Sir Gawain and the Green Knight By Anonymous Summary and Analysis Lines 1–36 (Stanzas 1–2)

Summary

The poet describes how, after the fall of Troy, Aeneas and his kin founded countries in the west. Brutus founded Britain, where joy and sorrow alternate. Of all the great heroes of Britain, King Arthur is the greatest. The poet says he will tell, if his audience will hear it, of an adventure unmatched among Arthur's exploits, told the way the poet heard it, in fine poetry.

Analysis

Lines 1–35 form a kind of introduction to the poem, creating a framework of what could be thought of as historical (although not historically accurate) background and setting the stage for many of the poem's themes. The poet begins with the legend that Britain had been founded by descendants of refugees from the city of Troy. The siege of the city by the Greek army is the subject of many ancient epics, such as the Iliad. In the great Latin epic the Aeneid, Aeneas, a prince of Troy, escapes from the city and endures many trials before founding the Roman Empire. Medieval author Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain is one of the primary sources of Arthurian tradition, reports that Aeneas's great-grandson, Brutus, traveled to England with a band of Trojan expatriates and founded the kingdom of Britain. The Gawain-poet's claim of a specifically English quasi-history contrasts this tale with the better-known French Arthurian romances of writers such as Chrètien de Troyes; it may be an appeal to patriotic English feeling of the period, during which the Hundred Years' War between England and France was taking place. The poet's appeal to the epics of the Classical world is an example of translatio imperii, or the transmission of the empires of old into the medieval world. It is also a reminder that great empires rise and fall, in their turn. The cycles of history are not so different from the cycles of the year, which figure prominently in the poem, or the cycles of failure and recovery that Gawain will experience.

The poem opens with a characteristic ambiguity, one that translations do not always preserve. The wording of the opening lines leaves unclear the identity of the "traitor," and who or what is "true." In the Aeneid, Aeneas is a model of duty and piety, but in other tales of the Trojan War, he and a companion betray their city to the Greeks. If Aeneas is being called both "true" and a "traitor," that description looks forward to Gawain's own situation: Like Aeneas, he is a true and worthy knight, but he will also be guilty of a breach of faith. In this same vein, the poet calls Brutus "Felix," Latin for "fortunate." Though he was fortunate in having founded a legendary kingdom, the label is somewhat ironic considering that Brutus inadvertently caused the death of both his parents and was exiled from Italy by his own countrymen. But even the kingdom of Britain itself has a contradictory nature: It is a place where both "wrack and wonder . . .bliss and blunder" have swiftly followed one another throughout history.

The name Felix may also refer to the medieval idea of the felix culpa, the "fortunate fault" of Adam's sin and fall from grace, which led to the redemption of all humankind by Christ. Critic Victor Haines applied the notion of the fortunate fault to Gawain's failure of faith, seeing in it a metaphor for the fall and redemption of humanity.

The poet's claim that he is simply telling the tale as he heard it told is a standard device of medieval poetry. Medieval artists were expected to rely on traditional, well-worn material; their artistic worth was judged by how well they reused and reinterpreted their sources. The poet says he heard the tale told, as Marie Borroff translates it, "linked in measures meetly,/ By letters tried and true." The poet probably refers here to same alliterative verse he is using, a native English form of poetry. This appeal to a traditionally English verse form — rather than the French forms that had been imported by England's Norman invaders, or the Italian forms that were influencing Chaucer during the same period — is related to the poet's appeal to British legendary history and his audience's patriotism.

Glossary

ashes The city of Troy was burned by the victorious Greek army.

Romulus, Ticius, Langobard In Roman myth, Romulus was the legendary founder of Rome. Ticius and Langobard are inventions of Arthurian mythology. Based on some fanciful etymology of their names, Ticius and Langobard were said to have founded Tuscany and Lombardy, regions of Italy.

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