Classics Reviewed: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When we’re coming up to the Christmas season, my wife and I spend a lot of our TV time watching Christmas-themed movies – I bet we have about dozen such films we watch every Christmastime. For this month’s Classics Reviewed blog, then, I wanted to pick something that was seasonally appropriate – but not too obvious.

Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, was out; most people are already quite familiar with it. Racking my brain, I came up with this epyllion (mini-epic) of the 14th c.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes to us from a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A x [contact me for more information on the name]), owned by the same man who owned our only copy of Beowulf (a.k.a. Cotton Vitellius A xv), Sir Robert Cotton. In addition to this poem, the manuscript also contains some short poems, “Pearl,” “Purity,” and “Patience.” The unknown author of Gawain is sometimes called the Gawain poet, and sometimes the Pearl poet. 

Gawain tells the adventure of Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, and the Green Knight, a figure who may represent some nature spirit (the growing green of vegetation), or perhaps may represent some darker forces. The story, in brief, is as follows: One Christmas season, Arthur is hosting his usual festivities, and, as usual, is bored. He wants some adventure to enliven the proceedings. As if on cue, the Green Knight (a man dressed all in green, riding a green horse, also all in green) enters and utters a challenge to the knights assembled. Gawain accepts the challenge – the two will engage in a beheading game. Gawain will take his sword and try to cut off the head of the Green Knight; later, the Green Knight will have his chance. 

Without further ado, Gawain approaches the knight and lops off his head with his great broadsword. The head rolls to the middle of the assembly, and all the women swoon.  The headless knight then walks over to the head, picks it up by the hair and reattaches his head and rides off, reminding Gawain that he will take his turn at his own place, the Green Chapel, somewhere in northwestern England, by New Years’ Day, the following year. Gawain is amazed, but the festivities continue, and Arthur is happy to have had such an amazing diversion. 

That opening is pretty amazing, or so I thought. I did some reading, though, and apparently the beheading game was a motif that appeared in other literature as well – I guess somewhere there are professors who are experts in the beheading game motif in literature. The Headless Horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving might be considered as derivative of such stories.

Gawain does little for most of the year, and everyone is solicitous of him – after all, they figure he’s doomed. As a good knight, he must honor his pledge and give the Green Knight his chance to behead him. Having no magical powers, he fully expects to die. He does not set out to find the Green Chapel until November 1, and has still not found it when Christmas Eve rolls around. Lost in a storm, and somewhat frightened, Gawain prays to God and the saints for some refuge from the cold and dark, and suddenly through the storm he sees a castle. The host there offers Gawain hospitality and informs him that he can stay for the week, as the Green Chapel is only a couple of hours’ ride distant. 

The beheading of the Green Knight (Cotton Nero A x)

While at the castle, Gawain and the host play an exchange game – the host goes out hunting, while Gawain rests in the castle. Whatever they get each day, they are to give to the other. On the final day, Gawain is given a gift (a green belt) which will protect him from all physical harm, and he conceals this from the host when time comes to exchange gifts. This deceit on Gawain’s part has some consequences when he meets the Green Knight on New Year’s Day, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

Why read this work?  If you are looking for a rollicking good adventure yarn, this is probably not for you – it does have its moments – the challenge at Arthur’s court, and the final encounter with the Green Knight are both exciting. But Gawain spends a lot of time lollygagging around. As I recall, a lot of a knight’s life took place between adventures – no wonder Arthur was bored – and that readiness was all.

What the work does have is exceptional poetry and beautiful descriptions, and quite a lot of discussion on what it means to be a knight and gentleman. For these reasons, the poem has value. The poet, who knows something of theology, also seems to be contrasting the Christian world against the natural world in the poem.

If you read the poem, you might try reading it in the original Middle English, but the author’s dialect is not so easy to read as Chaucer’s English. The most recent translation of note is by Simon Armitage, who comes from Northwest England where the poem is set, and who confesses a lifelong love of the poem. He translates the poem using the alliteration and rhyming of the original, so that much of the original music comes through.  Also good is J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation. There is an excellent audio book of the Armitage translation read by Bill Wallis. The audio book features Armitage’s translation for 3 discs, followed by the original Middle English for 3 discs. 

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany is our resident connoisseur of classic literature and a technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.