Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


I. Textual History:

1. The best Arthurian romance in English:

Gawain as the best knight in the English tradition vs. Lancelot in the French tradition.

2. Written by the Pearl Poet: the romance, along with three religious poems, is found in a manuscript, very probably written by the same poet.

3. Originated in a cultural center outside London, in the northwest midlands: however, the poem, the poet, and its audience must be sophisticated and know the European literary tradition very well.

4. In the tradition of Alliterative Revival of the 14th century: actually the tradition never interrupted since the Norman Conquest.

5. Drawing on folklore: the theme of beheading game (esp. the vegetation myth).

6. Strange Stanza Organization: Probably a combination between two Prosodies) An long block of unrhymed long lines with indefinite number of syllables (pervasively alliterative), plus five 6-syllable lines rhymed a b a b a (the first line, called “bob,” has only two syllables, but the rest lines, called “wheel,” six syllables).

II. Major Themes:

1. The Conflict between Two aspects of Chivalry Code:

Devotion to Christian ethical ideals vs. Concern over manners and gallantry Sir Gawain to be measured against the Christian ethical code of chivalry.

2. An Anti-romance: relying on but subverting most literary conventions of romance, as developed since the 12th century
Against the degraded aspect of the Chivalry code: Against the vanity of Arthurian legend.
3. Expounding and Valorizing the Christian aspect of the Chivalry code and the True significance of the Foundation Myth.

III. Discussion of the Text:

1. A lampoon against the Arthurian court: lines 90~106 (Arthur’s vanity); 246~49 (an ironic defense); 280~82, 309~315 (the Green Knight’s dismissal of the Arthur’s court); 468~69 (reluctance to admit humiliation); 2456~66.

2. Courtly Manners and Speech: lines 343~61, 470~75 (to save the court’s face), 916~27 (Gawain as an exemplar of the courtly values).

3. The Theme of Troth (Promise): 448~56 (a deadly appointment almost without punishment for missing it); 750~62; 1037~41, 1088~92 (courtly speech versus serious promise); 1022~23.

4. The Christian ideals as symbolized by Pentangle: lines 619~61 (Gawain will violate almost all ethical rules laid down here).

5. Gawain’s temptation in terms of life and glory: lines 676~83, 1750~54, 1851~65, 1879~85 (the abuse of confession), 2030~31, 2118~25, 2193~94.

6. Deception of senses: lines 800~01, 943~74 (hostess of the castle vs. an honored ancient lady), 1001 (the honor the old lady receives).

7. The Three Hunting Scenes (symbolic of Gawain’s possible fate if he violates Christian ethics): lines 1162~63; 1330~1353 (beheading); 1607 (beheading).

8. The Three Temptation Scenes (actually a struggle unfolded according to the code of knightly gallantry and the conventions of chivalric romance): 1178~79, 1560~61, 1730~31 (sudden switch from the bloody to the lascivious scene).

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