Episode 28: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
We just couldn’t get enough of goodly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so here’s a full episode dedicated to the Arthurian chivalric tale! Whether or not you’ve seen the new film, this romance has plenty of twists and turns, and (spoiler warning) our highest rating yet!
Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English chivalric romance penned in the 14th century by an anonymous author, generally known as the “Gawain Poet.” If you’re at all familiar with King Arthur lore, you’ll immediately recognize Gawain as one of King Arthur’s knights. This poem fits snugly int the expectations of Arthuriana, especially in its form as a chivalric romance. But what is a chivalric romance, anyway? And what counts as Arthuriana?
First, let’s define our terms. The medieval literary romance is not a modern literary romance where two characters fall in love. While that might occur in a romance, the medieval romance, especially a chivalric romance, is simply an adventure tale. It is a fiction, a made up account. A new genre for the time, the romance was unique in that it was acknowledged as fiction, unlike the many “histories” that had been written up to and in the period.
The chivalric romance originated in France with the chansons de geste (a heroic folk song). Like Beowulf, its oral tradition was eventually written down and it developed over time into lyric poetry. The chivalric romance turned then these heroic songs into fictional adventures. The chivalric romance is characterized by its idealization heroes and villain, and emphasis on traditional values and themes. Many of the classic Disney films are akin to chivalric romances in theme, and sometimes, even plot and style. At the least, the classic Disney films owe their heritage to some chivalric tales.
Chivalric romances are a part of the cannon of Arthuriana — that is, the lore surrounding King Arthur and his knights. Also known as “the matter of Britain,” Arthuriana came to encompass a sort of “mythology” for England and the British Isles by creating a fictionalized, “cohesive” narrative of the history of Britain.
National myths have been a staple of Western Civilization all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and that is where this tradition begins. In order to “legitimize” one’s national history, a historian, poet, scribe, or even king would create a history of their nation, interweaving legends, folk tales, and other epics into a “national myth.” Britain does the same through Arthuriana by borrowing tales and stitching them together. The Arthurian tradition combines old Welsh and English tales, like the Mabinogion and the History of the Kings of Britain, with chivalric romances from France, like the tale of Lancelot. Gawain sits squarely in that tradition.
The poem itself is written in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English, which sits along the modern border of Wales. Though we don’t know who the poet was, the only surviving record of this manuscript is found in the Cotton Nero A.x. Manuscript in the British Library.
The poem itself is written in alliterative verse, just like the Alliterative Mort d’Arthur, Beowulf, and the Poetic Edda. The poem also uses a style called “bob and wheel,” which creates longer sections of stanzas interspersed with shorter, rhyming sections.
Now that we’ve gotten familiar with the genre, lets dive into the poem itself! As an added note, while you can read the poem in its original language, it can be difficult to read for the unfamiliar with Middle English. We’ve used J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation, but many others can also be found!
The poem itself begins with the founding of the European nations after the fall of Troy, but swiftly moves to King Arthur’s court at Christmastime. As the feast is kicking into high gear, King Arthur asks his assembled knights for an adventure tale (not unlike the poem itself). As he does, the hall’s doors slam open, and the Green Knight rides in. He is described as entirely otherworldly and frightening, but also really good looking. Whatever does it for you, Gawain Poet. He’s also entirely green, from skin to outfit to horse’s attire.
The knight announces he has heard the great tales of King Arthur’s court and has come to play a game with them: he will allow anyone there to strike him with a blow, but he will do the same to them one year hence. The prize? His stunning green axe.
Sir Gawain volunteers, and the Green Knight suggestively bends down to proffer his neck as a target — even though that was never part of the game. Gawain could hit the knight wherever he wanted, however hard he wanted. Yet, our reliable hero swings for the neck and decapitates the Green Knight. Blood gushes, and the court panics for a moment, but then, to the surprise of all (except, perhaps, a keen reader), the Green Knight stoops over and picks his head up from the floor. He reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel one year hence, and then departs.
Gawain dillydallies for most of the year, and some members of the court are at a loss — they don’t want Gawain to die! Yet Gawain must meet the challenge, and sets off just past Halloween to find the Green Chapel.
He travels far and wide, encountering beasts and monsters untold, until he prays to Mary to send him a place to rest. With the Divine Grace of Perfect Timing (or good narrative trope), he stumbles upon Lord Bertilak’s estate.
The Lord welcomes him in and tells him the chapel he seeks is not far off. He suggests Gawain stay with him and his lady until Christmas, when he must make his appointment. Gawain readily agrees. Lord Bertilak says he has heard of Gawain and his chivalry (as well as his flirting), and says he is pleased to have such a refined guest in his home. He then suggests that Gawain and he play a little game.
The Lord proposes that when he returns from hunting each day, he will give Gawain whatever he “wins” in the forest. In return, Gawain will grant him whatever he has received in his estate. Gawain agrees — this guy can never pass up a game, apparently.
While Bertilak is hunting, the Lady of the house sneaks into Gawain’s bedroom. When Gawain wakes, she teases and flirts with him, threatening to tie him to the bed and have her way with him. She offers herself to Gawain, and while the knight flirts, he denies her and maintains his chivalric code. In the end, he does allow her a kiss. That evening, when Bertilak returns, he offers Gawain the deer he caught, while Gawain enthusiastically provides him with the kiss he “won” from the lady.
This trend continues for two more days, but on the final day, events don’t turn out as planned. The lady is absolutely enamored with Gawain, and says that if he won’t bed her, then he could at least accept a gift from her. Gawain first rejects the ring she offers, saying it’s too expensive, but does accept the hand-sewn girdle she is wearing after learning that is will protect its wearer from harm. She then gives Gawain three kisses and departs.
That evening, Gawain only provides Bertilak those three kisses, and not the girdle, as the game’s rules demand. Instead, Gawain rides out from the castle with the girdle, failing the game and in his chivalric duties.
Once he arrives at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight is waiting, and Gawain bends down to accept his fate — until he flinches! The Green Knight scolds him, and when he swings again, he stops short once more to tease Gawain. Finally, the Green Knight makes his blow, and the axe snicks Gawain on the neck, but goes no further. Gawain hops up and demands that the game is over now that they’ve settled the terms.
The Green Knight agrees, and then lets the ruse fall — he was Bertilak this whole time, and he knows about the girdle. He explains that he sent his wife to woo Gawain as a part of the game, and he himself was sent by Morgana le Fay to try and test King Arthur’s court and scare Guinevere. Gawain has failed, and the Green Knight is willing to laugh about it and let it go, with the scar as a reminder of his failure. However, Gawain is less enthused about the game. He blames the lady for tempting him rather than learning any lesson. When he returns home to the court, he explained his shame, but the other knights make light of the situation, and so the strange toxic chivalric traditions of King Arthur’s court continue on.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight simultaneously upholds and subverts the themes of the chivalric romance. Gawain fails in both games: he flinches when the Green Knight makes his blow, he wears a protective girdle because he is afraid, and he fails to give Lord Bertilak all that he “won.” In short, Gawain embodies the performative elements of chivalry, but not the actionable ones.
Though Morgana is pitched as the villain of the tale, she really represents a testing force of the chivalric virtues, which Gawain then fails. Both he and the knights fail to take responsibility for this failure of virtue by blaming either the girdle or the woman, and while Gawain must wear a scar of his “shame” for the rest of his life, the shame is ambiguous: is he ashamed that he failed in his duty, or that a woman tricked him? Either way, the poem is carefully subverting the usual tropes of “heroic knight” and “evil villain” through the context of the game.
The poem also actively puts Gawain into a chivalric bind. The chivalric code of honor maintains that a knight cannot refuse a lady, but Gawain cannot commit adultery and maintain his virtue either. What’s more, if Gawain did bed the Lady Bertilak, he would then have to participate in that act with the Lord Bertilak. Despite Gawain’s queer tendencies in the poem, the poet cannot allow homosexual sex to occur (even if the implication remains present.)
There is an incredible amount of scholarship about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and we’ve really only just scratched the surface. We adore this poem for all its quirks and queerness, and suggest you take a look at our references below if you’re at all curious in any element we’ve covered today.
Final Rating: 10 Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight here, or the original Middle English here, and check out our Library for more! Mac also mentioned there is a reason St. Winnifred is in the Green Knight film, so here is that article! Also, the tweets suggesting the Green Knight film is "to queer for medievalists" are here. We also discussed the Sean Connery version of this tale, so here's that clip!
Additional references for interested scholars:
Ashton, Gail. "The Perverse Dynamics of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'." Arthuriana, Vol. 15, No. 3 (FALL 2005), pp. 51-74.
Boyd, David L. “Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’” Arthuriana, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 77–113. Link.
Hamilton, George L. “‘Capados," and the Date of ‘Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight.’” Modern Philology, vol. 5, no. 3, 1908, pp. 365–376. Link.
Kamps, Ivo. "Magic, Women, and Incest: The Real Challenges in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Exemplaria, vol 1, no. 2. pp 313-336.
Martin, Carl Grey. “The Cipher of Chivalry: Violence as a Courtly Play in the World of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Chaucer Review, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009, pp. 311–329. Link.
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