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Interim Readings > Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Intro and Parts 1 & 2

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message 1: by David (last edited Dec 11, 2018 07:57PM) (new)

David | 2613 comments INTRODUCTION

Disclosure: For those of you who may be thinking my writing style is suddenly and dramatically improved, you are correct. Anyone's writing would be improved if Tamara writes it, which is indeed the case here. Actually, I am just posting the discussion openers she wrote ahead of time while she is temporarily unavailable. This just goes to show talented some people are even when they just mail it in. ~Dave
In the spirit of the holiday season, our final interim read for the year is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a delightful Middle English poem about the adventures of King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain. The poem takes place during the Christmas season and is replete with magical happenings, supernatural elements, and a curious interloper. It is considered to be the best English example of the Medieval romance, combining knightly adventures (usually involving jousting with monsters and dragons) with elements of courtly love in which the knight petitions the lady for her favors. But the poem deviates from these motifs in significant and charming ways.
The approximate dates for the poem are between 1375-1400. The author is unknown although there is speculation he was contemporaneous with Chaucer. He may have written three other religious poems, Pearl, Patience, and Purity since they are housed in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain.
For those of you who think you have to brush up on your Middle English reading skills to participate in this read, worry not. You don’t have to read it in Middle English. I have located two translations on line:
Kenneth Webster and W.A. Neilson translation:
Jessie Weston translation:
There is also an audible version of the book if you prefer that.
And if you would like a taste of Middle English, you’ll find plenty of options from which to choose. I thought this reading was good:
Our Schedule
December 12-18 (Week 1): Parts 1 & 2
December 19-25 (Week 2): Parts 3 & 4
December 26-January 1 (Week 3): Discussion of the book as a whole

message 2: by David (new)

David | 2613 comments Part 1
Part 1 opens with a reference to the fall of Troy and the arrival of some of the Trojan warriors to the shores of Britain. Among them is Brutus. He is followed by a series of noble British kings, culminating in King Arthur, “counted most courteous of all” (Webster and Neilson trans.)
The poet claims to have heard the story of Sir Gawain “in hall,” and seen it written “in letters tried and true,” thereby establishing both an oral and written tradition for the poem. He takes us to King Arthur’s Court where the celebration of the holiday season is in full swing. Among those seated with Arthur at the dais is Sir Gawain, his nephew. Since this is a holiday and a time for festivities and entertainment, Arthur announces he will not eat until someone entertains him with a tale full of wonder. Right on cue, an outlandish intruder, dressed top to toe in green and riding a green horse, bursts into the festive scene to propose a highly unusual challenge. It involves a beheading and the condition that a return blow be accepted in a year and a day. Sir Gawain steps up to accept the challenge. And so begins the adventure.
Why does the poet begin with a reference to Troy and to Brutus?
Arthur is described as the “most courteous of all” as if to suggest politeness and adherence to a certain code of behavior is what makes a good ruler. By contrast, the Green Knight is brash, arrogant, and taunts Arthur’s men with accusations of cowardice. He refers to them as “beardless children.” Why set up such an obvious contrast between Arthur’s court and the Green Knight?
The poet provides a fairly detailed description of the Green Knight’s appearance and mannerisms. Is there any significance to the description? Why the color green?
The Green Knight is obviously not a typical knight. He is without the usual armor and carries an axe in one hand and a holly branch in the other. He declares he comes in peace in the spirit of the season. He challenges Arthur’s Court to a game. It’s all in good fun, he says. But is it? On the one hand, anyone who accepts the challenge must submit to having his head chopped off; on the other hand, to refuse the challenge means disgrace. Does this sound like good fun?
Gawain claims he is the weakest of the knights and “feeblest of wit.” If so, why does he volunteer for the challenge? And why does he agree to keep his part of the bargain even though he realizes he has been tricked by someone with supernatural abilities?

Part 2
Part 2 begins with the poet taking us through the year at a brisk pace until we get to All-Hallows Day, November 1. Sir Gawain prepares for his journey. The poet gives us a fairly extensive description of Sir Gawain’s gear, including the shield with a pentangle rich with Christian symbolism. Sir Gawain departs on this quest to find the Green Knight fully expecting to die. He “… soberly said goodbye/He thought forevermore.”
Sir Gawain enters the Wilderness of Wirrel. In addition to the difficult terrain and frigid weather, he has to battle all manner of wild animals and giants. We are reminded of his virtue:
Had he not been doughty and stern, and served God/doubtless he had been dead and slain full oft.”
He stumbles upon a castle in the woods where he seeks shelter. The host of the castle welcomes him and invites him to stay. Gawain is wined and dined. He meets the beautiful lady of the castle and her elderly female companion. The host insists the Green Chapel is only a short distance away and persuades Gawain to rest for a few days. He then suggests a game in which he agrees to give Gawain whatever he kills on his morning hunt in exchange for whatever Gawain receives in the castle. Gawain agrees.
And so the games begin.
Why does the poet go to such lengths to describe the pentangle and its significance?
Sir Gawain leaves the courtesy and good manners of Arthur’s Court to embark on a solitary journey into the wilderness in search of the Green Knight. What, if anything, does his entrance into the wilderness represent?
Why does the poet keep reminding us of Gawain’s virtue and faith in God?
Are there any parallels between the “game” suggested by the Green Knight and the “game” suggested by the host of the castle?

message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan | 387 comments I’ve always wanted to read this, so I’m excited to go find my copy and get started!

message 4: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 531 comments I think I have the recent translation around:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

While looking for the Jessie Weston translation in the Kindle store, I found and downloaded: The Romance of Morien

message 5: by Ian (last edited Dec 12, 2018 08:01AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments David wrote: "And if you would like a taste of Middle English, you’ll find plenty of options from which to choose...."

"Sir Gawain/Gawayne and the Green Knight" (SGGK for short) is available in a *lot* of Middle English and Modern English editions, too many for me to keep track off (and I no longer have my collection of texts and translations to refer too). So I'll mention a few, based on availability, or special interest.

The first edition that would be of real use to a student, rather than an advanced scholar, who could puzzle it out, was that by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 1925, which was reissued in 1967 with revisions by Norman Davis (Oxford). It had good commentary and glossary, which are of enormous help in dealing with the unfamiliar (very non-Chaucerian) dialect. This must not be confused with Tolkien's posthumously published *translation* of the poem (with "The Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo"), which was good, but perhaps not as much as one would have hoped.

For Tolkien/Gordon/Davis *text,* see
This version can be read on line, or downloaded, and can be toggled to display interlinear glosses, but the valuable notes are not available (so far as I have been able to figure out, anyway).

There does not seem to be an edition of SGGK on the TEAMS Middle English site, but, confusingly, there is an edition there of the later, shorter, and generally inferior "The Green Knight" -- see its introduction at
The site does include the other Middle-English Gawain verse romances: see

For those who would like a bilingual edition, if only to compare the two periods of English, Amazon offers a cheap ($0.99) edition. The translation, by Ernest J.B. Kirtlan, is from 1912, and I don't know where the Middle English text came from, only that it was added to the Kindle edition, as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [Original and Translation]," with the Middle English and the translation appearing in alternate blocks of material. It is usable, although not as much as a facing-page edition would be. And the "special characters" used in Middle English are included, which be intimidating to someone who has never been told about such obsolete letters as Thorn and Yogh.

Kirtlan's translation (only) is available as a free pdf (and other formats) at The Internet Archive (

There are a lot of other offerings on, but most of them are "borrow only," and some are on a waiting list. Of the older, public domain, translations, Jessie L. Weston's 1898 translation is included (several times), and that by Kenneth G.T. Webster and William A. Nelson, c. 1917, is at

Incidentally, there is a text edition there, rather painfully obsolete if you know later ones, beginning with, but not limited to, Tolkien and Gordon, as "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight: an alliterative romance-poem ..." edited by Richard Morris, 1864, revised 1869

This was for the Early English Texts society in its original paper-cover format, and was the first edition that could realistically be used by a student (it first appeared in 1839 in a large, expensive, collection, of Gawain romances), although I think that it would take a pretty advanced student to get a lot out of it, especially without tools like the Middle English Dictionary.

message 6: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 531 comments I was going to say "the Middle English is not that hard to read." Then I checked out the first stanza. I was in the weeds within ten lines:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
0002 Þe bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez,
0003 Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
0004 Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
0005 Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
0006 Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
0007 Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles.
0008 Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
0009 With gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
0010 And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
0011 Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
0012 Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
0013 And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
0014 On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
0015 wyth wynne,
0016 Where werre and wrake and wonder
0017 Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
0018 And oft boþe blysse and blunder
0019 Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.

Xan Shadowflutter (shadowflutter) | 386 comments Christopher wrote: "I was going to say "the Middle English is not that hard to read." Then I checked out the first stanza. I was in the weeds within ten lines:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
0002 Þ..."

Evidently, Chaucer, in an attempt to reach the largest audience, wrote the Canterbury Tales using a more modern version of Middle English ;-)

message 8: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments I found mine on hoopla. They have several versions.

For those not familiar, hoopla is an electronic lending platform that works through local libraries. If you have a library card and your library offers this platform you're all set :)

Libraries these days offer a number of electronic platforms, Overdrive, hoopla, cloud library, etc. For the avid reader it is definitely worth while checking out.

message 9: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 531 comments Xan Shadowflutter wrote: "SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz se..."
Evidently, Chaucer, in an attempt to reach the largest audience, wrote the Canterbury Tales using a more modern version of Middle English ;-)

I think it's "no coincidence" that Chaucer's Middle English is closer to Modern English than the ME of the Pearl poet, simply because his was London, or Southland, whereas the Pearl poet was from the north.

Even once you get past the þ ("th") and 3 ("gh"), there are still many obsolete words.

message 10: by Ian (last edited Dec 20, 2018 09:39AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Christopher wrote: "I was going to say "the Middle English is not that hard to read." Then I checked out the first stanza. I was in the weeds within ten lines:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
0002 Þ..."

Chaucer's Middle English, which is what most students dealing with Middle English read first (and often last), is easier going for a couple of reasons. The first is that Chaucer's southern English is one of the ancestors of literary Modern English (the actual situation is more complicated, but I'll let that pass).

Another is that his work (mostly) survives in a number of manuscripts, so that most modern editions (and not just those aimed at undergraduates) offer highly edited texts, with regularized spelling, often in the direction of modern spellings, especially where Chaucer, or the scribes, used it, or something like it, and it fits the meter. And it usually appears with a modern set of characters.

"Gawain," on the other hand, is in Northern English, not a direct ancestor of the modern literary language, and in a highly specialized form of it at that, retaining a lot of Old English (and sometimes Old Norse) vocabulary that may have been obsolete in general use. It helped with the alliteration to have bunches of synonyms starting with different sounds. (And to help with maintaining the complex meter, which I'm not competent to explain these days, if I ever was.)

On top of that, it is filled with words that appear only once in the poem, and are rare (or unknown) outside the "Gawain" manuscript, so there is no point in regularizing their spellings.

And the obsolete characters are often maintained, instead of substitutions being provided, like "th" for Thorn (þ), and "gh" for Yogh (Ʒ). (I hope the characters show up properly.)

Exactly which dialect of Middle English the Gawain-poem manuscript is in (and they were all dialects, a standard literary English emerged very slowly) is disputed. In the nineteenth century, its first editor suggested that, like some other Gawain poems, it was in Middle Scots. This did not stand up to scrutiny, but there doesn't seem to be much agreement on what to call it instead. {Addendum: I now find that there is a current consensus to call it "Northwest Midlands," with a lot of attention given to Cheshire as the most likely locale.}

message 11: by Susan (new)

Susan | 387 comments I’ve got a version from A Middle English Anthology edited by Ann Haskell. The text is in standard alphabet, and for each line, she provides the English for the tougher words. So line 1: ceased, line 2: burg/broken/burnt/brands/ashes, line 3: man/trammels, web and so on. With their aid, I can slowly make out the meaning, but it’s slow process and I might switch to English translation.

message 12: by Christopher (last edited Dec 12, 2018 09:21AM) (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 531 comments The reader can see in the first few lines some poetic license:

brittened and brent- burned and burned- or 'set fire to and burned.'

tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:- which conjures the paradox of 'truest treachery.'

I'll confess I've read this two or three times in my life, but it never sticks. Gawain goes on a quest to find what women most desire? Or am I thinking of the Wife of Bath's tale?

message 13: by Cphe (new)

Cphe | 586 comments Is it from this that the tale of the headless horseman originates?

message 14: by Cphe (new)

Cphe | 586 comments Concise prose - had no idea Gwen had grey eyes.

I've always imagines her blonde with blue eyes for some reason.

message 15: by Cphe (new)

Cphe | 586 comments Gwain is Arthur's nephew but Arthur refers to him as cousin.

message 16: by Cphe (new)

Cphe | 586 comments Anonymous you would think would have been part of the court and to have had some education. Perhaps a cleric.

message 17: by Rex (new)

Rex | 206 comments I've been reading a bit of Walter Hilton in the original (late 14th c.), and his book is not nearly as difficult as this text. Hilton was a university-educated Dominican, so I suppose it makes sense his style would be more accessible to a modern reader. Perhaps Ian can supplement this impression with his expertise.

I decided to use the Webster-Neilson translation; it looks to adhere closer to the original than Weston's.

message 18: by Ian (last edited Dec 20, 2018 09:35AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Rex wrote: "I've been reading a bit of Walter Hilton in the original (late 14th c.), and his book is not nearly as difficult as this text. Hilton was a university-educated Dominican, so I suppose it makes sens... Perhaps Ian can supplement this impression with his expertise...."

Well, I wouldn't call myself an expert on Gawain, or Middle English in general, but I still recall some of what I learned as a graduate student.

Middle English prose *is* quite often easier to follow than its verse, although often, alas, tedious, too. This may be because the literary tradition of English prose pretty much had to start over in the later Middle Ages, in competition with French, which provided plenty of models for being up-to-date and clear. Some writers anxiously offered older English synonyms for loan-words from French, which shows that this was a conscious project (and one which got started fairly early). Of course, there is a school of thought which finds considerable continuity with Old English prose (and the dispute over this issue was once rather bitter.) Another factor may have been that much of it was religious, and intended to persuade listeners when it was read aloud, so that the reason for use of the vernacular also was a reason for trying for immediate clarity.

Middle English verse, and most particularly alliterative verse, like that in SGGK, is another story. The alliterative poems are in some cases filled with words and phrases that might have come right out of "Beowulf," sometimes with very minimal changes, even in spelling. This can hardly have been due to a strictly literary tradition -- poetic Old English became obscure at an early date, even while prose manuscripts were still being copied and modernized in monastic settings.

Instead, we have to fall back on the Oral Formulaic theory, in which generation of poets preserved metrically convenient words and phrases, which could be slotted in while getting on with the story. They learned it from listening to their elders, not from textbooks. But fully appreciating that poetry probably required growing up listening to some of it, too, and picking up the old-fashioned (or always poetic) vocabulary and grammar that no one used in daily life. (Chaucer, or at least one of his characters, didn't like it when he heard it, and probably didn't understand it -- he seems to have thought that alliteration was bad idea which some benighted northerners got out of a book. He may have been right in thinking that it was more characteristic of northern than southern England, although there is some doubt even of that.)

None of which consideration stood in the way of some poets introducing what seem to be neologisms, right in the midst of archaic-looking lines.

"Gawain" and the other poems in its manuscript are often regarded as evidence of an "Alliterative Revival" somewhere around Chaucer's time. But the revival part may be an illusion, due to chances of survival.

For example, the unique "Beowulf" manuscript was damaged in an eighteenth-century fire which did destroy a number of Old and Middle English manuscripts of unknown contents. The same library, assembled by Robert Bruce Cotton in the seventeenth-century, also contained the Gawain manuscript!

So some scholars think that there was a lot more alliterative poetry circulating in parts of England than the manuscript evidence displays, and that it held an audience which was familiar with the strange poetic diction from hearing it recited or read aloud, rather than reading it for themselves.

For example, probably the last full-length alliterative poem on English history is as late as the reign of Henry VIII! It is a kind of short epic about the Battle of Flodden (as seen by the English), known as "Scottish Field" (with variant spellings of both words when the title is cited). Its nineteenth-century editors were sure its learned poet was borrowing from the only Middle English alliterative poems they were already familiar with, such as an "Alexander" romance. This is now seems a superfluous hypothesis.

In this context, a really weird thing about "Gawain," and the three poems that accompany it, "Pearl," "Patience," and "Purity" (or "Cleaness"), is that they combine the old-style alliteration, most at home in a series of long lines, with a very up-to-date structure made up of discreet stanzas, and complete with rhymes. This eventually begins to sound natural (after you've read a lot of them already, I'm afraid), but may have had novelty value for whatever audience(s) they were written for.

I think (with others) that the Gawain poet was a very literate writer who was working *with,* if not necessarily *in,* the good old style. And "Gawain" as a story has a lot more in common with Old French Arthurian romances than it does with any known Anglo-Saxon predecessors. The poet seems to have picked up a number of motifs and characters found scattered through French sources, which suggests someone at least bilingual, and possibly familiar with Latin as well, although I don't recall seeing the latter possibility argued either way. {Addendum: My memory isn't as good as I hoped. Taking another look, I find that the poet's knowledge of Latin *has* been discussed, and is considered at least likely, if not certain.)

message 19: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Cphe wrote: "Gwain is Arthur's nephew but Arthur refers to him as cousin."

I always like to cite my sources, if I can do it quickly. So I find that the on-line Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary offers for its first meaning of "cousin"
"1 a obsolete (1) : someone collaterally related more remotely than a brother or sister (as a nephew) (2) : one that is legally next of kin whether collaterally or lineally related except parent or child."

This usage goes back to the thirteenth century, so the Gawain-poet would certainly have been familiar with this, rather than, or as well as, the more restrictive reading.

Purely by the way, it is not entirely clear in the early Arthurian literature whether Gawain was the son of Arthur's (presumably older half-)sister, or of one of Arthur's mother's sisters (and so an aunt). But I don't think that the Gawain-poet had that problem in mind.

message 20: by Rex (new)

Rex | 206 comments Ian wrote: "...This may be because the literary tradition of English prose pretty much had to start over in the later Middle Ages, in competition with French, which provided plenty of models for being up-to-date and clear...."

All very interesting. Thanks.

message 21: by Rex (new)

Rex | 206 comments Patrice wrote: "does anyone know the significance of the color green?"

I'm not sure whether there has been serious research into this, but I know some have proposed a connection with the Islamic figure of al-Khidr, an immortal prophet often identified with the color green and Saint George. One could more obviously contrast the archetypal verdure of the Green Knight (combined with his long hair/bushy beard) with the "civilized" and artificial presentation of Camelot.

message 22: by David (last edited Dec 12, 2018 07:54PM) (new)

David | 2613 comments I am associating green with nature. These are some of the lines that put me in mind of nature.
the lining [of his coat] showed, with costly trimming of shining white fur; (this made me think of mountain tops lined with snow)

And all his vesture verily was clean verdure,. . .

(No traditional weapons or armor and the ax put me in mind of a woodsman)
. . .He had neither helm nor hauberk,
nor gorget, armour nor breastplate,
nor shaft nor shield to guard or to smite;
but in his one hand he had a holly twig,
that is greenest when groves are bare,
and an axe in his other. . .

message 23: by Sam (new)

Sam | 36 comments Ian wrote: "Rex wrote: "I've been reading a bit of Walter Hilton in the original (late 14th c.), and his book is not nearly as difficult as this text. Hilton was a university-educated Dominican, so I suppose i..."

Thank you for this background. Why I'm enjoying this Good Reads group so much.

message 24: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments David wrote: " Why does the poet begin with a reference to Troy and to Brutus?"

Isn't this found in a lot of such pieces? The tale is grounded in the heroic warrior tales of days long past, and to expect something on the same scale. It also established King Arthur's genealogy, perhaps reminiscent of the The Aeneid.

message 25: by Kerstin (last edited Dec 13, 2018 09:41PM) (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments David wrote: "Why does the poet go to such lengths to describe the pentangle and its significance? "

Pentacle, from Symbols of the Christian Faith: "The pentacle or pentagram is a five pointed star that in Christian iconography is associated with the five wounds of Christ. It is also associated with the Epiphany, representing Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles. As a sign to ward off evil spirits, the pentacle is carved on door frames, thresholds, and gates."

I also have a reference book on Christian symbols in German, Das Bilderlexikon der christlichen Symbole (not in GR database). Here additional notes are made that we've not touched upon yet about the color green. It is the color that symbolizes the balance between the red of hell and the blue of heaven. Green is also the color of Paradise. But, green is also used to depict the devil.

So some things come together.

The gold of the pentacle represents illumination, purity, immortality, and wisdom. The red (gules) stands for the sacrificial blood of Christ, and the blood of martyrs. In heraldry red also stands for military strength and warrior.

Then part of the shield has the Virgin Mary, "That when he looked thereon his courage might not fail." She, as Genesis 3 foretells, will slay the serpent by crushing his head, and is often depicted in Christian art.

So with these depictions Gawain seeks to invoke the powers of Heaven to aid him in his quest.

message 26: by Genni (last edited Dec 14, 2018 06:34AM) (new)

Genni | 837 comments David wrote: ".Gawain claims he is the weakest of the knights and “feeblest of wit.” If so, why does he volunteer for the challenge? And why does he agree to keep his part of the bargain even though he realizes he has been tricked by someone with supernatural abilities?"

Why does the poet keep reminding us of Gawain’s virtue and faith in God?

It seemed to me that the poet was wanting to draw parallels between Gawain and the Knight and David and Goliath. The knight in his bustling bravado comes in with a challenge and seemingly intimidates everyone, while Gawain in his witless youth accepts the challenge. Arthur counsels Gawain as Saul counseled David. The only thing missing are slingshots and stones. (Or maybe they come later. I haven't finished this section yet.)

I'm reading the translation by Tolkien and loving it so far.

message 27: by Ian (last edited Dec 19, 2018 07:45AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Patrice wrote: "i thought he was grounding Britain in the glory of Rome."

(And responding to Kerstin, as well.)

The Trojan origin of Britain was made "canonical" in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain," in which Britain is conquered (from the Giants) and settled by descendants of the Trojans who had settled in Latium (and gave rise to the Romans), under the leadership of one Brutus, whose name, pronounced in medieval Welsh something like "Britis," supposedly provided the new name of the island of Albion. Later, in both Middle English and Welsh, the name "Brut" designated a sort of national chronicle.

This is set up as a kind of companion-piece to Virgil's Aeneid, which was extremely popular in the Middle Ages: but the SGGK version seems to owe more to the medieval "Tale of Troy," a set of retellings of the Trojan War based on later classical sources, and a good deal of imagination.

In Geoffrey's version, followed in a number of vernacular translations, the common "Trojan" origin of both the British and the Romans becomes a rivalry. It is played out in a serious of conflicts between them, including the Roman conquest, but also drawing in the much earlier Gaulish invasion of Italy and occupation of Rome, which Geoffrey claims was carried out under British commanders. It culminates in Arthur's victorious war against the Romans, interrupted by the treachery of Mordred before he can capture Rome itself.

I've reviewed a couple of translations and editions of Geoffrey. See, e.g., The History of the Kings of Britain and
The History of the Kings of Britain: An Edition and Translation of the de Gestis Britonum

This was not particularly strange or original in the Middle Ages. Just about everyone wanted to be descended from Trojans, and thus peers, rather than subjects, of the Romans.

Probably the best-known example in modern times is Snorri Sturluson's claim of Trojan descent for Odin and Thor (et al.), in the Prose Edda. But the French long claimed that the Franks were also displaced Trojans. This lasted until at least the seventeenth century, when historical Germanic tribes began to replace the wandering Trojans. If I recall correctly, at least one patriotic French historian in the nineteenth century complained that the eighteenth century had abandoned the Trojan theory without sufficient consideration of the evidence.....

message 28: by Ian (last edited Dec 14, 2018 08:23AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Patrice wrote: "thanks Ian! i had no idea! it does seem that the brits, even today, feel they have descended from the Romans. i love the idea of the giants...which sounds a bit like david and Goliath as genni was ..."

Geoffrey seems to have included Ireland as well as Britain as having once been inhabited by Giants. Or at least he locates there a stone circle, known as the Giants' Dance -- but don't look for it in Ireland, Merlin moved it, and it is now known as Stonehenge.

Geoffrey has a couple of Giant-fighting episodes, the first involving Corineus, a companion of Brutus, and eponym of Cornwall, and the last, displaced to Brittany on the continent, featuring Arthur himself. (Who was born in Cornwall -- Geoffrey has a lot of subtle tie-ins, which increases the "historical" depth of his fantasy of the pre-Anglo-Saxon British past.)

message 29: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Sam wrote: "Thank you for this background. Why I'm enjoying this Good Reads group so much...."

Looking back on my comments, I think I overstated the difficulty of non-Chaucerian Middle English verse *in general,* as against the denser examples of alliterative texts. A lot of it is fairly clear, once an editor has cleaned up the spelling and provided a few glosses. A very good collection of this nature is a Norton Critical Edition Middle English Lyrics.

(Of course, there are some poems which remain obscure, even when the language is cleared up. I remain unconvinced that anyone has come up with a really convincing explanation of "Maiden in the Moor Lay.")

A French critic (I'm afraid I don't remember which) commented that the most interesting thing about Middle English lyrics is that, compared to older and contemporary French poems, they are not very predictable. When a Middle English poem opens with a girl weeping, you have no idea whether (a) her lover has abandoned her, (b) her lover is dead, (c) she is the Church weeping for the sins of mankind, or (d) she is the Virgin lamenting her Son. And it may take a while before this becomes clear. In fact, in some cases, one poem may play off a similar poem with a similar refrain, but a different resolution.

This was not unique to Middle English, of course.

Carl Orff included in his cantata "Carmina Burana," drawn from a medieval manuscript containing Latin and some Middle High German poems, a short, very secular, poem, "Stetit Puella (rufa tunica)," "A girl stands in a red dress."

It is not clear if Orff recognized that the meter is that of the "Stabat Mater (Dolorosa)," in which the girl *is* the Virgin Mary, and that it could, in theory, be sung to any setting for it. This may not have escaped medieval readers or listeners, as it probably does most moderns....

message 30: by David (last edited Dec 14, 2018 01:14PM) (new)

David | 2613 comments We go from starting our stories this way:
Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate, he was the first to flee the coast of Troy, destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil, yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above— thanks to cruel Juno’s relentless rage—and many losses he bore in battle too, before he could found a city, bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race, the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome.
Virgil. The Aeneid: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Kindle Locations 907-911). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
To almost the same way:
After the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
the city been destroyed and burned to brands and ashes,
the warrior who wrought there the trains of treason
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth.
This was Aeneas the noble;
he and his high kindred afterwards conquered provinces,
and became patrons of well nigh all the wealth in the West Isles.
As soon as rich Romulus turns him to Rome,
with great pride he at once builds that city,
and names it with his own name, which it now has:
PLUS a little more history:
Ticius turns to Tuscany and founds dwellings;
Longobard raises homes in Lombardy;
and, far over the French flood, Felix Brutus
establishes Britain joyfully on many broad banks,
where war and waste and wonders by turns have since dwelt,
and many a swift interchange of bliss and woe.

And when this Britain was founded by this great hero,
bold men loving strife bred therein,
and many a time they wrought destruction.
More strange things have happened in this land since these days
than in any other that I know,
but of all the British kings that built here,
Arthur was ever the most courteous,
as I have heard tell.

message 31: by David (last edited Dec 14, 2018 01:27PM) (new)

David | 2613 comments David Tamara wrote: "What, if anything, does his entrance into the wilderness represent?"

If the green in the Green Knight symbolizes nature, then I suspect one man going alone into the wilderness might signify a test of that man's character/religion/mores to see if they can stand against the conditions of being alone in raw nature as opposed to the more civilized and social conditions of the King's court.

message 32: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments Ian wrote: "The Trojan origin of Britain was made "canonical" in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Histor..."

Now that you mention it, I've heard of this before. Thanks!

message 33: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments Patrice wrote: "i looked up the symbolism of holly. the pointy leaves a Christ’s crown of thorns. the red berries his blood, could the knight be a christ figure?"

Gawain feels compelled to equip himself with a shield with symbolism to protect him from evil. The holly could be a mocking.

message 34: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments Here is a picture of the devil being depicted in green. The bishop is St. Wolfgang of Regensburg/Ratisbon (924-994).

message 35: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments David wrote: "INTRODUCTION

Disclosure: For those of you who may be thinking my writing style is suddenly and dramatically improved, you are correct. Anyone's writing would be improved if Tamara writes it, which..."

Thank you to David for posting my intro. I've been out of the country (US) for about a week and had only intermittent access to the internet. It's good to be back.
There's been a wonderful flurry of messages on Sir Gawain. It's so exciting to read all your comments. I love the poem. And I am thrilled it has generated so much interest.

message 36: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments Cphe wrote: "Gwain is Arthur's nephew but Arthur refers to him as cousin."

I think "cousin" was a general term used to indicate a relative/family member.

message 37: by Tamara (last edited Dec 15, 2018 07:07AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments I love all the many readings of the color green.

Rex (#23) drew a very interesting connection with Al-Khidr from the Islamic tradition. I hadn't made that connection before. Incidentally, Al-Khidr in Arabic is "the green one."

As David said (#24), green is associated with nature. Also as Patrice said (#25), hope, fertility, etc. etc.

Also, since the coming of the green is associated with spring, there is a connection with rebirth, renewal, etc. etc.

message 38: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments David wrote: "If the green in the Green Knight symbolizes nature, then I suspect one man going alone into the wilderness..."

If the Green Knight represents wildness, fertility, nature in its raw state, etc. then Gawain entering the wilderness is man leaving the civilized world with its laws and social customs to enter into an area where none of these apply. He is out on his own and cannot rely on any of the trappings of the civilized world to help/guide him.

I read somewhere (perhaps in something Joseph Campbell wrote) that Arthur's knights--and in many of the hero's journeys--the hero always enters 'the wilderness' alone. He makes his own path in the journey if he wants his quest to be a success. Also, he lets go of the horse's reins so that the horse (instinct) guides him.

Shakespeare does a lot with the green world. Many of his comedies begin with a problem in society. The characters then leave society and enter into a "green" world--a forest, an island, etc. While there, they solve the problem and then re-enter society having achieved the solution.

The trick is that one's entrance into the green world/wilderness is transformative. You never come out of it as the same person you were when you first entered. In many ways, you experience a death of sorts and a rebirth. And as with all death and rebirth, the process involves some measure of pain.

message 39: by Ian (last edited Dec 15, 2018 09:33AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments We've already seen a green devil, so I thought I would mention something from His Satanic Majesty's opposition.

As usual in a chivalric romance, we don't get a whole lot of practical information about *where* in the wilderness of western Britain Gawain searches for the Green Knight, but there is one topographical indication just before he reaches the castle, albeit slightly disguised by the poet. In line 700-701, we learn that:

Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale; wonde þer bot lyte...

"Over there at the Holy Head he reached again the bank (shore)
in the wilderness of Wirral: lived there only a few..."

(Text and glosses from the Tolkien-Gordon edition.)

Something pertinent was first pointed out -- I think -- by Sir Israel Gollancz, in an Early English Text Society re-editing of the poem in the 1920s. (The volume appeared posthumously in 1940 -- Gollancz died in 1930).

He there called attention to an actual shrine in Wales, dedicated to St. Winifred, at the right location in Wirral -- except that it was (and is) more commonly named Holy Well (and thus not distinguishable from a great many other Holy Wells scattered around Britain).

The poet's preferred name for it seems to reflect the story that, like the Green Knight, the saint had a replaceable head!

(It also reflects the need for a name alliterating on "h" to fit the meter, of course).

For the story, see Wikipedia

As mentioned there, the "translation" of the saint's relic to Shrewsbury, freely embroidered, is at the center of Ellis Peter's first novel of the adventures of Brother Cadfael, a Crusader turned monk and healer, and then turned (perforce) detective. A Morbid Taste for Bones

There is a Kindle edition of it as well:

message 40: by David (last edited Dec 15, 2018 11:57AM) (new)

David | 2613 comments I am having fun reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster in parallel with this. In it he says:
The quest consists of five things: (a) a quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there.
Foster, Thomas C.. How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised (p. 3).
a) Questor: Gawain
b) a place to go: The green chapel.
c) Stated reason to go: to receive a reciprocal axe-blow from the Green Knight
d) challenges and trials en route: wilderness and wild animals, so far.
e) a real reason to go there: We cannot be completely sure yet only halfway through, but Tamara wrote: The trick is that one's entrance into the green world/wilderness is transformative. You never come out of it as the same person you were when you first entered. and Thomas C. Foster says:
The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.
This suggests that the quest may ultimately come to address the deficient conditions that Gawain claims himself to be the weakest, I know, and feeblest of wit. If anyone is ready for a change, hopefully for the better, Gawain is. Although, he seems sharp enough to realize this about himself and therefore honor the bargain, despite the supernatural deception.

message 41: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments David wrote: "I am having fun reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster in parallel with this. In it he says:
The quest consists of five things: (a) a quester, (b) a pla..."

I had been trying to piece together in my head something along these lines, having it presented is even better. Thanks David!

My thoughts went along the lines of an inner and outer quest, where the physical challenges mirror and/or intertwine with the mental/spiritual interior challenges.

So far we've heard Gawain having to endure the elements and having to fend off creatures having ill will towards him for no reason. The poem doesn't dwell on it much, just matter of factly lists them. There is not much in terms of an inner struggle. He still seems focused.

message 42: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Patrice wrote: "the description of the green is wonderful. it does sound like holly. shiny green with jewels and the knight has red eyes like holly berries.

This description stuck out to me also. It also made me notice that several times the author describes a contrast between the green of the knight and something red. The holly berries here, at #19 the "blood (red) burst from the body, bright on the greenness", and there are some other places in parts 3 and 4 ( I couldn't stop reading). Green is obviously important, but I am wondering if red doesn't run a close second. What it means I don't know though.

message 43: by Susan (new)

Susan | 387 comments After reading on, I also took the opening with the reference to Troy and to Aeneas’ treachery as a reference to the eventual fate of the Round Table and Arthur’s kingdom and a possible hint that things are not as they appear in this story.

message 44: by David (new)

David | 2613 comments Because I was aware of Aeneas, the hero, only through Virgil's Aeneid, I was confused by the association of Aeneas with treachery. Apparently some Medieval stories depict Aeneas and another person named Antenor as having survived the siege of Troy in return for aiding the Greeks. Antenor never recovered his reputation for this act, but Aeneas redeemed himself afterwards.
Medieval interpretations of Aeneas were greatly influenced by both Virgil and other Latin sources. Specifically, the accounts by Dares and Dictys, which were reworked by 13th-century Italian writer Guido delle Colonne (in Historia destructionis Troiae), colored many later readings. From Guido, for instance, the Pearl Poet and other English writers get the suggestion that Aeneas's safe departure from Troy with his possessions and family was a reward for treason, for which he was chastised by Hecuba. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) the Pearl Poet, like many other English writers, employed Aeneas to establish a genealogy for the foundation of Britain, and explains that Aeneas was "impeached for his perfidy, proven most true" (line 4)

message 45: by Tamara (last edited Dec 17, 2018 03:33AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments Patrice wrote: "i will throw this thought out there to see if anyone thinks it applies. there is a theory that king arthur was the last roman king. the last king that understood justice. after him, the law of the jungle took over, the very dark ages. camelot is the memory of the roman time. what do you make of that?.."

Related to this theory is the theory concerning the quest for the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail was supposedly the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. The same cup was used by Joseph Arimathea to collect Jesus' blood on the cross. The knights embark on quests to find the Holy Grail because without it, the people and the land suffer spiritual and physical decline.

This is also connected with the legends of the Fisher King in which the Fisher King suffers a wound in his thigh (usually interpreted as the genitals) that renders him impotent. The land suffers a corresponding impotence, reducing it to a wasteland.

T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" is influenced by the legend of the Fisher King.

message 46: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1465 comments I should add that the whole point of the quest for the Holy Grail was to restore balance and harmony, i.e. to lift the land out of the dark ages--which ties in with what Patrice suggested @53.

message 47: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Patrice wrote: "a theory that king arthur was the last roman king. the last king that understood justice. after him, the law of the jungle took over, the very dark ages. camelot is the memory of the roman time. what do you make of that?..."

This is, as a whole, an ingenious reading of the Arthurian tradition, but Medieval romance-writers, and before them the pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth (in the early and middle twelfth-century), didn't recognize the concept of a Dark Age as such. That was pretty much the invention of the Renaissance Humanists, to signify how superior they were to their post-Roman predecessors, who didn't use Ciceronian Latin, let alone know Greek.

For Geoffrey, and, I think, his various French and Welsh translators/adapters, the problem was not "the law of the jungle," it was the success of the pagan Anglo-Saxons in conquering much of Christian Britain. (Even Layamon's early Middle English adaptation of a French adaptation is profoundly anti-Saxon, at least on the surface; I share the suspicion that in his version one should read the good "Britons" as "English" and the evil invading "Saxons" as "Normans.")

The idea of Arthur as "the last roman king" is better grounded, despite his invasion of the Roman Empire at the end of his reign in Geoffrey et al. (near the beginning in Malory). In Geoffrey he is the nephew of Ambrosius Aurelianus (aka Aurelius Ambrosius), who according to the early (sixth century) polemicist Gildas was "almost the last of the Romans." Exactly what Gildas meant by that is open to some dispute. There is a good summary of the possibilities and arguments on Wikipedia. See

In Geoffrey, he is more prominently a descendant of the Trojans, and, as usual in his "History of the Kings of Britain," a peer and rival of Rome, rather than a more-or-less legitimate successor.

Arthur's Britain sometimes seems very chaotic in the later French romances, but this seems to derive more from a need for adventures for his knights than a considered view of the order and prosperity otherwise attributed to Arthur's reign -- even in the same texts.

Camelot has taken on a load of symbolism in modern times, but not in the medieval romances. It first appears, not in the Latin "historical" tradition, or its immediate offshoots, but in the "Lancelot, or, The Knight of the Cart," by the late twelfth-century poet Chretien de Troyes, (and is not in all the manuscripts of it). In Chretien and his verse and prose successors, it is mostly the place where Arthur is to be found when not ceremonially "wearing the crown" in one or another city, or waging war with some insubordinate petty king. See

Based on incidents and names he has woven together in a new story, the Gawain-poet was also familiar with the French prose romances, and possibly some in verse, in which Arthur's "Roman" status is largely lost to view. He also knew enough of the Trojan story, although not of Geoffrey's version in particular, to invoke it at the beginning of his poem.

message 48: by Ian (last edited Dec 20, 2018 09:32AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Tamara wrote: "I should add that the whole point of the quest for the Holy Grail was to restore balance and harmony, i.e. to lift the land out of the dark ages--which ties in with what Patrice suggested @53."

This is going to be long post -- there is a lot to be said about the medieval Grail stories, although it relates only tangentially to "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." (And I'm leaving out the German versions, and some others, and concentrating on the Old French versions, and their English offshoot.)

First of all, I'm not sure whether there is a "point" for the Grail Quest that works for the whole, very complicated, tradition.

Chretien de Troyes' unfinished "Perceval, or, The Story of the Grail," from the late twelfth century, is notoriously opaque on what the "graal" is (probably a platter), and what it means, and his Grail is pretty much the concern of the title character, not Arthur's knights in general. Perceval was supposed to ask a question when it appears, but he had just been admonished not to ask so many questions (his most prominent character trait), and he lets the chance pass, thus leading to his quest to find the castle where he saw it, and finally ask the question that will heal a wounded king.

In the three long "Continuations" of it by other hands, finding the Grail becomes something that can only be achieved by "the best knight," and some of Arthur's men get involved for that reason, or are just sent to find the missing Perceval. In fact there are a whole bunch of "best knight" tests which are encountered by one or another knight.

In the short "Elucidation" sometimes tacked on to the "Continuations," the Grail has a sort of history, but seems to be connected to magic wells as much as anything else. The Complete Story of the Grail: Chretien de Troyes' Perceval and Its Continuations

It is this set of poems which is the main source for Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, probably the most popular study of the Arthurian legends, and the Grail in particular, yet written.

Depending on where you look, T. S. Eliot said it was -- or was *not* -- a major influence on "The Waste Land." It certainly figures in the notes he added to it at the publisher's request. Weston's Grail is essentially pre-Christian, and it is connected to the fertility and prosperity of the land in a big way, with a nod to Frazer's "Golden Bough," and that may have been all that Eliot picked up on.

The Grail becomes a definitely Christian object in the "Robert de Borron" cycle of (perhaps) poems about the history of the Grail, the history of Merlin, and the adventures of Perceval, which survives complete only in prose Merlin and the Grail: The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances: the original verse composition, if completed, was written slightly before 1200 or so. It shows some signs of familiarity with at least one of the Continuations.

For "Robert" (if that was his real name), the Grail is a relic of the Last Supper, the chalice used by Christ. This has become the standard view in later times.

In an early thirteenth-century prose romance, commonly known as "Perlesvaus, or The High Book of the Grail" (also "the High History of the Holy Grail" in the long-standard Sebastian Evans translation), which passes itself off as another completion of Chretien's enigmatic verse romance, the Grail becomes part of a whole set of Christian relics, and the quest, still featuring Perceval as the main hero, takes on symbolic meanings related to the Christian dispensation (the "New Law" versus the "Old Law"). And the hero has to deal with largely symbolic characters, like "The King of Castle Mortal" The High Book of the Grail: A Translation of the Thirteenth Century Romance of Perlesvaus. This was a trend already found in miniature in some of the "Continuations."

But the "Perlesvaus" (the name is a variant of Perceval), although it had a translation from Old French into Welsh (!), doesn't seem to have had all that much influence. Except, again, on Jessie L. Weston, who translated it (her version was only published recently.) And it lies behind portions of an excellent Arthurian novel (1963) by Dorothy James Roberts, Kinsmen of the Grail

In the long "Vulgate Cycle" of Arthurian prose romances, "The Quest of the Holy Grail," now featuring Galahad as the main quester, the story becomes an opportunity for little sermons and allegorical interpretations of adventures (as already found, on smaller scale, in Chretien and his Continuators). The Vulgate "Queste" also offers a particular view of the Eucharist, which goes right past me, and probably most modern readers, barring help from an editor. It is thought likely that this part of the cycle was written by a Cistercian monk (or monks). Gawain's former reputation as "the best knight," already under attack in the "Continuations," suffers badly in this version, and forms the basis of later, thoroughly vilified forms, including the final books of Malory (see below), and indeed some of Malory's pre-Grail stories.

The whole "Vulgate" (commonly accepted) work is sometimes referred to as the "Lancelot-Grail" cycle, and it was eventually expanded to provide a not-very-coherent account of the earlier history of the Grail, which doesn't match what we are told in the "Queste." See in general

For a stand-alone translation, see The Quest of the Holy Grail It has also been translated as part of a complete Vulgate Cycle.

An abridged version of it forms Malory's version of the "Quest," by far the most influential presentation in English, and is what people usually mean when talking about the Grail. (Unless they've paid close attention to Jessie Weston: or Wagner, but I'm leaving the whole German side out of consideration.)

In Malory's treatment of the Arthurian story, which includes material from some rather dark post-Vulgate romances, the quest, far from restoring peace and harmony, fatally damages the Round Table, allowing long-simmering conflicts to come to the fore in the diminished court, as shown in The Death of King Arthur (from which Caxton took his title for Malory's translation and condensation of French romances, as "Le Morte D'Arthur," which Malory may have called just "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights."

message 49: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments Ian wrote: "Tamara wrote: "I should add that the whole point of the quest for the Holy Grail was to restore balance and harmony, i.e. to lift the land out of the dark ages--which ties in with what Patrice sugg..."

Wow Ian! It seems there was a "production series" going on, much like the proliferation of novels after the original Star Wars trilogy, and many other sequels based on stories that have captured the human imagination.

message 50: by Kerstin (last edited Dec 17, 2018 02:02PM) (new)

Kerstin | 561 comments In Book II, XV - XVII, there are some interesting parallels to the The Odyssey. Gawain after gaining entrance to the castle receives a royal welcome. He is given the finest clothes to wear, they put in front of him a feast and only after all that he is asked who he is.

We've had a lengthy discussion on this type of hospitality when we read the Odyssey, and I am wondering, is this a custom that survived at least until the Middle Ages, or is this a nod to Homer? One place where I know exemplary hospitality is still practiced is within monasticism, especially the Benedictines are known for it.

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