SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT
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SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (SGGK). SGGK is a self-contained Arthurian "quest" romance, of the type represented by Chretien de Troyes' Yvain, Erec and Enide, and Lancelot. In this type of romance, the "whole story" of Arthur's reign is not told, nor is there much attempt to position the individual quest in relation to the larger history of the realm. King Arthur presides over the court at the outset of the story but thereafter he stays in the background, as the lone hero sallies forth to encounter the unknown beyond the confines of the courtly world. Sir Gawain has a narrative structure of exile and return, with its (sort of) “happy ending,” after the confrontation with something resembling Death in a courtly “Other”-world far from Camelot. Nonetheless the style and content of the poem are very different from such epic accounts of Arthur's reign as that by Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th century, Latin), a classical and pseudo-historical treatment of the Arthurian tradition. In this telling, Gawain, for example, is little more than a recklessly brave warrior, always in the thick of the battle against Rome (Arthur's main foe after he has dealt with the Saxons). The Gawain of this poem, on the other hand, is (at least initially), virtually a prototype for courtly idealism and high moral standards, including his chastity (a stark contrast to the philandering Gawain of many other Arthurian romances). His secular identity is obviously more complicated by Christianity. The main female character, on the other hand (Bertilak’s unnamed wife), is no Joan of Arc. Notice, however, that the central situation, in which Gawain is almost seduced by the main female character. The poem is a "romance," a term first used to denote more or less any fictional narrative written in French (a language derived from that spoken by the Romans). "Romance" then came to mean a certain kind of fictional narrative (dealing with the loves, wars, and adventurous quests of fabled aristocrats) in any European language. Romances like SGGK are different from "epics" such as Beowulf in that they were regarded as mainly fiction and entertainment even by their first audiences, whereas epics were intended to be taken somewhat more seriously and have a correspondingly more "lofty" style (epics are also usually rather somber in tone, more "realistic" and ultimately "true to life" in their treatment of human history and the human condition; epics often end in the hero's death and in an elegiac mood). Romances are supposed to be more "comedic" in that they usually involve more humor, erotic adventures, feasts, supernatural events, exotic locales, sports (e.g. hunting, flirting), unlikely but entertaining plot twists, and (often) happy endings, which include a marriage or reconciliation or reunion of people long separated by suffering, adventure or exile. Thus Gawain is absent from his uncle Arthur's court for several months and is presumed dead, but he returns to tell his tale and display the trophy of his quest. And he has his share of erotic adventures while he's away. Not that the ending is completely happy for Gawain himself; his life is changed and he is both wiser and sadder than when he set out. This is one romance that has its share of "realism" along with its romance features. Most Hollywood movies are romances, in one way or another, even when they try to be realistic and "serious."
Some questions to bear in mind: 1. What does the hero achieve from his quest? What significance does it hold for the community to which he returns at the end? 2. What are the dangers and temptations facing him during his quest? 3. What seems to you the significance of the interlinking of hunt scenes and bedroom scenes in the central section of the poem? 4. What sort of religious elements are in the poem and how in your view are they important? 5. Do you notice any parallels and/or sharp contrasts between SGGK and the other narratives of the romance type that we have read this semester, viz. Marie de France, especially? (Breton lais form a sub-genre of the romance, even if they are shorter than most romances proper)? What about Beowulf too?