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 in the late 14th century but was copied out in the early 15th century. The poem only survives in this single manuscript at the British Library – Cotton MS Nero A X.
A miraculous survival
The manuscript is part of the collection of Robert Cotton which, in the 18th century, was stored in the Ashburnham House. On 23 October 1731, the fire spread through Ashburnham House and destroyed several manuscripts. Yet the Beowulf manuscript was only singed at the edges. Cotton MS Nero A X could easily have succumbed to fire, Gawain and the other texts in the manuscript is assessed as very valuable. The manuscript containing Gawain also includes three other poems, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience which were thought to be written by the same author, who is often referred to as the ‘Gawain poet’ or the ‘Pearl poet’.
Language and Dialect
The dictation tells us that its author was a northerner and can also be called Midlander. The linguists have located the poem’s core in the area of the Cheshire-Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. Some researchers have identified Swythamley Grange as the Castle of Hautdesert, or the jagged peaks of the Roaches as those ‘rogh knokled knarres with knorned stones’ (l. 2166). Lud’s Church, a natural fissure in the rocks near the village of Flash in Derbyshire as the site of the Green Chapel. It may or may not be the place as it cannot have changed much over the centuries. The author had an actual landscape in mind when he conceived the poem and brought his young protagonist into a northern region to legitimize his vocabulary and geography.
About the Poem
The poem has a complex form and uses alliteration. It had implemented 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 long lines that rhyme internally (the wheel) done in over 2500 lines.
Sir Gawain is a tale of knightly conduct, sexual enticement, and wild landscapes. The poem sets this combined natural/supernatural power, which orders and defines men’s lives through a cycle of growth, death, and rebirth, against the more artificial world of Camelot. In doing so, it suggests that the Arthurian chivalric code exists in a kind of vacuum, separated from the real nature of things. It is the story of the young Gawain, who is a knight at the legendary court of King Arthur.
The poem opens with the scene of a Christmas feast at Camelot, the Arthurian court. During the feast, a mysterious knight, with green hair and skin, riding a green horse, arrives and challenges a peculiar game, which sets off a chain of events in which Gawain faces trials and temptations.
The story concludes with Morgan’s plan to send the Green Knight on a magical mission to expose lies about the Arthurian knights. Green Knight explains how Sir Gawain has failed as a knight since he is unwilling to die and accepts the green girdle as protection. Feeling ashamed, Sir Gawain rides back to Camelot and shares the lesson with his fellow knights which he learned from this journey to Green Chapel. The knights at the court of King Arthur decide to wear the green girdle as an emblem of this moral lesson and also to stand in solidarity with the quest Sir Gawain underwent.
Quotes – Reference of Magic
‘Those standing studied him and sidled towards him With all the world’s wonder as to what he would do. For astonishing sights, they had seen, but such a one never; Therefore a phantom from Fairyland the folk there deemed him. So even the doughty were daunted and dared not reply.’
The narrator describes the Green Knight's first appearance at King Arthur’s court. His huge size and fully green appearance is an indications of magic, specifically Fairy magic. Fairyland exists on another plane where few humans are allowed to enter but at their own peril. Fairies are part of Britain's pre-Christian pagan religion. But Britons following Christianity, refuse to acknowledge the existence of Fairyland and its magic, as they perceive it as evil. Thus, the Green Knight must be dangerous, and his presence in the Arthurian court is considered alarming and wrong.
‘Merrily in the morning by a mountain he rode Into a wondrously wild wooded cleft, With high hills on each side overpeering a forest Of huge hoary oaks, a hundred together. The hazel and the hawthorn were intertwined With rough ragged moss trailing everywhere[.]’
The narrator describes Gawain’s ride north into the wilderness. Britain in the 1300s followed the Christian faith, yet many continued to believe in Celtic paganism. About this line, pagan worship of natural elements such as the sun and plants such as Oak, Hazel, and Hawthorn are often linked with Fairyland. Hence would be considered wilderness and dangerous that would be a place of definite evil.
‘Then he went to the barrow, which he walked around, inspecting, Wondering what in the world it might be… ‘O God, is the Chapel Green This mound?’ said the noble knight. ‘At such might, Satan be seen Saying matins at midnight.’
After Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel to meet the Green Knight, he sees a grass-covered barrow instead of a building. Barrows, or ancient burial mounds, exist throughout the British and Irish countryside. Pre-Christian Celts erected barrows. Many legends believe that they are entryways to Fairyland. Here, Gawain being Christian connects the mound with Satan due to his trust of pre-Christian pagans as evil. Hence, he concludes that the Green Knight is a creature of evil magic.
‘Bertilak of the High Desert I am called here in this land. Through the might of Morgan the Fay, who remains in my house, Through the wiles of her witchcraft, a lore well learned— Many of the magical arts of Merlin she acquired[.]’
The Green Knight reveals his true identity and explains his transformation done by the magic of Morgan le Fay (Fay = Fairy). Morgan le Fay, a famous witch, learned her craft from Merlin, a wizard and one of King Arthur’s advisors. However, unlike Merlin, her craft was evil. Witchcraft was considered Satan’s gift. Here the Celtic pagan concept of Fairy blends with the impression of witchcraft: Both involve magic and the non-Christian.
‘She bewitched me in this weird way to bewilder your wits, And to grieve Guinevere and goad her to death With ghastly fear of that ghost’s ghoulish speaking With his head in his hand before the high table.’
Sir Bertilak, as the Green Knight, explains that the witch Morgan le Fay transformed him. She orchestrated this plan to create chaos in Camelot and particularly Guinevere due to her hatred for the Queen. Morgan le Fay’s roles differ in various Arthurian legends but fixed her role as a powerful witch. Most legends identify her as King Arthur’s older half-sister and her hatred of the court and Arthur. Yet Morgan rescues the mortally wounded Arthur and takes him to Avalon to be healed before rising again someday. Thus, Morgan gives Arthur immortality which again can be considered magic.
Most motifs of Arthurian romances contain supernatural elements such as quest and adventure, magic and enchantment, prophecy and destiny, miracle and marvel, and so on. The leitmotif of the supernatural is a constant presence in Arthurian romances which can be traced back to the early 20th century.
Writers from the medieval era such as Chretien De Troyes (late 12th-century French poet), the anonymous Gawain-poet (14th-century English poet), Thomas Malory (15th-century English poet) to Tennyson (19th-century English poet laureate), and T. H. White (20th century English author), Marion Zimmer Bradley (20th-century American author), all of them have tried interweaving the magical and the supernatural elements in Arthurian legends.
It should, however, be noted that despite the numerous accounts of Arthurian romances depicting the Knights Yvain, Perceval, Tristan, Gawain, and Lancelot encountering the magical in their journeys, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains the most interesting amongst them because of its magical elements being intertwined with a moral lesson.
Another example can be seen in the story of Sir Gawain by Geoffrey Chaucer. Comparing “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” to The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell by highlighting the magical nature of identity. In the tale, the woman goes from ugly to beautiful. In Sir Gawain, the Green Knight loses his head without suffering any ill effects. You could contrast the two by arguing that women have more agency in the tale by Chaucer than in Sir Gawain.
Alternative conclusions can be made where the magical shape-shifting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a metaphor for the multi-dimensional nature of a person’s character.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays Morgan le Fay as evil.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s portrayal of Morgan le Fay is ambivalent.
Anon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Bernard O’Donoghue. New York: Penguin. 2006. Print.