The High Middle Ages is a period of European history between 11th and 13th century. It is a time of great social and political changes. During that age the rise of chivalry becomes common and it is followed by the occurrence of the religious wars known as the Crusades.
These events seem to be of a great significance for English literature and culture. It is the time when the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears and later on it proves to be one of the most remarkable works of the Medieval Ages. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is still unknown but the manuscript of the romance is found with three other poems – Pearl, Purity and Patience, believed to be written by the same person. Very little is known of the writer , but his literary language seems complex enough so that most scholars think that e has been an university-trained clerk or the official of a provincial state.
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Mostly he is referred to as the Pearl-poet or the Gawain-poet . The poem is written in a dialect of Middle English that links it with Britain’s Northwest Midlands, probably the country of Cheshire or Lancashire, which excludes the idea that the mysterious author is Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland or John Gower, who wrote mostly for King Richard II. The alliterative form in which the poem is written, suggests that there is a pair of stressed syllables at the beginning of the line and another pair at the end of each line.
The poem also uses rhyme to structure its stanzas, and each group of long alliterative lines concludes with a word or phrase containing two syllables and a quatrain, known together as the “bob and wheel”. This technique helps to spin the plot and narrative together in intricate ways. The romance is told in four parts. The first plot is the beheading game in which the Green Knight proposes to Gawain the unusual challenge. Similar motives appear in Celtic, Germanic or other ancient folklore. The second and the third parts concern the exchange of winnings and the hero’s temptation.
They both represent the test of the main character’s honesty, loyalty and chastity. The last part represents the denouement of the brave knight’s heroic deed and his realization. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represent a variety of themes, motives and symbols, which introduce its fundamental ideas. The major theme in the romance is the nature of chivalry. Each knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.
The five virtues of the Medieval fighters are are friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy and piety. Gawain’s adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the romance actually asks whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. What is tested is the chivalric system itself, symbolized by Camelot. But when the knight goes on his quest, he has to face the wilderness or nature, which is represented as chaotic, rough and indifferent, constantly threatening the order of men and courtly life.
Gawain is a part of a wider conflict between nature and chivalry, which is an examination of the ability of human order to overcome the chaos of nature, so that at the end we realize it that it is a really tough mission, but not impossible as well. Gawain’s adherence to the codes of chivalry is what keeps him away from his host’s wife. The time the knight spends in the wilderness teaches him that even though he may be the best knight in Camelot he is also human and he is capable of error.
The literary form of the romance uses many symbols, which represent the abstract ideas and concepts of the objects. Maybe one of the most significant symbols is the pentangle which stands for Gawain’s perfection and power over evil. It is even described in detail by the Pearl-poet as representation of faithfulness and an “endless knot”. It also has magical powers and it suggests that Gawain follows the five virtues of the knights. Another major symbol is the green girdle which is given to the main character of the poem by Bertilak’s wife , who says that it would keep the knight safe from harm.
Later on we find that the girdle has no magical properties, but it represents cowardice and an excessive love of mortal life, so that Gawain wears it from then on as a badge of his sinfulness. Much more can be said about the literary style represented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . But the presence of so many themes, motives and symbols in this specific alliterative poem claims that it can be defined as a pearl among romances. In his work The Gawain-poet manages to represent the chivalry and courtly life and thus shows us that every man can make mistakes, but no challenge is insurmountable.
The only way of defeating is being brave and honest and keeping the five virtues of the knights – friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy and piety. These values are applicable even nowadays and that is what makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the best works of Medieval literature. References: Anonymous. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Ed. Casey Finch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Brewer, Derek, and Jonathon Gibson. Companion to the Gawain-poet. Rochester, New York: D. S. Brewer, 1997. Brewer, Elisabeth.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues. Rochester, New York: D. S. Brewer, 1992. Burrow, J. A. The Gawain-poet. Plymouth, Massachusetts: Northcote House, 2000. Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Spearing, A. C. The Gawain Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Stainsby, Meg. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Annotated Bibliography, 1978–1989. New York: Garland Publishers, 1992. Wikipedia, http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Sir_Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight Sparknotes, http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/gawain/