ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Arthurian Romance II:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[page numbers in NA refer to 9th ed., 2012]


Review the online readings Courtly Love and Translatio. Read through two new online readings, one on the Middle English notions of trouthe and gentilesse, the other on the Alliterative Revival (be sure to print them out and bring them with you to COLAss!) 

Read carefully the background information NA 13-17 (on the fourteenth century); 24-25 (on alliterative verse and the Middle English alliterative line); NA 27 (timeline for 14th century); 183-85 (on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); and NA 343 (2nd paragraph of "Lyrics and Occasional Verse," on Chaucer's ballad "Truth").  Be aware that SGGK is thought to be by the same author as a dream vision called The Pearl (which you can read if you choose to take ENGL 330!); the unknown author is therefore referred to as both the "Pearl Poet" (the name we will use for him in this COLAss), and, less frequently, the "Gawain Poet."  Know the period when this poet was active (see headnote to SGGK, NA 183). Note how Middle English alliterative verse both resembled and differed from its Old English models (NA 25) and be able to identify the parts of the Middle English alliterative line in the opening lines of the poem.

Know the meaning of the following terms: Alliterative Revival, bob and wheel, quatrain, courtly love, romance (both the original meaning of the term and the characteristics of the literary genre now known by that name), translatio studii et imperii. Be able to describe fully the poetic form of SGGK and to identify its component parts (Middle English alliterative lines, bob and wheel). 

NOTE:  For the midterm, you will need to know the significance of the following names/works in the development of vernacular romance, and be able to date primary readings/authors and place other events/works in proper chronological order. From the Translatio online reading: William the Conqueror; Geoffrey of Monmouth (and his History of the Kings of Britain); Eleanor of Aquitaine, her grandfather William IX, her husbands Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and her daughter Marie of Champagne; Wace (and his Roman de Brut or "Romance of Brutus"); the Romance of Eneas; Chrétien de Troyes (and his Knight of the Cart); Layamon (Brut); the "Vulgate Cycle."  From SGGK: the Pearl Poet, the Gawain Poet, Brutus, Arthur, Guenevere, Gawain, Bercilak de Hautdesert, Lady Bercilak, Morgan le Faye, the Pentangle, the notion of trouthe

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[Number references below correspond to LINE NUMBERS (not pages) in the NA]

While medieval romances are frequently episodic -- that is, they relate a series of adventures undergone by a person or persons seeking to fulfill a specific quest -- the best romances are carefully constructed: adventures are not randomly chosen, and details tend to "count," adding to the meaning of the work as a whole. SGGK, for example, combines two distinct sorts of adventure (the beheading contest and the temptation to commit adultery) with repeated tests of Gawain's trouthe (the two parallel sets of exchanges -- exchange of blows and exchange of winnings) as well as repeated tests of G's loyalty: to Arthur; to the chivalric code; to his host in the scenes at Sir Bercilak's castle; and to his spiritual "lady." All of these disparate elements are fused into a unified work designed to illustrate the physical and moral perfection of Sir Gawain. To borrow a phrase from Chrétien de Troyes (in the Prologue to Erec and Enide), the Pearl Poet has succeeded in combining seemingly random stories of adventure into a bele conjointure, a beautifully ordered composition, through his poetic artistry and craft.

As you read, pay attention to descriptive and narrative details. Why are they included? What do they signify? What is the relationship between the scenery and Sir Gawain's mental state? What is the symbolism of the three beasts hunted by Bercilak? Which is most dangerous? Is there a relationship between the hunting exploits of Bercilak and the different sort of "hunt" going on in the bedroom? To what extent are the bedroom scenes a "duel of Courtesy"?

Arthur is said to be the "most courteous of all" British Kings (SGGK 26). What are the characteristics of his court? His knights? His Queen? Pay attention to the introduction of the knight Gawain. How does he distinguish himself in the opening scenes? How is he different from the other knights? Does he fulfill a chivalric duty that the other knights neglect? What is his relationship to the ideal of "courtesy"? This concept is similar to the Chaucerian virtue of "gentilesse," and may be represented by other terms such as "courtly," "courtliness" or "courteous." Pay attention to these terms when they come up in the poem.  Does the Green Knight play by the rules of courtesy? Is he ultimately a negative or a positive figure? At the end of the poem, the Green Knight deCOLAres that Gawain is the best of all Arthurian knights; this opinion is shared by the Arthurian court but not by Gawain. Why does he think so? Why does Gawain disagree? What is the significance of the green girdle in the final lines?

What is the significance of the Pentangle? Why is it described in such detail (SGGK 619-665)? What does it symbolize when taken as a whole? (see SGGK 626).  What is the significance of the series of five fives associated with the Pentangle?  Taken collectively, what might they represent? Can the Pentangle be seen as a symbol of the chivalric virtues? The Pentangle is displayed on only one side of Gawain's shield; who is depicted on the other? What is implied about her role relative to Gawain? What is implied about Gawain's relationship to the "courtly love" tradition?

The pentangle is called a "token of truth" (original spelling "trouthe," SGGK 626), precisely the virtue that is tested by the Green Knight (see NA 193-195 [p. 161 in the NA 8th ed.]; also follow link for more information on the Middle English notions of "trouthe" and "gentillesse," i.e. what we might call personal integrity and nobility of character rather than of birth). What promises are made by Gawain? Which does he keep? What lesson(s) does Gawain learn from his ordeal? Can these lessons be applied to the rest of Arthurian society? What is the significance of the green girdle at the end? Why do the other knights decide to wear green belts? Does their decision transform the significance of the girdle? Is Gawain a savior figure for the Arthurian court?

What is the attitude toward "courtly love"? Which characters represent that tradition? In traditional "courtly love," a knight performs feats of valor for a lady he loves who is generally not his wife. He aspires to win her love by proving his worthiness, chivalric merit, etc. through "love service" -- doing her will and trying to help her and be worthy of her regardless of her treatment of him. Does Gawain serve a lady in the poem? If so, whom does he serve? Is there a more "traditional" depiction of the courtly lady? What is the poet's (and Gawain's) attitude toward Lady Bercilak? What does that imply about the Pearl Poet's attitude toward "courtly love"?

Interestingly, there is no reflection in SGGK of the well known love affair between Lancelot and Guenevere. In the thirteenth-century prose romances of the Vulgate Cycle (later to be translated by Malory as the Morte Darthur), the love between Lancelot and Guenevere seems almost inevitable: Guenevere is the most beautiful and noble lady in the world, so it is only natural that she be loved by the best of Arthur's knights -- a status which Lancelot in fact owes directly to Guenevere, since his acts of prowess are inspired by his love for her. Why might the Pearl Poet have ignored or transformed this part of Arthurian tradition? Does Lancelot appear in SGGK? Consider that Gawain, Arthur's nephew, is a distinctly ENGLISH hero; Lancelot du Lac is a FRENCH knight. Is there a link between this displacement of Lancelot as hero and the Pearl Poet's preferential use of alliterative verse over rhyme, the typical form used in FRENCH courtly literature?

Who are the women in SGGK? (Depending upon interpretation, there are three -- or arguably four.) To what extent do they play similar roles? How do they differ? What is the function of each? What can you conclude (if anything) about the depiction of women in the poem? (Is it essentially positive, negative, neutral, mixed? Are they idealized, realistically portrayed, caricatures?) Are the women in SGGK similar to those portrayed by other authors read this term?

SGGK is thought to be the work of the same poet who produced the beautiful and moving dream vision The Pearl. If you have read (or choose to read) this work:  do you see similarities between the two? Consider e.g. theme; poetic form; underlying values in or message of each poem. What is the genre of each poem? Can some of the differences between them be explained by the different purposes/audiences for which these genres were typically written?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

Click here for Background Information on the Alliterative Revival

Click here to read about the Middle English notions of trouthe and gentilesse

Click here for The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) Study Questions

Click here for The Pearl Study Questions (used in ENGL 330 and 512)

Click here for Malory Study Questions

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