Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Thomas Hahn and Leah Haught

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stands in a class by itself as the most ambitious, most accomplished, most enjoyable poetical romance written in the English language during the Middle Ages. Though its language and dialect have challenged readers from the beginning—some of its archaisms must have seemed almost as unusual to medieval audiences as they do in the 21st century—its appeal remains fresh and powerful. Since World War II, it has claimed a central place in any account of writing in medieval England, and at the same time it has been widely taught in survey and introductory courses; it is such a good read that even novice readers immediately recognize its excitement and complexity. It has frequently been “modernized” as a school text, but it has also inspired literary retellings by major poets, establishing its appeal among educated and even casual readers outside the classroom. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not only the best, but also in many ways the most unusual or unprecedented of medieval English romances. Its density of meaning, verbal pyrotechnics, fantastic playfulness, and dizzyingly intricate structures will repay any amount of careful reading or imaginative probing, as the hundreds of books and essays written on the poem in the last half century prove. In this, it stands apart from contemporary verse romances, which tend to be fast-paced, spectacularly action-packed, and filled with sensation; it also differs strongly from Malory’s Morte Darthur, whose expansive prose offers pleasures opposite to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though it presents its plot as an obscure early anecdote in the vast Arthurian mythos, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens channels to profound and urgent questions, exploring issues of masculine identity, heterosexual (and homosocial) love, the conflicts of public identity and the private self, the ideals and contradictions of chivalry, and the comforts, mysteries, and shortcomings of medieval Christianity as practice and belief. Inexplicably, it achieves this without ever becoming top-heavy or allowing readers’ attention to drift from the continuously surprising turns of the story. In its concentrated style and intense demands on readers, its closest parallels are contemporary high art narratives like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde or his Wife of Bath’s Tale. As a medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight transports audiences back to a world of knights and ladies, mysterious beings, fantasy landscapes, and picturesque castles whose hold on the imagination appears undiminished. Moreover, it persuasively fills this world with sophistication, courage, humor, terror, magic, and mutual affection that seem unsurpassed. The story proceeds as a forward-moving narrative, yet it repeatedly doubles (and triples) back on itself, revealing new depths and urging new possibilities of meaning. Indeed, its value to readers lies not in its documentary character, illustrating the thoughts and lived experiences of a particular time and place, but in the inexhaustible richness that makes it unforgettably unique yet provocatively new for every returning reader.

Article.  18992 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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