Like most medieval literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight participates in several important literary traditions that its original audience would have instantly recognized. Medieval poets were expected to re-use established source materials in their own works. Modern readers sometimes mistakenly take this as evidence of how lacking in creativity and originality the Middle Ages were. In reality, much of the interest of medieval literature comes from recognizing how one work of literature pulls against those that came before it, makes subtle changes from its sources, and invests old material with new meanings. One can read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as simply a rollicking tale of adventure and magic or, alternatively, as a lesson in moral growth. However, understanding some of the literary and cultural background that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight draws upon can provide modern readers with a fuller view of the poem's meaning.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belongs to a literary genre known as romance. As it refers to medieval literature, the word "romance" does not mean a love story, although that sense of the word is ultimately derived from the medieval romance genre. Originally, Romance referred to the various European languages derived from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The word became applied to the popular tales written in Romance languages, particularly French. In this sense, a romance is a tale of adventure involving knights on a quest. Elements of fantasy and magic are always present: There may be dragons or monsters to battle, mysterious places to visit, or peculiar spells or curses to be broken. Damsels in distress frequently appear in the plot as victims to be rescued or as initiators of the quest. Typically, the romance story begins at a noble court, where the knights receive a challenge before setting out on a journey to accomplish their task. As with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the challenge may come from a mysterious visitor. The knights travel far from home, encountering terrible hardships and doing battle with their enemies before achieving their goal and returning to the court to tell their stories. Every romance includes basic set pieces, such as the arming of the hero and the recitation of the names of famous knights. The romance genre was so formulaic and so universally familiar that by the Gawain-poet's time, it had long since become clichéd. Chaucer, for example, was able to do a spot-on parody of the genre in his ridiculous Tale of Sir Thopas, part of the Canterbury Tales. Clichéd or not, the romance remained popular for centuries before finally reaching its logical end in Miguel de Cervantes's romance spoof/homage Don Quixote, first published in 1605.
The most fertile field of the romance genre was the Arthurian romance. The legendary King Arthur, his court at Camelot, and his Knights of the Round Table are almost as familiar today as they would have been in the Gawain-poet's time. However, most modern readers know only the stories set down in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur, circa 1470, actually a late entry in Arthurian development. Literally hundreds of Arthurian tales pre-dating Malory exist in numerous variations, some of which directly contradict each other.
Although the tales were usually set in England (or Logres, a legendary pre-England), Arthurian romances were produced all over Europe. The masters of the genre were the French, most notably Chrètien de Troyes, who wrote a definitive group of Arthurian romances in the late 1100s. French dominance of this field, with its legendary history of England, was part of a larger cultural tension. The Norman French conquered England in 1066, and although Norman dominance had ended by the early 1200s, France and England remained bitter rivals throughout the Middle Ages. In the Gawain-poet's time, there was once again open warfare between the two nations, spurred by English claims to the French throne. This literary and political rivalry has implications for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In French Arthurian romances, the character of Sir Gawain has a spotty reputation. Although Gawain is portrayed positively in the early the French tradition, in later French tales, Gawain becomes a womanizer, a confirmed sinner, and even a villain. By contrast, in English Arthurian tales, Gawain is almost always upheld as the paragon of knightly virtue, and in a sense, he becomes a specifically English model of the ideal knight. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight affirms this tradition.
Closely related to the romance tradition were two idealized standards of behavior: chivalry and courtly love. Many modern people think of chivalry as referring to a man's gallant treatment of women, and although that sense is derived from the medieval chivalric ideal, chivalry includes more than that. Broadly speaking, chivalry, derived from the old French term for a soldier mounted on horseback, was a knight's code of conduct. There was no single set of chivalric rules, but the existence of popular medieval chivalric handbooks (two of the most famous are by Geffroi de Charny and Ramon Llull) testifies that chivalry was a well-known concept. Knights formed a distinct segment of medieval society, which was often thought of as being composed of three classes: those who pray (the clergy), those who fight (the nobility), and those who work (the peasants). Most knights belonged to the nobility, if only because a knight's equipment — horses, weapons, armor — required considerable resources to fund. Violence, often bloody and horrific violence, was at the heart of what knights did. As highly skilled and well-armed fighting men, knights could be a force either for creating social chaos or for maintaining public order. The ideals of chivalry were an attempt to channel the knight's potential for unrestrained mayhem into socially acceptable channels. The Gawain-poet touches on many of these ideals in his description of Gawain's character: Knights were expected to be brave, loyal, and honorable; to protect the weak; to behave nobly toward women; to display piety and respect for the Church; and to show the highest prowess in combat. The conflict of these high ideals with a knight's basic task — efficiently killing his enemies — is obvious, and this conflict became more strained as chivalry became more Christianized.
A knight's behavior toward women, at least in the romance tradition, was governed by another standard known as courtly love. Medieval writers did not necessarily use that term, but it is a convenient modern label for an idea that appears frequently in medieval literature. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet's term for it is "courtesy." Scholars have debated whether courtly love was a social reality or purely a literary fiction, but in either case, it was a pervasive and influential notion. The most famous handbook on courtly love is by Andreas Capellanus and was written in the 1170s. The ties between the romance genre and the courtly love tradition were well established even at this time, for when Cappellanus offered his "rules of love," he brackets them with a story involving a knight on the way to the court of King Arthur. The courtly lover was a man (often a knight) who devoted himself to the service of his beloved lady, making himself her servant; if he was a knight, all of his brave deeds were dedicated to his lady. Marriage to others was not a barrier to such love affairs, which were to be kept secret, with clandestine meetings and messages between the lovers relayed by go-betweens. The lovers usually exchanged gifts or favors, normally a personal item such as a ring, glove, or girdle, all of which appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. True lovers became faint or sick with the strength of their love; sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and jealousy were all symptoms of true love. A lover was expected to have fine manners and display perfect gentility. As with chivalry, the tension between courtly love and Christian morality was unavoidable. Much of the courtly love tradition assumed that the lovers would consummate their relationship sexually, regardless of whether they were married. A more Christianized version of courtly love placed the lover in courteous but decidedly chaste service to his beloved. Like chivalry, courtly love may have been more of an ideal than an actual practice, but that did not lessen its cultural importance.
Given these exaggerated and sometimes conflicting influences, romances had an understandable tendency to become silly and sensationalist. More than one author attempted to reform the genre by using it as a vehicle for serious moral messages. For example, in the Arthurian romances of the quest for the Holy Grail, purity of heart, faith, and right behavior, more so than mere strength of arms, are required for the knights to complete their quest. Similarly, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight puts a moral lesson into a luxurious wrapper: In between the high fantasy, the sparkling jewels, and the gilded armor is a sharp exploration of virtue, temptation, and human nature. Gawain's toughest battle is not with the monsters in the wilderness, but with his lovely and refined hostess; he fights with words, not weapons. He is defeated not by superior strength but by his own inner weakness — fear of death, most of all. In comparison with typical romances, the level of violence and bloodshed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is remarkably restrained. In fact, there is no conventional combat at all, because both Gawain and the Green Knight kneel willingly to receive their death-stroke from the other, and in the end, no one is seriously hurt.
The poet positions Gawain at the center of the unresolved tensions between chivalry, courtly love, and Christianity. Gawain is famed as the most courteous of knights. In one sense, this creates the expectation that his behavior will be irreproachable; in another, it assumes that he will be the most delightful of lovers for the lady who can snare him. The Lady of Hautdesert exploits this tension to the fullest as she attempts to seduce Gawain. But the poet has also made clear that the beloved lady whom Gawain serves first is the Virgin Mary. As a thoroughly Christianized knight, he is forced to walk a fine line in defending himself. He cannot offend a lady, but neither can he give his hostess what she wants, because in doing so, he would be committing a sexual sin, as well as breaking chivalric loyalty and honor by betraying his host.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cannot, therefore, be called a straightforward romance. It makes use of most of the conventions and ideals of the Arthurian romance, yet also points out its contradictions and failings. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not an anti-romance, however, nor is it a parody, despite its lightness and good humor. When Chaucer laughs at Sir Thopas, he is mocking a tired genre, but when the Gawain-poet laughs, it is the generous laughter of friendship. The poet's conservative and traditional approach to his timeworn material is what allows him to make it so engaging: He understands and thoroughly appreciates the conventions of his genre. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manages to highlight the weakest points of the chivalric tradition while still appreciating everything that makes chivalry so attractive, especially its uncompromising devotion to the highest ideals, even if those ideals are not necessarily attainable.
The Verse Form of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example of alliterative verse, in which the repetition of initial consonant sounds is used to give structure to the line. The alliteration is usually, but not always, at the beginning of the word, and usually on a stressed syllable. Each stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has an irregular number of lines and no fixed meter (arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables), although four stressed syllables per line is common. The alliterative lines are always unrhymed. This slightly modernized transcription of lines 285–289 highlights the use of alliteration:
If any so hardy in this house holds himself,
Be so bold in his blood, brain in his head,
That dare stiffly strike a stroke for another,
I shall give him of my gift this giserne [ax] rich.
Each stanza ends with what is called a bob-and-wheel: The bob is a short, two- or three-syllable line that introduces four short, rhymed lines (the wheel). The last word of the bob begins the rhyming pattern for the wheel, so that the bob-and-wheel rhymes ABABA. The following is a modernized example from lines 1,040–1,045:
'As I am beholden thereto, in high and in low,
By right.' (A)
The lord fast can him pain (B)
To hold longer the knight. (A)
To him answers Gawain (B)
By no way that he might. (A)