Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in its original Middle English form, is recognized as a literary work of the highest quality. Yet it has been known to us for only a hundred years, and it remains largely inaccessible to the nonspecialist because of the difficulty of its language, a language far more remote from the English of the present than that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s London. Gawain first turns up in modern history in a manuscript belonging to the library of the great antiquarian of Elizabethan times, Sir Robert Cotton. Cotton, in turn, seems to have obtained the manuscript from a library in Yorkshire; this is not surprising, for the Gawain poet must have lived somewhere in the Midlands of England, probably near present-day Stafford. He was a contemporary of Chaucer’s, but there is little likelihood that Chaucer ever heard of him or knew his works. The single manuscript in which Gawain is found contains three other poems generally considered to be the work of the Gawain poet. Two of these, called Patience and Purity, are written in the same alliterative verse-form as Gawain; the third, called Pearl, is in an elaborate rhymed stanza. Patience tells the story of Jonah and the whale, moralized as a lesson in submission to God’s will; Purity is a loosely organized series of stories from the Bible and reflections on the virtue (“cleanness” in the Middle English) which its title denotes. Pearl is a dream-vision in which the narrator, stricken by the loss of the daughter that had been his pearl of great price and willfully rebellious against the faith he intellectually accepts, is led by the Pearl-maiden to a state of comparative reconciliation. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance; the plot of the poem, with its elements of the supernatural and of amorous intrigue, reflects both in its main outlines and in the handling of its descriptive details the treatment that the originally Celtic Arthurian legends had recei,·ed at the hands of such medieval French poets as Chretien de Troyes. As a late fourteenthcentury poem, Gawain is a product of the end of the Middle Ages. The ideal of knightly conduct-of courage, loyalty, and courtesyagainst which the poem’s action is to be viewed was a long-established, though still viable, ideal, which had become subject to superficial acceptance and even satirical treatment. It may legitimately be compared to the Boy Scout ideal of conduct, similarly viable and vi
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