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In This Article Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies of Criticism
  • Reference Guides
  • Manuscript, Contexts of Production, Early Audiences
  • Language and Authorship
  • Sources, Analogues, Influences
  • Monographs
  • Genre Study
  • Center and Periphery: Borders and Courts
  • Chivalry and Courtesy
  • Feminist Readings
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Religious Ritual, Practice, and Belief
  • Festivity and Seasonal Myth
  • Narrative Strategies
  • (Re)Interpreting Gawain

British and Irish Literature Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
by
Thomas Hahn, Leah Haught

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

LAST MODIFIED: 09/20/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199846719-0054

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