Gawain Green Knight Essays

These are topics on which you can write a substantial anaytical paper. They are designed to test your understanding of major themes and details from the work as a whole. Following the topics are outlines you can use as a starting point for writing an analytical paper.

Topic #1
The major theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the hero’s passage to maturity. Along the way, he passes three major tests. First, he shows courage and initiative when he volunteers to take the place of Arthur and accept the challenge of the Green Knight. Second, he shows discipline, self-control and honor when he refuses the advances of Lady Bertilak. Third, he faces death when he keeps his appointment with the Green Knight. Review each of these episodes carefully, and notice the way Gawain changes.

When Gawain returns to Camelot after his adventure, his maturity seems to set him apart from his old companions, who are unable to understand what has happened. Something of the sort often happens to young people, who may outgrow their old companions. Have you ever had similar experiences? Can you think of anyone else who has?

I. Thesis Statement: The major theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the passage to maturity of the hero, Sir Gawain.

II. Introduction: Gawain and Camelot at the start of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

III. The First Test: The challenge of the Green Knight
A. What Gawain demonstrates
B. What Gawain learns

IV. The Second Test: Withstanding the attempt at seduction
A. What Gawain demonstrates
B. What Gawain learns

V. The Third Test: Facing death
A. What Gawain demonstrates
B. What Gawain learns

VI. Conclusion: The return to Camelot
A. How Gawain has matured
B. Gawain and the society at Camelot

Topic #2
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur, Gawain and Bertilak/The Green Knight represent three respective visions of the medieval warrior. All three portraits are presented with some admiration, but none of them is entirely uncritical. Compare and contrast these three figures. By examining their strengths and weaknesses, decide what the Gawain poet thought of chivalry and its codes.

I. Thesis Statement: Arthur, Gawain, and Bertilak/the Green Knight each represent three respective visions of the Medieval warroir, presented with some admiration, but none of them is entirely uncritical.

II. Introduction: The warrior ideal in the Middle Ages

III. The figure of Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

I am very pleased and honored to be asked to contribute to this special issue to celebrate C. David Benson's career as he approaches retirement. He has, along with his wife Pam, been one of my closest friends for over thirty years, and we have many happy memories, and some uproarious ones, of the occasions when I have visited Storrs over the years and of the time I spent at Harvard. The subject I find myself writing on for him is not, I am afraid, alluding to the general character of the present collection, exactly "new work." So far from leading me down new pathways, it has me retracing old ones in renewed bewilderment.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the poem upon which I wrote my M.A. thesis nearly sixty years ago, and I have written on it several times since then, but I am still not sure what it is about. That statement needs rephrasing, since I do know, strictly speaking, what it is about, and I could recount the plot in accurate detail. In fact, I have often done so, in telling the story of Gawain to my children and now my grandchildren, though with slight modifications of the plot, so that Gawain and the lady in Fit 3, for instance, engage in various non-sexual games appropriate to the season, not in a deadly game of seduction. So when I say I do not know what the poem is about, I mean that I do not know what it means, or why it is significant, though I do know that it is significant, from the experience of having read it. In fact, there is hardly any medieval poem in which it seems more important to find out what is meant. It seems deliberately set up to engage our interest so as to provoke our frustration. Trying again to work out how it makes sense would be to compound that frustration and end again in failure. Rather, I shall set before you some of [End Page 248] the obstacles to comprehension that have dogged me, with some particular attention to the apparent presence of common sense expectations in the poem. It may seem a rather negative approach, and a feeble one in not offering even one new idea about the poem, but I do have, at the end, a message of hope.

Let me begin, so that we may get our bearings, by going back to an essay that Morton Bloomfield wrote just fifty years ago. 1 It took the form of a general critical appraisal of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Bloomfield undertook at the end of so many years already of mutually incompatible interpretations so that scholars might know at least where they stood. He took up in turn five kinds of interpretation. The first—and it is significant of the era in which he wrote that it comes first—is the idea of the poem as a myth of rebirth, of the slaying of the old god at the midwinter turn of the year. This mode of interpretation, much stimulated at the time by a controversial, then-recent essay by John Speirs, has lost much support over the years, though it was embraced, in a somewhat different form, by Derek Brewer in his interpretation of the poem in relation to the family drama. 2 Why does the story require that Gawain make a winter journey to a warm and friendly place, which he finds his way to almost instinctively? Well, of course, he is going home for Christmas, and will find there his father, frighteningly large and bearded and seemingly intent on cutting off an important bit of his son's anatomy, and his mother, cunningly divided in Freudian manner into two persons, one an aged and powerful crone and the other a lovely and desirable woman. There is no need to pursue here this fantasy, delightful as it is, though I have to admit it was a shock to me when I first heard it in a lecture by my honored teacher. The second approach that...


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