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Literature Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Updated on February 29, 2016
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.

Backgound

Some time in the late 14th century, an anonymous English author wrote the Middle English narrative chivalric romantic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has become one of the best known Arthurian stories. Drawing on Welsh, Irish and English stories along with French chivalric tradition, it remains a popular tale with modern English renderings from such authors as J. R. R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage. It also has two film adaptations, both directed and written by Stephen Weeks. The latter 1984 film Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stars Miles O’Keeffe as Sir Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight.

Synopsis

Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious Green Knight: to strike him with his axe if the knight will take a return blow the next year and a day. But when Gawain beheads the knight, he picks up his head and reminds him of the appointment the following year. As Gawain goes to keep the bargain, he struggles while demonstrating chivalry and loyalty until his honor is called into question by Lady Bertilak, a lady of the Green Knight’s castle.

Analysis

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is certainly an interesting poetic tale, even with the unclear meaning and symbolism of the Green Knight, which has been puzzling ever since the poem was discovered, with scholars believing him to be a Green Man (a mythological being with a connection to nature), a Christian symbol or the Devil. However, his role seems to be that of a person who judges and tests knights. At the same time, the color of green itself is enigmatic when it comes to its meaning in the poem. Traditionally, the color green was used in Medieval English literature to symbolize either symbolize nature and make allusions to love and the desires of man while signifying witchcraft and other forms of evil or to be a symbol of decay or the passing of youth.

Given the nature of the poem, with the Green Knight testing Gawain’s chivalry and honor, it seems that the poem’s use of the color green symbolized a transformation of the man and the Round Table when combined with the girdle.

Meant for protection, the girdle eventually became symbolic of Gawain’s shame and cowardice when he struggles with his Christian faith and chooses the easier path, where the girdle promises what Gawain want most as opposed to faith which necessitates that what’s most desired doesn’t always coincide with God’s plan. In essence, the green girdle goes from a device with a supposed protective use to transforming Gawain into shaming him for cowardice and failing a crisis of faith. However, the Round Table turns it around and makes it a symbol of honor when the Knights absolve him of his failure and resolve to wear a green sash to recognize his adventure.

With the above in mind, it should be no surprise that temptation is a major theme of the story, with Gawain passing only out of chance. Not only did Gawain have to honor the laws of chivalry, but also the laws of courtly love and the knight’s code of honor, which required him to do whatever a lady asks. This makes him accept the girdle, which he keeps and causes him to break the promise he made to his host of giving whatever he gained. When learning that the Green Knight is his host, Gawain realizes he has completed his quest but failed to be virtuous, which shows a conflict between honor and his duties as a knight. The story’s theme of temptation exhibits the conflict and demonstrates how Gawain lost his honor while still completing the quest laid out before him, thus establishing that when conflicting codes and laws are in place, there’s no way to win.

Further, there seems to be a connection between the three hunting scenes and the three seduction scenes, most notably with the fox chase and the third seduction. In the latter scene, Gawain accepts the aforementioned girdle and fears for his life, looking for a way to avoid death. Like the fox, he tries trickery and deception. At the same time, since the fox uses unexpected tactics, Gawain finds Lady Bertilak’s advances unpredictable and challenging in her third attempt as she changes her language to become more assertive and her dress to be more revealing.

4 stars for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Such an interesting poem, with more to find each time I read it - not to mention the beauty of the language. Thank you for reminding me to read Sir Gawain again.

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