Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the first books written around the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table-type story (of which there are many; it was a very popular literary subject in the Rennaissance, as it was an era of change, and the King Arthur storyline was a good way to interweave paganistic traditions and new christian beliefs.) At the base of the story is the ancient belief in a promise and the christian ethic of forgiveness.

Sir Gawain is sitting at his King's table, doing his thing, when a large green knight comes in and challenges anyone there to a duel one year from the date. Gawain, being the gallant hero he is, agrees to the duel for his King, and basically spends a year screwing around and worrying about this battle. When he gets to the home of the big tree-hued guy, he tries every way to squirm out of it. He ultimately gives in and lays his sword down, only to be forgiven by the generous green thing, teaching Gawain a lesson both of forgiveness, following through on your promise and honor.

I read Raffel's translation, but I believe J.R.R. Tolkien also did a translation.

Sir Gawayn and Þe Grene Kny3t

I have decided to reproduce the Middle English text of "Sir Gawain" as edited by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1925, using my 1963 Oxford edition. Now, as Tolkien notes, this is a faithful reproduction of the text, except that all abreviations have been spelled out in its Midlands dialect form, which the poem is written in.

"The manuscript is found in a small quarto on vellum (7 x 5 in) in th eCoton Collection in the British Museum--MS. Nero A. x. It contans three other poems, known as Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness), and Patience. They are all written in the same hand which has been dated to about 1400. ...It is not known where the manuscript was written, but as the Lancashire character of the language is perfectly preserved, it is likely that the copying as well as the composition belongs to Lancashire."

--J.R.R. Tolkien

The story is unquestionably derived from the Irish saga Bricriu's Feast, in which Cuchulainn must behead CuRoi mac Daire. The earliest manuscript which mentions this is from 1100, though there is a poem in the Book of Taliesin which mentions this also (Marwnat Corroi ap Dairy). Another predecesor can be seen in the Mabinogion's "Pwyll penduec Dyfed," when Pwyll is tested by Arawn's wife while on a quest to behead Hafgan; the earliest form likely dates to 1100, same time as Bricriu's Feast. The Irish tale, however, shows no Norman influence, unlike the Mabinogion.

This said, on to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I, a companion to dirkg42's project.

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:

with wynne,
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!

There are many ways to read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", since it is important as a poem, as a document of Middle English and as an early fantasy work. I first read it in my teens, because I found a translation by JRR Tolkien, but when I read it just recently, in the past few days, the thing that I noticed the most were how different the social customs in it were, compared to how we might stereotypically view a story about a knight's adventures. I will give a brief synopsis of the plot, before giving my own analysis.

The story starts with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table having a feast, when they are interrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight, who challenges a knight to strike off his head with an axe. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, decapitates the knight---who picks up his head, walks away, and tells Sir Gawain to meet him in a year to suffer a return blow. The next part of the book shifts to Sir Gawain's venture across Britain, where he finds a castle with a Lord, named Bertilak, who tells him he can stay there while waiting his meeting with The Green Knight. Additionally, the Lord strikes a bargain with Sir Gawain-- each day, they will exchange what they found during the day. Lord Bertilak goes off hunting and brings home wild meat to share. Meanwhile, his wife has taken a liking to Sir Gawain and spends each day trying to seduce him, which Sir Gawain is too chivalrous to refuse, while trying to maintain his own chastity. He also feels that to keep his end of the bargain, he must return the kisses of Lord Bertilak's wife back to him. In the denouement of the work, Sir Gawain finds the Green Knight, who frightens him but only gives him a scratch, revealing that he is Lord Bertilak and that the entire seduction of Sir Gawain was a test of character. Everyone departs happy.

So several things about that above paragraph might jump out at the reader. The foremost might be "Was it really proper Medieval sexual ethics that it wasn't cheating if you kissed her husband, too?" I mean, personally both times I have kissed men, it has been for that reason, but that was in 2000s Portland, Oregon, not in either the 14th century (when this was written) or the 6 or 7th century (when it takes place). To the modern reader, the description of Sir Gawain, as a sensitive, well-mannered and artistic man who continually rebuffs a woman's advances while sharing long kisses with her husband certainly seems like it has homoerotic overtones. The poem repeatedly describes Sir Gawain as being gay, meaning merry, but it isn't just the middle schooler in me who giggles every time it comes up.

The book actually treats, briefly, of Sir Gawain's journey across Britain before finding Bertilak's castle. But the narrator doesn't think they are worth describing, saying (in my translation):

So many marvels did the man meet in the mountains
It would be too tedious to tell a tenth of them
Followed by a full four lines mentioning that he was fighting dragons, wolves and ogres, all of which are apparently too boring to describe, as opposed to the dozens of pages describing food, clothing, and the subtle flirtation between Sir Gawain and Bertilak's wife. But this is my key insight into the text: this is only unusual because of how we have anachronistically viewed the idea of chivalric literature, as if they were the equivalent of action movies, with square-jawed heroes defeating physical menaces. But in this poem, despite the initial horrific appearance of the cephalophore Green Knight, the basic conflict in this book is not of physical challenges. The conflict is whether Sir Gawain can keep his personal integrity, as well as balancing the different social obligations a Knight would be under. And that is why his internal conflicts are given so much description, while the dragons he fights get a single line.

I am probably missing a lot of the subtext, since I am not really aware of all the social and literary currents present at the time of composition, but my basic insight is that what we might view as "masculine" behavior is anachronistic, and that the author of this poem probably had a vastly different view of what interpersonal and social conflicts entailed.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.