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.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of the more entertaining selections the class was assigned to read. It told an interesting story in a unique way. In terms of literature, it is considered to be the best and most prolific example of medieval english literature, a romance of King Arthur and the Knight's of the Round Table that has been read, translated, and retold throughout the centuries. The work's anonymous author, the "Pearl" Poet, has a unique style and a habit of diverging from the path when it comes to the various things he alludes to in his writings. This romance also highlights the romantic knightly ideal that so many associate with medieval English society.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a prime example of romantic literature. It takes legendary characters and weaves an intriguing yet supernatural story about bravery, chivalry, and chastity. Food, clothing, environments, and people are all painstakingly described in great detail, another key aspect of romantic literature. The author of this work, as like others of romantic works, established a strict code of behavior that the characters were expected to follow, rules and customs that became part of everyday life in the real world. Of the three main areas of romantic literatureâ€•Materials of Rome, France, and Britainâ€•Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belongs to the most influential cycle of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table found within the Material of Britain.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins during a New Year's feast at King Arthur's Court. Amidst the stereotypical courtly reveling, a great knight wearing only green armor enters the the hall. He challenges King Arthur and his men to a game. The rules of the game were that any who accepted would be offered the Green Knight's axe to decapitate it's wielder, followed about one year later by the Green Knight's opportunity to return the blow to his opponent. Gawain, a particularly handsome and boisterous knight, reluctantly agrees in order to defend the honor of King Arthur and his knights, as the Green Knight was calling them all cowards and what not for choosing not to accept the terms of the game. Gawain takes the axe, the Green Knight presents his neck for the blow, and Gawain strikes, severing the Green Knight's head. Instead of dying, his body retrieves his head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in about one year, and departs.
The year slowly passes, the seasons change, and with them Gawain's personality. Come winter, Gawain matches the weather outside: cold, harsh, and dreadful. New Year's Eve approaches and Gawain decides to set out for his date with the Green Knight. He fights his way through foul weather and foul-tempered beasts, eventually finding himself at the doors of a beautiful castle, the home of Lord Bertilak and his wife. They welcome the renowned hero of King Arthur's Knights and request that he stay for a few days rest. He informs them of his quest for the Green Chapel, but they insist that it is only a couple miles away and that he should just stay a few days and enjoy their hospitality. He eventually agrees to stay.
The next day, Lord Bertilak informs Gawain that he will be going hunting and offers a little game to him as well. Anything that he catches, he will give to Gawain in exchange for anything that Gawain receives. Gawain agrees and Bertilak departs, hunting for deer. Later that day, Lady Bertilak approaches Gawain in his room and tries to seduce him. His knightly code of chivalry and chastity come into conflict here as she demands that he acquiesce to her demands. In the end, only a single kiss is exchanged. That night, Lord Bertilak gives his catch to Gawain, while Gawain gives his single kiss to Bertilak. The next day Bertilak sets out hunting for wild boar, and Lady Bertilak again attempts to seduce Gawain. After much innuendo, the pair exchange two kisses. Later that night, the two men exchange gifts: a hard-earned boar's head and two kisses. On the third day, Bertilak leaves to hunt fox, and again Lady Bertilak goes to Gawain's room. She presents to him a green sash that she insists will protect the wearer from physical harm. Thinking to use it against the Green Knight, Gawain accepts the gift, along with three kisses. That night, the two men trade once moreâ€•a fox and three kisses, but no sash is traded.
On the next day Gawain departs the castle of Lord Bertilak, green sash in hand. He eventually comes to the Green Chapel, hearing an axe being sharpened nearby. He approaches the Green Knight and lowers his head for the axe strike, but flinches. The Green Knight mocks his courage for flinching. Gawain lowers his head once more and the Green Knight swings twice, but stops both times. On the third strike, he connects only lightly, leaving just a small cut. Confused, Gawain is shocked to discover that the Green Knight is actually Lord Bertilak, working for Arthur's sister Morgan le Fay. The whole game was just a set up by her to cause trouble for King Arthur and his knights. After a brief conversation, Gawain leaves Bertialk on good terms to return to Camelot, where King Arthur decrees that all Knights of the Round Table should wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.
This story reflects much of late medieval English society. There was a fascination with courtly life, the soap-opera-esque nature of the stereotypical royal court. When I think of all this, the love life of Henry VIII comes to mind, complete with the womanizing, double-dealing, back stabbing courtiers all trying their best to be recognized by the King (granted that Henry VIII was post-medieval, the reference still holds true). Society was bored with the mundane. The lower classes did not have much to cling to. Works such as this, with the heavy use of detailed descriptions of armor and food, send the reader to that world, with vivid images of heroic knights and delicious foods.
This work stands out from among the crowd of other medieval romances. This is due in no small part to the "Pearl" Poet and his unique style. At the estimated time of this work's writing, romantic tales about King Arthur and his knights were growing stale, but the mystery author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight did not care. He went against what seemed to be popular for the times and wrote the most prolific and enduring tale of Arthur and his knights to survive the Middle Ages. The author could arguably have been a courtier or other such familiar of courtly life, for the detail and knowledge that he possesses could only be gained by first hand experience. His description of the food, the weaponry, and the inner-workings of castle and courtly life lead credence to this idea. He demonstrated knowledge of game animals and courtly games and romances. He also chose to write about winter, a season much ignored by other artists of the written word. Winter was not a pleasant time, especially in England and Northern Europe, so most authors would not write of it. Why should the reader want to be reminded of a time of the year that he may barely survive? These are just some of the reasons why the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight wrote such a unique Arthurian romance.