Book Review: Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

I don't know how reading Sir Gawain and The Green Knight slipped through the cracks in my education. I knew the story from my Childcraft books from back when I was a kid (thanks, Grandma!). But somehow I never actually read the book.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is an epic poem, hundreds of years old and very influential in English literature. It tells the story of a young knight named Gawain who accepts a challenge from a mysterious green man. The green man challenges Gawain to trade him swing for swing with a giant ax. Gawain accepts, slices off the mans head, then watches in horror as the green man wanders over and picks his head up off of the floor. Gawain has a year and a day to find the man and let the man take his turn with the ax.

The story hangs on the tension: What will Sir Gawain do? He goes searching for the man, choosing to value his honor over his life. He's a noble hero. But along the way he is faced with temptation ... and he fails. This is, to me, what makes the book so interesting.

Gawain is visiting a castle and makes friends with the lord of the castle and his wife. The lord of the castle strikes up a deal with Gawain: whatever the lord wins in his day's adventures, he will give to Gawain ... and vice-versa. The lord takes his men hunting and catches all kinds of things and brings them back to Gawain. Gawain stays at the castle, where the lord's wife attempts to seduce him. He refuses her advances, but accepts a kiss from her. Chivalrous, he kisses the lord when he returns from the hunt. In all this, Gawain's virtue remains untainted.

But on the last day of his visit, the lady of the castle gives Gawain a magic belt. The belt, she promises, will protect him from harm. What will Sir Gawain do? Will he give the belt to the lord of the castle and keep his bargain? He doesn't. He hides the belt and rides off to face the green man.

At the end of the story, Gawain's life is spared, but his misdeed is made known. He returns to King Arthur's round table, wearing the green belt as a sign of his failure to keep perfect virtue. Humbled.

The poem is written in wonderful, alliterative verse. This was quite a shock to me. I expected it to rhyme, like The Canterbury Tales. But the alliterations show a fantastic grasp of language and skill of composition. They drive the story.

Having spent so much time in the honor culture of The South, I found the questions raised by the poem to be very interesting: How valuable is virtue? What makes a man noble? What do you do when you fail?

It's a quick read. 80 pages. Definitely worth checking out.

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