The Gawain Poet and
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Notes by J. Zimmerman


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a narrative poem of an Arthurian legend in which Arthur's knight Sir Gawain is allowed to behead a green-skinned green-clad knight — on condition that one year later Gawain will allow the Green Knight to behead him. It seems like just the usual knightly fun ... until the beheaded Green Knight picks up his head and rides out into the wintry night, leaving Gawain with the responsibility of finding the Green Knight and keeping his promise. Often considered one of the finest Arthurian romances in English, the poem was probably written in the 14th century. It is available in many translations into modern English.

* The Gawain Poet.
* Form and content of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
* Symbols used in reading the Anglo Saxon of Gawain manuscript.
* History of Gawain manuscript.
* Timeline of the period.
* Gawain books.

Form and content of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Interweaves two traditional stories:

  1. The Beheading Game, that is usually reported as Celtic in origin. Cawley attributes it to the eighth-century Irish saga Bricriu's Feast, on the annual struggle between the old sun-god and the new sun-god. [John Speirs (in the collection of essays edited by Denton Fox on the poem) sees the Green Knight as a variant on the Green Man of vegetative and re-birth traditions.]

  2. The Temptation or Seduction, usually reported as French (e.g. Borroff) although Merwin and Cawley report it as probably Celtic.

The poem is usually divided into four parts:

  1. New Year's Day in King Arthur's court. The Green Knight makes a challenge, Gawain takes up the challenge, and promises to meet the Green Knight one year later at the Green Chapel to accept a return blow.

  2. After a joyful ten months from New Year to All Saint's Day (1st November), Gawain has a miserable two-month journey in search of the Green Chapel. On Christmas Eve in the wasteland of Wirral he arrives at a castle where he is welcomed warmly by its lord, who offers:
    (a) to have Gawain escorted to the Green Chapel on New Year Day and
    (b) that on the last three days of the year, he and Gawain will exchange anything they win each day.

  3. The last three days of the year, in the castle, Gawain is tempted each day by the lady of the castle. Each day the lord returns from the hunt with a trophy and appears surprised when Gawain gives him kisses for the trophies. However on the last day, Gawain conceals the green belt that the lady gives him, because the belt is said to save him from the Green Knight.

  4. The anniversary New Year's Day in the Green Chapel. The Green Knight strikes three blows (not just one) and Gawain is embarrassed about his deception with the green belt. On his return to King Arthur's Court, however, he is encouraged not to take life to seriously.

The poem has many trinities, including:

  1. Arthur, the Green Knight, and Gawain in Arthur's court.
  2. Berilak de Hautdesert, Berilak's lady, and Gawain in Berilak's castle.
  3. Three hunts (the deer or timidity, the boar or ferocity, and the fox or cunning).
  4. Three successive days, each with a temptation.
  5. Three blows that the Green Knight aims at Gawain.
  6. The Christian God, Jesus, and Mary.

    The form of the long poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its only medieval manuscript (the Cotton MS) blends Germanic and Romance traditions is (after Borroff) based on:

Gawain Books

Author. Poetry form.
Armitage, Simon Translated into 20th-(barely 21st)-century English with some sporadic insertions of slang expressions.
A robust yet jarring version.
Borroff, Marie Translated into 20th-century English.
One of the best versions.
Burrow, John A. Alliterative poetry.
Cawley, A.C. In the original poetry.
Gardner, John Essays and alliterative poetry.
Gawain presented without line numbers in numbered sections,
each ending with its bob-and-wheel.
Moorman, Charles [Essays not poems.]
Tolkien, J.R.R. Essays and poems.

Simon Armitage
"And his gear and garments were green as well"

In poetry. The book contains:

Marie Borroff
"And in guise all of green, the gear and the man"

In poetry. Contains:

John A. Burrow

In poetry. Contains alliteration.

I am a big fan of the Marie Borroff translation (even though the Burrow version is praised for the undergraduate classroom).

A.C. Cawley.
"Ande al graythed in grene this gome and his wedes"

In the original poetry. Contains:

John Gardner.
"He came there all in green, both the clothes and the man"


W.S. Merwin.
"And all in green this knight and his garments"

In poetry. Contains:

Charles Moorman.

Essays. Contains:

J.R.R. Tolkien.
"All of green were they made, both garments and man"

In poetry. Contains:

The Gawain Poet.
"Ande al grayþed en grene þis gome and his wedes" [Line 151.]

The four poems of the medieval Cotton manuscript appear to be by the same author, on the basis of style and use of vocabulary and grammar. Tradition call that author 'the Pearl Poet' though we and Gardner call him 'the Gawain Poet'. Moorman [Preface] equates the terms Pearl-Poet and Gawain-Poet.

While we know little of the Gawain poet, he was:

and wrote in a dialect of: References to known places include:

Writing symbols used in the Anglo Saxon of Gawain manuscript

Anglo-Saxon used a slightly different alphabet from modern English. It contained several now-obsolete runic letters:

History of Gawain manuscript

Borroff's Introduction says that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is:

Timeline of the period

Much of the following is adapted from Moorman's The Pearl-Poet Chronology.

5th and 6th centuries.
Saxon invaders of modern-day England defeat and disperse the Celts.
Battle of Hastings. Normans invaders of modern-day England defeat the Anglo-Saxons.
Late 11th century.
Courtly love (or fin amor) "this new religion of love" [Moorman p.24], which was probably of Arabic origin, reached Provençe.
Early 14th century.
Alliterative Revival: "revived both the forms and the essential moral conservatism of pre-invasion England" [Moorman p.22]; "This moral tone is strengthened for the first time in English verse by a heightened social conscience, by a strong sense of the value of the human spirit of whatever social class, and by the necessity of justice and fair play in economic life [Moorman p.23].
William Langland (b.): author of Piers Plowman, most important poem of the Alliterative Revival.
Reign of Edward III.
Geoffrey Chaucer (b.).
Battle of Crécy.
Black Death.
Wynnere and Wastoure, another important poem of the Alliterative Revival.
Battle of Poitiers.
1356 (approx.)
Mandeville's Travels (a source for Purity, probably by the Gawain poet).
Boccaccio's Olympia (a source for Pearl, probably by the Gawain poet).
1360 (approx.)
Alliterative Morte Darthur, one of the last Arthurian romances in English.
1360-1390 (approx.)
Gawain poet flourished.
First version (the 'B-text') of William Langland's Piers Plowman.
1370 (approx.)
Chaucer's first important work, The Book of the Duchess.
Death of the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III.
'B-text' of William Langland's Piers Plowman (parts of which may echo passages in Patience, probably by the Gawain poet).
Reign of Richard II.
Peasant's Revolt.
Wyclif Bible.
1385 (approx.)
Chaucer's longest and most important narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde.
Chaucer composed Canterbury Tales.
1395 (approx.)
'C-text' of William Langland's Piers Plowman.
Reign of Henry IV.
Death of Chaucer.
1400 (approx.)
Date of the Gawain-poet (elsewhere called the Pearl-poet) manuscript: "The manuscript itself, judging from the scribal handwriting, was copied not later than 1400" [Moorman p.33]. Moorman [p.33]

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