Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Critical Analysis

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Critical Analysis

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Analysis

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a verse romance of 2530 lines, and is derived from the Celtic legend. One single adventure unites two tales of the beheading and the wooing. Regarded as the first of the alliterative romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight embodies the spirit of courtesy, chivalry, and a sense of honour:

“Noble he (Sir Gawain) was and curreis

Honour of him men rede and seis.”

Till the fourteenth century Sir Gawain was the symbol of all the knightly virtues. But with the advent of Malory, he was denigrated. Tennyson followed in the footsteps of Malory when he wrote:

“Light was Gawain in life and light in death

Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man.”

Once Wace described Sir Gawain “as one of the best knights, and wisest of the world, the least mis-speaker, and no-boaster, and best taught of all things that belong to worship or courtesy”. Chretien de Troyes also ranked him supreme among the knights of Arthur. And yet he did not make him a hero. With the emergence of Sir Lancelot as the lover of Queen Guinevere, the wife of Arthur, Sir Gawain was almost relegated to the background. Sir Gawain was remarkable for his chastity. He was interested only in protecting the helpless damsels in distress, but never sought love as his reward. The French romancers as well as the readers, particularly the ladies could not think of romances without love. Chastity, celibacy, and physical purity were repugnant to their tastes. The hero, in their opinion must indulge in sexual love and even adultery.

As the quest for the Holy Grail became a predominant theme, Sir Gawain was rehabilitated, for without physical purity and chastity the quest would prove to be a wild-goose chase. But even then, Sir Gawain, pitted against Perceval and Galahad, was not permitted to render a good account of himself.

In England, however, Sir Gawain still had a high stock, Englishmen by and large were more puritanical than the French and therefore, felt little inclined to enjoy the stories of courtly love. They held a hero like Sir Gawain in high esteem, because he was the symbol of chastity and physical purity. That explains why in England Lancelot inspired two romances. Tristram only one, while Sir Gawain was the hero of as many as ten. In all the chastity tests Sir Gawain emerged with credit to the readers’ satisfaction.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in which the hero’s chastity was put to the test. Unmistakably based on the French material, this romance emphasizes absolute purity and chastity, Sir Gawain also symbolizes Chivalry and Courtesy, two of the distinctive virtues of knighthood. The most beloved of Arthur’s comrades, “ever he was wanted to do more than he agreed, and to give more than he promised.”

That is why he was a popular idol, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has certainly no superior excepting in the pages of Chaucer. The poet holds up in Sir Gawain a “mirror of knighthood.” He may rightly he called Chaucer’s “Verray parfait, gentle knight.” “Truest of speech and fairest in form”, Sir Gawain in “cleanness and courtesy was he never found wanting.”

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is preceded by four illustrations, which pictorially narrate the story:

  1. A headless knight on horseback carries his head but looks at Sir Gawain benignly. The king, the queen, and an attendant are looking on.
  2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are looking at each other.
  3. Sir Gawain approaches the Green chapel, and the Green Knight appears wielding his axe.
  4. Sir Gawain appears before the King and the Queen.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is divided into four parts, known as ‘fitts’. The first fitt deals with the prospect of Sir Gawain’s adventure at the Green Chapel at the Green Knight’s behest. The second fitt deals with adventure of Sir Gawain’s at the castle of Bertilak: the third fit is occupied with the test of his chastity for three days at the castle. The fourth fitt marks the end of the adventure.

Throughout the work there is not the slightest approach to levity. In fact, with the restoration of alliterative verse, the romancers took a serious View of life and their object was instruction rather than entertainment. Written in the alliteration measure of the epic, Sir Gawain has a lyrical quality and verbal melody. It is a courtly epic without courtly love. Unlike the French romances, dealing with sexual love and adultery, Sir Gawain stresses absolute chastity. The romance does depict the ways of the Arthurian Court, and has therefore, a historical value of considerable importance.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is certainly not written to illustrate the virtue of chastity, although the theme of the poem is intensely didactic. In the prologue the poet says that his object is to present a specimen of the marvels of Britain in general and of Arthurian Britain in particular. But even to superficial observer it will appear that it has a distinctly moral tone. The pentangle on Sir Gawain’s shield is a “token of truth”, and we know that “Truth’ becomes the fundamental issue in each of the tests Sir Gawain is subjected to.

The writer of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a true poet, who has planned and executed a human story with human motives. The magic and supernaturalism of the poem have not undermined the human element in the least. The poet’s sympathy, imagination, the artistic ability, the powerful description, and the convincing portrayal of characters have inspired Gaston Paris to call the poem “the jewel of medieval English literature.”

The poet always writes with his eye on the object. The phrases he has used are as much decorative as functional. The pictures of human actions as of wild nature are very clear and vivid

The northerly English of the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differed substantially from Chaucer’s highly sophisticated London English Written in North-Western dialect, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is as courtly, both in matter and style as the most distinguished French romances. It is written in alliterative metre, which has come down in an unbroken tradition from Old English. The poet has an unerring sense of rhythms. Critics imagine that the poem was written to be read aloud, the alliterative diction, for alliteration was down the ages a universal feature of expressive English.

The poet’s form of English or dialect is that of a community in a rough, mountainous law where castles are scattered. His dialect reflects the uniqueness of his place and generation. Many of the words are of Scandinavian origin. They are onomatopoeic and recreate in sounds sensations of smart or pain, or they are mimetic of violent or laborious body-movements and action, Sir Gawain has been called upon to undergo a rough and strenuous journey in winter. His varied experience is made vivid and actualized in the robust and muscular images and rhythms and in the firm grasp of concrete particulars. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is undoubtedly the best of alliterative romances. The alliterative metre is flexible, and has vast rhythmic resources and possibilities.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness are admittedly the works of the same author. The manuscripts of all these four poems are in the British Museum, and show beyond doubt that they are in the same handwriting. All are in a West-Midland dialect; all appear to be of the same age; and none is without literary merit. Attempts to identify the author have been unsuccessful.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is essentially a Christian poem. ‘But it is Christian’, says John Speirs, rather as some of the medieval Christmas Carols are, as Christmas itself is: Christian in harmony with pre-Christian nature belief and ritual, a Christian re-interpretation of these. It is Christian to about the same depth as it is a courtly romance. The value of ‘courtesy Sir Gawain is among other things the pattern of courtesy, the most courteous of Arthur’s courtly company is certainly one of the values defined in the poem and brought out in relation to the other in their order, Christian and Pre-Christian, and those other values are pre-courtly.”

There are critics like Miss Weston, who consider Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to be a nature-allegory. Gawain, “was the hero, the agent who brought back the Spring, restored the frozen-life process, revived the god…cured the King… The winter landscape through which, in our poem Sir Gawain rides on his quest for the Green Chapel, where on New Year’s Day he is to renew his acquaintance with the Green Knight, is again the northern European Waste Land, the land that had been (not, as in the East, dried up) frozen up. It is (simplicity) ‘enchantment which the land suffers from in our poem, it is the kind it suffers from every winter in the north of Europe.”

While summing up we may say that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the first great romance before Spenser. It is sophisticated and chivalrous in its emotion. It is a unique love story. The delicate descriptions of landscape and sympathetic understanding of human feeling have heightened the charm of the poem. The poet consistently shows the same richness of imagination and skill in producing pictorial effects.

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