Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the texture and contextual characteristics of „Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Unfortunately, according to British Library, we know nothing about the author of this medieval poem, but most scholars believe him to have been a university-trained clerk, or the official of a provincial estate  It was probably written around 1400. This alliterative poem survived with three other works: Purity, Pearl and Patience- they all were written by the same man. The original manuscript was discovered in the 17th century as a part of Yorkshireman’s (Henry Saville of Bank) collection.

The poem had been forgotten for almost 200 years until Victoria sat on the throne and brought it to light. Nowadays, not only it is considered an excellent example of Middle English poetry, but also as one of „the jewels in the Crown” of English literature.

„Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is the representative text of medieval chivalric romance- the principal kind of romance found in 12th century in Europe.

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It describes (usually in verse) the adventures of brave knights. Chivalric romance is a celebration of sophisticated, refined maneers that combine loyalty, honor (and what coems with that: challenges, tournaments), and most important- courtly love. What is Chivalry? The word „chivalry” derives from the French word „chevalier” meaning a horseman; a knight or a gallant young man. The definition of Chivalry can be described as a term related to the medieval institution of knighthood referring to the codes of conduct, including courtly love, adhered to by Medieval knights with gallant knightly values including honor, bravery, courteousness and honesty.

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Chivalry was the honor code of the knight. An important part of chivalry was to show respect and gallantry towards women. The Code of Chivalry was an important part of the society and lives of people who lived during medieval times and era. The Code of Chivalry was admired and understood by all. The term „amour courtois”—translated into English as „courtly love”—came into wide use during the late 19th century through the work of the French philologist Gaston Paris, but the term itself was rarely used in medieval literature of any European language. The term „courtly love” evokes an image of romantic gestures, stylized rituals between knights and their chosen ladies of high rank. Just as the knight owed obedience and loyalty to his lord, so he must show faithful devotion and obedience to his lady, performing heroic deeds in an effort to win her favor- that’s why it isn’t really wrong to say that it was rather ritualized game than real, pure love between man and woman. Rich, colorful, and precise descriptions make the poem more vivid or appealing if you wish, to a reader.

This medieval romance adapted Old English meter tends to connect the two halves of each poetic line through alliteration, or repetition of consonants. The poem also uses rhyme to structure its stanzas, and each group of long alliterative lines concludes with a word or phrase containing two syllables and a quatrain—known together as the “bob and wheel”. This technique helps to spin the plot, and narrative together in interesting ways; moreover, they provide explanations on what has just happened, create a feeling of worrying or excitement (in other words- suspense), and also act as a transition to the next scene. The vocabulary is astonishingly rich—influenced by French in the scenes at court but strengthened by many dialect words, often of Scandinavian origin, that belonged to northwest England. The blend of sophisticated atmosphere, psychological depth, and vivid language produces an effect superior to that are hard to find found in any other work of the time.

The poem starts as well as ends at Camelot Castle during a New Year’s Eve feast hosted by King Arthur. The peaceful and joyful celebration is disturbed by arrival of a strange figure- the Green Knight. He comes with an extraordinary challenge- The Green Knight says that he will allow whomever accepts it to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year to receive a blow in return. With a bit of hesitation the King himself wishes to accept this proposition; however at the very moment when he grips Green knight’s axe, sir Gawain stands up, and asks for permission to take up the challenge. He takes hold of the axe and, in one deadly blow, cuts off the knight’s head. To the amazement of the court, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head, which before riding away, reminds the rules of the pact, and tells young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. After the Green Knight leaves, the company goes back to its festival, but Gawain is uneasy. On the Day of All Saints he starts his journey to find the Green Knight- with his best armor, and horse Gringolet. He begins the travel towards orth Wales, traveling through the wilderness of northwest Britain. Gawain encounters all sorts of beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass.

On Christmas Day, he prays to find a place to hear Mass, then looks up to see a castle shimmering in the distance. The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For sport, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) strikes a deal with Gawain: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, and when he returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind at the castle. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife attempts to seduce him, but she is put off; nonetheless, she steals one kiss from him. That evening, when the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, Gawain kisses him since he has won one kiss from the lady. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. The lady again enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. That evening Gawain gives the host the two kisses in exchange for the boar’s head. The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She also asks him for a love token, such as a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her, until the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is no ordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims, but possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Intrigued, Gawain accepts the cloth, but when it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives the three kisses but does not mention the lady’s green girdle. When New Year finally arrives Gawain dons his armor, including the lady’s gift, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain decides to give up the quest. Gawain refuses, determined to meet his fate.

He founds the Green Chapel and calls out, and the Green Knight rushes to greet him. To fulfill the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight, who proceeds to pretend two blows. On the third fake attempt, the Green Knight cuts a little Gawain’s neck, barely drawing blood. Angered Gawain shouts that their contract has been met. The Green Knight reveals his name, Bertilak, and explains that he is the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. Because Gawain did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak drew blood on his third blow. Nevertheless, Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight, without equal in all the land. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt, and King Arthur’s half-sister. She sent the Green Knight on his original adventure and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Relieved to be alive, but extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth, Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court, where all the knights join Gawain, wearing girdles on their arms to show their support.

This gripping story several important themes, which make the poem stand out. Firstly, As the Knight of the Virgin Mary, Sir Gawain lives his life according to the laws of chivalry and Christian morality. These themes are readily apparent in the poem, which frames Gawain's dishonorable act of keeping the green girdle as a sin. Gawain realizes that he isn't as perfect or faithful as he once believed. In the end, however, his fellow knights forgive him, offering hope to other sinners- it shows the humane nature of faith; everyone has right to do mistakes unless you are aware of your faults, God forgives. The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry need to be abandoned.In fact, Gawain’s loyalty to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host’s wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight’s challenge is that he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which we should pursue, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain’s time in the wilderness, and his acceptance of the lady’s offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error. Secondly, truth is one of the central themes of „Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The Middle English word „trouthe" carries many more connotations than the modern word "truth." Trouthe implies faithfulness and a sacred promise. By failing to trust in the Virgin Mary (who is the symbol of purity) and keeping the green girdle, Sir Gawain breaks his chivalric oath. Magic plays an important role in „Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Though the main characters are Christians, the poem is placed in Arthurian legend, and the Morgan Le Fay manipulates Gawain, disguising Lord Bertilak as the Green Knight in order to test the young knight. Magic is connected with pagan; however, the poet uses it in the context of Christianity.

In conclusion, the anonymous poem „Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is undoubtedly a perfect representative of Medieval English literature. It’s referenced to Christian morality, as well as to pagan magic, and Arthurian legend provides a unique piece of art, which breaks some accustomed conventions in a sublime way, such as courtly love, or chivalric code. It shows beautifully how the English language developed during that age, and how it was influenced by other nations.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (2020, Sep 15). Retrieved from

Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight essay
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