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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: 10.2307/460308Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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).

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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/CCOL0521553423Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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.

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  • Howard, Donald R. “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain.” Speculum 39 (1964): 425–433.

    DOI: 10.2307/2852497Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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).

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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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Anthologies of Criticism

The earliest anthologies, appearing more or less at the same moment as major studies that endowed canonical rank on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Borroff 2010, cited under Literary Translations and Retellings; Benson 1965, cited under Sources, Analogues, Influences; and Burrow 1965 and Spearing 1970, both cited under General Overviews), consolidated the poem’s status as central to general readers and are accessible and worthy for beginning and advanced students. In anthologizing previously published essays (with some overlap), Blanch 1966 and Howard and Zacher 1968 reflect the assumption that all the “essential” articles for understanding the poem could be brought together in one place; these collections remain helpful as starting points for review of classic scholarship. By the 1980s, the quantity and variety of criticism had so expanded that scholars compiled collections of original essays in order to sketch out ever-new ways of understanding the romance. Miller and Chance 1986 specifically targets strategies that instructors might use in academic classrooms, though many of the approaches arise from distinctive interpretations of the poem. Blanch, et al. 1991 gathers a number of fresh essays discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight alongside the other poems in the manuscript. The special issue Wheeler 1994 highlights then-current approaches to the romance. Brewer and Gibson 1997 and Thompson and Busby 2005 (with limited focus on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) attempt to survey a generation or more of passionate engagement and to use this overview to sketch out starting points and objectives for further work, including by students.

  • Blanch, Robert J., ed. Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

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    Compilation of eleven previously published essays—five on Pearl and six on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—brought together for graduate and undergraduate student use. Included essays were selected to represent a broad spectrum of critical opinions and methodologies. Among the topics covered are Gawain’s two confession scenes, the pentangle shield, and the role of Morgan le Fay.

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  • Blanch, Robert J., Miriam Youngerman Miller, and Julian N. Wasserman, eds. Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1991.

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    First critical compendium to include essays on all four of the Cotton Nero poems. All are original to this volume and were solicited as part of an effort to appeal to a wide audience of specialists and nonspecialists alike. Of the fifteen essays included, four focus on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, covering topics from “Language and Identity” (John Plummer) to the “Fourteenth-Century Interlude” (Victoria L. Weiss).

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  • Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

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    Learned introductions to a wide range of pertinent literary and sociohistorical topics, organized primarily by subject matter rather than text. Essays strive to balance information with original analysis as a means of guiding interested readers to further study. Chapters generally focus on broadly defined topics such as authorship, sources, style, and historical backgrounds, but the insights offered under these headings remain nuanced and provocative. Substantial bibliography.

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  • Howard, Donald Roy, and Christian Zacher, eds. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

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    One of the earliest “historical” anthologies of this nature, containing reprinted scholarship from many of the critics credited with shaping the contours of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight studies as we know it in the early 21st century. Laura Hibbard Loomis, Morton Bloomfield, C. S. Lewis, Maldwyn Mills, Larry D. Benson, Marie Borroff, A. C. Spearing, Theodore Silverstein, John Gardner, and John Burrow are among those whose work is included.

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  • Miller, Miriam Youngerman, and Jane Chance, eds. Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986.

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    Short essays in this volume provide a useful collection of general approaches to and techniques for teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though limited by its date of publication, the survey of available editions, translations, critical studies, and reference works remains a good resource for instructors looking to include the poem in a new or redesigned course. Other essays approach the text through a variety of interpretative lenses, and also give tips for teaching the poem in undergraduate, dual-level, and graduate classes.

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  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.

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    A valuable online database for general knowledge about the poem’s historical contexts and critical reception. Features a selection of articles by established scholars, as well as essays by student readers. Also provides links to online versions of the text (in both Middle English and translation), study guides, and a list of suggested books for further reading.

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  • Thompson, Raymond, and Keith Busby, eds. Gawain: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    Compilation of nineteen essays that are arranged chronologically to trace the evolution of Gawain’s character across a variety of different cultures and time periods. Each chapter focuses on a specific component of the larger tradition, from the chronicle and Welsh traditions, to modern film and novels, though some categories are addressed in more than one chapter. W. A. Davenport contributes the chapter on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (pp. 273–286).

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  • Wheeler, Bonnie, ed. Special Issue: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Arthuriana 4.2 (1994).

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    Collection of five essays that offer erudite reinterpretations of the canonical poem. Journal regularly features articles on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in nonthemed issues as well.

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Reference Guides

Andrew 1979, a book-length annotated bibliography, constitutes a history of the romance’s reception by scholars and readers, from its rediscovery in 1839 to the later 20th century. It also helps make clear the momentous shift that had occurred in the decade or so before the volume’s publication: the MLA International Bibliography (another crucial resource for those with subscriber access) indicates that fewer than fifty publications dealing with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had appeared before 1950, while more than eight hundred separate books and articles—sixteen times the number published over the poem’s first century in the world—have come out in the last fifty years. Foley 1989 and Stainsby 1992 update the inventory in Andrew 1979 through the 1980s, while Lupack 2005 demonstrates the ways in which postmedieval writers and artists have responded to the poem, mainly in the latter half of the 20th century. Blanch 1983 (now largely outdated) and Twomey 2005 (briefly) offer overviews of work on the poem; for fuller accounts, see Brewer and Gibson 1997 (cited under Anthologies of Criticism).

  • Andrew, Malcolm. The Gawain-Poet: An Annotated Bibliography, 1839–1977. New York: Garland, 1979.

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    Endeavors to provide a “comprehensive yet compact” guide to works published on one or more of the Cotton Nero poems, including editions, translations, book-length studies, critical articles and reviews, and other reference works. The length of annotation is proportionate to the size of the item being discussed. Japanese items read by colleagues, as well as those items not seen by Andrew, are clearly marked. Includes line and author indexes.

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  • Blanch, Robert J. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Reference Guide. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1983.

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    Builds on earlier work by Bloomfield and Andrew, among others, to present an annotated guide that attempts to include “all research of an interpretive nature” published between 1824 and 1978. Items are presented in chronological order, with the first entry for each year numbered “1” and those unseen by Blanch clearly noted. Although dated, this remains a useful resource, particularly for navigating 19th-century scholarship.

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  • Foley, Michael. “The Gawain Poet: An Annotated Bibliography, 1978–1985.” Chaucer Review 23.3 (1989): 251–282.

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    Supplements Andrew’s bibliography using a similar method and approach. Entries are arranged alphabetically and numbered under the headings of editions and translations, critical writings, and reference. The first two categories include multiple subheadings. Annotations vary in length and detail, with reviews listed when relevant.

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  • Lupack, Alan. “Reworkings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. By Alan Lupack, 307–314, 325–336. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Brief but informative survey of select literary, dramatic, and cinematic retellings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 15th through the 21st centuries.

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  • MLA International Bibliography.

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    A subject index of over two million scholarly books and articles on modern literatures and languages. Compiled by the Modern Language Association since 1926, the site is available only by subscription through EBSCO, Cengage Learning/Gale, or ProQuest. Over 100 bibliographers across the United States and abroad help update the index annually.

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    • Stainsby, Meg. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Annotated Bibliography, 1978–1989. New York: Garland, 1992.

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      Picks up where the Andrew 1979 bibliography ends. Limited scope justified by increasing number of publications dedicated to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 1970s onward. Includes a wide variety of critical and noncritical materials, from editions, translations, authorship and manuscript studies, and criticism, to children’s adaptations and performance studies. Annotations are well written and arranged alphabetically. Pertinent reviews and cross-referencing data are included where applicable.

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    • Twomey, Michael W. “The Gawain-Poet.” In Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Edited by David F. Johnson and Elaine Treharne, 273–287. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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      More focused on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than other Cotton Nero texts. Surveys contexts, characteristics, and critical approaches before modeling student-oriented strategies for reading the poem as an Arthurian romance. Brief further reading list included.

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    Editions and Scholarly Translations

    In 1839 Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of the Manuscripts in the (then) British Museum, brought Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into print for the first time. Though clearly some previous owner had thought the poem worthy of being copied, illustrated, and preserved, the manuscript presumably had sat unread in the Cotton Collection for hundreds of years. Madden’s edition was sponsored initially by Sir Walter Scott, rejected by two publishers, and ultimately published by the Bannatyne Club, a group of Scottish antiquaries. While Madden 1971 points out scattered instances in which several 18th- and 19th-century scholars had made note of “this curious poem” (p. 299) in passing, no reader mentions, quotes, or alludes to the poem as a literary work after the 15th century. Though Madden observed that some descriptive passages in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight equaled anything in Spenser (p. 302), he did not offer any general assessment that would place the poem among the greatest of its age. In 1864 Richard Morris “reedited” the poem for the Early English Text Society, offering in effect a version of Madden’s text; declaring that “into . . . literary questions I do not enter here” (p. xx), he presented the text as primarily a source of historical and linguistic interest. Gollancz 1966, an edition from seventy-five years later, exhibits a similar scholarly reserve. In 1925, as a relatively young and ambitious academic, J. R. R. Tolkien published his massively learned edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in collaboration with his colleague at Leeds University, E. V. Gordon (Tolkien and Gordon 1967). Though Tolkien’s investment in the poem may have arisen from the imaginative force that later drove The Lord of the Rings and his other fantasy writings, his work focuses mainly on the backgrounds, and especially the linguistic depth and intricacy of the text. The Tolkien-Gordon edition, revised by Norman Davis in 1967, stands as a philological tour de force; it represents the most notable and lasting contribution to scholarship produced by perhaps the most widely known medievalist of the 20th century. Its reliable text and informed commentary come with a steep admission price that ordinarily discourages all but dedicated scholars and specialized students. The Tolkien-Gordon-Davis edition remained the standard for half a century and continues to be consulted by specialists (as does Gollancz 1966). The surge of interest in the poem in the 1960s created the demand for more reader-friendly editions, which took account of the poem’s literary merits and which offered access to serious students and more general readers. Silverstein 1984, a full-scale edition, reproduced the scholarly strengths (and weaknesses) of Tolkien and Gordon 1967. Burrow 1972 regularizes the language along the lines of modern editions of Chaucer, and Vantuono 1991, Winny 1992, and Harrison and Cooper 1999 provide modern renditions alongside the text of the original; each of these has succeeded in attracting classroom and general readers.

    • Burrow, J. A., ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Penguin, 1972.

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      Regularizes spelling in two ways. First, except where rhyme, meter, or alliteration necessitates alternate forms of a word, standardizes spelling for consistency. Second, modernizes obsolete characters like the thorn and yogh, and changes consonants to the vowel sounds they represent when appropriate. Introduction focuses on editorial decisions; no discussion of the text as artifact is provided. Notes and glossary are extensive, while the further reading list is highly selective.

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    • Gollancz, Israel, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Re-edited from MS. Cotton Nero, A.x., in the British Museum. Early English Text Society o.s. 210. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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      Gollancz revised Morris’s 1864 EETS edition of the poem in 1897; for this edition, he returned to the original manuscript before, as the title to this edition suggests, reediting the poem on his own. Includes concise yet numerous textual and explanatory notes, plus a relatively thorough glossary. Originally printed in 1940; reprinted in 1951, 1957, and 1964.

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    • Harrison, Keith, trans., and Helen Cooper, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Verse Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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      Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s composition of lines around stresses instead of metrical feet, Harrison’s translation modifies the alliterative texture of the original to include not one but two pairs of like sounds per line. Cooper’s introduction discusses the historical and literary milieu of the original text, while her explanatory notes seek to contextualize many of the references that modern audiences might find obscure.

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    • Madden, Frederic, ed. Syr Gawayne and the Grene Knyʒt. In Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance-Poems of Scottish and English Authors Relating to That Celebrated Knight of the Round Table. Edited by Frederic Madden, 2–92. New York: AMS, 1971.

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      First published edition (1839) of entire poem. Madden attached the name Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, dated the composition to the 15th century, and alleged it to be of Scottish origin. Spelling is not modernized in any way, nor are abbreviations expanded. Includes sketches of the Cotton Nero images and an extensive glossary, as well as an informative account of the circumstances (mainly errors in catalogues of the Cotton Library) that led to centuries of critical oversight of the poem.

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    • Silverstein, Theodore. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Critical Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

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      Based on a reexamination of the Cotton Nero manuscript, includes extensive notes on the poem’s style, lexicon, and possible sources. Introduction covers the “usual range of topics” (p. x) (the section on language is especially lengthy), in addition to advancing a reading of the poem as a comedy. Contains voluminous bibliography and glossary. Reprinted in 1984.

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    • Tolkien, J. R. R., and E. V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2d ed. Revised by Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

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      Originally published in 1925, this monumental critical edition remained the preferred text for several generations of professional scholars, before arguably being superseded by Malcolm Andrew’s text (1978–2007). Davis preserves the first edition’s focus on language, endeavoring to present an accessible apparatus for determining the unknown author’s “actual words” instead of offering interpretations of the poem as a whole. Revised edition incorporates more recent scholarship, including Tolkien’s own later notes, and an expanded introductory account of the known analogues.

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    • Vantuono, William, ed. and trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Dual-Language Version. New York: Garland, 1991.

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      Facing-page edition and verse translation of the poem that revises an earlier line-by-line translation to reflect the rhythms and rhyme of the original more fully. Notes at the bottoms of the pages track changes made to the Middle English vocabulary as well as provide literal translations for the altered words. First attempt to combine the advantages of a thoughtful translation with those of an “adequate scholarly apparatus” in a single volume.

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    • Winny, James, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Middle English Text With Facing Translation. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 1992.

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      Endeavors to provide a translation that sacrifices neither style nor substance, offering a sustained and thoughtful compromise. For example, the shortness of the lines of the bob and wheel is preserved, but the first three lines are presented as unrhymed, while the last two are given rhymes or off-rhymes. Translated text is presented alongside Davis’s revised edition of Tolkien and Gordon.

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    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its Companion Poems

    In 1976 J. J. Anderson and A. C. Cawley published a useful edition of all four poems in the Cotton Nero manuscript for Everyman’s Library (issued in revised format as Anderson 1996), but the edition that has emerged as the standard for scholarship and teaching since the late 1970s is the Andrew and Waldron 2007 presentation of the poems (first published in 1978), now in its fifth revised and expanded edition.

    • Anderson, J. J., ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience. Edited by J. J. Anderson, 167–277. London: J. M. Dent, 1996.

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      Augmented edition meant to replace earlier Everyman edition of the Cotton Nero texts, which Anderson coedited with A. C. Cawley (1976, 1983). Individual words are glossed in margins with longer paraphrases appearing in footnotes. Some modernization of spelling. Transcriptions based on EETS facsimile of the manuscript. Updated translations, notes, and introductory materials reflect consultation with other editions, as well as contemporary scholarship on the poems.

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    • Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 5th ed. Edited by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, 207–300. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2007.

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      Fully revised with new introduction and incorporating prose translation on CD-ROM. Based primarily on the EETS facsimile of the manuscript, the notes make reference to earlier editions of the individual poems, as well as relevant critical and contextual works by other authors. Emendations are minimal and clearly demarcated. Includes a sizeable glossary replete with references to specific lines and meant to be used in conjunction with the notes, and an appendix of Vulgate passages used as source material in the poems.

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    Literary Translations and Retellings

    Translations listed here are not intended as direct aids to understanding the Middle English text (as those listed in Editions and Scholarly Translations are), but as free-standing interpretations to be read on their own or in association with the medieval text. The Penguin-commissioned translation (Stone 1959) represents a precocious attempt to produce a version of the poem for “the general public.” The prolific novelist John Gardner, who was also a scholar dedicated to popularizing medieval literature, produced a translation of the “Complete Works” (Gardner 1965) calculated to enhance the status of the Gawain-poet as a major author; these sometimes run close to becoming paraphrases or retellings rather than strict translations. Borroff 2010, a Norton-commissioned translation, almost immediately entered the canonical contents of the Norton Anthology’s second edition, though in 2010 it was released again as an autonomous literary rendition. J. R. R. Tolkien (Tolkien 1975) experimented with modern versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps beginning as early as his and E. V. Gordon’s edition (Tolkien and Gordon 1967, cited under Editions and Scholarly Translations), but never brought his translation to publication during his lifetime. In 1993 an academic publisher issued an American poet’s literary translation of the “Complete Works” (Finch, et al. 1993); though the verse narratives are intended to stand on their own, they are also fully indexed to the original texts and their scholarly apparatus. In the first decade of the 21st century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emerged as a literary text in its own right as never before. W. S. Merwin—the 2010–2011 Poet Laureate of the United States, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the most prolific and influential poets and translators of the last sixty years—published his rendition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Merwin 2004, presenting it on facing pages with the Tolkien-Gordon edition. In 2007, the English poet Simon Armitage brought out a favorably received version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Armitage 2007), also setting it against the medieval English text. And in Raffel 2009, the American scholar, poet, and translator Burton Raffel, who has modernized many early English poems and translated medieval and Renaissance texts from French, Spanish, German, and Italian, issued a new poetic rendition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight intended to be textually sound yet independent of some of the mainstream views in medieval scholarship. These three quite separate poetic renderings, appearing within five years of one another, constitute a critical mass, making the romance a living text for contemporary readers.

    • Armitage, Simon, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. New York: Norton, 2007.

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      Specialists and nonspecialists alike have praised this version’s attention to the effect of alliteration on our experience and our understanding of the story being told. Armitage’s translation is, in his own words, for the eye, the ear, and the voice, much like Borroff’s, which he cites as being particularly influential on his work. Translation is presented alongside Davis’s revised edition of Tolkien and Gordon.

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    • Borroff, Marie, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes. New York: Norton, 2010.

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      First published in 1967, Borroff’s verse translation remains one of the most commonly taught versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels. Presented here alongside a useful sampling of critical commentaries on the poem dating from the mid-20th to early 21st centuries. Howes’s introductory essay touches on sources and influences, the manuscript, and issue of authorship, while Borroff provides an analysis of metrical forms.

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    • Finch, Casey, trans., Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron, and Clifford Peterson, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Translated by Casey Finch, 209–321. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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      Emphasizes the “rhythmic regularity” of a publicly performed text rather than providing a “technically faithful” translation, which entails alterations in line order, syntax, verb tense, and imagery. Though it is accompanied by original text (Andrew-Waldron edition), Finch intends his work to stand on its own as modern poetry.

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    • Gardner, John, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet: A Modern English Version. Translated by John Gardner, 221–324. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

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      A notably free translation of all the Cotton Nero poems plus St. Erkenwald. Attempts to preserve and clarify the poems’ imagery, vigor, and “dramatic power” for modern readers unfamiliar with medieval English or particular subjects within the poem. Line order and the connotative impressions of the language are frequently altered, sometimes drastically. Includes eighty-five pages of critical commentary.

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    • Merwin, William Stanley, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Knopf, 2004.

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      Combines surveys of the poem’s literary and historical backgrounds with major writers’ memories and responses to medieval poetry, including Chaucer and the pleasurable experience of encountering the “tumbling diction” and “vivid recounting” (p. ix) of Patience for the first time. Translation attempts to capture both the meanings and sounds of the original words as much as possible. Presented alongside Tolkien and Gordon’s edition.

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    • Raffel, Burton, ed. and trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Signet Classics, 2009.

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      Uses Davis’s revision of Tolkien and Gordon’s edition as its base text but diverges from their critical positions frequently. Attempts to follow original rhyme pattern and strophic divisions as closely as possible, but is ultimately more concerned with the poem as a poem than reproducing the text as it appears in the manuscript. A prolific translator of medieval works from many European languages, Raffel intended his version to be affordable and easily accessible for the classroom.

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    • Stone, Brian, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959.

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      Based on both Gollancz’s EETS edition and that of Tolkien and Gordon, seeks to supply a translation in modern English that upholds original meter without sounding simply archaic. Introduction addresses a variety of topics, including literary sources and contexts, characterization, and treatment of Christianity. Designed to be enjoyed by the general public.

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    • Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, 25–88. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

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      Published posthumously with the assistance of Tolkien’s son, Christopher. Tolkien’s translations endeavor to preserve the meters of the original poems. Versions of these renditions existed for decades, but Tolkien could not decide whether to present them as interpretation or as scholarly translations. Introductory materials are, therefore, somewhat piecemeal since they are drawn from a combination of notes, interviews, and essays and are not a completed manuscript.

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    Modern Adaptations

    More fully autonomous redoings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight include Winters 1952, a brief recapitulation restaged as an encounter with nature and published long before academic criticism recognized the power of the romance. The illustrated children’s version Hieatt 1967, by an academic medievalist, remains relatively faithful to the text, as does the prose version Morpurgo 2004, whose author’s work has become well known through the wildly successful production of another children’s book, War Horse. A one-off film version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, titled Sword of the Valiant (Weeks 2004), was released in 1984, with Sean Connery playing the Green Knight in a story that differs greatly from the medieval romance.

    • Hieatt, Constance. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Illustrated by Walter Lorainne. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.

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      Crediting the enthusiasm of her children for this tale at bedtime as the early inspiration for this project, Hieatt, a respected medievalist, retells the poem in easily comprehendible prose. Lorainne’s sketches appear on almost every page, depicting many scenes that are not typically subjects for illustration.

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    • Morpurgo, Michael. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2004.

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      A prose retelling of the poem, constructed to be both lively and accessible, with a children’s audience in mind. A prolific and award-winning writer (War Horse, 1982), Morpurgo does not abbreviate the original narrative, so younger children might need parental support to navigate his text, but Foreman’s illustrations are guaranteed crowd pleasers.

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    • Weeks, Stephen, dir. Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Gawain and the Green Knight, 1984. DVD. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

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      Film adaptation that varies considerably from the original poem. Characterizes the Green Knight as a force of nature sent to educate the young Gawain about life through an elaborate riddle and beheading game. Performances by Sean Connery and Miles O’Keeffe.

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    • Winters, Yvor. “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight.” In Collected Poems. By Yvor Winters, 113–114. Denver, CO: Alan Swallow, 1952.

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      Written according to Winters around 1936–1937, this thirty-six-line poem retells the events of the original after their conclusion and from Gawain’s perspective. Winters, early modernist poet and man of letters, highlights the seasonal cyclicality of events, with many references to the greens and browns of natural growth. The Lady is, for example, likened to a “forest vine” (line 16). While certainly critical of his own behavior—he refers to his time at Hautdesert as living “in riot like a fool” (line 16)—this Gawain also appears more open to the possibility of future growth than his Middle English forebear.

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    Manuscript, Contexts of Production, Early Audiences

    Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x., now in the British Library, London, seems to have remained largely unread between the 15th century and its rediscovery by Sir Frederick Madden in 1839 (see Editions and Scholarly Translations and Hahn 2000, cited under Sources, Analogues, Influences). The four works that make up the volume constitute a dedicated poetic collection, and the relative lack of errors, corrections, or insertions suggests that the scribe (and his patron) took special care in laying out and copying the texts. The volume’s value and cultural prestige are confirmed by its being taken apart sometime close to 1400, and then reassembled in a more handsome format with newly added illustrations (an unusual accompaniment for an English poetical text at this time; see Horrall 1986 and Scott 1996, an authoritative and comprehensive study). Such lavish refurbishment clearly demonstrates that the poem had enthusiastic, appreciative readers in its own time. Further study of the physical artifact—the parchment, the inks, the writing, the pictures, evidence of ownership, reading habits, circulation, and so on—may provide a fuller understanding of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s meanings. Gollancz 1955, a now-dated facsimile, offers direct but limited access to the original copy; the prospect for digitized images of the entire manuscript (see McGillivray 2006 and the related project’s website) opens new possibilities for its study for scholars and students worldwide. Lindley 1997 includes an attempt to identify established readings that do not have unambiguous support in the original and offers further incentive for manuscript study. Groundbreaking studies (see Wilson 1979, and especially Bennett 1983) of regional lineages and loyalties, their connections with urban interests in the capitol, and the motives and possibilities for cultural patronage opened new ways of thinking about the poem’s genesis and readerships. Cooke 1989 and Boulton and Cooke 1999 suggest other specific influences for literary influence and sponsorship, potentially connecting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with some of the most powerful and visible members of the elite aristocracy. See also Ingledew 2006 (cited under Monographs) on connections to the Order of the Garter.

    • Bennett, Michael J. Community, Class and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511470554Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Disagrees with the commonly held belief that the poem is a regional work, arguing instead that it was produced in London for the royal court by a “careerist” from the West Midlands. Extensive accounts of regional, political, and cultural networks in 14th-century England.

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    • Boulton, D. J. D., and W. G. Cooke. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Poem for Henry of Grosmont?” Medium Ævum 68.1 (1999): 42–54.

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      Reasserts and further develops the argument that the poem dates from the middle of the 14th century. Provides a useful summary of earlier attempts to date the poem’s composition before proposing Henry of Grosmont as a strong candidate for the Gawain-poet’s patron.

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    • Cooke, W. G. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Restored Dating.” Medium Ævum 58 (1989): 34–48.

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      Using paleographical, philological, and literary evidence from the four Cotton Nero poems and an apparent “echo” in the datable Wynnere and Wastoure, argues for a period of composition between 1330 and 1353, instead of the more commonly accepted 1375 to 1400.

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    • Gollancz, Israel, intro. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain: Facsimile of British Museum MS Cotton Nero A.x. Early English Text Society o.s. 162. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

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      Early but accurate facsimile introduced succinctly by Gollancz, whose essay includes notes that record the “corrections” made to the original text by a second scribe, as well as the “tracings” made by a third hand where the original text had presumably become illegible. Illustrations are included in black and white. Originally printed in 1923; reprinted in 1931.

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    • Horrall, Sarah M. “Notes on British Library, MS Cotton Nero A x.” Manuscripta 30 (1986): 191–198.

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      Reexamines evidence for the argument that there was a considerable lapse of time between when the texts were first copied and when the pictures were inserted in an effort to increase critical interest in the Cotton Nero manuscript. Speculates that the texts were written first, sometime in the last quarter of the 14th century, with the images being inserted between 1400 and 1420, before the entire manuscript was bound.

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    • Lindley, Arthur. “Pinning Gawain Down: The Misediting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 96.1 (1997): 26–42.

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      Traces the extent to which certain assumptions that limit the “play of meanings” are carried from one edition to the next, even as others pass out of critical favor, to highlight the necessity for a new edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that promotes conversation and debate among readers instead of restricting either.

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    • McGillivray, Michael. “Digitizing Sir Gawain: Traditional Editorial Scholarship and the Electronic Medium in the Cotton Nero A.x. Project.” In Mind Technologies: Humanities Computing and the Canadian Academic Community. Edited by Raymond Siemens and David Moorman, 33–45. Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2006.

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      Details the efforts of an international group of scholars working with the British Library to produce an electronic edition of the entire Cotton Nero manuscript that would not only make manuscript study more widely accessible, but also protect the fragile original by limiting its exposure to handling. Final product will include high-resolution photographs of the manuscript with hypertextually linked critical documents, such as transcriptions, notes, and source studies. Also see the Cotton Nero A.x Project website.

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    • Scott, Kathleen L. Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390–1490. Vol. 2, Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles. London: H. Miller, 1996.

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      Argues that the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript was disbound (1400–1410) for the insertion of illustrations both before and after the individual poems. This renovation provides material and nonliterary evidence of the poem’s prestige and cultural value. Discrepancies between image and text suggest that the illustrator received oral or written instructions for work, and are not evidence of limited aesthetic importance.

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    • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In The Romance of the Middle Ages. Oxford Bodleian Libraries.

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      One of two entries dedicated to the figure of Gawain as central to the Arthurian tradition within the Bodleian Libraries’ exhibition on romance in the Middle Ages. Entry includes a brief introduction to the Cotton Nero manuscript in general and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in particular, as well as three high-resolution images from the poem: two images and one page of text.

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    • Wilson, E. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Stanley Family of Stanley, Storeton, and Hooton.” Review of English Studies 30.119 (1979): 308–316.

      DOI: 10.1093/res/XXX.119.308Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Examines several possible links between the poem and the Stanleys in Staffordshire and Cheshire. Included as evidence of this association is a heraldic illustration from Bodleian Library manuscript Fairfax 16, a comparison of the Stanley family’s activities as master-foresters of Wirral, and the poem’s dialect and geographical references. Bennett 1983 offers a more detailed analysis of the politics of Cheshire in general and the influence of the Stanleys in particular.

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    Language and Authorship

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of four poems that constitute an exclusive collection in Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x. at the British Library. Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight all make use of the same regional dialect, deploy some distinctive vocabulary, and share a passionate investment and delight in language, verse form, self-conscious narrative structures, and imaginative potentiality. Without the pressure toward standardization provided by print, and without a dominant literary dialect (which Chaucer’s poetry increasingly modeled after 1400), the language of medieval England changed continuously over time and space; these distinctive features make it possible for historical linguists to date and place writings through shared syntactic, grammatical, and lexical traits. The language of all four poems seems clearly to originate in northwest England—probably in Cheshire, near the Welsh border—in the latter part of the 14th century. (See comparative data on language in McIntosh, et al. 1986, which acknowledges the difficulty of pinpointing a precise date or place for composition.) Neither old-fashioned philology nor modern computer analysis has been able to provide linguistic “proof” that all four poems (and no others, notably St. Erkenwald) are by a single author. Current scholarly consensus (following the principle of Ockham’s razor) has taken the remarkable uniformity in texture, style, subject matter, and poetic achievement of these poems as the signature of a single author, finding this assumption less improbable than positing separate writers for each work, or a reviser/compiler who imposed uniformity on the group. Borroff 1962, a pioneering study of the poem’s poetic language, offers implicit support for the artistry of all four poems, and the principal editions point to overlaps and parallels that run through these texts, providing linguistic and stylistic links that seem more than serendipitous. Camargo 1987 and Chrisp 1987 discuss the function of oral formulaic features in this most literary of English romances. Richardson 1991 examines variations in verbal tenses, highlighting the subtlety of the narrative at the most fundamental level of discourse. Hinton 1987 and Cooper and Pearsall 1988 combine etymological, lexical, and historical analysis with computer-assisted investigations of word choice, syntax, and idiomatic usage, demonstrating how much these poems have in common but without producing indisputable evidence that the same author wrote two or more of them.

    • Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

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      Remains the most comprehensive consideration of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s sophisticated linguistic artistry. Moves beyond the explanation and application of philological data to provide an eloquent analysis of how style influences meaning, especially when the language in question is so different from our own.

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    • Camargo, Martin. “Oral Traditional Structure in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Comparative Research on Oral Traditions. Edited by John Miles Foley, 121–137. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1987.

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      Characterizes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s structure as overdetermined because of its deliberate mixing of different codes that evoke conflicting expectations of linearity and repetition. Seeks to disclose the poem’s deeper oral “quest” structure as means of illustrating its ornateness. Argues that traditional oral-formulaic techniques allow the narrative to introduce and control a multitude of signifiers without losing coherence.

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    • Chrisp, Delmas S., Jr. “Internal Evidence of Formulaic Diction in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Innisfree 7 (1987): 65–90.

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      Surveys the use of formulaic diction in a variety of poetic traditions before identifying the many formulas used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Individual lines are routinely cited and diagramed as evidence of specific formulas. The poem’s reliance on these formulas indicates that it was written by a poet heavily influenced by the oral tradition.

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    • Cooper, R. A., and D. A. Pearsall. “The Gawain Poems: A Statistical Approach to the Question of Common Authorship.” Review of English Studies 39.155 (1988): 365–385.

      DOI: 10.1093/res/XXXIX.155.365Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Focusing on the “subliminally active” or banal elements of style “unavailable for imitation,” employs computer-generated analyses to reexamine the hypothesis of common authorship. Three poems in unrhymed long line (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Cleanness) are compared to three control poems of the same meter and approximate date of composition. Concludes that strong evidence of common authorship exists.

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    • Hinton, Norman D. “The Language of the Gawain-Poems.” Arthurian Interpretations 2.1 (1987): 83–94.

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      Provides a series of etymological comparisons between the Cotton Nero poems and other Middle English writings, including those of Chaucer. Charts the distribution of vocabulary and language structures within each Nero poem through computer-based statistical analysis. Cooper and Pearsall 1988 uses similar methodologies to advance the argument of common authorship.

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    • McIntosh, Angus, M. L. Samuels, and Michael Benskin. “County Chesire: Linguistic Profile 26.” In A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Vol. 3. By Angus McIntosh, M. L. Samuels, and Michael Benskin, 37–38. Aberdeen, UK: Aberdeen University Press, 1986.

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      Offers linguistic profiles of different manuscripts based on a standard questionnaire of forms observed versus test items. Drawing primarily on analysis from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, identifies the Cotton Nero manuscript as being from Cheshire.

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    • Richardson, Peter. “Tense, Discourse, and Style: The Historical Present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 92.3 (1991): 343–349.

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      Reexamines the function of verbal tense throughout the poem to argue that shifts from the preterite (a completed action in the past) to the historical present (a past action rendered in the present tense) systematically mark particular characters, events, and descriptions as crucial to the narrative’s development.

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    Sources, Analogues, Influences

    From the outset, scholars recognized that many of the crucial components of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—the intruder at the feast, the Green Man, the beheading game, the exchange of winnings—were familiar from earlier narratives, both traditional and literary. Much early criticism attempted to track down these parallels, working on the notion that full knowledge of sources would firmly establish the poem’s meaning. Benson 1965, a watershed study, conveniently brings together much of this early work and does the even more beneficial service of subordinating these background materials to the subtlety and sophistication of the romance. Along with contemporary literary appreciations (see Bloomfield 1961, Howard 1964, Burrow 1965, and Spearing 1970, all cited under General Overviews), such studies increasingly emphasized the achievement of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in presenting storylines that seem at once entirely traditional and yet without precedent or parallel. Though scholars have, for example, traced any number of beheading games as potential sources for the poem (see various chapters in Brewer 1992), in none of these does the action unfold with the complex and speculative distance that draws readers into the plots of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain himself is nearly as ancient and original an Arthurian fixture as the great king himself, yet the combination here of James Bond sangfroid, energetic good humor, and stubborn ressentiment (frustrated bitterness) defies both the louche (disreputable) Gawain of earlier French narratives (see Johnston and Owen 1973 and Putter 1995) and the brisk and bluff protagonists of the dozen or so English verse romances that feature Arthur’s nephew (Kennedy 2007). Perhaps the hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most resembles Malory’s Gawain in the Morte Darthur, showing the seeds of generosity and anger that motivate that character. Maddeningly, neither Malory nor any other literary text outside the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript shows evidence of borrowing from or imitation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The single exception is the popular 15th-century romance The Greene Knight (Hahn 2000). Though this retelling adapts Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a new cultural register more in keeping with traditions of popular romance in England, it also furnishes indisputable evidence of the romance’s prestige and appeal. (See also Brewer and Gibson 1997, cited under Anthologies of Criticism).

    • Benson, Larry. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965.

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      Foundational study that situates the poem within medieval literary traditions via comparisons with other romances and alliterative poems, as well as the works of Chaucer. Topics addressed include sources, characterization, style, narrative technique, and meaning. Benson’s treatment often sets the terms for later critics’ interpretations.

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    • Brewer, Elisabeth, comp. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues. 2d ed. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1992.

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      First published in 1973 under a different title, the nine revised chapters of this collection each focus on a particular theme or feature of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and provide excerpts from key analogues in earlier and later medieval English and French literature in translation. Comparisons illuminate the Gawain-poet’s skill in handling traditional materials.

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    • Hahn, Thomas, ed. The Greene Knight. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Edited by Thomas Hahn, 309–335. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

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      A shorter, later retelling of the challenge posed by a monstrous Green Knight to Arthurian chivalry, the details of which draw directly on the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Clearly intended for oral recitation, the shorter poem remains the best surviving evidence of the ongoing popularity of the beheading motif as chivalric test, as well as Gawain’s status as exemplary knight. Available online through TEAMS.

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    • Johnston, R. C. and D. D. R. Owen, eds. Two Old French Gauvain Romances: Part I, Le Chevalier a l’Epée and La Mule Sans Frien; Part II, Parallel Reading with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.

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      Part 1 presents editions of the French Gawain romances. Part 2 offers Owen’s detailed commentary on their similarities to and differences from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, concluding with a survey of the Gawain-poet’s technique.

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    • Kennedy, Edward Donald. “Gawain’s Family and Friends: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Its Allusions to French Prose Romances.” In People and Texts: Relationships in Medieval Literature. Edited by Thea Summerfield, 143–160. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.

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      Examines the extent to which the poem’s allusions to the larger Arthurian tradition would register differently for two components of the original audiences: those familiar only with English Arthurian literature, and those familiar with both the French and English romance traditions.

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    • Putter, Ad. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198182535.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Moves beyond the study of individual parallels and sources for the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to explore the broader connections between the poem and earlier French Arthurian romance. In its exploration of moral ambiguity and its highly sophisticated style, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has more in common with the civilizing impulses of the roman courtois tradition than it does with popular or “insular” romance.

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    Monographs

    The rapid emergence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a major work of English literature in the 1960s and 1970s took place largely through intensive readings and general appreciations (see Howard 1964, Burrow 1965, and Spearing 1970, both cited under General Overviews), and through the publications that made such criticism widely available in collections (see Blanch 1966 and Howard and Zacher 1968, both cited under Anthologies of Criticism). In the 1980s, the poem’s preeminent status generated a spate of book-length specialist studies (“monographs”), each pursuing some particular or characteristic feature of the romance’s content or themes. Though such investigations appealed primarily to more narrow, scholarly readerships than earlier global interpretations, taken together they consolidated the poem’s broad appeal, its verbal density, its conceptual vigor, and its capacity to sustain almost any amount of concentrated attention. These full-scale explorations of individual topics often start from distinctive disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives (Arthur 1987, Shoaf 1984), from archives or area studies that illuminate peculiar features of the narrative (Clein 1987, Ingledew 2006, Elliott 1984, Hill 2009), or from cultural traditions that potentially shape the poem’s meanings (Barron 1980, Haines 1982, Phelan 1992). Such studies depend on the intensive mining of a single vein of meaning, and though at times the expertise on display threatens to veer toward scholarly obsession, the granularity achieved can often enhance the interests of general readers, and the data uncovered often turn up in the footnotes or the arguments of subsequent published criticism.

    • Arthur, Ross G. Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

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      Draws on basic theories of medieval logic, especially the distinction between significatio and suppositio, to illuminate and contextualize the multiple modes of interpretation suggested by the poem as a whole.

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    • Barron, William Raymond Johnston. Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980.

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      Focuses on the interrelationship between the beheading and temptations plots as fundamental to understanding Gawain’s fault. Legal and penitential doctrines render Gawain’s “treason” a sin against self, other men (society), and/or God. Ultimately more spiritual than political in disposition, the complex yet imprecise nature of Gawain’s failing implicates readers in both his humiliation and potential redemption.

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    • Clein, Wendy. Concepts of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Norman, OK: Pilgrim, 1987.

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      Drawing on 14th-century wills, sermons, treatises, and poetry, investigates the extent to which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reflects conflicting medieval attitudes toward chivalry and mortality.

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    • Elliott, Ralph Warren Victor. The Gawain Country. Leeds, UK: University of Leeds, 1984.

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      Part travelogue, part dialectical and historical study, these essays offer an on-the-ground search and exploration of locations specified in the poem. Descriptions do not include literary interpretations. Includes several maps.

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    • Haines, Victor Yelverton. The Fortunate Fall of Sir Gawain: The Typology of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982.

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      Links the timing and nature of Gawain’s blunder to the concept of felix culpa (fortunate fall). Examines the extent to which Gawain’s “fall” educates audiences by turning “bad” readers into “good” ones.

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    • Hill, Ordelle G. Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009.

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      Discusses the influence of Wales and the Welsh Marches on everything from the poem’s alliterative verse to its representations of geography and interest in beheading. Focuses on the figures of Thomas of Lancaster and Henry of Grosmont as important historical models for the poem’s handling of characters and key themes.

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    • Ingledew, Francis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

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      Connects the poem to the narratives surrounding the founding of the Order of the Garter (1348). Proposes a mid-14th-century date of composition and links the poem’s vision of insular history to contemporary historiographical accounts of Edward III’s relationship with the Countess of Salisbury.

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    • Phelan, Walter S. The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1992.

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      Comparative analysis of six motifs of the Christmas or New Year’s hero and the subject of gift exchange. Other texts referenced include popular medieval romances like Amis and Amiloun and Sir Amadace, the epic Gilgamesh, biblical accounts of Christ of Nativity, and Christmas carols. Concludes with speculative remarks on the relationship between Christmas devotion and mysticism.

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    • Shoaf, R. A. The Poem as Green Girdle: Commercium in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984.

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      Reconsiders topics of “exchange” and “value” according to the political, legal, theological, and economic implications of the interactions between Gawain (and, by extension, the Arthurian court) and Bertilak. Situates Gawain’s “failure” within the conflict between chivalric and commercial mores.

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    Genre Study

    For late medieval secular readers, romance—even then, a notoriously capacious and slippery category—constituted the default medium for storytelling. Familiar tales and translations from French had circulated from the 13th century, with increasing popularity. The success that romance enjoyed before the rise of “serious” or high-art writing in the later 14th century seems to have set off a reaction against the genre; self-conscious authors like Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Lydgate notably avoid Arthurian materials and endow their long narratives with a demanding density and complexity quite at odds with earlier vernacular traditions. Even Malory, arguably the greatest romancer in English, studiously avoids the vast array of popular chivalric romances he must have known. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes demands on its readers that are in every way as complex and subtle as any text by a named medieval author. Though it opens by claiming to tell a tale in traditional alliterative style—“With lel letteres loken” (line 34)—it is throughout relentlessly surprising and radically experimental, in style as well as content. As a result, attempts to make the poem accessible by situating it within specific generic traditions must account for the unexpected as much as the conventional. Diamond 1976 explores the poem’s unconventionality as the product of competing models of romance idealism. Finlayson 1979 and Astell 1985 also address the ways in which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reshapes readers’ expectations about the genre of romance, tracing its employment of traditional structures and themes to nontraditional ends. Mills 1965 and Reed 1988 attribute much of the text’s hybridity and irresolution to the presence of additional narrative traditions within the larger frame of romance. Moll 2002 extends the discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s generic slipperiness by considering alternate characterizations of Gawain himself (see also Kennedy 2007, cited under Sources, Analogues, Influences).

    • Astell, Ann W. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Study in the Rhetoric of Romance.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 84.2 (1985): 188–202.

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      Focuses on the shifts of narrative perspective between omniscient and limited. Sees the narrator as mediator between poet and audience whose didactic strategy is to establish a series of parallels that implicate audiences in the moral lessons of Gawain’s fictive adventure.

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    • Diamond, Arlyn. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Alliterative Romance.” Philological Quarterly 55 (1976): 10–29.

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      Associates much of the poem’s poignancy with the alliterative romance tradition to which it self-consciously belongs. Caught between epic-heroic and courtly values, Gawain’s struggle for perfection, though admirable, is doomed to fail.

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    • Finlayson, John. “The Expectations of Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Genre 12 (1979): 1–24.

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      Regards the poem as a skillful manipulation of the four types of conventional romance—adventure, courtly, chronicle, and religious—that exploits the expectations of characters and audiences alike. The resulting complexity lays bare not just the artifice of romance but also its many potentialities.

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    • Mills, Maldwyn. “Christian Significance and the Romance Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Modern Language Review 60 (1965): 483–493.

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      Compares Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the Queste del Saint Graal as a way to explore both the limitations and the possibilities associated with purely exegetical or allegorical readings of specific texts. Reprinted in Howard and Zacker 1968 (cited under Anthologies of Criticism).

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    • Moll, Richard James. “Frustrated Readers and Conventional Decapitation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Modern Language Review 97.4 (2002): 793–802.

      DOI: 10.2307/3738612Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Addresses expectations associated with the beheading scene from the perspective of audiences more familiar with the character of Gawain from chronicle (as opposed to romance) traditions, where he is known for bold action and an equally bold temper. Emphasis on courtesy is, in this context, unexpected, as is the survival of the Green Knight, suggesting that no one tradition fully prepares audiences for the depiction of Gawain in this poem.

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    • Reed, Thomas L., Jr. “‘Boþe blysse and blunder’: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Debate Tradition.” Chaucer Review 23.2 (1988): 140–161.

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      Suggests that in addition to being a provocative romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is thematically (and perhaps even formally) a debate poem influenced by a long tradition of literary disputation. The resulting generic hybridity enables the poem to promote “ambiguity and ambivalence” as fruitful literary goals.

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    Center and Periphery: Borders and Courts

    Compared to works by the major authors of medieval English literature (such as Chaucer, Gower, and Langland), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight itself stands as peripheral, unavailable to readers for centuries, not part of anyone’s must-read list until the mid-20th century, written in a border dialect and deliberately deploying obscure and archaic words, setting itself up as a one-off anecdote in the early history of the Round Table, with no central importance to the Arthurian mythos. And yet Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also stands as one of the most ambitious, demanding, memorable, and uncanny of all the chivalric tales written in medieval Europe, and among the great long poems in the English language. The interplay of these extremes perhaps offers readers preparation for the poem’s ceaseless dialectic of courtly and provincial, cosmopolitan and borderland, culture and nature, natural and preternatural. Ashley 1987 noted the displacements in meaning wrought by movement through time and between the opposing courts. Ingham 2001 initiated what has become a distinctive and concentrated 21st-century focus on territorial, political, and colonialist subjects within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, addressing questions of sovereignty, ethnicity, and nationhood inside and beyond the borders of England. The imagined communities projected in the poem—including the Round Table, knighthood, and masculinity, and extending out to England, Wales, Britain, and Christendom—take shape through a series of symbolic exchanges linked to the romance’s borderland setting. Competing claims concerning the legitimacy of Welsh versus English authority are subsumed in the narrative’s handling of magic and gender (Ingham 2001) or reprocessed as sexual rivalry (Arner 2006). Chism 2002 maps the poem’s characterization and action against the struggles between the crown and the aristocracy, and the court and local lordships, with Gawain as a provisional portrayal of knightly values. For Knight 2003, the dyad represented by Gawain and Bertilak counterposes the hybridity of the Welsh border, where centrist and local interests constantly interact. Young 2003 presents the hero as an avatar of Aeneas, pushing empire westward through his own entrance to Wales; likewise, Robson 2006 reads Gawain as the on-the-ground representative of the distant, centralized monarch. Ng and Hodges 2010 has recently realigned the axes of such studies, contesting the political and cultural centrality of London, emphasizing England’s status as itself a borderland within Christendom, and pointing out the transnational interests of local families often associated with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s production.

    • Arner, Lynn. “The Ends of Enchantment: Colonialism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 48.2 (2006): 79–101.

      DOI: 10.1353/tsl.2006.0006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Investigates how the political ideologies aesthetisized by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight intervene in the English-Welsh conflicts of the late 14th century. Ethnic and geographic dissimilarities are ultimately reinscribed as gender difference in a move that consolidates notions of conquest and promotes England’s colonization of Wales rather than advancing a model of compromise or coexistence.

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    • Ashley, Kathleen M. “‘Trawthe’ and Temporality: The Violation of Contracts and Conventions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Assays 4 (1987): 3–24.

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      Analyzes verbal contracts at the level of plot through Gawain’s character, and the level of storytelling through the narrator. Associates the poem’s many moral and literary ambiguities with an awareness of the limits of human language across time and space.

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    • Chism, Christine. “Heady Diversions: Court and Province in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Alliterative Revivals. By Christine Chism, 66–110. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

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      Examines the extent to which Gawain’s interactions with Bertilak/the Green Knight reflect growing tensions between Richard II’s court and the provincial gentry of the North West Midlands. Gawain’s youthful and overly simplistic chivalric ideals are tested against a darker, more experienced alternative to illuminate the lack of a stable, authoritative center for Arthur’s professed sovereignty.

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    • Ingham, Patricia. “‘In Contrayez Straunge’: Sovereign Rivals, Fantasies of Gender, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain. By Patricia Ingham, 107–136. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

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      Influential reading that draws on feminist and postcolonial theory to connect the gendered and magical elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a fundamentally unstable fantasy of a unified Britain. Regards the borderland location of Gawain’s adventures as significant evidence of residual Welsh claims to Arthurian sovereignty.

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    • Knight, Rhonda. “All Dressed Up with Someplace to Go: Regional Identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25 (2003): 259–284.

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      Reads Gawain and Bertilak as figures of hybridity, reflective of the dual impulses toward conquest and coexistence in the borderlands. Suggests that Arthur’s court is evocative of the English metropolitan court of Richard II, while Bertilak’s is situated on the Anglo-Welsh border. The interactions between the two actively challenge any notion of “English” homogeneity.

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    • Ng, Su Fang, and Kenneth Hodges. “Saint George, Islam, and Regional Audiences in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 (2010): 257–294.

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      Complicates center-periphery readings of the poem by suggesting not only that London was not the unchallenged national center at the time of the poem’s composition, but also that England viewed itself as peripheral to the older, more powerful Mediterranean world. Examines the courts of three lords proposed as possible patrons for the Gawain-poet to explore the poem’s international interests and influences.

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    • Robson, Margaret. “Local Hero: Gawain and the Politics of Arthurianism.” Arthurian Literature 23 (2006): 81–94.

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      Examines the figure of Gawain as hero in several texts whose settings have important ties to the military campaign of Owain Glyn Dŵr. As Arthur’s second self, Gawain continues to function as a local hero, while Arthur himself is increasingly associated with a more centralized seat of power.

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    • Young, Helen. “‘Bi contray caryez this knyght’: Journeys of Colonisation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Philament 1 (September 2003).

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      Compares the colonizing impulses articulated within the poem’s much-discussed opening with those of Gawain’s journey through North Wales. As a figure of Arthurian civilization abroad, Gawain functions as a cultural colonizer in a role related to yet distinct from the military conquests of Aeneas and his kin. Moreover, unlike his historical predecessors, Gawain encounters the colonized.

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    Chivalry and Courtesy

    From the time of its discovery, readers recognized that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was above all a poem about knighthood, as exemplified in its hero but also through the Arthurian background of the Round Table. Popular and literary portrayals of medieval knighthood often idealized chivalry as an ethical doctrine, spelling out obligations to widows and orphans, or specifying standards of personal morality. Kindrick 1981 argues that chivalry was never a unified code, socially or imaginatively; instead, it posits competing systems of knightly values, based on shame versus guilt, that functioned respectively in the public and private spheres. Over the last two decades, scholars have intensively explored the tensions and contradiction that circulate through the diverse and often discontinuous chivalries of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In an interval of less than a decade, Aers 1988, Anderson 1990, Benson 1992, Pearsall 1997, and Spearing 1994 emphasized the binaries of individual and communal, internal and external, private and public, feminine and masculine, and secular and religious that sometimes complement but more often upend one another as the story unfolds. Taken together, such interpretations suggest not that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers a flawed representation of chivalry, but that the poem brings to light the irreconcilable ideals and internal disconnects built into multiple medieval chivalries. If bold action constitutes the public honor culture of chivalry, its inverse would be courtesy—that is, the individualized enactment of knightly values, or, alternatively, the performative display of coded behaviors for knowing, appreciative audiences. In their appearances, knightly accoutrements, formal speeches, and social gestures, both Gawain and the Green Knight not only reprise conventional values, but they also succeed in improvising fresh responses in the face of dangerous and uncanny pressures (Walker 1997, Martin 2008, Mann 2009). Though many of these studies imply or contend that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mounts a critique of knighthood, this stems less from any historical shortcomings of the chivalric ethos than from a more profound, finally generous conviction that all systems (including perhaps Christianity itself) will prove inadequate in perfectly organizing or accounting for the human condition. Moreover, each charts to some degree the ways in which fiction bundles chivalry for mixed audiences, not just glamorizing it for the elites inside the code, but establishing it as a default ideal or fantasy for all sectors of society.

    • Aers, David. “‘In Arthurus Day’: Community, Virtue, and Individual Identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360–1430. By David Aers, 153–178. New York: Routledge, 1988.

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      Sees the tension between an emerging individual moral agency and the more traditional communal code of honor as central to the poem. The juxtaposition of public and private worlds provides a means of exploring this tension.

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    • Anderson, J. J. “The Three Judgments and the Ethos of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 24.4 (1990): 337–355.

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      Focuses on the figures of Arthur, Gawain, and Bertilak/the Green Knight as offering interrelated commentaries on chivalric ideals and behavior, none of which supersede the others in interpretive importance. Chivalry emerges as an ethos capable of absorbing a variety of different values and expectations but ultimately proves a limited system incapable of producing an effective means of understanding human mortality.

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    • Benson, David C. “The Lost Honor of Sir Gawain.” In De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir. Edited by John Miles, Chris Womack, and Whitney Womack, 30–39. New York: Garland, 1992.

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      Suggests that Gawain loses his chivalric honor through his insistence on perfection. His problem is not that he sinned, because he does not sin; his problem is that he takes himself too seriously and thinks he should be able to achieve salvation on his own, instead of seeking God’s love. Thus, the poem stages a sophisticated critique of the secular value system it develops.

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    • Kindrick, Robert L. “Gawain’s Ethics: Shame and Guilt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Annuale Medievale 20 (1981): 5–32.

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      Using anthropological models, traces the tension between the external honor code of Arthur’s court and the internal ethical code on which Gawain increasingly relies while at Hautdesert.

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    • Mann, Jill. “Courtly Aesthetics and Courtly Ethics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 31 (2009): 231–265.

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      Regards the poem’s interest in courtly display as a “natural” reflection of courtly virtues rather than a criticism of naive politics or an attempt to maintain order through an overt display of power. Carefully considers the descriptions of the armor and clothing worn by both Gawain and the Green Knight to show how outer appearances mirror inner values.

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    • Martin, Carl Grey. “The Cipher of Chivalry: Violence as Courtly Play in the World of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 43.3 (2008): 311–329.

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      Identifies knight-on-knight violence as being the central act of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Argues that the Green Knight’s challenge simultaneously promotes and erodes chivalric play as a privileged realm of action produced and carefully monitored by an aristocratic elite. Gawain’s encounters with the Green Knight are contextualized within the chivalric ambitions of the Hundred Years War.

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    • Pearsall, Derek. “Courtesy and Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Order of Shame and the Invention of Embarrassment.” In A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Edited by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, 351–362. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

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      Examines the poem’s construction of chivalry as a system full of contradiction, always on the brink of collapse. Christian faith, though an important part of chivalric idealism, is not as important to Gawain’s identity as honor and shame. In this context, death in pursuit of honor is not to be feared; it is the public exposure of seemingly private doubts or desires that results in Gawain’s humiliation because it exposes a significant disunity in his chivalric self.

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    • Spearing, A. C. “Public and Private Spaces in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 138–145.

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      Suggests that Hautdesert blurs distinctions between the public, masculine space of the hall and the private, feminine space of the bedchamber in a manner that enables an intimate exploration of Gawain’s subjectivity unachievable at Camelot.

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    • Walker, Greg. “The Green Knight’s Challenge: Heroism and Courtliness in Fitt I of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 32.2 (1997): 111–128.

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      Regards the Green Knight’s appearance, language, and explicit challenge as components of a specific, highly sophisticated test of Arthurian identity that Gawain alone proves capable of understanding. Gawain’s humble acceptance of this challenge skillfully reasserts the values and authority of Camelot through its emphasis on appropriate courtly behavior.

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    Feminist Readings

    Beginning in the 1980s, feminist readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight radically altered the established interpretive scaffolding that had grown up around the romance since the 1960s. Such studies—making use of medieval women’s histories, a variety of theoretical and critical models, and alternative sources and literary traditions—revised assumptions about the unchallenged centrality of the male hero, about the role of women as mere foils to illustrate Gawain’s character, and about the meaning—harmlessly conventional or pointedly disruptive—of misogynistic passages in the poem. Feminist approaches presented new methods for understanding sources and backgrounds, and expanded the possibilities for close readings that addressed genre, structure, imagery, and poetic diction, drawing on paradigms that were often at once more explicitly historicized and theorized. The self-conscious break represented by this new interpretive practice frequently called attention to the protocols that had governed earlier, seemingly objective, appreciations of the text. Feminist understandings highlighted the ways in which remarkably complex attractions, dependencies, and hostilities between women and men help drive the meaning of the romance and make Gawain feel like a natural man (or not). While prefeminist interpretations sometimes evinced a need to explain misogyny as a symptom of characterization or structure (Clark and Wasserman 1985), early feminist readings underscored the reliance of the story on sharp and charged binaries that systematically displaced female characters from the central actions of the poem (Fisher 1989). Heng 1991, an influential reading, cast femininity as a presence that haunts the narrative from the margins and that calls the naturalness of Gawain’s masculine identity—and of all identities by implication—into question. Deploying comparative source study and narrative theory, Batt 1992 likewise concludes that misogyny, in the form of Gawain’s rant, destabilizes and so complicates the romance. Wynne-Davies 1996, keying its interpretation to this same outburst, argues that the association of female characters with fantasy makes them a constant challenge to the normative masculinity at the heart of the poem. Morgan 2002 offers what might be taken as a postfeminist reading, suggesting that Gawain’s antifeminism reveals more about his individual psychology than gender relations. Donnelly 2003, a review of earlier criticism, leads the author to view Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as fundamentally profeminine and so to read the hero’s rant as signifying the hero’s failures rather than as typifying the poem’s views. Battles 2010 returns to the manuscript, and its transcription provides evidence that even this most material and positivist of reading practice shows the effects of gendered assumptions and interventions.

    • Batt, Catherine. “Gawain’s Antifeminist Rant, the Pentangle, and Narrative Space.” Yearbook of English Studies 22 (1992): 117–139.

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      Situates Gawain’s antifeminism within the tensions between Gawain as a traditionally recognizable and frequently misogynistic character, and Gawain as a courteous, sympathetic hero. Sees this juxtaposition as indicative of the poem’s larger interest in defamiliarizing conventional rhetorical structures.

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    • Battles, Paul. “Amended Texts, Emended Ladies: Female Agency and the Textual Editing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 44.3 (2010): 323–343.

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      Examines the extent to which certain editorial choices have influenced readers’ perceptions of women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Examples of three specific interventions are explored as a means of drawing our attention to the misrepresentation of female characters in numerous versions of the text, even in editions that postdate feminist arguments about the centrality of female desire to the narrative as a whole.

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    • Clark, S. L., and Julian R. Wasserman. “Gawain’s ‘Anti-Feminisim’ Reconsidered.” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 6 (1985): 57–70.

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      Characterizes Gawain’s angry outburst against women as one of a series of actions made throughout the poem that exemplify his limited knowledge and ongoing need for correction. In this context, Morgan functions as a “controlling deity” (like the Lamb in Pearl or God himself in Purity and Patience) who tests man before enlightening him about both the nature of the test and how well he fared.

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    • Donnelly, Colleen. “Blame, Silence, and Power: Perceiving Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Mediaevalia 24 (2003): 279–297.

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      Reexamines female characters with regard to how they act as well as how they are perceived by men (including the poet) to advocate that the poem is more profeminine than antifeminist. Gawain’s unthinking acceptance of the “patristic and patriarchal” view of women does not resonate with the portrayal of women throughout the poem as a whole. Gawain’s views of women (as expressed in his misogynistic rant) reflect his general tendency toward misinterpretation.

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    • Fisher, Sheila. “Taken Men and Token Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism. Edited by Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley, 71–105. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

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      Traces the processes by which female characters are transformed from figures of generative power to causalities of the dominant androcentric ideologies of Christian chivalry and feudalism. Links the green girdle with betrayal by women and suggests that the Arthurian court’s appropriation of it as a masculine signifier functions as a failed attempt to revise history, displacing women in an effort to prevent the Round Table’s inevitable fall.

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    • Heng, Geraldine. “Feminine Knots and the Other: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 106.3 (1991): 500–514.

      DOI: 10.2307/462782Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Identifies a feminine text that destabilizes the masculine narrative by advancing an example of identity as externally constructed and impermanent. Guenevere, the Virgin, Morgan, and Lady Bertilak are all connected through a series of overlapping relationships and desires that, when plotted, invoke the “endeles knot” of the pentangle while also producing a knot of their own in the form of the endlessly reinscribable green girdle.

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    • Morgan, Gerald. “Medieval Misogyny and Gawain’s Outburst against Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Modern Language Review 97.2 (2002): 265–278.

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      Attempts to counter the established assumption that Gawain’s response to Bertilak’s revelation about the Lady’s role in his downfall is misogynistic. Instead, it is best understood as reflective of his personal experiences, an expression of his disappointment with himself that his desire to protect the Lady’s feelings contributed to her ability to deceive him.

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    • Wynne-Davies, Marion. “‘And þurʒ wyles of wymmen be wonen to sorʒe’: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Women and Arthurian Literature: Seizing the Sword. By Marion Wynne-Davies, 36–54. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

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      Considers the poem’s female characters as “mythic types” instead of fully individualized figures whom the poem attempts to contain by reducing them to the realm of literary fantasy. This very act of suppression, however, eternally links women with the discourses of sexuality and the supernatural, rendering them a continual threat to the male status quo.

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    Gender and Sexuality

    By the 1990s, feminist studies had fully legitimated the study of gender across the disciplines and had begun to diversify according to a variety of academic and political models. The growth and convergence of several other fields—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies; cultural studies; post-structuralist theory; queer theory—multiplied the paths of possible inquiry surrounding sexual identities, including those represented in medieval texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Close readings had unveiled the subtlety and indirection of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s “luf-talking,” which rivals that of Jane Austen’s drawing rooms and private exchanges. The foregrounding of sexual identities brought to light the ways in which the poem’s words at once mask and reveal linguistic ambiguity and private ambivalence. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight repeatedly stages scenes of intense and vulnerable intimacy that interrogate the borders between candor—whether calculated or unguarded—and the invasion of privacy or the betrayal of trust; these encounters insistently raise the possibility of antisocial behaviors, whether as the expression of forbidden desire, the rebuke of unwanted advances, or the blurting out of fearful aggression. Ultimately, the verbal protocols of these complexly intimate yet adversarial worlds come to seem no less perilous than the public, rule-bound rituals of the manly face-off. De Roo 1993 suggests that the revelation of the bedroom scenes as staged performances seriously undermines Gawain’s masculine persona, while Kinney 1994 argues that the uncritical acceptance of medieval gender asymmetries mistakes the always provisional nature of sexual identities. The landmark study Dinshaw 1994 decisively expanded the questions and patterns readers might ask about sexual identities in the romance, shifting attention from a unified male subject to polymorphous masculinities and querying the motives and possible outcomes of both heterosexual and same-sex encounters. Drawing on a rich array of historical precedents, conventional strictures on sexuality, and queer theory, the essay initiated a sequence of readings that took up the circulation of sentiment and desire in the poem, including arguments about the displacements precipitated by triangulated desire (Boyd 1998), the ways in which allusion destabilizes categories of gender (Cox 2001), or the contamination of spiritual and sexual identities arising from generic dissonance (Pugh 2004). Dodman 2005 compares the “artificial” masculinity modeled in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with that inculcated in a how-to manual on hunting, while Ashton 2005 concludes that the complex overlay of attachments in the poem “queer” any attempt to prescribe or settle normative patterns of femininity or masculinity.

    • Ashton, Gail. “The Perverse Dynamics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 15.3 (2005): 51–74.

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      Pursues the queer potential of the poem as extending beyond the relationship between Gawain and Bertilak/the Green Knight. As the catalyst for a series of perverse dynamics that complicate gendered identities, Morgan functions as the central agent of displaced desire, complicating any attempt to stabilize normative performances of sexuality.

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    • Boyd, David L. “Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 8.2 (1998): 77–113.

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      Using the triangular relations among Gawain, Bertilak, and the Lady, demonstrates how sodomy is displaced onto women, effectively transforming the transgressive into a defense mechanism for the heteronormative status quo.

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    • Cox, Catherine S. “Genesis and Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 35.4 (2001): 378–390.

      DOI: 10.1353/cr.2001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Locates the poem’s complex construction of gender within both Christian and Jewish traditions of the Creation and Expulsion. The complementary and, at times, contradictory mores that can coexist within a single allusion are fundamental to the narrative’s conception of temptation and transgression as gendered; they call into question the stability of Arthurian identity categories.

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    • De Roo, Harvey. “Undressing Lady Bertilak: Guilt and Denial in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 27.3 (1993): 305–324.

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      Suggests that Gawain’s antifeminist rant is indicative of his realization that in enjoying the flirtatious interactions with the Lady, he actively contributed to his own downfall. Engaging in the sophisticated double entendres of sexual innuendo reminds Gawain of the pleasures he stands to lose at the Green Chapel, so the revelation of the Lady’s deception threatens his identity not just as the pentangle knight but also as a desirable man.

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    • Dinshaw, Carolyn. “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Diacritics 24 (1994): 205–226.

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      Contemporary work by queer theorists, documented rumors of a homosexual relationship between Richard II and Robert de Vere, and Christian doctrine help reveal that the complexity and power of the plot rest in part on the unacknowledged but unmistakable potential of a homosexual union as the outcome of the “game.” The poem flirts with this possibility at Hautdesert only to reject it as a courtly game that reinforces normative heterosexuality.

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    • Dodman, Trevor. “Hunting to Teach: Class, Pedagogy, and Maleness in The Master of Game and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Exemplaria 17.2 (2005): 413–444.

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      Compares the relationship between hunting and masculinity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with that articulated in the hunting manual The Master of Game. While the latter stresses the potential to learn aristocratic masculinity through participation in the ceremonies of the hunt, the former distinguishes between professional hunters and the more artificial masculinity performed at court by Gawain and Bertilak.

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    • Kinney, Clare R. “The (Dis)Embodied Hero and the Signs of Manhood in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Edited by Clare E. Lees, Thelma Fenster, and Jo Ann McNamara, 47–57. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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      Examines the extent to which feminist criticism inadvertently reinscribes the categories it seeks to complicate. Instead of endorsing the view that chivalric masculinity is a stable category because it is privileged within the narrative culture, argues that the poem promotes a definition of manhood that is ambiguous at best, in constant need of renegotiation.

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    • Pugh, Tison. “Queering Arthurian Romance: Genres, Godgames, and Sadomasochism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Queering Medieval Genres. By Tison Pugh, 107–149. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

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      In flirting with conventions of romance, exemplum, and hagiography, the poem destabilizes the constructs on which conventional sexual and spiritual identities are demarcated, for Gawain and readers alike.

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    Religious Ritual, Practice, and Belief

    Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight structures its action around some of the chief feasts of the Christian faith, priests or other religious authorities make almost no appearance in the story. Readers have nonetheless frequently assumed that religion is the “master” discourse of the poem, providing a set of absolute, unchallengeable criteria for the critique of all other codes, systems, and behaviors. On such a view, the foregrounding of chivalry, and the complexities that swirl around the hero’s “failure,” demonstrated the deficiency of secular ideals and conduct, whether in the person of Gawain or within the entire ethos of the Round Table. The Green Knight alleges that his guest’s slight fault lay in the surreptitious retention of the Lady’s girdle, though Gawain himself regards this as a much more serious offense against social and chivalric commitments. Interpretations starting from religious premises have usually assumed that Gawain’s “sin” consists of his apparent failure to mention the girdle in the eight lines that describe his confession (lines 1876–1884) before his third exchange with Bertilak. Critics have tried to assign doctrinal specificity to the “cowardyse” and “couetyse” of which Gawain accuses himself, though the hero’s words do not necessarily entail religious meaning. In the end, Gawain’s surly perfectionism may point up the impossibility of fulfilling the demands of any system that makes universal claims on the individual, whether sacred or profane, and in mounting such a perspective, the poem puts itself forward as writing of the most serious kind and degree. Horgan 1987 associates Gawain’s lapse with imperfect devotion to Christian doctrine, presented as self-evident orthodoxy. Newhauser 1990 and Allen 1992 present historically nuanced arguments about concepts and categories of sin, especially as these concern first accepting and then concealing his possession of the girdle. Puhvel 1996 contrasts Gawain’s intense perfectionism with Arthur’s more superficial rashness and attributes Gawain’s more serious fault to pride. Watson 1997 offers a revised understanding of the cultural contexts of late medieval religious belief and practice and sees Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as introducing a hero who challenges earlier theological ideals. Hardman 1999 documents a plurality of religious styles, suggesting that Gawain’s piety might have been judged by competing models. Phillips 2004 reverses the usual hierarchy, taking chivalry as a potential base for the scrutiny of received religion. Johnston 2005 attempts to characterize religion as an autonomous feature of medieval culture and to assess its motives alongside those of courtly discourses.

    • Allen, Valerie. “Sir Gawain: Cowardyse and the Fourth Pentad.” Review of English Studies 43 (1992): 181–193.

      DOI: 10.1093/res/XLIII.170.181Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Teases out a distinction between Gawain’s acceptance and retention of the girdle in order to analyze how he comes to accuse himself of “cowardyse” (cowardice) and “couetyse” (covetousness). Interprets the latter as a sin of avarice motivated more by fear than love of self over God and suggests it applies to the acceptance of the girdle instead of its retention.

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    • Hardman, Phillipa. “Gawain’s Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medium Ævum 68 (1999): 247–261.

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      Complicates the division typically drawn between the values associated with the pentangle and those associated with the girdle by suggesting that the poem’s treatment of religious behavior frequently blurs the distinction between faith and superstition. Identifies and develops traces of popular pious practices in several key passages, including the description of the pentangle and the description of the green girdle.

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    • Horgan, A. D. “Gawain’s Pure Pentangle and the Virtue of Faith.” Medium Ævum 56.2 (1987): 310–316.

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      Drawing on the Epistle of St. James, teases out the biblical and theological implications of the “trawthe” (truth) referenced in the description of the pentangle. Defines Gawain’s failure as emerging from his choice of a “pagan talisman” over perfect devotion to Christianity. By extension, the poem functions as a cautionary tale which reminds audiences that human effort alone is never enough.

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    • Johnston, Andrew James. “The Secret of the Sacred: Confession and the Self in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Performances of the Sacred in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Susanne Rupp and Tobias Döring, 45–63. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

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      Explores Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s treatment of religion as a cultural force in its own right instead of as a facet of courtly performance. Pays particular attention to the sacrament of penance as key to understanding the third and fourth fitts. Links poem’s interest in secrecy as a narrative strategy to the tensions between interiority and exteriority that are inherent to confession in a post–Fourth Lateran Council world.

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    • Newhauser, Richard. “The Meaning of Gawain’s Greed.” Studies in Philology 87.4 (1990): 410–426.

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      Situates Gawain’s self-accusation of “cowardyse” (cowardice), “couetyse” (covetousness), and “untrawthe” (untruth) within the Augustinian concept of avaritia vitae (avarice for life) as a means of suggesting that Gawain’s case against himself is built on a “spiritualized” conception of greed: his desire to prolong his life results in acts of cowardice (accepting the girdle) and deceit (not returning the girdle).

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    • Phillips, Bill. “‘The Taint of a Fault’: Purgatory, Relativism and Humanism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 17 (2004): 6–31.

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      Suggests that the poem explores chivalric perfection as a way of critiquing the intractability of Church doctrine at the end of the 14th century, when religious reformers like John Wyclif and the earliest articulations of Renaissance humanism were beginning to assert their influence. In this context, the doctrine of purgatory emerges as an important alternative to obsolete, absolutist codes.

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    • Puhvel, Martin. “Pride and Fall in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 97 (1996): 57–70.

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      Reads poem as a parable on pride. Through a comparison of Arthur and Gawain, suggests the former is humbled by a youthful arrogance that manifests itself in rash, angry behavior, while the latter “falls” as a consequence of his aspiration to perfection. Arthur is ultimately able to recover from his embarrassment in a way that his nephew, whose goals were loftier, is not.

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    • Watson, Nicholas. “The Gawain-Poet as Vernacular Theologian.” In A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Edited by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, 293–314. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

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      Argues that Gawain represents a category of Christian hero new to the later Middle Ages who aspires toward the perfect harmony of heaven but lives in a postlapsarian cycle of sin, repentance, and penance. As an “active” Christian, his “aspirations and capacities” are closer to those of the poet’s audience than those embodied by the more traditional Christian heroes of preachers, virgins, and martyrs.

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    Festivity and Seasonal Myth

    Much of the action in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight centers on festivities celebrated according to the natural, religious, and courtly calendars. The two central episodes, in particular, directly invoke the end of the old year and the beginning of the new—the winter solstice, Christmas, and the Feast of the Circumcision on the first day of the New Year. For the sacred and secular cultures of the Middle Ages, this turn-about was epitomized in the miraculous birth of a vulnerable child at the darkest and coldest moment in the natural and ritual cycle of northern European seasons. Such occasions required “gamnez,” games: structured, rule-bound activities that consciously mark out the domain of the human. The poem’s plot starkly contrasts the culture-laden world of homo ludens (the playful and pattern-making species) with the insentient world of nature, whose inexorable cycles are at once hopefully and harshly self-renewing. Within the poem, the crucial bridge between these domains is the “gomen” of the hunt—the killing of “game” not randomly, but according to species, age, sex, and time of year, risking one’s life in the wild while performing age-old, highly practiced skills and observing traditional, even quasi-religious rituals. This dangerous and highly skilled aristocratic pastime at once celebrates dominance over and dependence on nature: being at the top of the food chain profoundly reinforces human implication in and indebtedness to the natural world, and so embraces the inevitability of falling prey to natural or unnatural death (as Gawain discovers). Neaman 1976 links the Circumcision and the shedding of innocent blood to the hero’s fealty, while Clark 1986 interprets the onslaught of nature as highlighting the rift between secular and spiritual values; for Kirk 1994, the incarnational theology associated with Christmas largely resolves these conflicts. Bishop 1985 explores how historical and narrative temporalities frame the agency of the hero, while Shichtman 1986 contends that the Green Knight’s association with nature accentuates the importance of moral choice for human actors. In studies that investigate sources and structures beyond the medieval Christian setting of the poem, Blanch 1983 connects the proverbial span of a year and a day to earlier narrative traditions, and Wrigley 1988 finds parallels with established conventions of male initiation. Sharma 2008 takes a more literary approach, emphasizing the poem’s own tendencies toward improvisation and accommodation.

    • Bishop, Ian. “Time and Tempo in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Neophilologus 69 (1985): 611–619.

      DOI: 10.1007/BF00399536Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Analyzes the extent to which different dimensions of time are used to explore the issue of human responsibility. Beginnings and endings overlap, contextualizing the testing of Gawain and the Arthurian court’s era of youthful promise within the larger cycles of British and redemptive history.

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    • Blanch, Robert J. “The Legal Framework of ‘A Twelmonyth and a Day’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Neuphilogische Mitteilungen 84 (1983): 347–352.

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      Traces the Germanic background of the year-and-a-day tradition to contextualize the binding nature of the agreement Gawain enters into with the Green Knight, who functions as a judge on a legally determined “court day.”

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    • Clark, S. L. “The Passing of the Seasons and the Apocalyptic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” South Central Review 3.1 (1986): 5–22.

      DOI: 10.2307/3189122Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Contends that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s preoccupation with endings and, more specifically, how endings relate to beginnings, foregrounds the problem of moral judgment with which the poet is concerned. Sees Gawain’s experiences as evidence that salvation was increasingly understood to be the privilege of a select few chosen by providence rather than through any merit of their own, and earned, at least partially, outside of the Church. In short, the poem embodies “seeds” of Protestantism.

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    • Kirk, Elizabeth D. “‘Wel Bycommes Such Craft Upon Cristmasse’: The Festive and the Hermeneutic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 93–137.

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      Suggests that the poem’s Christmas setting resolves many of the tensions between its celebratory, “aristocratic” style and its seemingly incompatible didactic judgments by contextualizing its action within the beginning of the liturgical year. The feast of the Incarnation offers a theological perspective in which perfection is achieved not by individual or social endeavors, but through the humble acceptance of a renewed companionship with God.

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    • Neaman, Judith S. “Sir Gawain’s Covenant: Troth and Timor Mortis.” Philological Quarterly 55 (1976): 30–42.

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      Classifies poem as a timor mortis (fear of death) narrative that commemorates the Feast of Circumcision and encourages a celebration of Gawain’s heroism as the product of his commitment to “troth” in light of his mortality.

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    • Sharma, Manish. “Hiding the Harm: Revisionism and Marvel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Papers on Language and Literature 44.2 (2008): 168–193.

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      The Arthurian court’s interpretation of the Christmas “gomen” (game) offered by the Green Knight as a beheading game underscores the poem’s larger interest in narrative revision and recuperation when faced with the unexpected or traumatic.

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    • Shichtman, Martin B. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Lesson in the Terror of History.” Papers on Language and Literature 22 (1986): 3–15.

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      Rejects the notion that the poem’s cyclical structure is meant to be comforting, arguing instead that the Green Knight’s primary function is to undercut the repetitive rituals associated with the Arthurian court. Gawain is forced to take responsibility for his actions as a historical being, rather than simply repeating the paradigms with which he is so closely associated.

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    • Wrigley, Christopher. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Underlying Myth.” In Studies in Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches. Edited by Derek Brewer, 113–128. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1988.

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      Describes how a structuralist approach to folkloric story elements is apparent within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Characterizes the poem as an “initiation into manhood” narrative that unfolds through an exploration of the interdependent topics of sex and death.

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    Narrative Strategies

    The surge of interest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the 1960s began in part with the recognition that, for all its bold moves and core simplicity, the narrative spins out its story through an endlessly proliferating set of repetitions, complications, and reversals. (See Bloomfield 1961, Howard 1964, Burrow 1965, and Spearing 1970, all cited under General Overviews, and Borroff 1962, cited under Language and Authorship). The poem combines moments of gripping realism—in description, in spoken dialogue, and in psychological insight—with uncanny effects and magical transformations. The interdependence of the fast-paced, merry tale and the density of narrative—both on its surface and in its depths—made the romance easily (and unusually, for a medieval text) susceptible to sustained and nuanced close readings and likewise made it a staple for classroom study. Since the 1990s, critics have increasingly attended to the textuality of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Such views have underscored how the poem’s meaning arises through its inevitable, sometimes muted, and frequently open-ended interplay with other traditions, genres, and epistemological models, or how it yields new meanings when approached through questions generated outside traditional literary study. Fichte 1992 demonstrates the high admission price charged readers through deliberate allusions to earlier Arthurian materials. Thomas 1998 and Honegger 2006 reveal how often the poem’s dialogue flirts with coded vocabulary, linguistic conventions, or legal prescriptions, thereby amplifying its interpretive charge. Hardman 1999 associates Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with systems of artificial memory as a means of critiquing Gawain’s values and performance. Other recent readings have pinned the excitement and appeal of the narrative to its refusal of disambiguation. For Finley 1990, irresolution, throughout the story and especially at the end, injects a note of melancholy into the romance, while Longsworth 1991 argues that laughter, as highly charged yet often indecipherable human communication, frequently short-circuits the desire for unequivocal meaning, both within the tale and for the reader. The unfixing of social, linguistic, and gendered boundaries creates for Lindley 1994 a world turned upside down that forces both the hero and the reader to produce new modes of understanding. Scala 1994 posits Morgan le Fay as the romance’s absent center, signaling the entire narrative’s artfully staged resistance to any one-dimensional unpacking of its interrelated plots.

    • Fichte, Joerg O. “Historia and Fabula: Arthurian Traditions and Audience Expectations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Festschrift Walter Haug und Burghart Wachinger. Edited by Johannes Janota, et al., 589–602. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1992.

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      Regards the poem’s treatment of the larger Arthurian “pre-text” as fundamental to understanding its meaning. Careful attention is paid to how both French and English traditions are evoked to elicit contradictory expectations and responses.

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    • Finley, Stephen C. “Endeles Knots: Closure and Indeterminacy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Papers on Language and Literature 26.4 (1990): 445–458.

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      Considers the interrelated issues of closure and indeterminacy in the poem’s self-conscious structuring of its conclusion. Multiple possible endings are explored and ultimately deemed unsatisfactory, likening the poem itself to the irresolvable knots of the pentangle. As a result of this interpretative uncertainty, melancholy prevails for Gawain and readers alike.

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    • Hardman, Phillipa. “Five-Finger Exercise: Gawain’s Art of Memory in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Bulletin Bibiliographique de la Societe Internationale Arthurienne 52 (1999): 313–326.

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      Uses the concept of the mnemonic hand to interpret Gawain’s perfection in his five fingers as a reference to his trained memory and, by extension, his dedication to moral teachings. Instead of using the art of memory to move beyond his past shortcomings and toward more prudent decisions in the future, however, Gawain ultimately proves unable to progress to a constructive level of remembering.

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    • Honegger, Thomas. “‘I Shal Ware My Whyle Wel with Tale’: Historical Pragmatics and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Language and Text: Current Perspectives on English and Germanic Historical Linguistics and Philology. Edited by Andrew James Johnston, Ferdinand von Mengden, and Stefan Thim, 79–95. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006.

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      Drawing on theories of dialogic speech, offers an in-depth analysis of the “luf-talkyng” (erotic exchange) that occurs in the bedroom scenes as a way of better understanding the poem’s relationship to and position within the romance tradition.

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    • Lindley, Arthur. “‘Ther he watz dispoyled, with spechez of myerthe’: Carnival and the Undoing of Sir Gawain.” Exemplaria 6.1 (1994): 67–86.

      DOI: 10.1179/104125794790510762Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Characterizes the poem’s dissolution of “defining boundaries” as carnivalesque, a movement from hierarchical order to gender-bending disorder. The resulting interrogation of identity and truth as fixed constructs forces Gawain to participate in the production of new, more inclusive “fictions” of order.

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    • Longsworth, Robert. “Interpretive Laughter in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Philological Quarterly 70 (1991): 141–147.

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      Examines how laughter frustrates acts of interpretation—both of and within the narrative proper—through its ability to signify a wide variety of emotions and judgments, ranging from the pleasant to the potentially humiliating. Provides a close reading along these lines of the Lady’s first visit to Gawain’s chamber.

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    • Scala, Elizabeth D. “The Wanting Words of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Narrative Past, Present and Absent.” Exemplaria 6.2 (1994): 305–338.

      DOI: 10.1179/104125794790510672Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Offers a structural reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that sees Morgan as the narrative’s absent center, a central figure that produces significant effects but is knowable only through those effects. In this way, the apparent indeterminacy of the text’s many signs and the elaborate determinacy of its form are equally responsible for its “potential impossibility” (p. 311) of interpretation.

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    • Thomas, Susanne Sara. “Promise, Threat, Joke, or Wager? The Legal (In)Determinacy of the Oaths in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Exemplaria 10.2 (1998): 287–305.

      DOI: 10.1179/104125798790496972Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Contends that the poem depicts Gawain’s promises as ambiguous agreements instead of legally binding oaths. In this way, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight highlights the indeterminacy of nostalgia for an oath-centered past, challenging audiences to consider the nature of all social contracts.

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    (Re)Interpreting Gawain

    Collected here are a number of engaging, illuminating studies on varying aspects of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of them by well-established and influential scholars. Taken together, they illustrate the romance’s generative capacity, the breadth of topics it opens for diverse audiences, and its capacity to draw readers in. This assemblage also demonstrates the poem’s status as a touchstone that has excited those who’ve written most widely and revealingly about medieval culture to test their learning and acumen, and to open a dialogue not only with other experts, but with beginning readers as well. A number of these contributions pick up on a distinctive component of the romance and reveal its embeddedness within a network of literary allusions and cultural histories. Silverstein 1977–1978 grounds the various forms of “trawthe” in the poem in a classical source, Cicero’s notion of bona fides, or good faith. In a related investigation, Blanch and Wasserman 1984 compares the multiple, often overlapping, and sometimes contradictory engagements that Gawain takes on with lawfully binding contracts, and in this way sheds light on “trawthe” as both a chivalric and Christian value. A cluster of studies exploring the poem’s inner- and intertextuality highlight its linguistic and epistemological intricacies, and establish their irresolution as a signature feature of the poem’s appeal. In continually short-circuiting expectations concerning language, story line, genre, and thematic motifs (Ganim 1976), as well as in its lavish deployment of surface ornament and linguistic embellishment (Hanning 1982), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight imposes on readers an experience that mimics Gawain’s frustrations and his recurrent need to reassess his own motives and actions. Critics’ wide-ranging responses to Lady Bertilak’s girdle illustrate the poem’s characteristic practice of transforming an ordinary object into an elusive sign that demands ongoing reinterpretation (Hanna 1983). The urgency of deciphering the double nature of the Green Knight/Bertilak becomes a model for the process of judging so central to the narrative (Borroff 1988). Harwood 1991 and Trigg 1991 provide complementary studies of the complex exchanges at the heart of the text, deepening our sense of the social, political, and economic patterns within late medieval culture. More recently, Miller 2010 takes on some of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s distinctive concerns from the standpoints of both medieval intellectual preoccupations and contemporary theory, presenting the poem as at once a product of its own cultural interests and a flashpoint for thought and conversation among modern readers.

    • Blanch, Robert J., and Julian N. Wasserman. “Medieval Contracts and Covenants: The Legal Coloring of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Neophilologus 68 (1984): 598–610.

      DOI: 10.1007/BF00312664Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Explores the concepts of contract, covenant, surety, and tally in the medieval English common law tradition to outline the nature of the promises Gawain violates while abroad. The affiliation between “troth” and “fides” (faith) in contractual law ultimately points toward the poem’s interest in the interpenetration of Christian and chivalric virtues.

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    • Borroff, Marie. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Passing of Judgment.” In The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition. Edited by Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe, 105–128. New York: Garland, 1988.

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      Traces the dual function of the Green Knight/Bertilak character as a figure belonging to the mortal world and as an illusory perception of that same world or “reality” in order to examine the implications of his most famous role: Gawain’s judge. Like Gawain, the Green Knight goes through a process of demystification that contributes to the poem’s depiction of how human beings assess one another.

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    • Ganim, J. M. “Disorientation, Style, and Consciousness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 91.3 (1976): 376–384.

      DOI: 10.2307/461688Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Detailed exploration of how the style of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight involves audiences in a “process of disorientation” that provides entertainment with a moral emphasis. Using the conventions of rhetoric, genre, and narrative, certain expectations are called forth only to be subverted, so that readers, like Gawain, are encouraged to routinely correct themselves, to transcend preconceptions, and, as a result, to be redeemed.

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    • Hanna, Ralph, III. “Unlocking What’s Locked: Gawain’s Green Girdle.” Viator 14 (1983): 289–302.

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      Nuanced analysis of the competing and frequently contradictory interpretations of the green girdle within the narrative proper. Regards the girdle as a “token” that demands reinterpretation instead of signifying any one fixed thing. Anticipates Shoaf’s book-length study on commercium (Shoaf 1984, cited under Monographs).

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    • Hanning, Robert W. “Sir Gawain and the Red Herring: The Perils of Interpretation.” In Acts of Interpretation: The Text in Its Contexts 700–1600. Edited by Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk, 5–23. Norman, OK: Pilgrim, 1982.

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      Links the poem’s interest in decoration to its complex figuration of meaning, since the civilized impulse to embellish also ultimately obscures. Contends that the difficulties associated with interpreting human experience are one of the central themes of the text, affectively affiliating audiences with Gawain.

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    • Harwood, Britton J. “Gawain and the Gift.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 106 (1991): 483–499.

      DOI: 10.2307/462781Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Via a focus on the “economy of the gift,” traces the way in which nobility is articulated both as a powerful aristocratic value and as a potentially dangerous liability for Christianity. Situates Gawain’s exchanging of gifts throughout the poem within an increasing emphasis on largesse among the upper classes of late-medieval England and links his failure to “repay” Bertilak with the girdle to the “cost” of his climactic conversion.

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    • Miller, Mark. “The Ends of Excitement in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Teleology, Ethics, and the Death Drive.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 (2010): 215–256.

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      Informed by models drawn from queer theory and psychoanalysis concerning the interrelationship between pleasure and suffering, argues that the poem trades on the merging of values and desires as much as it does their opposition. Rereads several key passages, including the hunting scenes, the seduction scenes, and the exchange at the Green Chapel, in order to explore the connection between a medieval understanding of teleology and the post-Lacanian concept of the death drive.

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    • Silverstein, Theodore. “Sir Gawain in a Dilemma, or Keeping the Faith with Marcus Tullius Cicero.” Modern Philology 75.1 (1977–1978): 1–17.

      DOI: 10.1086/390755Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Attempts to pinpoint specific source texts with which the poem’s characterization of Gawain is engaged. Cicero’s suggestion that the foundation of justice is “good faith” or fidelity to promises and agreements is seen as fundamental to the pentangle’s associations with “trawthe” (truth/fidelity) as well as Gawain’s emphasis on cowardice and covetousness in the rhetoric of self-censure.

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    • Trigg, Stephanie. “The Romance of Exchange: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Viator 22 (1991): 251–266.

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      Examines the implications of the lack of reciprocity in the poem’s many instances of exchange, paying particular attention to those between the structure of the larger narrative and the interpretive questions it raises.

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    LAST MODIFIED: 09/20/2012

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199846719-0054

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