The author of the late-medieval Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unknown. He was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, which means that he was writing in the late fourteenth century, and he is probably the author of three other works, including the long allegorical poem Pearl.
Although the Gawain Poet was living and writing at the same time as Chaucer, they moved in radically different cultural worlds. Chaucer was based in London which was then, as now, much more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. Chaucer’s language, which melded the Norman French of the aristocracy with the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tongue of the general population, would become the model of written English, which is why Chaucer is sometimes called the “father of English poetry” or the “father of English literature.” His literary style was influenced by the poetry of the embryonic European Renaissance, with its formal patterns of meter and rhyme.
The Gawain Poet, on the other hand, lived in the rustic hinterlands of the English west midlands, in the area that had been the kingdom of Mercia in Anglo-Saxon times. His poetry shows less European influence than Chaucer’s, relying on older, indeed Old English verse forms, dating back to the time of Beowulf in the early eighth century, more than six hundred years earlier. In addition, the dialect in which the Gawain Poet wrote was closer to the Old English of Anglo-Saxon times than to the Middle English, with its French admixture, in which Chaucer wrote. For this reason, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight needs to be translated into modern English in order to be understood, whereas Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales can be read and understood, with a little due diligence, by modern readers.
As for the poem itself, it tells the story of Sir Gawain, a noble knight of King Arthur’s court, and his adventures in the quest to find the mysterious and magical Green Knight. The story begins in the Christmas season, when Sir Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge in an act of humble loyalty to the king, and it resumes on the following All Souls Day, when Sir Gawain sets out on his quest. This dating of the main events of the story in accordance with significant dates on the liturgical calendar conveys the poet’s Christian allegorical intentions. The Feast of All Souls (November 2) is the date on the calendar in which the souls in Purgatory are remembered. Sir Gawain’s own quest, as we shall see, is purgatorial. It is the means by which his sinful soul is purged through the testing of his virtue.
Sir Gawain sets out with the right intentions and with holy will, telling King Arthur that he must keep his promise to seek the Green Knight “as God will my guide.” The allegorical symbolism continues with the Poet’s lengthy description of the significance of the pentangle which Sir Gawain wears as his coat of arms and which is emblazoned on his shield. We are told that the pentangle is known colloquially as the Endless Knot, signifying eternity, and that it symbolizes numerically the Five Wounds of Christ and “the Five Joys” that Christ had given “to Heaven’s courteous Queen.” In honor of the latter, Sir Gawain had an image of the Blessed Virgin on the inner side of his shield, which served as an emblematic plea for her protection in battle, “that when he cast his eyes thither his courage never failed.” Finally, we are told that the pentangle also signifies five knightly virtues: free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry, and piety. When Sir Gawain sets off on his quest, therefore, he is not merely well-intentioned but is also well-armed, both physically and spiritually.
Having begun the quest on the purgatorial feast of All Souls, he continues right through the penitential season of Advent in pursuit of the elusive domain of the mysterious Green Knight. Then, on Christmas Eve, lost in a barren wilderness, he prays to the Blessed Virgin for help:
The knight did at that tide
his plaint to Mary plead,
her rider’s road to guide
and to some lodging lead.
A little later, still on Christmas Eve, he prays again, to Christ and His Mother, that he might find some haven in which he can hear Mass and go to Matins on Christmas morning. He then prays the Pater, the Ave, and the Creed, invokes “the Cross of Christ” and makes the sign of the cross three times. At the end of the third signing of himself, he sees a moated mansion, an instant answer to prayer and a Christmas gift.
The porter at the mansion’s gate invokes St. Peter, connecting the entrance to the mysterious mansion with St. Peter’s Gate, which, in this poem as in Dante’s, denotes the entrance to purgatory. During his stay in this strange place, he is tempted three times by the beautiful lady of the manor, who endeavors to seduce him while the lord of the manor is out hunting. Each time, he succeeds in keeping his vow of chastity. He does, however, succumb to the lady’s offer of a gift of a green girdle, which she claims will protect him from death in any mortal combat. Since he is about to face the magically empowered Green Knight, fully expecting to be killed when he does so, he secretly accepts the gift.
When Sir Gawain finally meets the Green Knight, the latter reveals that he was the lord of the mysterious mansion and that it was he who had instructed his beautiful wife to test Sir Gawain’s chastity:
I sent her to test thee, and thou seem’st to me truly
The fair knight most faultless that e’er foot set on earth!
The Green Knight then rebukes Sir Gawain for his act of deception in keeping secret from him the gift of the green girdle, a sin for which Sir Gawain receives a token wound. Mortified, Sir Gawain confesses his sin and curses the covetousness and cowardice that had caused him to accept the gift, begging the Green Knight’s forgiveness. At this point, the Green Knight is revealed as a priest-figure, acting in persona Christi, as he absolves Sir Gawain of his sin in a doctrinally accurate depiction of the sacrament of penance:
Thou has confessed thee so clean and acknowledged thine errors,
and hast the penance plain to see from the point of my blade,
that I hold thee purged of that debt, made as pure and as clean
as hadst thou done no ill deed since the day thou wert born.
Returning from his quest as a wiser, nobler man, Sir Gawain vows to wear the green girdle as a remembrance of his sin and as an aid to his continued quest for the humility that is indispensable to sanctity. In some sense, therefore, this particular Knight of the Round Table might be said to have discovered the holy grail, metaphorically at least, or, in any event, the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.
Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in an ongoing series of articles that will explain the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”