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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Context


The Late Middle Ages and the Alliterative Revival

During the late Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), the literary movement called the Alliterative Revival arose in England. Poets used the same patterns as those used to organize Old English poetry, including lines with four stressed syllables alternating with four unstressed—and alliteration, or repetition of consonant sounds, within the same line.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has its own signature style. At the end of each stanza is a short line, followed by four rhyming lines organized with an ABAB rhyme scheme (the last word of A lines rhyme, and so do the last word of the B lines). These five lines are called the "bob and wheel," with the "bob" being the short connecting line. The bob and wheel serves to sum up the stanza and offers commentary on what's happened. A stanza in this form is known as a "Gawain stanza."

Other Alliterative Revival works include the poem "Piers Plowman" by William Langland and what is called the Alliterative Morte Arthure, to distinguish it from other versions of the Arthurian legend, which also has an unknown author. They focus on morality, ethics, and teaching. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like other poems of the Alliterative Revival, provides instruction in honesty and virtue, but it also tells an adventure story and uses a sophisticated narrative technique. Because of this combination of storytelling and poetry, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is frequently considered the masterpiece of the Alliterative Revival.

The Romance Genre

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example of a medieval romance, an adventure story about a heroic quest. Older heroic tales in Britain, such as Beowulf, presented an epic hero who endured quests and fought monsters to save his people. In the late 14th century when Sir Gawain was written, the audience for literature was a new upper class, or leisure class, which was accustomed to wealth. These readers wanted stories of courtly love and ideals, not stories solely of survival. Morals and virtue were still important to these readers, however. The new kind of hero fought to defend his ideals as much as his life, while the quest and the magical elements sustained the story's excitement.

Gawain as a Medieval Hero

Gawain is one of the most well-known knights of King Arthur's Round Table and one who appears in the earliest Arthurian legends. He's considered the court's example of courtesy and chivalry. In contrast to Lancelot, Perceval, and other knights, whose adventures appear in later versions and consist of more heroic and traditionally masculine deeds, Gawain is often the hero of romances, particularly in the English tradition.

Many Arthurian romances portray Gawain as a virtuous knight, committed to loyalty, kindness, and self-sacrifice; these stories depict self-restraint and humility as knightly virtues, redefining what a knight could be.

He is also known as the "Champion of the Goddess"—a knight who loves and protects women. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates how this appreciation of women becomes Gawain's weakness and, eventually, his destruction.

Marriages were usually arranged as a business or political transaction in the 14th century. For the excitement of love, men and women often looked beyond their marriages. This is where the tradition of courtly love originated. A courtly lover, a knight attracted to a lady, would do anything for her. But fidelity in marriage was still the law, so courtly love's excitement came from its danger and illicit nature.

The Beheading Game

The famous scene in Fytte the First, in which the Green Knight sets a beheading challenge before Arthur and his court, describes a common incident in British and Celtic heroic legend.

The oldest known version of the beheading game is Bricriu's Feast, preserved in an Irish text called The Book of the Dun Cow from around 1100 CE. In the game, "an unknown challenger proposes that one of a group of warriors volunteer to cut off his head." Whoever volunteers will have his own head cut off in the future. A hero steps forward to take the challenge; when the hero faces his own beheading, he's saved at the last minute.

The Order of the Garter

The decision of Arthur's court to wear green laces (also called girdles, a belt worn around the waist) in support of Gawain may have a historical link to an English order of knighthood. In 1348, King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, a brotherhood of knights similar to the community of the Round Table. According to the original story, King Edward III retrieved a garter that fell from his dancing companion's leg at a celebration. After the court mocked him, he vowed to wear the garter, saying, "Shame to him who thinks evil on it." This gesture is similar to Gawain's decision to wear the green lace as a reminder of his imperfections.

The Order of the Garter still exists and is considered one of the highest civil or military honor in England.

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