Late fourteenth century
Like Beowulf, Judith, and others, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one manuscript, which contains three additional poems: Pearl, Patience, and Purity. We know almost nothing about the anonymous author. The remarkably detailed account of the hunt found in Gawain has led some scholars to believe that the author might have been attached in some way to a nobleman’s household. The poet’s fascination with courtly behavior in Gawain goes hand-in-hand with the religious imagery, such as the portrait of the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of Gawain’s shield. It is possible that he was some kind of secular cleric, perhaps in some kind of secretarial or administrative job.1 One of the few details that we know with certainty about the author is that his dialect comes from the Midlands of England, right along the northern border with Wales. Since Gawain finds both Sir Bertilak’s castle and the nearby Green Chapel in that exact area, it is reasonable to think that the author was from there.
The poem is organized into four parts, or fitts, which explore the tensions among the three main duties of Sir Gawain as a knight: loyalty to his lord (in this case, also his kin), proper courtly behavior (especially to women), and devotion to God. As with many medieval stories, anachronisms abound; Gawain wears the best Norman armor to be had in the fourteenth century, although the story is set much earlier, and the castle furnishings are up-to-date, complete with tapestries from Turkistan (line 858). The Gawain poem contains remarkable imagery (the change of seasons at the beginning of Part Two, or Fitt Two, is a good example) and a parallel plot in Part Three that is constructed perfectly (with a literal hunt outside and a figurative hunt inside).
The poem begins and ends with a reference to the fall of Troy; the first stanza follows the westward journey of certain Trojans, first to Rome and finally to Britain, with a reference to King Arthur’s court. Considering the amount of parallelism in the rest of the poem, it sets up a pattern: Troy falls because of corruption from within (the poem mentions the “traitor” in line 3); Rome falls because of corruption from within; and as the original audience already knew, Arthur’s court falls because of corruption from within. Considering that the story takes place when Arthur is still young, the emphasis on its future fall is surprising, and it reminds the reader to look for the cracks in the foundation that already exist. As described in the story, Arthur’s court bears more than a passing resemblance to the Norman royal court; considering that Richard II was deposed not long after this poem was written, the poem could be both a warning and somewhat prophetic.
1) In An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet, Ad Putter speculates at length about the possible careers of the poet, noting that “the voice of the poet seems to come from the inside of an aristocratic household” and doubts that he was a priest (17). He also notes that the poet’s obvious comfort with Latin is not an indication that he was a member of the ordained clergy, since both Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower (among others) were fluent in Latin. In 1925, in their edition of the story, J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon concluded that the poet “had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional” (Introduction to the 1st edition, xv). In the 2nd edition, they cite the poet’s “detailed, even technical knowledge of hunting, of castle architecture, and of the armour and gear of a knight” (xxiv) in their speculation about his origin.
The style and themes of the poem do nothing to contradict this hypothesis. The author uses unrhymed alliteration in the style of earlier Anglo-Saxon literature (which was considered old-fashioned by this point, and certainly was not in style in the Norman court), along with a five-line rhymed “bob and wheel” section at the end of each stanza. The description of the Green Knight is reminiscent of the Celtic Green Man stories; the holly branch is Christmas-related, but also another Celtic reference (holly was sacred to the Druids); the ax he carries at the feast is reminiscent of a Saxon battle ax (the battle of Hastings came down to Saxons with battle axes versus Norman cavalry). Near the end of the poem, there is an extended reference to Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, whom the Green Knight calls “Morgan the Goddess” (line 2454), linking her to the Celtic goddess Morrigan.
The pro-Saxon/Celtic angle (which certainly fits the author’s location) becomes even more likely when examining Arthur’s court. Richard II was criticized for a variety of issues, including financial excesses and giving titles to flatterers and sycophants. When Gawain has left to search out the Green Knight, the court says that if he had not foolishly stepped forward, he would in time have been dubbed a duke, rather than beheaded because he was arrogant (lines 674-683). In other words, they belittle his “arrogance” at stepping forward to save the king, which they certainly would not have done, since inaction and cowardice evidently lead to promotion. Gawain’s bravery and nobility appear to be lost on the court. Their reactions at the end of the story are questionable as well, since they turn a reminder of Gawain’s one small flaw (which must be annoying to people who have many) into a meaningless fashion statement.
The fact that it is Gawain, and not Lancelot, who is the greatest knight of Arthur’s court is also a throwback to earlier Welsh traditions. Lancelot is mentioned only once, in the middle of a list of knights, but he is there—a reminder to the original audience that Lancelot and Guinevere are the reason that Arthur’s court will fall. (The fact that Morgan was exiled from the court by Guinevere for adultery makes Morgan’s message to the queen potentially a threat, since Gawain tells a story of how he resists adultery, while Guinevere does not.) Historically, Gawain was one of Arthur’s best warriors going back to the earliest stories. Chrétien de Troyes added Lancelot as the queen’s lover (and the greatest knight) in the eleventh century, and as Lancelot’s fame grew, Gawain’s star (and reputation) had declined. By making Gawain once again the center of the court, the author is reasserting a Celtic/British tradition over the recent French alterations.
1.14.1 Suggested Reading
Armitage, Simon, translator. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Norton, 2007.
Borroff, Marie, translator. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L.
Howes. Norton Critical Edition. Norton, 2010.
Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. Longman, 1996.
Tolkien, J.R.R., and E.V. Gordon, editors. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2nd edition edited by Norman Davis. Middle English version. Oxford UP, 1967.