Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been dubbed “the Rolls Royce of Romances.” It was discovered in 1839 and comes from the late 14th century, the time of Chaucer, but from the north of England much removed from the London court, similar to Langland’s situation. Claims as to its partaking in the so-called “alliterative revival” are probably misguided since it is doubtful that the alliterative tradition ever lapsed in the Cumberland (north of Wales) region, removed from new southern stylistic fads. One usually finds a moral earnestness in this kind of northern literature.

There is only the one manuscript: Cotton Nero A.x (Sir Robert Cotton’s library / the bookcase with the plaster bust of Nero / shelf A / slot 10). No references to it exist from the time.

Gawain is a civilized poem. If the theme of loyalty is Germanic, certainly the seduction and courtesy are French, and the decapitation / reanimation elements are Celtic. The 8th-century Irish saga, Bricriu’s Feast (surviving in a 12th-century manuscript), contains a similar beheading game. In the 12th-century Germanic romance Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lancelot is put to similar tests involving a seductress. And in the prose French vulgate Lancelot Morgan (originally a Celtic fertility goddess?) sends a handmaiden to seduce Lancelot. The neo-Arthurian nature of Gawain suggests nationalism; and the garter mention at the end, if it invokes the Order of the Garter, might suggest that this was an occasional poem. There may even be a connection to the de Vere ancestor of the later more important Earl of Oxford.

Potentially useful questions to focus the reading:

  • What would you say is wrong or lacking in Gawain and the Arthurian court at the beginning?
  • How does Bertilak’s court differ from Arthur’s?
  • How do bedroom and hunting scenes each complement one another in Part 3?

The poem begins with Troy, building through the first 26 lines to indicate that Gawain is a product of the best of societies ever. If Gawain passes, we’re safe and secure. He may have fame and glory already, but they are based on no experience among the knights: Gawain is untried. The mention of “first age” reinforces this, despite its function as declaring Arthur’s time a golden age.

Arthur is childlike, not wanting to sit too long, insisting on ritual that subverts natural urges. Don’t touch that bread! The bursting in of the Green Knight prompts a sigh of relief: an animated figure who defies the restrictions of courtesy in the hypercivilized setting. In the evolution of Arthurian romance, we have the degeneration of the hero operating in Gawain: Arthur’s lieutenants become more important in daring deeds.

Ceremony and ritual have always been enough to get by on before. Here, though, the ritual — the “game” — has consequences.

Arthur’s court is frozen, passive, ritualistic, conventional, polite. Bertilak’s is natural, active, mature, vital, liberated. The episodic structure of the “hunting” scenes is praised for its tense effects: 1) the outside thrill of the “game” of hunting; 2) the confined and compressed plight of Gawain in bed; 3) the grim realities of the hunt. As if Gawain has awoken from anxiety dreams, the psychosexual pressures, when the woman (as Tom Garbáty used to say) is “going whole-hog,” are released in the violence of the kill.

The results of the second hunt are of most interest to me due to the potential word-play surrounding the presentation of the boar’s head. “Hoge” can be translated as “huge,” but of course it also can simply mean “hog” or “swine,” especially a castrated male swine. Gawain sees nothing but ceremony here (1634); but the lord presents Gawain with the “gomen”: “‘Now, Gawayn,’ quoth the godman, ‘this game is your awen'” (1635). He means primarily the game-animal, the wildlife. However, the term has been used frequently to refer to “game” as in sport (274, 283, 692, 1014, 1376, 1536, 1933). The carcass is Gawain’s, but also the game — the game of decapitation!

Is that a Viking burial barrow? It certainly seems like a Viking axe. Gawain is psychologically devastated. His renowned courtesy to women is ejected in his antifeminist tirade — an interesting suggestion on the poet’s part as to how misogyny originates. But on his silent journey back to Arthur’s court, about which we hear nothing, he has to come to terms with his discovery of the limits of his true self. Formerly he was just a public self; now he finds his identity and is wiser and humanized.

The ending is ambiguous. There’s a distance between Gawain and the court finally. There’s laughter again, but a superficial kind, that takes Gawain’s story as light entertainment.

The moral, I suppose, would be that the first requirements for a heroic career are the knightly virtues of loyalty, temperance, and courage. The loyalty in this case is of two degrees or commitments: first, to the chosen adventure, but then, also, to the ideals of the order of knighthood. Now, this second commitment seems to put Gawain’s way in opposition to the way of the Buddha, who when ordered by the Lord of Duty to perform the social duties proper to his caste, simply ignored the command, and that night achieved illumination as well as release from rebirth. Gawain is a European and, like Odysseus, who remained true to the earth and returned from the Island of the Sun to his marriage with Penelope, he has accepted, as the commitment of his life, not release from but loyalty to the values of life in this world. And yet, as we have just seen, whether following the middle way of the Buddha or the middle way of Gawain, the passage to fulfillment lies between the perils of desire and fear. (Campbell 153)

Works Consulted

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988. 152-153.

Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. A.C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson. NY: E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1976. ISBN 0 460 11346 1.

Robertson, Michael. “Stanzaic Symmetry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Speculum 57.4 (1982): 779-785.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Marie Borroff. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1967. ISBN 0-393-09754-4.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. James Winny. Lewiston, NY: Broadview Press, 1992. ISBN 0-921149-92-1.

Stevens, Martin. “Laughter and Game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Speculum 47 (1972): 65-78.