” If thou crave batayl bare, Here fayles thou not to fight”
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance. It is one of the best known Arthurian stories, with its plot combining two types of folk motifs, the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. it draws on Welsh, Irish and English stories, as well as the French chivalric tradition. It is an important example of a chivalric romance, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest which tests his prowess. It remains popular in modern English renderings from J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage and others, as well as through film and stage adaptations.
It describes how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious “Green Knight” who dares any knight to strike him with his axe if he will make a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him with his blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain, Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving the lord and the lady of the castle where he is a guest.
Though the real name of “The Gawain Poet” (or poets) is unknown, some inferences about him can be drawn from an informed reading of his works. The manuscript of Gawain is known in academic circles as Cotton Nero A.x., following a naming system used by one of its owners, the sixteenth century Robert Bruce Cotton, a collector of Medieval English texts. Before the Gawain manuscript came into Cotton’s possession, it was in the library of Henry Savile in Yorkshire. Little is known about its previous ownership, and until 1824, when the manuscript was introduced to the academic community in the second edition of Thomas Warton’s History edited by Richard Price, it was almost entirely unknown. Even then, the Gawain poem was not published in its entirety until 1839. Now held in the British Library, it has been dated to the late 14th century, meaning the poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, though it is unlikely that they ever met, and the Gawain Poet’s English is considerably different from Chaucer’s. The three other works found in the same manuscript as Gawain (commonly known as Pearl, Patience, and Purity or Cleanliness) are often considered to be written by the same author. However, the manuscript containing these poems was transcribed by a copyist and not by the original poet. Although nothing explicitly suggests that all four poems are by the same poet, comparative analysis of dialect, verse form, and diction have pointed towards single authorship.
What is known today about the poet is largely general. As J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, after reviewing the text’s allusions, style, and themes, concluded in 1925:
“He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.”
The 2,530 lines and 101 stanzas that makeup Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are written in what linguists call the “Alliterative Revival” style typical of the 14th century. Instead of focusing on a metrical syllabic count and rhyme, the alliterative form of this period usually relied on the agreement of a pair of stressed syllables at the beginning of the line and another pair at the end. Each line always includes a pause, called a caesura, at some point after the first two stresses, dividing it into two half-lines. Although he largely follows the form of his day, the Gawain poet was somewhat freer with convention than his or her predecessors.