English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3  




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Syllabus & Schedule



How to read

How to Journal



1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




 6. Gawain and the Green Knight


Two heads are better than one!


Read Longman 3rd ed Vol. 1A, pages 20-25, 163-200.
The Return of English" and "Politics and Society in the Fourteenth Century" 1A 20-25.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" 1A


An internet version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," translated by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon is available from University of Michigan.  Other translations and materials are available online at Luminarium


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). In your own words, summarize the reading. If time remains after you finish your summary, tackle one of the following questions--or deal with a question of your own which arose during your reading.

How is Gawain similar to and different from Beowulf, Cú Chulainn or Lanval?  Try to focus on a particular episode, theme or detail. For example, compare the Green Chapel and Beowulf's Dragon Barrow. Or compare the temptations of Lanval and Gawain. Or compare Celtic elements in Cú Chulainn's story with those in the Gawain poem.

How do Arthur's court and Bercilak's compare and contrast?

Why do you imagine that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might have been written? Do you think that it may have had its intended effect?

Compare Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the Eden story in Genesis 1-3.

General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal

Much adapted and enlarged by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003)

Gawain and the Green Knight's ladyOur editors are not young. What they call romance is merely the genre of Arthurian, Carolingian and Roman story-telling that emerged, primarily in French and Anglo-Norman verse, in the middle and later decades of the twelfth century, the genre that was to flower in courtly literature for the next 400 years as the great nation-states of Europe struggled into being. Initially these stories were composed in romance languages (chiefly French, Italian and Spanish), as opposed to Latin, and hence they are known to us as romances. Their courtly authors were secular (like Marie de France) as opposed to religious (like Geoffrey of Monmouth).

It is only by extension that we speak of "English romances." In its origin, English is not a romance language but a Germanic one. Nevertheless, by the end of the twelfth century, English writers began imitating French romances and telling native stories in continental forms and styles. These generally rustic English romances are Saxon accommodations to Norman culture:  they include such primitive fare as Athelston, Bevis of Hampton, Fouke Fitzwarin, Gamelyn, Guy of Warwick, Havelok the Dane, King Horn, and King Richard. More sophisticated and famous romances in English came later in the time of Chaucer (d.1400), Malory (d. 1471), Spenser (d. 1599) and Shakespeare (d. 1616), and these were self-conscious revivals of an old fashioned form. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is among these pseudo-relics which are wonderful but fantastic. 

English romances have plenty to say about courtly love and extra-marital sex, but they also celebrate knighthood and chivalry. These are distinct terms: "knight" comes from the Anglo-Saxon cniht, meaning duty-bound man (cf. German
knecht), while "chivalry" and the related word "cavalier" come from the French chevalerie, and from chevalier or horseman (Latin caballus for horse). Where knighthood is a social status defined by duties, chivalry is a code of good manners, a way of cooperative life on and off the field of battle.

No medieval king could survive without knights, but in peacetime a king was better off with cavaliers. For a kingdom to remain at peace, the court needed just the sort of man as SGGK's Gawain, not simply a loyal vassal and brave risk taker, but one who is skilled in jousting, tournaments and games, a fellow who speaks politely and knows how to have a good time without making a scandal. Kings across Europe sponsored chivalric orders for this reason, to control the self-image of powerful aristocrats who might become unruly. Edward III’s Order of the Garter, whose motto is invoked at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), was just such a ploy. 





Left: Gawain and Bercilak's lady, from a medieval manuscript illustration. In service to Morgan, her temptation will help awaken him from his fear of death.


Effigy of Richard the Lion Heart Left: effigy of Richard I (c. 1199) at Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou . The abbey churches and great cathedrals were burial ground of the rich and famous of the past, many of whom placed their images in plain view, never to be forgotten. 

14th Century Disease and Unease
There was an all-too-real English romance in 1327, when Edward II was deposed and murdered by his French wife and her noble boyfriend. After that disaster, the successor kings Edward III (r 1327-1377) and Richard II (r 1377- 1399) tried to shore up the weakened monarchy by, among other things, invoking their legendary Trojan and Arthurian genealogy. Edward III indeed founded a new Round Table in 1344, the "Order of the Garter," which endures to this day, but any camaraderie this fellowship may have engendered did not prevent a replay of Edward II's tragedy. In 1399, the barons deposed Richard II to put their own man on the throne, and Richard was found dead in his prison cell the next year.

You understand the demand for fantasy in the fourteenth century when you understand the suffering. With cooler weather, there had been a mass starvation across Europe, "the Great Famine." This catastrophe soon was followed by the greatest plague since Beowulf's time, "the Black Death." It is thought that one-third of the British population perished from this epidemic. The Hundred Years' War, terrible and ultimately pointless campaigns in France, then emptied the royal treasury several times over. Parliament levied a series of Poll Taxes while also restricting the wages of the common people in the most infamous inflation control law prior to central banking, the Statute of Laborers. The people responded with the first successful tax revolt in British history, the so-called "Peasants' Revolt." The Poll Tax was repealed but the leaders (Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw) were killed. And through the whole century, the church was ineffectual: two popes ruled simultaneously, and the one in Avignon was seen by many British as a puppet of their enemies in France. Some of the disaffected became the first Protestants ("Lollards" and "Wycliffites"), apparently at the instigation of the Devil, so the church began its search for witches and Parliament authorized death by burning at the stake.

A tough century, as I say. Nobody at the time could understand it, but the modern world was emerging. Urban merchants were beginning to grow richer than knights, and mercantile families had begun to rise from untitled gentry into the aristocracy. The older model of aristocratic power based on provincial land tenure was shifting as nobles around the king became more like a paid bureaucracy. The importance of the mounted knight declined with military innovations, such as new longbow and crossbow technologies that produced the slaughters at Crécy and Poitiers. All of these novelties contributed to nostalgia for the old days, at least among the threatened old guard for whom the romancers worked.



Celtic Elements.
The territory between Chester, Wirral and North Wales was very well known to the Gawain poet. It is reflected in the geography of Gawain’s wanderings (esp. lines 691 and after). This a borderland area between English and Wales, a multicultural region where Welsh speakers can shift into English and vice versa. SGGK's alliterative meter derives from Old English models, but other features of the poem have correspondences in Welsh poetry: metrics and form, rhyme, assonance, and repetition of key words. (See the poem "Alisoun" in the Longman Anthology.) Explore repetition at the level of key words: accord, contract, covenant, game; adorn, array; knot, lock, bind/bound; leap, hurtle; figure, sign, blazon.

Celtic references are dense in the description of the Green Knight himself. The green man is a common figure of Welsh folklore, the pivotal figure who represents simultaneously the dying of the old year and the birth of the new. Morgan the Goddess” (or Morrigan?) is a figure from pre-Christian Celtic myth, the witch who reveals the spirit world and realm of death.  Her place of nature, beyond the artifice of courts and castles, becomes ever more frightening, raw, and lonely as Gawain naively approaches his supposed beheading by the Green Knight. 

The courtly games of boy Arthur’s New Year turn into the Green Knight’s mortal “game” (line 273) of ax blows, a game previously played in the Ulster Cycle by fearless Cu Chulainn.

Despite its strangeness to Gawain, Bercilak’s world (really Morgan's) is more powerful and illuminating than Arthur’s world. Women appear in extreme old age as well as youthful beauty, nature in the wider view is barren as well as bountiful, and the hunt is as violent as it is ritualized.  Morgan reveals and helps to cure the fears of death in Arthur's court. "None power and pride possess too high for her to tame" (l 2456-7). The Celtic otherworld, the barrow tomb, winter, and "the old woman of Beare" are nowhere more wonderfully evoked than in this romance.


Left: a medieval manuscript illumination for "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" depicts the beheading scene at Arthur's court. A green knight's fearlessness of death is a wonder of chivalry. (Recall Caesar's comment that the British are fearless warriors because they believe in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation of the body.)











Left: the boy king Richard II (ruled 1377-1399) attempted to assert his supremacy over Parliament, but he also promoted English literature and presided over an era that included the "Gawain" poet, Chaucer, Langland, and Gower. The usurper Bolingbroke who deposed Richard in 1399 charged him with personal immorality and inattention to serious duties of the state and the church.

Green Are The Dead
As in Caedmon's Hymn and Beowulf, the basis for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the Book of Genesis. Gawain's "fault" is a fall of Adam (l. 2415-2417) with distinctive Celtic and chivalric twists. The Lord in Genesis penalizes Adam's disobedience by re-creating him as mortal and setting him to work. Gawain's wish to avoid death is the flaw that puts him at odds both with the natural world and with the fearlessness that his lord and the code of chivalry demand of him.

Think about the meaning of this great poem in terms of Caesar's comment about Celtic warriors. Caesar says they are completely fearless in war because they believe in the immortality of the soul. But Gawain fears death so he accepts the girdle and hides the gift from Birtilak--this is his only flaw, which shames him. He does not understand the spirituality of the green world of Morgan and company. This is Celtic man no longer living in Celtic society with Celtic beliefs and no longer understanding that belief system when he journeys back to a place where he happens to encounter it.

It is most interesting feature of the poem that the reader shares this adventure in general from Gawain's conventional point of view. This limited understanding of the situation allows the suspense and mystery to build, as it is clear from the outset that we are not in a conventional story. It makes a masterful puzzle of the reading.


Reading of the opening lines in Middle English from the Norton Anthology web site.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Tolkein and Gordon, rev. Davis (Oxford 1967) from the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse from University of Michigan.

The beheading game in Sir Gawin and the Green Knight is an old Celtic story. A version with Cu Chulainn as the hero appears in a story from the Ulster Cycle called Bricriu's Feast.

Courtly Love Study Guide

Luminarium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Knighthood, Chivalry and Tournament: A Glossary of Terms

Epic tradition. The Norman French Brut (cir. 1155) by the poet Wace, a Norman epic that greatly expands on Geoffrey of Monmouth, was translated into early Middle English as early as 1215 by Layamon, and this mythic pseudo-history was further popularized in fourteenth century retellings. Middle English versions of the Troy story were written in alliterative verse, in the same general time and area that produced SGGK and likely for the same provincial courts, loyal to the crown. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Troilus and Criseyde, an episode of the Troy story, while working within the government of Richard II.

Order of the Garter


Relief sculpture of Eve (or is it Morgan?), a door lintel over the north entry on Autun Cathedral, Saint Lazare, Burgundy (cir. 1130).


Know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G.

Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess