Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an anonymous 14th century alliterative poem of 2530 lines composed in a variety of the "northwestern midlands" dialect of Middle English. The main difficulties of the dialect – thought to have been spoken in the Staffordshire region of northern England – derive from the profusion of Norse words and other regional terms that have not survived in modern standard English, which descended from the dialects spoken around London. Indeed, a few words make their only known appearance in this poem.
The history of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is obscure. Only one manuscript, now known as Cotton Nero A.x, has survived to the present day and is clearly a copy of an earlier manuscript now lost. The earliest record of MS. Cotton Nero A.x is in the catalogue of a private library of Henry Savile of Yorkshire (1568-1617). The manuscript ultimately ended up in the collection of the famous bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) and was donated to the British nation with the rest of the collection by Cotton’s son Thomas Cotton in 1700. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was rediscovered by scholars in 1824 and first saw publication in 1839. Since that time the poem has seen several editions and translations and achieved recognition as one of the finest examples of medieval alliterative verse.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight adheres to a relatively strict poetic form. Each stanza consists of approximately 15-25 metered, alliterating lines and concludes with five shorter, rhymed lines known as the "bob and wheel." Each of the alliterative lines has four strongly stressed beats such that the first three stressed syllables alliterate while the fourth need not, as in
Siþen þe sége and þe assáut watz sésed at Tróye (1)
Occasionally there will be what is apparently a fifth strong stress, usually alliterating, that is placed in such a way that it is subordinated by one of the other strong stresses, and thus does not break the meter, as with "bor3" ("burg") in
Þe bor3 bríttened and brént to brónde3 and áskez (2)
Very rarely the poet will vary the alliterative pattern by alliterating two of the stressed syllables with one sound and the other two with a different sound, as in
Of sum auénturus þíng, an vncouþe tále (93)
where “adventurous” alliterates with “uncouth” and “thing” alliterates with “tale.” As these lines illustrate, the Gawain Poet has a somewhat different conception of alliteration than that commonly held today. Because it is the stressed syllables that alliterate, the first letter of a word is irrelevant. Thus, "become" would alliterate with "king," and "ignore" would alliterate with "nobody." The poet also freely alliterates different vowels with each other and with syllables beginning with the letter "h." Thus in the line,
If I were hásped in ármes on a hé3e stéde (281)
"hasped" is considered to alliterate perfectly with both "arms" and "high." Occasionally, the poet will alliterate pairs of identically articulated voiced and voiceless fricatives such as "v" and "f" and "z" and "s," and very rarely, will alliterate "th" with "t," as in line 93 above.
The bob and wheel consists of five shorter lines that rhyme in the pattern, ababa. The first line has only one stressed beat, while the other four have three stresses each. Generally, at least two of the stresses in each three-beat line alliterate, but this rule is frequently broken. The bob and wheel of the first stanza is a good example of the form:
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
In case you are wondering what the weird letters mean, the poem uses two letters that no longer exist in the English language. The letter "þ" (thorn) is the sound we now represent as "th," both voiced (as in "thy"), and voiceless (as in "thigh"). The letter yogh, represented here by the the number "3", variously represents the sounds we now represent with the letters "y," "g," and "z," as well as the now-no-longer-pronounced aspiration we still represent with gh" in words like "right," "laughter," "knight," and "high."
What are you waiting for? Onward to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I!