Sir Gawain and the Green Knight



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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Anonymous's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Anonymous

We don’t know exactly who the poet was, though some historians have estimated some guesses about the poet from carefully reading the text itself, such as that the author probably was interested in theology and probably was inspired by the landscapes of the Midlands. There are also theories that the poet could have been John Donne or an English gentleman named John Massey. The debate still continues, and the question of who wrote Gawain appears unlikely ever to be definitively answered. The original Middle English manuscript dates back to the 14th or 15th century, but it wasn’t officially published until 1839. Numerous translations of the poem have been published since then; Simon Armitage's modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was used to write this LitChart. Armitage is a renowned English writer and professor of poetry at the University of Leeds.
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Historical Context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Many of the characters found in Arthurian tales can be traced to historical figures and seem to go beyond myth and legend. The historical authenticity of King Arthur has been especially debated, some believing he actually ruled in around the 5th century. The poem also seems to be faithful to the landscape and concerns of the time in which it as written, including a preoccupation with Christian rituals.

Other Books Related to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Arthurian characters of Gawain appear in many other stories, including Ywain and Gawain and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. Gawain and the Green Knight even inspired spin-off stories such as The Greene Knight, which was written around 1500 and uses rhyme to make the story more recitable. Works like Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales are also Middle English texts written in verse, and include some of the same themes of religion and the natural world. Most scholars believe that The Pearl, another medieval text, was written by the same author as Gawain. A number of more modern works of romantic and adventure literature resemble Gawain in plot and theme. J.R.R Tolkien's works, for example, contain strains that echo the lessons learned by Gawain as well as his journeying plot.
Key Facts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Full Title: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • When Written: Sometime between 1340 and 1400
  • Where Written: West Midlands, England
  • Literary Period: Medieval Romance Literature
  • Genre: Epic poetry, Romance, Adventure, Arthurian Legend
  • Setting: The court of Camelot, then across the wilderness of Britain to Bertilak’s castle and environs
  • Climax: Gawain’s long-awaited meeting with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, where he expects to lose his life but, after much suspense, is spared
  • Antagonist: Initially, it seems that the Green Knight, who destroys the court’s revelry and forces Gawain to face his own death, is the antagonist of the poem. But by the end, it becomes evident that the real conflict is between Gawain’s desire to adhere to the knightly code of virtues and his more natural desire to stay alive.
  • Point of View: An omniscient, third person narrator. This narrator follows Gawain for most of his journey, and of all the characters comes closest to Gawain’s internal world, occasionally noting his thoughts and feelings.

Extra Credit for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

All that Alliteration. When Sir Gawain was written, verse was primarily written in ways that were quite different animal from the rhyming patterns that are best known today. Alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonant sounds of nearby words, was the major poetic device of the time, pre-dating rhyme. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the model of an Middle English alliterative poem, using an alliterative phrase on nearly every single line of verse.

The Beheading Game. While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a legacy of spin-off tales, it has also inspired a brand of adventure plots cutely nicknamed The Beheading Game, in which two characters engage in a beheading challenge. In fact, though, Gawain did not originate this literary idea, as it was passed down from even earlier Irish myths like The Feast of Bricriu.