About the Project

Research Question

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps one of the best known Arthurian romances, as well as a classic work of the Medieval period. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was composed by the Pearl Poet, an unknown author who made famous the bob and wheel style of stanza composition. Regarding the anonymous author, J.R.R. Tolkien concluded in his analysis of the poem, “[h]e was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.”1The alliterative poem tells the story of Gawain and his quest to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight. Having agreed to trade blows with one another and having delivered his own, Gawain must allow the Green Knight to strike him once, a likely fatal action. In searching for the Green Knight, he finds himself staying in the home of a lord, Bertilak, whose wife tries to seduce him. Gawain must find a way to remain courteous, reject her advances, and, if possible, to cheat death.

Critically speaking, Gawain is an infamously difficult text to pin down thematically. It incorporates a number of Medieval topics, ranging from the common place to the obscure. Many topics are referenced in the poem which manages to be a ‘typical’ Arthurian adventure, but also is densely packed with mythological and astrological symbols, religious morals, and lessons on the finer points of knightly chivalry. Indeed, scholars have, over the years, debated the poem as ‘really’ being about an “illusion of reality” that creates a map of Medieval England with “geographic precision,” 2 a kind of treatise on “the cultivation of refinement” and the “meaning of courtesy, the art of hosting strangers and acting a fitting part as a guest,” 3a Christian parable that documents the rise and fall of man,4 or even an elaborate, almost palindromic text made to emphasize symmetry and circularity through use of numbers and events5.

In our project, we looked to undertake a way to map out what references appeared where in the play, and in the context of what speaker. Our hope was to see not merely what the most frequently referenced themes were, but in what context they were being used, and with what authority, narratively speaking. To this end, we have marked a number of mythological, folkloric, religious, numerological, chivalric, and other symbolic moments, and with this markup, run the text through a number of different analytical tools. While definitive answers are perhaps unobtainable, we hope to contribute to the discussion of what, exactly, the poet ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight may have been trying to accomplish.

1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon., 1925. introduction, xv.↩

2.Ad Putter. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). 10. ↩

3. Ibid, 51. ↩

4. M. Mills. “Christian Significance and Romance Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher. (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. 1968). 85↩

5. Donald R. Howard. “Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain. Ibid, 159.↩

About the Text

We began our research using a TEI encoded XML version of Gawain downloaded from the University of Oxford Text Archive (link: http://www.ota.ox.ac.uk/text/3306), with a translation done by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon to work alongside with. This translated version kept to the Middle English of the type, and maintained the use of symbols signifying letter combinations. Ryan spearheaded the markup process, due to his knowledge and experience with Middle English and the story of Gawain in general.

The Manuscript

All modern translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight originate with a single document, the Cotton Nero A.x., which also includes three other poems by the same author: Pearl, Purity, and Patience. The document is so named as it was originally a part of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s private library. Cotton was a sixteenth century bibliophile who collected manuscripts that were being disseminated following the seizure of monastic libraries. This private collection would eventually form the basis of the British Library, and contained a number of illuminated manuscripts that existed nowhere else. In addition to the work of the Pearl Poet, Cotton’s library was also responsible for preserving the only copy of Beowulf and The Lindisfarne Gospels. Today, the British Library continues to control these documents—those curious can use the Manuscript links in our text page to visit the Library’s digitization of the Cotton Nero A.x. document and read along with the text.

The Translation

Our free to use Modern English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was translated from the original Middle English by A.S. Kline in 2007. Though we used this particular translation largely because it was uncopyrighted, it nonetheless contains features that make it a useful and worthwhile edition. In particular, the author’s retention of the bob-and-wheel indicates an attempt to replicate the original poem as closely as possible. Certain translations of the poem do not retain this very unique stanza construction, and these translations are often the ones that take the most liberties when reworking the text. As we wanted a version that was as close to the original as possible, this particular translation was indeed a lucky find.


When selecting different kinds of references to tag for in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we decided to use primarily those topics that already had a place in scholarly discussions of the text. In some cases, what specifically to tag in the text according to our topics was relatively self-evident; tagging various colors, for example, required simply finding mentions of specific color. Looking for references to something like chivalry, however, required more contextual analysis and our own personal judgement. For reference purposes when looking at our XML or our results, we’ve included a discussion of roughly what each tag refers to thematically, detailed below.


Sir Gawain ad the Green Knight is intensely influenced by the folklore of the British Isles, and combines references from Welsh, Irish, and English mythology. The general frame narrative of the story itself, a beheading that occurs during Christmas time, is a direct reference to the 8th century Irish story Bricriu’s Feast, which focuses on the Irish hero Cu Chulainn. Likewise, Gawain’s experiences at the house of Bertilak reference the stories of Pwyll and Arawn from the Welsh Mabinogion.


In our markup, the mythological differs from the folkloric in the sense of scope. Folklore was tagged rather specifically to include stories and characters that existed within the immediate world of the Pearl Poet, while myth was taken to be references to characters and figures who featured in stories imported from outside of Britain, or who have a more global presence. Thus, the mythological tag might have included references to the fall of Troy, or to characters from the story of the founding of Rome. We have also decided to include references to Arthurian legend under myth despite its origins due to the way the Arthurian cycle had already been adopted by writers on the Continent, particularly those in France.


Here, we use the term pagan rather loosely. For our purposes, pagan references are those references to a dedicated mythology—particularly in the religious sense—that existed before the introduction of Christianity. Most obviously fitting into this category is the Green Knight himself, who is described in a fashion similar to the Green Man, a mythological being that can be observed in a wide variety of art and architecture. The story also features a number of references to magic of various kinds, as well as mystical symbolism. There are a few instances of witchcraft in the poem, as well as discussions of numerology and astrology. One might also place the color symbolism of the poem in this category. Green itself, for example, has been considered symbolic of fairies and spirits, rebirth and fertility, love and lust, or even evil and devilry due to its use in existing English mythology.


The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place in a highly natural world with many overt and direct references forests and other untamed environments. Indeed, a number of natural references seem to paint nature as a wild and chaotic world that exists as a counterpoint to the rule bound and orderly space of the court. Very specific plants and animals are listed in the play, of all which could have particular significance for symbolic reasons, or as a kind of cultural allusion (as with a fox being used to exemplify cleverness). While not necessarily a part of nature, there are also a number of references that are made to distinct geographic areas both in Britain and in Europe. Indeed, by tracking Gawain’s movements in the second Canto, it has been argued that one could actually trace his path to the Green Chapel from Arthur’s court on a real map.


Chivalry, as a concept, is incredibly important to the Pearl Poet’s story. However, as it is, after all, a concept that is not referenced specifically or overtly in the poem, tagging it was rather difficult. That said, much of Gawain does include direct references to things like honor, duty, and the right of both guest and host, all of which are a part of the code of chivalry that existed in tales of Medieval romance. Often, Gawain finds himself at odds with his duty to a variety of oaths and his objective to try and find some way to survive the counterblow that he has promised to allow the Green Knight to deliver. The concept of courtly love is also hugely important in the scenes where the wife of the castle Gawain is staying at attempts to seduce him. By the code of courtly love established in Romance, Gawain must do whatever the lady asks of him to retain his honor; however, Gawain must obviously not dishonor his host in anyway, and needs to turn the lady down while simultaneously remaining polite and courteous. When tagging for chivalry, we looked for these kinds of moments, and also tried to think about instances of chivalry as a kind of lesson with an implicit moral.


Though we began with the intention to include any number of different religious practices being discussed, it is perhaps unsurprising that almost all of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight focuses on Christian mythology, given when it was written. For the most part, our markup of Christian references includes direct, overt references to Christianity, as opposed to events that might be interpreted as having a Christian context. In other words, we have tagged references to God, Mary, Jesus, angels, or even Gawain praying, celebrating holidays, or going to church while not tagging something like Gawain being nice (or even Gawain lying).


In addition to the above, we also tagged for speakers in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This tagging occurred at three different levels. If the poet was explicitly narrating in the first person, the speaker would be tagged as ‘poet.’ If a character was speaking, it was marked as such, and each character was given an @id attribute to match their name. Finally, if neither character nor poet were speaking, the speaker was tagged as ‘omniscient.’ By tagging the text in such a fashion, we intended to see who, exactly, talked about what in the play, as a possible means of ascribing importance. If, for example, the Poet talked about certain things in first person, it might be more important that things discussed as an omniscient narrator. Likewise, if Gawain discussed an issue in detail, it might be more important than an issue discussed by a side character who appears once.