the first century CE, there were almost no virgin forests. The woodlands had mostly been cut or burned down by the original inhabitants. By the early Middle Ages, a cultivated forest known as the “coppice” had become a center of economic and social activity in traditional village life. This was an area where the trees had been, when comparatively young, cut off just above the height of a tall man. This made many small branches grow out in all directions, so they made a sort of tent or canopy. It provided a sort of pleasant, natural shelter. Farmers would take livestock there to feed the animals on nuts and acorns. Markets were held there. The coppice even provided many thin sticks of wood that could be used as staves. The coppice often looked a bit like a gothic church with branches for buttresses. It may even have been the inspiration for the idea of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This aspect of traditional British life ended in some areas when William of Normandy conquered Britain in 1066. He desired to greatly expand the royal game preserves. In some cases he went so far as to destroy buildings and even entire villages to make way for the forests. These forests sometimes became a refuge for political dissidents, the most famous of whom is the legendary Robin Hood.

However, the British forests were somewhat wild in at least one respect. It was very difficult to map them accurately. Without the benefit of a compass, which did not become widespread until the end of the Middle Ages, it was, additionally, very difficult to find one’s way. Knights in search of adventure might ride out into the forest. They could never know in advance whom or what they might find. Gawain sets out into the forest to seek the Green Knight, without a map or direction, trusting only to providence.

In summary, the relationship between human beings and the natural world is one of our most urgent concerns in the late twentieth century. Since nature, however, has long been formed by human activity, we can certainly never expect to understand it apart from history. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good book to take with you on a camping trip. You might gaze up from the fire and imagine Castle Hautdesert somewhere among the trees.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Anderson, William. Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990.

Bechmann, Roland. Trees and Man: The Forest in the Middle Ages. Trans. from the French by Katharyn Dunham. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Boroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1962.

Borroff, Marie, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Norton, 1967.

Briggs, Katherine. The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends. New York: Pasntheon, 1988.

Burrow, J. A. & Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Cartmill, Matt. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1993.

Clein, Wendy. Concepts of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Norman, Ok: Pilgrim, 1987.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: Braziller, 1976.

Davenport, W. A. The Art of the Gawain Poet. London: Athlone, 1978.

Dickson, Arthur. Valentine and Orson: A Study in Late Medieval Romance. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1929.

Ferrante, Joan M. and George D. Economy, eds. In Pursuit of Perfection: Courtly Love in Medieval Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1975.

Gantz, Jeffrey, ed. & trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Haines, Victor Yelverton. The Fortunate Fall of Sir Gawain: The Typology of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Washington, D. C.: UPA, 1982.

Johnson, Lynn Staley. The Voice of the Gawain Poet. Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Studies in Medieval Literature: A Memorial Collection of Essays. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.

Mathews, John. Gawain: Knight of the Goddess. London: Aquarian Press, 1990.

Miller, Mariam Youngerman & Jane Chance, eds. Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: MLA, 1986.

Perlin, John. A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press,1989.

Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Fables, Fairy Tales and Legends of Animals. New York: Pace U. Press, 1990.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Shahar, Shulamith. The Fourth Estate: A history of women in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1993.

Shoaf, R. A. The Poem as a Green Girdle: Commercialism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gainsville, Fl.: U. Press of Florida, 1984.

Stone, Brian, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Thibaux, Marcelle. The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature. Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1974.

Tolkien, J. R. R. and E. V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1967.

Watson, Henry, trans. Valentine and Orson. Ed. by Arthur Dickson. New York: Kraus Reprints, 1971 (first published 1503-95).

Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual to Romance. New York: Doubleday, 1957.


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Anderson, J. J. Language and Imagination in the Gawain-Poems. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2005. Places Sir Gawain and the Green Knight within the context of the other poems of the manuscript, looking closely at religious concepts of humility, sin, God’s justice, and truth.

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.

Boroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. The noted modern translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight examines the confessional scene, noting that it is the Green Knight who pronounces judgment on Sir Gawain as opposed to a priest.

Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 1997. Includes many fine readings, particularly a chapter by David Aers concerning Christianity and courtly codes.

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 Christine Zacher, eds. Critical Studies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. Classic collection of critical work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, including several chapters on Christian significance, Gawain’s lessons and flaws, and the meaning of the Green Chapel.

Thompson, Raymond H., and Keith Busby. Gawain: A Casebook. London: Routledge, 2005. Places the character of Gawain in a historical context, tracing his depictions from early medieval texts through modern day. Extensive annotated bibliography.

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.

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