Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Author: Unknown (sometimes referred to as the Pearl Poet)
Published: Late 14th Century
Date Read: 21st November 2017
“King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table are in the middle of a Christmas feast when a green-skinned knight offers them a simple but deadly challenge. A challenge the brave Sir Gawain quickly-and fatefully-accepts. Brilliantly translated by distinguished poet Burton Raffel, this is a lyrical, accessible version of one of the most beloved tales in Arthurian literature.”
The first medieval text that I read was Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and upon reading it I was so intrigued by the language of Middle English, that I picked a Medieval module for this semester at university. One text that I had to read for this module that I found particularly interesting is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The reason for this being that it is a text that asks so many questions yet leaves so many questions unanswered. In other words, a very thought provoking text. Who doesn’t like reading a book that leaves them questioning everything they’re read for a considerable time after finishing it?
I really enjoyed this text but in no way did I find it easy to read, in fact the Middle English dialect it is written in was so difficult to actually try and decipher that it meant I relied heavily upon the translations that were included in the edition I read. I found that reading in this way actually made me appreciate the original text because then I could focus on the – poetic – way in which it is written. I hate using the word poetic because it’s incredibly vague but in this circumstance the consistent use of alliteration and rhyme makes the writing sound beautiful. It is very much a text that needs to be read aloud so you can appreciate how beautiful it is. Not only is the writing beautiful but the intensity of the plot and the contrast between scenes of beauty, extravagance and violence, gore are in parallel with the way in which it is written.
I have a very basic knowledge of Arthurian legend, mainly from the BBC’s adaptation of Merlin and from other poems that explore the stories too (Alfred Lord Tennyson in particular). So this story focuses on Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew who goes on a quest to prove his status as a knight of the Round Table. The premise of this quest is actually quite disturbing because the challenge is set by by the Green Knight, who is also a giant. It must be acknowledged that it’s not just the armour of the knight that is green but the whole knight and his horse that are also green. So not only is the knight towering over everyone else within the text but just imagine how large the horse would have been to be able to carry this giant knight – it’s quite a concerning image. The Green Knight challenges the knights of the Round Table to fight him and so Gawain steps forward in acceptance and chops of the Green Knight’s head. A sigh of relief, you may think, certainly not. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and tells Gawain that in a years time it will be his turn. Altogether it is a very captivating plot if you’re into magical, knightly adventure stories.
Now that I’ve got down the plot, there are many questions that arose for me whilst I was reading it? Now I don’t want answers at all, it’s more to show how much this text has made me think (and many others too no doubt!) Why the knight is actually green is eluded throughout the text but mentioned quite a lot which begs the question: what does he represent? Where has he come from? What is he? Why does he request such a challenge? What does his greenness represent? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
Safely I can say that this is the first challenging text that I’ve read that I have actually enjoyed and it just goes to show how you don’t necessarily have to understand everything to be able to appreciate something. However, I am very glad that I have finished my medieval module for the semester and if medieval writing is you’re kind of thing I’d heavily recommend this text if you haven’t already read it.