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Evaluating the Medieval in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Composed by an unknown monk in the north of England circa 1375, the romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exhibits attributes common to medieval literature. The Gawain poet created his verse with attention to alliterative patterns, and employed stanzas of unfixed length that are connected through the bob and wheel device. Thematically, the poet places Gawain in situations that test his devotion to the medieval ideals of courtly love and chivalry. Thus, in form and theme this Arthurian romance contains poetic elements that mark it as a medieval text.
The text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is preserved in a religious manuscript that also contains three poems: “Pearl,” “Patience,” and “Purity” (Borroff 20). Yet, Gawain opens with a passage more accustomed to the nationalist ethos of epic poetry. The poet offers an account of Britain’s founding, connecting the heroes at Troy with the “Bold boys bred there, in broils delighting,” who inhabit England (line 21). As in Beowulf, alliteration punctuates the poetic line. Where the device once served as a rhythmic and mnemonic tool, the sound repetition in Gawain belongs to a revival of alliterative verse in the medieval period. The medieval audience would have recognized and enjoyed this poetic element as it suggested a popular Anglo-Saxon form of storytelling. Thus, the poet’s insists for the reader to “…listen to my lay but a little while,/ As I heard it in hall, I shall hasten to tell/ anew” (line 30-32). By alluding to typical elements of Old English oral verse, the Gawain poet attracts the interest of his medieval readers.
However, the form of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight breaks from the Anglo-Saxon pattern in its stanza construction. Visually, the poem lacks caesura line breaks that divided the line after two stressed syllables. In its place, the Gawain poet employs a bob and wheel at the end of each stanza. The bob is a two-syllable line that sets a rhyme scheme in the four-line wheel. Most often, the bob and wheel offers a conclusion to a stanza, as shown in lines 485-490:
"Such happiness wholly had they that day/in hold./Now take care, Sir Gawain/That your courage wax not cold/When you must turn again/To your enterprise foretold." Here the bob presents “hold” as the initial sound to be rhymed in the wheel; the poet forms the wheel around this sound in an ABABA arrangement. Before expanding the narrative by offering further description or changing scenes, the Gawain poet uses the bob and wheel to alter the physical line length.
In plotting, the poem exemplifies the paradoxical romantic virtues of courtly love. Sir Gawain is tested to deny his faith and break his word by the temptations at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s home. The host and Gawain agree to swap their daily earnings: the lord from hunting in the woods, Sir Gawain from interactions with the lord’s beautiful wife. As a guest, Gawain must obey the wishes of his host and hostess- a situation made difficult by the lady’s bold suggestions. Resembling the game animals Bertilak hunts, Gawain nervously evades the lady’s requests. To preserve the marriage vows, their love is never consummated; still, Gawain obeys the lady’s demands and his own desires by sharing furtive kisses. The responsibility required by chivalry and courtly love make Gawain’s temptation a foremost example of romance literature.
The Gawain poet makes skillful use of the romance conventions, writing the poem with attention to medieval aesthetics. Modern readers might not share Bertilak’s claim that Gawain is “polished as a pearl,” or worthy to wear the pentangle star after his blatant deception and failure to trust Mary against the Green Knight (line 2393). Still, the romance offers a fitting example of medieval literature in its poetic construction and thematic development.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Mary Borroff. The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000.