Maybe you haven't heard of Sir Gawain, but we're willing to bet you definitely know of King Arthur. Sir Gawain is one of Arthur's trusty knights, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a looong poem about him.
This poem is part of the medieval romance tradition, which means it focuses on the journey or quest of a single knight (here, Sir Gawain) and what he learns about himself and his culture in the process of pursuing a great adventure. The noble Gawain accepts the challenge of a mysterious knight. Nope, not a black one or a dark one. A green one. And the story goes from there.
Sir Gawain was written in northwestern England in the late 14th century… yep, meaning the 1300s. Old as it is, Sir Gawain was written in English. But not the kind of English you'd recognize. It's written in a dialect of Middle English called North West Midland. Middle English was a much less standardized language than modern English is today. Two people writing at the same time, in the "same" language, would have a hard time understanding one another’s work if they came from different parts of England. The North West Midland dialect of Middle English has a lot of loan-words from Welsh. It also has a lot of holdovers from Anglo-Saxon, the language spoken in England before it mixed with French.
What does that mean for you? Well, you'll probably be reading the poem translated into modern English. Heck, even if you got the hang of Chaucer's London dialect of Middle English when readingThe Canterbury Tales, that doesn't mean you'll be able to read the English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Bummer. But don't feel bad. Lots of people who study this stuff for a living can’t make it through the poem without their facing-page translations. And it's still worth checking out Sir Gawain in its original form; it's fun to try to puzzle out the words. Hey, maybe you'll eventually become a master of the language and write your own translation, kind of like J.R.R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame).
No one knows who wrote Sir Gawain, but it's written in a unique style (which you can read all about in "Writing Style"). The author responsible for Sir Gawain's distinctive style probably also wrote three other long poems that are contained in the same manuscript, Pearl, Patience and Cleanness. Unlike Sir Gawain, these other two poems are more obviously religious in nature. Because he also wrote Pearl, though, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is sometimes also known as "the Pearl Poet."
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever felt pressure to be perfect? Maybe your parents or your teachers have standards for you that seem impossibly high. Or maybe you’ve done well at something in the past and feel like if you don’t continue to succeed at it in the future, you’ll let everybody down. Well, that’s probably how Gawain feels when he arrives at the castle in the enchanted forest only to find that his reputation has preceded him.
Everybody knows him as Sir Gawain the Great – yes, that Gawain, the one renowned for chivalric behavior, knightly prowess and courtesy, the best knight and the greatest lover ever to walk the earth. They expect more of the same from the Gawain who arrives at their castle, but all the while, he’s quaking in his boots about having to confront the terrifying Green Knight in a few days. Gawain probably wishes he weren’t Gawain the Great – that he could just be a regular guy who makes a stupid promise and backs out at the last minute.
Unfortunately, though, life doesn’t work that way: it’s a rare person who can walk out on all his obligations without losing himself in the process. Yet, as Gawain learns, it doesn’t have to be an either / or proposition: in the end, he can be partly a truly great knight, and partly a really huge coward, and life will still go on. In fact, when it comes right down to it, the person with the highest expectations for Gawain is himself.