The anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature. It was composed in the West Midlands region of Britain at the end of the 14th century, but was copied out at the beginning of the 15th. The poem only survives in this single manuscript at the British Library – Cotton MS Nero A X.
Gawain is a story of knightly deeds, sexual enticement and wild landscapes. It tells the story of the young Gawain, who is a knight at the legendary court of King Arthur. The poem opens with a description of a Christmas feast at Camelot, the Arthurian court. During the feast a mysterious knight, with green hair and green skin, riding a green horse, arrives and challenges the assembled crowd to a bizarre game, which sets off a chain of events in which Gawain faces trials and temptations.
The first image you can see an illustration of the Green Knight holding his recently decapitated head.
What forms does the poem use?
The poem has a complex form: it uses internal rhyme, also known as alliteration – meaning the words in each line rhyme with each other. As well as this, it also uses a metrical form called the ‘bob and wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a demonstration of the poet’s mastery.
A miraculous survival
The manuscript is part of the collection of Robert Cotton (1570/71–1631) which, in the 18th century, was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House. On 23 October 1731, a fire ripped through Ashburnham House and many manuscripts were destroyed. The famous Beowulf manuscript was singed at the edges. Cotton MS Nero A X could easily have succumbed to the same fate, which makes Gawain and the other texts in the manuscript especially precious.
As well as Gawain, the manuscript includes three other poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience. They are all thought to have been written by the same author, who is often referred to as the ‘Gawain poet’ or the ‘Pearl poet’.