The alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, likely written in the mid to late fourteenth century, survives in a late-fourteenth-century manuscript with three other poems—Pearl, Purity, and Patience—by the same author. Very little is known about the author of these poems, but most scholars believe him to have been a university-trained clerk or the official of a provincial estate (this SparkNote refers to him as the “Pearl-poet” or the “Gawain-poet”). Though it cannot be said with certainty that one person wrote all four poems, some shared characteristics point toward common authorship and also suggest that the Gawain-poet may have written another poem, called St. Erkenwald, that exists in a separate manuscript. All the poems except Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deal with overtly Christian subject matter, and it remains unclear why Sir Gawain, an Arthurian romance, was included in an otherwise religious manuscript.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in a dialect of Middle English that links it with Britain’s Northwest Midlands, probably the county of Cheshire or Lancashire. The English provinces of the late fourteenth century, although they did not have London’s economic, political, and artistic centrality, were not necessarily less culturally active than London, where Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland were writing at the time. In fact, the works of the Gawain-poet belong to a type of literature traditionally known as the Alliterative Revival, usually associated with northern England. Contrary to what the name of the movement suggests, the alliterative meter of Old English had not actually disappeared and therefore did not need reviving. Nevertheless, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exists as a testament that the style continued well into the fourteenth century, if not in London, then in the provinces.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s adapted Old English meter tends to connect the two halves of each poetic line through alliteration, or repetition of consonants. The poem also uses rhyme to structure its stanzas, and each group of long alliterative lines concludes with a word or phrase containing two syllables and a quatrain—known together as the “bob and wheel.” The phrase “bob and wheel” derives from a technique used when spinning cloth—the bobs and wheels in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight help to spin the plot and narrative together in intricate ways. They provide commentaries on what has just happened, create or fulfill moments of suspense, and serve as transitions to the next scene or idea.
Told in four “fitts,” or parts, the poem weaves together at least three separate narrative strings commonly found in medieval folklore and romance. The first plot, the beheading game, appears in ancient folklore and may derive from pagan myths related to the agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting crops. The second and third plots concern the exchange of winnings and the hero’s temptation; both of these plots derive from medieval romances and dramatize tests of the hero’s honesty, loyalty, and chastity. As the story unfolds, we discover that the three apparently separate plotlines intersect in surprising ways.
A larger story that frames the narrative is that of Morgan le Faye’s traditional hatred for Arthur and his court, called Camelot. Morgan, Arthur’s half sister and a powerful sorceress, usually appears in legend as an enemy of the Round Table. Indeed, medieval readers knew of Morgan’s role in the destined fall of Camelot, the perfect world depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The poem’s second frame is a historical one. The poem begins and ends with references to the myth of Britain’s lineage from the ancient city of Troy, by way of Britain’s Trojan founder, Brutus. These references root the Arthurian romance in the tradition of epic literature, older and more elevated than the tradition of courtly literature, and link fourteenth-century England to Rome, which was also founded by a Trojan (Aeneas). Thus, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents us with a version of translatio imperii—a Latin phrase referring to the transfer of culture from one civilization (classical antiquity, in this case) to another (medieval England). The Gawain-poet at times adopts an ironic tone, but he also displays a deep investment in elevating his country’s legends, history, and literary forms—especially Arthurian romance—by relating them directly to classical antiquity.