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British Literature Before 1800

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Without any doubt, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” represents Middle English literature of the late fourteenth century that was mostly written in alliterate romance.  Alliterative manner of romance is characterized by a repetition of a particular sound in the stressed syllable in order to unify lines in poetry. This poem is maintained in a single manuscript that consists of lexical units of the southern Cheshire and northern Staffordshire dialect. Until nowadays it is a big secret who was the author of this poem. However, literary critics have suggested that the author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” could be a clerk who genetically belonged to the British nobility in the fourteenth century due to the fact that this poem is full of the technical vocabulary (armor and hunting) and references to religious doctrines. Furthermore, in this poem it is evident that the author referred to the audience who fully comprehends the ideology of chivalry. In this case, the readers can suppose that the author may belong to the chivalry. Indisputably, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is identified as the most artistically organized poem in Middle English that is a part and parcel of Arthurian poems. Literary critics have argued about the source of the language of this poem, whether it is written in English or French. On the one hand, it is clearly seen that the plot of this poem consists of motifs found in Arthurian romance. On the other hand, it is generally true that the prime features of Middle English literature include French Arthurian traditions and common behavior of the protagonist in the Arthurian intersexual universe.

Undoubtedly, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” demonstrates the ideology of English chivalry with the aim to give a deep analysis of the role of King Arthur as the heir of Aeneas and Brutus. Historically, at that time the English aristocracy was fully integrated into French chivalric practice by including French expressions and lexis into its plot structure. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is determined as one of Arthurian stories that include the “beheading game”. The significance of the symbolism of the “beheading game” can be characterized by defining the main manner of tolerant behavior. In this case, the code of chivalry plays a crucial role, since it demonstrates the actions and values of Sir Gawain in the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The basic principles of chivalry have their historic roots in the Christian interpretation of the main concepts of morality in which the promotion of spiritual ideas is in the higher level than a spiritually fallen world. The concept of the Christian morality and chivalry are depicted in Gawain’s shield that is a core symbol in this poem. Undoubtedly, this shield is full of symbolic features which consist of the pentangle that shows the five virtues of knights, such as friendship, innocence, generosity, piety and tolerance. However, in this poem the readers can easily feel the dominance of Gawain’s personal virtue over the other virtues, since the main stress was laid on the vitality of heavenly virtue and its functioning in a fallen world. The chivalric system in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” can be symbolized by Camelot, while this poem has a tight connection with the Arthurian stories. Arthur’s court totally depends on the chivalry values, and Gawain and the Green Knight point out that in the kingdom the chivalry values prevail over truth. For instance, the complexity between the chivalry and human natural values can be evident in the episode when the Green Knight has a dispute with the court by stressing on its histrionics and simulation. Moreover, Gawain pointed out that the members of the court never show their true nature and feelings, but instead they demonstrate their adulatory behavior and courtesy. During his travelling from Camelot into the wilderness, Gawain wants to prove that his animal nature is progressing in him more than the concepts of chivalry. In the episode when he prays for help, he gains a reward and finds himself in a castle. The citizens of Bertilak’s castle give a lecture to Gawain about the truth and natural human behavior that are considerably more vital comparing to the values established at Arthur’s court. Moreover, in this poem the citizens of Bertilak’s castle can be symbolized as nature itself, since they behave in their own manner without being artificial. However, the poem does not suggest that the values of chivalry should be abandoned. While challenging the Green Knight, Gawain learns about his own personality and understands that he is only a physical being. In this case, chivalry is represented as a set of ideals that the person should obtain during life. Moreover, at the time being in the wilderness, Gawain realizes that, nevertheless he is a human being and full of laical mistakes, he may become the most chivalrous knight in the land.

Another vital symbol in the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”is the green girdle. The readers can easily trace how the meaning of the host’s wife’s girdle is changed over the course of the narrative. The host wife claims that the girdle has some magical power that saves humans from the evil creatures. However, in this poem part 4 demonstrates that the girdle has no power. Moreover, the meaning of green color is also a perplexing issue. According to the English folklore and literature, green color was traditionally associated with fertility, nature and rebirth. Moreover, in Medieval English literature this color could also symbolize death, devilry, evil, misfortune and witchcraft. In this poem the green girdle was also embroidered in golden silk; thus such combination of green color and gold is a symbol of adolescence’s passion. Moreover, by depicting the girdle in green color, the author wants to emphasize the tight connection with the Green Knight. When the Green Knight exposes himself as the host, Gawain decides to curse the girdle by showing his own abhorrence to cowardice.

Moreover, Lady Bertilak’s ring is also one of the vital symbols in this poem. In Arthurian romance, ring given by the lady was associated with the amulet. On the one hand, it was a symbol of love and devotion. On the other hand, it was a mysterious talisman that protected the wearer from harm.

Furthermore, the vitality of numbers is keenly felt in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, especially number three. For instance, three kisses between Gawain and Bertilak’s wife; Gawain’s temptation to her lasted during three days; Bertilak’s hunting continued three days, and the Green Knight tried to strike with his axe three times. Moreover, the number two is repeatedly mentioned in this poem, particularly in the two castles, the two scenes of beheading and confession scenes. Additionally, the number five has also a symbolic meaning, since the author uses this number in order to show the five concepts of morality of the values of chivalry, the five devout Gawain’s senses, Gawain’s memory of the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin Mary.

Finally, in the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the wounds also bear the symbolic features. This can be confirmed by the fact that at the poem’s climax, Gawain was wounded in the neck by the Green Knight’s axe. In the medieval period, humans believed that the body and the soul were intimately connected. In case, if the body was wounded, it was a sign of human sinfulness and loss of morality. In this poem, Gawain accepts the ring, thus he gives a way to temptation and gets the punishment from God. Furthermore, the Green Knight challenges Gawain constantly in order to show his weakness and departure from the basic norms. In this case, the Green Knight can be associated with the judge who points out that everybody is suffering from the lack of persistent maintenance to the fundamental rules of morality.

In the framework of analyzing the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” it is highly recommended to mention the core themes of this poem in order to understand the main purpose of this literary masterpiece. First of all, the author depicts the nature in a strong connection with the society. Throughout the poem, the fight between Gawain and nature is clearly seen. In this struggle, Gawain understands that he should conquer his internal sexual desire and reunite with the innocence of nature. Secondly, the futility of human nature is one of the major themes, since it describes the human means of life through their ritualistic meanings. For instance, Gawain’s armor cannot struggle against the forces of nature; nevertheless it is polished and well-forged. Thirdly, the faith in God is one of the central motifs of this poem, since Gawain always finds guidance in God. Moreover, Gawain’s shield has the image of the Virgin Mary. Fourthly, in this poem the biblical parallel, such as the fall of a man and loss of innocence are fully described. For example, the symbol of Paradise can be Bertilak’s castle and the symbol of Eve can be his wife that is depicted as temptress. Consequently, by using this parallel, the author wants to demonstrate human weakness and the endless struggle between mankind and the divine. Finally, the perplexity of defining the genre of the poem is also through the motif of this poem. On the one hand, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is identified as a romantic poem due to its uneasiness and probability to provoke to various questions. On the other hand, this poem includes the elements of parody and satire.

All in all, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”is determined as one of the best Arthurian stories that depict the fundamental basis of chivalry, king’s power, attitude to women, faith in God, power of nature and internal life of humans in the late fourteenth century. Moreover, this poem shows the relationships between men and women and the complexity of these relations due to the neglect of the basic principles of human behavior. Finally, this poem demonstrates the complexity of human inner nature, fear of law violation and moral rules. 

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