Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stands in a class by itself as the most ambitious, most accomplished, most enjoyable poetical romance written in the English language during the Middle Ages. Though its language and dialect have challenged readers from the beginning—some of its archaisms must have seemed almost as unusual to medieval audiences as they do in the 21st century—its appeal remains fresh and powerful. Since World War II, it has claimed a central place in any account of writing in medieval England, and at the same time it has been widely taught in survey and introductory courses; it is such a good read that even novice readers immediately recognize its excitement and complexity. It has frequently been “modernized” as a school text, but it has also inspired literary retellings by major poets, establishing its appeal among educated and even casual readers outside the classroom. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not only the best, but also in many ways the most unusual or unprecedented of medieval English romances. Its density of meaning, verbal pyrotechnics, fantastic playfulness, and dizzyingly intricate structures will repay any amount of careful reading or imaginative probing, as the hundreds of books and essays written on the poem in the last half century prove. In this, it stands apart from contemporary verse romances, which tend to be fast-paced, spectacularly action-packed, and filled with sensation; it also differs strongly from Malory’s Morte Darthur, whose expansive prose offers pleasures opposite to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though it presents its plot as an obscure early anecdote in the vast Arthurian mythos, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens channels to profound and urgent questions, exploring issues of masculine identity, heterosexual (and homosocial) love, the conflicts of public identity and the private self, the ideals and contradictions of chivalry, and the comforts, mysteries, and shortcomings of medieval Christianity as practice and belief. Inexplicably, it achieves this without ever becoming top-heavy or allowing readers’ attention to drift from the continuously surprising turns of the story. In its concentrated style and intense demands on readers, its closest parallels are contemporary high art narratives like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde or his Wife of Bath’s Tale. As a medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight transports audiences back to a world of knights and ladies, mysterious beings, fantasy landscapes, and picturesque castles whose hold on the imagination appears undiminished. Moreover, it persuasively fills this world with sophistication, courage, humor, terror, magic, and mutual affection that seem unsurpassed. The story proceeds as a forward-moving narrative, yet it repeatedly doubles (and triples) back on itself, revealing new depths and urging new possibilities of meaning. Indeed, its value to readers lies not in its documentary character, illustrating the thoughts and lived experiences of a particular time and place, but in the inexhaustible richness that makes it unforgettably unique yet provocatively new for every returning reader.
For more than a century, from the time of its Victorian “rediscovery” through the mid-20th century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remained a relatively obscure poem. Even as Tolkien and Gordon 1967 (cited under Editions and Scholarly Translations) acknowledged its stature as a densely textured, polished work of art, that edition treated it as a text for specialist interests, mainly to be studied by philologists and research students. The 1960s revolutionized Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s standing, extracting it from the conservatorship of specialists, bringing it forward as a work that every English reader interested in poetry should know, and making it a central, representative text for medieval writing in England. Bloomfield 1961 is an overview that provides not so much a retrospective of scholarship published on the romance as a prospect or blueprint for work that might explore the poem’s richness and appeal. In the years immediately following, book-length studies by American scholars deployed traditional modes of medievalist scholarship (see Borroff 1962, cited under Language and Authorship, and Benson 1965, cited under Sources, Analogues, Influences) but incorporated literary readings that revealed a provocative complexity and subtlety that all readers might enjoy. Howard 1964, a landmark interpretation of the romance, combines New Critical close reading with a learned appreciation of medieval culture and aesthetics, establishing beyond question the poem’s place as a touchstone of English literature. The inclusion of Borroff’s 1967 version (Borroff 2010, cited under Literary Translations and Retellings) in the second edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1968) consolidated its place in the canon of English writings. Extended readings of the poem by J. A. Burrow (Burrow 1965) and of the poet by A. C. Spearing (Spearing 1970) clearly take as given the poem’s status as at once representative and exceptional. Book-length studies in the latter part of the 20th century (Davenport 1978, Johnson 1984, Stanbury 1991) enriched our sense of the poem’s remarkable achievements, while embedding its words, ideas, and outlook in a broad variety of medieval social, spiritual, and psychic contexts. Hahn 2000, a survey of other English Gawain romances, helps establish a literary register against which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight defines itself through verbal dexterity and textual density.
Bloomfield, Morton. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 76.1 (1961): 7–19.
DOI: 10.2307/460308E-mail Citation »
Seminal study of the interpretative cruxes associated with the poem. Skillfully situates proposed “solutions” to these difficulties within existing scholarship as a means of stimulating future work. Philology, authorship, dating, source materials, possible contemporary influences/allusions, sociohistorical implications of 14th-century chivalry, alliterative poetry and Arthurian romance, Christian morality, generic expectation, narrative structure, and temporality are all discussed as contributing to the poem’s intriguing paradoxes. Reprinted in Howard and Zacher 1968 (cited under Anthologies of Criticism).
Burrow, J. A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1965.
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Fitt-by-fitt discussion of the poem within its cultural and literary settings, especially Arthurian romance and Christian realism. Influential for its assertion that fidelity to formal agreements (or the lack thereof) is fundamental to any understanding of Gawain’s heroism.
Davenport, W. A. The Art of the Gawain-Poet. London: Athlone, 1978.
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Identifies Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a secular poem interested in the nature of heroism as both a concept and an experience or performance. Categorizes the narrative as a comic acceptance of the shortcomings of men that acknowledges the “pain of living” with genuine empathy and skill.
Gawain. Camelot Project.
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Collection of medieval and modern texts focused on the figure of Gawain, including Jessie Weston’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Texts are introduced by a brief yet informative essay on Gawain’s importance as a uniquely malleable Arthurian figure.
Hahn, Thomas. “Sir Gawain and Popular Romance.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Edited by Roberta L. Krueger, 218–234. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521553423E-mail Citation »
Revised account of Gawain’s literary reputation found in the introduction to Hahn’s edition of Gawain romances (available online). Careful attention is given to two pieces of documentary evidence—the inventory of Sir John Paston’s library and a private letter written by Robert Laneham—as important sources of information about the social contexts in which popular Gawain romances were produced and received.
Howard, Donald R. “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain.” Speculum 39 (1964): 425–433.
DOI: 10.2307/2852497E-mail Citation »
Influential account of the poem’s structural and symbolic reduplications, including the juxtaposition of the pentangle shield and the girdle. Stresses the importance of symbolism in illuminating the unavoidable conflict between chivalry and Christianity, as well as the structural resolution of this conflict into a “balanced” comedy, purged of harmful extremes. Reprinted in Blanch 1966 (cited under Anthologies of Criticism).
Johnson, Lynn Staley. The Voice of the Gawain-Poet. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
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Complicates Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s characterization as “secular romance” through frequent and suggestive allusions to the liturgical calendar. Approaches time as cyclic, degenerative, and regenerative to argue that the poem relates a story of warning and renewal. Includes a useful chart listing annual and liturgical dates, their significances, and the events to which they correspond within the narrative proper.
Spearing, A. C. The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
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Eloquent discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s style and substance through the lens of Gawain as a self-conscious and self-consciously articulate hero. Detailed survey of facts and opinions surrounding the poet and his possible background is included in the first chapter of this study.
Stanbury, Sarah. Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
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Lucid analysis of the descriptive poetics employed by the Cotton Nero texts, with a special interest in the interpenetration of spiritual and sensory modes of perception. The chapter on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the study’s shortest but provides an engaging reading of the poem’s shifts in perspective nonetheless.
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Critics who read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight find themselves in disagreement on nearly every possible object of interpretation. This is partly because the poem itself is a combination of so many elements. William Vantuono observes that “[i]n combining fantasy and realism, Gawain is a romance with anti-romantic elements, it praises court life with an undercurrent of satire against a declining chivalric ideal, it calls up from the mythic past the shadows of archetypal figures, yet inspires modern psychoanalytic interpretations, and it entertains while teaching a moral-religious lesson.1” The characters in the poem have been interpreted in wildly opposite ways, either lauded for perfection and utter goodness, or derided as absurd, evil, or childish. Everything in Gawain presents the reader with a double possibility; but the real question is whether this possibility was intended by the poet, or whether modern criticism, rising from ideas and philosophies unthought of in the Middle Ages, has introduced into the poem an ambiguity that is anachronistic.
That the poem is not intended to portray an idealized knightly figure in the character of Gawain is fairly obvious. Both the knight and the reader are aware that he has somehow failed to uphold the virtues for which he is lauded at the beginning of his adventure. Whether this failure is trivial or not is a question that must be the subject of its own critical inquiry. Our interest, at any rate, lies in the realization that, as J.R.R. Tolkien expressed it, “in terms of literature, undoubtedly this break in the mathematical perfection of an ideal creature, inhuman in flawlessness, is a great improvement.2” Vantuono suggests that “the theme of Gawain is like life on earth, a combination of bright silver and dull bronze…Perhaps the poet deliberately developed ambiguity in his characters to show a human condition that is closer to life than any idealized creation could be, for no mortal is either all good or all bad.3” J.A. Burrow gives the clearest definition of this literary approach to the imperfect human condition when he says that, like Everyman, where the “hero’s confrontation with sin, death and judgment ends happily, thanks to his penance and God’s mercy,4” Gawain is a comedy. “[I]ts version of the Everyman experience is such that the hero can survive it bodily as well as spiritually, returning from it with honour and being reincorporated into his society—a more human kind of happy ending.5” “[T]he notion of comedy seems by its very nature to include all aspects of human life, the darkest as well as the brightest elements…6” This quote from Louise Cowan seems to mirror Vantuono’s image of Gawain as “bright silver and dull bronze,” and it suggests that by applying a theory of comedy to the poem, the ambiguities may be, if not resolved, arranged into a meaningful literary pattern.
I would like to focus, in this essay, on the most problematic and elusive figure in the poem, whose importance in the poem is no less that Gawain’s, if we are to judge by the title. The Green Knight is puzzling because he does not appear to be human; therefore, the ambiguities in how he is presented cannot be explained simply by assuming a fallen and imperfect nature. Instead, by his most obviously nonhuman aspect, his green skin and hair, he appears to be associated with one, or all, of three non-human realms, as Burrow points out: “according to medieval tradition, the colour green…was the colour of fairies, the colour of the dead, and the colour of the devil…Suggestions of the otherworld, the afterworld and the underworld are all appropriate enough in the context.7” On this point, as on many others, critics take wildly divergent stances, identifying the Green Knight with a number of historical figures, or with the devil, Merlin, Thor, a Christ-like figure or divine messenger, a ‘wild man’ or a Green Man.8 The interpretation accepted in the poem by the characters, however, is that he is a “fay-man,9” and this is borne out by later references to Morgan the Fay. Rather than clarifying the issue, however, this solution makes it more difficult; or rather, it allows the Green Knight to remain ambiguous, instead of reducing him to an allegory of pure good or evil. The world of Faerie in medieval folklore did not fit smoothly into the Christian world, in which heaven or hell were the only two possible origins for the supernatural. The inhabitants of Faerie could be good or evil, apparently at random; like human beings, they are morally unpredictable, but unlike humans they have unearthly powers. Like most figures of pre-Christian mythology, they represent, I would argue, forces and elements in human experience, seen apart from moral considerations.
In Gawain, however, the fay-man and his world intersect with the clearly moral and Christian world of Arthur’s court. Gawain, as representative of that world, is endowed with all human and knightly virtues, a figure of moral perfection. The poet’s intention, however, as represented above by Tolkien, Vantuono, and Burrow, is to bring this ideal perfection into contact with imperfect, lived, reality. In spite of his inhuman appearance and powers, then, the Green Knight is the representative of that imperfect reality, drawing Gawain out of his ideal courtly life into a journey that will test his ideals in less-than ideal circumstances. As Green Knight he embodies that force in experience that jolts the human being into action; and as Bertilak, in his human form as master of the castle, he is also the one who creates the circumstances of Gawain’s most difficult test of character. Finally, as the Green Knight once more, he makes Gawain aware of his imperfections, but does not punish him according to a strictly ideal sense of justice. Let us take these three moments and examine them in turn, to see how the Gawain poet has transformed the world of Faerie into an image for the imperfect world of human experience.
When the Green Knight first appears, he is described in conflicting terms. He is “half a troll” and “the largest man alive,10” and yet he is also “the seemliest for his size that could sit on a horse.” His green skin and hair are a cause for fear and astonishment, but he is dressed beautifully and like a courtly knight. Burrow remarks that “the whole of the following description hovers in a similar way between the monstrous-supernatural and the merry-human.11” In the same paradoxical vein, he wears no armor and carries in one hand a “holly-bundle,12” but in the other hand he carries an axe, “ugly and monstrous”. “It is as if the Green Knight offers peace with one hand and war with the other.13” The explanation that he gives for this, of course, is that he does not want a battle, but a game. He is dressed without armor to show his vulnerability for the blow that he will receive. The axe is not to be used by him, but by the knight who will choose to take up the challenge. In hindsight, the reader understands that the Green Knight is deliberately confusing the issue. If he were to appear in full armor, for example, his chances of surviving a blow might be higher, and the knights would be less likely to take up a challenge against a giant who would certainly have no difficulty in lopping off their heads. Although he speaks in a perfectly straightforward manner, the Green Knight has knowledge that he does not impart to Arthur and his knights. The test begins with a deliberate concealment—a deception that is not an outright lie. This element of deception is a characteristic part of the figure of the Green Knight, both in his gigantic and in his human form, until Gawain’s test is over. For this reason many critics find it impossible to see the Green Knight as a good or benevolent character. The natural modern reaction, as I see it, is to cry “foul.” Gawain did not know he was being tested. Or rather, he did know: I think too little is made of the fact that a normal human being, however knightly, might experience some difficulty in cutting a giant’s head at one blow. What he saw as a test of strength, however, turned out to be something far more subtle.
Rather than cry foul, let us consider the Green Knight as a figure of real experience intruding into the ideal world. He operates by the rules of Arthur’s world, presenting himself in clear terms as a challenger, a man who understands the courtly rules and virtues. He knows Gawain, for example. Gawain, on the other hand, and all the knights in fact, do not know the Green Knight, in spite of his declaration when he leaves: “I am known to many.14” In spite of abiding by the courtly rules, however, the Green Knight cannot, or rather, does not, disguise his difference from what an ideal knight should be. He is a giant, his hair and skin color are unnatural, and these facts betray the unexpected nature of real experience. It does not appear to abide by the rules of what should or should not exist. It is unintelligible, irreducible to intellectual categories. For this reason, Arthur and the knights are understandably terrified. They are not cowards; but their perfect world has been shattered by the intrusion of something imperfect, something that does not fit, that is too large and vivid for understanding. The Green Knight’s deception, then, is not a sign of his deliberate malice, but a natural result of what he is—an experience that is too immediate, too opaque, to be understood directly. Consider Denton Fox’s statement that “the poem is unusually solid and opaque.15” This is the nature of experience, as a brief moment of recollection is enough to convince any of us. The consequences of our actions often prove to be far other than we had expected; and every situation which requires action becomes a test of our ideals in ways that we only understand much later. Gawain, expecting a test of strength, cuts off the Green Knight’s head, and only then discovers that the real test is one of truth and valor. He must keep his word and travel outside of Arthur’s court, in order to have his own head, quite probably, cut off in turn.
Earlier versions of the beheading story apparently existed in which “the hero, after surviving the token return blow and thus proving his courage and fidelity, is asked by the giant challenger to strike off his head for the second time. The hero complies, and the giant by this act is unspelled.16” The Gawain poet, however, changes the story by making the Green Knight capable of shifting his form without the intervention of the hero. The reason for this very significant change must be found in the central part of the poem, which constitutes Gawain’s second test. Clearly, the poet was not satisfied by the simple test of truth and bravery involved in seeking out the giant and accepting his blow. Gawain would have aced that test, or at any rate passed with a very high grade, as in fact he does at the end of this poem, flinching only once at the blow. In such a straightforward situation, the courtly knight knows what to expect and his ideals are tested by his own standards. However, if, as I am arguing, the Green Knight represents the opaque and often deceptive nature of human experience, the Gawain poet needed to present Gawain with a more difficult situation. This occurs in the castle of the knight whose name is eventually revealed as Bertilak de Hautdesert, but only after he has been revealed to be the Green Knight himself. In the world that Gawain enters after he leaves Arthur’s court (call it the world of Faerie if you like), things are not quite as clear-cut and perfect as he would like them to be. The castle itself seems like an exact image of Arthur’s court: there is a noble master who is jolly and engaged in active sport, a beautiful lady whose most pressing interest is courtesy; there are feasts, and laughter, and Gawain is received and treated as the finest of guests, with the same honor that he is accorded in Arthur’s court. Here, however, it becomes clear that something is different.
For the lady, courtesy is an element of appearance, and not of inner worth. Bertilak’s jolly welcome, although sincere enough, is motivated by facts that Gawain does not understand; namely, Bertilak’s knowledge of Gawain and satisfaction that he has taken up the challenge. The friendly exchange that he proposes, of everything that the two of them have gained in the day, is explicitly designed to test Gawain, and the Green Knight later admits that he had deliberately set his wife to tempt her guest. That test, however, Gawain passes easily enough; he is sufficiently aware of the lady’s intentions that his innate virtue warns him and keeps him on guard. The real difficulty of the situation lies, not in the hidden motivations of his host, but in the fact that two of his virtues have been set at odds with each other: courtesy and chastity. He is forced to act with courtesy while refusing the advances of the lady, and the difficult balance which he keeps between the two, quite well, we might add, nonetheless distracts him from the other virtue that he needs to keep in mind: truth, or loyalty to his word. Just at the moment when he has successfully navigated every trap, as he thinks, the lady offers him her girdle with the tempting statement that it is magical and will save him from harm. Gawain immediately accepts it, and he fails to tell Bertilak about it, naturally, since if he were forced to return it it would do him no good. Thus he fails in his promise to Bertilak. This is Gawain’s one moment of imperfection, apart from the reaction of fear at the Green Knight’s blow.
The Green Knight, even though he is given as much time in this part of the poem as Gawain is, does little more than provide the poet with opportunities to create some very fine hunting scenes. Only on later knowledge that he has orchestrated the entire situation of Gawain’s temptation do we realize that his importance has been undimmed. What is significant about his presence as Bertilak, however, is that he is quite clearly human, in spite of his occasional shape-shifting skills. This makes his character in some ways even more ambiguous. He lives an ordinary life, with a wife and servants, sleeps under a roof, hunts and eats to live, and is in all ways an embodied human, not simply a fay who is imitating the appearance of a human. Nonetheless, his world, for all intents and purposes like the ideal world of Camelot, is a place as ambiguous and imperfect as his own appearance in the form of the Green Knight. It is a place that challenges Gawain, embroils him in a experience in which the virtues, beautifully equal in the pentangle that he wears, seem to become relative to each other and to his situation. In the end, the peril of his situation takes precedence over his fidelity to his word, but only after he has become wearied by the constant struggle between courtesy and chastity. Like the Green Knight, Bertilak’s castle is a less-than-ideal experience, something that happens too quickly and intensely to allow for clear reflection before a choice is made. The choice that Gawain thinks he makes, here, is to save his life at the expense of his virtue. The real outcome of his choice is that his life is spared only because of his virtue, and his one lapse in virtue is the cause, not of salvation, but of the only wound that he receives.
When the Green Knight reappears, the test is completed and he speaks with utter clarity. He reveals that he has been enchanted by Morgan la Fay, but he does not seem to be under any compulsion to act. Instead, he acknowledges the tests that he has laid on Gawain, and rejoices at the fact that he has passed them. Let us not, therefore, fall into the trap of thinking that Gawain has failed utterly. The virtues of Arthur’s court have held up quite well in the unexpected situations to which he has been exposed. His failure has been slight, and caused by fear of death, which the Green Knight understands as perfectly natural.
As a pearl than white pease is prized more highly,
so is Gawain, in good faith, than other gallant knights.
But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, not for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.17
Although, ideally, love of life should not take precedence over virtue, human experience teaches us that situations of peril overwhelm us with the same unintelligible force that emanates from the figure of the Green Knight. It is sometimes impossible not to flinch in action, even if the mind would tell us to do otherwise.
My interpretation of the Green Knight, then, is that he is messenger of experience, invading the world of pure thought and ideal, testing the perfect Christian knight against an imperfect, fallen world. Whether one calls him devil or angel seems to be irrelevant: his motivations are not the subject of the poem, and from what he says we can only gather that he is delighted at Gawain’s virtue, even though Morgan, whose power he uses, appears to have purely evil motives. In any case, this mixture of possible good and evil in his motivations is simply another expression of the ambiguity of human experience. The medieval Christian believed it possible for God to work through the temptations of the devil, just as he allowed Job to be tempted by Satan. Louise Cowan says of comedy that “deception and disguise are undertaken to make bad situations work out better.18” Although in this case, the Green Knight appears to make a good situation worse, his deceptions and disguises have the effect of bringing virtue, through Gawain, out of the ideal realm, and into the imperfect realm of human experience. Gawain’s virtues shine all the stronger when they have been tested in the darkness, and that darkness is made all the brighter for them.
- Burrow, J.A.A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1966.
- Cowan, Louise.Introduction. The Terrain of Comedy. By Cowan. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18.
- Friedman, Albert B. “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays. Ed. Robert J. Blanch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. 135-158.
- Fox, Denton.Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Fox. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968. 1-12.
- “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. 19-97.
- Tolkien, J.R.R.Introduction. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Tolkien. 1-17.
- Vantuono, William.Introduction. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By Vantuono. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. xiii-xxxviii.