NOTES - Medieval Literature - Part 2

Medieval Literature
Part II: King Arthur &
The Knights of the Round Table
Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight
• Author: The Gawain Poet / The Pearl Poet, most
likely a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer.
• Genre: Medieval Romance—contains noble
heroes, gallant love, a chivalric code of honor,
and daring deeds. Often include faraway
settings, fantasy, and a lighthearted tone.
• Source: Cotton Nero A.x. (Part of a collection of
Medieval Literature owned by Robert Cotton.)
• Importance: Emphasizes devotion to the code of
chivalry, the test of honor, and the respect for
courtly love, which required a knight to do
whatever a damsel asked.
• Tales of King Arthur were especially popular during
the Medieval Age due to the idealized world of
Camelot, which greatly contrasted medieval reality.
• This tale is one of the oldest Arthurian stories.
• Stems from Welsh and English traditions,
borrowing from earlier "beheading game" stories.
• The "game" of exchanging gifts was common. If a
man received a gift, he was obliged to provide the
giver with a better gift or risk losing his honor,
almost like an exchange of blows in a fight. The
poem revolves around two games: an exchange of
beheading and an exchange of winnings.
Background (cont’d):
Medieval symbolism
• Green: Life, nature, immortality, safety, renewal,
and hope.
• Red: Blood, sacrifice, love, courage
• Gold: Wealth, value, success
• White: Goodness, virtue
• Pentangle (Gawain’s five-pointed star on his
shield): NOT a symbol of the occult as it is now. Was
to remind man of things divine. Five different groups of
five: the five wounds suffered by Christ on the cross,
Gawain's five fingers, the five joys Mary found in the
infant Christ, the five human senses, and a series of 5
virtues: Generosity, Love, Purity, Courtesy, &
A huge knight, dressed all in green, appears at
Camelot on New Year’s Eve. The Green Knight
challenges any man in the court to strike his bare
neck with an axe, provided that the Green Knight
may do the same to the man in a year and a day.
Sir Gawain, the youngest of the knight’s and
nephew to the king, accepts the challenge and
severs the Green Knight’s head with one blow.
The Green Knight retrieves his head and rides off,
reminding Gawain to meet him at the Green
Chapel on the proposed day.
One year later, after many dangerous adventures
and on his way to keep his appointment with the
Green Knight, Gawain reaches a castle.
Summary (cont’d):
The lord and lady who reside there invite him to
stay for a few days. The lady attempts to seduce
Gawain, and even offers him several gifts, but he
resists her advances. He keeps, however, her gift
of a green sash which, she promises, “charms are
woven within,” and he wraps it around his neck.
After leaving the castle, Gawain faces the Green
Knight. The Knight raises brings his axe down
upon Gawain, thus fulfilling the pact; but
Gawain’s neck is only nicked. The Green Knight
explains that he himself had been Gawain’s host
at the castle and had arranged for his wife to test
Gawain’s honor.
Le Morte d’Arthur
(The Death of Arthur)
• Author: Sir Thomas Malory
• Genre: Arthurian Legend—Probably based on a
REAL 5th or 6th cent. Celtic leader who defended
Britain against the Anglo-Saxons.
• Source(s): William Caxton’s 1485 first edition of
Le Morte d’Arthur (a collection of Arthurian Tales)
by Sir Thomas Malory; probably French
collections of folklore.
• Importance: King Arthur has come to represent
the best of chivalry and of courtly behavior.
The Arthurian legend describes a king who held
to these principles in an attempt at perfection.
• The King Arthur Legend has existed for over 1,000
• FIRST developed in literature by Geoffrey of
Monmouth, a Welsh monk, who wrote Historia Regum
Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) in about
• Monmouth places the reign of King Arthur somewhere
shortly after Britain's separation from the Roman
Empire, around the year 410.
• In 1155, an Anglo-Norman author, named Wace, wrote
down his Roman de Brut in French, and introduced the
Round Table into the Arthurian legend.
• King Arthur legends continue to be a major influence of
modern literature, movies, websites, and video games.
King Arthur and his army have
besieged Sir Launcelot in the
fortified city of Benwick.
Meanwhile, Sir Modred has seized
Arthur’s throne and attempts to
persuade Queen Gwynevere to
marry him.
Arthur sails back to Britain to regain
his throne, and Gawain is injured as
they fight their way ashore. Before
dying, Gawain writes to Launcelot,
begging him to help Arthur. In a
vision, Gawain also warns Arthur
that he will be killed if he battles
Modred before Launcelot’s return.
Summary (cont’d):
Arthur makes peace with Modred, but fighting erupts
at the signing of the treaty. Modred is killed, and
Arthur is mortally wounded.
Realizing that his end is near, Arthur commands
Bedivere to throw Excalibur into a nearby lake.
When Bedivere finally does as he is told, he later
reports that he saw a hand rise from the water,
catch the sword, shake it three times, brandish it,
then pull it down.
Arthur’s body is carried to that same waterside, and
put aboard a mysterious barge. The barge takes the
dead Arthur away to the land of Avalon, and no one
sees him in Britain again.
Lawrence, Mark. “The Importance of Gawain's Shield in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight.” Associated Content from Yahoo. (2007).
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Wikipedia.
Taylor, Patrick. “Arthurian legend - a summary of Le Morte d'Arthur.” (2011.)

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