Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature – a story of knightly deeds, sexual enticement and wild landscapes. It was composed in the West Midlands region of Britain at the end of the 14th century.

What is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight about?

Gawain tells the story of a young 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 green 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. 

Gawain belongs to a genre of medieval literature known as ‘romance’. Romance texts aren’t predominantly concerned with love, but often focus more on adventure. They frequently involve a hero (usually a knight) involved in a quest. The poem draws on several different sources, including motifs from folklore and French romance texts, but it is thoroughly original in its playfulness and its intricacy. It is a poem which stays with you, inviting frequent reappraisal of its meaning.

What forms does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight use?

The poem has a complex form: it uses internal rhyme, also known as alliteration. As well as this, it 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 skill.

What do we know about the author?

The poem only survives in a single manuscript at the British Library – Cotton MS Nero A X. It was copied out by a scribe, who was unlikely to have also been the author, at the beginning of the 15th century. The manuscript also contains three other poems, Patience, Cleanness and Pearl, which are stylistically similar to Gawain and are therefore thought to be the work of the same poet.

Studying the poet’s dialect allows us to pinpoint that he was from Cheshire in the North-West Midlands region of England. There are some topographical references in the poem which also suggest that the poet was familiar with that region. Gawain is described as making a journey from North Wales, past Anglesey and through the Wirral.

This dialect presents a challenge to the modern reader. In contrast, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, were written in a London dialect of Middle English, which is the ancestor of Modern English, so they are easier to understand. That said, the rich dialect of Gawain, which contains many Old Norse words and unusual northern forms, is used to great effect by the poet, often facilitating the musical alliteration that is the hallmark of the poem.

late 14th century
Arthurian romance
Literary period:
Late medieval

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