Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Rethinking Romance

Seminar Paper, 1999

25 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents


1. The Structure of Arthurian Romance
1.1 Romance - a Genre?
1.2 The Structure of the Genre

2. Sir Gawain as a Conventional Romance
2.1 Romance Framework
2.2 Romance motifs

3. Exploring Romance Conventions
3.1 Refusal of Distractions
3.2 A Supposed Distraction
3.3 The Intertextual Hero




In this paper, I will discuss how the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses, explores and sometimes undermines the conventions of the Arthurian romance genre. As a basis for my investigations I will, in the first chapter, sketch a definition of the genre, using a structuralist model along with a set of typical motifs found in many romances. Having established the essential genre elements I will then examine the way the Gawain -poet makes use of these in his text. After identifying the fundamentally generic structure of the poem I will concentrate on incidents where the poet plays ironically with the reader's genre expectations.

Every study of genre has to be comparative in nature. This is more than true for Arthurian romance , which was a truly European phenomenon.

Ideally, of course, all the romances of medieval Europe in French, German, English and other languages - and all tales, Celtic, Norse, Oriental, Greek and Roman, which were made into medieval romances - should be examined together comparatively, as well as each analytically. (Speirs 1977: 108)

Obviously, this kind of background reading is illusory for the scope of this paper. Yet my definition of Arthurian romance must be based on works other than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of course. Thus, on the one hand, my description of romance as a genre will be based on a reasonable critical agreement of the secondary sources mentioned in the bibliography.[1] These discuss mostly the French and English tradition being the most important ones for the Gawain -poet (Barron 1982: 71). Furthermore, I will refer to certain works in Middle High German. These are geographically as well as historically rather remote from the Middle English Gawain - they only share a common body of sources in the works of Chrétien de Troye. This distance, however, is an advantage for my purposes. If two texts that were written two hundred years and two thousand kilometres apart share certain elements, these are very likely to be essential to genre.

1. The Structure of Arthurian Romance

1.1 Romance - a Genre?

When one is calling a certain text a romance, or a text is calling itself a romance, the implication is that it belongs to the romance genre - the idea being that it shares essential features with all the other texts of the genre.

Texts belong to one genre as opposed to another when they share a similar narrative structure which paradigmatically projects, for a reader, a horizon of expectation and intelligibility based on conventions learned from prior knowledge of the genre. A particular narrative genre can be identified by the kind of events it organizes in sequence, the principles of combination it follows, the functions that actors perform, and the traits it draws upon to delineate characters. (Cohan/Shires 1988: 77)

Thus romance can be called a genre if there is a body of texts which share some or all of the characteristics given in the definition above. However, since medieval romance is a rather protean phenomenon, Barron (1987: 2) prefers to call romance a 'mode' rather than a genre.

Critics are increasingly abandoning the concept of a romance genre as unhelpful, recognizing that it comprises as many types and sub-types as the modern novel. (Barron 1987: 57)

This critique, however, emerges from a definition of genre that emphasizes (metrical) form rather than content and narrative structure. Moreover, the problem that there are more and less typical texts is not one that is encountered only when comparing romances. This is a problem of definition per se - or prototype theory - rather than genre.

Actually, the fact that romance is a genre can be argued for on two different levels; historically as well as comparatively. Firstly, romance is a term found in the actual texts belonging to that genre and other medieval writing.

"[R]omance" is historically attested as a generic term, in the medieval vernaculars and for modern scholars. (Burlin 1995: 1)

In fact, the term even resurfaces in the last stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where it is said that "fle best boke of romaunce" (l. 2521) relate the worth of those who wear the green girdle in remembrance of Gawain's failure. This may not be a direct self-reference, but the phrase certainly refers to a long tradition of romances on the same subject. This is a first piece of evidence that the Gawain -poet wanted his text to be identified as a romance.

Secondly, and more importantly, one can argue for the existence of a romance genre by simply comparing medieval texts. However protean these may be, there definitely is a body of texts that share essential features.

The same plot-patterns, the same situations, the same phrases, recur insistently from romance to romance, providing much of their popular strength. (Pearsall 1988: 11)

Before discussing typical romance situations or phrases, some overall structural patterns of the genre must be identified.

1.2 The Structure of the Genre

Following Burlin (1995), I shall use a structuralist model to describe the essential characteristics of the romance genre. This approach may be somewhat outmoded - yet it has proved to be very useful in this particular case. The model visualizes the structure of a narrative in the form of two axes: one paradigmatic, one syntagmatic. The former provides a sense of closure to the narrative by means of two conflicting overall themes or codes. The latter represents a framework for ordering events into a story line. In romances, says Burlin (1995: 7), the two dominant codes on the paradigmatic axis are the chivalric and the courtly code, whereas the two most important narrative principles on the syntagmatic axis are the quest and the test.

The paradigmatic axis of romance features two of the genre's central themes; chivalry and courtliness - the emphasis of the latter being on courtly love. Often, a romance text exemplifies a hero's failure to correspond to the ideals of the courtly or chivalric code.

In the great age of the romance the interest usually lies in the failure of a particular knight to be perfect and in the struggle he makes to attain perfection. (Jackson 1960: 92)

Moreover, the two codes are regularly conflicting, the chivalric ideal demanding strength and aggression, while the courtly ideal asks for fine manners and high love. The central concern of all romances on Erec and Enide, for instance, is the failure of Erec to meet his duties as a knight, since he prefers to indulge in (more or less courtly) love after his marriage to Enide.

On the syntactic axis of the romance genre, two different types of narrative framework can be identified: the quest and the test. "The quest seems inextricably linked to the romance genre" (Burlin 1995: 5). It provides a narrative pattern that can be found in almost every romance.

An arrival at the royal court on holiday brings a mission, which one of the knights undertakes and fulfils (usually), then returns with at least his story of what happened, often with prisoners and occasionally a kingdom or a bride or both. (Burlin 1995: 5-6)

However, equally often, we find a different pattern of events either imbedded in, conflicting with, or even replacing the quest; namely the test. Such a test can consist of, for instance, the temptation of a knight, or just an extraordinarily difficult task.

Thus the structuralist model of the romance genre can be visualized in the following way.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

This model represents the 'smallest common denominator' of all Arthurian romances. As is the nature of a model, however, its argument remains rather general. In fact, we can easily add several typical, if not universal, characteristics of the texts belonging to the romance genre.

First of all, the narrative structure of the romance is teleological in nature, i.e. is has to be interpreted, as it were, from the end to the beginning.

Die Handlungen der Artusdichtungen sind final (nicht wie viele Heldendichtungen kausal) angelegt, d.h. die Teleologie beinhaltet die Wirkursächlichkeit, weil sie in ihrer Kausalität auf das Ziel gerichtet, folglich Zielursache ist. Der teleologischen Ausrichtung entspricht es in ontologischer Sicht, dass alles Geschehen auf das Ende eines Werkes hin bezogen werden muss. Durch den Schluss erhalten alle Begebenheiten der Erzählung ihren eigentlichen Sinn. (Gottzmann 1989: 3)

This is an important piece of evidence for the theological core of romance: the teleology of the genre is closely connected to the typology of the bible. This becomes even more clear in the two-part structure of many, mostly German, romances, which has been called 'doppelter Kursus'. In the first 'Kursus' of the romance, the hero makes a mistake, i.e. he breaks either the courtly or chivalric code, or both. Through his failure, he is forced, in the second part of the romance, to go through a series of adventures. These are all thematically connected to his first mistake. The second part of the romance refers back to the first part; just like in typology, events in the New Testament can be traced back to their analogues in the Old Testament. In the end, after the knight has endured all hardships without repeating his failure, he is forgiven that mistake and his honour is re-established. Even in romances that do not follow this 'Kursus' as clearly as, for example, Hartmann von Aue's Iwein, a series of adventures only connected through an overall theme features prominently.

Secondly, one must state the obvious fact that Arthurian romance always features King Arthur and his court.. The character of Arthur itself, however, is typically inactive - a dead centre around which the action revolves.

Entscheidend ist jedoch, dass Artus zwar Auslöser der Erzählung, Bezugspunkt der Handlung sowie Ziel- und Endpunkt des Geschehens sein kann, aber als Haupthandlungsträger fungiert er mit Ausnahme der chronikalisch ausgerichteten Dichtung Englands nicht. (Gottzmann 1989: 1)

King Arthur's court is the almost obligatory setting for the beginning and the ending of a romance. Some characters beside Arthur are present at the court in almost all romances: the Queen herself, i.e. Guinevere, Sir Kay and Sir Gawain.

Thirdly, one can simply enumerate other typical elements which keep reoccurring in romances. Apart from the omnipresent characters connected to the Round Table just mentioned, there are also many motifs that are characteristic of romances: plot elements such as the Beheading Game, the Abduction of the Queen, the Perilous Bed or the Castle of the 100 Women; characters such as the Wild Man or the Challenger; or settings such as the Locus Amoenus and the Wild Forest. Moreover, there are some characteristic elements on the level of textuality and narratology as well. First of all, almost all romances feature some formulae of orality.

Many [romances] ... even among the late and highly literary texts, make use of formulae associated with oral recitation; direct address to the audience, appeals for silence and attention, calls for refreshment and remuneration, initial blessing and concluding benediction. (Barron 1987: 55)

Furthermore, the romance poets often make use of the linguistic device of verbal irony. Mostly, this remains on the simplest level of irony, for instance by simply calling some character fair which has just been described as most ugly. The humour of romance, however, is often underrated.

It now has become clear that romance is a genre with a rather well-defined structure. All romances go along the lines defined in this chapter; i.e. they follow genre conventions. These conventions can also be assumed to shape the assumptions a reader or listener has about a certain text he or she takes to belong to the genre. A poet at the end of the fourteenth century, like the Gawain -poet, had more than 200 years of romance tradition to build upon, and was able, as we shall see, to successfully manipulate the genre expectations of his audience.


[1] In this paper, the term 'romance' always refers to 'Arthurian Romance'. With the debatable exception of Gottfried von Strassburgs Tristan, no non-Arthurian text will be referred to.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Rethinking Romance
University of Zurich  (English Seminar)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
1 (A)
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ISBN (Book)
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Gawain, Green, Knight, Rethinking, Romance
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Mag. Markus Widmer (Author), 1999, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Rethinking Romance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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