Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I & II
About the Manuscript
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight probably composed c. 1375-1400.
One surviving manuscript, containing three other poems, thought to be by same author (Pearl, Patience, and Purity).
- Written in the dialect of the NW Midlands (south Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire; the area Gawain ends up in after his journey north).
- For more on the MS, visit the Gawain wing of art gallery on the web page. Access images from the Gawain manuscript by clicking the top left image. Click the bottom center image to see a castle very similar to Hautdesert.
About the Poem
- For a brief discussion of the alliterative verse of the poem and of its stanzaic construction (and its use of the "bob" and "wheel"), see handout.
- The poem is an example of medieval romance. Romance starts off as term designating a story written in one of the languages which derive from Latin (the "Romanish" languages, as it were: e.g, French, Spanish, Italian).
- Gradually, the term becomes associated with particular KINDS of stories told in these vernaculars: narratives of chivalric adventure, quests and tests.
- Romances often contain magical and supernatural elements and often treat of love between aristocratic characters.
- The historical Arthur was probably a sixth century resistance fighter against the Saxon invaders.
- The Arthur of romance is created in effect by Welsh priest Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regem Britanniae (early 12th century).
- From the 12th century onwards, lengthy cycles of Arthurian romances are written, first of all in France, later in England.
- Gawain as nephew of Arthur becomes representative of both his kinsman and the Round Table in taking up the Green Knight's challenge.
"Exfoliating" Sign Systems
- This poem is full of complex sign systems, ambiguous texts, which constantly invite our interpretation.
- Consider the ambiguous nature of the Green Knight: the multiplying mixed signals his description offers (e.g., the holly bush and the ax in his hands: green branch of peace, weapon of war).
- The challenge: the "Christmas game," which also involves a legal contract and a test of Gawain's "trauthe," a Middle English word whose connotations encompass truth, pledged word, faithfulness between lovers, personal integrity.
- The arming of Gawain as Pentangular knight: exfoliating resonance (both secular and spiritual) of the pentangle as sign of Gawain (see handout).
- The "endless knot": The five defining virtues associated with Gawain (see handout).
Gawain's Journey North
- Consider the significance of what the poet does and does not choose to expand upon in narrating the journey.
- The northern court: structural doubling of Green Knight's arrival at Camelot in the arrival of Gawain, the stranger, at the mysterious castle.
- The business of naming (the resonance of the surrendered identity).
- The northern courtiers' reconstruction of Gawain's identity, their emphasis on his command of the courtly arts and of "love-talking."
- The new game: Gawain's trauthe on the line again in the "exchange of winnings" contract.