The poem entitled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by an anonymous individual – thought to be a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer – in the fourteenth century (Pace University). Its narrative is a moral one and discusses the importance of remaining honourable and chivalrous. Sir Gawain is a knight of King Arthur’s rule and as such, he always attempts to behave in a brave and noble fashion. His encounter with the Green Knight tests this as he must ward off his friend’s beautiful wife’s sexual advances, and honestly bestow his day’s awards upon his friend, as well as honourably keep to his agreement with the Green Knight. Sir Gawain is a symbol of honour and nobility – two characteristics which were held in high esteem around the time of which the poem was written. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is heavily influenced by its social, historical and cultural context and although very little is known about its author, much can be understood simply through its context.
The poem is written in a specifically northern Middle English dialect and is easily linkable to the Alliterative Revival movement which was generally associated with the north of England. Chaucer and many others were writing in northern regions at the time and although many associate London as being the principle place for culture, the north was extremely culturally active as well. Culturally, Sir Gawain… presents its reader with a perspective of life as a knight of the realm and more particularly, it perpetuates the legend of King Arthur and his round table. The legend discusses how Arthur was a devoted king and adored by his people and even more so by his knights. The tales weaves images of noble and brave men and Sir Gawain is no exception here when, upon Arthur’s acceptance of the Green Knight’s dangerous challenge, he proclaims “Please my good liege, it’s plain this little fight is mine.” (Cooper 14). This is an instant insight into the culture of the time and also our modern perception of the legend of King Arthur. Knights were known for being the bravest of all the king’s subjects and still to this day, we perceive this as a time of great nobility – Sir Gawain demonstrates this by saving his king from certain death.
The author encapsulates the sense of ‘Englishness’ through his alliterative verse as opposed to the dominant French rhyme schemes which were prevalent at the time (Poplawski 84). Many academics have suggested that the poem holds an implied association with the royal court of Richard II who had significant ties with the north of the country and due to the poem’s heavily pro-royalty emphasis – the knights and Arthur are all portrayed as being noble and brave at all costs, suggesting that the author of the poem may have been under patronage from a dignitary in Richard’s court (Poplawski 86). This is further compounded by the concluding conception of the Order of the Garter which history discusses in terms of Arthurian origins or the court of Edward III in 1348 (Poplawski 86) but, in either instance, the Order was real and further demonstrates the intimate links the author may have had with the English royal court. Its origins may be lost in the sands of time, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight clearly demonstrates its royal connections and as such, its context is largely a biased one as the author would have been keen to appease his patron.
Cooper, H. (1998). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a verse translated. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pace University. (n.d.). Welcome to the Sir Gawain Room. Retrieved from http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/projs4a/gawain.htm
Poplawski, P. (2008). English Literature in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.