I am used to reviewing books. I have written many such reviews for my university’s English department blog. Whether it is science fiction, fantasy, or even history or theory, I tend to have an easy time with the review. However, the classic medieval text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, being far from my comfort zone as an epic poem, presented me with a curious problem—how do I review something which I had previously never even been exposed? I guess the classic tried and true method of engaging with said material, via a jotting down of my initial thoughts and impressions without worrying too much over the scholarly history and critical perspectives already existing on the text.
The good news is that I enjoyed the text. Though I am usually slow on the uptake when it comes to poetry, never much enjoying it to begin with, I found the sort of rhythmic consistency of the Alliterative Revival to be both understandable as well as pleasing to my mind and ears. With the Gawain-poet engaging in splendid narrative force which brings out the rich quality of the poem, writing something which, I have read, stands out in force from similar texts of the period, I was able to enter the text and enjoy its linguistic tapestries without becoming mired in thinking too deeply about what exactly the author was attempting to convey with any single line.
The narrative itself was something different. Explained simply, and there is really no other way to describe it, the story is one of King Author’s knights. In classic mode, they are sitting around the round table during one winter’s evening when, suddenly, a knight, dressed all in green, barges in and issues a challenge to Author’s court. Accepting the challenge is Sir Gawain; the green knight demands that Gawain strike upon him a single blow with all his might but at the cost of journeying to the green knight’s abode where Gawain must endure a similar fate.
As odd as the conditions may seem to a contemporary reader, Gawain accepts and drives home a strike against the green knight with all his might. Decapitating the knight in the process, the reader would imagine that that is where the narrative ends. They, you, would be wrong. For, the green knight is a supernatural entity, it appears, and picks up his severed head, talking through it as he reattaches his head onto his body. Before he leaves, he reminds Gawain of his obligation to seek him out in one year’s time, and vanishes.
Gawain, being a noble knight with honor, keeps his end of the bargain and sets out on an epic adventure to seek out the green knight. Journeying far across hostile lands while fending off all manner of vile creatures, Gawain arrives at a friendly castle where he is hosted by a jolly lord who takes him in and feeds him. Once there, bets are made and competition and trials commence, and Gawain is tested in ways he never thought possible.
If we wanted to make a simple remark on this poem’s contents, then we can say that it was far ahead of its time. During the later parts of the poem, we see alternating story lines, with Gawain being tested in the castle and the lord hunting on his grounds. Narratologically, this is not a technique which would be widely used for many years, as most writers of the fourteenth century focused their literary talents on single narrative pieces which usually stressed a religious or moral quality; ideas on utilizing several characters to act in a dialectical framework, each one stressing another aspect of their counterpart, was only used during this time by the most neophyte of writers, those outside of the conventional milieu and not afraid to chart new paths.
So, in the end, I found the Green Knight, to be a greatly enjoyable read. Truthfully, it was a pleasant surprise. Considering my presumed lack of skill in poetry, especially my familiarity with pre-epic poetry writings, I did not believe that I would find the Gawain-poet’s tale entertaining—but I did, above and beyond even! I intend on engaging with this text more during the coming months. I want to probe and play with this story in ways seldom done before as a tribute to my enjoyment of it. But, to stop before I bore you, yes, the Green Knight is a rousing tale of heroism and honor and it keeps its name of being one of the greatest tales of the Arthurian canon.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Gwain-poet (author unknown)
109 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $10.95. 2008.