Gawain and the Green Knight

By The Gawain Poet


The Gawain poet, of whom we know very little, wrote four of the great late-Middle Ages poems in the English language. Pearl is perhaps the greatest elegy written before Donne and Purity and Patience are religious meditations of the highest order. The subject of this guide, however, Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375, certainly late 14th century), is a work of great genius. Where Sir Thomas Malory - whose Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the best known of the Arthurian legends - is often rather turgid and uninspiring, Gawain and the Green Knight is full of complex poetic conceits. Instead of following in the romance tradition of Chrétien de Troyes, it subverts the genre: setting out a new form of ironic poetry which is second only to Chaucer in its accomplishment. The Gawain poet could be argued to be the first writer to use symbolism in a concerted and consistent way. The most obvious example of this is Gawain's shield. It is designed with a pentangle on the outer side and a picture of Mary on the inner side. This reminds us of one of the poem's central conflicts: between the Christian ideals of the noble knights, and the magic that protects and helps them on their way. Either the magic is a force in opposition to God (the pentangle is the sign of the Devil), or else God is the worker of the magic: the shield means that inside all of the knights is a Christian force which defeats the evil around it. The Green Knight himself is a supremely convincing creation, who takes his existence from the inter-marriage of several different medieval Romance stereotypes. Firstly, he is an elf: intelligent, mysterious and proud in battle. Further, the Knight's colour lends a sylvan aspect to him. His magical powers also give him an air of the otherworldly: elves were seen as superior to men in traditional Romance literature. Secondly, the Green Knight is, as Larry Benson has pointed out, a savage: indifferent to suffering and somewhat lacking in logic. It is the blending of these two aspects that makes him such a successful figure.


Romance as a literary genre flourished in medieval Europe, firstly in French and then, in the later middle ages, in English. Chrétien de Troyes was the most widely read and accomplished of the French poets; his re-telling of the Arthurian legends represented "a world in which the highest aspirations of contemporary society were realised". The chivalric code founded the basis of the romance genre and reintroduced women as crucial figures in European literature. Knights strove to maintain a strict moral code: valour, loyalty to their king and family, endurance in the face of hardship; but, above all, an unwavering and heroic love for a woman (who is usually unattainable). Chrétien de Troyes used the figures of Arthur, Galahad, Lancelot and Gawain to represent this code of honour. These poems developed into the genre of romance.

C.S. Lewis, and many others, have criticised the use of this literary genre as nothing more than a "handy portmanteau" for critics to group together works with certain aspects in common. It is true that the genre has only limited realistic use, but the romance genre was distinct in its conventions, style and form from other literature composed contemporaneously. As Fewster states: "More so than in other middle English genres, romance had a formalised and distinctive style - and one that implies a set of pre-established audience expectations." It is this last point - the expectations of the audience - which it is important to consider when discussing the subversion of literary genres. It is often hard when viewing literature over many centuries to appreciate the evolution of a literary genre within its own lifespan. Subversion begins to be introduced when the conventions of a genre become hackneyed and stale. Joyce's Ulysses could not have been written without the novels of the nineteenth century to subvert and parody. Similarly, the Gawain poet uses the conventions of the romance genre as a base within which it is possible for him to expand and parody the literature that has gone before.