The Greene Knight: Introduction

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The Greene Knight: Introduction

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is by acclamation the most subtle, learned, and enjoyable of poems about this chivalric hero, as well as one of the great narrative achievements in the English language. Yet there exists little evidence of its being read from the time of its composition in the later fourteenth century until the edition produced by Madden in 1839. Even if it did find readers, however, this profoundly literate text exercised little influence over the popular Gawain narratives represented in this volume. The kernel story, of a monstrous Green Knight who visits Arthur's court and tests Sir Gawain as the pearl of chivalry, seems to have been popular before its absorption into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and there is every reason to think it would have continued as a great favorite in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Certainly some of the central motifs of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like the beheading game in Turke, distantly reflect its plot, and there are echoes of its language and phrasing in other poems, like Awntyrs.

The best proof for the lasting popularity of this story is by far the present poem, called The Greene Knight in order both to connect it and distinguish it from its illustrious predecessor. Scholars have often assumed that The Greene Knight represents a quirky retelling of an exceptional narrative, but such a view neglects important evidence. An inventory of Sir John Paston's books from the late 1470s mentions among his titles several of Chaucer's poems, "The Dethe off Arthur," a series of chivalric romances (Arthurian and otherwise), together with "The Greene Knyght" and "my boke off knyghthod . . . [and] makyng off knyghtys, off justys, off torn[aments and] fyghtyng in lystys" (see General Introduction, p. 12). This remarkable library ranges from popular and oral stories to the most literate and learned texts (Paston also owned a copy of Cicero and a number of religious writings); the strong emphasis on chivalry and Arthur is particularly striking in a collection that dates from within ten years of the publication of Malory's Morte Darthur in 1485. But Paston likely owned a more literary, and literate, version of The Greene Knight than our poem. The surviving text might well be a written record of the sort of recital mentioned by Robert Laneham in a letter describing festivities put on for Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth in 1575. Laneham offers an account of Captain Cox, a performance artist "hardy as Gawin," who acts, sings, recites, and professes "philosophy both morall and naturall." Cox possesses "at his fingers ends" - that is, within his memory and ready for recital on demand - a vast repertoire of stories, including ballads, songs, perhaps plays, and romances; he knows "king Arthurs book," a huge mix of other chivalric narratives, and "Syr Gawyn." Just which Gawain romance this was is not specified; that it was the story of the Green Knight is entirely plausible, for the Percy Folio Manuscript (where The Greene Knight occurs) makes clear that such popular performances provided the precise milieu where the surviving poem was produced.

Although the differences between the two poems leave open the possibility of one or more intermediate versions, the details of The Greene Knight's plot draw directly upon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In many ways, in fact, The Greene Knight, as the later poem, seems almost a summary or guide in its determined spelling out of motives and events, its domestication of the challenging and mysterious, and its explanation of marvels and ambiguities. Yet, just because the surface narrative gives a reader less pause, the poem moves more quickly and gives a more immediate pleasure.

As its opening suggests, The Greene Knight was intended for popular recitation. In this, it resembles the other poems in the present collection, as well as other pieces in the Percy Folio Manuscript, where it occurs. The Percy Folio scribe clearly wished to preserve a large group of what were by the mid-seventeenth century ancient romances and entertainments, many of which must have been transmitted orally. The Percy Folio texts are in general more "popular" - marked for oral performance and mixed audiences - than surviving Middle English versions of the same stories. The manuscript contains Turke, Marriage, Carle, and Cornwall (all included in the present volume), several other stories involving Gawain (including a version of Libeaus Desconus, the "Fair Unknown," a romance about Gawain's son Gyngolyn), together with tales of Robin Hood and other heroes. The language of The Greene Knight suggests that it was originally composed about 1500 in the South Midlands. It is marked for two fitts (perhaps indicating performance sessions), and falls into eighty-six tail-rhyme stanzas, running aabccb.

As in many of the other Gawain romances, the king's nephew stands out as the court's representative in dealing with the mysterious or unknown - in this case, a shape-shifting Green Knight. Given the lack of stir caused by this figure in The Greene Knight - he seems more a "jolly sight to seene" (line 79) and a "venterous knight" (line 94) than an ogre or moral inquisitor - it is worth noting that simple reference to a Green Knight might not seem so extraordinary to a medieval audience accustomed to hearing knights identified by their colors or liveries. Green knights turn up in a number of chivalric romances (see note to line 109), including Carlisle and Malory; it is only the extraordinary description in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, combining natural, supernatural, and courtly details, that has made the figure of a Green Knight on a green horse seem so completely without precedent. Like Dame Ragnelle and Sir Gromer in Turke, Sir Bredbeddle (who appears also in Cornwall, where he is called "the Greene Knight," lines 214, 222, 233, and elsewhere) in his transformed state poses a challenge to Arthurian chivalric values, but the easy resolution of this challenge only reinforces the glamour of the Round Table's fellowship.

Yet the strangeness of this outsider in The Greene Knight is much modified from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first of all by the insertion of conventional episodes like the exchange with the porter and the irritable response of Sir Kay to the initial dare. In addition, the multiple temptations, hunts, exchanges, and blows that organize Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are here all reduced to single events, and the relations between them, so richly unspecifiable in the earlier poem, are here made unmistakably plain for the audience. All of this makes the poem coalesce and speed toward its conclusion, and this sense of things coming together finds support in motifs of convergence and communion: the Green Knight actually sits down and shares a meal with the Round Table after making his challenge, Sir Bredbeddle is ultimately brought back to Arthur's court and joins its fellowship, and the poem ends with a celebration of the chivalric order of the Knights of the Bath. This perhaps reflects or even imitates the allusion to the Order of the Garter which follows the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though it is striking that Sir John Paston's "boke off knyghthod" contained a detailed account of "Hou Knyghtis of the Bath shulde be made" (see note at line 502). Gawain's knightly role is to encounter the marvelous and bring it within the realm of the familiar; in The Greene Knight he succeeds in taming the mystery of Sir Bredbeddle, the dangerous love of his wife, and the magic of her mother.<


The Greene Knight survives in a famous post-medieval manuscript, the Percy Folio, now in the British Library (see Bibliography). The Folio volume, about fifteen inches long and five and a half wide, and about two inches thick, was compiled about 1650 in a single hand. This collection, an unparalleled treasury of late medieval and early Renaissance popular compositions, was acquired by the antiquarian Bishop Thomas Percy of Dromore in Ireland (1729-1811). He reported finding the "scrubby, shabby, paper" book "lying dirty on the floor under a Bureau in the Parlour" of his friend Humphrey Pitt of Shiffnal in Shropshire, "being used by the maids to light the fire" (ed. Hales and Furnivall, p. xii). The text of the present edition is based on the Folio, though it makes use of Madden's and Furnivall's prints (see Bibliography). The scribe wrote in a cramped and relatively rapid cursive, and the misadventures of the manuscript have not rendered it any more easily legible. The scribe frequently uses shortened notations for common words (i.e., k for king). In transcribing texts from the Percy Folio, orthography (including thorns) has been regularized, so that u/v and i/j appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation added.

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British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio). Pp. 203-10.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Hales, John W., and Frederick J. Furnivall. 1868. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.


Hulbert, J. R. "Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyght," Modern Philology 13 (1915-16), 433-62; 689-730.

Kittredge, George L. A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight. Cambridge, 1916.

Day, Mabel. "Introduction." Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Israel Gollancz. EETS o.s. 210. London: Oxford University Press, 1940. Pp. xxxviii-xxxix. [Discusses parallels and differences between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Greene Knight.]