Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Study Guide

Pearl Poet

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The medieval chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the mid- to late 14th century, tells the tale of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's famous round table. Authorship is credited to the Pearl Poet, whose identity has been a mystery to scholars for centuries. The strange and seemingly supernatural Green Knight challenges the court to exchange blows with him, and Gawain volunteers, only to be stunned when the Green Knight survives decapitation.

Though Gawain dreads his impending doom at the hands of the Green Knight in a year's time, the chivalric code of honor forces him to seek out his foe. More notable than this test of courage is the test of loyalty Gawain faces in the court of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, whose wife attempts to seduce Sir Gawain. In accordance with the codes of chivalry and honorable conduct, Gawain's true fate is decided not by his bravery in seeking out his enemy but by his strength of will in the face of temptation. The text's fame has endured in modern times, and it is widely studied as one of the fundamental texts of medieval romance.

1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was inspired by an earlier tale of beheadings.

An Irish saga from the 8th century entitled Bricriu's Feast features the same "beheading game" seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which a challenger allows his foe to take the first swing in a duel in exchange for the promise of retaliation. Part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish epics by an unknown author, the story is a more comedic take on a rivalry between two warriors.

2. Some scholars think they know who the Pearl Poet was.

Though the identity of the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has remained a mystery to scholars for centuries, some believe the works of the Pearl Poet can be attributed to "J. Massy." The famous poet Thomas Hoccleve referenced Massy as a great and prolific poet around the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, and a barely legible inscription on one of the Pearl Poet's other works seems to read "J. Massy." Historians also note that Massy's poem St. Erkenwald shares many similarities in composition with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although others believe that St. Erkenwald was from a different era than the works of the Pearl Poet.

3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is part of a collection of religious narrative poems.

In addition to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the collection by the Pearl Poet contains three other poems, entitled Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. As their titles suggest, Cleanness and Patience were written to praise the godly virtues of purity in marriage.

4. Feminist literary critics are fascinated by the role of women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

While many read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a celebration of chivalry, the text is viewed differently through the lens of feminist theory. The Lady of Hautdesert, in particular, is shown to have power over men that was extremely uncommon in medieval literature. While she functions as a temptress figure, she does so without being painted as evil or self-indulgent. Though Gawain compares her to biblical temptresses such as Delilah, the notorious lover of Samson who weakens him by cutting his hair, the Lady of Hautdesert is also shown to be the object of courtly love.

5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses a poetic technique known as "bob-and-wheel."

The bob-and-wheel rhyme scheme features the "bob," which acts as a bridge between the alliterative section of the text and the rhyming section, and the "wheel," which contains both internal rhymes and a final rhyme harkening back to the "bob." An example of the style appears in the first stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which reads:

Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi sythes has wont therinne
And oft bothe blysse and blunder
Ful skete has skyfted synne.

The works of the Pearl Poet are the most notable historical usage of this unique pattern, although Chaucer also parodied the technique in Sir Thopas.

6. The Pearl Poet refers to the color green 44 times throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The abundance with which green appears throughout the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has led scholars to consider it highly symbolic. The color had many differing connotations during the Middle Ages, but most agree that its prevalence in the poem is to stress the importance of nature and fertility.

7. The Green Knight may be an allusion to a character from English folklore.

The Green Man is a character that appears in folklore from the British Isles, as well as other parts of Europe. Dating to pagan times, the Green Man is usually considered symbolic of fertility and rebirth. Even after Christianity spread throughout England, the Green Man was depicted in art, and his effigy was carried during processions. Both the mythological Green Man and the poem's Green Knight share a mysterious set of supernatural abilities as well as their color.

8. An opera adaptation gave Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a female protagonist.

The opera entitled Gwyneth and the Green Knight premiered in 2002 at the Theatr Brycheiniog in Wales. Although Sir Gawain still appears as the character in the narrative, the main protagonist is Gwyneth, a peasant girl who has aspirations to become a knight despite her sex and social status.

9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may have been a response to an alleged homosexual affair of King Richard II.

Many read the poem as containing homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Gawain and the Green Knight. The inclusion of this may have been a reaction to the alleged affair between King Richard II and Robert de Vere, a member of his court. A contemporary of the two, Thomas Walsingham, described their relationship as "obscene, and not without a degree of improper intimacy."

10. In medieval times, Sir Gawain's neck wound would've carried a particular stigma.

Medieval Christian thought often connected physical wounds to inner sin. The neck, in particular, was often associated with the sin of pride. Just as Gawain asserts his pride by accepting the Green Knight's challenge, the slight wound he is given at the end of the poem is a punishment for this sin. In other medieval poems the placement of a wound on the body corresponds to other sins, such as the Grail legend's Fisher King receiving a groin wound representative of his sins of the flesh.

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