If I had actually paid attention to the syllabus for my Medieval Literature class I would have realized that while we are currently going over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we will not be covering Pearl until March 31st. Therefore, I will have the opportunity to spend two weeks on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and then we will explore Pearl later.
The translation we are using in class is the one by Marie Borroff. It contains great introductory material for each of the stories included and helped me sort of get my bearings before jumping into the poem.
There are a number of options to choose from here: alliterative romance, chivalric romance, adventure, etc. The story outlines the adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight from Arthur’s round table, as he takes on a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight. Our hero goes on a quest that tests his abilities, as well as his loyalty, courage, and honesty.
There seems to be a general theme of newness, or even of being young. It is springtime in Camelot, it is a new year, the knights are almost like boys in comparison to the Green Knight, and Camelot itself seems new and young. But while everything has a sense of being fresh and young, the Arthurian Court is still widely known, so the knights aren’t necessarily innocent. The story shows an Arthur that is established, but not quite the full-on Arthur we are used to seeing in most stories and movies. The Green Knight presents the court with an early test that they can all learn from.
The theme of tests and challenges is also present in the story. While Gawain undergoes a series of tests throughout the story, it is also a test for Arthur’s court as a whole. The Green Knight initially presents the challenge to Arthur, and if Gawain had not stepped in to take on the challenge, there is a great chance that Arthur would have been killed, and then they would have lost their king. It is a test for Gawain, the best knight, and a test to see if Arthur has the proper loyalty from his servants. And along with this theme of tests comes the idea of success versus failure.
It is hard ton say whether Gawain fails or not. At the end of the story, he seems to be berating himself while everyone else wants him to lighten up and accept that everyone makes mistakes. But what was the failure? He breaks the oath he gives to the man whose house he is staying at when they each promise to share with the other what they gain during the day. The man shares with Gawain what he gets from his daily hunt, but Gawain neglects to share the girdle he receives from the man’s wife that will keep him safe from physical harm. Granted, Gawain is on a journey that he believes will end in him having his head chopped off, so we can’t really blame him for wanting to keep the girdle, but it breaks this oath he has made with this man. So is he guilty of breaking the oath? Or of being a coward? Or both? Or is he just guilty of loving his life a little too much? Whichever it is, it is clear at the end that he believes he has done something wrong and he feels guilty about it. However, not only do his colleagues laugh it off, but even the Green Knight understands his reasons for attempting to cheat and decides not to chop off his head (whew!).
I just want to point out that the Green Knight can live while having his head severed from his body, so how fair was this game in the first place? I would say that Gawain using a belt that will save his life in this game should be allowed given that the Green Knight has his own unfair advantage. Just saying…
There is also the theme of oaths or pledges, and Gawain breaks pretty much every single one that he makes. The thing about this story is that it is hard to pin down Gawain’s sins and guilt. How do we know that Gawain knows that doing something like taking the girdle was wrong? The story tells us he has done something wrong without actually saying it. We can infer it all due to context. The stories narrative perspective (from where do we see these events) allows us to have Gawain’s perspective at times without it being a first person narrative. When the Green Knight is being described we see the details as one of the crowd, while other times we are given more of a general overview instead of focusing on one thing. We can also infer meanings by using the poems contrasting juxtapositions such as the ones used for the hunting scenes in opposition to the bedroom scenes. We also somehow know, without the story saying it, that Gawain is constantly aware and worried about having his head chopped off. I mean, who wouldn’t be?
The color red makes its appearance several times, as Gawain is typically known to have worn red, all three animals from the hunting scenes would have been seen as red in England, and the color contrasts nicely with the green of Gawain’s challenger.
There are also lots of threes, lots of fives, lots of knots and untying. The numerological construction gives the idea that this is a world that is shaped by an external hand. The humans don’t know the plot of the adventure they are undertaking, but they try anyway. Gawain’s failure is ultimately inevitable, but he has to try.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the midst of the restart of English literature. The Gawain Poet also would have been a contemporary of Chaucer. However, we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in translations because the Gawain poet wrote in a different dialect than Chaucer. During this time, there was no standard written dialect as people wrote the way they heard the sounds, so Chaucer’s dialect from London would be very different from the Gawain Poet’s dialect from the north. The standardized dialect that was eventually developed came out of the need to understand bureaucracy, and would have come from London and Westminster, which is where the crown resided. For this reason, Chaucer’s English is more accessible to us today. Plus, he was trained as a court clerk, so he worked within this dialect as well. The Gawain Poet wrote in a provincial dialect from a provincial language. England began to standardize the language in the 15th century, and there isn’t a full-fledged grammar system until the 18th century.
This was also an age of chivalric accomplishment for England. King Edward III declares himself king of France after years of both countries being under constant threat of being taken over by the other. He establishes the Order of the Garter, which basically makes it cool and trendy to be a knight. So there are elements of chivalric idealism , but also interrogation of it. Also, in the English tradition, Gawain is a hero; in the French tradition, Gawain is a cad.
Next week will be more of the same with even more questions being answered about this complex poem. After that, we will return to Shakespeare with The Tempest.