Romance Motifs in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

(Quotations and page numbers are from Harrison, Keith, trans., int. and notes by Helen Cooper. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford; Oxford World's Classics: OUP, 1998. Middle English quotations and page numbers are from Cawley, A. C., ed. Pearl: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: J. M. Dent, 1962.)


Of the poem's date:

"The precise date of the poems (Pearl, Patience, Purity and Sir Gawain) is … hard to pin down. It is generally agreed that the manuscript was copied no later than 1400, and that the poems were composed some time before that - conceivably as early as 1350, though the 1370s or 1380s would seem to be more likely from the details they give of the latest fashions in clothing and architecture." (p.x.)

Of the Gawain-poet's apparent influences:

"..the poet was well versed in courtly French literature. He knew the French allegory of love, The Romance of the Rose; and Sir Gawain itself shows his familiarity with French Arthurian romance." (p.xii.)

Of the poem's audience at the time:

"Poetry was rarely written in the Middle Ages primarily for self-expression. Most often, as with other art forms, it would be produced for a known and appreciative reception group, or for a patron; and Sir John Stanley has increasingly been canvassed as a possible candidate for such a role. [..administrator and man of action who has some curious incidental connections with poetry and legend..]" (p.xiv)

"Sir Gawain itself, moreover, appears to have been written for a knight of the Garter, the order of chivalry instituted by Edward II in 1348, since the poem concludes with the founding of just such an order, and the motto of the Garter knights is inscribed at the end of the poem." (p.xvi.)

Of the sources and parallels of plot elements in Sir Gawain:

"The immediate antecedents of many of the plot elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lie in French Arthurian romances, though it is unusual in not having any one single source. There is no source at all for the most distinctive of its story motifs, the knight who is green not only in clothing but in skin and hair as well. Its principal plot motif, by contrast, the invitation to behead a challenger in return for being beheaded later, appears in a number of texts and can be traced as far back as Irish legend. The version closest to that of Sir Gawain, and most certainly known to the poet, appears in the Livre de Caradoc, part of the ‘First Continuation' of the Conte del Graal, otherwise known as Perceval, which the late 12th century writer Chretien de Troyes had left uncompleted." [Here the beheaded knight returns, strikes with the flat of the sword and reveals himself to be Carados' father.] (p.xvii)

Of Gawain's centrality within English Arthurian tradition:

"The transference of another knight's French adventures [see Perceval] onto an English Gawain is an indicator of Gawain's centrality in the English Arthurian tradition. He had initially emerged as a major character in Arthurian history in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, in which he is Arthur's right-hand warrior in his campaigns of European conquest." (p.xviii.)

Of Gawain's loss of status in French Arthurian tradition:

"He appears frequently in the verse romances of Chretian de Troyes, from the end of the century, but only in supporting roles: his function is to serve as a foil to the heroes of the various romances, by their proving their prowess in contrast against him, or, in the Conte de Graal, by serving as a type of secular chivalry in contrast to the hero Perceval's more religious model. In another of Chretian's romances, he is displaced altogether by the knight who has become Arthur's closest associate in the French tradition, Lancelot. It is Lancelot who is the central character after Arthur himself (or even in preference to Arthur) in the great Vulgate cycle of French prose romances of the 13th century, where Gawain slips even further down the ethical and chivalric scale, to the point where he often functions as an antitype of good knighthood." (p.xviii-xix.)

Of Gawain's brand of courtesy and chivalry:

"In England, Gawain remains what he had been in Geoffrey of