Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Guide

The Manuscript: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exists in only one original manuscript, as the last of four poems in the MS. Cotton Nero A x. dating no later than 1400. The three poems preceding it are Pearl, Purity, and Patience, and all four are generally considered to have been written by the same anonymous poet, judging from similarities in style, dialect, and theme. The poems are also illustrated with crude drawings; in the case of Gawain, the illustrations show the various characters of the poem but are not necessarily in keeping with the poem's description of the characters. We have no further evidence of when or where the manuscript was written, although most scholars believe that the dialect indicates an origin in the northwest Midlands of England. The earliest record of this manuscript is in the catalogue of an sixteenth-century lord in Yorkshire, but we do not know how it got there, or how it fell into the hands of Sir Robert Cotton, after whom the manuscript has now been named.

Note on poetic meter: Gawain is typical of Middle English alliterative poems in that it is written in alliterative long lines, following the basic metrical principles of Old English verse. Each long line consists of two half-lines, each half with two stressed syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables. Most importantly, the two half lines are connected by alliteration ? that is, repetition of the same consonant sound on at least two, often three, of the stressed syllables. For example, the poem begins: "Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye" (line 1), with the "s" sound recurring five times within the single long line. The long lines do not rhyme with each other. However, they are organized in stanzas of fifteen to twenty-five lines, and each stanza concludes with a construction known as a "bob and wheel." This term refers to a group of five short lines, which do rhyme, to the pattern of ababa. If you are not reading Gawain in the original Middle English, the poetic structure may not be maintained in the translation. Some modern English translations keep the rhyme and meter strictly; others are only prose translations.