Authors: Gawain Poet


"Gawain Poet," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Introduction from

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Jesse L. Weston
SGGK, trans. W. A. Neilson
SGGK, trans. Anonymous (Harvard) to l. 490

SGGK read by Marie Borroff (from her wonderful translation)

The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is anonymous. He or she lived in the late 14th Century, and perhaps in western England. The Gawain-poet is also responsible for three other poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. All are found in a single, unique manuscript known by its shelfmark: British Library Cotton Nero A. x. (The manuscript that contained the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon sat only two places away on Cotton's shelf.) The Gawain-poet is one of the central figures in what has been called the Alliterative Revival, named for the alliterative form of the poetry.

The poem, SGGK, employs common motifs of Arthurian romance. It begins at a court where some trouble or difficulty arises. A knight is sent on an errand that will result in greater self-knowledge. A supernatural world provides guidance. Common medieval symbols are found thoughout (see this bibliography of symbolism). Some of the symbols derive from pre-Christian Celtic religion. The New Year begins with Samhain (pronounced sah-win). It is neither Autumn nor Winter, but a time between, when the world of fairy can come through. It is a recognition of both death and rebirth—the death of the old year and the birth of the new. Samhain Eve (also known as All Souls, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween) is a time for the Sìd(shee) or fairy people, and a time for remembering the dead. Pranks and disguises were common (trick or treat), apples and hazelnuts were proper.

A number of questions have provoked readers over the generations. Why is the story set druing Christmas? What does the Green Knight symbolize (why does the Green Man appear in winter)? What does the green girdle symbolize? Who is Bercilak and what is he trying to achieve? What is the role of Morgan le Fay? And how do pagan and Christian customs combine in the background of this tale?

Morgan is also seen in another guise in Marie de France's Lanval. Morgan derives from Morrigain (also known as Macha), the consort of the Celtic sky god. Macha is a powerful goddess married to a human man; when he breaks an oath to her, she abandons him.


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