Important Ideas, Concepts and Terms in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
There are several important issues central to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the cultural period in which it was written.
The poem was written around 1350, which is a rough estimate. We have no idea who the author was, which is why he or she is referred to usually as “the Gawain Poet.” Obviously, it was written be someone with a great deal of learning. Untranslated, the poem is in a high Mid-lands Middle English, meaning the author came from somewhere north of London, perhaps near the Cambridge or Oxford area. What you are reading is a translated version. In the original Middle English, you would have a very difficult time understanding it.
More than likely the poem was written for an aristocratic or royal family to be the centerpiece of Yuletide celebrations. It seems meant to be read before an audience, perhaps with children, sitting around a fire. Notice how there is definitely a narrative voice, the poet posing as a storyteller.
The poem reflects and uses many social conventions and norms of the fourteenth century. It is a product of a literary tradition that had been developing for a couple of centuries known as the Romance. The Romance was born in France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and usually were long prose and poetic narratives about the travels and adventures of knights of a royal court. Most Romances involved tests, challenges, and quests that deal with moral issues of Christianity.
King Arthur and Camelot
In England, the Romance was most influenced by the legend of Camelot. King Arthur and his royal court of Camelot is (despite some people who like to try to prove it was real) a myth, probably generated for nationalistic reasons in the twelfth century. King Arthur was one of the original kings of England who took the country out of the hegemony of the Roman Empire. He ruled with a judicious and Christian hand, and formed around his round table at Camelot a group of loyal knights who honored him and protected the kingdom for Christianity. Camelot has come to represent in literature all that is great and noble about England.
The Roman Catholic Church
Central to Romance, British literature from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and British culture is the Church. Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries, Europe and England fell into a long period of disarray, what truly was the “Dark Ages.” The Roman Empire had offered continuity, stability and law for many centuries that came to a sudden end. Christianity, which had been established by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, became assimilated by the “barbarians,” and by the ninth and tenth centuries, Christianity was diffuse across all of Europe and England. The Roman Catholic Church was the one and only Church for nine or ten centuries. Although the Catholic Church had an authoritarian control over pretty much everything, it also offered Europe the unity, stability and continuity lost after the fall of Rome. So it was a double-edged sword: the Church was a bit like dictatorship, but it also created a much needed stability.
The PROS of the Roman Catholic Church: It unified the disparate peoples and societies left behind by the collapse of Rome. All parishioners, anyone who entered the Church was equal in the eyes of God. Therefore, aristocrats and peasants all sat in the same Church. The Church offered many hopeless people something in which to believe.
The CONS of the Roman Catholic Church: Well, it was the only gig around. Because it was the ONLY Church, Rome had a monopoly over salvation. You had to gain salvation through the offices of the Church. Therefore, the Church could single-handedly damn you. Excommunication from the Church was a fate worse than death for many. This kind of control wielded by the Church grew insidious and sinister as the centuries passed. Particularly for a population dominantly illiterate, the Church could exploit vast amounts of faithful. This lead, of course, to the practice of Indulgences, which meant that people who were excommunicated, or fallen from the Church’s graces, or who had, what they believed to be, loved ones trapped in Purgatory, could pay a Pardoner money he would bring to the Pope to pray for your soul, and get you back into the Church. The Church essentially extorted large sums of money out of millions of poor people, which led eventually to Martin Luther’s criticism, his split from the Church, and the start of the Reformation.
The other dominant, ruling power during this period was the King. Therefore, in the Middle Ages, two separate but equally powerful entities ruled all of Europe: The Church and the Crown. The institution of a King essentially developed from both the notion of a Caesar and the Nordic Kinsman. Essentially, a King was the wealthiest and most powerful figure in a large area around whom everyone else gathered to seek protection. In return for protection, the people would work for the kingdom. As a result, the society of the Middle Ages for many centuries was divided exclusively between Royalty (Nobility) and Serfs. Nobility accounted for as little as one percent of the population, who owned and controlled most of the land, and everyone else (Serfs) who tended the land in return for protection. This bifurcation between Serfs and Nobility began to break down with the birth of the merchant class, which started happening around the time of Sir Gawain, but an issue I will reserve for next week when we start to discuss Chaucer.
For literature, and for our purposes, the Knight is one of the most important figures for both the Crown and the Church. The Knight was a nobleman who serves both the King and the Catholic Church. His duties are to protect the values and the court of the King and to protect the morality and truth of the Church. Therefore, the Knight’s calling is one that must be of the most virtuous. The Knight’s duty is to be the best example of virtue and good works for a kingdom. Therefore, in all of the Knight’s activities, he must always protect the Church and the faithful–including Serfs, members of monasteries, aristocrats, any faithful–from evil at the same time that he must protect the kingdom. Therefore, a Knight must be exemplary in both word and deed.
You will notice that the word courtesy, and the issue of being courteous, shows up on almost every page of Sir Gawain. Courtesy in the fourteenth century means something far more important than the please, thank-you, holding open doors and shaking hands it does today. Notice that the word courtesy has the word court in it. To be courteous means to uphold and demonstrate all of the high values and virtues of the King’s court. Therefore, courtesy means to be faithful, virtuous, a defender of truth, a fighter of the devil, and a resister of temptation. So when Gawain feels the burden of being courteous, it means everything that he must uphold and defend in the name of Camelot.
Courtly Love (or Chivalry).
A lot of misunderstanding has surrounded the medieval notion of courtly love. It has a very rich and central tradition in literature, and has come down to us enveloped in a haze of romance. Courtly love means the romantic interaction between a knight (or nobleman) and an already taken Lady of the court. (Not quite as hygienic as we’d want!) The idea between courtly love is that a knight falls in love with a Lady who is already married or arranged for marriage. The Knight cannot ever act upon his desires, but all of his actions for the Lady have the goal of sleeping with her. A great paradoxical situation, to say the least! If the Knight acts upon his desires, he shames the calling of his vocation, and fails in being courteous. Therefore, the Knight engages in a complex series of Platonic maneuvers designed to sleep with the Lady while never doing so, maintaining the intensity of his love for her while restraining his physical desires. So the Knight will ply the Lady with gifts, with music, with poetry and with adventurous deeds, like slaying a dragon in her name, fighting a battle for her, winning in a tournament, etc. Too, the Knight will do everything he can to protect her from malevolent forces, to save her from danger, etc.
In the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot engaged in a courtly love-romance with Guinevere. The tragedy of Camelot is that Lancelot did sleep with Guinevere, dooming his reputation and destroying his calling, sullying the Queen, and nearly bringing down the Arthur’s kingdom.
The idea of courtly love has its Christian centrality. For a Knight to resist his desires for a Lady, he fights off the evil of temptation. Courtly love becomes a moral test for the Knight, which he must endure. In many ways, the greater the suffering, the more the Knight virtuously succeeds.
As the Middle Ages drifts into the Renaissance and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, courtly love becomes a very complex social thing, with its own detailed codes of conduct, rules and regulations. In the seventeenth century, several exemplary books of conduct were written, The Courtier being one of the most famous. In literature, the concept of courtly love transformed into the most common theme of romance in poetry of the Renaissance, unrequited love. Central to most sonnet cycles of the time is the narrative of a poet who falls for a woman who does not love him in return, either for personal reasons or because she is already taken. In the sonnet cycles, the poet does everything possible to win her love, and eventually burns out on his own passion.
The Journey and Quest
The most common narrative motif in all of literature is the journey and/or quest. HERE IS ONE OF MY BIGGEST TIPS TO ALL ENGLISH STUDENTS. Nearly every piece of literature can be interpreted as being metaphorical of a journey or quest.
The journey / quest can mean, of course, many things. Most literature from antiquity up until the Renaissance involves a hero who sets out on a journey in quest of something, undergoes many adventures, hardships, tests, travails. Often a tragedy and comedy is distinguished by the result of a journey or quest. If the hero finds what he needs or fulfills some desire, the narrative is a Comedy. If the opposite, it is a Tragedy.
Literature came to birth as a journey narrative: The Illiad and the Odyssey, particularly the latter. The most famous quest narrative is, in many ways, the search for the Holy Grail. The Grail quest has developed into many different narratives in which a protagonist searches for something divine, magical, or something that holds a key to great power, answers, wishes, knowledge, etc.
Too, in journey / quest narratives, it is significant if the hero returns home in the end, or moves on. If he returns home, you have the stability of a full circle, and a sense of completion. If the hero moves on, the narrative becomes open-ended, leading to uncertainty and the promise of a sequel.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain leaves Camelot on a journey in quest of the Greene Chapel and the Greene Knight, in order to fulfill his end of the bargain. In the end, he returns to Camelot, enacting a full-circle.
With a journey / quest motif, you should try to interpret what the hero searches for beyond the literal, and what his return home or continuing on represents. Here is another big hint: Almost all journey and quest narratives have as a dominating theme the search for self-knowledge.
I know this is quite reductive, and it is. What a good interpreter must do is seek a more detailed and specific interpretation beneath the general one. In other words, it won’t do much good to argue in every paper you write in college or graduate school that the piece of literature is about the protagonists search for self-knowledge.
In the case of Gawain, the weakest and most inexperienced Knight in Camelot, try to think to yourself what specific knowledge about himself he searches, and what he discovers concerning himself as an individual and a member of a Church and a kingdom.
Entry filed under: British Literature.